Zanzibar is one of those names, like Timbuktu or Samarkand, that’s become a watchword for the exotic. Invoking it conjures up vague images of a spice island paradise, full of sultans and slavers, pirates and adventurers, and whatever else your imagination can fill in. But Zanzibar is an actual place, inhabited by real people, and the reality of it is far more interesting than any fantasy. Ongoing recent efforts to promote Zanzibar’s unique heritage have made it one of the premiere cultural tourism destinations in East Africa.
Zanzibar itself is actually a chain of islands off the coast of Tanzania (of which Zanzibar is officially a part), made up of two large islands, Unguja and Pemba, and numerous smaller ones. Unguja, also known as Zanzibar Island, is the main administrative and commercial center, and its capital Stonetown is the main destination for the hordes of tourists that visit Zanzibar every year.
Stonetown, known locally as Mji Mkongwe in Swahili, was founded by the Portuguese in 1503, but really owes its unique flavor to the Omani Arabs who kicked them out soon after. The Omani established Stonetown as a thriving trade port, based mostly around the spice and slave trades, and by 1832 the Sultan Seyyid Said moved his capital from Muscat to Stonetown, precipitating a magnificent coral-stone building boom that eventually earned Stonetown a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
Though the Sultan’s power was eventually eclipsed by the British Empire in 1890, even today Stonetown feels more like an Arab medina than a typical African town. The Sultans have left their mark everywhere, from the massive 15th century Ngome Kongwe “Old Fort” and the Hamamni Persian Baths, to the Beit al-Ajaib, or “House of Wonders,” a former Sultan’s palace that earned its name by being the first building in Stonetown to have electricity and running water. Even the Anglican Cathedral houses the grim slave pits that were a principal source of the Sultans’ wealth.
The British Empire, too, has left footprints in Stonetown, from the ornate, Raj-inspired Old Dispensary to the former British Consulate (unfortunately closed off to tourists) and the Old Post Office. History buffs will appreciate Stonetown’s museums: These days the House of Wonders houses Zanzibar’s National Museum
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How to Get There
There are no direct flights from the U.S. to East Africa, and none from Europe to Zanzibar. Most travelers fly with European carriers out of London, Paris or Rome, to the Tanzanian capital of Dar Es Salaam, where they connect with a local flight or ferry to Zanzibar. Recommended carriers are GulfAir, KLM and Ethiopian Airways.
What to Eat
While Stonetown has quite a few restaurant options, from a converted dhow to Mercury’s, a pizza joint dedicated to the memory of Freddy Mercury (Zanzibar’s most famous son), one of your best bets is the night market in the Forodhani Gardens, where you can have your fill of fresh-caught seafood, chapattis, “Zanzibar Pizza” and the ubiquitous “chipsi” (French fries) for a ridiculously cheap price. Also worth seeking out is the South Asian-inspired “Zanzibar Mix,” a lemony concoction of vegetable dumplings and spices. Finally, Zanzibar is still a major spice producer, with cloves and cardamom topping the list—don’t forget to pick some up to take home.
Where to Stay
In addition to the big beach resorts on the North Coast, Stonetown has many lodging options, from the high end to the backpacker-friendly. For up-to-the-minute listings try Zanzibar Travel Network: www.zanzibar.net