Stone Town, the old part of Zanzibar City. Photo by Wegmann
Zanzibar, known locally as Unguja, is not an tiny and isolated island republic as many imagine but an historically powerful trading sultanate (kingdom) and now a state within the republic of Tanzania in East Africa.
The name Zanzibar somehow evokes an ancient and faded dream vision of wide, sunny beaches and narrow, dark alleyways – which actually just about summarises Unguja island (commonly known as Zanzibar), though the cool alleys are frequently decrepit and the wide beaches liberally strewn with seaweed. That’s not to put down Zanzibar as a fine and competitively priced beach destination, it’s just better for a traveler to head out there with realistic expectations.
Paradise, it’s not. If that’s the requirement then the Seychelles, further out into the Indian Ocean, may be more suitable, though only if the wallet is fat and cultural needs thin.
Strictly speaking Zanzibar actually applies to the archipelago – island group – that includes Pemba island and Unguja island, while Zanzibar Town is usually known as Stone Town. Still, we will continue to call the island Zanzibar, which resonates better with us, since Unguja sound more like a traditional Tanzanian laxative or the noise a lion makes when it’s copulating.
Where is Zanzibar?
It’s just off the coast of Tanzania, southeast Africa. In fact Zanzibar is an archipelago composed of three main islands: Zanzibar that’s locally known as Unguja, Pemba, Mafia and a number of smaller islets. Zanzibar island is 90km long and 30km wide.
Best time to visit Zanzibar
Best weather: June-September.
OK: October-February (some short rains).
Temperatures normally range from low 20’sC (70’s F) to mid 30’sC (100 F), which is fine, though the humidity can get uncomfortable.
During Ramadan many if not most Muslims will neither eat nor drink during the daytime and consequently many cafes, restaurants and even shops will open only after sunset; public eating, drinking and smoking by tourists may upset the locals. In one Muslim country the only alcohol served to us during our visit was from a teapot into tea cups in a first class hotel.
Furthermore service personnel may be missing, careless or irritable during the daytime.
The last day of Ramadan, known as Idd al Fitr, can be a wild time with much celebrating, depending on location.
Dates depend on the full moon rising in your location so they may differ by one day depending on where you plan to be.
In 2019 Ramadan will start on the 6 May and will continue for 30 days until the 4 of June.
One of the small Stone Town beaches on Zanzibar Island. Photo by Harvey Barrison.
Zanzibar is not in fact one island but an archipelago (island group) including another largish island, Pemba, and several smaller ones including Mafia, though the island of Zanzibar is where most tourists choose to spend their time and money.
The island’s urban centre, Zanzibar Town contains an old section called Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the recipient of much of the tourist income.
Zanzibar Island is girdled with dazzling white beaches that are scattered with colourful local villages as well as a selection of superb modern beach resorts that come with a stiff price tag, and a fair number of smaller, low-budget resorts aimed at backpackers and year gappers.
Currency: this is not a costly destination. Local currency is the Tanzanian shilling; bring cash or traveler’s cheques to buy the currency. US $ are favoured.
Major credit cards are accepted at large establishments.
There are NO ATMs in Zanzibar (only in Dar es Salaam).
Cuisine: Spicy (not surprising considering spices have been one of the island’s main crops for centuries) Swahili seafood of all sorts, with rice and often flavoured with coconut and tamarind.
The superb, value-for-money open-air market every evening in Stone Town’s waterside Forodhani Gardens is a great value way to experiment with Tanzania’s best cuisine, meet people and get some cultural input too. It’s a winner!
Electricity: 220-140v, 3 flat pin new British style or 3 round pin old British style plugs.
Languages: Swahili and English.
Visas: Get it at Zanzibar airport on arrival. USD$50 (no photos required) for Europeans or USD$100 for Americans. Download the application from the Tanzania tourism site, complete it beforehand and present it along with the precise money in US currency. The visa will be stamped into your passport.
Health: this is a malarial area so take precautions; read our mosquito page.
Recently there has been an increase in the number of muggings, bag snatching and even kidnapping, both on the mainland and on Zanzibar. There was also a terrible incident of acid attack on two girl tourists in 2013 which may have had islamic fundamentalist overtones (or simply rejected advances). Take care, especially around unknown urban areas after dark and females should cover up bare torsos/shoulders/thighs and maybe even hair when walking around the town (see local women in the photo further up the page). Beaches should not be a problem.
In addition there have been political demonstrations. These are not aimed at tourists but it’s best to stay out of the way of over-excited locals.
Getting around Zanzibar
Mini buses (dalla-dalla) criss-cross the island while taxis are not expensive. Car, motorcycle hire is a possible but don’t forget to bring an International Driver’s Permit. Bicycles too can be rented. Pemba Island also runs buses and rentals.
Religion: Mainly Islam.
Ramadan, Muslim fasting month with varied dates. See above for dates and more information.