Traders used to travel the route by ship, we took the plane: From Muscat to Zanzibar. The archipelago of Zanzibar is made up of the big islands of Unguja, commonly known as Zanzibar, and Pemba, as well as many small islands.
In 1698, the archipelago came under the control of the Sultanate of Oman. Even before that, Arab traders had settled on the islands which were a convenient base for trade with the Swahili Coast towns, Arabia, and India. In the 19th century, the British gradually gained power but Omani influence remained strong in Zanzibar (and is still evident today). The island was an important trade center for slaves, ivory, and spices. Today, Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania and although the spice export is still important, tourism is now one of the main industries.
Getting to Zanzibar
Zanzibar City has an international airport and although it’s small, old (but seems unfinished), and has no shops whatsoever, many airlines fly directly to Zanzibar. The visa process (for the visa on arrival) is straightforward, you can even pay the 50 USD visa fee by credit card.
Our flight from Muscat via Dubai stopped in Dar es Salaam where many people debarked. The passengers remaining on the plane were asked to show their boarding passes before we took off again for our shortest flight ever: 9 minutes from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar. The lady in the seat in front of us apparently tried to fly for free: She had only booked to Dar es Salaam. We thought is was quite funny – we’ve never seen somebody try that on a plane – but the flight attendant didn’t and told her to leave NOW!
In the airport, the luggage doesn’t come on a conveyor belt, but is brought in on carts. Outside, taxi drivers and especially porters wait for tourists. Unless you want to haggle with the porters or have too much luggage to carry it yourself, hold on to your bags.
We got picked up by the nice owner of the small hotel we booked the first night at. His car was “a bit old”, he told us, optimistically adding, “but it still drives”. To me, it seemed like a wonder that it still drove. It was so battered that the doors didn’t even open without some kicking and tearing (or is that the car’s security system?). The trunk didn’t open at all and we had to put our suitcases into the truck from inside. But yes, the car still drove.
The next morning we took a minibus to Stone Town. It was the kind of bus that is never full, there’s always room for more people. And more. And even more. An infinite amount of people.
Stone Town is the old part of Zanzibar City and is actually quite small. It’s a maze of alleys where you can get wonderfully lost in. Some old houses have been beautifully restored, especially in the area around Shangani Street where many hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops are.
This is not the “real” Stone Town, however. Venture outside this area, without a map, into small, sometimes dark alleys, where the houses haven’t been renovated, children play in the streets, motorbikes drive with astonishing speed around the corners, and women chat in front of their houses. Somehow, it feels like time has stood still here.
There are about fifty mosques in Stone Town, some of them very small and hidden. The oldest one is in Malindi, at the northern end of the old town, and is easily recognizable by its cone-shaped minaret. Other notable buildings include the old fort, the House of Wonders, and the old dispensary.
Eating in Stone Town
Zanzibari food reflects the ancestry and mix of the island’s people; it’s a mixture of mainly Arabic, Indian, and African cuisine. A good place to sample typical food is at Luukman’s restaurant close to the former slave chambers.
For streetfood, go to the Forodhani Gardens at the waterfront. Every night, dozens of stands sell streetfood: Grilled meat and sea food, grilled corn and sweet potatoes, naan, chapati, and a kind of pizza, among other things. The atmosphere is great, the food too (especially the grilled corn!) and it’s an experience you shouldn’t miss if in Zanzibar.
Darajani Market is a great place to buy fruits, vegetables, or spices, or to just have a look around. The fish and the meat market may not be for everybody but they’re definitely very interesting.
I really loved Stone Town. I wanted to go there since a long time and it definitely met my expectations although, at the same time, it was so different from what I expected. It’s a wonderful mix – a blend, actually – of cultures and its history is very rich and interesting. Stone Town is so different from the rest of Zanzibar but no visit to the island would be complete without a visit to Stone Town.