With its perfect sandy beaches, palm trees and relaxed seafront resorts, Zanzibar is like a dream. Popular with backpackers, this island off the coast of Tanzania also attracts more upscale holidaymakers looking for winter sun. This is the ultimate backpacking Zanzibar itinerary and travel guide, including where to stay, the best places to visit and what to do on this paradise island.
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These are the best places to go in Zanzibar
Whether you arrive by plane or boat, your first stop is likely to be the capital of Zanzibar, called Zanzibar City. Its historical centre of Stone Town is the best place to stay in Zanzibar on your first night.
Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best places to visit in Zanzibar thanks to its fascinating history and culture. Read below for all the top things to do in Stone Town.
But let’s face it, if you come to the island, top on your list of places to visit will likely be the famously laid-back beaches of Zanzibar. Where to stay in Zanzibar depends on your personal taste. From Stone Town your next stop could be a quiet beach, a sporty beach or a party beach. At all of them you can expect Instagram-friendly white sand, palm trees and vivid blue sea.
Reserve your taxi transfer from Zanzibar international airport to Stone Town here.
The best beaches in Zanzibar include Nungwi beach in the north and Paje beach and the neighbouring Bwejuu beach in the east of Zanzibar.
For scuba diving, one of the best places to stay in Zanzibar is Nungwi. Meanwhile, Paje is one of the best beaches on Zanzibar for kite-surfing, yoga and parties. Read on to find out more.
Don’t forget to take Lonely Planet’s excellent Tanzania and Zanzibar guide book with you on your trip.
The coolest things to do in Zanzibar
If you’re looking for what to do in Zanzibar for a week or a if you have a few days here, the answer is you can do as much or as little as you like. The pace of life here is slow and relaxed, so you can simply wander around the towns, browse the markets and laze on the beaches.
Check out Fumba Beach Lodge, one of the top beach resorts in Zanzibar
However, if you want something more exciting, there are plenty of high-octane water-sports and tours, such as Zanzibar’s highly-rated Safari Blue sea adventure. Read on for my recommendations of the must-sees and the best activities in Zanzibar.
Stone Town, Zanzibar City
Zanzibar City’s historic centre, Stone Town, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 and it is one of the top Zanzibar tourist attractions.
If you’re wondering what to do in Zanzibar, simply walking around Stone Town is the perfect way to start your backpacking in Zanzibar trip.
Its architecture is a fascinating visual reminder of the island’s diverse background, from its native Swahili culture to Arab, Persian, Indian, Portuguese, German and British influences.
Book your place on a fascinating 3-hour walking tour of Stone Town here.
For example, Zanzibar’s Old Fort was built in late 17th century by the ruling Sultanate of Oman to defend the island from the Portuguese. Today it hosts the Zanzibar International Film Festival as well as concerts in the evenings.
Here is the most awesome accommodation in Stone Town
If you’re looking for a Zanzibar backpacking hostel in Stone Town, don’t miss the fabulous Lost & Found Zanzibar. This air-conditioned hostel has super-friendly staff and is located in the perfect spot to explore Stone Town. Alternatively, try the top-rated Ten to Ten hostel, where you can play table tennis and darts or hire bicycles to get around the local area.
Stay in one of Stone Town’s excellent rooms – check out the selection here.
A popular 3-star hotel in Stone Town is the Al-Minar Hotel, which is loved by guests for its central location close to the beach, as well as its helpful staff and tasty rooftop breakfast.
The Zenji Hotel is a 10-minute walk from the heart of Stone Town but offers fantastic value for money. It has an on-site restaurant including breakfast and each room has its own balcony. The nearby Kholle House is beautifully furnished and has an outdoor pool.
How to find Freddie Mercury’s House in Zanzibar
One of my favourite facts about Zanzibar is that the late, great Queen frontman and legendary rock star Freddie Mercury was born in Stone Town, on 5 September 1946.
Freddie Mercury’s House in Zanzibar, called Mercury House, is in the heart of Stone Town on Kenyatta Road and there are photos of Freddie displayed outside.
Queen fans can book a ‘Freddie Mercury apartment’ at the top-rated Tembo House Hotel , directly opposite Mercury House.
This is where to enjoy drinks at sunset
After a hot day exploring Stone Town, every Zanzibar backpacker needs rest and refreshment. The Zanzibar Coffee House is a well-renowned cafe in Stone Town and also has well-appointed rooms.
One of the best things to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar, is to sip a cocktail or two at the Africa House Hotel’s Sunset Bar. The bar lives up to its name, offering beautiful views as the sun goes down.
If you’re feeling hungry after your cocktails, you can pick up a freshly cooked local snack at the lively night market at Forodhani Gardens, a short walk away.
If you’re in the mood for an upscale evening, head for the Beach House Zanzibar for sumptuous food and cocktails as you enjoy incredible sunset views over the sea.
Discover the Anglican cathedral and slave chambers
One of Stone Town’s most notable historic sites is the 19th century Anglican cathedral of Christ Church, located on Mkunazini Road.
Built in the 1870s, it stands as an example of early Christian architecture in this part of Africa. It is located on the former site of the island’s biggest slave market, as a monument to mark the end of slavery.
Here there is a museum, revealing the cramped rooms with low ceilings where dozens of people were kept chained in horrifying conditions, as well as a memorial to the slaves outside.
Of all the island’s things to do, discovering Zanzibar’s history of slavery is certainly the most disturbing but perhaps the most important.
Shop at a lively and colourful food market
For the intrepid backpacker, Zanzibar must-dos include browsing the island’s markets. The Darajani Market on Darajani Road, not far from the Anglican cathedral, is a bustling indoor and outdoor market that is great fun to explore.
In sections of the indoor market, sellers display their enormous fish, slippery seafood and raw meats in the open air, as flies dance across the carcasses.
You can also find vendors selling all manner of shiny vegetables, nuts and Zanzibar’s famous spices. It’s worth picking up some of the island’s famous saffron.
Visit the source of the island’s best produce
A 30-minute drive north of Zanzibar City is the Tangawizi Spice Farm, one of the most popular attractions in Zanzibar. It is a fantastic day trip from Stone Town.
Here, local guides show you how the island’s fruit, vegetables and spices are grown and harvested. It’s a fun, interactive tour where you can smell, taste and buy the produce, as well as getting an insight into one of Zanzibar’s most important industries.
Book a tour to discover Zanzibar’s spice plantations direct from your hotel in Stone Town here.
If you are keen to learn more about the animals in Zanzibar, pay a visit to the nearby Cheetah’s Rock wildlife rescue service in Selem, a half-hour drive north of Zanzibar City. Here you can meet the animals and hear from staff who care for them about the centre’s conservation efforts.
On the north coast of Zanzibar is the picturesque coastal village of Nungwi, which has one of the world’s top beaches. Here among the palm trees and laid-back beach life you will find traditional dhow boats, a turtle sanctuary, affordable yoga retreats and scuba diving.
Nungwi is around 1.5 hours from Zanzibar City by taxi or car rental. If you are on a budget, it can also be reached by public bus and the dala dala shared minibus taxis, which depart every half hour from the capital.
Discover Nungwi and its turtle sanctuary on a tour from Stone Town here.
Enjoy sensational scuba diving at Nungwi beach
The 5-star PADI Nungwi diving resort, Spanish Dancer Divers, is a great place to try scuba diving in Zanzibar.
Our Zanzibar scuba diving group ranged from a 19-year-old first-time diver to an adventurous 78-year-old lady, who joked that her dive card was so ancient that no-one would recognise it. Their friendly team was able to cater to us all. The dive instructor kitted us up with our wet suit, scuba gear and even provided breakfast.
We headed to the Mnemba Atoll marine conservation area. This site is known for offering some of the best diving and snorkelling in Zanzibar, as it is a large reef with good visibility.
During our scuba diving adventure we saw fluttering shoals of bright fish, stripy cousins of ‘Nemo’ lingering among the anemone and big spiky fish showing off. This was a divine Zanzibar diving experience.
The most perfect places to stay in Nungwi
We stayed at the Nungwi Inn Hotel, which is located in gardens right on the beach and has cute four poster beds.
One of the most popular places to stay in Nungwi is the GOasis Nungwi Zanzibar an affordable resort with hammocks, a relaxed bar and an outdoor swimming pool.
To browse and book all the accommodation in Nungwi, Zanzibar click here.
A cool day trip from Nungwi is the village of Kendwa, just 15 minutes’ drive south of Nungwi. Here on one of the island’s top beaches, you can go quad biking and experience some of the best snorkelling Zanzibar has to offer.
The best beachfront accommodation in Kendwa
Beachfront accommodation in this part of Zanzibar includes the Kendwa Rocks Hotel, a favourite with backpackers in Zanzibar and famous for its Full Moon Parties.
Nearby is the more upmarket Gold Beach Zanzibar beach house and spa resort, one of the top Zanzibar beach hotels.
Kidoti Wild Garden is a cute hostel just south of Kendwa, set in a peaceful and naturally beautiful seafront location.
Reserve your spot on an incredible discovery scuba diving trip from Kendwa here.
Paje is a beach village on Zanzibar’s southeast coast, around an hour from Zanzibar City. It is home to wide, white and windy sandy beaches.
Kite-surfers from around the world come to Paje to take advantage of its ideal conditions. There are plenty of schools if you’re keen to learn kite-surfing. If you’re not feeling sporty, you only need to take a short walk to uncover beautiful beaches with hardly a soul on them.
Check out all the details and reserve your spot on the Paje yoga holiday here.
During the day, you can also wander around the villages behind the tourist resorts to find local shops where you can negotiate for handmade souvenirs. For lunch or dinner, there are plenty of charming beachfront restaurants and cafes.
Paje is also best area to stay in Zanzibar for people looking for things to do in Zanzibar at night, as it is known for its all-night parties. We went to one at Jambo Bar and danced until the early hours. Don’t be surprised to see men wearing traditional Maasai warrior robes dancing alongside you, as these parties are enjoyed by tourists and locals alike.
The most beautiful places to stay in Paje
My home in Paje was the wonderful New Teddy’s Place, just a few steps from the beach. It is known as one of the best hostels in Tanzania, so it’s the perfect cheap accommodation in Zanzibar for backpackers. With rustic cabins, hammocks to lounge in, friendly staff, a tasty daily menu and a chilled vibe, it’s just divine.
Sunny House Paje II is a superb hostel in Paje with ocean views and a wonderful host called Renata who will go out of her way to help you. If you’re looking for more upmarket Paje Zanzibar hotels, try the Dhow Inn, which has a pool, restaurant and private beach area.
On the nearby, quieter Jambiani beach, hotels include the Coral Rock beach resort and Coco Beach Hotel which are great value beach hotels in Zanzibar. Meanwhile, New Teddy’s on the Beach is perfect for backpackers and has a blissful outdoor pool. South of Jambiani is the incredible Clove Island Villas, resort, for a true island paradise getaway.
From Paje, it’s a 15 minute taxi ride to Pingwe beach. The reason for our trip was to visit one of the best restaurants in Zanzibar and certainly the most Instagrammable, described by one journalist as a ‘postcard-perfect restaurant‘.
Dine in a unique restaurant perched on a rock in the sea
The Rock is a restaurant perched on a rock in the middle of the sea. At high tide, you have to be ferried in a small fishing boat to get to this unique restaurant.
This is an essential experience for Zanzibar backpackers wanting a dinner experience with a difference.
Inside, it is romantic with candlelit tables and we feasted on sensational lobster and pasta.
Prices at The Rock are not too high considering how special it is and it offers some of the finest food in Zanzibar.
They also have an oceanfront terrace where you can go out for a drink or two, gaze across the sea and toast your backpacking Zanzibar trip.
Here is the prettiest place to stay in Pingwe
If you are looking for somewhere serene to stay in Pingwe, check out the decadent Upendo Zanzibar beach resort which has a fabulous outdoor pool. Even if you don’t stay here, it is a great place to come for a relaxed cocktail.
Upendo means ‘love’ in Swahili and we certainly had a crush on this place.
This is a fantastic side trip when you’re backpacking Zanzibar
If you’re intrigued to take a side trip, check out Zanzibar’s neighbour, Pemba Island. It’s a naturally beautiful place with forested hills and fragrant clove plantations, as well as colourful coral reefs and plentiful marine life.
A famous hotel here is the unique and award-winning Manta Resort floating hotel. In their luxurious (and expensive) glass-walled underwater rooms, you will be face-to-face with the fish and see rays of light refracting through the water, from the comfort of your bed.
A much more affordable option is the Pemba Paradise bed and breakfast. Here, despite the small price, you will feel like royalty thanks to the attentive staff and a beach almost to yourself.
What you need to know about Zanzibar
So where is Zanzibar located? The group of islands known as the archipelago of Zanzibar sits in the Indian Ocean, just off the coast of mainland Tanzania in eastern Africa. While Zanzibar governs itself and has been an independent country since 1963, Tanzania and Zanzibar still have a close relationship as the United Republic of Tanzania.
The island known as Zanzibar and the main tourist destination is one of the archipelago’s two largest islands and its official name is Unguja. The neighbouring Pemba Island is also worth visiting. There are no cities in Zanzibar, only the capital city of Zanzibar City and some smaller towns. Along with tourism, the area’s main sources of income are its native spices.
You may be wondering, is Zanzibar safe? For the most part, yes it is, as tourism is such an important industry for the country. We didn’t encounter any issues during our stay there. However, like anywhere it’s worth checking the official Zanzibar travel advice before you go and keeping your belongings safe while you’re there.
The currency in Zanzibar is the Tanzanian shilling, though some accommodation in Zanzibar will charge in US dollars. The cost of living in Zanzibar generally isn’t high, for example, a meal for two at a restaurant could cost between $5 – $25. However, getting around Zanzibar can be expensive. The main island is around 53 miles (85 km) long and 24 miles (39 km) wide, so taking a taxi from one beach to another could cost around $25 – $40.
How to get to Zanzibar
The main airport in Zanzibar is the Abeid Amani Karume International Airport close to Zanzibar City. You may be able to find cheap flights to Zanzibar via airlines such as Emirates, Turkish Airlines or Kenya Airways (e.g. from Cape Town to Zanzibar). If you’re taking a trip to Zanzibar from Europe, you may well have a connecting flight in Dubai or Doha like we did on our return trip.
On the way there, we travelled from mainland Tanzania by ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar. Don’t be surprised if the boat to Zanzibar is packed full of people, standing as well as sitting, as it’s a busy route. The funny thing about arriving on the island is you still need to go through customs and show your passport, even though Zanzibar is included under the Tanzania visa.
The best time to visit Zanzibar
If you’re wondering when to go to Zanzibar, the best time to visit Zanzibar is between June and October, when it’s generally cooler and drier. We were there in July and the weather was warm but not too hot. Otherwise, if the heat doesn’t bother you, you may find the best time to go to Zanzibar is from December to February.
For holidays in Zanzibar, it’s best to avoid the island’s two wet seasons, with higher chance of rain between March and May, as well as in November.
Next up, read about a sensational sunrise balloon trip over Tanzania’s sweeping Serengeti plains.