Stone Town, Zanzibar, 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.
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 exactly is Stone Town?
Stone Town is located on the eastern side on Zanzibar. Zanzibar is an archipelago about 20 miles from mainland Tanzania. It's popular with tourists for its beautiful beaches and unique history and architecture.
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).
Here are the things I recommend you do, see, and eat in Stone Town.
Get lost in the alleyways
The heart of Stone Town is an excellent place to get lost.
While wandering, you'll see lots of mosques, bazars, 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.)
Did you know Freddie Mercury was Zanzibari? He grew up in Stone Town. While wandering, you'll probably stumble upon the Mercury House where he was raised.
Photograph every. single. door. in town
I was in LOVE with the doors in Stone Town. Stone Town is a door lover's dream. (Any other door lovers? Just me?)
Sigh. Just look at these beauties.
Apparently, Wealthy Zanzibari traders showcased their wealth through their ornate doors – the more intricate the door, the richer the trader.
The front door of Tippu Tip's house, a famous Zanzibari slave trader
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.
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.
Take a walking tour
If you don't have a lot of time, take a walking tour that you can arrange through your hotel – ours was $40 for two of us.
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 (casual)…
… 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.)
Christ Church cathedral is also where the Old Slave Market was located. This is a statue dedicated to the slaves.
Eat all the seafood
Snapper with curry sauce, chapati, and rice
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 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.
Have dinner at the 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 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.
Where we stayed – The Dhow Palace Hotel
Photo courtesy of the Dhow Palace Hotel
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.)
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 while there. You don't have to dress too conservatively, mind you – 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.
That being said, Stone Town is 100% worth visiting. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, after all. And at least in this traveler's opinion, Stone Town is truly a place unlike any other in the world.
A weekend in Stone Town was perfect. Ideally give yourself two full days.
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.