Zanzibar is truly an island like no other. Located in the Indian Ocean, approximately 35km from Tanzania’s capital Dar Es Salaam, this oasis is a mix of both beauty, culture and rich history. As early as the 16th century both the Portuguese and Omani People began using Zanzibar as a trading port and started establishing colonies of merchants and landowners. After much turmoil in Oman, Sultan Said Ibn Sultan decided to relocate his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1832. Several Sultan’s continuously ruled until 1964 when then, Tanganyika and Zanzibar united to become the Republic of Tanzania (what we see today).
I briefly visited Zanzibar about 10 years ago and I knew the moment I left that one day I’d return. This year I was able to spend more time exploring, and without a doubt I can say that Zanzibar has some of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. In this guide I have curated a list of the places I was able to visit and some must-do activities and restaurants.
Paje is a village on the southeast coast of Zanzibar and most well-known to tourists for its kite surfing. Like all of Zanzibar, this 5km stretch of beach has impeccably white sand that contrasts with the brightest of turquoise waters. It is absolutely stunning and a beautiful place to go, however the tides change so much throughout the day that at some points you may have to walk for at least 100m to get to the ocean.
Places to stay:
There are plenty of accommodations in Paje for the budget traveler at various price points. The lovely place that we stayed at is called Summer Dream Lodge. Just a short walk to the beach (approximately 70 meters) Summer Dream Lodge is a little oasis within itself. It consists of a cluster of little beach huts called bandas that surround a restaurant/bar and other day beds to lounge on throughout the day. The rooms themselves are clean and comfortable and vary in sizes and prices. (Sizes range from comfort rooms to 8 room dorms). I happened to stay in a double room with a private bathroom for only $40/night. The only downside to Summer Dream Lodge is that is a little bit further down the beach from other hotels and guest houses. It is a short walk but in the heat of the day that short walk seems a bit further than it really is.
Things to do:
No matter if you are a very beginner or a seasoned vet, Buccaneer Diving is the company to go with. They are East Africa’s only PADI Career Development Centre and have a Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence. They offer excursions twice a day on the outer coral reefs where you can dive or snorkel Jambiani lagoon.
I am not PADI certified but have done scuba once before. To be honest I knew I wanted to try it again, but over the years I have become more and more fearful. Our dive master was so calming and helped me feel comfortable in the pool before we set out for the two ocean dives. He held my hand when we were under and by the second dive it felt so much more natural. I was able to see so many beautiful creatures like seahorses, stingrays, clownfish and so much more. If anyone is contemplating diving for the first time I highly recommend it, as it truly is one of the most spectacular things I have done in my life.
No matter where you are in Zanzibar you will see postings for doing a Dolphin Tour or Dolphin Safari. Just off the shore of the fishing village called Kizimkazi is Menai Bay Conservation Area. Bottlenose dolphins flock to this area every day, which is how the dolphin tours began. The idea is that your boat will take you out to where the dolphins are and you can get in the water and literally swim with them. In theory this sounds amazing and about 10 years ago I did this activity and was absolutely awestruck by it all. There were very few boats at the time so when you jumped in the water you felt like you weren’t disturbing the dolphins in any way. I did this activity again this year because it was such a life altering experience, although this time however the experience was definitely not the same. In 10 years tourism has grown and with that the number of boats has multiplied. A pod of dolphins would surface and there would be easily 25 boats all jostling and competing for the best spots. By the time you jumped in you were surrounded by boats and the quick dolphins were so far below the surface that it would be hard to even see them. I felt badly for the dolphins because there were just so many boats around. It wasn’t a peaceful experience and it’s not something I would highly recommend.
Jozani Forest is the only National Park in Zanzibar. It is fairly small at only approximately 50 square kilometers, but is most well-known for its Red Colobus Monkeys. It is easy to get to the forest on the way to Paje, and although this is something that I did not do myself I spoke to many others that went and enjoyed themselves. One thing I was told was that getting a local guide at the entrance is not worth the money. It is easy enough to walk through the park on your own.
Where to eat:
Blue Doors Restaurant – Ndame Beach Lodge
We stumbled upon the best little beach bar restaurant while in Paje called Blue Doors Restaurant. With front row seats to the spectacular sea we lazed the day away on comfortable beach sofas while sipping ice cold beverages. It was the perfect oasis to escape the heat while taking in Paje’s picture perfect scenery. The food was delicious as well, and in the evenings the menu opened for a larger selection.
Delight was another amazing little restaurant that I would highly recommend. The atmosphere was perfect – with its cute beachy decor as well the staff were warm and friendly. There is seating both on the main level and upstairs that gives you a bird’s eye view of the beach. I highly recommend the wood-fired pizza! (…maybe not right before scuba diving though)
Nungwi is a fishing village on the Northern tip of Zanzibar. Known for its picture perfect sunsets and expansive coral white beaches, this hot spot is an ideal place for some R&R. There are a range of hotel options in Nungwi – from the 5 Star Resorts, to the backpacker hostels. What I enjoyed most about Nungwi was that the tides weren’t as drastic like they are on most other parts of the island, which made swimming a lot easier.
Where to stay:
We stayed at the Baraka Beach Bungalows and although checking in was a little tricky due to the lack of organization of the staff, the facility itself was great for a budget traveler. The location was perfect and was literally a stone’s throw from so many different restaurants and activities.
Things to do:
Mnarani Marine Turtle Conservation Pond
Just a short walk down the beach is the Mnarani Turtle Conservation. This community based NGO was established in 1993 in an effort to conserve the sea turtle population native to Zanzibar. Over the last 15 years this Turtle Conservation has educated and empowered local villagers to be an integral part of helping the various sea turtle species grow and thrive. Come support the facility by seeing these amazing creatures up close. There are volunteer opportunities as well for travelers to live and stay on site and help in turtle conservation.
I was lucky enough to be in Nungwi during the Annual Turtle Release. Once a year (usually some time in February) the Conservation hosts a major release event. Dignitaries, tv crews and live entertainment come together to celebrate the release of hundreds of healthy turtles back into the wild.
As I already just dove in Paje I didn’t try out this company, but from what I could see this Diving Company looked like a well-oiled machine and one that seemed very reputable. It also has a 5 Star rating and is recommended by Trip Advisor.
Where to eat:
If you are looking for fresh seafood and a romantic dinner under the stars, look no further than the Baraka Restaurant. With a plentiful array of fresh seafood to choose from you can have your meal sitting at a table right on the beach. Make sure to choose a table a little further back if you don’t’ want to get wet feet when the tide comes up the beach.
Mama Mia is an amazing restaurant that we frequented the entire time we were in Nungwi. Known for its delicious Italian cuisine they serve wood-fired pizza and amazing homemade gelato ice cream! What makes this place so special is how the restaurant juts into the sea so you have the most spectacular of views. There are also many nights where you can have a meal while listening to live music. Mama Mia is a MUST!
If you are looking for lunch or a light meal Cholo’s Beach Bar is a great place! They serve a wide variety of fresh food and the rustic beach décor makes it a great place to kick back.
The most well-known and culturally rich place in all of Zanzibar is hands-down Stone Town! Stone Town is a city of such historical and artistic importance in East Africa and for this reason it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Because of its location, the city itself reflects the Swahili culture; mixing Islamic, Persian, Indian and European elements. There truly is so much to see in Stone Town, and merely walking around its labyrinth of narrow streets is an activity in itself because there are so many shops and cafes all with exquisite and unique architecture.
Where to stay:
We stayed in the cutest hotel called Abuso Inn. It is a family run business with a warm and welcoming atmosphere. There are approximately 20 rooms for single, double, triple or family occupancy, and all for a reasonable price. What makes Abuso Inn even greater is its location – just 300m from the Old Fort of Zanzibar. It is walking distance to all the major sites, shops and restaurants. I absolutely highly recommend this gem of a hotel.
What to do:
There really is so much to do right in the heart of Stone Town, but truthfully my favorite was just wandering around the streets. There are so many photo opportunities that I happened to stumble upon. From the Hamamni Baths to Freddie Mercury’s childhood home…the history is deep which makes every discovery so exciting.
Where to eat:
The Puzzle Coffee Shop
The Puzzle Coffee Shop is definitely the go-to place for not just coffee but all things café-like. I had the best smoothies and the staff were incredible. Definitely a must!
Masa Japanese Restaurant
Are you craving Japanese food? Look no further than Masa. With its open views of the streets below you can enjoy fresh seafood and delicious Japanese cuisine.
Jafferji House Restaurant
If you are looking for the perfect place to have dinner on the roof top high above Stone Town Jafferji House Restaurant is the place to go. Built in 1912 Jafferji House and Spa is recognized as a boutique hotel. Climb up the stairs to the rooftop and you can enjoy a delicious ‘Swahili Style’ cuisine, but more importantly with the most picturesque views.
Zafarani is another restaurant that I’d highly recommend for the foodie traveler. The menu has been carefully curated to mix Zanzibar’s finest spices with the best local dishes. With its fresh décor and unique dishes, it is easy to feel relaxed in this cute little restaurant in the middle of town.
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2 responses to “Quick Guide to Zanzibar ~ The Urban Gypsy’s List of Must-do’s”
Thanks for sharing this Heather … it’s a wonderful recap … and recommendation! Cheers, Emly
Thanks so much Emly! It’s always great to get first hand recommendations so I hope it helps!