You’ve come to the right place if you’re looking for a list of the best things to do in Zanzibar. Whether you are a group, couple or family, this guide is going to have you covered. From dolphins, monkeys and tortoises, to the best beaches, diving, dhow rides, reef walks, shopping and more.
What we love the most about Zanzibar, is it’s your typical tropical island vacay, but with added extras. Each part of the island offers something a little different. You just need to make sure you are looking at the right place to get what you need from your time there. Below is our list of the top 10 things to do in Zanzibar.
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Top 10 Things to Do
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So if you are ready to get into the fun stuff, then lets get started. There are so many things to see and do in Zanzibar, but I am only going to give you the top 10 and let you find some for yourself. And if you think there should be others added to the list, then pop them in the comments section at the end of this post.
Beaches don’t count… I’m assuming they are a given and I won’t need to explain to you how to find one. Or what to do with one when you’ve found it. The sand is some of the whitest and finest I’ve ever experienced, so there is no difficulty in getting the perfect holiday photos. But below, I will go into more detail on beach related activities that you might want to try.
So, I’m going to start with the obvious. Stone Town is very central and no more than a 90 minute drive from any given point of the island. There is loads to see and do here alone. Check out the home where Freddie Mercury lived for the first few years of his life. If for no other reason than to say, “hey, I’ve been there.”
Explore the maze of streets, lined with souvenir filled shops and admire the beautiful wooden doors at every turn. If you like to collect antiques and eclectic treasures (junk) along your travels, as do I, then check out the Zanzibar Curio on Hurumzi Street. They have it all… and the more flights of stairs you take the more likely you are to find something truly unique! Don’t forget to haggle.
When you’ve had enough of the shopping and you’re feet are completely done in, stop for a coffee at the Zanzibar Coffee House on Tharia Street. They have the best coffee and cakes in town. Head straight to the rooftop and sip your coffee as you overlook the Stone Town rooftops. They also provide cute rooms if you are looking for an accommodation option in Stone Town.
Anglican Cathedral and Slave Trade Exhibit
Zanzibar Town was once the slave trade capital of East Africa. And so there is much to be learned about how slavery caravans made their way through East Africa with this port as the base.
Within the slave trade exhibit are harrowing accounts of this era. Guides will also show you through some of the spaces in which slaves were kept while waiting to be sold at market. The chains on the walls within these dark confined spaces are a surreal reminder of a not so distant past. A visit will take you an hour or two at most and will leave you understanding a little more about the history surrounding slavery.
The Anglican Church was built on top of where the slave market once stood. A stained glass window inside the church serves as a reminder of David Livingston’s opposition towards slave trading.
Old Fort and Open Air Markets
Take a walk around and through the old fort. Here you will find small open air stalls with local artists displaying their work. Walk around the courtyard and amphitheatre before making your way across to the Forodhani Gardens. While here you might decide to sit in one of the nearby restaurants over looking the water for a cool refreshment.
If you’d like to pick up some local fruit and veggies, maybe some fish, spices or grass mats then make your way over to the Darajani Markets. They are an interesting place to walk through and a great place to get some fresh fruit. This is a market for the locals and is a super place to wander through and enjoy Zanzibar customs and culture.
On the western side of the island finding a boat to take you out snorkeling is not a problem. Walk along the beach for five minutes and you’ll get several offers. We love to snorkel and experienced both sides of the island. Off the beach in Nungwi and Kendwa, the coral is probably a little hammered to be honest. If you are a first time snorkeler it is a good introduction, but better spots can be found in Mnemba.
I’d recommend going out for a sunset snorkel. It was rather lovely out on the boat, with fewer people around, as the sun turned the sky a bright yellow and orange.
It isn’t a very kid friendly destination for snorkeling I might add. Especially if they don’t have much experience with it. But they will probably be happy sitting in the boat hanging out with the boatman while you take a look around.
On the eastern side of the island near Bwejuu take a traditional dhow a little further north beyond Dongwe to the Blue Lagoon. There is some lovely snorkeling here straight off the boat. And the traditional dhow ride is an experience in itself.
Mnarani Natural Aquarium Nungwi
Now I’m not a zoo person, as I hate to see animals in cages but I do love a good rescue centre. The Mnarani Aquarium turtle sanctuary is very well organised and aims to protect and rehabilitate turtles that have been injured or come into harms way.
In a natural water lagoon or inlet at the top end of Nungwi Beach, is a small turtle rescue centre. If you visit you’ll hear about how the turtles come to find themselves here and measures taken to protect them. Once a year rehabilitated turtles are returned to the ocean and the cycle again begins.
The lagoon is well worth a visit. You can see that the manager of this centre is very passionate about his role in the protection of the sea turtle.
Side Note: Beware of other turtle rescue centres claiming to protect turtles, who will sell you an opportunity to swim with them. In my book this is a big no go!
Changuu (Prison) Island
Just a 20 minute boat ride from Stone Town is Changuu Island, home to a sanctuary of Giant Tortoises. This is a great half day trip to make, especially if you have children.
This island used to serve as a quarantine island for people arriving to Zanzibar. But also and perhaps more significantly, four giant tortoises gifted from the Seychelles were brought to this island. And they quickly multiplied! Over the years they have been under threat for various reasons. But following efforts to protect the inhabitants of this little island, numbers have rapidly increased.
To get to the island, head to the beaches in Stone Town and you’ll find boats ready to take you to the island. They’ll tend to send someone along to help you out when inside the sanctuary as well for a small tip at the end.
Jozani Forest Reserve and Zanzibar Butterfly Centre
Zanzibar has it’s very own species of monkey – the Zanzibar red colobus. Not far from Zanzibar Town on the way to the southern end of the island you’ll find a native forest. Visiting the Jozani Forest Reserve is a unique experience and one not to miss. The local guide will help you find the monkeys as they are forever on the move. He will also ensure that you respectfully adhere to the rules of the reserve.
These monkeys run wild through the forest and beyond. In fact our guide found them in the trees on the edge of the forest, not far from a small village. They are beautiful in appearance, and it is great to watch as they swing through the trees as a family.
Across the road from the forest and entrance to the monkey visitors centre is a mangrove walkway also worth visiting. This is part of the same tour and you’ll learn all there is to know about the inhabitants living within the mangroves.
Nearby is the Zanzibar Butterfly Centre. This is a nice stop for a short visit, where you’ll meet a very passionate team who will guide you through the community project. After an introduction to the caterpillar and butterfly life cycle, you walk through a large enclosure. Walking through this tropical garden of butterflies is very special, and at the same time supports the community.
Mnemba Island for Diving and Snorkelling
For some of the top snorkelling in Zanzibar, take a boat ride out to Mnemba island near Matemwe beach on the north eastern side of the island. You cannot walk on the island but a trip out is very easily organised. We visited this island twice, once to dive and once for a snorkeling trip.
And if you are really lucky you’ll spot dolphins cruising around the shallows looking for food.
For diving book with One Ocean Dive Centre. They are a professionally run diving centre that can kit you out with everything you need. We went on two dives at two different parts off Mnemba Island. The dive centre is connected to the accommodation we’ve recommended here in Matemwe.
The reefed coast line of the south eastern beaches are extraordinary. You will need some reef shoes for this as it is pretty tough to walk through the sludge, avoiding sea urchins. Doing it without shoes is a bit of a slow trip as you’ll need to navigate around the dangers underfoot.
The kids loved this trip as there was so much for them to see, that is at their level. You’ll need to search, but when you start to really look there are giant starfish, eels, clown fish, urchins, soft corals and more. Time a walk for low tide and off you go… take a walking stick as this will also help you balance when you need it.
Note: Follow the well worn tracks and respect your surroundings. It’s always tempting to touch things when you’re that close, however unless your an expert let’s leave them alone so the next generation can enjoy.
Sunset Drinks at Michamvi
Kae Beach Bar is a great place to visit if you want a few afternoon drinks beside the sea. This lively little beach bar is the PERFECT place to visit and is in quite a remote location. You’ll need to have access to a car or take a taxi to get there. Ignore the strange feeling that you are been driven to the middle of nowhere… the narrow path through the mangroves is the only way in and out.
Spice Garden Tour
If you’re a botanist or lover of all things spice related, take a spice garden tour. Learn about the health benefits of specific spices, as well as how they are grown and harvested for different purposes. The clove for example is great for tooth ache. See now you know, that you can chew on one of these next time your pearly whites start giving you a bit of grief.
Chat to your accommodation hosts for their recommended spice tour provider. There are a few available, and the best one to visit will depend primarily on what part of the island you are staying on.
Swimming with Dolphins
You can see I’ve saved the best for last. Swimming with these beauties generally happens in the southern part of the island. There are several providers that specialise in these trips.
If you are really lucky (like us) you’ll catch them on a snorkeling and/or diving trip out to Mnemba. They like to swim curiously back and forward passed the reef. If you happen to be 18 metres below the surface on a dive at the same time that they cruise past, it can come as a bit of a surprise. Especially if you weren’t expecting to see dolphins (like us).
We saw them while diving and then again the following day when we were snorkeling with our kids. The dolphins appeared very interested and continued to swim around the reef and boats for about 30 minutes before disappearing.
I liked the natural good fortune of this type of encounter. But like I said, if you’d like to take a designated dolphin or whale watching trip, then plan a trip to Kizimkazi in the south. These can be organised as overnight guided tour packages. Talk to your accomodation host and they’ll be able to recommend their preferred tour operator.
To cap off… Zanzibar is the perfect destination for beach and relaxation, but at the same time activity. It’s so easy to find your very own perfect balance.
Many visitors to the island will plan a trip following a safari in Tanzania, and it’s easy to see why. Flights from Arusha are direct – Arusha is the gateway to Mt Kilimanjaro and a safari tour hub.
International direct flights also arrive with carriers such as Fly Dubai, KLM, Kenyan Airways and Qatar Airways. Zanzibar is not only convenient, it’s a beach goers paradise, with an abundance of opportunities. And this list – the top ten things to do in Zanzibar, is only the icing on the cake.
For more information on Zanzibar click here. And if you’ve already been to Zanzibar, don’t forget to comment below with your favourite things to do.
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