With its stunning coral beaches and a history and culture that combines Swahili, Arab, Indian and European influences, Unguja, better known as Zanzibar, is a fascinating place to visit- and since its almost entirely Muslim, its particularly ideal for Muslim travellers who don’t want to worry about where to find halal food.
The small group of islands, known in their entirety as Zanzibar Archipelago, lie in the Indian Ocean, just off the coast of Tanzania. The largest, usually referred to as Zanzibar (Unguja), is the main island and its population is made up primarily of Bantu, Arabs and Indians.
A more in-depth piece about travelling to the region will be posted soon, but if you are planning a trip, here are 6 reasons to visit Zanzibar…
1. Stone Town
Once the capital of the Zanzibar Sultanate, today Stone Town is considered the old part of Zanzibar City, the main city of Zanzibar (Unguja). As a major trade port, the architecture of the town reflects the diversity of cultural influences, including Swahili, Arab, Indian, and European, that mingled here for centuries. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. Once a powerful city, known for its trade of gold, ivory and spices, Stone Town thrived for centuries, first under the rule of the Portuguese, followed by the Omani Sultanate in the 17th century, and under the British Protectorate in the 19th.
The narrow alleyways and raised pavements are flanked by colourful coral stone buildings, from which the town receives its name. Elaborately carved doors decorate the buildings and wooden balconies and verandas overlook the clear blue ocean beyond.
However, the town’s history has a dark side, remnants of which can still be seen today. A key part of Zanzibar’s success lay in the valuable trade of slaves, and Stone Town was home to one of the world’s largest open slave markets. Though nothing remains of the market today, 15 holding cells are located beneath the Anglican Church, two of which can be visited by the public.
One of the oldest mosques in Zanzibar is found in Stone Town, close to the port. Malindi Mosque was built in the 15th century and is defined by its cone-shaped minaret.
A number of palaces (some now museums), including the House of Wonders, can be visited in Stone Town, as well as the Old Fort and other historical buildings. A good list can be found here.
2. Jozani Forest
The Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park is home to the rare red colobus monkey. You can take a guided tour through the forest, spotting monkeys and other animals, as well as rare species of plants along the way. Watching monkeys get up to some real mischief (we were told they are known to grab water bottles and even cameras!) was one of the highlights of our trip! A tour guide can be hired upon arrival at the park.
3. One of the Oldest Mosques in East Africa
The Kizimkazi mosque was built by settlers from Shiraz in 1107 and may be the oldest mosque in East Africa. While most of the coral detailing and column shafts date from the 12th century, the rest of the mosque is from the 18th century reconstruction. It is located 3km north of the town of Kizimkazi, and is not in the actual town itself. Several tombs from the 17th century surround the mosque. A detailed description and history of the mosque can be found here.
4. Chasing/Swimming With Dolphins
This is a lot of fun! Although I didn’t actually swim- I sat on the boat while others swam- it was still definitely worth the pre-dawn start. We got on a motorboat in Kizimkazi, which we arranged through our hotel, and were taken 10-15mins off shore, where there were 7 or 8 other motorboats already on the hunt for dolphins. We waited in the water until someone spotted a fin, at which point all the boats headed in the same direction and those who wanted to, jumped into the sea and swam. I was surprised by the number of dolphins we managed to see!
5. Pristine Beaches
The beaches in Zanzibar are incredibly beautiful, with white sand and clear water through which coral is visible. We stayed on both the east and west coasts during our trip so were fortunate enough to experience both sunrises and sunsets on the beach- which needless to say were stunning! Public beaches are also a good way to interact with local people rather than just tourists on resorts. We found that children are especially friendly and will approach you to practise their English language skills.
6. Spice Farms
Zanzibar was once known for its spice trade, and there are a number of spice farms that can be visited. Although it doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing in the world, I really loved this- it was so interesting to see what spices that we use everyday actually look like when growing, and before they are powdered down into a more familiar form. There were also some more unusual plants and spices, such as the ‘lipstick’ plant- on which grows a fruit that resembles a lychee, but contains berries inside. The berries, when crushed leave a surprisingly strong red pigment, and have traditionally been used by local women as lipstick. We were also shown fresh tumeric/haldi, which was a lot moister and brighter than I’d seen before- it was like a highlighter pen! Other spices we saw included vanilla, ginger, peppercorn and cloves- and the aromas walking around the place were amazing!
Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below!