Arab, Indian and Persian traders all stopped off in Zanzibar on their voyages to and from Africa, the Middle East and India, and to this day, their influence can be seen everywhere from their cuisine to their architecture.
Many of the cities most beautiful heritage buildings are decorated by intricately carved wooden doors, showcasing both Arab (flat-topped, square framed doors) and Indian (curved, round door-frames) influence, with the home-owners job & position being displayed by the beautiful wood carvings.
Look out for chains (slave traders) pineapples (a sign of wealth) as well as different types of flowers and spices (spice traders) Indian influence can further be seen in the brass spikes found on most of these heritage doors, originally conceived to stop elephants from leaning on doors and potentially damaging or collapsing houses in India. Our charismatic guide explained that elephants have not been found in Zanzibar for hundreds of years, but why take the risk 😉
As many as 500 of these beautiful doors have been destroyed over the past decade and just under 300 remain, thankfully there is now a growing movement to preserve Stone Towns historical buildings as they are such an important reminder of their past.
Zanzibar has a rich, tragic and complex colonial history; colonised by the Portuguese in 1504, they then came under the rule of the sultanate of Oman in 1698, before becoming a British “protectorate” in 1890, finally gaining independence in 1963 (the last Sultan is still alive to this day, living in Portsmouth of all places!)
Their rich wealth of natural resources such as cloves and other spices, and their geographic positioning meant that they were an integral part of the East African slave trade. David Livingstone estimated that around 50,000 slaves a year passed through the slave market of Zanzibar throughout the 19th century, whilst under Omani rule, with some historians believing that over 17 million people were sold into slavery across the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and North Africa between 1500-1900.
Its believed that approximately 5 million of these were African slaves, transported by Muslim slave traders via the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Indian Ocean. This slave trade ended nominally in 1900 with the abolition of the slave trade in Europe, and colonisation of Africa however, with many freed slaves essentially taking on the same spice plantation work for a pittance, it was not the freedom they hoped for or deserved.
A visit to their extremely informative and hard-hitting Slave museum in the grounds of the Anglican cathedral is a must do. It was truly eye-opening, not to mention extremely heavy going, and I was glad that my speed-reading ability gave me some time outside in quiet contemplation before the rest of our group showed up at the end.
Whilst not one of the most comprehensive museums I have visited, the Palace Museum, the Sultans palace, is definitely still worth a look, I’d highly recommend arranging a museum guide (you should be able to do this on arrival) who can help explain the history of the sultanate and show you around their former living quarters.
Darajanai market was a surprise after the bountiful Asian markets I have become used to. Even at 8am the selection of fish and meat was hugely limited, far less than I was expecting (especially given that it is an island) but it is definitely worth a quick walk through, especially if you are interested in buying more spices (don’t be afraid to haggle!)
I very rarely plan to go shopping on holiday but I was determined to come back with some beautiful African fabrics to have made into clothes back in Myanmar, and thankfully Sula stores (located a short walk from Darajani market, literally anyone can point you in the right direction) did not disappoint! I bought around 50 yards of striking African printed fabric for around $40 – that’s a lot of new clothes, cushion covers and throws!
I absolutely loved exploring Stone Towns winding streets and although we spent a full 3 days there, I could happily have stayed longer. As someone who is used to travelling solo, I am equal parts skeptical of strangers, and happy to have a chat if the mood takes me. Literally everyone I walked past in Stone Town welcomed me in Swahili and no one pushed conversation unless I expressed an interest in doing so, Zanzibar is truly home to some of the warmest people I have met and whilst I was alert as always, I felt safe at all times.
Dress conservatively – Zanzibar is a Muslim majority country and as such, it’s worth remembering to dress more conservatively than you might on many other holiday destinations. I definitely attracted more attention on the morning I chose to wear a knee-length sun dress than when I was wearing trousers and a tunic but I was never made to feel uncomfortable. That said, save the beach wear for the coastal resorts and keep cleavage and thigh flashing to a minimum. Locals stay fully clothed even on the beach, and we saw a lady tourist getting quite a hard time for choosing to wear her skimpy bikini on the (extremely male dominated) beach. I wouldn’t recommend doing anything more than enjoying a drink in a beach side bar or walking along the beach, save the swimming for the resorts where things are far more chilled out.
Weather – When we visited in February, mornings in Stone Town were overcast and saw scattered showers, with the sun making an appearance late morning/early afternoon so either be prepared to get caught in some drizzle or consider taking a small umbrella.
Be prepared to haggle – you should only pay around 25% of the asking price in markets (shops sometimes have a fixed price but they will make it clear if they are open to haggling or not) Personally, I find haggling embarrassing and am absolutely useless at it so I don’t enquire about prices unless I am really keen to buy something, and only ask for a discount if I am buying multiple items (“What’s the best you can do for 3 of these” etc) and even then I generally go with whatever they suggest
Stay hydrated – its hotter than you think! Be sure to keep a refillable water bottle with you and fill it up whenever possible
Be Green! Zanzibar banned plastic bags over 10 years ago, and whilst I asked for all my drinks to be served without straws, many places we went to served biodegradable or paper straws. Be sure to take reusable bags with you for your shopping to save on all the paper bags you might otherwise accumulate