What You Need to Know About Zanzibar

Zanzibar. Sounds exotic, huh? It’s because it totally is. The name describes the Tanzanian archipelago off the East coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. Only about 15-30 miles off the coast, it is easily accessible from the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam via a short flight or ferry ride.

What You Need to Know About Zanzibar

There are two main islands and many small islands. Unguja, usually just referred to as Zanzibar, is the main island with the World Heritage Site and historic centre of Stone Town in Zanzibar City. Pemba is the other main island.

Zanzibar, often referred to as the spice islands because of its international spice industry (which has declined significantly for many reasons) now depends on tourism to play a major role in the islands’ economy.

    

A majorly simplified glimpse of history:
Like so many other islands strategically located for trade, protection, and exploration, Zanzibar has historical influences from many different cultures. Persians, Arabs, and Indians visited and migrated to the islands in order to voyage to the Middle East and the coast of East Africa. As a result, Swahili includes some influences from the Arabic language. In the early 1500’s, Zanzibar became part of the Portuguese Empire and remained as such for about two centuries until falling under rule by Oman in 1698. In the 1800’s, Zanzibar City was used as the main port for the slave trade with the Middle East, with as many as 50,000 slaves passing through annually and continued well after the British took control and increased pressure on the Zanzibar rulers to abolish slavery. In 1963, the British Protectorate ended and then just a year later the republic merged with the mainland of Tanganyika, blending the two names to form the United Republic of Tanzania, in which Zanzibar remains a semi-autonomous region. Make sure to hire a local guide to take a walking tour of Stone Town and learn about the history and see the slave chambers.

The People:
The total population of the islands is approximately 1 million people, with two thirds of those on Zanzibar Island (Unguja) with most in Zanzibar City in the west. Ethnicity is of diverse origins. Bantu people arrived from central Africa around AD 1000, then Arabs and Indians make up the other groups. Swahili is the language spoken throughout Tanzania, but English is also an official language, although very few Tanzanians are fluent. There are more than 100 languages in current use throughout Tanzania, so neighboring tribes find it difficult to understand each other. Therefore Swahili serves as the common language that everyone shares and is used in primary school. Zanzibar is almost exclusively Muslim at about 98.9%.

With that in mind, dress conservatively in Zanzibar. Anytime you’re not on the beach, your shoulders and knees should be covered. Although Zanzibar is a beach destination and they have seen plenty of tourists come through with less than optimal clothing on, still be respectful. You want to avoid drawing attention to yourself. This isn’t Saudi Arabia, but perhaps a bit of modesty will earn you more respect. I felt very safe in Zanzibar. Never once was I cat-called or hit on. Men were incredibly respectful. Everywhere I went, I heard “Jambo! or “Karibu!” It was always accompanied by a smile.

Always ask before taking pictures of people. Some people will be happy to oblige and are excited when you show them their picture afterwards. Others have a negative perception of cameras, so do not click without permission.

Beaches in Zanzibar:
Many of the resorts and hotels in Zanzibar have beautiful beaches, but what if you’re staying near Stone Town in a rad traditional palace instead? Hire a taxi to take you to the northern tip of Zanzibar to Nungwi for the day. You can swim in the clear turquoise water all day with less tidal fluctuation than on the east and west coast beaches. Popular, but idylic, Nungwi is the beach to not miss in Zanzibar. Other notable beaches include Kendwa beach within walking distance of Nungwi, which is also beautiful but a little quieter, Paje in the Southeast of the island and Kiwengwa in the Northeast.

Travel Health:
The CDC recommends obtaining Hepatitis A and typhoid vaccines in addition to making sure you are up to date on all routine vaccines. Hepatitis B is probably a good idea too. Yellow Fever is only required if you are arriving from a country with Yellow Fever risk, however you may still consider it especially if you will be heavily exposed to mosquitos. Rabies is only recommended if you will have exposure to animals. Malaria prophylaxis is definitely recommended for everyone visiting elevations lower than 5,900 feet. The risk of malaria for travelers is considered high. Talk to your doctor about options for malaria prophylaxis.

Miscellaneous:
Your passport must be valid for 6 months after departure from Tanzania. You can obtain a visa ahead of time or upon arrival for $50. There is also a $35 departure tax, so plan accordingly to have that cash. In Zanzibar and all of Tanzania, the currency used is the Tanzanian Shilling which you can exchange upon arrival, although US dollars are accepted frequently. Cash machines are scarce, but major hotels will take credit cards. Power outlets are of the three-prong British style. Tap water: just don’t. Drink bottled water. Being close to the equator, Zanzibar has relatively constant temperatures throughout the year. It’ll be warm, obviously, but April and May have the highest rainfall.

Where to Stay:
Everyone is different. Read reviews, look at pictures. Use Trip Advisor; it’s the best. If I were to visit Zanzibar again, I’d plan to spend a couple nights in the heart of Stone Town in an old palace and spend a few more nights at a beach bungalow or resort. But don’t skip Stone Town. The history and culture is all right there.

Dhow Palace, Stone Town

Where to Eat:
There are plenty of great restaurants with fresh food and stunning decor and atmosphere in Stone Town or the resorts on the beach. My personal favorite is the Silk Route. My friend and I went there every night, sometimes just for dessert after eating elsewhere. Other well reviewed restaurants include the Tea House and Emerson Spice. You should visit the market in Stone Town, because it’s quite the spectacle. But my advice would be to pass on eating from there.

 

Useful Swahili:
Jambo? / hujambo? (how are you?) – sijambo (I am fine)
Habari? (how are you?) – nzuri (fine)
Goodbye – Kwaheri
Please – Tafadhali
Sorry – Pole
No problem – Hakuna matata
Welcome – Karibu
Excuse me – Samahani
Don’t worry – Usiogope
What is your name? – Jina lako nani?
My name is  – Jina langu ni
Ok – Sawa
Yes – Ndiyo
No – Hapana
I understand – Naelewa
I don’t understand – Sielewi
Store/shop – Duka
Grocery store – Soko
Price – Bei
Money – Pesa.
How much? – Pesa ngapi?
Eat – Kula
Food – Chakula
I am hungry – Nahisi njaa
I am thirsty – Nahisi kiu.
I would like to order YYY – Ningependa kuagiza YYY
I am vegetarian – Sili nyama
I have enjoyed the meal – Nimefurahia chakula hicho
Cab/Taxi – Teksi
Boat – Mashua
Right – Kulia
Left – Kushoto
I have a question – Nina Swali
Do you speak English? – Je, Unasema Kiingereza?
I am lost – Nimepotea njia

Visit Zanzibar! You won’t regret it. In fact, I’m getting a deep ache to go myself now reminiscing over old pictures and memories.

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