As much as Zanzibar is a booming travel destination, I was surprised to hear that so many people are still quite wary of it. I guess coming from Australia it's a fair distance so most Aussies tend to go to our closer Southeast Asian beach destinations.
But Zanzibar has quickly become one of my favourite destinations and I was lucky enough to experience it with my mum! So many wonderful things in one location.
Are you intrigued?
Here are 10 things to know before you go (then go and book your ticket immediately!):
1. Zanzibar is safe
Despite Zanzibar’s turbulent history, it's a safe and welcoming island. In fact, Tanzania is even one of the most stable countries in Africa and the most peaceful country in Eastern Africa. It's a popular tourist spot for travellers wanting beauty and history, both of which are abundant here.
Zanzibar consists of many small islands in the Indian ocean approximately 25 – 50 kilometres from mainland Tanzania. The largest islands are Pemba and Unguja. The capital, Stone Town, is located on the largest of the two, Unguja, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
2. Tanzania is a colourfully conservative country
The population of Zanzibar is almost entirely Muslim and women cover and dress modestly. The colours of the fabrics, however, are far from conservative.
Pictured below is a woman wearing Kanga – colourful African garment worn by women which literally means “to wrap” or close. There are two requirements for kanga – it must be colourful, and it must be inscribed with a proverb. These messages vary from religious proverbs a to blunt, “I won't be sleeping with you this evening”.
3. Girls rock in Zanzibar
Maasai women are known to be incredibly strong and it is they who tend to the cattle as well as raise the children and care of the household.
Nowadays, the Maasai women in Zanzibar mostly weave and bead jewellery. Although bead working has a long history amongst the Maasai, the profit it accumulates from selling to tourists is a vital source of income for a family and sometimes the only source of income.
Although over half of the employed population is female, traditionally the women of Zanzibar are home carers. Their role in the family and in the community is so important. If someone addresses you with “Mama”, it's conveying respect and value. Our driver for all our trips, Ali, was open to sharing his appreciation and affection for his own mother who bore six children.
4. Gifts are a valued gesture
Gift-giving is a generous act of affection, gratitude and celebration. Whether it be a gift for coming into someone’s home, the end of Ramadan, a wedding, welcoming a baby, or a goodbye or welcome home gift, gifts are commonplace amongst locals and tourists.
My mother and I received gifts ranging from beach sarongs to the best African songs CD collections. We spent my birthday there where I was showered with gifts, flowers, songs and hugs.
As we had heard about this tradition before we left, we also had a few small gifts to hand out. It doesn’t have to be an expensive gift, but a small token of your appreciation to be expressed through this social exchange. I was overwhelmed with the gratitude and happiness this gift-giving resulted in.
5. Tipping is still a custom
Although gift-giving is appreciated and a very beautiful exchange with the locals, tipping is highly appreciated and expected (and quite frankly deserved for the over-the-top hospitality you will receive). A general tipping guide is:
- 5-10 USD per night or day to the guide
- 1 USD for the baggage carrier
- 10% in bars and restaurants
- 1 USD per day for the maid
6. The mix of cuisines is incredible
As a result of various influences such as Arab, Indian and Portuguese, Zanzibari cuisine is a beautiful combination of them all. In addition to the various spices and exotic fruit that grow on the island, Zanzibar is also known for its fantastic and fresh seafood.
My favourite dishes in Zanzibar included green boiled bananas, octopus curry, Zanzibar pizza and most something completely new for me – cassava in coconut milk. You must eat all the seafood and fruit that you can – it’s absolutely delicious!! Here is a link to some good restaurants in Zanzibar and I would definitely recommend Forodhani Gardens Night Market.
But if you want to be a bit fancier, my pick for a delicious and fancy dinner is The Teahouse Restaurant located on the rooftop of the hotel Emerson on Hurumzi in Stone Town. This rooftop restaurant has a stunning panoramic view of Stone Town and, of course, has incredible food.
The most radiant sunset was accompanied with the sound of the bells from the Hindu Temple followed by the Adhan and ending with Taarab music played by the Dhow Countries Music Academy – a non-profit, cultural and educational organisation which provides music and instrument lessons in Stone Town.
Just as I thought the night couldn’t get better, the lights turned off, the music stopped and men carrying something under a light piece of material with a number of candles came up the stairs and started gliding around the rooftop. Eventually they stopped at my table and sang Happy Birthday to me, in both Swahili and English.
This heartfelt gesture by both the restaurant and the management from my hotel brought tears to my eyes and a birthday I will never forget.
7. Getting around is fairly easy
I suggest getting a map, planning your own trips, and, if you can, rent a car! Tourist agencies sometimes charge four times more than it would cost you to plan the trip yourself, so try to give it a go first because it's not difficult to organise a fun-filled day here.
The cheapest way to get around the island is by using the dala dala. For approximately USD 1.50 you can get from one side of the island to the other. The main island, Unguja is approximately 85 kilometres long and 30 kilometres wide at its widest point.
Because I did this trip with my mum, we decided to use a private driver for the duration. We met Ali coincidentally and having him guide us made for the most memorable trip. I know having a private driver is a very different way of travelling than standard backpacking, but it really did make the world of difference having someone local guide us! Ali was awesome and I highly recommend him. If you're interested in having a private driver, you can contact Ali here - +255772368490. Otherwise, you can book a taxi online here.
Zanzibar: 10 Things to Know Before Travelling to this African Island
8. Make sure you carry cash
Although the national currency is Tanzania shillings (10 000 shillings is approximately USD5), people are happy to accept USD. It is a good idea to have USD with you when you arrive as it'll be difficult to exchange other currencies on the island (except in Stone Town).
Despite the fact that Australian dollars were extremely fascinating to beach sellers, they didn’t want to accept them and the only ATM you will find is in Stone Town. So have cash on you, USD and preferably Tanzanian Shillings (there is an exchange office at the airport, however be mindful of your time of arrival as it probably won’t work during the night).
You are also expected to pay USD50 upon entry into Tanzania for your visa, this can be paid with card or cash.
9. There's so much more than just beach lounging
Although lying around on the beach sipping a cocktail is one of the primary reasons people travel to Zanzibar (that's clear in their twenty 5-star resorts! We stayed in a gem called Dream of Zanzibar), there is so much more to do here! Some other trips you can take are:
- Visit the Jozani forest and have lunch at restaurant afterwards as they are pretty close to one another. The Jozani forest is one of the last remaining sanctuaries in the world of the red colobus monkey.
- Catch a ferry from Stone Town to check out giant tortoises that are nearly 200 years old on Changuu Island (famously known as Prison Island).
- Visit the Former Slave Market Site. At the end of the 17th century, Zanzibar became the centre of the Arab slave trade. You can visit the old slave market remains, located by the Anglican Cathedral. Here you will see two damp and dark chambers which housed up to 65 people each who were waiting to be sold and the slave market memorial.
- Experience a sunset dhow cruise from Stone Town.
- Check out Mangapwani Caves approx. 20kms from Stone Town, these caves were used as illegal slave holding pens after the abolishment of the slave trade.
- Visit the extremely charming and photogenic The Rock restaurant in the water.
- Swim with dolphins at Kizimkazi.
- Go on an underwater safari. There are various companies you can do this with but based on reviews I went with Safari Blue; needless to say, it was an absolutely magical experience which completely lived up to its reviews. (Tips: If you are looking to pay a little extra, you can visit Chumbee Island Coral Park for snorkelling. If you want to pay a lot extra, you can visit Mnemba Private Island which has only one hotel and it will cost you USD600 just to step foot on the private paradise. One can dream!)
- Visit the lighthouse at Nungwi and swim in one of the most beautiful beaches on the island while admiring the Nungwi Boat Building Yard where you can see how the Dhows are made.
- Visit the Mnarani Marine Turtle Conservation Pond which is right on Nungwi beach. There are two Turtle Conservation Ponds on this beach. You can feed and pat the turtles at the one we went to and swim with the turtles at the other.
10. Prepare yourself with some Swahili lingo
Greetings are very important on the island and everyone wants to say hello. Be polite and say “jambo” back. Young people also greet each other with “mambo” followed by the second person replying with “poa”. Here's a quick guide to get you going from africasafari.co.uk:
- Jambo – General greeting similar to “hello”
- Hakuna matata – Okay – No problems
- Karibu – Welcome
- Pole pole – Take it easy
- Mambo – How’s it going
- Salama Aleikum – Peace be with you
- Dalla dalla – Mini bus
- Nzuri – Good
- Ndiyo – Yes
- Hapana – No
- Sawa – Alright
- Bei Gani – How much does it cost?
- Asante – Thank you
Have you been to Zanzibar or Tanzania before? If not, has this post inspired you to visit? Tell us in the comments below!