Writing from 6.136° S, 39.362° E
It’s no secret that the biggest reasons that tourists come to vacation in Tanzania are safaris, Mt. Kilimanjaro, and Zanzibar. Now, there are a million other things to do here, but these three draw crowds for good reason: they’re all once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Unfortunately due to my budget I won’t be climbing Kili this time around, but I was lucky enough to go on two safaris (read about them here and here) and spend a week on Zanzibar over the course of my time here.
Also known as “Spice Island,” Zanzibar is located off the coast of Tanzania, just six degrees south of the equator. A significant trading and slavery port for the Indian Ocean region in the nineteenth century, Zanzibar packs widely varying scenery into an island of only 2,461km2.
When planning a Zanzibar trip and researching what to do, you can find countless lists of “must-see” places for tourists, from the Old Fort in Stone Town to the northern beaches for snorkeling. Personally, I don’t have much interest in these lists, particularly when I’m trying to relax on a beach vacation.
That being said, there are three things I believe everyone visiting Zanzibar must do, but none of them involve a particular tourist attraction:
Get lost in Stone Town
Yes, everyone says Stone Town is a “must see.” They’re right. Zanzibar’s Stone Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is said to be the only functioning ancient town left in East Africa and it is most definitely the cultural heart of the island. Located on the western side of Zanzibar, this relatively small area has a high Muslim population and boasts countless examples of beautiful Arab architecture.
Rather than running between the countless tourist attractions, my brother and I spent our time in Stone Town intentionally getting lost, and it’s the number one thing I would recommend to anyone visiting the island.
The streets are a labyrinth of tiny streets and alleyways, and the further you venture, the more local it becomes. I’m sure that many of the tourist destinations are wonderful and enlightening (e.g. the Emerson Spice House or Dharajani Market), and maybe I’ll be back someday to see those. For now though, this was the perfect way to get to know the real Stone Town, “pole pole” style.
During the full day we spent wandering, we actually ended up stumbling upon some of the main tourist attractions, like Forodhani Gardens and the Palace Museum. However, because we hadn’t planned out a route to track them down, we removed any possibility of stress and simply enjoyed whatever we found.
Go to multiple beaches
Unsurprisingly, the beaches of Zanzibar are vastly different depending on which part of the island you visit. I was lucky enough to spend two days in Stone Town (west), two days in Kendwa (northwest), and four days solo in Paje (east). The only thing each beach had in common was water and sand.
In Stone Town, many of the old buildings went right up to the water, and the beaches were practically empty in terms of people.
In Kendwa, the sunsets were incredible and countless dhow boats could be seen at any given time.
In Paje, kite surfers filled the horizon from dawn to dusk and the tides were extreme, with the ocean completely disappearing for several hours every day (check out this Nas Daily video — he was there at the same time as me!).
If you have the time, spending time at more than one beach on Zanzibar is absolutely worth it. Each one has a different vibe, different people, and a different landscape. They are all beautiful, so pick a few and sample them!
Watch a sunrise and a sunset
This goes hand-in-hand with visiting different beaches. Zanzibar is not super large, so it’s fairly easy to go from one side to the other. I did my best to watch as many sunrises (eastern side) and sunsets (western side) as possible, and they were some of the best I’ve ever seen.
The sunrise I woke up for in Paje was barely visible because of the clouds, but was still more than worth it because I didn’t see another soul for over an hour as I walked up and down the beach. The seclusion was the perfect way to fully appreciate just how beautiful the landscape really was.
In Kendwa, the sunset on New Year’s Day looked like it was painted on the sky. I can’t imagine a better way to spend the first night of 2018.
Everyone wants to make the most of their time in any place they’re visiting, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time in Africa, it’s that slower is better. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything and it was the most relaxed I’ve ever been — I even moved my flight to extend my trip by a few days because I was enjoying myself so much.
I definitely see the appeal of a to-do list in bigger cities, but with beautiful beaches and “pole pole” vibes, how could anyone rush around on Zanzibar?