The Zanzibar archipelago is made up of 16 islands. The two large islands are Unguja (mostly referred as Zanzibar & is the main island) and Pemba. The majority of the Zanzibari people are muslim and speaks swahili, which is the national language. The island has a population of 1,3 million. Famous for it’s mile upon mile of beautiful beaches, great climate and a laid back atmosphere.
The “capital” of the island, also known as Zanzibar City was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage sites in 2000. The town has a fascinating maze of narrow streets and alleyways which leads past numerous mosques, old houses, ornate palaces, shops and bazaars. The architecture incorporates elements of Arab, Indian, European, Persian and African styles. The Arab houses are notable for their large, ornately carved wooden doors and other feature such as enclosed wooden verandas. Many buildings date from the 19th century slave boom. The town is situated along the waterfront, and has numerous cafes and restaurants that overlook the sea and magnificent sunsets. Before the colonization of the mainland, the town was the trade centre between Africa and Asia. Stone Town’s highlights include:
- Former Slave Market: Although Zanzibar is mostly known as a paradise, there are several reminders of it’s dark history in the slave trade which can be found around the island. One in particular is the Former Slave Market. It’s a small area that consists of The Anglican Cathedral, a slave memorial and underground chambers where slaves were confined before being sold. The chambers still contains the chains bolted to the concrete.
- The Old Fort: Next to the Beit al Ajaib is the Ngome Kongwe, known as the Old Fort. Built during 1698-1701. The high walls of the fort are topped by castellated battlements. Today, the fort has been renovated and is open for visitors.
- Darajani Bazaar: The main market in Stone Town.
- Beit el Ajaib: Known as the House of Wonders. One of the most magnificent structures in Unguja. Beit al Ajaib was built in the 18th century. It is the first building in East Africa to have an electric elevator and electricity. Inside the museum is a coverage of the islands culture and history.
- The Palace Museum: A museum which covers the history and lifestyle of the Sultans. Built in the late 1890’s. The palace is a large white building with castellated battlements. Originally called the Sultan’s Palace. It was the official residence of the Sultans until the 1964 revolution. After the Sultan Jamshid was overthrown, it became the People’s Palace. Eventually it was turned into a museum in 1994.
Jozani National Park
One of the last remaining rainforest in East Africa. It is now a protected park with guided walking tours. Only 24 km away from Stone Town. It is located at the center of the main island. The reserve is full of large exotic trees and harbors different species of monkeys, especially the rare & endangered red colobus monkeys whom are indigenous to the island. Jozani consists of a large mangrove swamp & nature coral rag forest. It covers approximately 3% of Unguja.
The island has earned it’s reputation over the centuries as Spice Island. A trip to the spice farm is a fascinating experience. Located in the Kizimbani area. Only 20 minutes away from Stone Town. In the farm, I was escorted by a knowledgeable guide throughout the tour which lasted for 2 hours. It’s like a game. He would pick up leaves & berries where I have to smell and taste them to guess which spice they are. In addition, the guide gave me a detailed description of what each plants is used for. The island is home to many spice plantations. Many of the grown spices include ginger, pepper, menthol, vanilla, cinnamon and cloves.
Also known as Prison Island. A boat trip to Changuu is a must. Formerly intended to be the penal institution in the days of the sultans. The island was never really used as a prison. It was actually the site of a hospital and quarantine facility. Visible just a short distance from Stone Town. It takes half an hour to reach the island by boat. Despite it’s name, the island is extremely beautiful. And the crystal clear water and white sandy beaches are a real delight. Nowadays, Prison Island is a sanctuary for giant tortoises that originated from Aldabra Atoll in Seychelles. Some are thought to be more than 200 years old. It is uncertain how long they will continue to survive.
Where and when to go
Although Unguja seems pretty small. It is actually larger than expected. It can be difficult to decide where to stay and how long one should spend time. It’s best to stay at least 7-10 days in the island. A holiday in Unguja is not complete without visiting Stone Town. Exploring the place for 3 days is recommended before heading to other parts of the island. Zanzibar is not only famous for it’s beautiful beaches, but also offers many activities. Diving & snorkelling at the northern coast, fishing, dining & shopping, dolphin swim in Jambiani, spice tour, Prison Island and many more.
The best time to visit Unguja is between June to February. There is little rainfall and the air is dry & breezy. The average temperature is at 25 C. Rainy season is during March to the end of May.
Road conditions on the island are quite poor and police checkpoints are common. There is no official form of public transport. But the typical transportation is the dala dala. These are shared minibus that are notorious for being overcrowded. It’s the cheapest way to get around the island. Personally, I recommend it only for short distance tours. Taking a dala dala from one place to another takes time. A trip from Stone Town to Nungwi or Jambiani could last between 3-4 hours.
Another option is by taking a taxi which is ridiculously expensive. It is the fastest way to get to other parts of the island. The cost can vary between 30-50 USD. But it’s much cheaper if you are in a group. Otherwise the best option to get around Unguja is by renting a car.