Zan-zi-barrr the very name evokes mystery, intrigue and exotic, sultry adventure. Stone Town is where it simmers, with its crumbling coral-rag palaces, winding, walled alleyways, and a history steeped in spices.
I would be lying if I told you it was as if time had stood still, the ancient trading hub of East Africa is now a relic of its former past, and it’s a crying shame not more has been done to preserve this UNESCO World Heritage Site. But, there is charm in the cultural melting pot that remains – recessed Persian houses jostle with modern Afro clothing boutiques, a waterfront dotted with old Arabic dhows, rusting 70’s-style ferries, and an Italian owned Gelato shop.
Here are my top ten things to do in the magical jumble of Stone Town.
1. Emerson Spice House
An utterly enchanting rooftop restaurant & hotel, once home to the last Swahili ruler of Zanzibar. On restoration, thousands of abalone and oyster shells were found in its inner courtyard, hinting that once a mother of pearl jewellery shop lived here. A rich Indian merchant used to trade from the building, and legend has it that he would dry carpets of sopping Rupee notes (from the ships) on the floors of the house! Emerson Spice House is dripping in opulent old-world Arabic/Indian appeal, and its cosy cushion-seated eatery offers unparalleled views across Stone Town’s exotic skyline.
2. Capital Art Studio
Near the top of Kenyatta Rd, founded in 1930 by Ranchid Oza, who became the semi-official royal family photographer for Sultan Khalifa. Eighty-odd years later it is now run by his son Rohit, a photographer himself who still shoots on film. The shop is a photographic treasure trove and its walls are hung with the political and monarchal history of East Africa – a myriad of lovingly framed black and white prints with Prince Charles’ 2011 tour proudly featured at the entrance.
3. Forodhani food market
As the sun sets in Stone Town, locals and tourists alike flock down to Forodhani Gardens on the waterfront, where a nightly food market serves up hot griddles laden with seafood. Quench your thirst with a freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, sample skewers of octopus dipped in tamarind, lobster and crab claw, platters of prawns and Zanzibari pizza (a chapati-type pita bread stuffed with mince meat, egg, mayo, onion & chilli).
4. Palace Museum
An imposing white-washed building, the once residence of the Zanzibari royalty is now a museum dedicated to archiving the history of Zanzibar’s Sultans. Climb the central staircase and peel off into rooms archiving the sultanate era (1828-1964) with an eclectic mix of leftover furniture, paintings and such like. Each floor represents a different period but make sure to spend time in Princess Salme’s room, who eloped with a German to Hamburg, excerpts from her autobiography Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar provide a fascinating glimpse into regal Stone Town life.
Tucked away in a corner just off Shangani rd, Lazulis is by far the best spot to eat lunch in Stone Town. Cheap and cheerful, this clean, colourful restaurant serves up a delicious array of modern Swahili fusion dishes, from coconut chickpea curry chapati-wraps to mango cashew nut & chicken salads, and cinnamon spiced iced coffee. Locals on their lunch breaks and hungry tourists queue up for a menu lovingly created by South African Bonita Blom. Bonita has lived in Stone Town for the last three years with her husband, a Zanzibari man, and their adorable baby boy.
6. Spice Tour
Anyone visiting Zanzibar simply must go on a spice tour, admittedly it’s a well trodden tourist trap, but the experience is well worth it. You’ll taxi out to an interior plantation (many of which are no longer commercially functioning) and a local guide will walk you amongst vanilla pod vines, fields of lemongrass, cumin seed pods and turmeric root. Smell, sample, savour – the experience is a sensual journey into the spices that flavour our food. Look out for my article on Swahili Spices in the upcoming May/June issue of Safari for more information.
7. Sunset Dhow Sail
The iconic dhow is an ancient Arabic sailing vessel, carved out of mangrove timber and flagged with a lateen mainsheet, these graceful boats plyed the trade winds between east Africa, Persia and India for centuries. In fact, they are still built and operate today, although mainly for Indian Ocean fishing and transport. One of Zanzibar’s biggest treats is to set sail aboard a sunset cruise and watch the historic Stone Town shoreline glide-by, while the lights from mainland Dar es Salaam twinkle in the distance.
8. St Joseph’s Cathedral
Peaceful, cool, and adorned in colourful biblical murals – the roman Catholic Cathedral of St Josephs is well worth the detour from bustling Kenyatta Rd. It was built by French missionaries and is inlaid with stained glass windows imported from the continent. Try to time your visit with when the local choir are practising, and make sure to hop across the road and take a peak at the intricately carved wooden chests at the workshop opposite.
9. Get lost
One of the most liberating and rewarding things to do in Stone Town is to do-away with your map, get lost, and wander the labyrinth of cobbled courtyards and walkways. Get incensed by the heady aroma of strong Arabic coffee, feel your way through a shop hung with colourful Kanga fabrics, turn a corner, look up, and marvel at a mosque’s dome punctuating the skyline, emanating lyrical verses of the Koran. The beauty of Stone Town is in its many surprises.
10. Dharajani Market
Food lovers and culture vultures will love this chaotic market, fringing the old part of Stone Town and spilling out onto side streets from underneath a gabled-fronted awning. Dried squid, barrow-fulls of fresh fruit, packets of spices and meat weighed-out on big brass scales – this is where Zanzibaris come to get their food fix. Visitors can take part in a local cooking class which will include shopping for ingredients at the market beforehand. Look out for my article on Swahili Spices in the upcoming May/June issue of Safari for more information.
For more ideas on what to do in Stone Town, take a look at our current feature ’48 hours in Stone Town’ written by Judy Beyer, the chief copy editor of Africa Geographic, and published in Safari interactive magazine.