Zanzibar: Main Sights

Powdery white sands and crystal clear waters

Zanzibar Main Sights

You won’t have to look far for something to do in Zanzibar. Trying to fit it all in will be the difficulty as Zanzibar offers a vast array of sights, attractions and activities to suit all tastes. Explore the intrigue and local pace of life in the attractions of Stone Town, overload your senses in one of the many spice plantations around the Old Town, get up close and personal with local wildlife in the Jozani forest and Ngezi nature reserves or enjoy the alluring and attractive local Taraab dance accompanied by hypnotic rhythms of the local Ngoma-style drummers.

Stone Town on Zanzibar Island

Stone town’s main sites are the Hamamni Persian baths, the turn of the century catholic cathedral of St. Joseph, and the Anglican church of Christ which occupies the site of Africa’s last slave market, the cells of which can be visited. The main commercial areas contain a clutter of shops and stalls in the manner of an Arab Souq or Bazaar are along and off of Hurumzi and Gizenga streets, and Changa Bazaar – most easily accessed from behind the old Fort or House of Wonders – where travellers will find dozens of antique dealers, crafts shops and jewellery stores. The main streets running north to south Sokomuhogo and Tharia/Mkunazini are less hectic and have fewer souvenir shops and so provide a more leisurely introduction to life in the old town. But it is the Labyrinth itself which is Stone Town’s main attraction: a maze of faded mansions, mosques, and twisting alleyways that unexpectedly open out into semi-ruined squares alive with food vendors, hawkers and at night, crowds of people enjoying coffee on the stone Barazas, watching US action films and Bollywood Epics on outdoor TVs.

Agriculture and the spice plantations on Zanzibar Island

Zanzibar’s nicest spices are nutmeg, vanilla, cardamom and cinnamon, however Zanzibar’s most profitable spice is cloves. In fact cloves are the spicy reason the Sultan of Oman settled in Zanzibar. The island is rich in tropical fruits and perfumes too. Cassavas, coconut palms, corn, and yams, are readily produced in Zanzibar. Coconut palms source of copra is used for flavouring. Coir, from the coconut palm is a strong fibre used to make robes and mats. Timber from coconut palms is (just recently) used to make attractive furniture. Visiting a spice plantation is informative and you will experience all types of oriental spices from cloves to black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, and saffron. You’ll also get to taste an amazing array of tropical fruits, like the curious Yoghurt Fruit and the tangy-tasting Jack Fruit.

Ngenzi nature reserves and the Jozani Forest on Zanzibar Island

Ngezi nature reserves and the Jozani forest are real centres of biodiversity. Jozani forest is the largest area of mature forest left on the island. It is also host to the endangered Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey, several species of butterflies, about 40 species of birds and several other animals. Bird-life- Over 200 species of birds have been identified in Zanzibar. The Ngezi nature reserves are also home to various species including leopard, galago ( bush baby), Java civet, African civet, various mongooses, Zanzibar red colobus, blue monkey vervet monkey bush pig, tree hyrax, Alder's duiker, and sunis have all been recorded as habiting these reserves. Ngezi nature reserves are also the best place to spot the giant tortoise. Other reptiles to be seen include a vast array of types frogs and chameleons.

Prison island or Changuu on Zanzibar Island

Prison Island, also known as Changuu Private Island Paradise is an exquisite place to visit. The history of the Changuu Island is quite spell-binding. In the 1860s, the desolate island was given to two Arabs by the Sultan Seyyid Majid. They used it as a detention centre for rebel slaves. In 1893, after Zanzibar became a British Protectorate, General Sir Lloyd William Mathews (who was a First Minister), bought Changuu Island for the Zanzibar Government from its former Arab owners with the objective of building a prison. The island was sold by the Arabs especially because slave trade had been abolished. A prison to serve the stone town was built on the island but it was instead used as a quarantine station for the whole East Africa region. By 1894 construction of the prison was completed and the island became known as Prison Island. Private white sandy beaches, dense forests, unspoiled placid waters and coral reef all make this paradise a haven not only for tourists but fo its animal kingdom inhabitants as well. A number of rare bird species and a rather unique community of permanent residents known as the Aldabra Giant tortoises have lived here since 1919. Gifts from the Seychelles government, the endangered Aldabra giant tortoises were initially four tortoises. These original four produced off spring. The current number of tortoises is now 100. The Island lies some 8 kilometres northwest of Stone Town or Zanzibar town and is about 800m by 400m at the broadest part. Prison Island is a quick 20 -30 minutes sail on a traditional dhow (fishing boat). The Island is surrounded with a beautiful coral reef, a fantasy to anyone who enjoys snorkelling. The pristine white beach is ideal for sunbathing.

Kizimkazi fishing village on Zanzibar Island

When you go to Kizimkazi fishing village, you might try your luck at swimming with dolphins. Kizimkazi fishing village located on the southern point of the island, has one or two schools of bottle-nosed dolphins roaming about and they often accompany your boat. Kizimkazi village has a late 12th century mosque too. The Kizimkazi mosque is evidence of the earliest influence of Islam in East Africa - definitely worth a visit due to its historical significance.

The House of Wonders on Zanzibar Island

The door from the house of wonders, a former palace, is the oldest in Zanzibar and dates from 1694. The building was bombed during the "Shortest War in History", when the British Bombarded Zanzibar. At the turn of the century, the building was used by the British for their local colonial ad-ministerial offices until the revolution of 1964. In 1977 the CCM (Chapa Cha Mapinduzi, Swahili for 'the Party of the Revolution') made the House of Wonders their headquarters. The building is now a Museum. It was Sultan Barghash who built the “Beit el Ajaib” ("House of Wonders" in Arabic) Locals called it the house of wonders because it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electric lights and an elevator. The building was very tall and filled with beautiful artefacts brought by the trading Sultan to his home. It was built in 1883 as a ceremonial palace, on the site of a previous building used by Queen Fatuma of the Al Alawi rulers who preceded the Albusaidis.

The Palace Museum on Zanzibar Island

The Palace Museum used to be the Royal residence of the Sultan of Zanzibar until the dynasty was overthrown in 1964. This fascinating look back into the lives of the Sultans includes a room dedicated to the Princess Salme of Zanzibar, daughter of Sultan Said the Great. It contains various items of furniture and paintings. The Palace Museum is a large white building with castellated battlements, and was built in the late 1890's for members of the Sultan's family. Originally called the Sultan's Palace, in 1911 it became the official residence of the Sultan of Zanzibar, but following the revolution in 1964, it was renamed the Peoples' Palace. In 1994, the palace was renovated as a museum dedicated to the history of Zanzibar's Sultans and the name changed a third time to “the Palace Museum”. For the first time, visitors could now see the Sultans' furniture and possessions that happened to have survived the revolution. It is admittedly quite run down and dusty but it is well worth a look. You will have to pay an entrance fee.

The Old Arab Fort on Zanzibar Island

Built in 1780 by the Omanis, the Arab Fort on Zanzibar Island was used to protect people from attacks expected from the mainland. The fort was later used as a prison and barracks. During the period of Portuguese rule, it was later used as a church, and remnants can still be seen. Currently you will find a small restaurant and some shops inside the fort. In recent years it has been renovated to house the Zanzibar Cultural centre. The Arab Fort is also the centre of Zanzibar Festivals. These include the Zanzibar Festival of the Dhow Countries, a festival involving theatre, traditional and more modern music, display of paintings, crafts and sculptures. The Festival is held from 30 June to 9th July every year. Zanzibar International Film Festival: - This held together with the festival of the dhow countries. The Zanzibar Cultural Festival- Also held for a whole week in July, it brings together musicians from different parts of the world. The festival of Mwaka Kongwa is held in various villages of Zanzibar every year.


The Anglican Cathedral on Zanzibar Island

The Anglican Cathedral on Zanzibar Island was built in 1873 by Edward Steere, Third Bishop of Zanzibar, and reigned 1874 to 1882. When he died of a heart attack in the building next door, he was buried behind the altar. The Anglican Cathedral altar actually is built over the whipping post of the island's largest slave market. The Cathedral took exactly 10 years to build. It has a barrel vault style of roof, apparently Steere’s own invention. Throughout construction, the locals speculated whether the roof would ever hold, and perhaps as a testament to Steere’s forward-looking optimism, it still stands today. Next to the Cathedral was the Mission House, built in 1873 but demolished later and a hospital was built in its place. This later became a hostel and orphanage and the cellars below can be visited. They may have been slave chambers. Visitors pay a fee to enter the museum and this usually includes a guide for the museum and the Church. The Church has tablets with the history written in English, in the event that a guide is unavailable.

The Ithnashiri Dispensary on Zanzibar Island

The Ithnashiri Dispensary on Zanzibar Island was built by a wealthy Ismaili Indian merchant, Tharia Topan, one of Zanzibar's richest men, as a charitable hospital for the poor and in order to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. It is the most decorative of all the old buildings in Zanzibar, sporting ornately carved balconies, intricate stucco work and marvellous stained glass windows. The dispensery is worth a visit just for the small museum situated on the upper level. The museum features a display describing and depicting the full restoration process. Old photos of the waterfront are also on display and there are some shops on the ground floor. The recently restored Old Dispensary is now known as the Aga Khan Cultural Centre. The first stone of the Old Dispensary was laid in 1887 and the building was finished in 1894.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral on Zanzibar Island

The spires of St. Joseph’s Cathedral on Zanzibar Island can be seen from any elevated point in town and they serve as a handy landmark for those in search of a reference point. The spires of the cathedral are more difficult to see from the narrow streets of Stone Town. Built between 1893 and 1897 by French missionaries in Romanesque style, St. Joseph's Cathedral was designed by the same architect who designed the cathedral at Marseilles in France.

Livingstone's House on Zanzibar Island

Livingstone's House was built in 1860. It was used by many of the missionaries and explorers as a starting point. Dr David Livingstone lived here before commencing his last journey to the mainland interior. Built by Sultan Said Majid who ruled Zanzibar from 1856 to 1870, Dr. David Livingstone used it as a base for his last journey into the interior of Africa. Several other missionaries and explorers also used it as a starting point e.g. Burton and Speke.

Shakti Temple on Zanzibar Island

The Shakti Temple on Zanzibar Island is perpetually open, welcomes tourists, and will provide a tour. Be warned; it is next to impossible to find the temple if you have no guide. The Shakti Temple on Zanzibar Island has many chimes and bells, rung every day just at sunrise and then again just at sunset. The chimes and bells are quite loud but charmingly so and can be heard from the rooftop restaurant of Emerson's & Green, just across the street. The Shakti Temple congregation made the building full before the revolution, but a large number of Hindus departed from Zanzibar in 1964 and the Shakti Temple on Zanzibar Island is now rarely full.

Darajani Bazaar on Zanzibar Island

For people on holiday for lengthy periods in Zanzibar, Darajani Bazaar on Zanzibar Island is a great place to stock up on items like flip-flops, good backup mosquito nets, and thermoses. You can also pick up fabric here and have a local tailor make clothes for you. Natural fabrics you will find include cotton West African prints, locally-worn kangas (from India) and imported plain cotton in different colors. Across Creek Road near the main market on Darajani Road is the Darajani Bazaar, this shopping strip is a fun walk and a good way avoid the tourist prices across the street. The things available in the Darajani bazaar are mostly Chinese and Iranian imports such as sheets, synthetic fabrics, metal pans, plastic shoes, radios and other products of the modern world.

Forodhani Harbour on Zanzibar Island

Imagine quaint open gardens in front of an old Arab fort on the edge of the Indian Ocean offering finger foods such as small kebabs, fried chicken and cassava, octopus and samoosas. This is Forodhani Harbour on Zanzibar Island. In the evening, many little stalls offering the above cuisine will light up twinkling oil lights which twinkle against the walls of the Old Arab Fort and add to the pleasant evening East African Island ambience found nowhere else in the world. It is a good time to take a walk through the Forodhani Harbour on Zanzibar Island, watch the sunset, and idly sample the spicy fixings mentioned.

The Hamamni Persian Baths on Zanzibar Island

The building housing the Hamamni Persian baths on Zanzibar Island was larger in earlier times and had an arcade and restaurant attached but that area has since been turned into (still used) residences. Although the baths were open to both men and women, they had separate hours of admittance, open to women in the mornings and men in the afternoons. It was (and still is) customary for married Muslim men and women to rid themselves of all body hair, so shaving vestibules were provided within the bathhouse. The Hamamni Bathhouse, was constructed in 1881 by a man named Hadj Gulam Hussein. He was asked to build the bath house by Sultan Barghash bin Said, himself. Hamamni translates into "place of the baths" and is now the name of the neighbourhood in which they lie. (The tubs are still there, but the water is gone). They have been nicely restored and are worth a visit. There's a nominal fee for entering and it's payable in US or local currency.

The High Court on Zanzibar Island

You will find the High Court of Justice on Zanzibar Island near the current President's House and the Victoria Gardens. It has historical significance from an architectural point of view. Zanzibar Island’s High Court of Justice building combines design techniques from portugal and has a distinctive Arab influence. It was designed by J. H .Sinclair, an architect and former British resident.

Kilele Square on Zanzibar Island

Interestingly, Swahili Locals called this the noisy square. 'Kilele' in Swahili means noisy. As this was the former site of the slave market it must have been noisy. Around Kilele square you will find the old American Consulate, the Extelcoms building (now the Zanzibar Serena Inn) and the Mambo Msiige building (was the second British Consulate as well), and now is a Zanzibari Government Ministry building.

Malinde Mosque on Zanzibar Island

One of Zanzibar Island’s oldest mosques, the Malindi Mosque was built by Sunni Muslims in a typically simple style. This mosque has a peculiar conical minaret. The minaret is built on a square platform built into the mosque whereas other minarets normally are built from the ground up. To see the minaret you'll need to stand on a stone or cement bench on the outside of one of the surrounding buildings to look down inside. One such building is down an alley and across the road from the mosque itself.

The Peace Memorial Museum & the Natural History Museum on Zanzibar Island

For history buffs The Peace Memorial Museum & the Natural History Museum on Zanzibar Island are nice places to bone up on the history of Zanzibar as it relates to everything from slavery, the royal families, coins, stamps, local crafts, trade and the many and varied colonial years. Next door is the Natural History Museum, which has some giant tortoises and some preserved Dodo bones, and a rather dusty herbarium. These are at the western end of Creek Road near the intersection of Kaunda Road and designed by the same architect who designed the High Court, J. H. Sinclair, the National Museum is home to many of Zanzibar's memorabilia including, most notably, Livingstone's medical chest from the Zambezi expeditions. Also on display are a rickshaw, some Chinese porcelain and the ancient drums and horns of the Alawi kings of Zanzibar, who preceded the Sultans as well as a piece of Zanzibar's (and East Africa's first) railroad, and an old, palm oil-powered bicycle lamp.

The Markets on Zanzibar Island

The central market buildings on Zanzibar Island on Creek Road were erected during the time of the British Protectorate; in the early part of the century. The Fruit, Fish and Meat Markets, are right in the centre of Creek Road and are worth going to see.. Here you can see first hand and in one place, all the intriguing exotic fruits, Fish, meat and vegetables that Zanzibar Island has to offer.