We recently took a trip to the Zanzibar archipelago off the coast of Tanzania. All I can say is that you find yourself on an idyllic piece of land surrounded by the always warm Indian Ocean – absolute paradise! The resort we stayed at was amazing – but more on that in another post. One of the highlights of the trip was the tours we went on, who knew there was such variety on this small island. One tour we took involved walking tour of the spice plantations (Zanzibar is known as the Spice Island). This was both an educational and entertaining experience and I’ll share more about it later. While the stunning beaches are usually the biggest draw for Zanzibar, I was enticed by the multi-cultural experience of exploring Stone Town – the capital city. Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site with historical architecture that is currently being restored with materials that were originally used. It is such a mix of different cultures and the whole town vibrates with such energy and many friendly greetings (Jambo).
The first thing that catches your attention as you get off the bus near the market, is the strange mix of smells, both pleasant and unpleasant. As we made our way through this market, generally used by locals, we were overwhelmed by noise, colour and smell. This changed according to which part of the market you were in. We chose to avoid the meat and fish market.
The Former Slave Market
Zanzibar was one of the main slave trade ports in East Africa and it was a dark period on the island. This was the last open slave market which now has a large Anglican Cathedral on its site to mark the triumph over inhumanity. This market was started by the Portuguese and finally outlawed by the British thanks to David Livingstone’s campaign. There is a statue of chained slaves as a reminder of what happened here. You can also ask a guide to show you around the Cathedral, they are knowledgeable and able to discuss all the symbolism that was included. There are also guides that will lead you down into the last remaining holding cells – it is quite unpleasant in these small holes and can only take a few people. It will make you feel truly grateful for your life of freedom.
Winding Alleys, Tiny Shops, Crazy Bikers, Grand Architecture and Famous Doors
Stone Town is best explored on foot and wandering through its narrow winding alleys can be quite exciting. You will find many interesting shops along the way and there is something new to see around every corner. Just beware, these tiny alleys can be quite hazardous, especially when bikers come speeding down on you. When you hear a horn behind you, make sure to get out of the way, as they do not slow down or stop for any reason, not even tourists! Make use of a guide if you are worried about getting lost, but don’t worry the locals are friendly and willing to help. As you wander, make sure to look up and admire the detailed balconies and beautiful buildings. As you go along you will also notice many of the famous Zanzibari doors with intricate carvings and different meanings to each of the cultures they stem from.
Freddy Mercury and David Livingstone
As Queen fans we were quite eager to visit Mercury House. This is where the lead singer, Freddy Mercury was born and lived for the first decade of his life. Unfortunately there is not much to see, as the house has been turned into a hotel and only guests can enter. Photos at the entrance with a board of band photos was well worth it though. For lunch our guide led us to a little gem of a spot right on the coastline – you can sit at tables with your feet in the sand, enjoying a view of the ocean while you eat. As it turned out, this awesome old building (with the most amazing spiraling wooden staircase) was lived in by David Livingstone during his many stays in Zanzibar. The food was so tasty and the atmosphere relaxed and comfortable – we even made friends with two local cats while enjoying our lunch.
The Old Fort
This massive structure is hard to miss and is a large fortification along the waterfront. It was built in the 18th century as defense against attacks on the island. It was later used as a prison, but is now in use an event location for musical and theatrical performances. Inside we found colorful stalls selling clothing, jewellery and food. The fort is a historical spot that was once a vital part of Zanzibar and definitely worth a visit.
Forodhani Gardens and the House of Wonders
In between the Old Fort and the ocean you will find Forodhani gardens, a local park. During the day it is a green, shady and calm spot to relax in. Every night though the whole garden is transformed into a busy night market. It is a buzz of activity as locals and tourists alike are attracted to delicious smells and the warm glow of oil lamps. Right next the gardens is the House of Wonders with its unmissable white clock tower. Unfortunately it was closed for renovations when we were there, but it was still remarkable from the outside. The huge front doors were built to be big enough for the sultan to pass through on an elephant, as the story goes. It was also the first building in East Africa to have electricity, running water and an elevator.
I found Stone Town to be a vibrant and interesting place, with much more to see and experience than I have mentioned! It would take a day or two to explore the whole town properly and I have many other sites that I plan to visit the next time I’m in Zanzibar.