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Tanzania: Stone Town, Zanzibar

Flanked on two sides by the sea, Stone Town is exotic, exciting and steeped in history.

Heavily laden dhows sail in and out of port, tall crumbling buildings cast shadows over labyrinthine streets and the smell of spices fills the air. The Stone Town of Zanzibar is located on the sheltered west coast of the iconic tropical ‘spice island’ of Zanzibar. It is a fine example of a Swahili coastal trading centre, built on the long tradition of trade and exchange between the African interior and the lands of Arabia and Asia. Established for at least 1,000 years, it remains a vibrant centre to this day and its architecture includes a fusion of many different elements and influences from Arabia, Persia, India, Europe and elsewhere. Zanzibar played an important role in the slave trade, particularly during the 18th century when slaves were required for plantation development in the Indian Ocean Islands. Much of Stone Town is more recent, however, dating from the second half of the 19th century, after the Sultan of Oman had moved his sultanate from Muscat to Zanzibar.

We spent two days in Zanzibar exploring Stone Town.

THE STREETS OF STONE TOWN

The narrow streets of old Stone Town are a maze, and it is very easy to lose your bearings. There are dozens of small shops and businesses, punctuated with hotels, restaurants and the occasional mosque. Many of the buildings date back to the 18th century and truth be told look in need of a bit of TLC, but the dilapidation adds much to the character. During the day and early evening, these streets are a bustling throng of humanity.

CARVED WOODEN DOORS

As you wander through the labyrinth of Stone Towns winding alleyways and streets you will come across beautiful carved wooden doors, many of which are over 100 years old. There are an estimated 560 of these doors in Zanzibar City, most of them in Stone Town. These doors were symbols of religion and status.

There are doors associated with Indian, Arab and Swahili cultures. Doors belonging to the same tradition can be found in groups since Stone Town has been divided into ethnic districts.

Traditional Indian doors, also called Gurajati doors, are usually divided into smaller sections and have foldable shutters. These wooden doors were common at bazaar streets of Zanzibar. Another type of Indian door has heavy brass studs and arched top frame, just like in Indian palaces. Arab doors are generally rectangular and have intricately carved frames. They are likely to a carved frieze with Arabic inscriptions or symbols, commonly citations from the Quran. The frieze is usually carved in rosettes and might also have the resident’s name. Swahili doors are more modest wooden doors without fancy decorations but still contain intriguing carvings. The Swahili doors are rectangular like Arab doors, but lack Arabic inscriptions.

THE OLD SLAVE MARKET

The Stone Town was host to one of the world’s last open slave markets, presided over by Arab traders until it was shut down by the British in 1873. It was one of the oldest slave markets in the world. The slaves were shipped here in dhows from the mainland, crammed so tightly that many fell ill and died or were thrown overboard.

Below St Monica’s guesthouse, dozens of slaves, and women and children, were imprisoned for days in crowded cellars with little air and no food or toilets.  What now stands on the site? The Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ. The former whipping tree is marked at the altar by a white marble circle surrounded by red to symbolise the blood of the slaves.

Right next to the Cathedral is a small museum that tells the stories of the slave trafe in Zanzibar. The exhibits are mainly display panels, but the history was fascinating and tell the tale of slavery not only in Zanzibar but globally, right up to present day. Yes slavery is still with us today!

CATHEDRAL CHURCH OF CHRIST

The Cathedral Church of Christ was built in 1879 on the grounds of the former slave market.

Legend has it that former slaves in need of work were employed in the cathedral’s construction, and made one mistake. The supervisor, Bishop Edward Steere, was called away on business and returned to find 12 pillars had been erected upside down. He decided to leave them, and so they remain.

Steere, a popular figure who in 1885 wrote A Handbook of the Swahili Language: As Spoken at Zanzibar, eventually died of a heart attack in a nearby building. He is buried behind the altar.

There is also a tribute to Dr David Livingstone, who stayed in Zanzibar before his final expedition. Some wood from the tree in Zambia under which his heart was buried has been fashioned into a cross that hangs in the cathedral.

THE OLD FORT

Old Fort is one of the oldest buildings in Stone Town, originally built by the Portuguese in the 17th century and later re-built by the Omanis in the 18th century. It is free to visit, and cultural festivals and happenings are often organised in the inner courts of the fort.

The location of the Old Fort was first used by the Portuguese, who came to the islands in the 1500’s. Very little remains of the original structure, but ruins include evidence of an old church. The Old Fort got it’s current form when the Omanese came to defend Zanzibar against the Portuguese. This was in the late 1600’s. The Omanese completely re-built the fortification. During the Sultanate days and the British rule, there was a short train connection from Stone Town to Bububu village. The Old Fort was used as a terminal. The train run from 1905 until 1930.

FREDDIE MERCURY MUSEUM

Located right in the heart of Stone Town, close to the Old Fort is a house that Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen spent his early years. We are massive fans of Freddie and Queen, so we just had to visit the house, which today is a museum.

The first ever Museum dedicated to the world legend Freddie Mercury, located in Shangani, in the heart of Zanzibar Stone Town, officially inaugurated on Sunday the 24th of November 2019, in order to commemorate the 28th anniversary of the beloved passing of the rock legend.

The Freddie Mercury Museum is officially partnered with Queen Productions Ltd. in the United Kingdom, who have loaned us exclusive pictures of Freddie Mercury throughout different stages in his life. This project aims to showcase a detailed accord of the birth town of Farrokh Bulsara, his roots with the Zoroastrian religion, his childhood and upbringing in Zanzibar, followed by his schooling in Panchgani, and then the rest of his journey to becoming one of the greatest stars of all time.

THE SUNSETS

Zanzibar has some wonderful beaches, but not in Stone Town, where we spent our time on the spice island. Instead, we had to settle for watching the sun sets, which were incredible in their own rights!

Planning your visit to Stone Town

  By Air:

Most people arrive in Zanzibar by air. There are a lot of direct flights to Zanzibar from Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Zanzibar airport is about a 30-minute drive from the capital, Stone Town. Catching a taxi is one option, costing $10-15 (depending on how good you are at haggling). This price will be reduced if you can pair up with other tourists.

The cheapest option is to catch a local bus, called Dala-dala. They are very easy to use although expect cramped hot conditions. The dala-dala stop is just outside the airport – ask airport staff for directions (not the taxi drivers as they will tell you the buses aren’t running!).

  By Ferry: 

The favoured route for a Masai Mara fly-in safari is by flying from Nairobi Wilson Airport (WIL). From here it is a short (between 45 and 60 minutes) flight to the Mara. Flights to the Mara are operated by airlines such as SafariLink and AirKenya. Upon your arrival at the airstrip closest to your accommodation, a safari vehicle will be waiting to take you to your Masai Mara safari lodge.

Getting around Stone Town: Stone Town is very safe for tourists to visit. The answer is yes. There is very little if any violent crime against tourists. Like anywhere else in the world, just have your wits about you when it comes to your possession.

Stone Town is probably the most traditional part of the island when it comes to observing Muslim traditions. It’s advised that women and men wear longer clothing to respect local traditions.

Best time to visit Zanzibar

The best time to visit Zanzibar is during the archipelago’s dry season, from July to September, which is a very popular time to travel. However, it’s worthwhile travelling at most times of the year, with balmy temperatures between 28°C and 34°C and sunshine the norm.

During the short rains in November and December, downpours are followed by blue skies. It’s only very wet during the peak of the long rains in April and May.

 
Visiting Zanzibar in January & February

The short rains are starting and the temperature is hotter. The showers are usually short-lived, allowing you to retreat to the bar or for a massage before coming back out when the sun returns.

Visiting Visiting Zanzibar in March

The weather starts to turn as Zanzibar enters the period known as the ‘long rains’ and showers become more frequent. It can be very wet from the middle of March onward.

Visiting Zanzibar in Apr to May

The ‘long rains’ of April and May make the beaches along the Indian Ocean coastline hot and very wet, so this isn’t the best time to travel.

Visiting Zanzibar in June to September

The rains have finished for the most part, with some light showers still possible, making it a beautiful time to visit for whiling away the hours lounging on the beaches or exploring Stone Town.

Visiting Zanzibar in October

As the mercury slowly starts to rise a few more showers are possible, but these are normally interspersed with sunny spells and shouldn’t affect your stay.

Visiting Zanzibar in November to December

The ground starts to dry out after the rains, making June a lovely time to visit. The rivers are still full and the bush is colourful. The camps have opened and are offering excellent deals, while there are few other visitors to compete for space with.

Where to stay

1. SHOKI SHOKI HOUSE

Situated in Zanzibar City and within 350 feet of Stone Town Beach, Shoki Shoki House Stone Town has a bar, non-smoking rooms, and free WiFi throughout the property. Popular points of interest nearby include House of Wonders, Sultan’s Palace, Zanzibar and Hamamni Persian Baths. The accommodation features room service, an ATM and organising tours for guests.

At the hotel, each room is equipped with a wardrobe. At Shoki Shoki House Stone Town rooms come with bed linen and towels.

Breakfast is available each morning, and includes à la carte, Full English/Irish and vegetarian options.

2. PARK HYATT ZANZIBAR

Park Hyatt Zanzibar is located on the seafront and has an outdoor pool and a restaurant. The rooms are air-conditioned and there is free WiFi. The hotel has a spa and wellness centre.

All rooms are equipped with a flat-screen cable TV, a minibar and tea and coffee making facilities. Private bathrooms comprise a bathtub, free toiletries, a hairdryer and a bidet. Views are provided from all rooms.

Guests staying at Park Hyatt Zanzibar are also offered a fitness centre, a tour desk and luggage storage. The hotel offers activities like snorkelling, diving and golf.

3. KHOLLE HOUSE

Built in 1860 for Princess Kholle, this central Stone Town hotel is a minutes’ walk from Zanzibar Ferry Terminal. It offers luxurious rooms, an outdoor pool and rooftop terrace with a Swahili-style tea house and Indian Ocean views.

Air-conditioning, a ceiling fan and mosquito net are provided in all rooms at Kholle House. Each is individually decorated with exposed wooden beams, bright colours and antique furnishings.

Guests can enjoy a daily breakfast, as well as meals and beverages throughout the day at Kholle House. It also has a reading room and a garden with a conservatory. Wi-Fi is available throughout the property.

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