It is easy to wander through the narrow alleys of Stone Town, when your hotel is located right in the middle of it, like mine. Even easier, is to lose the track of time, wandering around the beautiful historic center which has an unreal time-warped essence. Extremely photogenic, Stone Town displayed an exotic mix of Moorish, Indian, and Middle Eastern influences in its architecture, traditions, people, and costumes. Quaint stone squares, intricately carved Indian doors, and Arabic-style houses with recessed courtyards spoken volumes of its heritage of ancient maritime traders and rulers of different cultures. They all made the Spice Island their home and generously imparted their culture into the existing society.

Stone Town is in Zanzibar

Stone Town in Zanzibar is UNESCO heritage site.

Stone Town and a slave market

The faces of the residents often bore traces of different ethnic groups, yet when collectively observed, everything and everybody in Zanzibar retained a very distinct pride of being a Spice Islander. Beautifully restored, Stone Town is Zanzibar’s soul and the ocean never seems too far from anywhere from the island. In fact, one of my most memorable sounds of Zanzibar is of the constant murmur of the surrounding ocean and it had the calming effect of a hushed whisper. Thus, it was the whispering Indian Ocean which soothed my soul after a shocking old Slave Market visit and coming face to face with Zanzibar’s dark history is a very tough affair. The narrow cramped dungeons, whipping posts, and the deplorable living conditions of the erstwhile slaves made me grateful to all those people who had toiled endlessly to change the wretched piece of human history and amongst all of them, Dr. Livingstone stood out like a beacon.

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stone town has slave trade museum

In olden days, Zanzibar thrived due to the slave trade.

A spice farm visit does wonders

In fact, Dr. Livingstone’s resident and House of Freddie Mercury were my immediate stops after the Slave Market visit and the dark history was too much for me for my first day on the island. With heat and hustlers sapping my energy at every step, I gave up exploring Stone Town soon, and after a lunch of traditional meal of Pilau at Lukman restaurant, headed back to my room for a siesta. The walk back was through the Old Fort and the House of Wonders and I had a spice garden visit planned for the evening. Throughout history, Zanzibar has been called the “Spice Island” for good reasons and the island was much coveted for clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper.

A fruit shop in Stone Town

A man trades with a woman on the street outside of her tiny shop in Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania PC Shutterstock/SAPhotog

Evenings at Stone Town

In fact, till today, spices along with raffia are the major export products of Zanzibar and the island’s lovely red earth also produced ample amount of mangoes, jack fruit, guavas, passion fruit, and bananas. The spice farm, though touristy was a very relaxing way to end a Zanzibar day and I left it unwillingly to head back to the seafront for sunset and dinner. Zanzibar is universally known for its bloodred sunsets and each day of my stay at the island, I witnessed one sight lovelier than the other. That evening, the sunset arrived with splashes of colours and dusk settled over the island fast. My dinner venue was the waterfront Forodhani Gardens, which I visited upon recommendation from a fellow traveler and it was yet another unpleasant experience of Zanzibar.

Forodhani Gardens night market is a visual delight

A supermoon and a night market

A very touristy event, every evening the Forodhani Gardens livened up with lights and stalls selling calamari, crab claws, shrimps, lobsters, potatoes, plantain, and manioc made brisk business under strings of bright bulbs. Though pegged off as a local gathering, the night market Forodhani Gardens, in reality, aimed more at fleecing tourists and jugglers, street musicians, and souvenir sellers thronged the place. The food served there are disappointingly mediocre and the only saving grace is the lively ambiance.zanzibar sunset over indian ocean

Forodhani Gardens: a tourist trap which is a must visit spot

I nibbled on my rubbery Zanzibar pizza and crepe before walking towards Stone Town, when a big yellow supermoon rose high on the sky. It was yet another natural phenomenon, that entire Tanzania (especially Zanzibar) is famous for and the massive golden disc lit up the island with clear milky illuminance. With the rising of the super moon, the island of Zanzibar once again donned its magical cloak and Stone Town glowed white in the moonlight. I walked back to the hotel for an early rest since Prison Island excursion and Nungwi Beach transfer awaited me the next morning. The window above my bed however poured down white moonlight in buckets and I stayed awake in anticipation for the next day’s sun, sand, and Vitamin Sea.

Zanzibar stone town residents

The Stone Town residents of Zanzibar who lived next to my hotel

Zanzibar and Stone Town travel advisories

  • Spice Farm Shopping – Most of the spice farm tours at Zanzibar end with solicitation to buy their genuine but overpriced products. The same can be bought at Stone Town from fixed price stores at much lower rates.
  • Visit the Forodhani Gardens to enjoy the ambiance – Forodhani Gardens, in my opinion, is a total tourist trap. The atmosphere, however, is pretty cool and it is not to be missed in Zanzibar. Rows of gleaming crab claws, coils of calamari, and the aroma of freshly made chocolate pancakes are heady. Bear in mind, not to get your hopes high and expect mediocre food. You can go there just to experience the delicious mingling of food, sea breeze, and local music but its advisable to stick to the established restaurants to protect your wallet as well as the stomach. Also note that being a popular tourist attraction, Forodhani Gardens is teeming with drug addicts, muggers, streetwalkers,  and hustlers.
  • Strictly avoid walking alone at night – Zanzibar is not safe to travel alone as a woman at night and even couples and solo male travelers have been reported being mugged after dark. There are simply too many hustlers and while most are tirelessly tiresome, some can be dangerous too. It is advisable to avoid eye contact or even respond to such suspicious people.

    Stone Town is a conservative place.

    Local people on a typical narrow street in Stone Town. Stone Town is the old part of Zanzibar City, the capital of Zanzibar, Tanzania PC Shutterstock/LMspencer

  • Dress Conservatively – Being a conservative Islamic island, residents prefer travelers to cover their arms, shoulders, and legs. Though I personally did not have any hassle walking around in a sleeveless dress, it makes sense to stick to this tip.
  • Beware of the Scams – Zanzibar is riddled with scams selling fake spices (major health hazard), overpriced souvenirs, exorbitantly priced bottled water and sharp bargaining skills are mandatory there. It is not a cheap destination, apart from being a shopper’s paradise and getting cold hard cash into Zanzibar makes sense.
  • Get Cash – Bank cards are not preferred here and cannot be entirely depended upon. Like the rest of Tanzania, Zanzibar accepts USD, especially new clean notes of higher denominations and they bring better rates too. Try bringing in notes of 2009 series as anything above 2006 is not accepted.
  • Stay safe – Flashing wads of cash, jewelry, expensive camera or watches can pose a serious risk to your safety in Zanzibar. Keep a low profile and stay safe. For such a small island, Zanzibar, especially Stone Town has an astonishingly high crime rate.

    Two men play a game of Bao in the streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar. Bao is a traditional mancala board game played in most of East Africa  PC Shutterstock/SAPhotog

    Typical Zanzibar Stone Town street. You can see the Indian influence here PC Shutterstock/InGreen

    Stone Town capital of Zanzibar, Tanzania  PC Shutterstock/Martchan

    Despite its good, bad, and very ugly sides, Stone Town is irresistible