Zanzibar is the semi-autonomous part of Tanzania in East Africa. It is composed of the Zanzibar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, 25–50 kilometres (16–31 mi) off the coast of the mainland, and consists of many small islands and two large ones: Unguja (the main island, referred to informally as Zanzibar) and Pemba. It is known as the Spice Island, the beautiful island of Zanzibar on Africa’s east coast is bursting with culture and history, seemingly at odds with its idyllic geography of white-sand beaches with palms swaying lazily in the sea breeze. Together this makes Zanzibar a fabulous place to explore as well as a dream to relax and unwind.
Portuguese invasion and control of the Swahili Coast in the late 16th century ended the golden age of the archipelago, although the Omani Arabs returned to power less than a century later. Today, many of the winding streets and high townhouses of old Stone Town remain unchanged and visitors can walk between the sultan’s palace, the House of Wonders, the Portuguese fort and gardens, the merchants’ houses, and the Turkish baths of the old city. Day-long spice tours to working plantations offer visitors the chance to observe the cultivation of cloves, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, and other spices that have made the island famous.
Zanzibar’s coastline offers some of the best beaches in the world, but sand and surf vary depending on what side of the island you’re on. On the east coast, waves break over coral reefs and sand bars offshore, and low tide reveals small pools of starfish, small minnows, and anemones. Up north, ocean swimming is much less susceptible to the tides, and smooth beaches and white sand make for dazzling days in the sun.
The port city of Stone Town dominates the west coast, and although the beaches of Mangapwani, where slave caves are visible at low tide and nearby Bububu are less than half an hour’s drive away, a night or two spent on the east or north cost is well worth the extra hour it takes to drive there. That said, the Chole Island Marine Park just off Stone Town – and nearby Prison, Grave, and Snake Islands – make a refreshing day-trip and a good break from exploring the winding passageways of the old city.
On the south coast of Zanzibar lies the Menai Bay Conservation Area, a sea turtle protection area for the endangered species that come to breed on the island. Roads to the southeast coast take visitors through the Jozani Forest, home to Zanzibar’s rare Red Colobus monkeys and a number of other primate and small antelope species.
REASONS TO VISIT ZANZIBAR.
Blissful Zanzibar beaches. Zanzibar is the home of idyllic beaches, balmy weather & warm tropical waters. This archipelago is renowned for clear warm waters, coral reefs and rich marine diversity making it a perfect under-water destination for snorkeling and diving. If it is lazy days along white sandy beaches that you are after – Zanzibar is hard to beat. But, in addition to the perfect beach destination, Zanzibar is also full of options for nature lovers, culture vultures, and adventurers.
Its unique culture, history and architecture: Zanzibar is fairly undeveloped and enjoys semi-autonomy from mainland Tanzania. The colourful history and rich heritage can be seen in the strong Arabic, Indian, African, Persian and European influences. Its unique history adds a vibrant dimension to the island. Exploring the cobbled alleyways of historic Stone Town’s old quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you encounter a captivating mix of diverse architectural styles in the mosques and houses. Old mansions and palaces, such as the House of Wonders, the old Turkish Baths, as well as lively bazaars, market stalls, and shops all, overwhelm the senses with their energy and detail; which tell the story of a long and tumultuous history. Zanzibar is predominantly Islamic and this is evident in the lifestyle of the locals and the design of everything from furniture and fabric to jewellery and crafts. Look out for the famous carved teak Zanzibar doors. The Dhow Countries Music Academy is a great place to get a feel for the local music style known as Taarab which is a blend of classical Swahili poetry, percussion, and rhythm infused with a myriad of influences from the Middle East, Africa, India and the West.
The exotic spices of Zanzibar: Zanzibar Island is well known as the Spice Island due to the farming and processing of aromatic spices like cloves, turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemongrass and black pepper. Visit spice plantations to learn about the process and history of these crops, their medicinal and culinary uses. Follow the aromas and sample the delicious blend of flavors in the market street food and traditionally prepared dishes.
It’s a romantic getaway: Not just aromatic, but also romantic – it’s an ideal place to spice things up. With some of the most beautiful lodges and settings in the world, how can the archipelago not be the perfect place for romance? It’s the perfect place to take long walks on the beach, relax beside the water and drink cocktails as the sunsets. Zanzibar is, of course, a popular honeymoon and wedding destination.
You can escape the crowds and do your own thing: For those looking for something even less populated and developed the neighbouring islands of Pemba, Mafia, Chumbe and Mnemba make wonderful destinations where you are likely to have entire stretches of beach all to yourself. There are more than 50 smaller islands that make up this archipelago and many beautiful lodges to choose from. Rent a scooter (moped) to explore the narrow streets and beautiful coastline at your own pace, away from the crowds. The roads are rough in places and the traffic can be a bit hair-raising, but it is the perfect way to enjoy the beautiful weather and go on tailor-made adventures to the lesser-known corners of the islands.
World-class diving (a water lover’s paradise): Zanzibar has some of the world’s most beautiful diving sights and warm waters. No wonder it is a popular destination for those wanting to explore the underwater world. You can do both shore dives and reef dives accessed by boat. Island hopping diving trips are one of the top highlights of Zanzibar holidays! Zanzibar has a long list of offerings for the outdoor water enthusiast – from scuba diving and deep-sea fishing to kayaking and sailing on traditional wooden dhows. Swim and snorkel in search of tropical fish amongst the coral, or go windsurfing, kite-boarding water-skiing or island hopping.
Rich flora and fauna – red colobus monkeys in Jozani Forest, butterflies, Kizimkazi dolphins, tortoises and turtles: Another great reason to visit Zanzibar is the Jozani Forest Reserve, home to the endangered Red Colobus Monkeys – one of the rarest primates in Africa. These monkeys are endemic to the island and with conservation efforts, are slowly recovering from the brink of extinction. The mature forests of Jozani form part of the island’s only National Park, where you can also see hundreds of different butterflies, numerous birds and a variety of interesting plants and animals.
Zanzibar Butterfly Centre (located 1km from Jozani Forest Park) is an environmental community project that has trained local people from the community to farm butterflies sustainably. The project aims to create income for the locals and conserve the local forest by running one of Africa’s biggest butterfly sanctuaries, as well as by exporting butterfly pupae. Visitors can participate in an interactive tour with one of the knowledgeable guides in the lush, netted gardens where hundreds of butterflies, all native species to Zanzibar, fly freely.
Kizimkazi on the south coast of Zanzibar Island is a popular location for going in search of dolphins. A short boat ride from the village takes you out into the big blue to hopefully see the schools of bottle-nosed or humpback dolphins often found in the area. Spotting these wild dolphins in the crystal clear waters of Zanzibar is an unforgettable experience. The Miza Miza Caves and the oldest mosque in East Africa can also be found in Kizimkazi and are well worth a visit.
At the northern tip of the island, you will find Mnarani Natural Aquarium where Zanzibar’s turtle conservation is centered. Created around a natural tidal pool the aquarium not only cares for the injured Hawksbill and Green turtles but also ensures the safety and well-being of hatchlings. It is a community conservation project that focuses on educating locals and fishermen about the advantages of protecting these ocean creatures.
Prison Island, once a prison for errant slaves, is a small island found about 5.6 km off the coast of Stone Town. The island now provides sanctuary for the endangered Aldabra giant tortoise. Listed as highly vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, these giant tortoises are constantly under threat from poachers. This population has grown from the four tortoises originally gifted by the Seychelles government in 1919.
Local markets and fresh seafood: The local markets and restaurants also offer a feast of fresh seafood – a treat definitely worth experiencing. There are many ways to enjoy these culinary delights – from fresh fish cooked on open fires on the beach to Lobster Thermidor at one of Zanzibar’s hotels, or spiced and served with traditional flavors and twists. Your taste buds will be awakened and constantly tantalised by the variety.
History and traditional dhows: Zanzibar has a long and complex history. Having once been the biggest slave market in East Africa, as well as a popular base for voyaging traders. It became well-known as the Spice Island for its aromatic spice offerings and was also an important player in the ivory trade. Zanzibar has been diversely influenced by the British, Arabs, Portuguese, Indians, Persians and Africans, all of whom have passed through the island and left their mark. Enjoy a trip on a traditional hand-crafted wooden dhow – a remnant from the trade history of the area and still in use daily for transport and fishing.
Friendly locals and festivals: The people of Zanzibar are known for their friendliness – the locals are generally helpful and welcoming towards visitors. There is an island vibe outside of Stone Town’s bustle, a laid-back slow pace to life, and travel is relatively safe. Remember to be respectful of the Muslim norms, by dressing appropriately and not drinking alcohol in public places.
Zanzibar has a few interesting festivals – Sauti za Busara (an African music festival takes place annually in February), Jahazi (Jazz and Literary festival usually in September) and Mwaka Kogwa (a four-day festival held in July to mark Nairuzim – the Shirazi New Year). People from across the African continent participate in these gatherings seeing a cross-section of cultures, ages and backgrounds celebrating together. The Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) is the largest cultural event that takes place in June and July. The festival showcases cinema, music and performing arts from a diverse range of races, classes and religions, drawing a large audience.
Budget-friendly and easy to explore: Zanzibar has something for everyone – from exclusive five-star experiences to family-friendly affordability. Suit yourself and your budget – whether it is the ultimate luxury that you are after or a laid back beach shack – Zanzibar offers something for every taste and heart’s desire. Getting around in Zanzibar is simple and easy to do on your own, giving you the freedom to explore at leisure. Or you can choose from the good quality yet affordable Zanzibar holiday packages available online.
The perfect add-on to African safaris in Tanzania and Kenya: The magic of Zanzibar is that it is a multi-faceted destination, offering a unique blend of idyllic beaches, intriguing history, cultural diversity, tasty cuisine, exotic spices, and rich flora and fauna. Plus, it is a short ferry ride or flight away from Tanzania and Kenya! Zanzibar is easily accessible from Dar es Salaam by boat or by air which makes it the perfect add-on to African safaris in the world-class game parks of Tanzania and Kenya. Zanzibar is easy to combine with Masai Mara and Serengeti Safaris making it ideal for beach and bush holidays in Africa. To browse the multitude of tour options for Zanzibar, view our upcoming Dar es Salaam departures or upcoming tour departures from Nairobi in Kenya.
Excursions and activities Zanzibar
- Spice tour: walk with a guide through spice plantations where pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and fruit grows.
- Kitesurfing: at the beaches Paje, Kiwengwa en Nungwi.
- Mountain bike excursion
- Stone Town excursion: stroll through the narrow streets of this lively town and visit some local markets and the former slave market.
- Prisoner Island excursion: take a 30 min. boat trip to this island, which once was a place where slaves were detained. Nowadays it is a nature reserve for giant tortoises and a place to see the ruins of the former prison.
- Safari Blue: during this excursion you visit 3 islands where you can swim, snorkel and have a nice BBQ.
- Visit Jozani forest: a great jungle walk through the last indigenous forest on Zanzibar with lots of monkeys, like the rare red colobus monkeys.
- Snorkeling and scuba diving at one of the many great reefs.
- Cultural tour: this excursion gives you an insight in the way of life of the local people.
- Mnemba Island tour: snorkeling trip to the most popular snorkeling spot in Zanzibar.
Best time for kitesurfing in Zanzibar
Zanzibar is the perfect location for those looking for great kitesurfing. The best time for kitesurfing is December till Mid-March, Then June till October.