Activities in Zanzibar – The rumors hold true: Zanzibar boasts picturesque white-sand beaches and inviting, pale blue waters. 😍 Yet beyond its natural beauty lie rich cultural heritage, captivating history, stunning architecture, unique wildlife, enchanting forest trails, delectable cuisine, and much more.
To clarify the geographical location, the renowned Zanzibar Archipelago is situated amidst the turquoise expanse of the Indian Ocean, approximately 30 km (19 miles) away from the northeastern shores of Tanzania.
The Zanzibar Archipelago comprises two major islands, Unguja and Pemba, both visible on the map provided.
The majority of travelers arrive via flights to Zanzibar City located on the western coast of Unguja. Many opt to spend the entirety, or the majority, of their trip exploring the wonders of this exquisite island.
With this island arrangement in perspective, here are 15 remarkable activities we believe are essential experiences to partake in while vacationing in Zanzibar!
1. Take a guided tour of historic Stone Town
Stone Town stands as the historical nucleus of present-day Zanzibar City.
Over centuries, this port metropolis has served as a pivotal maritime center. Its significance lies in the convergence of diverse civilizations from the Indian Ocean region and even the Mediterranean. This amalgamation has sculpted a distinctive society, distinctly shaped by the influences of both proximate and distant cultures.
Unsurprisingly, Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The best way to learn about the history of Stone Town, as well as its architectural legacy, is to go on a guided tour. You’ll wander winding alleys, see carved doorways, pass colorful small shops, marvel at delicately built mansions, and pass pretty minarets.
Historic tone TownThe history of Stone Town has been shaped by many cultures, including the British, Indians and Persians. But the main influences have been Arabic and Swahili.
A guided tour serves as an ideal introduction to acquaint oneself with Stone Town, allowing subsequent leisurely exploration at your own pace. This sets the stage for independent wandering, granting you the freedom to revisit and delve deeper into specific spots that pique your interest. Keeping this in mind, here’s our third top recommendation for an essential experience in Zanzibar…
2. Swimming in the ocean and laze on sandy beaches
Zanzibar presents the epitome of the dreamy beach vacation we all long for during harsh winters. The soft, powdery sands of its beaches entice you to settle onto a towel or lounge chair, sink your feet in, and simply unwind. The mesmerizing azure waters enhance the allure of taking a dip in the ocean, making it an even more enticing prospect!
How about an early morning swim? Drifting in the sea? A quick nap in a hammock? Perhaps engrossing yourself in a book? And why not indulge in admiring the beauty of Hyperion? We strongly suggest embracing all these experiences while visiting Zanzibar!
Numerous stunning palm-fringed beaches encircle the primary island of Unguja, each offering its own allure. Restricting yourself to just one would be a missed opportunity. Explore several beaches and allocate ample time to absorb their serene ambiance, allowing the soothing warmth and breathtaking sea vistas to rejuvenate both your mind and body.
Here are some of Unguja Island’s finest beaches, perfect for swimming, leisurely walks, wading, and relaxation:
- Bwejuu: A serene palm-fringed beach known for its tranquility.
- Kendwa: A broad beach unaffected by tides, renowned for its stunning sunsets.
- Nungwi: The ultimate destination for vibrant nightlife by the beach.
- Kizimkazi: Featuring elevated coastlines forming delightful coves.
- Jambiani: A picturesque, serene beach adorned with palm trees.
- Michamvi-Pingwe: A secluded series of charming coves set in remote surroundings.
- Matemwe: Zanzibar’s lengthiest beach, adorned with traditional fishing villages along its sandy shores.
- Pongwe: An arc-shaped, exquisite beach offering ideal swimming conditions, thanks to the nearby reef maintaining calm and safe waters.
Does the water maintain warmth consistently throughout the year?
Crucially, the waters in Zanzibar remain suitable for swimming all year long!
During January and February, the peak of summer, the sea temperature averages around 29 °C (84 °F). In contrast, during August and September, the winter months, the sea temperature is approximately 25.5 °C (78 °F).
The sea surrounding Zanzibar is ideal for swimming throughout the entire year. It never becomes excessively cold, catering to even the most particular swimmers’ preferences!
3. Go on a spice tour
Embarking on a spice tour is a significant component of any Zanzibar getaway! Immerse yourself in the sensory experience—seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting the aromatic spices that define the essence of these islands.
During the era of Arab governance, spice plantations became a source of immense prosperity for Zanzibar. The archipelago once held the prestigious title of the world’s leading exporter of cloves. Present-day Zanzibaris continue the cultivation of cloves, alongside other spices such as cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, chili, and black pepper.
During a spice tour, participants gain insights into the cultivation, harvesting, and processing of spices, along with their traditional culinary uses.
For passionate food enthusiasts, taking an extra step involves merging a spice tour with a cooking class. This immersive experience ensures that you return home equipped with the knowledge to recreate the irresistible flavors that captured your palate!
4. Allocate time to savor the delights of street food.
Stone Town boasts numerous vendors offering delectable seafood kebabs and an array of flavorful specialties.
Explore the vibrant street food scene at Zanzibar Street Food Market, where you can opt to sit and enjoy your meal. Don’t miss their nighttime food market, an essential experience on a pleasant evening!
For an exceptional culinary experience, head to Forodhani Gardens, home to a fantastic food court. Here, the highlight is the renowned Zanzibar pizza—an entirely unique dish that bears little resemblance to the traditional pizzas of Italy!
5. Explore beautiful Uzi Island
Situated just south of Unguja lies Uzi Island, a petite island connected by an intertidal causeway. A integral component of the Menai Bay Conservation Area, this island safeguards splendid mangrove forests, freshwater forests, seagrass beds, coral reefs, and the diverse wildlife thriving within these interconnected ecosystems.
Furthermore, Uzi Island remains largely unspoiled by tourism, providing a glimpse into an authentic, rural Zanzibari fishing community.
For those with the luxury of time, we suggest dedicating a full day to explore Uzi Island. However, it’s crucial to be mindful of the tides when planning a visit. During high tide, you can paddle to the island using an ngalawa (wooden outrigger canoe), while at low tide, a drive across the emerging road in a dala dala (bus) is the preferred mode of transportation. Typically, a visit entails a boat ride in one direction and a bus ride in the other.
Uzi Island can be reached by road at low tide, or by boat at high tide.
During your time on the island, engage in a cultural tour within N’gambwa village. Immerse yourself in the local experience by being welcomed into a resident family’s home, where they will graciously offer a traditional lunch. This provides a wonderful opportunity to gain insights into rural life in a distinct corner of Zanzibar.
Later on, take the opportunity to enjoy a refreshing swim at one of the serene beaches. Alternatively, embark on a guided stroll (or shall we say, wade) through a mangrove forest, submerging yourself in a captivating realm of stunning beauty and ecological richness. Reef shoes will be provided for this exploration.
6. Embark on a boat ride to the Prison Island
A delightful activity while in Zanzibar is taking a short boat ride from Zanzibar City to Prison Island, also known as Changuu Island. Despite the construction of a prison building in the late 1800s, the island was never actually used as a prison.
Presently, the island is renowned for its population of Aldabra giant tortoises. Interestingly, a collective term for a group of tortoises is a “creep,” fitting given their exceptionally leisurely pace!
Another captivating aspect of visiting Prison Island is the stunning view offered during the return boat journey, showcasing the waterfront buildings of Stone Town. The line of palaces and mansions along the waterfront, constructed or commissioned by the sultanate in the 1800s, was strategically designed to make a lasting impression on foreign visitors arriving by sea.
7. Engage in Spotting wildlife in Jozani Forest
A perfect excursion while in Zanzibar is embarking on a nature walk in Jozani Forest. After the lively atmosphere of Stone Town and the warmth of the beaches, stepping into the refreshing coolness beneath the dense, intertwined greenery of the forest is truly rejuvenating.
You have the option to choose between a guided nature walk or exploring independently. There are various paths to consider, ranging from gentle hour-long strolls to more extensive half-day hikes.
Jozani Forest is home to a diverse array of wildlife, with a notable highlight being the endangered red colobus monkeys. Other inhabitants of the forest include leopards, civet cats, mongooses, blue monkeys, lemurs, African pigs, Ader’s duikers, and pygmy antelopes.
Exploring Jozani Forest involves traversing winding dirt footpaths during your walk or hike. As you approach the coastal mangroves of Chwaka Bay, a low boardwalk enhances the experience.
For bird enthusiasts, Jozani Forest is a haven with a plethora of rare and exquisite species awaiting discovery. The forest teems with diverse waterbirds, raptors, shorebirds, and more. Keep an eye out for charming birds such as lilac-breasted rollers, purple-banded sunbirds, blue-cheeked bee-eaters, African pygmy kingfishers, and golden-tailed woodpeckers.
Note: Visitors to Jozani Forest looking to extend their day often include a stop at the Zanzibar Butterfly Centre, a facility dedicated to butterfly breeding. Inside a spacious, netted tropical garden, you can observe around a dozen of the forest’s approximately 50 butterfly species. Beyond the enchanting display, the project serves as a source of employment for locals involved in the farming and sale of pupae.
8. Partake in snorkeling and diving adventures amid the vibrant coral reefs.
We strongly recommend engaging in snorkeling, diving, or scuba diving during your Zanzibar holiday, as the coral reefs encircling the archipelago’s islands are truly enchanting.
In these pristine waters, you may encounter various sea creatures such as shrimp, pipefish, lungfish, dolphins, and sharks. During the months of September and October, there’s a chance to witness humpback and sperm whales passing through. Additionally, from December to April, you might be fortunate enough to spot manta rays and whale sharks.
While snorkeling and diving conditions are favorable year-round, the optimal months for tranquil waters are typically from mid-November to January and June to August.
The serene and crystal-clear waters of Zanzibar provide an ideal setting for snorkeling, diving, and scuba diving.
Nakupenda Beach, also known as Nakupenda Sand Bank, stands out as one of the premier spots for snorkeling and diving. This expansive stretch of sand, located just off the coast of Stone Town, earned the distinction of being rated the second-best beach in Africa on TripAdvisor in 2022. Interestingly, the name Nakupenda translates to “I love you” in English.
Additional excellent locations for snorkeling and diving include Prison Island (as mentioned earlier), Pungume Island, Mnemba Island, and Tumbatu Island.
9. Go for scuba diving
Zanzibar Archipelago stands out as an unparalleled destination for scuba diving – a truly exceptional experience.
Diving into the waters off Unguja Island unveils some remarkable scuba spots, including:
- Nyange Reef near Stone Town, offering breathtaking views and accessibility at an affordable cost.
- The barrier reef along the southeast coast, adorned with vibrant soft corals.
- The heart-shaped Mnemba Atoll off the northeast coast of Unguja, renowned for its diverse reefs and frequent turtle sightings.
- Leven Bank, an underwater mountain in the Pemba Channel (just north of the island), where barracudas and moray eels are often spotted.
- The blue lagoon near Michamvi village, an ideal location for beginners due to its shallow and sheltered coral gardens.
10. Visit the Cheetah’s Rock to see Wildlife
Cheetah’s Rock, situated on Unguja Island, is a unique reserve dedicated to the rescue and care of a variety of wild animals, including cheetahs, lions, hyenas, zebras, lemurs, bushbabies, otters, and tortoises. Additionally, the reserve oversees the well-being of animals sent for conservation purposes.
At Cheetah’s Rock, some animals undergo rehabilitation and are successfully reintroduced into the wild. For those that cannot be safely released, the reserve provides a secure environment for them to live out their lives in safety.
Cheetah’s Rock relies significantly on income generated from tourist visits. A distinctive aspect of the experience is the opportunity for visitors to interact closely with many of the animals—an authentic unique selling proposition (USP). It’s not uncommon for visitors to participate in feeding and even touching the animals. Therefore, visiting this exceptional rescue center not only supports its mission but also allows for safely managed encounters with these captivating wild creatures, creating a mutually beneficial experience.
11. Visit the seaweed farms of Paje
An iconic Zanzibari image is that of colourfully dressed women working in ankle-deep water in coastal seaweed plantations.
Cultivated in neat rows, the seaweed farms in Paje present one of the most visually appealing agricultural landscapes.
Primarily exported for applications in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, the harvesting of seaweed is predominantly carried out by local women. This trade plays a crucial role in providing them with essential cash income. Remarkably, seaweed has emerged as the third-largest source of income for the archipelago, contributing to nearly 90% of its marine exports.
Even though significant portions of Unguja Island in Zanzibar have been dedicated to tourist-related infrastructure and activities, we believe it’s worthwhile to make the effort to explore those regions where traditional industries still flourish. Don’t you think so?
12. Stay and explore Pemba Island
Exploring Pemba is a vital aspect of a Zanzibar holiday, offering a departure from the extensive development and affluent tourist destinations found on Unguja. Life on Pemba Island is characterized by a more traditional way of living, quieter beaches, and enhanced environmental conservation.
Exploring Pemba Island offers a myriad of activities, and if your schedule allows for more than just a day trip, it’s highly recommended! With stunning coral reefs for snorkeling and diving, picturesque nature paths for walking, visits to medieval Pujini ruins of the Diba tribe, as well as other historical remnants, and engaging cultural village tours, Pemba provides a rich and diverse experience.
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