Stone Town was my favourite place in Zanzibar. A heady mix of Swahili and Arab influences, it’s a fascinating place to spend some time. We stayed three nights, although one of those days was spent on Chumbe island. But if you only have a day in Stone Town before heading to the beaches to relax, what should you do?
24 hours in Stone Town
We stayed at the Zenji hotel on Malawi Road. It’s a great location but the traffic noise is constant, so something to consider if you need a good night’s sleep! The great thing about the Zenji, aside from the super-friendly staff and rooftop breakfast, is their cafe and shop which is full of local crafts and souvenirs, different to what you see in many of the shops in the centre of town. The owners work closely with local cooperatives and you can even take a tour to one of the small businesses to see how your souvenirs are made. The cafe is open to everyone and is a decent place for lunch with veggie, fish and meat options.
Usually I’m a wander round and get my bearings kind of girl, but we decided to take a two-hour walking tour booked through Zenji and I was really glad we did! Our first stop was the Darajani market. Most people don’t mind if you take photos of their stalls but don’t take pictures of stallholders without asking, it’s really rude! If you’re looking to buy spices (Zanzibar is the spice island after all) then this is a better option than the guys selling on the street near the water. If you’re a strict veggie you might want to give it a miss – the sight and smell of half a side of cow just hanging off a hook in one of the side rooms kind of put me off!
Zanzibar is 98% Muslim and Stone Town has 48 mosques, but also 2 churches (one Anglican and one Roman Catholic). The Christ Church cathedral is part of a small complex built on the site of the old slave market. Zanzibar was the centre for the East African slave trade and a small exhibition explains the horrors of the time. The anti-slavery campaigner and explorer David Livingstone spent some time in Stone Town and the cathedral has a small crucifix, allegedly made from wood from the tree under which he died in Zambia. The neighbouring convent stills give access to a tiny low-roofed cellar where slaves were kept chained together awaiting sale – incredibly claustrophobic.
Get lost among the backstreets
Now it’s time to dive into the maze of the old town proper – the area officially known as Stone Town. This was where having a guide really helped as it meant we didn’t miss things and knew where we were going when we went back to this area later. Although the physical footprint is small, there are so many small, twisting alleys that look very similar that you could get lost, but don’t worry, just keep walking and eventually you’ll hit the sea.
Stone Town is known for its incredible, intricately-carved doors and there are dozens of them to spot. There are two main styles, Arab doors and Indian doors. Arab doors are rectangular and carvings often reflect the profession of the person who lived there. Indian doors have a curved top and brass studs (originally a defence against elephants in their homeland!)
If you’re lucky you might stumble across Jaws Corner, an open air meeting place where men gather to drink lots of coffee and talk politics.
There are plenty of cafes around to stop for lunch near the waterfront, including one inside the Old Fort. It’s not the most impressive castle you’ll ever see, but kind of romantic in that old crumbling way.
After lunch you can stroll along the waterfront past the House of Wonders, the first building in Zanzibar to have electric light and the first in East Africa to have a lift, and the Old Dispensary. There are also some lovely wooden enclosed balconies here.
Take a sunset dhow cruise
Yes, it’s touristy, but some things are popular for a reason. I love being on boats anyway, so a late afternoon cruise along the coast from Stone Town as the sun dipped below the horizon was a memorable part of my time in Stone Town. Boats leave from the beach outside Livingstone’s bar (a great place for a sun-downer too). Our trip included plenty of snacks, beer and wine and local Zanzibari musicians.
Foodie paradise at Forodhani night market
If you leave town before trying the bustling open-air night market at Forodhani, on the waterfront, you’re missing out. I’ll be writing a post later, but it’s an excellent place to come for its buzzing atmosphere, dressed-up crowd and a crazy array of food, from fish kebabs and seafood to grilled corn and the infamous ‘Zanzibar pizza’.
Have you visited Stone Town? Any places I’ve missed?