Stone Town, Rich Ancient Cultural City, Zanzibar Island Destinations Featured

Zanzibar Stone Town Traditional Door 

 Slavery and the spice trade ensured Zanzibar’s early wealth and nowhere are this more in evidence than in Stone Town a fine example of the Swahili coastal trading towns of East Africa and the capital of Zanzibar. The narrow, winding streets are thronging with the descendants of Arab and Swahili traders and it does feel a totally different from the rest of Tanzania, with its own unique cultures, traditions and architecture.

Stone Town, Zanzibar Island is now a recognized and named UNESCO World heritage site which has enabled some of the beautiful Stonetown houses to get much needed renovation.

The name Zanzibar is derived from a combination of two Arabic words, 'Zenj', meaning black, and 'bar', being the Arabic word for land, resulting in the ancient title 'Land of the Blacks'.  As Zanzibar absorbed peoples from as far as the Orient and Iberia, Assyria and India.  Arab, Indian, Persian and European influences blend with local African tradition.

Historic buildings with elaborately carved wooden doors shaded by balconies, loggias and verandas line the narrow alleys of Stone Town. Many parts of the old city can only be reached on foot as the streets are very narrow.

If you enjoy history and architecture, we recommend a night or two in Stone Town Zanzibar staying in one of the atmospheric Stone Town hotels in the old town centre so that you can enjoy its unique ambience. Take an afternoon walking tour to learn more about its history.

Places of interest to visit while in Stone Town, Zanzibar Island

The House of Wonders

The House of Wonders (or "Palace of Wonders", also known as "Beit-al-Ajaib"), in Mizingani Road on the seafront, is probably the most well-known landmarks of Stone Town. It was built in 1883 and restored after the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896. Formerly the Sultan's residence, it became the seat of the Afro-Shirazi Party after the revolution. It was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity as well as the first building in East Africa to have a lift. Since 2000, its interior has been dedicated to a museum on Swahili and Zanzibar culture.

The Old Fort

The Old Fort ("Ngome Kongwe" in Swahili), adjacent to the House of Wonders, is a heavy stone fortress that was built in the 17th century by the Omanis. It has a roughly square shape; the internal courtyard is now a cultural centre with shops, workshops, and a small arena where live dance and music shows are held daily.

The Old Dispensary

The Old Dispensary (or "Ithnashiri Dispensary") was built from 1887 to 1894 to serve as a charity hospital for the poor but was later used as a dispensary. It is one of the most finely decorated buildings of Stone Town, with large carved wooden balconies, stained-glass windows, and neo-classical stucco adornments. After falling into decay in the 1970s and 1980s, the building was accurately restored.

The Palace Museum

The Palace Museum (also known as the "Sultan's Palace", "Beit el-Sahel" in Arab) is another former sultan's palace, on the seafront, to the north of the House of Wonders. It was built in late 19th century and now hosts a museum about the daily life of the Zanzibari royal family, including items that belonged to Sayyida Salme, a former Zanzibar princess who fled to relocate in Europe with her husband.

The Forodhani Gardens

The Forodhani Gardens are a small park located in the main sea-walk of Stone Town, right in front of the Old Fort and the House of Wonders. They have been recently restored. Every evening after sunset the gardens host a popular, tourist-oriented market selling grilled seafood and other Zanzibari recipes.

The Anglican cathedral of Christ Church

The Anglican cathedral of Christ Church, in Mkunazini Road, was built at the end of the 19th century for Edward Steere, third bishop of Zanzibar, in a large area in centre Stone Town that previously hosted the biggest slave market of Zanzibar; the place was deliberately chosen to celebrate the end of slavery, and the altar was in the exact spot where the main whipping post of the market used to be. A monument to all the slaves who were once bought and sold at the market.

The Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph

The Roman Catholic cathedral of St. Joseph was built by French missionaries between 1893 and 1897. Its facade, with two high spires, is one of the most well-known landmarks of Stone Town. A tall palm tree that used to be right in front of the church (and that appears in many pictures of the cathedral) is no longer there.

The Hamamni Persian Baths

The Hamamni Persian Baths are a complex of public baths built at the end of the 19th century by Shirazi architects for Sultan Barghash bin Said. These baths were functional until 1920.

David Livingstone's House

David Livingstone's House is a small palace that was originally built for Sultan Majid bin Said but later used by European missionaries. Livingstone lived in the house while preparing his last expedition to the interior of Tanganyika.

Tippu Tip's House

Tippu Tip's House is another large, historical house of Stone Town. It was the house of the infamous Zanzibari slave trader Tippu Tip.

The High Court of Justice

The High Court of Justice in Kaunda Road, close to Victoria Gardens, is a building that combines Islamic and Portuguese elements, designed by British architect J. H. Sinclair.

The Aga Khan Mosque

The Aga Khan Mosque is a large mosque with an architecture that combines Islamic and gothic elements.

The Malindi Mosque

The Malindi Mosque is one of the most ancient mosques in Zanzibar. It was built by Sunni Muslims and it has some unusual architectural features, including a cone-shaped minaret (one of just three minarets of this shape in East Africa) and a square platform.

Kilele Squire

Kilele Squire was once the site of a slave market. The square was presumably named during the time of the slave trade and it must have been a source of considerable noise as its name suggests: 'kilele' is the Swahili word for noise. Around the square are many important buildings: the old American Consulate, the Ex-telecoms building (now the Zanzibar Serena Inn) and the Mambo Msiige building - the second British Consulate, now a Ministry building.

The Markets

In the centre of Creek Road are the Fruit, Fish and Meat Markets, also worth a visit. You can see the amazing variety of exotic fruits and vegetables available in the islands. The market buildings were erected during the British Protectorate, in the early part of this century.

The Shakti Temple

The Shakti Temple had a sizable congregation before the revolution, but after a large number of Hindus departed from Zanzibar in 1964 and this temple is now rarely full. It is almost always open and welcomes visitors, and will provide a tour but it is almost impossible to find without a guide. Its chimes and bells, rung every day around sunrise and just before sunset, can be heard from the rooftop restaurant of Emerson's & Green, just across the street.

Islands near and around Zanzibar Stonetown

A few kilometers from Zanzibar Town are several small islands, some of which are good destinations for a relaxing day's outing. Boat trips to the islands can be arranged at the time of booking or while in Zanzibar Island.

Changuu Island

This island is also called Prison Island, and was originally owned by a wealthy Arab who used it as a detention centre for disobedient slaves. After the abolition of slavery, in 1873, the island was bought by general Lloyd Mathews, commander of the sultan's army, who built a house here. In 1893 a prison was built on the island, but it was used instead as a quarantine station for the whole east African region. In the 1920s passengers arriving from India had to spend between one and two weeks on Changuu before proceeding to Zanzibar Town. On some old maps, Changuu is called Kibandiko Island, but this name now seems to be forgotten.

Today, the island is owned by the government and non-Tanzanian visitors must pay an entry fee. You can still see the quarantine station, and the house built by General Mathews which is now used as a restaurant. A path leads right round the island (about an hour's easy stroll); also passing some old pits where coral has been dug out to make building stone. Some of these pits fill with water at high tide, and in colonial days they were kept clean and used as swimming pools.

The island's other highlight is the large number of giant tortoises (Geochelone gigantea). Four tortoises were brought from the island of Aldabra in the Seychelles in the 18th century, as a gift from the Seychelles governor to his opposite number in Zanzibar. They started to breed, and by 1955 there were 200, but after independence the numbers began to drop, partly because people started to steal them to sell abroad, either as exotic pets, or as food for 'exotic restaurants'. The numbers dropped to 100 in 1988, then 50 in 1990, until by late 1996 there were only seven left. In the same year a group of 80 hatchlings were moved to Zanzibar for protection – and 40 of them disappeared. Today the tortoises are protected in a large sanctuary compound provided by the Zanzibar government with help from the World Society for the Protection of Animals. In 2000 there were 17 adults, 50 juveniles and 90 hatchlings, all individually identified and protected by microchips injected under the skin. Since then, many more have been brought in, mostly juveniles. You can go into the sanctuary to see the tortoises close up. You can feed them (they delight in fresh mango peel), but please obey the signs and do not lift or sit on the tortoises.

Changuu Island has a small beach, and you can go snorkeling on the nearby reef.

Chapwani Island

This is also called Grave Island as a small section of it has been used as a Christian cemetery since 1879. Most of the graves belong to British sailors who were killed fighting against Arab slave ships, including Captain Brownrigg; others date from the First World War when the British ship Pegasus was bombarded and sunk by the German ship Königsberg in Zanzibar town harbor. There is a small beach on the island, and a lovely patch of indigenous forest, with a population of small duikers, some massive coconut crabs and a colony of fruit bats, which every evening do a few circuits of the island then zoom off to Zanzibar Town in a dark cloud. There are about 100 species of bird.

Snake Island

This is the popular name for the very small island between Changuu and Chapwani islands. Boats do not usually land here as there is no beach.

Bawe Island

About 6km directly west of Zanzibar town, this uninhabited island is not as frequently visited as Changuu, although the snorkeling is reported to be of good quality. The same people who run the boats to Changuu will also take you to Bawe, either as part of the same trip, or as a separate out-and-back voyage.

In the 1870s telegraph cables were brought ashore here, linking Zanzibar with the Seychelles, Aden and South Africa. Another line was run from Bawe Island to the External Telecommunications building in the Shangani area of Zanzibar Town. The old 'Ex-telecoms' building has now been converted into the Serena Inn.

Why visit Stone Town, Zanzibar Island.

  • To visit The Stone Town of Zanzibar that is an outstanding material manifestation of cultural fusion and harmonization.
  • For many centuries there was intense seaborne trading activity between Asia and Africa, and this is illustrated in an exceptional manner by the architecture and urban structure of the Stone Town.
  • Visit Zanzibar that has great symbolic importance in the suppression of slavery, since it was one of the main slave-trading ports in East Africa and also the base from which its opponents such as David Livingstone conducted their campaign.
  • See a house where Dr. David Livingstone and other missionaries lived before embarking on expeditions deep into the interior of Tanganyika.
  • Stay at one of the idyllic stone town hotels to enjoy Zanzibar's Stonetown unique ambiance.
  • Visit a town named for the coral stone buildings found there, that were built there largely during the 19th century, on the site of a very old fishing village stone town Zanzibar.
  • As a stopping and resting place at the beginning or end of your safari holiday to Africa or within the Island of Zanzibar and surrounding island archipelagos.
  • Just to relax and to get away from it all after an African Safari Expedition or as a weekend gateway from Africa, Europe, The Middle East and Parts of Asia.
  • To take park in the variety of fun filled activities and excursions within the Zanzibar Island and on the Zanzibar Island Archipelago.
  • Visit The Stone Town of Zanzibar a fine example of the Swahili coastal trading towns of East Africa.

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