While in Zanzibar, some travelers skip Stone Town and head straight to the beach. But I wanted to write a guide on things to do in Stone Town, the historic heart of Zanzibar, to convince you that it’s 100% worth visiting. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, after all!
A little on Stone Town’s history….
Historically, Stone Town was a base for Middle Eastern traders who came to East Africa in search of spices, ivory, and slaves. Over time Swahili culture was born, which is a blend of Arab, African, and Indian cultures.
Swahili culture is precisely what makes Stone Town, and Zanzibar, so unique. I absolutely loved experiencing Swahili culture in Stone Town; from the melodic Swahili language to Stone Town’s ornate Indian-style doors.
Where is Stone Town?
Stone Town is located on the eastern side of Zanzibar, which is is an archipelago about 20 miles from mainland Tanzania. Zanzibar is popular with tourists the world over for its beautiful beaches and unique history and architecture.
The best things to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar:
1. Get lost in the alleyways
Stone Town is a maze: A beautiful, chaotic labyrinth that harkens back to another world. As I walked the narrow streets, I almost felt like I was in a Moroccan medina.
While wandering, you’ll see lots of mosques, bazaars, and trinket shops. The streets are narrow and winding, and there’s something interesting around every corner; fishmongers selling their wares at the market, men in long white robes playing bao, gangs of adorable children running wild.
A word of warning – the touts in Stone Town are very aggressive. As you walk, touts will relentlessly ask you, “Would you like this drawing of the Zanzibari doors? Would you like this handcrafted jewelry box?” (Just say ‘no thank you’ and walk away.)
2. Visit Freddie Mercury’s childhood home
Did you know Freddie Mercury’s family was Zanzibari? Mercury was born in Stone Town, and spent part of his youth there. Stop by the Mercury House on Kenyatta Road to see where he was raised.
3. Photograph the carved doors
I was in LOVE with the doors in Stone Town. Stone Town is a door lover’s dream. (Any other door lovers? Just me?) Apparently, Wealthy Zanzibari traders showcased their wealth through their ornate doors – the more intricate the door, the richer the trader.
Sigh. Just look at these beauties.
4. Have coffee at Jaw’s Corner
In the heart of the city, you’ll find Jaw’s Corner, a coffee place where men drink coffee and socialize. I didn’t linger too long as I didn’t know if I was welcome as a woman. But it’s a great place to try Zanzibari coffee, which is served black and with Zanzibari ginger.
5. Take a walking tour
If you don’t have a lot of time, arrange a walking tour through your hotel to see some of the historic sites. During our two-hour walking tour, our guide took us all over town. Two of the best stops were the Old Fort, which was built in the late 17th century by the Omanis, and Christ Church Cathedral, an Anglican church with a slave-trade heritage center. The heritage center educates visitors on the history of slavery on Zanzibar as well as slavery in its modern forms.
One thing I like about Zanzibar is that they don’t shy away from the painful parts of their history – they have museums, plaques, and statues commemorating the slave trade and the suffering of so many East Africans. (Which is sadly unlike Uganda, where the government sweeps previous human rights violations under the rug.)
6. Eat fresh seafood
Oooookay, onto more pleasant topics! Like seafood. Seafood in Zanzibar is delicious and inexpensive – I ate it at literally every meal.
If you’re a foodie, you will love the food in Stone Town. Zanzibari cuisine is a mix of Arabic, Indian, and East African influences – think flavorful curries, exotic spices like clove and cardamom, and tropical ingredients like coconut milk and tamarind. Yum.
Where to have lunch: We loved having lunch at 6 Degrees South, as the food (read – seafood) was delicious and the restaurant had beautiful views of the ocean.
7. Get henna at the Hurumzi Henna Art Gallery
Getting henna is one fun thing to do in Stone Town. I got henna in Stone Town and while it seriously messed up my tan (I still have white paisley marks all over me, lol), I got lots of compliments from locals.
Where to get henna: Henna is available all over Stone Town. I paid 30,000 Tanzanian shillings ($13 dollars) for henna on my hand and half my arm, and it took about 40 minutes.You can also get henna at the Hurumzi Henna Art Gallery, which is owned and operated by a group of Muslim henna artists.
8. Have dinner on the rooftop of the magical Tea House Restaurant
Dinner at the Tea House Restaurant was BY FAR my favorite Stone Town experience. The Tea House Restaurant is a rooftop restaurant inside of an intricately carved gazebo. It made me feel like I was in Aladdin.
Here’s what the dining experience is like: You arrive at sunset. You remove your shoes and sit on brightly colored rugs and pillows. You watch the traditional dhows (sailboats) sail past. You hear the call to prayer. You smell the sea breeze. All around you, the city is bathed in golden light.
So if the ambiance weren’t enough, the food is also sensational. We loved every course of our traditional five-course Swahili meal. The cocktails are also fantastic – I was swooning over the Pimms Sultan, which was Pimms with ginger soda and tamarind.
I’ll stop gushing but seriously – this was hands-down the best meal I’ve had in Africa. Highly recommended.
Find the restaurant here: Tea House Resturant, located on top of the Emerson on Hurumzi Hotel. Make sure to make reservations! And arrive at 6 p.m. for the sunset and sundowners.
9. Stay at a historic hotel
I highly recommend staying in a traditional Zanzibari hotel while in Zanzibar. We stayed at the Dhow Palace Hotel, a historic hotel built in the traditional Zanzibari style. The hotel was beautiful, and overall it was perfect for our needs. It had free breakfast, airport pickup, a pool, and most importantly air-conditioning. My house and office in Kampala don’t have AC so I was beyond excited to have it. (The only problem was that I turned the AC down to oh, 57 degrees, and my travel buddy ended up getting a cold. Whoops.)
How long do you need in Stone Town?
I was in Stone Town for 48 hours which was perfect. We were able to explore most of the city (it’s quite small) and have a few spectacular meals (more on that later).
What should you wear in Stone Town?
Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim, and Stone Town is more conservative than the rest of the island. Women should dress somewhat conservatively. You don’t have to dress too conservatively – I wore a long-sleeved romper and felt fine – but I’d advise covering your shoulders and midriff.
The downsides of Stone Town
Stone Town is beautiful but it can be exhausting. As I mentioned, The touts are intense. Plus, the city doesn’t smell great – fishing towns rarely do in 100-degree heat.
More posts on Zanzibar you may find helpful:
A walking tour around the city will cost around $40 ($20 per person).
Citizens from most western country can get their visas on arrival for $50, payable by cash for credit – it costs $100 for US citzens. Learn more about visa information here.
Travelers to Tanzania must present proof of the yellow fever vaccination at the airport if you are traveling from a country with risk of yellow fever – see countries with risk of yellow fever virus (YFV) transmission here.
The malaria risk on Zanzibar is low, so I didn’t take medication. However, some travelers decide to. See the recommended vaccines for Tanzania here.
Before you leave Stone Town, go to an ATM and take out all the cash you will need during your time on Zanzibar. There are no ATMs outside of Stone Town.
Make sure to purchase travel insurance before your trip to Zanzibar. I’ve used World Nomads for years and highly recommend it.