People usually arrive on Zanzibar to relax for a few days after a safari on the Tanzanian mainland. Its near perfect beaches and great food are well regarded, but why not Stone Town? Zanzibar's bustling, historical capital, rarely gets the attention it deserves. Its residents lament that tourists descend, do a quick spice tour, and leave.
Taking the time to get to know this unique city, and its inhabitants could be the best time you’ll spend on Zanzibar.
There are no hostels in Stone Town, and the hotels are quite formal, so the best way to meet people is in a Homestay. You’ll get a warm welcome into a real home with an invitation to treat it as your own. A private bedroom and use of the kitchen and bathroom at your leisure. And, most importantly, a welcoming place to relax in to escape the mid-afternoon heat.
I stayed in Nayssa’s place, a comfortable old house in a quiet part of town. I had a large room and a private balcony filled with plants and art. While mere minutes from all the action, it was so peaceful there. Pottering barefoot around her welcoming, tastefully decorated place, I felt right at home.
Anywhere you go, there’s nothing like having a local show you their version of their hometown. You get to avoid the tourist traps (with prices to match) and get a real feel for the place. Local guidance through the maze that is Stone Town will stop you getting hopelessly lost. Plus, you’ll find so much that you’d miss out on staying in a hotel.
Also, a hotel won’t send you lovely emails during the workday, to make sure that you’re still having a lovely time. Thanks, Nayssa!
Meandering through its tangle of squares and streets is my favourite way to spend time in Stone Town. Think the medina in Marrakech, but at a far more relaxed pace. The crumbling architecture is stunning. You'll spend a lot of time stopping to admire old buildings and doorways. When you do, it’s likely a head will pop out, strike up a conversation, and tell you all about its history.
Heading to Jaws Corner to watch a match is a must, even if you're not a football fan. A small square, much like any other in the city, except this one has a flat screen TV set up in the corner. Locals congregate each match night, and any outsider is welcome to grab a seat on a bench amongst them. Football is, of course, the main topic of conversation, but you never know what might come up. Jaws Corner is like the outdoor, Zanzibari version of your local pub, minus the alcohol.
You have to try very hard to have a bad meal on Zanzibar, and Stone Town is full of delicious places to grab dinner. For lunch, follow the locals to the cheapest, and tastiest place in the city. Ask directions, or keep a keen eye out for the striped awning of local café Lukmaan. Inside, you’ll find lots of hungry locals mixed with a smattering of clued in tourists.
On offer, you'll find a selection of rice, vegetable and meat curries, fresh naan, and houmous. They also have a juice and coffee bar. A huge plateful of food will cost you less than the price of one cocktail in a tourist bar by the waterfront.
You’ll be assured that ‘looking is free’ and invited inside every time you pass a souvenir shop in Stone Town. Most are full of the standard fridge magnet and t-shirt stock. Others are a little more puzzling. But, who wouldn't want to own a shocking pink nightie emblazoned with ‘I love My Husband’?
If you look a little harder, you can also find beautiful wooden handicrafts. The board for 'Bau', the traditional Zanzibari game, folds into an ornate wooden box. Handmade masks, statues, and paintings are plentiful. Peek down a side street, and you might see artists painting, surrounded by canvases drying in the sun.
Hit the Masai shops to pick up handmade beaded jewellery, and do take the time to talk with them. They still live a very traditional lifestyle on the mainland and it's fascinating.
For something unique, try the Al-Tamimi Curio Shop beside Jaws Corner. If you have space in your home for an ex-navy diving bell or an antique carved wooden chest, you're in luck.
Magpies will salivate over the glass cases crammed with jewellery. Vintage rings and necklaces inlaid with gemstones and turquoise. Stacks of wooden and enamelled bangles. Silver of every shade and age you can imagine. I regret not picking up one of the engraved maritime compasses, I figured I didn’t need it, but now I’m not so sure.
Haggling is an important part of the culture here, so have fun, but be fair.
If you’re a lover of music and a good music festival, plan your trip to Zanzibar around Sauti Za Busara. This pan-African celebration of music and culture takes over Stone Town each February.
Four nights of music in The Old Fort, with everything from Hip Hop, Reggae and Blues, to Jazz, African Fusion and more. Attendees range in age and come from all over Africa and beyond. It's one of the most relaxed festivals I've attended, though I still danced all night every night. The music doesn't start until late afternoon, so days are free to enjoy the city, or recover from the previous nights after party. If you can't get a ticket, look out for the live music, parades and after parties all over the city for the weekend.
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