Walking Stone Town

Our guide picked us up just outside our hotel in Kelele Square, an area around which many of Stone Town’s luxury hotels are located.

Mural of Door Frame in Stone Town, Zanzibar

Our first stop was once the 19th century home of one of the island’s wealthiest slave traders, Hamed B. Muhammad Al-Marjebi (better known as Tippu Tip). Currently unfit for habitation, of particular significance was the intricate door frame. Characteristic of Zanzibari architecture, homes of wealthier residents carried (and still carry) large mahogany or teak double doors with decorative studs. The elaborate artwork typically signified the aspirations or social status of their owners. It wasn’t long before we were door-spotting all over Stone Town.

View from Palace by the Sea, Stone Town, Zanzibar

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Stone Town’s alleyways and narrow streets are reminiscent of Morocco’s medina quarters making them perfect for exploring on foot. What sets Stone Town apart though is its enviable historical blend of Swahili, European, Arab/Islamic and Indian influences evident in the colours, architecture and character of the town.

Old Arab Fort, Stone Town, Zanzibar

Noteworthy stops on our walking tour included: Jaws Corner (where the locals gather in the evenings to gossip and drink coffee), the Old Arab Fort, the House of Wonders, Garanjani Market, the Palace Museum, the old slave market, now the site of the Anglican Cathedral of Christ Church and ‘Mercury House’, the birthplace of legendary Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury.

Unfortunately, following the bloody 1964 revolution, historical buildings in many parts of Zanzibar including Stone Town are in various stages of decay due to lack of maintenance.

HDYTI Tip: Although hiring the service of a local guide is useful, Stone Town is easy to explore on your own using a map and walking tour guides in about 3 hours. We LOVED the level of detail in this book from Bradt Travel Guides. Also, see free guides from Frommers.  Note that entry to museums is not free but is relatively inexpensive.

HDYTI Tip: Stone Town’s architecture also features some beautifully designed balconies. When you spot an interesting door, remember to also look up as you might find an equally interesting balcony design. We also recommend stopping by the Mizingani Seafront Hotel, a restored palace on Mizingani Road along the Forodhani seafront to admire its striking interior design.

 

Seafood and fearlessness

Street Food Market at Forodhani Gardens, Stone Town, Zanzibar

By the end of the tour, we had worked up quite an appetite and returned to our hotel to sample their lunch menu. Although satisfied by some excellent Swahili cuisine, we remained curious about the nightly seafood market in Forodhani Gardens.

In his 1872 memoir, Sir Richard Burton, a famous British explorer describes seeing seas so rich in fish that “gangs of old women and children may be seen at Pemba, and on the coast, converting their body-clothes into nets and filling pots hand over hand with small fry”. Although Zanzibar’s waters now produce far less fish than before thanks to over-fishing and the depletion of coral reefs, Forodhani Gardens was sure to have some interesting eats.

Later that evening, we arrived at the gardens as the stallholders were setting up their coal-fired pits. We were just in time to catch the nightly diving show put on by the locals. Egged on by cheering and clapping crowds, young boys would run up to the edge of the wall where the most fearless would then leap into the air, striking an entertaining pose mid-air, before making ungraceful contact with the water below. Their unbridled energy and carefree spirit was magnetic.

A beautiful East African sunset and the aroma of grilling seafood diverted our attention from the show. We wandered over to the stalls and browsed through colourful displays of spice infused octopus, squid, jumbo prawns, lobster meat, scallops, mussels and other types of seafood including snapper and barracuda.

Street Food Market at Forodhani Gardens, Stone Town, Zanzibar

We struck up a conversation with one of the sellers who although friendly, tried to scam us by demanding for extra money. Nevertheless, the experience of sampling the street food (not for the fainthearted) and engaging with the local culture was a great way to round off our visit to Stone Town.

HDYTI Tip: Always carry change or currency in small denominations and agree a price before purchasing anything in Stone Town. Be prepared to be harassed by touts. Simply say a firm NO and walk away. Do not engage in conversation with them.

PREVIOUS PAGE          FINAL PAGE (5 of 5): A country afraid to grow up