I fell in love with Stone Town the moment I arrived there, even though we weren’t off to the best start. Those who have been reading my blog know that I usually don’t do much planning before my travels, because I like a bit of adventure, but also the freedom of deciding what to do once I’m already in the place, based on what local people tell and on what I like or don’t like after I have seen it myself, rather than what I see in a travel guide.
I knew however that our flight was due to land at 3am in Stone Town, so, for safety reasons, I booked the first night accommodation…or at least I thought I did. It turned out that we didn’t and as a result we ended up spending our first night on some sunbeds on the beach by a pool!
This wasn’t all bad however: it’s very warm in Stone Town and we woke up at 6am and could take a short walk, enjoy the place completely to ourselves and get to see what local life looks like that early in the morning.
If you are wandering what there is to do in this magical little place, here’s a list of my top 10 things to do here.
Things to see and do in Stone Town:
- Pay a visit at the Forodhani Food market
- Take a day trip to Prison Island (and see giant tortoises)
- Take a city tour to see the Old Fort, Freddie Mercury’s House, the Old Dispensary and the jaws corner
- Visit the Darajani Markets for an insight in the local life
- Have a sunset drink at the Africa House Rooftop
- Listen to live music at the Livingstone
- Go to the former Slave Market and learn about history
- Take pictures of the famous Zanzibar doors
- Try local food
- Go on a spice tour
My favourite thing in Stone Town was the food market in Forodhani Garden, an authentic cultural experience, with a mix of incredible smells, colours and tastes. Try the Zanzibar pizza – kind of a pancake but with pizza toppings – a bbq with lots of vegetables to choose from or have a sugar cane juice with ginger and lime. Every day, after 5pm, this place becomes so magical, with plenty of stalls and local people strolling around enjoying the food and the sunset.
One of the most popular day trips from Stone Town is Prison Island, or Changuu Island. The British First Minister of Zanzibar purchased this island in 1893 and built a prison complex there, but it was never used as a prison. The complex was used as a quarantine place for yellow fever cases and now it has become a very popular touristy destination for snorkelling and to visit the giant tortoise conservation centre.
You don’t need to book this trip in advance, and you can do it from wherever in the town, from your hotel to the stalls in the old fort. Usually it lasts 3 to 4 hours and it costs $15 plus $4 or 10,000 shillings for the entrance fee.
We usually love exploring a place on our own, but in the case of Stone Town we were so glad we took a walking tour. There is so much history in this place, and in Zanzibar in general, that we would have got to learn without the tour. All hotels and hostels organise them and you can usually leave at whatever time you want. It costs approximately $20 per person but you have your own guide.
Stone Town is one of the most famous places in East Africa and a UNESCO Site since 2000, due to its artistic and historical importance. All over its narrow street and squares you can see different influences behind the swahili culture: culture here is like a mix of Arab, Persian, Indian and European elements.
The main highlights of the city are the Old Fort, now home to markets and art galleries, the Sultan Palace, the Old Dispensary, the phone in the Jaws Corner, and the famous Freddie Mercury House. Freddie Mercury was born in Stone Town, where he returned again after spending a few years studying in India and before moving to the UK. The house where he was born and lived is now part of the Tembo Hotel (where we stayed).
Today, there isn’t much to see in the Old Dispensary, which used to be Stone Town’s hospital inn the past, but it’s worth the trip to see the beautiful building just a few steps away from the port and the fish market.
Another famous spot here is the House of Wonders, but unfortunately, it was closed to the public when we were there. Finally, make sure not to miss the Jaws Corner, this cute space in the town – supposedly right in the centre of Stone Town – where, right in the middle of it, among little flags, there is a phone with a sign that says ‘Please make free international calls!’. Around it, local people brew and drink coffee and play bao, the traditional Tanzanian board game.
One of my favourite cultural experiences in Stone Town, was visiting the Darajani Markets. It’s just the town’s main market, but it’s a great place to experience local cultures. Head here if you want to buy spices, fruits or vegetables and let the local people tell you the stories behind all of their products.
One things you need to do when you are in Stone Town is watch the sunset from a rooftop. There are a lot of hotels and bars in the town where you can do this, but they are always very full, so I suggest to got there a bit earlier, particularly during the weekend, if you want to get “front seats”. Our walking tour guide recommended the Africa House Hotel, right on the sea front, and we loved it so much that we went back a second time, when we returned to Stone Town again. They have special offers on cocktails at sunset time and you can also get something to eat.
After sunset, you can head to places to listen to local music. When we were there we so lucky because it was the weekend when the Jahazi Jazz Festival was on, and so many jazz, blues, poetry and literature events were on. We randomly found out about this event because most of the shows happen in the Livingstone Beach restaurant, which was just beside our hotel. So we heard the music and decided to pop in. I really loved it! There were lots of groups playing Swahili music and also a few international artists. It was one of the best nights we had on the island.
For only $5 you can visit the Slave Market Museum, full of panels and posters with lots of informations about the history of this place. In Stone Town, there was one of the last (known) operating slave markets, that was only shut down 1873. Slaves were brought here on dhows, before they were sold and they were tested with torture to determine their price, based on how long they would resist without crying. When the market was finally shut down, only men were set free, because women were “considered as wives, who were just carrying out they duties”. There is so much to learn about history of slave trade in this place, and a lot of information on modern slavery too.
Make sure you don’t miss the slave chambers located underneath the gift shop.
When in Stone Town…you have to take pictures of the famous Zanzibar doors! They are such an important part of the culture of this place and they are so beautiful. Our guide, Amour, taught us a trick to see if the door was built with an Indian or Arabic influence: the doors with a round arch on top have an Indian design, while the ones that are flat on top have an Arabic influence. Also, some of the doors have huge spikes on them, that were used in the past as a protection against elephants.
One of my favourite things to do in Stone Town – and bit everywhere – is trying local food. Like I said above, one of the best places is the Forodhani food markets, every evening right in the centre of the town. Another place I really liked was Monsoon, where you can try typical Swahili food: choose between a nice outside area with a sea view or the inside restaurant with a typical setting and the possibility of dining on the floor. The dish I tried was a traditional vegetable stuffed aubergine, with mango salad, chickpeas in coconut sauce, cassava, chapatti bread and kisamvu (cassava leaves).If you are curious to learn more about food in Stone Town and Zanzibar, read my post about it!
Finally, you can do this from everywhere in the island, but one of the most popular things to do is taking a spice tour. Although I usually try to stay away from the main tourist attraction, this one is definitely worth doing. You get to spend the day walking around a spice farm and try all the spices and fruit! But I will talk about this experience in a different post, so…keep an eye on this!
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