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.
The Best Hotels in Zanzibar
Seeking the best hotels in Zanzibar? The gorgeous island has a long colorful past and has been drawing in tourists for decades now. They come to soak up the beautiful white beaches warm weather and the perfect stop while on safari in Tanzania.
When we arrived on the island of Zanzibar after driving across Africa for four months we set out to find the best hotels in Zanzibar. After all, the hotels and resorts of Zanzibar are designed for decompression after a long safari in Tanzania. It’s the perfect place to trade in your safari attire and binoculars for a bathing suit and coconut water.
Book A Safari in Tanzania
Traditionally if you wanted to book a safari you’d have to go to a travel agent and have them book your safari for you. They made suggestions for camps and lodges then presented you with a large bill. Most of the industry still operates in this fashion.
However, Timbuktu is a new platform that allows you to select the lodges you’d like and see the pricing per day that way you can select the best itinerary for yourself. They will then contact the lodges and help you through booking your safari. With experts on staff, they can also provide suggestions and arrange the little details much like a travel agent.
Check Out Some Lodges in Tanzania
The pavilions at Kilindi are one of a kind, designed tastefully with minimalistic flair. Each “room” has three circle pavilions that open up to the tranquility of the Indian ocean. There is the main bedroom, open-air bathroom, and then a private lounging deck. In each setting, you are completely at one with the Zanzibar nature.
There are two pools in each of the villas. An upper pool extends right off the main room, and a lower larger pool for a little more space and sunbathing. The pools are private which is just what is needed for a relaxing couples holiday on Zanzibar.
Kigelia Ruaha Camp
Kigelia Camp is located along a dry river bed beneath Kigelia Africana trees. Each of the six tents is the perfect size for two people to enjoy comfortable beds and an outdoor seating area.
It’s worth noting that there is also a family tent for children above 12 to enjoy with their parents. Each tent has a flush toilet and a classic outdoor bucket shower. All in an effort to preserve water a precious resource in the park.
Staying in these tents allows guests to connect with the wild. Falling asleep to the sounds of hyenas and lions in the night is a memory never to be forgotten
Sand Rivers Selous
The lodge was founded in the 1990s by a legendary guide Richard Bonham. The fantastic camp sits in an amazing spot in the Selous Game Reserve, where the Rufiji River makes a wide curve on its way to the Indian Ocean.
Eight thatched guest bandas, are set on raised wooden platforms that overlook the river. The rooms are open-fronted, low-key and permit the wilderness to drift into the villas. The sounds of the babbling Rufiji river are ever-present while hippos grunt happily along the river banks all day and night.
Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge
There are only a handful of lodges that are on the rim of the crater and we were lucky enough to stay at one of them – the Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge. The stone hotel blended well into the crater’s edge while the atmosphere of the lodge was relaxing and intimate.
We enjoyed the main lounge which featured communal fireplaces and great views of the crater with floor to ceiling windows. The focus of the property is obviously the crater. With numerous balconies around the property ensuring a serene spot to relax and enjoy afternoon tea or sundowners.
What to Pack for Zanzibar
Travel Water Bottle
Plastic pollution is a problem in Tanzania so it’s best not to contribute to the problem buying plastic water bottles everywhere. Bottles like the Grayl are great for purifying unsafe water!
However, we also love filtered water bottles in areas we’re uncertain of the water supply. Read more about favorite water bottle for travel in our post.
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.
For more professional photographs we use our Fuji XT-3, and LOVE IT.
A cover-up is one of those beach vacation clothes you should always travel within your luggage. When packing for a day at the beach, make sure you don’t forget one. Not only do they look cute, but they will also protect you from the suns harsh rays.
Many establishments don’t allow beachgoers to wear just a swimsuit, so this is where the cover-up is essential. Most of my cover-ups come from Pitusa.
We both have rain jackets made by Arc’teryx. They are lightweight, durable, packable, waterproof, and windproof. Any rain jacket will do, but the top dollar ones will hold up and really help in inclement weather. If you’re looking for a more affordable jacket we’re big fans of Columbia’s outdoor wear for a good value.
If you’re wondering what travel necessities to bring to Tanzania then good walking shoes should be your top concern.
No matter what you will need a beach bag when heading to the beach. This is to throw in anything like towels, a book, a speaker, sunglasses, snacks, and sunscreen. As full-time travelers, we often use our daypacks for trips to the beach since a tote is unnecessary.
However, a classic tote that everyone has in their closet is a great option for those on short trips or live close to the beach. They also travel well as they can fold flat and lie in your luggage. For family beach goers I recommend a large yet durable beach tote like this one.
Skin cancer is for real! Don’t forget your SPF when traveling around Zanzibar. We recommend ordering some online before leaving the house as you will need it underneath the sun in the summer.
We highly recommend getting an eco friendly sun cream that does not contain harmful chemicals.
Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun. There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes.
We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses, but they do make a huge difference from the crappy $10 ones.
Most hotels will provide you with a towel, but they often aren’t suitable or allowed on the beaches. I like to travel with a microfiber towel because they are light and fold up small, and they also don’t cling on to sand our dirt. Here are a few of our favorite travel towels.
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.Agoda.com Booking.com Hotels.com
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