Stone Town is a special old neighborhood located in Zanzibar City off the coast of mainland Tanzania. This was my first destination during my trip and I can absolutely say it is an amazing place that you shouldn’t skip (like most tourists do)!
I recommend you stay in Stone Town for at least a day or two before heading to the beautiful beaches of Zanzibar like Nungwi. These areas are much more touristic so it’s nice to experience a little slice of a more traditional side of Zanzibar first.
Before you head off, there are some important things you should know about Stone Town. So here’s your ultimate guide to visiting Stone Town in Zanzibar to help you fully enjoy your experience.
Things to Know Before Visiting Stone Tone in Zanzibar
Only bring ‘new’ US dollars & don’t exchange them
This piece of advice applies to the whole island of Zanzibar, not just Stone Town, and it’s very useful.
I knew I had to bring dollars, but I had no idea that nobody accepts bills from any series older than the year 2000.
There’s also no need to exchange your money to Tanzanian shillings as everyone actually prefers dollars.
Prepare to get lost in the maze
The first thing I thought about Stone Town in Zanzibar was that it felt like Medina in Marrakesh. The streets are narrow and winding and I never knew exactly where I was heading.
I was met with vendors inviting me to shop at their stalls on every corner, but thankfully they weren’t pushy when I politely declined.
On my first day, I decided to take a walking tour simply so I wouldn’t get lost and I think it was the best idea I ever had. Not only did it help me to get my bearings a little bit but I also avoided being approached by every man in town as a solo woman walking around.
Prepare to pay more than the original price on the spot
Unfortunately, Zanzibar is no different than any other place when it comes to bargaining. The island isn’t cheap, the prices are actually comparable to the US. On top of this, you can never be sure how much you’re going to end up paying for everything.
For instance, I was meant to take a shared boat trip to Prison Island for $30. However, when I arrived the guy demanded more money because the other people didn’t show up (I don’t think they were ever going to).
I had a similar situation with my transportation to Nungwi. Despite pre-paying $20 for a shuttle, right before departure I was told that there weren’t enough people and I needed to pay another $10. My advice: no matter what anyone tells you about leaving a deposit, do NOT pay anyone anything in advance, but pay in full on the spot.
Don’t book any tours in advance
I really wanted to make sure that I managed to see and do everything I wanted to do during my time in Zanzibar, so I scheduled a dolphin tour with Zanzibar Ecoculture Tours.
After a week of exchanging emails and arranging my pick-up at 6 am, the guide didn’t show up! I sent many emails afterward but the company never responded so you probably shouldn’t book any tours with them.
I’m even more surprised about the whole situation because I was meant to work with them on press coverage. If I paid for this tour in advance I would have been really angry!
Book your accommodation in advance
A lot of tourists seem to come to Stone Town without reservations with the hope that they will find a hotel upon arrival. During the low season finding a room will be possible without any trouble but you’re still going to overpay a lot.
I stayed in the beautiful Jafferji House located just 5 minutes from the harbor and can highly recommend it. Scroll down to read more about my stay or check out some of my other recommendations for where to stay in Stone Town below.
Things to Do in Stone Town in Zanzibar
1. Admire the Zanzibari Doors
Why am I recommending that you admire doors? Don’t worry, I’m not crazy – the doors in Stone Town are absolutely marvelous.
You can find three types of doors in town: those influenced by Indians, Arabs, and mixed. All of them are beautiful but you can recognize which is which by looking at their unique characteristics such as flower motifs and studs (once used as a defense against charging war elephants) on the Indian doors and chains on the Arab doors.
During my walking tour, my guide explained a lot about the city’s history and that the chain symbolizes slavery which was a big part of Stone Town’s past.
2. See the House of Wonders
The House of Wonders in Zanzibar was once the biggest building in Stone Town but sadly collapsed in 2020 and now stands in ruins.
What is so special about this house is that at one time it was the most modern building in all of East Africa being the first building to have an elevator and electricity.
The House of Wonders also has a huge entrance for the sultan and his elephant, and incredibly high ceilings. You can see it from the outside but don’t try to get inside, as the building is currently under renovation and its floors and walls are falling down. Nobody knows when it’s going to be finished, but I hope it will be soon.
3. Plan a Visit to Prison Island
Prison Island might not seem like an attraction that everyone would want to see because as the name suggests, it used to be a prison. But today it’s definitely a must-see thing in Zanzibar. Why? This little island located just 30 minutes by boat from Stone Town is home to over a hundred tortoises that you can interact with for as long as you want.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect since I’d already seen a lot of gigantic turtles in the Galapagos Islands, but this was a completely different experience. I was able to hang out with these tortoises for as long as I wanted, massage them, and take lots of photos… including a selfie!
4. Eat at the Night Market in Forodhani Gardens
Instead of eating in your hotel, take a stroll through the Forodhani Gardens located near the port.
From 6 pm onwards the place is full of vendors ready to serve you fresh seafood, Zanzibar pizza, and other amazing delicacies.
When you are looking at all the stalls you will notice that many have menus and prices while some of the seafood stalls do not. Try to avoid eating at stands that do not have prices as they will most likely try to scam you into paying ridiculous prices for your meal.
5. Visit the Palace Museum
If you love looking at old, historical buildings then the Palace Museum should be next on your list. Once the Sultan’s residence, the Palace Museum offers a glimpse into the life of Zanzibar’s royal family.
This grand building has a great location along the seafront and inside you can explore a vast collection of artifacts, including furniture, sultan’s robes, and gifts from foreign dignitaries.
6. Learn at the Slave Market
A visit to the Slave Market site in Stone Town is quite a sad experience but as Stone Town was once home to one of the largest Slave markets in the world, it’s important not to look away from the dark history of the East African slave trade.
The site includes the Slave Chambers, where slaves were held before auction, and the Anglican Cathedral, built on the location of the former slave market. The cathedral’s altar marks the exact spot of the whipping post.
7. Explore the Fort of Zanzibar
Built in the 17th century to defend against Portuguese attacks, the Old Fort of Zanzibar is a Stone Town heritage landmark and now serves as a cultural hub for visitors.
Inside, you can find an open-air amphitheater hosting live performances, shops selling local crafts, and art galleries. It’s also a great spot to enjoy panoramic views of the ocean and town.
8. Wander around the Hamamni Persian Baths
Don’t get too excited for relaxation as these baths are no longer in use but they are still interesting enough to look at.
Built in the late 19th century with detailed tile and beautiful architecture, the Hamamni Persian baths were once a popular spot for relaxation. Today you can explore the network of rooms, including the hot and cold baths, steam room, and massage areas, learning about the traditional bathing rituals that were an essential part of Swahili life.
9. Shop the Markets for Souvenirs
Exploring the markets of Stone Town should be a must-do during your visit to this intriguing city. There are many different markets to explore but Darajani Market is the heart of Stone Town’s bustling scene, offering an authentic slice of Zanzibari life.
Get ready to haggle over a wide range of souvenirs, from hand-carved wooden items and colorful fabrics to spices and locally-made jewelry.
10. See the Freddie Mercury House
What you might not know is that the legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury is actually from Stone Town and you can visit his childhood home.
The house has since been turned into the Freddie Mercury Museum showcasing artifacts from his life and telling the story of his international upbringing and journey to becoming one of the world’s biggest musicians.
11. Cruise in a Dhow
Being so close to the water I am sure you will probably see plenty of dhows which are traditional Arabian boats.
Once used for trade across the Indian Ocean, Dhow boats now take you on scenic tours around the island giving you a different perspective of this beautiful place.I recommend taking a sunset cruise as the sky certainly puts on a show in Stone Town each evening.
12. Check Out St. Joseph’s Cathedral
One last (but not least) architectural marvel to see in Stone Town is St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Built by French missionaries in the late 19th century, the cathedral features beautiful stained glass windows and a towering spire.
Inside you’ll find intricate wood carvings and peaceful prayer areas. But if you want to experience a unique blending of cultures, try to attend a mass here where you will get to listen to some beautiful Swahili hymns.
Where to Stay in Stone Town, Zanzibar
As I already mentioned, I can recommend the beautiful hotel Jafferji House located just 5 minutes from the harbor. This place offers romantic and authentic Zanzibarian decor and looks like a miniature palace.
There are only 10 suites but every single one of them is unique and I had the pleasure of staying on the 2nd floor which has the most spectacular views of the entire house. My room even had a bathtub on a private terrace. If I’m ever back in Stone Town I’d stay there again without a doubt!
But if Jafferji House is already booked out for your dates or you just need some additional recommendations, here are some other great hotels in Stone Town, Zanzibar.
Park Hyatt Zanzibar – A beachfront luxury hotel that blends modern amenities with traditional Swahili architecture. It offers spacious rooms with ocean views, an infinity pool overlooking the sea, and a spa for relaxation.
Zanzibar Serena Hotel – Located in a restored historic building with breathtaking views of the Indian Ocean, the Zanzibar Serena is known for its exceptional service, serene courtyard pool, and easy access to Stone Town’s landmarks.
Emerson Spice Hotel – Set in a beautifully restored merchant’s house that dates back to the 19th century, each room here is uniquely decorated, blending antique furnishings with Swahili culture. The hotel is also famous for its rooftop tea house, which offers panoramic views of Stone Town and serves a fusion of Zanzibari and international cuisine.