Stone Town, or Zanzibar City, is the capital of the island of Zanzibar. Any trip to Zanzibar will start in Stone Town which is full of rich history, architectural wonders, and culture. It was the port of trade between east and west in olden times, as well as the hub for slave trading to the Middle East.
Most people skip Stone Town, electing to visit the beautiful beach resorts that Zanzibar has to offer. However, if you have time, I would recommend at last a day or two in Stone Town to visit the sights here!
In addition, make sure to read my comprehensive guide on traveling Zanzibar if you are planning to visit!
History of Stone Town
Stone Town’s history is absolutely fascinating. The first accounts of Arab traders in the 9th century referred to Zanzibar as the land of Zenj or the “coast of black people”. Its strategic location in the center of East Africa led it to be the ultimate fusion of Arab, Indian, European, and African cultures that you still see to this day.
The island became famous as a slave auction port of Africans that became hugely profitable. The island changed hands throughout the ages but came under the control of the Omani sultanate for most of the 18th and 19th century where slave trading still dominated.
The British eventually took control of the island outlawing slave trading. It was in this time at the end of the 19th century that the trade of spices became the dominant economic engine.
Stone Town gets its name from the ornate houses built with local stone by Arab traders and slavers during the 19th Century. It is estimated that around 600,000 slaves were sold through Zanzibar between 1830-1863.
Is Stone Town Safe to Walk Around?
The first thing that people may ask is whether Stone Town is safe for tourists to visit. You can read here that yes, it is safe. Stone Town is the capital of Zanzibar and is packed with people. There is very little if any violent crime against tourists. Like anywhere else in the world, just have your wits about you when it comes to your possessions.
During the day and night, I walked around everywhere by myself without any issue. I never felt unsafe at any point. There are plenty of people that will go up to you to hustle tours and souvenirs but that is just part of the whole process.
Do girls have to cover up?
Stone Town is probably the most traditional part of the island when it comes to observing Muslim traditions. It’s advised that women and men wear longer clothing to respect local traditions.
Nevertheless, as someone who sweats profusely in high heat, I only wore tank tops while walking around Stone Town. No one ever gave me looks about it. I saw plenty of girls that wore shorter clothing and don’t think they had much issue either. I think if you want to be fully respectable to local customs, wear something to cover up the knees and shoulder. If you don’t do it, nothing will happen to you either.
Walking through Stone Town
Now that you know Stone Town is perfectly safe to walk around, it’s time to explore.
Walking around Zanzibar’s famous Stone Town is an architecture buff’s delight – the variety of building styles on view provides a whistle-stop tour of the island’s long and varied history. Arab mansions with high, blank white walls sit next to the lacy wooden balconies and colourful stained glass windows of grand Indian residences.
If you look hard enough, you’ll even be able to glance further back in history and find some remnants of the heyday of the Swahili civilisation, which ruled supreme in this part of Africa as long ago as the 10th century.
For most visitors Zanzibar Town means Stone Town, the historic quarter where you can wander for hours through a maze of narrow streets, easily losing yourself in centuries of history.
Visiting the night market of Forodhani
Without a doubt, one of the most popular things to do in Stone Town is to visit the Forodhani night market. Located across the street from the old fort on the pier, this area in the park transforms into a night market serving out BBQ Seafoods, Schwarmas, juices, fruits, and Zanzibar pizza.
It spans a large square and you will see the lights and smell the fresh food from far away. It’s not nearly as big as I had thought as I was picturing something like the outdoor hawker markets in Singapore. It attracts a mix of locals and tourists but in high season, expect mostly tourists coming here. The prices are high in comparison to what you get elsewhere so make sure to know what prices to expect before going (and bargain!)
There are numerous stalls and they are all essentially serving the same things. Among the seafood stalls, you’ll see fresh kebabs (mishkaki) of seafood like prawns, calamari, fish etc. You’ll also have chicken, beef, lamb and many other varieties. Some stalls will have lobster or crabs in addition to all of this. To top it off, you’ll have numerous options like rice, chips, and chapatis to choose from. You can choose whatever you want and they will grill everything to serve to you on a plate.
There are five or six different schawarma stands that serve chicken or beef on a vertical spit. From what it seemed, they are mostly the same.
Finally, there are the Zanzibar pizza stations which are essentially dough stuffed with veggies, meat/seafood, cheese, and topped with an egg. They’re grilled on a pan and served sliced up. I actually really liked these things.
I tried a little bit of everything at these stalls and to be honest, the best thing were the schawarmas. I just think the seafood is a bit overpriced for what it is and the quality is questionable because who knows what they do with unsold food of the night!
What do things cost at Forodhani Market?
Some of the items have prices already listed like Schwarma’s and Zanzibar pizza. Schwarma is 3500 TZS (~$1.5) and Zanzibar pizzas are anywhere from 5000 TZS to 10000 TZS depending on the filling ($2 to $4).
Seafood on the other hand is all negotiable. I paid roughly 8000 TZS for a kebab of prawns, 500 TZS for a small beef mishkaki, 2000 TZS for a stick of chicken. Everything is negotiable within reason of course. If they didn’t like my price, I just simply walked to the stall next to it and they came running back.
Is it worth a visit?
Yes I absolutely think the night market is worth a visit at least for a night. Yes it’s mostly for tourists, but it’s a cool experience and the food is decent.
I came here on both nights I was in Stone Town because I very much liked it. In the end, I think the seafood is average at best. I have no idea how long it’s been sitting out and it didn’t taste astounding or anything. I would not get the seafood again.
However, I thought the schwarma’s were absolutely delicious. I ended up eating these most of the time because they were tasty and cheap. I tried numerous schwarma’s from different stands and they are mostly of similar taste. Of course, I love fresh sugarcane juice which reminds me of the hawker markets in Singapore.
If the loud and hectic Faradhani night market is not your thing, then pay a visit to Lukmann’s restaurant down the street. This is a large open air restaurant that serves all the local dishes that you’ll find at the night market. The prices here are fixed so you don’t need to bargain or worry about being taken advantage of.
They have the same schawarma, seafood, mishkaki, curries, fruits, juices etc. as the night market but in a restaurant form. This restaurant attracts a good number of locals and tourists alike with prices that are mostly reasonable.
I came here for lunch and had a little bit of everything while enjoying my beer on their terrace overlooking the town. Not bad!
Emerson Tea House
In the heart of Stone Town is a beautifully restored hotel that once was the home of one of the richest men in the Swahili Empire – Mr Tharia Topan, who served as the principal financial advisor to Sultan Bargash.
It underwent a huge renovation in the 20th century and now is one of the most popular hotels in Zanzibar. They have two buildings, but the one to visit is the tea house on Hurumzi.
Walk to the top of this building and you’ll be at the highest point in Stone Town. The tea house which offers drinks, tea, and delicious Swahili cuisine, has 360 degree of the city. It’s a traditional sit on the floor with comfortable Arabian style cushions type of restaurant and is the perfect place to enjoy a sundowner.
In peak season, this place is packed for lunch and dinner so make sure to make reservations ahead of time. The cost was $15 for a lunch tasting and reasonable prices for drinks in addition
Slave Market Museum
Another must see attraction in Stone Town is a visit to the old slave market. Zanzibar, unfortunately, has some dark history to it and used to be one of the largest markets for trading slaves back in the 18th century. Africans would be rounded up from all around the continent, some even thousands of miles inland, and would be brought to Zanzibar to be auctioned off before being shipped off to likely the colonies in the Americas.
As soon as we arrived, it felt creepy, like you could almost feel that monstrosities were performed here at one point. There’s a lot of reading material here and everything is absolutely fascinating. I remember learning all about the dark period in man’s history known as colonialism and where I was standing was one of the main hubs of it.
On our drive from Arusha to Dar Es Salaam, we drove through the town of Bagamoyo which served as an important stop in the slave trade as this would be the last stop before slaves were taken to Zanzibar where they were sold. Bagamoyo is swahili and translates to “lay down your heart” because it was here that slaves would abandon any remaining hope of freedom or escape. The ones that were fit enough to make it here would then be crammed like sardines in boats bound for Stone Town.
Once they reached Stone Town, they were put in stone cellars about 30 square meters (300 square feet), where they would stuff about 50 or 60 of them with NO windows. Many would die before they were even put on sale. They estimate that 50,000 slaves were sold here a year, and another 50,000 died while trekking through Africa on their way to Zanzibar and estimate something like a hundred million people were either sold or died as slaves until its abolishing in 1876. All in all, a great tour to do. It took about 4-5 hours in total but was totally worth the 35$ for everything that we learned and saw.
Having a drink at the Six Degrees Bar
Stone Town is faces west so you can expect some spectacular sunsets to be had. L9cated on the water nearby to the Park Hyatt is the six degrees bar. This restaurant has a rooftop terrace with beautiful views of the sunset.
The bar is cozy and has bar seating as well as lounge chairs. The drinks here are very well priced at only $4-5 for a cocktail during their happy horus (5pm-7pm). The food is also decent but I spent most of my time eating schwarmas at the Faradhani food market anyhow.
Where to stay in Stone Town
There are no shortage of accommodation options in Stone Town. As it’s the capital of Zanzibar, expect all budget options to be available here.
If you’re looking for beautiful beaches, palm trees, and idyllic tropical getaways, Stone Town is not where you’ll want to be. There is a small beach here near the Park Hyatt Zanzibar but it’s not that pretty. I would spent a night or two to explore the town, but leave the nice beach part to somewhere like Nungwi or Paje. These are the places that you think of when Zanzibar comes to mind.
I would elect to stay in the city center if possible so you can walk everywhere. It will make staying here much more enjoyable.
High end hotels
- Park Hyatt Stone Town: Probably the nicest hotel in the city. It was the former palace for the sultan of Oman when he controlled Zanzibar over a century ago. It’s traditional but luxurious at the same time. It’s also centrally located and within walking distance to all the sights.
- Emerson Spice Hotel: The same hotel from the above section about the Emerson Tea house. This hotel is another traditional house that’s been renovated to accommodate guests.
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