Stone Town is the old quarter of Zanzibar Town, the island’s capital.
The bazaars, mosques, palaces, forts, fruit markets, and winding streets, make this the historic heart of Zanzibar. The traditional Swahili atmosphere is almost tangible, and the unique mixture of cultures offers the chance to experience a living history. You should spend one or two nights sightseeing here at the beginning or end of your trip.
Stone Town was ruled by Omani Arabs from the 18th century, became a key port in the slave trade, and an important trading centre in the 19th century. Most of its buildings date from this time: grand old mansions built for Arab and Indian traders, with their iconic elaborately carved doors, which have since fallen into disrepair. Stone Town is small and the best way to see it is on foot, with or without a guide. We recommend a guided tour, with a reputable guide, because this is the easiest way to get an overview of the important historical sights.
Things to see
You should not miss the House of Wonders, a splendid white balconied building situated on the seafront, the former Sultan’s palace, restored and re-opened in 2002 as a museum. Built of steel, it was the first building on Zanzibar to have electric lights and a lift – hence its name. Below the House of Wonders, by the pier, is the popular Forodhani Gardens, where locals gather in the evening and market stalls sell food and drinks. By the gardens, there is a massive Arab fort, known as the Old Fort, built at the end of the 17th century by Omani Arabs after they had taken Zanzibar from the Portuguese.
There are many other buildings that merit a visit: Livingstone House, the Old Dispensary, the Old Custom House, the Palace Museum, as well as the main market on Creek Road; but most of one’s time will be taken up wandering the labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys crammed with tiny shops and workshops and all the sights, smells and sounds of life that make Stone Town so fascinating.
There is a huge choice in Stone Town, ranging from tourist restaurants in the hotels, such as the Tower Top in Emerson & Green, or the Baharia in the Serena, to simple restaurants aimed at the local market and the food stalls in Forodhani Gardens. Ones we have tried and can recommend include the atmospheric Monsoon, where you sit on cushions and eat Zanzibari and Mediterranean dishes, and the Archipelago, an inexpensive seafood restaurant on the open first floor of a building facing the beach.
Where to stay
All the Stone Town hotels are individual. If hot and dusty bothers you, seek one with a pool; we would say the Serena or Tembo House Hotel.
The Serena is an oasis of calm; Tembo House is in the centre of the seafront action – take your pick. If romance takes priority over everything, then it has to be Zanzibar Palace.
Another option is the Dhow Palace – it’s in the old town, but with a cool central courtyard, and guests can use the Tembo House pool. Recently, Beyt al Chai, an exclusive boutique hotel, has opened opposite the Serena, and we await reports.