Stone Town, also known as Mji Mkongwe is the old part of Zanzibar City, the main city of Zanzibar, in Tanzania. (The newer portion of the city is known as Ng'ambo, Swahili for 'the other side'). Stone Town is located on the western coast of Ungula, the main island of the Zanzibar Archipelago. Former capital of the Zanzibar Sultanate, and flourishing centre of the spice trade as well as the slave trade in the 19th century, it retained its importance as the main city of Zanzibar during the period of the British protectorate. When Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined each other to form the United Republic of Tanzania, Zanzibar kept a semi-autonomous status, with Stone Town as its local government seat.
Due to its heritage, Stone Town is also a major visitor attraction in Tanzania, and a large part of its economy depends on tourism-related activities.
Things to Do in Stone Town
Visit the Old Fort:
This large fortification on the waterfront was built by the Omani Arabs in the early eighteenth century as a defence against the Portuguese. By the nineteenth century, it was a prison where criminals were executed. Today, its functions are more civil. Inside, you’ll find shops, a restaurant, cultural centre, and an open-air theatre that serves as the location for musical performances and the Zanzibar International Film Festival.
Visit the Palace Museum:
This huge white palace was also erected in 1883, right next to the House of Wonders, but in Omani style. For 5,000 TSh, you can take a peek into the extravagant, domestic life of the sultanate. The artifacts, photos and opulent furniture are interesting, but the room devoted to Princess Salme, daughter of Seyyid Said who fled Zanzibar after falling in love with and marrying a German merchant, is especially intriguing.
Experience a sunset dhow cruise:
Dhows, traditional wooden sailing vessels, were used by Arab traders over centuries as they travelled across the Indian Ocean to the Swahili Coast in East Africa. They can be small, one-man fishing boats with makeshift sails, or larger, two-level boats for foreigners. It’s a tourist trap, sure, but I can’t think of a better way to take in the Zanzibari sunset than on one of these timeless boats under a white sail.
Watch the sun set from Africa House Hotel:
On land, most hotels in Stone Town offer a rooftop terrace for sunset viewing, but Africa House Hotel was recommended to me by several locals for its ideal, seafront location and perfect view of sailing dhow boats below. It’s a splendid outdoor space if you don’t mind dance music and North American cocktail prices.
Join a spice tour:
The famous spice plantations are as much of a tourist trap as the dhow cruises, but they’re fascinating and educational for foodies, chefs and anyone who loves to cook.
Influenced by the Arabs, Indians and Persians, the Zanzibar archipelago is called the “Spice Islands” for a reason. Spice plantations can be found everywhere. Have you ever wondered what some of your favourite spices look like in their natural form or how they’re harvested? You’ll find out on one of these tours. Cloves are king in Zanzibar, followed by cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper. Most surprising is the nutmeg, which looks like a Christmas tree ornament encased in a shell.
Take a half-day trip to Prison (Changuu) Island:
If you can get past the odd combination of pleasure and shades of despair, this popular trip could make for an interesting morning. After a 30-minute boat ride, you’ll be led through a park where you can get up close to a colony of rare Aldabra giant tortoises (thought to have been brought to Zanzibar from the Seychelles), the grounds of what used to be a place of punishment for unruly slaves and quarantine for yellow fever patients, and the surrounding reefs for a snorkelling adventure.
Snorkel at Chumbe Island:
This is the top snorkelling destination in Zanzibar and, some would argue, all of East Africa. The reef sanctuary at Chumbe Island is a famous private nature reserve with 200 species of both coral and fish, a giant underwater garden so pristine and well-protected that diving is not allowed and a permit is required to snorkel. Researchers from every corner of the world travel to the island to study the delicate ecosystem. The diversity, colours and size of the tropical fish are spectacular.
Cultural Arts Centre Zanzibar:
Organised by the local artists, with an emphasis on quality and distinctiveness, this arts centre and shop provide a refreshing change to the wooden animals and tinga-tinga found elsewhere.
Sauti za Busara:
A cultural landmark in Zanzibar since 2003, Sauti za Busara is one of the biggest festivals of its sort in East Africa, showcasing music and musicians of all genres – taarab, jazz, Afro-pop or bongo flava.