Planning to travel to Zanzibar, Africa? Whether you are on an African honeymoon, finishing up your Kilimanjaro Trek, or exploring the plains of the Serengeti when ending it all with a long beach holiday one thing is for certain – Zanzibar Island is beautiful.
We spent three weeks traveling Zanzibar island taking a beach break from our long overland trip that started in Cape Town. Here are a few things that are good to know before you visit Zanzibar.
Things to Know Before You Travel to Zanzibar
Where is Zanzibar?
Wondering where exactly Zanzibar is? You’re not alone. Essentially it is an island in the Indian Ocean, a two hour (15 miles) ferry ride from Dar Es Salaam, a major city in Tanzania.
Zanzibar is not a country but is considered a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania. It also isn’t just one island but is the largest of Zanzibar Archipelago.
Zanzibar is Not Exactly Zanzibar
Zanzibar” is not the official name of the island. When people refer to Zanzibar it is technically all of the Zanzibar Archipelago. Zanzibar Island is real name is “Unguja.”
Unguja is surrounded by many other tiny islands but the only ones that most people have likely heard of are Zanzibar, Pemba, and Mafia Island – the only islands inhabited by people.
Not All Beaches Are Created Equal
All the different beaches on Zanzibar offer something unique and special. We spent three weeks on the island hopping around the island in search of the most the beautiful beaches on Zanzibar. Yes, some are more beautiful than others, but every single one is wonderful.
After all, white sand beaches, turquoise water, and friendly locals almost guarantee all visitors will have a great time. For us, the most beautiful beaches on Zanzibar are Pongwe and Nungwi, while Paje was great for kite surfing, and Kizimkaze was perfect for seclusion.
Don’t Skip Stone Town
Zanzibar City is the capital of Zanzibar, and Stone Town is the beating heart of it. Whether flying in or taking the ferry almost all visitors will pass through Stone Town while visiting Zanzibar, Africa.
Your first reaction may be to high tail it out of the city and to the nearest beach resort, but I encourage you to explore for at least a couple days. We entered the Kasbah expecting Stone Town to remind us of the medinas in Marrakech, but thankfully this was not the case. Instead, we were immersed in East African history with touches of European, Arabic, Persian, and Indian cultures.
One of our favorite days in Stone Town would definitely have to be the day we people watched in a Zanzibar Cafe.
Don’t Forget Your Passport
When traveling to Zanzibar, even from Dar Es Salaam you can expect to go through immigration again. Even if you have come from mainland Tanzania, and even though Zanzibar is now part of Tanzania it is still a requirement to get your passport checked before entering and leaving the island – so don’t forget that little important book on your trip to Zanzibar! We also were told to bring our Yellow Fever cards with us, but never ended up being asked for them.
Book Your Ferry Tickets in Advance
So how do you get to Zanzibar from Tanzania? The main ferry company to take from Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar is Azam Marine. When purchasing your tickets there will be 300 men outside the terminal offering to sell you tickets – do not trust them – their tickets are fake or overpriced. Only purchase your ferry ticket from the indoor booth. There are no credit card machines so be prepared to pay in Tanzanian Shilling or USD.
We didn’t purchase ferry tickets before our journey and tried to buy them one hour before the ferry departed. No dice. Every seat was sold out and we had to wait until the morning. On our return ferry, we purchased tickets online, but it was only upon departure that we realized you still had to pay for them in person (cardless system). I would recommend buying your ferry tickets in advance when traveling to Zanzibar, especially in high season. Economy tickets cost $35 a person.
Prepare Your Tastebuds
Zanzibar is sometimes referred to as “The Spice Island” for its abundance of cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg, and cloves. The East African island was used as a spice plantation in the 18th century, and those roots still live. To see this in action tourists can visit local spice farms and get a feel for the different flavors of the island.
Don’t worry if you can’t get yourself on one of the spice farms you’ll be able to really taste Zanzibar in many of the dishes served around the island. We may or may not have gained a little weight from some delicious prawn curry dishes. I would also highly recommend making reservations at The Tea House in Stone Town for a spectacular night and delicious food.
Show Respect for the Culture
Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania that is a predominately Muslim, so it’s important to show your respect for the culture when traveling Zanzibar. Try not to wear short shorts or bikinis outside of resorts and beaches and don’t plan on eating much bacon. We could hear the daily call to prayers from Stone Town only (which I find soothing), but some people may want to bring earplugs for the early wake-up calls.
Watch Out for the Dhows
A dhow is a sailboat used in the Indian Ocean. We saw them all the time on the Mozambican coast and could spend hours watching them bring in goods and fish to shore.
With their thin hulls and large sails, they are quite a sight to see. Luckily if you’re near the beach on Zanzibar you are almost guaranteed to see a dhow.
Or you can take a trip out with the locals and sail the warm Indian Ocean first hand. Make sure they have flippers and eye masks so that you can snorkel!
A Night at the Opera
Did you know that the lead singer of Queen was born in Zanzibar? That’s right – Freddy Mercury himself was born right in Stone Town in the 1940s. Back then Zanzibar was a British Protectorate and Mercury’s family had moved to Zanzibar for his fathers’ job.
Yes, you can even see right where Freddy Mercury lived in the center of Stone Town. Check Out Queen’s Live Aid Performance!
Zanzibar Has a Dark Past
Zanzibar was critical to the Indian Ocean slave trade. It served as the gateway for slaves entering and exiting East Africa and was one of the largest slave ports in the region.
Many groups had a hand at the terrible trade too. Arabs were the main slave traders, while African kings and families would sometimes sell prisoners, and Europeans used the slaves in their plantation. You can witness the horrific conditions slaves were subjected to at the old slave market in Stone Town or take a tour out to Prison Island.
When is the Best Time to Visit Zanzibar?
The best time to visit Zanzibar is between June and October, which is their cool and dry season. Zanzibar has two rainy seasons from mid March to late May, and again in November. We personally visited in February and had nothing but sunny days, although it was hot and humid.
I know you’ve seen Lion King, so I don’t have to explain what Hakuna Matata means. However, once you get to Tanzania “No worries” becomes the way of life on the island and the Zanzibaris will definitely let you know.
Items to Bring to Zanzibar
- Flip Flops: Flip-flops are never a bad idea at beach destinations and should be on every traveler’s Zanzibar packing list. My favorite brand is Rainbow Sandals as they last forever and are super comfortable once the leather forms to your foot.
- Bathing Suit: Obviously, you’re going to need a bathing suit for your stay at one of the best hotels in Zanzibar.
- Sun hat: You aren’t going to get Instagram famous in Zanzibar without a big floppy sunhat! It does serve a purpose too, as Zanzibar has some intense UV exposure.
- Dry bag: Dry bags are great if you’re going to spend time at the beach or find yourself out on a boat.
- Beach cover-up: A beach cover-up or sarong is essential when traveling to Zanzibar. Most of my cover-ups come from Pitusa.
- Waterbottle: The tap water in Zanzibar is not drinkable. Make sure to bring a travel waterbottle.
- Camera Gear: Chances are you’ll want a camera for your trip to Zanzibar. Our favorite pocket-sized point and shoot camera for quick trips are the Sony RX100V. It takes fantastic photos and video and is the size of your palm. Check out our other travel cameras here.
- Sunglasses: Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun on your Zanzibar trip. I personally can’t even go outside without sunglasses. We just invested in our first pair of high-quality sunglasses and love them. Smith Optics are well known in the optical field and their ChromaPop sunglasses have color-enhancing lenses.
- Travel Insurance: We never travel without travel insurance with World Nomads. We ALWAYS travel with travel insurance. Natasha is a bit of a worry wart and would rather stay safe than sorry. World Nomads offers incredible flexible and great plans!
- Guide Book: It’s always nice to have a real live book on hand. We like Lonely Planet!
Where to stay on Zanzibar
The most exclusive of all the resorts on Zanzibar is without a doubt Kilindi Zanzibar. The resort is near Kendwa on the Northwestern part of the island and is one of the top Zanzibar hotels on the beach. Its large grounds give plenty of privacy to its 15 villas that pop up from a lush hillside. The white-washed domed villas feel like a sultan’s palace that should only be fit for a king or a pop celebrity. In fact, the resort was formerly the private residence of ABBA band member, Benny Andersson. It’s definitely the best hotel in Zanzibar for honeymoon vacations.
Park Hyatt Zanzibar
The Park Hyatt Zanzibar is an exquisite hotel delivered in a way only capable of a Park Hyatt and is easily one of the top 10 hotels in Zanzibar. The hotel finds a perfect balance between the brands signature look and the former palace that the main building now occupies. The interiors of the hotel embody the atmosphere of Stone Town with features such as intricate chandeliers, archways, lanterns, trellises, carved wood, and crown molding.
Essque Zalu Zanzibar
Essque Zalu is one of the best beach resorts in Zanzibar. This Zanzibar hotel is not for the faint of heart, at Essque Zalu bigger is better. It is one of the largest resorts on Zanzibar, but the intimacy of Zanzibar has not been lost. Essque Zalu Zanzibar sits at the Northern end of Zanzibar, close by to Nungwi Beach.
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