Stone Town! The first destination of our travelling adventure; and what a place to start. Stone Town is the oldest part of Zanzibar, which is where it’s Swahili name, Mij Mkongwe, originates, translating to Old Town.
TRAVEL TO STONE TOWN
We were dropped off by our taxi driver ($10 trip from the airport) at our Air BnB. Our room was located on the famous Mkunazini road. As we arrived, we were pretty speechless by our time-warped environment.
The trading hub of the island oozes history, which can be seen in the beautifully distressed architecture. The market town is full of hustle and bustle. We truly feel like we have been thrown into the deep end with our first destination.
EXPLORING STONE TOWN
As we settled in we decided to take a walk around our surroundings. We slowly (‘pole pole’) made our way through the narrow, winding alleys, taking it all in. Each corner presented a new stall, with vendors greeting us with ‘jambo!’ (hello) and ‘karibu!’ (welcome).
The warm air is filled with the scent of the spices and fresh chai masala tea, from the local food vendors. From an apprehensive stroll, we quickly felt very relaxed and welcomed by the local community.
As we admired the architecture around us, we couldn’t help but feel surrounded by walls which had many stories to tell.
HISTORY OF STONE TOWN
Stone Town became the trading base for Africa, the Arabian peninsula and the Indian subcontinent. Over time the Omanis and Yemenis settled in the 11th and 12th century. It was at this time, they began the development in stone material construction, building the first mosque in Kimkazi. One of 50 mosques that can be found in Stone Town.
1499 was the beginning of a new era of European influence, from the Portuguese. The Portuguese introduced the traditional dhow wooden sailing boat to Zanzibar. They ran rule for nearly two centuries until the Omanis expelled them in 1689. The Sultan of Oman quickly introduced the trading of slaves and ivory. In turn, Stone Town became one of the largest and wealthiest cities in East Africa. Zanzibar also became infamous as the major market ground for the slave trade.
In more recent history, the British Empire slowly took over. The British brought an end to the slave trade in 1897 despite themselves being founders of the slave trade many centuries before. This achievement was largely driven by the explorer David Livingstone and his team. They would share stories of the harrowing encounters faced up and down the caravan routes of East Africa. Zanzibar achieved its independence in 1963 before uniting with Tanganyika to form Tanzania as we know it today.
So here are our five recommendations for your trip to Stone Town.
FEAST ON THE ZANZIBAR CUISINE
We are both food enthusiasts! What we love is that no matter what your culture, food always allows you to come together. We were excited to try the local cuisine. Stone Town offers an array of restaurants and eateries of various cuisine.
But we would highly suggest you try a few of the local delights. Due to the history of Zanzibar, the local foods are very diverse. Zanzibar food is infused and influenced by multiple ethnicities including, Bantu, Indian, British, Chinese, Portuguese and Arab.
Our first recommendation is Lukmaans situated on Mkuazini road. Expect a buzzing atmosphere and plenty of locals dining in the restaurant – always a good sign. We were greeted by our waiter for the evening and he quickly showed us the various buffet bars. The which bars include; juices, biryanis, curries, vegetable dishes, BBQ.
We of course over ordered and selected a number of curries, chapattis, pilau, and some fresh fish from the BBQ. And of course, we washed everything down with a refreshing watermelon and cucumber juice. With our no holding back, the total bill in at 33,000TZS, the equivalent of £5 per head.
Our second suggestion is Foradini Gardens in the evening, situated near to the beach in front of the House of Wonders. This is great for it’s buzzing night market atmosphere. Vendors try and holler your attention over the golden hue of gas lamps and smoke from their BBQ to present their catch of the day. Although we’re not sure they are being entirely honest with which day they caught it on.
Once you’ve selected your bbq fish you have a selection of breads, chapatis, bhajis, and salad to choose from. We paid around $4 for our plate. All washed down with a fresh sugar cane juice and Nutella ‘pizza’ for dessert – this is more of a crepe than pizza.
STONE TOWN SLAVE MARKET MUSEUM
A slightly more sinister suggestion, but everyone needs to visit the Slave Market Museum, situated on Mkuzani road.
Our guide took us on the haunting journey slaves would be taken on after initial captivity. Starting in the dungeons where over 100 slaves would be kept for many days when they first arrived. It was hard to comprehend, disturbing to know how close this is in our history and to think this still goes on illegally today.
$5 entrance fee and worth getting a guide to take your around the tour, for extra insight
TEST YOUR SWAHILI WHILE SHOPPING IN STONE TOWN OLD TOWN
Although English is widely spoken across the island, due to the United Kingdoms influence in the 19th century, the main language spoken by the locals is Swahili. Swahili is predominately derived from Bantu and Arabic.
It’s very common for the locals to greet you as you meander through the alleys of Stone Town. So make sure you have a few phrases up your sleeve to respectively greet back.
The town is rich in souvenir stores. So, make sure to keep space in your luggage to fill with the African textiles, colourful Maasai jewellery and wooden interiors.
If you are eating in, there are many local food markets to buy fresh produce from. Fruit and vegetables are often organic and therefore rich in flavour, something we struggle within the UK with our highly imported goods. We found, talking to the market vendors in Swahili, helped our bartering power and reduced our ‘Mzungo (white man) rate.
ADMIRE THE GRAND ELEPHANT DOORS ALONG YOUR WALK
While looking up admiring the architecture of the ashed white walls, take some time to come down to earth and observe the grand wooden doors around the city.
The war door was introduced by the Arabs however, originate from India where these doors were used to protect against war elephants. However, introduced in Stone Town by the Arabs, as a symbol of prestige. These grand wooden structures are engraved with arching protectors, to keep bad spirits and disease from the household. The large brass bolts are used as a deterrent to those wanted to enter a building.
PRISON ISLAND AND THE GIANT TORTOISE
Not top of our recommendations as it can be quite touristy. However, Changuu Island or Prison Island, is well worth a visit to admire the beautiful beaches and visit the old prisons. We advise you to leave very early in the morning and negotiate a good price. We paid $25/$30 for two including the Tortoise sanctuary entrance.
OTHER THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR IN STONE TOWN
- Be careful when using the dala dala! The area of collection is located next to one of the biggest food markets and is very busy. We made ‘friends’ with a local who wanted to practice his English and in return. He helped us onto the dala dala with our bags and requested 20,000 TZS ($8). This fund was to pay the driver while we got settled on the bus with our luggage. We ended up tipping him 5,000 TSH for his good deed. However, it was then confirmed that we had been scammed, when we saw the guilt in his eyes. Low and behold, as the dala dala departed, the conductor requested the 1,000TZS per person fare for the journey. NOTE You should expect to pay 500TZS for local journeys and 10,00TZS for long journeys and double this if your luggage is taking up a seat. The lesson here, everyone’s trying to make a dollar dollar.
- Visit Lukmaans early evening. We made the mistake of visiting at 9pm – we like to faff! While there was still a wide range of delicious food available, we had missed out on a lot of the seafood and vegetable dishes by this time.
- Electricity cuts happen, a lot. Don’t panic and be patient.
- Dress respectfully. Stone Town is 99% Muslim, so be mindful of this. Ladies try to cover up shoulders and to the knees when possible to feel comfortable when wandering the streets.
Russ and Fi x