Stone Town is the heart of Zanzibar and the historic western part of Zanzibar City. It is famous for its UNESCO heritage town center consisting of coral-stone houses built with a mix of Arab, European, Indian, and African influence. Once the seat of the Sultanate of Oman and later a British Protectorate, there are fascinating history to be found as well as day trips you can take to escape to nature. Here are some of the top things to do in Stone Town:
> See my full Zanzibar Itinerary here
A short history of Stone Town
Stone Town started out as a fishing village in the 11th century and was a smaller town during that period on Zanzibar. The Portugese came in the 16th century and was unpopular, with the locals inviting the Sultanate of Oman to help to get rid of the Portugese. The Sultan decided to move his seat to Zanzibar in the early 19th century and Stone Town entered a period of fast development. The Sultanate of Oman and Zanzibar split in 1861 due to a succession war, but that didn’t deter the city’s economic growth from spice and slave trade. It attracted many Omanis, Arabs, and Indian traders to settle.
It became a British Protectorate in 1890, however, the Sultant remained to have power over the island. In 1964, the Zanzibar Revolution removed the government and combined with the mainland Tanganyika to form Tanzania.
Things to do in Stone Town
Stay in a heritage hotel
Stone Town was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2000 and within the streets there are many heritage buildings that have been turned into a hotel. We stayed at the Dhow Palace Hotel that belonged to a wealthy merchants, but there are also former palaces! Here are a list of the top heritage hotels in Zanzibar for you to check out:
- Park Hyatt Zanzibar has a heritage wing and a modern wing as well
- Maru Maru Hotel with a great roof terrace and pool
- Zanzibar Serena Hotel is another fantastic blend of heritage and modern comfort
We had a fantastic roof top dinner at Emerson on Hurumzi (best to prebook), watching the sun go down before eating some scrumptious Zanzibari food!
More about this in my Zanzibar Itinerary.
Africa House Hotel
One of the best places to watch the sunset, the Africa House Hotel was an English Club before the Zanzibar Revolution. The hotel has embraced its colonial past and the mix of different cultures is reflected in its architecture, such as the Persian roof painting and lamp.
From the sunset bar, you can make out the German and British Warship that was sunk during the wars in low tide!
Tippu Tip’s House
Currently under renovation (Dec 2019), Tippu Tip’s House is the perfect encapsulation of life in the 19th century Zanzibar. Home to Tippu Tip (1837-1905), a famous Arab plantation owner and slave trader who amassed his wealth through irony trade and hunt on mainland Africa as well. He became the Protectorate of Oman and also helped Henry Morton Stanley on his expedition to find Doctor Livingstone, among other things.
Tippu Tip continued the slavery trade in Zanzibar even after its abolishment in 1873. Slaves were collected in basement and until the numbers reach enough to ship them out in the dark. He died in 1905 and was buried nearby, as is the custom for the wealthy. However, the locals are not a fan of him and I wouldn’t have spotted the nondescript tombstone had our guide not pointed it out.
Note: it appears that the house had been abandoned and not open to visitors prior to the renovation. Hopefully, it’ll be open for visitors once renovation is complete.
Admiring doors of Stone Town
One of the most iconic architecture styles of Zanzibar is its doors. In fact, a traditional Stone Town door tells you the entire story of the owner, including whether or not he is home. There are two main types: Arabic and Indian style, and the curved top doors are Indian style.
However, most doors are not original, since they are usually made of wood and damaged by the weather and sea breeze.
The different patterns that rims the door are representative of the trade of the owner, such as pineapple and vines motifs for plantation, scales for fishing, chain for slavary. If the chains are on the outside, that means they are the one doing the chores.
The knobs or studs on the door originated in Persian and India to prevent elephants from crushing in, but here it’s only for decoration. The knobs are sharp there and in Stone Town it is round. Iron is not suitable due to the salt in the sea breeze, so copper is used instead.
A big chain on the door can be locked to the ground or leave up to indicate whether the owner is in or not!
Freddie Mercury House
The famous vocalist from Queens is a native to Stone Town and now his former family home is a museum. His family are Persians who lived on there until the Zanzibar Revolution, when they moved to England. However, he was already sent to an English speaking boarding school in India before that, and consequently there’s not much in the museums save for photos and tidbits of information. But the house itself is along the main street and it’s worth a peek.
Opening times: 10:00 – 18:00
Admission: 10 USD
First British Consulate
At the end of the main street not far from Freddie Mercury’s house is a huge white building with blue shutters, which was the first British Consulate during Zanzibar’s time as a protectorate from 1841 to 1847.
It was the sStarting point for explorers and missionaries have lived and pass through, including David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary doctor who was one of the most famous African explorers in the 19th century.
Where the Princess of Zanzibar fell in love
Two unassuming buildings across the road from the former British Consulate is home to modern day Shakespearean level romance: the story of Princess Salama, youngest daughter of the Sultan Sayyid Said bin Sultan Al-Busaid.
She moved to Stone Town to her brother’s house where she fell in love with Rudolph Heinrich Ruete, a German merchant who lived next door. They fled aboard HMS Highflyer when Salme discovered she was pregnant, starting a new life in Europe and converted to Christianity, taking the name Emily. Together, they had three children, however, their love story was cut short when Ruete was killed in a tram accident in 1870. She remained mostly in Germany but always wanted to come back. She went back to Zanzibar three times but was never allowed to stay again.
House of Wonders
A ceremonial palace by the sea, it was built by Sultan Barghash in 1880s. The architecture is based on the Omani square mansion but with inspiration of the Indian Raj, where Barghash was exiled to during the 1860s. The name House of Wonders doesn’t just refer to the building but also to the exotic animals that was kept around as well as the animal motifs carved on the doors around it.
It also bare witness to the shortest war in history – the Anglo-Zanzibar War at the end of the 19th century over the succession to the Sultanate of Zanzibar. It only lasted 38 minutes as the younger brother hid in the House of Wonder, which was bombarded. The house became the British Colonial Office in 1911, as well as the first big building in southeastern Africa with electric light, lifts, tap water, and tower clock.
Fun fact: the tower clock was originally an independent building in front of the palace, but it was damaged during the Anglo-Zanzibar War and rebuilt to be part of the palace. In 1964, the Zanzibar Revolution happened and the sultan escape with 300 people to Oman. But he was not allowed as the sultan of Oman – his younger brother – due to fear of him taking the Sultanate, so he went to London and now live in Portsmouth
It became a school and museum after the Zanzibar Revolution, and in the 2000s it was turned into a national museum (but now under repair as of Dec 2019).
The gardens in front of the House of Wonders was once the private grounds of the Sultan. It was built on reclaimed land at the end of the 19th century and was called the Jubilee Garden. Nowadays, it’s a popular sunset and hangout spots for locals and tourists alike, as well as an evening and night market.
The oldest remaining building in Stone Town, the Fort was built in the 17th century by the Arabs for defending against attackers – at the time the Portuguese. Hence, it’s also known as the Arab Fort. Part of it incorporates the church in the trading station built by the Portugese, who arrived in the 16th century.
The Omani were invited by the Zanzibaris, who have heard of their victory over the Portugese in Oman. The latter weren’t popular there because they forced the local to pay tax.
It became a prison in the 19th century, and later a deport for the trainline that connects Stone Town to the village of Bububu. Its guardhouse, built in the 50s, were used as ladies tennis court. In the 90s, the 3rd president of added an amphitheater that’s used for the film festival. The interior of the courtyard is now home to a mishmash of shops selling mostly souvenirs.
Shiv Shakti Temple (Hindu)
Tucked inside an unassuming corner of Stone Town, the Shiv Shakti Temple is a testimony to the multi-religion population in Stone Town. It is open to visitors, though none Hindu should not enter inside the temple itself. It’s just a simple temple, but it’s worth seeing if you want to see another side of Stone Town.
Fun fact: the dried leaves hanging above the door are mango leaves for good luck.
A square in the heart of the maze of Stone Town, Jaw’s Corner is a good place to people watch. It is decorated with flags that ties to a central pole that hangs a house phone with the note: free international calls. Of course, you can’t actually make any calls here, but it’s a fun little note for a relatively wide open space in the otherwise crowded streets of the city. There are murals of sharks around the square, which might be what gives it its name, as well as some coffee shops.
The local market in Stone Town, Darajani Market is a great place to buy some herbs and to see the daily activities of Zanzibaris. It has both an indoor and outdoor section, selling everything from fish to vegetables, spices, and fruits.
Old Slave Market
The former slave market of Zanzibar is now replaced by the Anglican Cathedral. The church replaced the slave market in 1874, after slavery was abolished in 1873 as the world’s last slave market. It was at the behest of David Livingstone to the Sultan of Zanzibar that finally made this happen.
Before, slaves were men, women, and children abducted from central and east Africa that were transported and sold here. You can get a glimpse of their living conditions in the underground basements where they were kept before being sold.
Opening times: 8:00 – 18:00
Admission fee: 5 USD
It’s worth visiting the Cathedral as well while you are there, which is also known as Christ Church. It’s a unique cathedral built with coral stone with a barrel concrete vault, with the design and mix of English Gothic and Isalmic style. The church was consecrated at the beginning of the 20th century and one of the earliest Christian buildings in East African.
Peace Memorial Museum
A little way from the main town, the Peace Memorial Museum is a pretty white Arab structure that houses a small exhibit on the history of Zanzibar. The small collection gives a concise summary aided by artefacts, and the entrance fee also includes entry to the Natural History Museum nearby.
Opening times: 9:00 – 18:00
Admission fee: 6,000 shillings
Day trips from Stone Town
There are a couple popular day trip ideas from Stone Town, with a pretty universal price from all tour companies around town. We didn’t end up doing anything aside from the city tour before heading to Nungwi (see our itinerary for Zanzibar here), but you can see the available options here and why I didn’t take it:
One of the most popular day tours to do in Zanzibar is the Spice Tour. famed for its growth of spices from near and far, spice is one of the two main trades on the island. There are numerous operators as well as spice farm, however, they all focus around visiting a farm/plantation and tasting the spices. Lunch, water, and transport is typically included, and should cost around 15 USD.
As I come from Hong Kong and travelled around Southeast Asia a lot, spices aren’t really that interesting to me.
The prison island is named so because it’s where the prison of Zanzibar was. It has a busy past, with the missionary having stayed there to stop the slaves being dumped by dissatisfied masters. It was also used as a quarantine island for visitors from Africa with disease and tb. Nowadays, visitors can set foot on the island to learn about its past, see the giant tortoises from Seychelles brought here by the sultan, and snorkel.
This should cost 20 USD or so, if you are a family do negotiate. I also decided not to go because I know this isn’t the best snorkeling spot and I wasn’t that interested in seeing tortoises that aren’t native.
What is safari blue? It’s a day of non-stop ocean fun of snorkeling, dolphin spotting, and eating seafood. The snorkeling might not be as good as Mnemba Island in Nungwi, however, the seafood is said to be fresh and good!
The price for this varies, my sister wanted to book this one but sadly I wasn’t feeling well and we had to skip it.
This tour takes you to the southern tip of the island into the Jozani Forest where you’ll find red colobus monkeys and boardwalks in mangroove. It’s the only none-seaside day trip and a good excursion to see the nature of Zanzibar. It should cost 25-30 USD per person.
We decided not to take it since we were here for the sea.