My Top 5 Things To Do in Stone Town (for a Real Taste of the Spice Islands)
The Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, is synonymous with white sand beaches, turquoise waters and long dhow boat rides back to all-inclusive resorts. A short day trip from any resort found on Unguja (the southern island of Zanzibar), Stone Town offers a unique look into the melting pot of cultures and history of the island.
From the claustrophobic underground slave cells where slaves were kept before market day, to the elaborate decoration of the Old Dispensary reminiscent of British colonial architecture in India, and many other cultural and historical sites, Stone Town offers many activities and tours including:
- Beit El-Ajaib (House of Wonders)
- Beit El-Sahel (Palace Museum)
- The Old Fort
- St Joseph’s Cathedral
- Anglican Cathedral (and old slave market)
- The Old Dispensary
Keeping it Real: My Top 5 Things To Do in Stone Town (for a Real Taste of the Spice Islands)
For those in search of an authentic experience of the city and its people, here is my list of top things to do in Stone Town on a budget:
#5 Wash Down the African Sunset with an Ice-cold African Beer
As the sun starts to set and that magic hour approaches, locals spill onto the main Stone Town beach, just south of the Forohdani Gardens, kicking soccer balls and screaming and laughing as dhow boats set off from the port, dotting the horizon.
Though Stone Town is not exactly known for its beaches (and rightly so compared to its fairer counterparts in the north and west) nothing beats watching the sunset from a relaxed beach restaurant like The Livingstone while sipping on a beer, toes dug into the soft sand.
Apparently a favourite with tourists and expats since colonial times, the Sunset Bar at the Africa House Hotel offers up a large open-air terrace with full-frontal views of the sunset over the Indian Ocean. With a wide selection of beers (and even cocktails) on offer and the fragrant lure of fruit-scented shisha pipes, this was definitely one of our favourite spots to chill out.
Other rooftop favourites include: Swahili House and Emerson Spice House.
#4 Have some Coffee at Jaws Corner
Within the labyrinth of alleyways and decorated wooden doors that make up old Stone Town, lies Jaws Corner – a courtyard of sorts where a number of the main “roads” intersect. It is the kind of place you will stumble upon while exploring the city but cannot find when you are looking for it.
Every morning the courtyard fills with local men and the welcoming scent of strong brewed coffee. A friendly vendor sells the potent, black, unsugared stuff for 100 shilling (R0.60 or $0.06) in small cups which he rinses in a plastic bucket when you are done.
Jaws Corner is the perfect place to people watch in Stone Town. It provides a glimpse into the sense of community that exists here – a world where women sit on their doorsteps and chat to their neighbours across narrow alleyways, where children run around barefoot in the streets and men gather every morning for coffee to discuss politics.
We asked a few locals why this meeting place was named “Jaws Corner”. As far as we could gather someone screened the movie, Jaws, there back in the day. It must have made quite an impression on the local people living on an island surrounded by the Indian Ocean.
#3 Take a Walk Along the Pier
Sometimes the best tourist attractions are outside the “real” tourist attractions. This is the case when it comes to Stone Town – the Forohdani Gardens (and the delicious night food market), the surrounding pier (and its endless views of dhow boats at sunset) and the beach (and the local children who do backflips off boats into the warm waters).
After visiting the sights of Mizingani Road (including the Old Dispensary, the Big Tree, the Old Customs House, the Palace Museum, the House of Wonders and the Old Fort) one arrives at the Forodhani Street – where the Forodhani Gardens and pier lead to the main Stone Town beach.
The pier provides a great vantage point from which to view (and photograph) what seems like hundreds of dhow boats that set off from the nearby port. The flat, warm waters of the Indian Ocean that lap against the pier become pretty inviting with the near-equator sun beating down – though I would probably not do backflips into the water like the local children do (it looks pretty shallow).
The Forodhani Gardens night food market is a seafood lover’s dream – tables full of fresh octopus, lobster, crab claw and prawns (grilled earlier and then reheated here) – sold at very reasonable prices – with vendors fighting for your attention. Another local favourite is the Zanzibari pizza – a chapati stuffed with mince meat and egg and condiments (onion, chilli. mayo).
Wash it all down with a freshly squeezed glass of sugarcane juice.
#2 Explore the Local Market
On the edge of old Stone Town awaits a market like no other – Darajani Market. The main attraction is not for the faint-hearted. We stumbled into a butchery/ slaughter-house of sorts where vendors were cutting up goats meat and chopping off fish heads. It smelled of death and spotting a vendor hosing some blood off into the gutter was just about enough for me.
But it is not all blood and guts here – the market sells EVERYTHING. Though pretty chaotic, this is a great place to pick up delicious dates, giant banana and spices. It is best to go early in the morning – before the crowds when (I am guessing) everything is still fresh.
#1 Getting Lost in the Labyrinth
By far the best thing to do in Stone Town is absolutely nothing – just wander. The labyrinthine streets of old Stone Town are perhaps the most beautiful of all the sights the island has to offer. And with the added advantage of the shadows of the narrow alleys – perhaps also the coolest.
Stone Town is of course a UNESCO world heritage site because it
- “is an outstanding material manifestation of cultural fusion and harmonisation“
- “for many centuries there was intense seaborne trading activity between Asia and Africa, and this is illustrated in an exceptional manner by the architecture and urban structure of the Stone Town”
- “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 David Livingstone conducted their campaign”.
With a number of schools in and around old Stone Town, the streets are filled with uniformed school children, running around, shyly laughing at the “mzungu” (white people) or sometimes (not so shyly) shouting “Gimme a dolla!”
The narrow streets and alleyways are not accessible by motor car. Every now and then the hooting of a scooter will startle you (or your photographer boyfriend lying in the middle of the road taking photos). But mostly the locals ride bicycles and the hooting is replaced with the gentle ringing of a bicycle bell.
Life in Stone Town seems to take place mostly on the sidewalks and front doors of locals – often even the cooking takes places on fires on the sidewalk. The people of Stone Town are amazingly friendly and are always happy to pose for a photo in exchange for “a quick look inside the shop, maybe you like something”.
A photographer’s delight – besides the textured walls and ornate doors of the old town, the local people, their spices and delicious tropical fruit burst with colour and character. If I left Adam to his own devices we would probably have spent the full two weeks in Stone Town and never made it to our beach destinations.
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I am lucky enough to have a very talented photographer as a boyfriend – my holiday photos would look pretty average without his thrown in every now and then. If you like any of the photos below or want to see more of his work, visit his website where you can also order limited edition prints (delivered unframed worldwide):
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