STONE TOWN, ZANZIBAR
Updated: May 28, 2020
Stone Town has a lot to offer. The scenery is beautiful, the history is interesting, the people are friendly but I also found it a difficult place to be at peace. It is a tourist town and that comes with it's drawbacks - mainly that there is always someone around the next corner wanting to sell you something. It was never aggressive but always a constant. On top of that, unusually harsh weather and illness snuck into most of my days. Stone Town kind of wore me down in the end. That being said, there was a lot I really did enjoy about it.
When I set out the first morning, I had mainly just intended to run a few errands and take a good walk around Stone Town to get a lay of the land. Maybe get a bit to eat but nothing too exciting. Early into my walk, I met an older man named Eddie. He was polite and helpful as I was a little bit at a loss for where to find a place to fix my phone. Also having been quite sick for the past couple days and now trying, and failing, to adjust to the costal heat, I was feeling in desperate need of some water. He quickly sorted me out on both fronts. I didn't notice his tour guide lanyard. While at first it left me feeling a little bit like a rookie traveller for being too preoccupied to notice, I’m glad I met him. I had planned to do a walking tour, just not so quickly but we had an easy rapport from the start. He quickly understood my outlook of travelling and didn’t push to lead me towards all the vendors but focused on the interesting points of the city, honest conversations about our lives and no-bullshit back and forth’s that earned a good bit of respect between us.
The rest of the day and week took me through almost every bit of Stone Town’s labyrinth of old streets, and here are my favourite stops.
SLAVERY MUSEUM AND MEMORIAL
Winding through the maze of Stone Town’s streets, we arrived at the site of the original slave trade auctions that is now a museum, memorial and cathedral. The first part of the tour is the original holding cells for the people set for auction. The two rooms are below ground and oppressive even with the lights on and no one else in the room. The holding room for the men held 50 and the room for the women and children kept 75. In about an 8ft x 8ft room, at six feet tall, I could barely stand straight in the middle of the room, which also happened to be the drainage ditch. The rest of the room is half the height, making standing or moving impossible with that many people in the cramped space. At the time of the auctions, the area was also a lagoon so water would wash through the two tiny slit windows, managing to make the situation just that much worse.
The people taken to the auctions came from the mainland all throughout East Africa, abducted on raids by other tribes, by slave traders or even sold by someone they knew. If they survived the journey to Zanzibar Island, they were sold and destined for the Middle East, mainly Oman, or to work the plantations of Zanzibar and other islands in the Indian Ocean. The East African slave trade was the last officially sanctioned trade, continuing on longer than the West African trade routes. The auction was officially abolished in 1873 but continued underground until the early 1900s. The exhibition at the front of the building does an excellent job of detailing the history of the trade, providing first had accounts from those who witnessed and survived as well as highlighting the fact that today, more people are enslaved across the world than during the time of the legal slave trades.
In the courtyard, a memorial to those taken and traded was built in 1987-88. Five stone figures stand in a rectangular pit, chained together with the original chains used in the auctions.
Just behind the memorial, a cathedral was built, with the nave of the church occupying the original space where the slaves were brought to be whipped and viewed. If a man cried out at the whipping, he would sell or be traded for less. The marble floor has a lightly coloured circle to signify the spot and is surrounded by red marble to represent the blood shed there. The Cathedral, built in 1879, wasn't built to cover up its past but to represent new life and bring hope in a place that previously had none.
The market consists of a few different sections, the exterior selling grains, fruits and various other house wear type items, the fish market, the meat market and the interior market for spices and more fruits and vegetables. This place is definitely worth a walk through though it is an absolute assault on the senses. Everything from the morning catch is on display here from fresh fish, to octopus and even sea snake if you are feeling adventurous. The crowd is thick, the auction at the end is vivacious and the scent doesn’t let you forget where you are even for a second. The roof of my guest house overlooks the beach where the down boats come in to unload the catch for the day so it was interesting to see where the fish I watched being unloaded over breakfast, ended up not too long after. The interior spice market is full of colours and more pleasant smells and is a good place to pick up lots and lots of fresh Zanzabari spices.
WANDERING THE STREETS OF STONE TOWN
The streets are a winding maze so it is easy to get lost quickly but it is a wonderful place to be lost. Every street has a new, unique view, beautifully decaying old architecture and you can spend a whole day just photographing all of the intricately carved doors Stone Town is known for.
This tour was a funny little taste of home from the beginning when the first couple I met in the group happened to be from Kitchener-Waterloo, my Canadian home town. The tour took us north, outside of Stone Town to the plantations where our guide took us on a walk through the property and offered up each different spice in its fresh state, asking us to smell and taste each one and guess what it was. We actually did pretty well at this but if no one guessed correctly, the guide told us what it was and then gave a full rundown of how it is used in cooking as well as its medicinal properties. Fresh nutmeg is probably one of the most beautiful things nature has to offer - think Christmas ornament crossed with alien egg. After the plantation, we were served lunch in a local home, cooked with all of the spices we had just learned about. It was the best meal I had on the island without question and I spent the rest of the trip trying to find something even remotely as good.
The tour also included afternoon at the beach visit and a stop at an underground cave system used to hide and smuggle people illegally after the slave trade was officially abolished.
SAFARI BLUE TOUR
This tour was really well organized and a fantastic way to spend the day. It was also a good break from Stone Town. We drove down to Fumba, south of town and got onto a traditional Dhow sail boat that took us to a small sandbar in Menai Bay. We spent the morning swimming, snorkelling and hanging out on the beach with some fresh fruit snacks.
The afternoon took us to Kwale Island for some more beach time, a freshly grilled seafood lunch which marked my first attempt and figuring out how to eat a full lobster and a little tree climbing. The island is home to one of the biggest Baobab trees around. The last stop on the tour is another spot on the island, nicknamed ‘The Blue Lagoon’. Usually, this is another swimming spot but the weather had turned nasty again which is too bad because this area would have been stunning on a sunny day.
I have mixed feelings about this one. The giant tortoise habitat on the island is genuinely quite enjoyable. The animals themselves are incredible to see up close, very friendly and happy to accept neck rubs and the snacks the operators provide you to feed them. Beyond that, I didn’t find a lot of value in it. My particular tour was badly organized (not all of them are), the booking said snorkelling equipment was included, the ‘guide’ claimed it wasn’t so if you do this tour make sure that is very clear from the beginning. The beach and snorkelling are fine but there a much better spots for both on the island. The ruins on the island and now converted into a restaurant and not much to see. If you want to see the tortoises, negotiate a good price just to go over and see them, keeping in mind there is an additional entrance fee to the island of $4 USD that as far as I can tell is never included in the tour price. Go for the tortoise habitat, save the beach and snorkeling for somewhere else.
PRINCESS SALME MUSEUM
The small but interesting museum is dedicated to Princess Salme, the Sultan’s daughter who ran away on New Year's Eve to marry a German merchant. She secretly taught herself to write and her writings are the only known account of a female perspective of the royal court and the life of an Arabian woman in 1800’s Zanzibar.
THE PALACE MUSEUM
I walked by the museum a few times before actually deciding to go in. The museum is small but has a great collection of 19th century furniture and excellent view of the harbour.
FORODHANI GARDENS / THE NIGHT MARKET
The night market is an inexpensive way to get a pretty good dinner. There are lots of vendors selling everything from bbq and salad to sea food, coffee and tea, Zanzibar pizza, desserts, fresh coconut juice and a whole assortment of other foods. I made a point of trying as many Zanzibar pizzas as possible. There is one guy who sells his for slightly more than everyone else at 5,000 TZS vs 4,000 TZS - a difference is about $0.50. I asked him if he knew he was the most expensive. He looked at me, shrugged with a little smirk and said ‘Yeah, mine are the best.’ He was right. Also, if you leave without getting a cane sugar juice, you might as well not have gone at all. Skip the coconut juice, pop, etc and GET THE CANE JUICE.
THE OLD FORT
The old fort is located on the waterfront just up the street from the Sultan Palace Museum and House of Wonders. It’s really just remnants of a wall and turrets built by the Portuguese so fine for a casual stroll through but mainly just filled with more souvenir vendors. It is worth noting that there is a tourism office there facing the park where you will most likely be able to negotiate a better deal on tours than you would in a hotel. In the summer it also plays host to the Zanzibar Music Festival and is where the stone amphitheater is located that shows up often is photos of Stone Town.
BEIT AL AJAIB / THE HOUSE OF WONDERS
The main residence of the Sultan, the building now holds a museum but it has been closed in recent years for repair due to a collapse of part of the back of the building. It is the most distinguishable building in the Stone Town skyline from the sea and worth a stroll around to check out the architecture
HAMAMNI PERSIAN BATHS
Built for the Sultan and the city’s elite, the bath is a beautiful all white building with lovely arches and tile work. For 5000 TZS / $3 CAN, I got a guided tour of the building and was able to climb up to the roof for a good view of the city.
DHOW COUNTRIES MUSIC ACADEMY
The music academy was a delightful surprise. The school focuses on bringing music education to children (and interested adults) of Zanzibar but also holds concerts on Thursday and Sunday nights. Thursdays are the more traditional Taarab style music and Sunday plays host to newer fusion performances. For the 10,000 TZS / $6 ticket price, its a great way to spend an evening.
This was a fluke find but a really good one. The cinema is a small one, seating about 50, and hosts weekly movie nights with a small social hour before the film and a brief introduction/lecture on the movie. The movies aren’t brand new but well selected and a great way to spend a rainy Wednesday night. I went twice.