The name is as evocative – aromatic, almost – as the spices that made this Indian Ocean archipelago a global success story centuries ago. Zanzibar is blessed with ornate Omani imperial architecture, a vibrant Islam-informed culture and beaches of the purest sand. To ensure you’re seeing the best of what this Tanzanian island has to offer, check out this list of the top things to see and do in this gem off the East African coast.
You’ve come to the Indian Ocean to sink your toes into coral sands as pure and pale as caster sugar – and the place to do that is Nungwi, on the northwesternmost tip of Zanzibar. There’s a DoubleTree Resort by Hilton here, plus a few lodges immersed in tropical gardens, beach cottages and sea-view restaurants, yet the place has not fallen victim to swarms of international tourists, and islanders mingle casually with visitors. The water sports are plentiful, as are sundown cruises, and you can organise deep-sea fishing excursions in search of leaping sailfish and mean-looking bull dorado.
In the thick of Stone Town, as the afternoon dims towards evening, Forodhani Gardens transforms into a circus of calorific magnificence: welcome to Zanzibar’s spectacular night-time food market, a whirl of chefs juggling spitting pans. The aromas are fabulous, and the range of dishes is extraordinary. Bring a large appetite. You might be familiar with some of the offerings – kebabs of tandoori lobster, say, or falafel as big as your fist. Our favourites are the fish plates served with fried potato balls, naan and samosas. You won’t need to eat for a week – or maybe just not until the same time, same place tomorrow.
Introduced around 500 years ago by Portuguese traders who carried them from their colonies in India and South America, spices have made Zanzibar a trading hub for centuries. Small organic set-ups today still produce cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and more. One of the most sensory ways to appreciate the destination is to follow your nose through twisting backstreets led by an experienced guide. You’ll inhale fabulous aromas of turmeric and vanilla, cardamom, chilli and black pepper. At the end of the tour you’ll have a Swahili lunch flavoured with what you’ve smelt, and will be able to buy supplies to take home.
The oldest building in Stone Town, the Old Fort is located on the seafront, right in front of Forodhani Gardens. Built in the 17th century to protect the island from the attacking Portuguese, nowadays the Old Fort is one of the main sights in Stone Town. You can wander around, admiring the remains of the former stronghold, and amble around the courtyard in the centre, where sellers have all kinds of aromatic local produce for sale. An old amphitheatre still hosts events and functions.
Born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar in 1946, Freddie Mercury, the flamboyant Queen frontman, is remembered in Mercury House. The small museum in the family’s former home pays homage to the island’s most famous son. Yellowing family photographs, the first piano he ever played and a selection of stage costumes await fans at the museum in Stone Town, which was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2000.
Jo Fernandez-Corugedo contributed additional reporting to this article.