The Indian Ocean Coast – Zanzibar

Zanzibar is set in the Indian Ocean and is one of East Africa’s trading centers steeped in culture and history. It is commonly known for its rich history of culture from the Arabs, Indians, and African heritage. It did serve as a gateway to Africa’s interior for the Explorers.  Zanzibar is also known as the spice island, from the centuries-old trade of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon, today the Zanzibar Archipelago is still bathed in the heady scents of spices and traditional dhows still drift across the horizon.  Zanzibar is the most popular safari and beach combination in the whole of Africa. Zanzibar truly has everything luxury beach travelers need but with a lot less hassle, and for a lot less money.

Top highlights to do in Zanzibar 

  • Explore Stone Town

Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site boasts a labyrinth of winding alleys, bustling marketplaces, magnificent carved wooden doors, breathtaking mosques, and grand Arab residences.  Stone Town – is known for its 19th Century architecture that reflects the Arab, Indian, Moorish, and European background.  

The highlights of Stone Town are

  • Beit-el-Ajaib (House of Wonders Museum)  – This is the tallest and largest building of Stone Town and was built in 1883 by Sultan Barghash- the Second Sultan of Zanzibar. It houses the national museum of History and Culture showcasing the Dhow Culture of the Indian Ocean and Swahili Coast. 
  • Beit-el-Sahel (The Sultan’s Palace) – This served as Sultan’s residence until 1964,  today it’s the Palace Museum reconstructed after its destruction in 1896 and it does showcase the history of the Sultanate from 1828-1896.  
  • The Arabian Fort –located next to the Beit-el-Ajaib (House of Wonders Museum) was built between 1698 and 1701 by a group of Omani Arabs, it does have several shops and an open-air theater. 
  • Mtoni Palace Ruins – the ruins give an insight into the luxury setting of the former palace of Sultan’s legitimate wife and serves as a setting for outdoor concerts and wedding venue from time to time. 
  • The Old Pharmacy– known as the stone town cultural center served as a pharmacy in the colonial area. This is a 19th Century building with Indian and European elements, it was designed with wooden doors dubbed the Zanzibar Doors. These doors are often found throughout Stone Town, many more than a century old. The doors are built using strong wood and decorated with Swahili-style carvings and/or Arabic scriptures as well as brass studs.
  • Discover the Forodhani street night food market. Try Swahili street food, which is a mixture of the Bantu, Arab, and Indian tastes located across the street from the old fort on the pier. The numerous stalls all essentially serve the same things. You can choose whatever you want and it’s prepared for you.  Among the seafood stalls, you’ll see fresh kebabs (mishkaki) of seafood like prawns, crabs, lobsters, calamari, fish, Schwarmas, juices, fruits,  samosas, and grilled vegetables, and Zanzibar pizza.  Tasty biryani, pilau rice,  chips, chicken, beef, and lamb are also served. 
  • Livingstone House – built in 1860 for Sultan Majid and was used by missionaries and explorers, this is where Dr. David Livingston lived. 

Learn More About The Terrible History Of the Slave Trade In Zanzibar

 Visit the Anglican Church built in 1874 by Bishop Steer on the site of the huge Slave   Market,  once a hub of the slave trade for the whole of East Africa. The site currently hosts the East African slave trade exhibition. The East Africa Slave Trade Exhibition is a museum dedicated to telling the terrible stories of the slave trade and the long hard road to freedom.  It is laid out in chronological order and each board tells a series of stories of how the slave trade began all the way to how it ended. The descriptions are in both English and Swahili. 

Jozani Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park

The Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park is a 50 km² national park in Tanzania located on the island of Zanzibar.  There are guided nature walks offered and abundant resident wildlife includes many species of brightly colored butterflies, about 40 species of birds, including the spectacular Fischer’s turaco, and small antelope such as the endangered Aders’ duiker and Suni. The Jozani Forest Reserve is also home to the rare Kirk’s red colobus monkey and Aders’ duiker. 

Zanzibar’s beaches

The island has quirky authenticity to elegant luxury; along the east coast of Zanzibar, there really is the perfect beach lodge for everyone.   Zanzibar and its outlying islands are home to some of the finest beaches in East Africa as well as a number of its best dive sites.

  • Nungwi and Kendwa beaches

Located on the northern tip of the Island are Nungwi and Kendwa beaches. 

Nungwi Beach has sand that is soft and powdery to the touch. The tide level doesn’t affect Nungwi Beach the way it affected other beaches so the water is perfect for swimming. And since there is no low tide, you won’t see any dead seaweed on the beach like in Paje, making Nungwi one of the cleanest beaches out there. 

  • Swim With Turtles At Baraka Natural Aquarium in Nungwi.

Have you ever wanted to swim with sea turtles? If that is your dream, you can finally tick it off the list at Baraka Natural Aquarium in Zanzibar. Baraka Natural Aquarium is located on a rocky coastal area with shallow water where the sea turtles often come and feed on seaweed and it is a popular place for local tourists to go and swim with them. 

There are more than a dozen sea turtles swimming around this shallow pool and with such clear water coming from the Indian Ocean through cracks in the coastal rocks surrounding the area, you can see these beautiful animals as clear as day even from above the water. 

Kendwa is a wide and long beach with also white sand that is slippery to the touch and tall perennial palms around it. The slope is flat, the water deepens gradually and quickly. There is no shallow water, shells, stones, or algae. The ocean tides are low and it’s calm with azure, clear, and transparent water. Sunsets in Kendwa Beach are usually accompanied by active nightlife and parties. 

  •  Enjoy a famous sunset Dhow cruise at Nungwi and Kendwa. 

Dhows are wooden built boats with canvas sails, that were originally introduced in Yemen hundreds of years ago. They still play a very important role in transportation and fishing on the island. You can arrange a private or group cruise via a hotel. Like Stone Town, sunsets are absolutely incredible in Nungwi and Kendwa as well.

  • Matemwe, Kiwengwa, Pongwe, and the NorthEast

Matemwe is an area in the northeast of Zanzibar. It’s roughly 1.5 hours from the Stone Town airport by car. Go Snorkel And Island Hopping At Matemwe Beach. 

Matemwe is known to be a chilled-out beachside area with a collection of boutique hotels. These beaches being on the east side have huge high and low tides. It’s also the launching point to visit the famous Mnemba Island, which is a private island off the coast of Zanzibar. This beautiful island is home to a protected Marine park and is home to endless options for scuba diving/snorkeling.

  • Discover Mnemba Island

The Island is a 15-minute boat ride from the northeast end of Zanzibar Island at Matemwe Beach. Surrounded by more than 10 miles of stunning reefs that create a sheltered lagoon, Mnemba is a veritable paradise on Earth that hosts a number of birds and smaller terrestrial fauna.  Discover the underwater world hidden below crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean on a diving and snorkeling trip to its atoll. Look for Moorish idols, long-horned cowfish, semicircle angelfish, hawksbill turtles, powder blue surgeonfish, green turtles, vagabond butterflyfish, manta rays, starfish, anemones, crabs, and more. You could swim with the striped dolphins and view massive whale sharks alongside rays. 

Fishing using the catch and release method for the barracuda, sailfish, swordfish, yellowfin tuna, and marlins.  You may relax on the pristine, white sands and let the warm rays of the tropical kiss your skin. Allow yourself to relax and take a break with yoga and massages during your stay. 

  • The Island Pongwe

Pongwe is located on the North-East coast of Zanzibar, just 34 km from Stone Town. The Island is built on a natural coral rock in the quiet Pongwe Bay. It is 100 meters away from the coastline and offers unforgettable sunset and sunrise views. The island is dotted with palm trees and dense vegetation.  

Activities on Pongwe Island 

Sailing and snorkeling on a local/ traditional dhow boat to the Pongwe reef, just in front of The Island. With snorkeling equipment provided you will have a few stops close to the reef to explore an underwater world and sail around the bay with the tide.

Local low tide spearfishing

This is a low tide fishing experience where you will be shown ways like fish spotting in seaweed and hand spearing it, catching fish with your hands, sea urchin collection, and tasting.  Fish caught by yourself can be prepared by the chefs during your stay. 

Local line fishing on a sailing dhow boat

Try your hand at local fishing experience on the traditional sailing dhow boat with fishermen from the village. They will show you all their skills, share secret techniques, and will make sure you learn line fishing the Zanzibari way.

Take a walk and visit seaweed farms

Take a walk to the seaweed farm just in front of The Island on a low tide and see how local women harvest agar-agar – world-known sea moss that will be dried and used for natural medicine, food, beauty products, and more.

Sunset Shades

Zanzibar is also synonymous with stunning red sunsets. Get a clear view of the horizon as you watch the sun go down.

Visit the Village and local School of Pongwe

Experience community-based tourism with a local village tour and school visit. Pongwe village is an old fishermen’s village that not only makes a living from fishing but also is famous for its seaweed farming. After walking through the village’s small roads, get to interact with the children at the local school. 

At Pingwe Beach get to experience the Rock Restaurant. 

Located on Pingwe Beach in the southwest peninsula of Zanzibar is the Rock Restaurant. It is one of the most popular and beautiful landmarks on the island. This restaurant is built on a small rock island which you can access by walking at low tide or taking a boat at high tide.

Paje, Jambiani, and Michamvi in the SouthEast

The southeast of Zanzibar is another very popular area for tourists to stay at. This part of Zanzibar has perhaps the best beaches outside of Nungwi. The tides are extremely dramatic and the beaches are mostly sand as opposed to corals and urchins in the north. 

Paje is a city in Zanzibar South, Tanzania. 

Kitesurf, Windsurfing, and Scuba Diving in Paje Beach. 

is one of the most fun activities you can try out during your stay in Zanzibar. Due to reliable winds and large shallow lagoons on the east coast, Zanzibar became widely recognized as one of the best locations for kitesurfing in Africa. Whether you are a first-timer or an expert, professional surf schools will equip you with everything you need to catch the breeze. Paje is also great for windsurfing and scuba diving. You can also swim in the lukewarm waters however, during the low tide, you have to make do with sunbathing. Reef walks and sailing on dhows are also possible.

Sunset Boat Cruise in Michamvi

You will board a boat that will take you to Chwaka Bay. Michamvi is one of the best places on the Eastern coast of Zanzibar to observe the spectacle of the setting sun disappearing into the Indian Ocean. You will get a chance to spend an evening watching the sky change from hues of orange into dyed pomegranate pink. There is a possibility to make a reservation for a private beach dinner at Michamvi Sunset Bay Resort. 

Jambiani  Beach

is a cluster of villages that span across 6km of beach on the southeast coast of Unguja, the largest island of the Zanzibar archipelago. Jambiani Beach has a calm atmosphere, and it is a popular location for picnics and games of beach football. If you are looking for a truly relaxing, authentic beach where you can wind down after a safari, Jambiani is the perfect destination for you. You Wake up and immerse yourself in a quiet sunrise. You can swim in Kuza Cave, an ancient jungle cave in Kibigija, Jambiani, and explore underwater cave sculptures. Also enjoy the Kuza Cave wildlife sanctuary with Monkeys, birds, butterflies, and Chindi (Squirrels). Other activities include deep-sea fishing and snorkeling. 

Chumbe Island

This island is an idyllic tropical island situated about 6 km west of the larger island of Zanzibar and about 30 km off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. A 45-minute boat ride takes you to this small, magical island. Chumbe Island Coral Park Ltd. (CHICOP) is an award-winning private nature reserve that was developed in 1991 for the conservation and sustainable management of uninhabited Chumbe Island off Zanzibar.

Snorkeling at Chumbe Island.

There are guided snorkeling tours that take you by boat to the edge of our Coral Reef Sanctuary where the view opens up a world of breathtaking sights. Each snorkeling tour lasts for about one hour and provides new discoveries for our guests. 

Coconut crab walk 

Guests have the chance to take a guided nature walk and encounter giant Coconut crabs in the coral rag forest. Coconut crabs can reach up to 45 cm in diameter and are the largest living land crabs in the world! During the daytime, they hide in caves and crevices but after sunset, they roam around to look out for food. 

Intertidal Walk 

‘Intertidal’ refers to a shore area that is covered by seawater at high tide and exposed during low tide. On Chumbe Island, intertidal walks are only possible during spring low tides (at new and full moon), when the tide is low enough guests can explore rocky pools and seagrass meadows without having to snorkel or even swim.  Guided intertidal walks are led by our experienced rangers who are familiar with the shore, ensure safety, and will show you fascinating marine organisms which are usually well camouflaged or hidden.

When the tide is very low it is also possible to walk all the way around the island which takes a bit over one hour. Upon reaching the north point of the island, you can then bask on the exposed sandbar providing over a kilometer of pristine beach, while at the south point, you can walk to the small islets where you may be fortunate enough to see fish eagles battling for territory. 

Forest walk 

A trail circles the southern part of the dense coral rag forest on Chumbe Island. This one-hour guided forest walk is where you learn more about the geology of the island, plant adaptations to survive without groundwater, medicinal uses of local trees and shrubs, and hidden fauna that is difficult to spot.  Explore the forest trail and look out for the mangroves shaded by huge baobab trees, where the seawater rises and falls with the tides, and where you may observe many creatures adapted to these conditions.  Look out for the skeletal structures of corals and giant clams – a gentle reminder that Chumbe Island was once a thriving coral reef that became fossilized.  There are various bird species in the thicket for birders.

Visit Prison Island on Changuu Island

Prison Island also known as Changuu Island, is a small island spreading across 5.6 Km.   Overcoming its turbulent history, Changuu island has become a  must-see jewel of Tanzania with the highlight attraction of being a large home for the tortoises. Prison Island is a nice half-day boat trip you can take from Stone Town. The island was once used as a place for the detention of rebellious slaves and people with deadly diseases.

Pemba Island offers a rare glimpse into untouched island life. The Indian Ocean activities are endless and the diving is beautiful, however, the beaches are not as good as Zanzibar Island’s north and east coast. But for an off-the-beaten-track authentic island experience, it is fabulous.

Mafia Island is known for particularly scenic dives. It is most famous for being home to the biggest fish in the sea; the mighty whale shark. Travelers can snorkel with these unbelievable whales from Mafia Island, making it a sought-after destination for underwater explorers. Like Pemba, the beaches are not amazing, so it is definitely not a place for those seeking sun, sand, and relaxation, but for more adventurous travelers. 

Where to stay in Zanzibar

Accommodation in Stone Town | Chumbe Island | Prison Island | West Coast

Jafferji House and Spa,  Zuri Zanzibar Hotel & Resort, The Residence Zanzibar, Chumbe Island Lodge, Seyyida Zanzibar

Accommodation on the North Coast 

Hideaway of Nungwi, Resort and Spa, Ras Nungwi Beach Hotel, The Royal Zanzibar Beach Resort, and Essque Zalu Zanzibar

Accommodation on North East Coast 

Melia Zanzibar Hotel, Blue Beach Hotel and Spa, Dream of Zanzibar, Ocean Paradise Resort Zanzibar, and Mnemba Island Lodge

Accommodation on the South Coast

Indigo Beach Zanzibar, The Residence Zanzibar, Baraza Resort and Spa, The Palms, Kichanga Lodge, and Karafuu Hotel.

How to get to Zanzibar 

Despite having an international airport, very few international airlines outside of the East African region fly direct to its Abeid Amani Karume International Airport (ZNZ).

A short 30-minute flight from mainland Tanzania through Dar es Salaam airport sits an Indian Ocean haven. Accessible from any safari region in Tanzania, usually within a matter of hours, visitors can be relaxing on one of Zanzibar’s white sand beaches with a cocktail in hand.

The best time to visit Zanzibar.

The best time to visit Zanzibar is during the dry season from June to October. This also coincides with the safari high season in Tanzania, making the Zanzibar Archipelago a very popular post-safari choice.  The months from June to October are the best times as the heavy rains have cleared. These weather conditions are perfect for long days, relaxing in the sun and exploring the wonderful sights of ‘Spice Island’.  August and September have cooler temperatures making it not too hot and not too humid

December to February

These months have temperatures much warmer and there’s a generally low amount of rainfall. This is the best time for diving conditions. A good underwater dive is all about wind, the tides, and what you can view underwater.  The lagoons and coral reefs can be explored in clear waters, particularly on the south coast.

Rainy Season: March to May

The big rainy season in Zanzibar is between March and May. During this time, lots of the resorts close down as you can see torrential downpours, and it’s not the time to visit Zanzibar.