Zanzibar - Abbey Travel, Ireland



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Welcome to Zanzibar


Located about 22 miles (35km) off the east coast of Tanzania, Zanzibar is an archipelago consisting of the main island of Unguja (commonly known as Zanzibar), Pemba Island famous for its deep-sea fishing, and about 50 smaller surrounding islands and coral reefs.

Also known as 'Spice Island', Zanzibar evokes images of an exotic paradise with white palm-fringed beaches and turquoise coves, dreamy dhows with billowing white sails, and ancient Islamic ruins. Today's idyllic beach resorts belie the island's haunting history of slavery, and Zanzibar combines Arabic alleyways and historic monuments with coral reefs and excellent diving and snorkelling opportunities.

The island's varied history has brought with it seafarers, explorers and traders, and it became a major centre for the slave industry. Its heyday was during the 19th century, when the island became the world's leading producer of cloves; its plantations still produce more than 50 different spices and fruit, and guided spice tours are a Zanzibar speciality.

Stone Town, Zanzibar's capital, is a captivating place built by Arab and Indian merchants in the 19th century from the island's coral stone. A walk through the disordered twisting alleys, past intricately-carved wooden doors and beneath ornate balconies, and with the lingering scent of spices in the air, takes one back in time to the days of a prosperous slave and spice industry. Decaying architecture, numerous mosques, a bathhouse and old fort, cool interior courtyards and lively markets are the remaining influence of the Persians and the Omani Arabs who established themselves as the ruling power here.

For centuries Zanzibar has enticed those in search of business; today it remains an irresistible attraction for those seeking a heavenly beach holiday or an exploration into its exotic heritage - or a bit of both.

Information & Facts


Zanzibar is warm throughout the year with 7-8 hours of sunshine a day. The coastal resorts on the north and east coast are tempered by sea breezes. Stonetown and the centre of Zanzibar Island have showers throughout the year. There are heavy showers throughout the island in April and May when most tourists avoid the island and hotels close.

Swahili and English are the official languages. Several indigenous languages are also spoken.

The official unit of currency is the Tanzanian shilling (TZS), divided into 100 cents. The tourism industry prices everything in US Dollars and they are the preferred unit of currency. Major currencies can be exchanged in the larger towns. Foreign exchange bureaux in the main towns usually offer a better rate on travellers cheques than do the banks. ATMs are available in major cities only. Major lodges, some hotels and travel agents in urban areas accept credit cards, but these should not be relied on and can incur a 10% surcharge.


Zanzibar is strongly influenced by Muslim culture and therefore has a fairly subdued nightlife. There are however a couple of places, especially in Stone Town, where visitors can go to enjoy a holiday sundowner, and even a bit of dancing! Blues, at the Forodhani waterfront, and Pichy's Pizzeria and Bar are good for drinks with an ocean view, while the roof-top bar at Africa House and the Serena Inn's Msasani Bar are also quite popular. Serena Inn puts on a great 'Swahili Night', with Taarab music and an African buffet, and the Old Fort is also good for local music performances. Trendy late-night venues include the Starehe and Garage clubs on Shangani Street, and the Bwawani Hotel's Komba Disco.


Shopping in Zanzibar is a varied, cheap and cultural experience. The best shopping is available in Stone Town, where local goods and items imported from other African nations, as well as India, Arabia and the Far East, are good value provided you bargain.

There are a number of shops on Gizenga Street and Kenyatta road that sell quality local artefacts, clothing, jewellery, massage oils and spices - everything Zanzibar! Here visitors can find colourful kangasor kikoys(sarongs), a great souvenir. Wooden chests and tinga tinga paintings are also sought after Zanzibar souvenirs. Look out for street-side stalls with Masaai women sell curios, jewellery and batik fabrics.

The silver shops on Gizenga, as well as in Sokomohogo Square, trade in antique or handcrafted silverware and jewellery, while gold is offered in stores on Tharia Street. One Way on Kenyatta Road sells a vast selection of 100% cotton leisure wear, and on Darajani Street visitors can buy almost anything, including fresh produce from the Central Market.

Most Zanzibar shops are open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 12pm, and then from 2pm to 6pm. Few shops will accept credit cards, so be sure to bring enough cash. US dollars are accepted at resorts and on the beaches, but the exchange rate will not be in your favour and you'll get a better deal by using local Tanzanian shillings.

GMT +3.

The colossal Anglican Cathedral in Stone Town is located on the grounds of the islands largest slave market, which closed down in 1873. The cathedral's altar stands on the exact location of the former whipping post, a tree where slaves were brutalised to show their strength and resilience to potential slave owners. Building began in 1873 to commemorate the end of the slave trade and was conducted by Edward Steere, third bishop of Zanzibar and a fervent abolitionist. The cathedral has a combination of Gothic and Arabic styles and is noted for its Basilica shape and barrel vault roof, which the populace believed would never hold. Taking ten years to build, Edward Steere died of a heart attack during construction and was buried behind the altar. Look out for the stark memorial outside the cathedral, a sculpture of a slave family bound round the neck by a historic chain.

A vibrant array of colours and spicy scents lure visitors to the animated Central Market in Stone Town. Opened in 1904 as the Seyyidieh Market, the numerous stalls run over with tropical fruits, exotic spices, brightly coloured khangas (worn by local women) and rare provisions such as pomegranates and red bananas. Locals come daily from the surrounding areas to display their subsistence wares, and fisherman display their catch of the day with a pungent array of fresh fish from huge marlins to salty sardines. For an evening snack, head to East Africa's best street market held every night by the waterfront at Forodhani Gardens.

The first building in Zanzibar to have electricity and the first building in East Africa to have an elevator, Beit el-Ajaib (which translates into the House of Wonders) was the former ceremonial palace of Sultan Barghash and was built in 1883 on the site of Queen Fatuma's residence. A striking white building, the House of Wonders has undergone much tenure, used by the British as their local offices and as the headquarters of Tanzania's political party CCM. Reopened in 2005 after a renovation project to maintain Beit el-Ajaib's cultural heritage, visitors can now freely admire the intricately carved doors, the Portuguese cannons dating from the 16th century and the tiers of pillars and wraparound balconies, which make the palace so attractive. Don't miss the immaculate views from the top storey, the museum displays of coastal East African history and culture or the craft market playing out on the veranda during the day.

The largest conservation area in Zanzibar and the only remaining natural mangrove forest on the island, the Jozani Chwaka Bay Conservation Area is renowned for its hairy ape residents, the Red Columbus Monkey. Endemic to Zanzibar, visitors come from far and wide to view the highly endangered Red Columbus Monkey, now numbering only 1500. Due to large-scale cultivation, firewood collection, harvesting building materials and charcoal and lime making, Zanzibar's forests have been largely depleted, making the Jozani Chwaka Bay conservation area a significant natural landscape. Nature lovers can walk through the 100 different towering tree species and marvel at the rich variety of birdlife and other small wildlife that inhabit the cool woodland area.

Mafia Island, along with Pemba and Zanzibar, form the famous Spice Islands off the coast of Tanzania. While the name conjures images of shady criminals and glamorous heists, the real riches of Mafia Island lie underwater in its magnificent coral reef system. Mafia Island is a top diving destination for those in the know. Limited accommodation means it's a great place to hide from the tourist crowds on Zanzibar, and provides additional opportunities for fishing and swimming with whale sharks. There are also land-based activities as well, including trips to the bustling village on tiny Chole island and the ruined one on Juani Island.

After the abolition of slavery in 1897, the industry literally went underground and the Mangapwani Caves stand testament to this with a natural cave and a man-made cavern on site used for the incarceration of slaves. The slaves were kept here until they were secretly transported to cargo ships and delivered to slave markets across Europe and the Indian subcontinent. The first is a large natural cave with a freshwater pool and the man-made cavern is a dank, dark cell with few air vents protruding above ground. After 50 slaves were forced inside, poles were fitted into gouges above their heads and planks were laid down so that another 50 men could be crammed in on top. To gain some insight into the unspeakable living conditions of slaves in the 1800s in east Africa, it's best to make a turn at Mangapwani.

If you are looking for a place to escape the bustle of Stone Town for a few hours, head north to the peaceful Maruhubi and Mtoni Palace ruins. Sultan Said bin Sultan first built Mtoni between 1828 and 1834 after he left Muscat and made Zanzibar his throne and it was also the childhood home of Princess Salme. The decadent Maruhubi Palace was built later in the 1880s by Sultan Barghash, as a harem for his 99 concubines and wife. The structure was mainly wooden and one of the most beautiful of its time, but was gutted by a fire in 1889 and left in ruins. The rolling lawns, bathhouses and water lily ponds are reminiscent of the life of affluence enjoyed by the palace residents over a century ago. To view a well-preserved Hammam from the 1850s continue north to the Kidichi Persian Baths, constructed by Sultan Seyyid Said for his Persian wife.

Home to a wealth of Zanzibar's memorabilia, the National Museum is a great place to discover the intriguing history and culture of the islands. With exhibits including traditional carvings and local wildlife displays covering reptiles and birds, visitors can also view relics from the age of the Sultans and early explorers such as Chinese porcelain, an old palm oil-powered bicycle lamp and David Livingstone's medical chest. Built as a peace memorial by British architect J.H. Sinclair, the beautiful spherical design of the National Museum acknowledges Zanzibar's Arab influence and is reminiscent of the eastern architecture of Istanbul and India. Look out for the cumbersome land tortoises that inhabit the Museum's lush garden.

There are many superb white beaches, warm waters and picturesque villages around Zanzibar ideal for those wanting to get away from the bustling town life, particularly along the northern east coast. Modestly veiled women make bright splashes of colour along white sandy stretches of beach, dhows with curved sails drift along close to shore and fisherman offer their fresh catches of the day to the simple seaside restaurants. Miles of pristine beaches are dotted with pockets of guesthouses, particularly around Kendwa and the fishing village of Nungwi, renowned for its tradition of boat building, and one of the most popular locations, particularly with a younger crowd. There is excellent diving and deep-sea fishing off the coast. One of the most beautiful and isolated beaches is at Matemwe. The small offshore island of Mnemba has a fine coral reef for some of the island's best diving.

An architectural symbol of the mixed bag of cultures evident in Zanzibar's history, the elaborate Old Dispensary was so named because it long housed a dispensary on the ground floor, with a pharmacy and resident doctor. An affluent Ismaili Indian merchant, Tharia Topan, who financed the building project, laid the first brick 1887 and completed building in 1894. One of the most decorative buildings of the time, the Old Dispensary is adorned with ornate carved balconies, stuccowork and stained glass windows. Restored in the early 1990s, the Dispensary now houses a small museum on the upper level with old photographs of Stone Town's waterfront and displays illustrating the intricate restoration process. There are also some curio shops on the ground floor.

Built at the turn of the 17th century on the remains of a Portuguese church and crumbling Arab garrison, the burly Old Fort was constructed to fend off the enterprising Portuguese seafarers and Mazrui Arabs of Mombassa keen to gain power of the industrious 'Spice Island'. The Mazrui Arabs launched an attack in 1754 coming off unsuccessfully against the stoic Old Fort. The thick caramel walls and castellated battlements later acted as a place of incarceration, detaining locals and slaves. In later years the fort functioned as the depot for the Bububu railway, Zanzibar's first railway, travelling from Zanzibar Town to Bububu, which is no longer in existence. Nowadays the Old Fort houses shops and henna painting stores and the Cultural Centre where visitors can marvel at the fine artistry of local craftsmen at work. In the evening local music and dancing at the open-air theatre brightens up the night and occasional film screenings are shown.

Illuminating the lifestyle of the Sultan legacy in Zanzibar, the Palace Museum, (originally called the Sultan's Palace), became the official residence of the Al Busid dynasty in 1911. Built in the 1890s the extensive white building situated on harbour road with breathtaking sea views, is the most recent of the Sultans' palaces and was occupied till the revolution in 1964. The Palace Museum houses a myriad of the Sultans' elaborate furniture and possessions as well as a room dedicated to the life of Sultan Sayyid Said's daughter, Princess Salme. Renowned for her manuscript called 'Memoirs of an Arabian Princess', this significant autobiography is the only written account of what life was like for Arab women of the Royal court in the 1800s. Excerpts from the book, family photographs and samples of Princess Salme's wardrobe are also on display. Outside the museum is the Makusurani graveyard where some of the sultans are buried.

Looking for something a bit different?  Check out our selction of cultural & adventure holidays or if you're looking to go it alone then see our selection of solo holidays.

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