Zanzibar: How to explore Stone Town on foot

Table of contents for What you need to know about Zanzibar, Tanzania

  1. Zanzibar: How to explore Stone Town on foot

Walking down the narrow alleys of Stone Town, Karibu (Welcome in Swahili) is a word you hear frequently, as shopkeepers invite you to visit their stores displaying an array of souvenirs. The heart of Stone Town mostly consists of a maze of narrow alleys lined by houses, shops, lively bazaars and mosques. It is best explored by foot and getting lost is part of the experience!

Zanzibar

Walking through the narrow streets

Stone Town

This is the cultural heart of the island of Zanzibar and has an ancient feel to it. In the 19th and 20th century these houses were constructed using coral stone taken from the sea, hence the name Stone Town. For this reason, the town has been included in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.

Many of the buildings are crumbling down, which isn’t surprising considering their age and the weathering effects of the coastal climate. Zanzibar was once ruled by Oman and remnants of the Arab influence can be seen in the architecture.

House of Wonders

House of Wonders on the far right

I started my walk at the House of Wonders.

As the name suggests, it is the tallest and largest building in Stone Town and is a landmark structure along the seafront. If you’re arriving in Stone Town by ferry, the clock tower can be seen as you approach the town. The story goes that the House of Wonders was given its name because it was the first house in Zanzibar to have electricity, running water and an elevator.

I am told that this was built by Sultan Barghash as a ceremonial palace in 1883. The massive door at the entrance is said to have been built wide enough for the Sultan to pass through on an elephant. As of now, I can only look at it from a distance, as the building has been closed for renovation for a while and there’s no telling when it will be completed.

Making my way along the narrow alleys, around every turn in Stone Town I come across these giant wooden masterpieces, the doors of Zanzibar. Traditionally, the door was the first structure to be erected when a house was being built and in the past, they served as a valuable glimpse into the home-owner’s place of origin, profession and economic status.

Some have elaborate carvings and are a reminder of Zanzibar’s affluent past. Today, while many of the houses seem to be falling apart, the doors still stand strong reminding you of a bygone era.

A Zanzibar Door

A Zanzibar Door

The lanes are narrow and while taking in the sights you also need to keep a watch out for -bikes, cycles, hand carts and the dirty water that gets thrown into the alleys when shopkeepers finish cleaning their shops!

To market, to market

The sun was already high up in the sky and it was time for a Madafu (tender coconut in Swahili) break. Well, the coconuts taste the same as those in India but, the difference lies in the art of cutting it. Here, the top of the tender coconut is cut such that you can drink the water without using a straw or spilling it down your neck. The locals as you can see are pretty skillful with the knife!

A Tinga Tinga painter

A Tinga Tinga painter

Further down the street, I stop to watch a Tinga Tinga painter. His trained hand moves steadily as he paints fish in a circular pattern on his canvas. Strolling through the streets, you will find several shops along the alleys catering both to the locals and tourists.

There are plenty of shops to distract you, selling an assortment of souvenirs like, boxes craved in wood, baskets and mats woven with palm leaves, jewelry, antiques and spices. While shopping keep in mind that you have to bargain!

Shop selling spices

Shop selling spices

Eat and drink

Making my way through the labyrinth of Stone Town, I stop by the Zanzibar Coffee House, the aroma of authentic brewed coffee makes you want to try out their Café. Having heard that East African coffee is some of the finest in the world, I stop by for a cappuccino, it turns out to be the best I’ve tasted in the town.

Stone Town is sometimes referred to as a cultural melting pot of African, Indian and Arabic influences. While Islam is the dominant religion, the town is also dotted with churches and temples. So it wasn’t surprising to stumble upon `Joshi’s’ a vegetarian restaurant where I had my first taste of Urojo. Also known as Zanzibar mix, it’s an Indian inspired Zanzibari Tanzanian bowl of curry soup with lots of toppings. It’s packed with diverse flavors and textures.

The ‘Mix’ is a bowl of smooth and tangy soup cooked with lemon and mango, with pieces of mashed potatoes, onions slices, peanuts and crispy bhajias immersed in it. It’s topped with a spoon of coconut chutney, a dash of red-hot chutney and a scoop of deep fried potato shavings sprinkled on top.

Urojo or Zanzibar Mix

Urojo or Zanzibar Mix

Just outside the narrow lanes of Stone Town is the lively Darajani Market. It’s a vibrant atmosphere where food supplies and ingredients from around the island are traded and sold. Here you find everything from spices, shoes, live chickens and fish to mobile phones and other accessories.

Zanzibar apples and Mangosteens

Zanzibar apples and Mangosteens

Close to Darajani, is the former Slave Market Site. Although nothing remains of the slave market today, it’s one of the physical reminders of Zanzibar’s dark history in the slave trade.

As I walk down to the underground chambers it is a sobering reminder of the not so distant past. The underground cellars were used as holding pens for the slaves, before they were brought up to be sold on the `market day’. They are dark, airless with low ceilings and have examples of chains bolted to concrete that had been used to tether the slaves.

The Waterfront

Stone Town

The Waterfront – Stone Town

The narrow alleys eventually lead you to the water front. My favorite part of the town is the water front. I make my way towards Forodhani Gardens, which is a popular night food market offering Swahili seafood cuisine and the famous Zanzibar Pizza.

Stalls named `Mr. Chocolate’ or `Mr. Sweet’ sell a variety of sweet and savory pizza’s. This nowhere resembles the `regular pizza’. It tastes more like a combination of an omelet and a pancake with a filling of your choice. I recommend every visitor try this unique native dish!

Zanzibar Pizza

Zanzibar Pizza

Sunset

Sunset

Stone Town being on the western coast of the island gives you spectacular views of the sunset skies over the Indian Ocean. As sunset approaches, every tourist finds a place to sit down to watch this spectacle. Sitting on the terrace of the Africa House, I watch the sun set into the Ocean. Another day comes to an end on the Island of Zanzibar.

7 Comments

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Welcome aboard Sharada.

    To read about a destination like Zanzibar is in itself a rewarding read, considering that I have never been to this side of world. But on top of it, your lucid, simple, flowing text takes us along and the pictures do not overwhelm but just merges in. Nice.

    I would imagine that Tanzania is not a regular travel-place and if one decides to visit Zanzibar then one better make a bigger plan and do more of it. Was it same for you ? Though we have never been there, but we have talked about Maasai Mara a lot more times. Any tip would greatly help.

    Look forward to read more of your travels.

    • Sharada says:

      Thanks so much for your encouraging comments Nandan!

      Yes, Zanzibar isn’t that well known on the travel radar, especially for people from India. We lived there for awhile so didn’t plan it as a tourist. I would think if you’re planning on visiting Tanzania, then a few days in Zanzibar would be well worth it. Northern Tanzania has a lot to offer – great national parks and of course the Kilimanjaro. Hope your travels take you there!

  • Patrick Jones says:

    Great read. The waterfront pic is classic and the Urojo is tempting. A little description about the purpose of your visit or how did you reach there would’ve added a lot more sense to the blog.

  • Anchal Sarraf says:

    Through your article got to know about place named Zanzibar, never heard about this before. Your description of historical beauty, food and sunset view is great.

    • Sharada says:

      Thanks for stopping by Anchal! Zanzibar has only in the recent years opened up to tourism and I didn’t know very much about it till I went there as well :)

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