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Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania

GPS: -6.1612953751736, 39.18928351751

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Stone Town (Mji Mkongwe in Swahili) is the historic district and the heart of the old city of Zanzibar. Located on the western coast of the semi-autonomous island of Unguja, about thirty kilometres from mainland Tanzania, it enjoys a prominent cultural and artistic heritage.

Zanzibar City owns a unique architectural destination in the world. This is based on very different cultural influences (African, Middle Eastern, European and Indian) and spans more than a millennium of history. It is in the Stone Town district that the city’s heritage stands out with its magnificent houses or palaces built in coral rock. The main islands of Zanzibar (Unguja, Pemba and Mafia) as well as Stone Town are used primarily by the Persians as a maritime base for the spice trade. Then, Portuguese, Indians, Yemenis, Omanis and British follow one another for the control of the Indian Ocean archipelago. Attached to the Sultanate of Oman in the 19th century, Zanzibar became a stronghold for the trade of ivory and spices (including pepper, cinnamon and especially cloves nicknamed locally black gold). The archipelago is also a hub for the black slave trade. David Livingstone, Scottish doctor and explorer, illustrates himself by succeeding in adopting a treaty which imposed on the sultan of Zanzibar the prohibition of slave trafficking in 1873. This exotic land came under British control in 1890 and the archipelago obtained independence late, in 1963. After the event of the Zanzibar revolution in 1964 (popular movement against the Arab-speaking elite which concentrates the local power), the archipelago merged with the territory of Tanganyika in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania. Today, about 16,000 people live in the old quarter of the Stone City against just over 200,000 inhabitants for the city of Zanzibar.

The majority of the buildings of Stone Town of Zanzibar were constructed of coral stone in the 19th century, a material with reddish colours particularly brittle. The city’s narrow street labyrinth will travel you to the time of ancient sultans and great Persian, Omani or Arab merchants. The local Swahili culture, marked by its cosmopolitan character, today testifies to the multi-cultural richness of Zanzibar, a city in full evolution under urban pressure. This large place of spice production has a culinary art particularly appreciated by its visitors. It promises a tour of the world of flavours in a vibrant, serene and warm atmosphere surrounded by heavenly beaches.

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  • The medina architecture of Stone Town of Zanzibar; the tall white buildings, the maze of old alleys and lively streets of the labyrinthine city
  • The splendid carved wooden doors of the old town (including Tippu Tip’s House); the balconies and openings in mashrabiya (natural ventilation system typical of Arab countries)
  • The House of Wonders (Beit-al-Ajaib) housing the Museum of History and Culture of Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast; the Peace Memorial Museum (Beit el Amani) and the Stone Town Cultural Centre (former dispensary recently renovated) typical of the island’s multi-cultural architecture
  • The Old Fort of Zanzibar (Ngome Kongwe) built by the Omanis at the end of the 17th century on the site of a chapel erected by the Portuguese (it includes an open-air theatre); the Sultan’s Palace or Beit el-Sahel (former official residence of the Sultan of Zanzibar, Khalifa bin Harub, until the revolution of 1964, which was transformed into a museum dedicated to the history of the sultans of the archipelago)
  • The minarets and mosques; the colourful Hindu temples; St. Joseph’s Cathedral (neo-Romanesque and European in style); the Anglican Church (built on the site of the former slave market); the Slave Monument (the only memorial referring to this sinister episode in the island’s history)
  • The colourful and spicy Darajani market where auctions take place regularly; the former Hamamni Persian Baths built in 1870
  • Kendwa and Nakupenda beaches; the Forodhani Gardens; the reefs surrounding the main island of Zanzibar; the colourful tropical fish that populate the seabed; the modern part of Zanzibar City (Ng’ambo) contrasting with Stone Town
  • A trip on a dhow (traditional Arab sailboat from the Red Sea); a fishing boat trip to Changuu also called Prison Island (breeding centre for giant tortoises); observation of the terrestrial fauna and flora in the Jozani and Masingini Forests (south-east of the city); a visit to a spice farm north of the city
  • The annual Sauti Za Busara music festival in February; the tarab (heady music with multiple influences); the Zanzibar International Film Festival in July (one of the biggest cultural events in East Africa)
  • Zanzibar is derived from the word Zengibar (“coast of the Blacks” in Arabic) that sailors from the Arabian Peninsula gave 1,000 years ago to the city populated by Bantu people from the African continent.
  • In the first century AD, the archipelago was part of the kingdom of Sheba which flourished in the south of the Arabian Peninsula. The Bantu began trading with the Arabs in the 3rd and 4th centuries, exchanging ivory, tortoise shells and palm oil for weapons, wine and flour. The Islamisation of the region began in the 7th century and it was not until the 18th century that Zanzibar earned its nickname of “spice island”. According to the French geographer Nathalie Bernardie-Tahir, it was Arab traders who introduced cloves to Zanzibar by developing local plantations. This plant originating from Indonesia, whose flower buds produce the spice so coveted at the time, made the archipelago’s fortune. This golden era is over, as today cloves no longer bring in much money in Zanzibar (Tanzania has one of the highest poverty levels in the world).
  • The Swahili are the majority Bantu ethnic group in Zanzibar since their settlement in the 13th century. This people was born from a mixture of black African and Arabian populations (Arabic is the main religion on the archipelago).
  • In the imagination of travellers, Zanzibar has always sounded like a mythical name and destination. It has been a source of fantasy for many artists, writers and poets in Europe (such as Arthur Rimbaud, Jules Verne and Marco Polo). The archipelago went through tragic periods in its history by becoming a major centre of the slave trade between the 15th and 19th centuries under the control of rich Arab families. The majority of these slaves from East Africa were shipped to the cities of Arabia, as well as to Europe and Asia, or sent by force to the clove plantations of the islands of Zanzibar.
  • Stone Town of Zanzibar is said to have around 500 carved wooden doors, the oldest of which dates back to the end of the 17th century. The majority of these doors are made from mango wood, jack tree, African mahogany or even ebony for the more fortunate. They can be decorated with copper coins and contain motifs from the Quran engraved on them. Traditionally, they are the central element of Stone Town houses. The motifs and decorative elements that adorn these massive doors attested, at the time, to the social rank of its owner.
  • The House of Wonders, a large three-storey colonnaded building dating from 1883 and topped by a clock tower, is the first monument in the whole of East Africa to have electricity and a lift.
  • The former singer of the rock band Queen, Freddie Mercury (Farrokh Bulsara by his real name), was born in Stone Town of Zanzibar in 1946. His parents, from the Pārsi community (people mainly from India but originally from Iran), worked as accountants. A museum dedicated to the leader of the Queen group opened at the end of 2019 in Stone Town (a bar is also named after him).
  • Giant tortoises from the Seychelles are bred on Changuu Island, once traded for spices grown in Zanzibar.
  • From mainland Tanzania, you can reach Zanzibar City by hydrofoil from Dar es-Salaam. The trips are daily (1h30 crossing time). Alternatively, Unguja Island has an international airport based in Kisauni, south of Zanzibar City.
  • On the spot, do not hesitate to wander through the maze of lively lanes of Stone Town without a map or guide, for a guaranteed change of scenery (this part of Zanzibar is completely car-free). Due to a severe lack of resources, the built heritage remains in a poor state of repair despite the Unesco listing of this historic site.
  • After visiting the old town, head to the waterfront in the evening where there is a daily night food market in the Forodhani Gardens (there are many grilling stalls).
  • Open-air musical performances are held regularly in the Old Fort of Zanzibar (featuring taarab, typical Swahili songs and bands from Tanzania and Kenya).
  • If you move away from the city of Zanzibar, you will have the opportunity to discover several natural attractions of the archipelago: the plantations inland (coconut, pineapple, manioc, clove, sugar cane, rice…), the bush in the eastern part (baobabs), lagoons, beaches and fishing villages on the coast without forgetting tropical forests and sacred caves (these are still used today by witchdoctors).

Where to eat

  • Lukmaan Restaurant
    (local coffee shop)
  • The Swahili House
    (meals on the roof)
  • Rooftop Tea House
    (perfumed dishes)

Where to go out

  • Tangawizi Spice Farm
    (the spice tour)
  • Masingini Forest
    (biological reserve)
  • Mtoni Palace Ruins
    (the oldest palace in Zanzibar)

Where to sleep

  • Jambo Guest House
    (for small budgets)
  • Stone Town Cafe and Bed...
    (pleasant inn)
  • Mizingani Seafront Hotel
    (with undeniable charm)

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