A tour of Stone Town is one of the top things to do in Zanzibar. Stone Town’s charm is its landmarks. They the story of a town built by merchants whose love for the land of the blacks pioneered centuries’ old trade routes between the island and regions as far as Europe, Saudi Arabia and China.
Exploring this medieval town with a map is not as exciting as having a local guide take you around, pointing out the finer details of the town’s rich history. Some landmarks, such as the Hamamni Persian Baths have a door sign above them, but other places of interest are next to derelict coral stone buildings and you might overlook them.
You can get a local guide (they have badges on them), at Forodhani Gardens. In fact, they come to you and ask whether you want a tour of the town. Guide fees vary (we paid Tsh. 30, 000 for two Kenyans with one guide, which is about USD 14).
If you are Kenyan, look for an English speaking guide, their Swahili is Zanzibari Swahili not the niaje boss and doh ngapi we use in the slang-smitten streets of Nairobi. For instance, Old Fort is Ngome Kongwe in their Swahili, not nyumba mzee as we would probably christen it in Kenya.
A tour of this UNESCO World Heritage Site takes about four hours, with frequent stops to take pictures of landmarks. Start at the seafront Forodhani Gardens as you head towards Mizingani Road, where the House of Wonders is located, close to the port. Currently, this 1883 building houses the cultural museum, but it served as a Sultan’s house and as a party office.
Walk through the narrow alleys among ancient two storey buildings of Stone Town, with quaint wooden doors and a stone bench known as a baraza. You will come across two types of doors in Zanzibar.
- An Indian door with its characteristic studs made of brass jutting out, and an arched shape at the top. The studs were a security measure in India, to prevent elephants from knocking the door down. When Indians moved to Zanzibar, they brought their architectural designs as they were, with the studs as decorative add-ons. Some Indian doors in Zanzibar have a smaller door, at the centre, for foot traffic.
- An Arab door has a rectangular shape, with intricate but less conspicuous carvings.
The places you have to visit in Stone Town are:
- The Anglican Cathedral
This church is one of the landmarks of Zanzibar. It sits on a former slave market; its construction was in commemoration of the end of the slave trade. At the altar of this cathedral is the actual spot where each slave was whipped as the slave auction took place.
One of the church’s epic masterpieces is a cross made from the tree under which Dr. Livingstone’s heart was buried. Livingstone died in May 1873, and his companions took his heart, buried it under a tree, and sun dried his body before carrying it back to Bagamoyo. When the tree fell, a cross was carved out of its bark.
The Anglican Cathedral took ten years to build. It was built in 1873, by Edward Steere, who was the third bishop of Zanzibar. Steere is buried behind the church’s altar.
It costs about 10 USD to explore this cathedral, and the other places of interest within such as slave cells and a remembrance monument.
- St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Walk through the narrow streets to an iconic church, whose twin pinnacles pierce the sky, akin to the spires of Marseille Church in France. The French missionaries built St. Joseph’s Cathedral between 1893 and 1898.
- The slave cells
Nothing prepares you for the dingy, clammy holding cells within the Anglican Cathedral grounds. A short flight of stairs descends into two underground cubicles made of stone, with insufficient ventilation, where slaves were held awaiting the slave auction. The set of cubicles housed men on one side and women on the other. A furrow between the stone slabs served as the toilet, which would be cleaned when sea water rushed in to carry away the waste.
- Darajani Market
Foodies visiting Zanzibar should pop into Darajani Market for a culinary tour. Outside, all manner of items are on sale but inside, there are fresh fruits, vegetables and a variety of spices. There is a fish market too, where a live fish auction takes place every morning.
After a thorough tour of Stone Town, you can head back to Forodhani Gardens for a well-deserved glass of fresh juice or to just relax by the shore. Forodhani Gardens is one of the landmarks in Zanzibar providing beachfront serenity for those who wish to dine next to the ocean, and relax away from the heat of the narrow streets of Stone Town.