Top Zanzibar Beaches and Things to Do in Paradise
While Zanzibar beaches might get most of the glory, the island’s turquoise waters surround an interior steeped in culture and history. Also known as the Spice Island, Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, is popular with tourists looking for history, romance or just a chance to explore an exotic beach atoll.
Located just 20 miles off the coast of Tanzania, sunseekers find it the perfect destination for a post safari beach vacation. After an exciting wildlife safari, I would have to agree. It was the ideal location to relax and process all of the incredible pieces of my Kenyan adventure with The Elewana Collection.
From above, Zanzibar’s beaches appear as the sandy shores of my dreams. When the island comes into focus, it’s easy to see why the beaches below make annual appearances on best of lists from around the world. Ombre waters gradate in every shade of blue, shifting with the light from azure into turquoise. Caribbean, sapphire and Aegean all come to mind, along with House of Blues. Pristine sandy shores circle the land below. So many Zanzibar beaches, so little time…
Unguja is the official name for the main island of Zanzibar’s archipelago. Pemba and other smaller islands make up the rest of this fiercely independent area of Tanzania. With a population of close to one million, and almost entirely Muslim, the culture is infused with African, European, Arabic and Indian influences. History is complicated and stretches back thousands of years to a time when the area was a base for traders between the African Great Lakes, Arabian Peninsula and India. Slaves and spices were the main commodities.
The past thirty years has seen political progression and the islands have settled into an independent government of economic liberalization. Tourism has increased exponentially, and luxury hotel options have joined the ranks of the small guest houses dotting the alabaster beaches. As the largest segment of the economy, sustainable tourism growth is critical for the island’s future. It is promising to see a governmental focus on responsible travel.
Fast Facts about Zanzibar
- The capital is Zanzibar City
- Stone Town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000
- The two main islands are Unjuga and Pemba with additional islands making up the archipelago
- There are two rainy seasons-monsoon like from March thru May and shorter, quick, heavy downpours from late October thru December
- Zanzibar Pizza is a local specialty. Look for it at one of the street food stalls at the bustling night market held in Forodhani Gardens. The crispy fried pockets come with many surprising fillings! Mango and Nutella anyone?
- Musicians from all over the world gather in Stone Town for one of Africa’s largest music festivals-Sauti za Basara.
Several daily international flights come into the airport directly from mainland Tanzania, Kenya or Ethiopia. Ferry service is also available on both high speed and slower vessels. Once on the island, visitors have the option of private taxi and transport or Dala Dala, privately owned buses that criss cross the island.
Zanzibar is a Muslim country, and as such, I like to follow the local culture. Most of the women are wearing colorful full-length dresses and head covering. A smaller percentage wear bui-buis, head to toe black Islamic dress. In town it is respectful to dress modestly and cover to the knees and cover shoulders. That being said, you will find the full range of bathing attire once you head to Zanzibar beaches.
The archipelago is the oldest still operational culture speaking Swahili and the language is the most widely spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. Many people in the cities and resorts speak excellent English.
Always a good idea to pick up a few basic phrases when vsiting. The locals appreciate that you’ve taken the time to learn about their language and hello goes a long way around the world.
- Jambo – hello
- Kwa heri – goodbye
- Hakuna Matata – no worries (a favorite), no problem
- Tafadhali – please
- Asante – thank you
- Choo – toilet
- Hoteli – hotel
- Skikamoo-a local greeting to elders or people you don’t know (expect a smile)
The Best Zanzibar Beaches
No trip to Zanzibar is complete without a stop at Nungwi Beach and the loveliest time to visit is at sunset. Like any spot on the radar of “best beaches in Zanzibar”, the popularity of this spot brings plenty of shop owners and hawkers touting their wares. Looking for restful peace and quiet? Perhaps that ought to be done elsewhere. The town is the 3rd largest on the island.
Take a walk on the soft white sand or wade in the crystal blue water. While there, observe a slice of local life with the school children and fisherman you’re likely to see. If you are searching for adventure, there are plenty of watersports to choose from. Alternatively, visit one of the many bars and restaurants that dot this section of the northern coastline. From Stone Town, a cab ride will cost upwards of $60.00 and take about 1½ hours.
Not far from Nungwi is Kendwa beach, a long sandy stretch perfect for walks and relaxing. Many think this is the most beautiful beach on the island and after seeing it in person, it would be hard to disagree. The sand is incredibly pure and fine, the waters crystal clear. Looking down, starfish reflect like sparking jewels below the surface. Some sections of the beach can get flooded at high tide, so keep this in mind when visitng.
There are plenty of bars and restaurants along the route and come evening, the party scene arrives cranking up the volume considerably. Additional highlights are the incredible sunsets from this vantage point; Kendwa Beach receives high marks across the board.
On the east coast edged by sparkling waters, visitors will find the long stretch of beach known as Paje. This is a popular spot with backpackers, and as a result, many hostels are steps from the beach Many of Zanzibar’s beaches are known for the huge tidal differential, ankle deep water at low tide allows bathers to walk into the Indian Ocean’s mild surf for long distances.
This area is also popular for diving and snorkeling enthusiasts. Turtles, eels, octopus and colorful fish turn the underwater experience into a colorful and lively display of activity. The constant breeze also makes it a destination for wind surfers. Foodies will want to visit The Rock located nearby (see below), one of Zanzibar’s most celebrated restaurants.
A common sight along the beach is to see the local women collecting seaweed at low tide. Seaweed is rich in moisturizing nutrients and proteins that aid in the rebuilding of collagen. Look for soaps in the local shops made with this organic ingredient. Tours of the Seaweed Center are available, and this is a unique opportunity to support women and Fair Trade while taking home a little piece of Zanzibar.
The crystal blue waters of this Indian Ocean paradise draw interesting marine life. There are over 350 fish species recorded in Zanzibar and the deep waters surrounding the islands form an interesting ecosystem complemented by hundreds of migratory bird species. The best beaches in Zanzibar are on the path of humback whale migration during the months between July and September. When conditions are just right, a few lucky visitors might even see whale sharks pass by Mnemba Island where a healthy coral reef attracts an abundance of sealife.
There is also impressive snorkeling on Tumbatu Island and at the Kendwa and Stone Town Reefs. Hire one of the friendly locals to take you out on an expedition. For women traveling solo, it is best to make sure you join a group experience. It’s a good practice to check reviews before heading off alone on a boat.
Zanzibar’s historical center is Stone Town, where the visitor can easily get lost wandering the narrow, winding alleys, bustling marketplaces and rich architecture. The blend of African and Arabian influences appears around every corner and although there are plenty of shops geared to tourism, the café’s and coffee shops are a charming place to spend some time people watching.
History lives in this UNESCO World Heritage site and makes for a fascinating day of exploring the labyrinth of narrow lanes. Getting lost is half the fun. Support local businesses by purchasing spices, honey, local crafts and khanga textiles.
House of Wonders
Built as a ceremonial palace in the 1880’s, the House of Wonders was named for its impressive size along with the lions and wildlife that were kept outside the building in cages. Sultan Barghash took his inspiration from the architecture of India and designed the structure with a central courtyard and inner verandas. A large clock tower crowns the landmark.
Facing the Forodhani Gardens and the breakfront of the Indian Ocean, the building is the highest in the district. This is also the location of the Museum of History and Culture of Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast. Currently under renovation, the building itself should be a stop on your tour of Zanzibar and illustrates the effort underway to protect the island’s cultural heritage.
At one entrance to the bazaar, you’ll find the fish market. Intense, smelly and authentic. This local experience will assault the senses in every sense of the word. There is nothing like a local market to get a feel for the daily life and culture. After you’ve made your way through the seafood section, the rest of the market is a piece of cake!
Loaded with fruits, vegetables, everyday items and spices, this is where the residents shop, gossip and eat. Neatly piled rows of tree ripened fruit, packaged saffron and cardamom pods compete for your attention along with carts full of avocados and fragrant oranges sliced and pressed for juice. I was impressed when one of the vendors called out to be mindful of our bags as our eyes were distracted by all the visuals in the crowded stalls. It’s a heady tour, one that is both exotic and fun.
Slave Market Museum
Zanzibar was major player in the slave trade and Stone Town was host to one of the world’s largest slave markets until it was shut down in 1873. Like many major landmarks tied to such tragedy, Zanzibar pays homage to those who lost their lives and were subjected to these travesties by honoring them with statues and telling their stories openly and honestly.
The Heritage Center promotes tolerance, reconciliation and bridges ethnic divides. Tourists and locals alike visit the museum to get an idea of what life was like during that dark period in the island’s history.
If like myself, you are a sucker for carved, ornate doorways, bring an extra memory card for the wooden prizes you’ll find in Stone Town. Even in a state of decay, they represent all that is exotic about the area’s complex history.
In 1990, there were over 500 carved doors on the buildings of Stone Town, now there are under 300. Locals found it hard to resist the lure of hotels and antique dealers offering hard dollars for wood structures difficult to maintain. However, there is renewed hope for the once declared extinct craft. The foremost door carver, Malim Yahya returned from the mainland to teach a new generation at the Mikunguni School. There is new appreciation for their cultural heritage and restoration has begun.
Behind another famous door in the historic center, visitors can find the former home of Farouk Bulsara, aka Freddie Mercury. The lead singer for Queen was born in Zanzibar in 1946 to parents of Persian/Indian origin.
Said to be the center of Stone Town, Jaws Corner is a cultural gathering spot. Locals talk politics and discuss the day’s events. The colorful sign above marks one corner and when you see the hanging red bunting, you’ll know you’re in the right place. Humor is alive and well in the center of the meeting spot with a phone high on a pole, out of reach to all but the Jolly Green Giant. The sign playfully invites visitors to make a free international call.
On the waterfront, across from House of Wonders, you’ll see an area overflowing with folks trying on snorkleing gear. This is where the tours to Prison Island take place. Also known as Changuu, the small island was built up in the 1890’s as a prison. Although construction was completed, the prison was never used, instead functioning as a quarantine station for monitoring yellow fever cases before arrival in Stone Town. Currently, the island is a popular tourist destination with a private guest house and 15 cottages on the north end.
In addition, Changuu also serves as a shelter and conservation area for the endangered Aldabra giant tortoise. Originally a gift from the British governor of the Seychelles, the population of the species was almost wiped out completely in the 1990’s. Today the large compound has healthy numbers and a foundation to look after the animal’s welfare.
While there is plenty of debate about tourists having encounters with the tortoises, the successful breeding program has moved the numbers off the endangered list to vulnerable status. After the tour of Island, snorkeling around the surrounding reefs is an option. Bring a towel and wear your bathing suit if you should decide to go.
Spice Farm and Tour
Visiting Zanzibar is a delight to the senses, especially the sense of smell. Throughout the island are reminders of the small scale farmers that have been cultivating spices here for over 200 years. Ideal weather conditons off the coast of East Africa allow for top quality growth. Restaurant menus reflect the high quality in their recipes. Dishes are scented with the fragrant flavors of clove, cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg, spices that helped put the island on the map.
For an in depth look take either a ½ or full day tour. A full day tour involves walking through the streets of Stone Town marketplaces and experiencing Zanzibar like a local. Next, visit a spice farm, visit the Princess Salme palace ruins and enjoy a visit to one of the many Zanzibar beaches. In those eight hours you will cover all aspects of how spices got from farm to market and then on to the western hemisphere. It’s a great way to not only learn about spices but get a detailed history of this cultural gem and see some sights in the process.
Look for the 1001 Organic label for Zanzibar spices. As the only EU-certified organic spices in Zanzibar, you can be assured of the product you are buying. The company works with 26 organic certified farmers from the island of Pemba. As the second largest island in the archipelago, there’s good reason Pemba is also known as the green island. Cultivation in the wild forests produces especially hot bird’s eye chili, award winning black pepper and the famous spicy, caramel Zanzibar cloves.
The Rock is one of the most famous and iconic restaurants in Zanzibar and has received worldwide recognition. The location is perhaps one of the most unique I’ve ever seen. Located in the south east of the island in front of Michamvi Pingwe beach, the restaurant is perched high on a rock in the Indian Ocean.
Reached on foot at low tide or by complimentary boat at high tide, the restaurant offers a truly unique dining experience. As you climb the steps up into the “perch” diners realize they are in for a once in a lifetime meal! The cuisine is traditional Zanzibari with an Italian twist. The menu offers dishes such as Stewed Rock Lobster and cous-cous with greens, ginger and lime or Tambi (local Swahili spaghetti) served with stir-fry fish.
You can’t get any fresher than these dishes. Seafood comes right from the surrounding reefs. And for a sweet finish, 15% of every dessert price is donated to the Kichanga Foundation, an organization created by the restaurant and focused on sustainability. Do good while indulging in chocolate salami with Zanzibar spiced ice cream. Tastes good to me.
Sail in a Traditional Wooden Dhow
The Dhow was a traditional sailing vessel in the Indian Ocean for thousands of years. Long-ago established techniques built the boats from mahogany and bound the slats together using coconut fibre. Medieval superstition believed that an enormous undersea magnet would pull metal nails from the boat and sailors would drown.
Visitors to Zanzibar can sail as the Arabians did centuries ago. With many options and lengths of cruise available this is a great way to gain another perspective of the islands and the vast marine life surrounding them. Sunset, glass of wine in hand lazing on cozy cushions is particularly romantic.
Jozani Forest Tour
South of Chakwa Bay, the Jozani Forest is an area rich with foliage, wildlife and tranquility. The Jozani Forest is the only national park on Zanzibar, its last remainng indigenous woodland. Adventurers will find a great place for the nature lover to connect with plants and animals unique to this area. What better way to see it all than through a tour where you can learn about the flora and fauna that call this area home?
This is home to the rare endangered red Colobus monkey and the Zanzibar Sykes monkey. In addition over 40 species of birds and and fifty different species of butterflies can be identified. Wellness travelers will enjoy learning about a variety of healing plants and trees that have been used for centuries in natural homeopathic treatments.
The Best Romantic Stay on a Zanzibar Beach
Most tourists who visit Zanzibar come because the island really is all about the beaches. With increased tourism, that secluded beach of your vacation dreams has become a little harder to find. For a truly romantic Zanzibar beach vacation, choose a stay at Elewana’s Kilindi. Adjacent to what many think of as Zanzibar’s best beaches, the dome-like architecture will be the first of many dreamy visuals guests encounter.
Originally built for ABBA band member Benny Anderson, the property combines the clean lines of Swedish design with Moorish and the very best of Zanzibar’s many cultural influences. Barefoot luxury on the northwest coast is just a short beach walk from Kendwa beach. Local fisherfolk share the waterfront bay where guests can swim right off shore at high tide. That assumes of course they can tear themselves away from their private plunge pool, decadent beach bed or chaise lounge alongside the picturesque pool.
The 15 gigantic pod like structures house individual units made for romance and canoodelling. A private butler insures your every need. Set in over 35 acres of a lush, tropical landscape, the level of privacy is hard to beat in a luxury boutique hotel. Creative cuisine features the local delicacies and dishes are imbued with spices for which the island is known. Read my full review shortly.
Bottom line, your stay on the island paradise of Zanzibar can be as active or restful as you choose. Zanzibar’s beaches offer a multitude of water based sports, environmental adventures, and fresh local cuisine for an unprecedented luxury vacation. This is a destination to please all types of travelers looking for sun, Instagram worthy sunsets and visuals that are very easy on the eyes.
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Disclaimer: The author was the guest of Elewana Collection for her stay on Zanzibar at the Kilindi Resort. As always, opinions and comments are her own.