24 hours in Stone Town

On the island of Zanzibar, Susan Gough Henly is charmed by the buildings and beat of the trading city.

The aromatic clove plantations, traditional dhow fishing boats and castor-sugar beaches of Zanzibar evoke an aura of the exotic.

At the heart of Zanzibar, an island archipelago that is part of Tanzania, is Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site whose coralline buildings and labyrinthine laneways are a thriving melange of African, Arabic, Indian and European cultures.

When it was the seat of power for the Omani sultanate in the middle of the 19th century, Stone Town was a trading hub that reached heights of opulence on the back of the lucrative ivory, spice and slave trades.

A million slaves were shipped through Zanzibar to work on plantations before the threat of British bombardment ended the trade in 1896 during the 38-minute Anglo-Zanzibar war, the shortest war in history.

In 1963, Zanzibar managed to gain independence from Britain and the following year the presidents of Tanganyika and Zanzibar united the two countries to create the republic of Tanzania.


Check into the Beyt al Chai Stone Town Inn, a former tea merchant's home overlooking the tamarind trees of Kelele Square. Get a map from the hotel and explore the narrow streets with their stone houses set behind massive carved-teak doors. The bigger and more elaborate the door, the richer and more prestigious the owner. Look out for Arabic buildings with inner courtyards and doors with Koranic inscriptions to compare with Indian-influenced houses with overhanging latticed verandas and doors with pointed brass studs.

Beyt al Chai Stone Town Inn has rooms from $US150 ($164) a night including breakfast. See bluebayzanzibar.com/beyt-al-chai.



Head to the basement cafe at Zanzibar Coffee House for home-made croissants, muffins and coffee, which comes from a plantation in the Tanzanian highlands and is freshly roasted on the premises.

The Zanzibar Coffee House, Market Street, Mchambawima.


You can't miss the four-storey Beit el-Ajaib, Stone Town's tallest building, constructed in 1883 by the second sultan Barghash as a ceremonial palace (and, not surprisingly, sporting the most elaborate doors in town, guarded by two 16th-century Portuguese cannons). Called the House of Wonders because it was the first building on the island to have electricity, it is now the Zanzibar National Museum of History and Culture with exhibitions on the dhow culture of the Indian Ocean, Swahili civilisation and the Zanzibar struggle for independence.

National Museum of History and Culture, Sokoku Street, Forodhani, open Monday to Friday 9am-6pm and Saturday-Sunday 9am-3pm. Admission is $US3.


Next door is the castle-like Arab Fort, the oldest structure in Stone Town, built on the ruins of a Portuguese church. Today, it houses the Zanzibar Cultural Centre with an art gallery and open-air theatre. From late June to early July, the Zanzibar International Film Festival and Festival of the Dhow Countries take place here with music, performance, theatre and film highlighting Swahili culture.

Arab Fort, Mizingani Road, open daily 9am-8pm, free, see ziff.or.tz.


Check out the Dhow Countries Music Academy at the Old Dispensary (upstairs), which has been restored by the Aga Khan Culture Trust. You can buy CDs of Zanzibar's Taarab music, a blend of Middle Eastern tonalities with accordion, violin, Arab flute, African drums and voice. You may even be able to arrange a drumming workshop.

Dhow Countries Music Academy, near the port entrance on Mizingani Road, see zanzibarmusic.org for details.


For a sobering experience, visit the Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ, built by British missionaries over the site of the world's last open slave market. The altar stands at the site of the whipping post and a wooden crucifix is made from the tree in Zambia that marked the spot where Dr Livingstone's heart was buried. (Many believe the Scottish missionary, based here for a short time, was influential in the abolition of the slave trade.) You can also crawl into the next-door cellars, where slaves were kept before being auctioned.

Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ, New Mkunazini Road, open Monday to Saturday 8am-6pm, Sunday midday-6pm. Admission is $US3.


Enjoy sundowners on the deck of The Africa House Hotel. Once a slave trader's home, then a guesthouse for the sultan, it eventually became The English Club, complete with billiards room. Knock back a few gin and tonics ($US5) with the expat set as you watch the angular sails of dhows glide slowly along the turquoise water.

The Africa House Hotel, between Shangani Street and Suicide Alley, off Kenyatta Road.


For more of a local vibe, stroll through lantern-lit Forodhani Gardens (in front of the House of Wonders, Mizingani Road) and soak up the jovial atmosphere. For just a few Tanzanian shillings you can eat grilled lobster, fish and goat with chilli sauce or stuffed chapattis (Zanzibari pizza).


Dine at Mercury's, set above the beach where a bonfire is lit after nightfall. Named after Stone Town's most flamboyant son, Freddie Mercury, the lead singer in the rock band Queen (born Farrokh Bulsara to Parsee parents in 1946), this is a popular spot for grilled seafood and pizza. Live music on the weekends could be anything from Congolese drummers to traditional Taarab groups.

Mercury's, Mizingani Road, mains less than $US10, open 10am-midnight.


Visit the lively Darajani Market along Creek Road while the food is still fresh and the fish and meat smells are not overpowering (no refrigeration). There are piles of tropical fruits and vegetables and great deals on spices (saffron is as little as $US5 a small packet).


Wander the maze of laneways between Kenyatta, Mizingani and Creek roads to shop for kangas (bright cotton cloth worn by women) or the thicker kikoi striped or plaid cloth preferred by men. Carved wooden chests, baskets, brass work and silver jewellery are other treasures. Memories of Zanzibar (Kenyatta Road), Zanzibar Gallery (Kenyatta Road and Gizenga Street) and Moto Handicrafts (Hurumzi Street) all have high-quality products.


Head up the island to relax at Matemwe Bungalows on a pristine beach in the north-east of Zanzibar. You'll see almost as much colourful life snorkelling at nearby Mnemba Atoll as you did in Stone Town.

Matemwe Bungalows, $US265-$US310 a person a night, full board, see www.asilialodges.com.

Dar es Salaam is the nearest major international airport. Qatar Airways has a fare for about $1591 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax, flying non-stop to Doha, Qatar, and then non-stop to Dar es Salaam. Precision Air (www.precisionairtz.com) and ZanAir (www.zanair.com) have regular flights from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar for about $US68 one way, including tax. Australian passport holders require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.