Top Ten Tips for StoneTown, Zanzibar

Make no mistake, Stonetown, Zanzibar, is exotic. When I was here 18 years ago I fell for the atmosphere,  the unique look and feel of the place, because there really wasn’t much else to do here but wander and soak up the atmosphere. Now there are so many things to do, while still preserving that marvellous feeling of having stumbled into a truly timeless place. Here are some of my favourite things about Stonetown today.!
Forodhani Night Markets

  1. Forodhani Night Market. As sunset arrives every night, the tables and bbqs appear, the breeze carries mouth watering smells, and locals and tourists alike descend on Forodhani Park on the waterfront for the night food markets. There is a massive range of seafood, just listening to the sales patter of each stall as they reel off the long list of seafood options is half the fun. I am a fan of the stall juicing fresh sugar cane on the spot. But my absolute favourite – the “Zanzibar pizza” – is more like a roti  folded around your choice of filling and fried on the hot plate. The beef pizza filling is minced beef, onions, chillies, spices, cheese, mayonnaise and a raw egg – and there’s a divine banana/chocolate mix for dessert. They are very moreish, and very cheap,  I keep coming back every night. The first night’s dinner is a beef pizza, the second night is a banana pizza for dessert first, before I headed out to a restaurant for dinner, and on the third night a group of us have beef pizzas as an entree between cocktails and a restaurant.
    Dhow Sunset cruise
  2. Sunset Dhow Cruise. I am a bit wary of sunset cruises as a traveller – my expectation is usually an overpriced  crowded boat with a tiny portion of cheap bubbles and stale cheddar cheese. But Zanzibar is known for its sunsets, so i risk it, and it is well worth it. There are four of us on the dhow, with three crew, and seating for at least ten on the deck. A quick climb up the ladder and I find a cushion covered rooftop that can comfortably fit another dozen, we have plenty of space to spread out. We are offered a choice of juice, beer or wine, all very drinkable, and accompanied by a mini feast with a strong Italian flavour – handmade hard Italian cheeses, tomatoes stuffed with soft cheese and olives, herb cheese ravioli, sweet chilli squid and cassava chips, all well matched with my beer. Managing to serve deliciously soft, non-chewy squid in such an environment is a sign of just how good the nibbles (and the cook) are. Its a couple of chilled out hours watching nothing more than the coast line, other dhows, working fishing boats and expensive cruise boats gliding past. On this night there is a light cloud cover so we don’t even get the blood red sunset, but its so relaxing, it doesn’t matter.

  3. Darajani market
    Darajani markets. When do I not love a market? This is a large sprawling produce market for the locals, not tourists (except for a few spice stalls) -there are halls of fruit, veges, spices and the more confronting meat, poultry and fish halls. Watching the auctions in the fish markets are a real highlight.
  4. Clove Hotel. I love this type of hotel – small boutique, well designed & renovated, full of character and excellent value. It is in the old town, a block from Forodhani Square, a block from Hurumzi St (the main shopping street). Be warned, it is only suitable for active guests, it’s in the pedestrian part of town so you’ll need to carry your bag the final block or so, and then up to reception on the 1st floor and then up to your room on the 2nd to 4th floors, as there is no lift. The highlight is the roof terrace on the 4th floor, perfect for breakfast, or sunset drinks, or relaxing in a breeze in the middle of a hot day – reclining on one of the couches and uploading all your photos to the web on the free wifi! There is an honesty bar for the guests. My room is beautifully furnished in a modern zanzibari style, with a very modern polished concrete bathroom attached. I sleep very soundly each night in the huge four poster bed swathed in romantic mosquito netting, although I don’t have any problems with mosquitos during my stay anyway.
  5. Eating. In spite of eating at the night markets every night, I also manage to sample a fair number of other eateries as well, so no risk of me going hungry. Silk Route is a great spot for a group to have a spicy indian feast; Archipelago has a lot of light, healthy fish dishes, my favourite is a very tasty sweet chilli baby squid plate. And the “garden bar” in the sand in front of Livingstone is perfect for lunch or simply a cold beer stop. I am amazed to find one restaurant that I ate at 18 years ago, the Dolphin, is still in existence now, although I discover this too late to try it again this time.
  6. Spa Treatments. These definitely didn’t exist 18 years ago but now there are many to choose from, I am recommended Mrembo, just past the Catholic Church on Cathedral Street. After a couple of weeks of sleeping on a mat and shaking over corrugated dirt roads in Tanzania, I am ready for a bit of pampering. All the treatments involve local flowers, herbs and spices, so it smells beautiful as soon as I walk in. I start with two treatments at the same time – at one end I am having a pedicure which includes a sand, cardamon, and aloe vera scrub. At the other end I get the “scalp treatment and steaming”. Warm olive oil is applied to my scalp, followed by a cream hair mask – the mask smells and feels like a spicy wet xmas cake mix on my head – I wonder if this is going to set permanently in my hair but as soon as they start the 20 minutes of  finger tip pressure head massage, I stop thinking at all and doze off. After washing it all off, i have the softest, thickest, shiniest hair I’ve had in years. Now it’s time for the rest of the body – the hot “mbarika” leaf massage involves being massaged with Mbrika leaves which have been soaked in hot water, followed by an aromatherapy massage, and not surprisingly I nod off again. That’s a very successfully relaxing two hours.
  7. Designer shops. 18 years ago there were no tourist shops to speak of, that has well and truly changed now, with dozens of streets and alleys lined with a huge variety of shops filled with all sorts of traditional arts and crafts along with the usual tourist t-shirts and back packer clothing. What I particularly like are the handful of “designer” shops, where local designers and seamstresses are selling clothing, bags, jewellry, and home furnishings, mixing traditional fabrics and styles with a more modern design aesthetic. Most are scattered along Hurumzi or just off it in smaller alleyways so they are not hard to find . For really interesting dresses and tops check out Indaco & Mago, and for t-shirts I’d recommend One Way, where all t-shirts are made from locally grown organic cotton.
  8. Sunset drinks on the rooftop bar at Africa House. This is one of the few things that has remained the same from my visit 18 years ago to this one – except this time I am drinking expensive cocktails instead of cheap beers.
  9. Cooking Class. This is one of the eclectic range of activities that the staff at Clove hotel have sourced for their guests to try, and it is a very stimulating, personal, hands-on half day in the basic house of a local family being taught by the mother of the house.
  10. Architecture. Given the mix of nationalities that have visited, ruled and traded in Zanzibar over the centuries, it’s no surprise that the architecture is pretty varied as well. From the Portuguese fort to the Omani Palaces, the renovated to the dilapidated, I spend a lot of time peering upwards;  and then there are also the traditional solid carved doors on the Zanzibari houses, some very ornate, some very old ones telling stories through their carvings.

The stain of Slavery in Stonetown, Zanzibar

I walk into a light, bright, white wooden building, sunfilled with soaring ceilings, in Stonetown, Zanzibar. It is now seemingly an art market for tourists, but was previously a hostel and orphanage.
Zanzibar slavery history
However a quick walk down the steps into the cellar and a different history emerges. Here is one of the few remaining pieces of physical evidence of the slave trade that prospered in Zanzibar, particularly in the 1800’s. Although the building is more recent, these cellars were reputed to be used as holding pens for slaves on ‘market day'; from here they could be quickly dragged up into the slave market directly overhead and sold. The cellars are low, dark and claustrophobic, and contain examples of the chains that were used to tether the slaves.
Zanzibar slavery history

Zanzibar slavery history

The slave trade was reputedly started by the Portuguese and then grew further when Zanzibar came under the control of the Sultanate of Oman in 1698. Initially slaves were captured or purchased from deep in the African mainland, chained together and forced to carry ivory to the coast, and then those that survived were transferred to Zanzibar to be either put to work in the spice plantations or sold. From Zanzibar most slaves were shipped to the Middle East, with some also going to the former french colonies of Reunion, Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar, or to North America.
Zanzibar slavery history

In the words of Unesco, Zanzibar has great symbolic importance in the suppression of slavery, since it was one of the main slave-trading ports in East Africa and also the base from which its opponents, such as the renowned explorer David Livingstone, conducted their campaign against slavery. By the mid 1800s, the European influence was returning to the region and it was Livingstone, who based himself in Zanzibar between expeditions, who led the campaign. Another key opponent was Edward Steere, third bishop of Zanzibar (1874-82). Slavery was finally outlawed in 1877, although it continued illegally for some decades afterwards. To celebrate, the Anglican Bishop Steere built a cathedral (completed 1887) on what used to be the island’s largest slave market, apparently positioning the altar over the exact location of the whipping post. The Cathedral also has a timber cross carved from a branch of the tree that once hung over Livingstone’s heart, where it is buried at Chitambo, Zambia.
Zanzibar slavery history

In the Cathedral courtyard there is now a graphic modern sculpture, by the Scandinavian artist Clara Sornas, of five slaves with chains around their necks, standing in a pit in the ground. Slightly larger than life, the slaves’ expressions convey a sense of sadness and futility. In a strange way I found this sculpture more moving and more confronting than the actual records of slavery, probably because there is so little physical evidence of the slave trade remaining in Zanzibar. I asked my guide Mohammed what he thought of his city forefathers being involved in the slave trade and he answered “its OK, it was a different time, it has nothing to do with us today. On Zanzibar we did not supply the slaves, we just supplied the market place.”
Zanzibar slavery history