Zanzibar has an exotic, far-flung reputation, but this island archipelago off the coast of Tanzania is not at all unreachable. In recent years, this group of islands has become a popular destination for those seeking an alternative beach getaway. Miles of white sand, prime snorkeling and diving spots along its atolls and coral reefs, as well as a burgeoning kite-surfing scene, have steadily drawn more and more visitors to this center of Swahili culture.
Based mainly around the large island of Unguja, Zanzibar life is focused around the philosophy of pole-pole – this means ‘slowly.’ You are certainly going to find a relaxed pace of life here, making it the perfect place for a beach-clad getaway. There are turquoise seas, palm trees, and plenty of opportunities to kick back and relax.
Map of Zanzibar
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This mainly Muslim region has long been a center of trade, and has been through a number of different owners, from Arabs to Europeans. This is reflected in the centuries-old hodge-podge of buildings in Stone Town, the oldest part of Zanzibar City, which is the capital of the islands. There are, of course, plenty of historical sights in this part of Zanzibar – and many places to stay, too. Historic buildings and modern hotels make up a lot of the offerings in this town.
However, all around the island – which you can get around via minivans, rental scooters, and taxis – you will find luxurious beachside lodgings and resorts, as well as budget beach shacks from the backpacking heyday, making sure there is something for just about anybody. This is a truly laid-back paradise for almost any caliber of traveler to delve into – so get your swimming costume ready and make sure to pack your snorkel – Zanzibar awaits!
Stone Town is the aptly named historic part of Zanzibar. Also known as Mji Mkongwe (Swahili for ‘Old Town’), this storied town is a warren of labyrinthine alleyways, old mosques, bazaars, colonial buildings, and more historic architecture besides. Its history as a trading post means there are Swahili, Indian, Arabic, and European influences here.
There’s the towering St Joseph’s Cathedral – constructed in the late 19th century by French missionaries – the cool 1930s Art Deco style of the Cine Afrique, and the Palace of Wonders; initially built for a Zanzibari sultan in 1883, this is now a museum on the history of Zanzibar. The oldest building in Stone Town is the impressive Old Fort, built in 1699.
Hotels in Stone Town range from budget stays to more chic, old world affairs in historic landmark buildings. Getting in and out of Stone Town is relatively easy, with the ferry port to Dar el Salaam on the mainland located here.
Situated on the main island of Zanzibar, Unguja, Jambiani is an old fishing village on the southeast coast. For a relaxing place to stay, there is a definitively slow pace of life here; the majority of locals are either fisherman or seaweed farmers. And even though there is starting to be a steady flow of tourists to Jambiani, this portion of Zanzibar retains an authentic atmosphere. In terms of accommodation, you can expect family-run lodges and guesthouses.
Of course, there is a beach for visitors to relax on here. This is dotted with restaurants serving up fresh seafood. At seven kilometers long and lined with palm trees, the powdery white sand of Jambiani is like paradise. There is also a beautiful coral reef just a few kilometers from the shore, to which snorkeling tours can be easily arranged. Between the reef and the shore is a stunning turquoise lagoon; protected by the reef, it’s an excellent spot for windsurfing.
A large village on the northernmost tip of Unguja, Nungwi is today a bustling tourist resort. There is, however, a good reason for that: the beach at Nungwi is impressive. It’s been voted as one of the best beaches in the world.
Because of this, Nungwi has in recent years transformed from a fishing village to a small backpacking enclave, and now sees a steady influx of international tourists. To keep visitors entertained, there are a number of amenities besides the beach itself. For instance, Baraka Aquarium is an interesting place to visit, especially for families. You can go kite-surfing at the Ras Nungwi Beach, and there are options to go scuba diving and explore the depths off-shore.
With sunset cruises high on the list of things you should be doing in Nungwi (the sunset is incredible), there are several accommodation options – from Hilton resorts to beach bungalows right on the sand. It is mostly high-end, with a few budget remnants of its backpacking past to be found as well.
Another of Zanzibar’s small fishing villages, Paje is set on the southeast coast of the island. Picture turquoise water, palm trees swaying in the breeze, and bright, white sand. A great place to base yourself if you’re all about the beach, Paje is basically a long stretch of sand with a village running alongside it.
Accordingly, there is a choice of beachfront accommodation for you to choose from for an easygoing life. There are also many restaurants here, where you can eat with your toes dug into the sand. The scuba diving in Paje is fantastic: turtles, eels, starfish, and a host of other marine life can be seen in the depths here.
The sea is primed and ready for kite-surfing, and is something of a hotspot for the sport. Get active and join in, or simply lay back on the sand without a care in the world – other than which restaurant you are going to hit up for dinner.
For a slice of solitude, it doesn’t get a lot better than Matemwe. This is a relaxed, low-key place to stay. Set on Unguja’s east coast, Matemwe is blessed with a long beach and a lack of tourists – two things that make this feel like a real getaway. The village of Matemwe itself boasts a selection of traditional homestays, as well as lodges and bungalows on the beach. It is very easy to stay in Matemwe on a budget, but there is a handful of luxury resorts, too.
Matemwe also boasts an attraction just offshore: Mnemba Island – home to Mnemba Atoll – is very close and renowned for its incredible undersea landscape. It is simple to book yourself onto a tour, hop on a boat, and start snorkeling around the waters of this stunning little islet. But if you don’t want to go on a trip, don’t worry. You can wander along the beach, relax on the sand, and unwind with a drink in the evening.
Kendwa is positioned in the north of Zanzibar’s Unguja island and is around three kilometers or so away from the much more bustling Nungwi. In fact, when the tide is out, you can walk along the beach to Nungwi itself. As such, though there are many accommodation options – including resorts and guesthouses – it doesn’t feel overcrowded in Kendwa; there is plenty of room for everyone.
The area of Kendwa is actually quite popular for the Full Moon Party, run by Kendwarocks – a monthly beach party with plenty of fun for backpacking types. If that isn’t your thing, then there is plenty that the natural and cultural world around Kendwa can offer. You can go snorkeling and see what the marine life has to offer, or you could go on a tour of Kendwa village itself. This means soaking up a slice of real Zanzibar life and even getting to try some authentic local food.
Set on the northeastern coast of Ugunja, the town of Kiwengwa features a particularly beautiful stretch of white sand beach. The hotels in this area are, for the most part, upscale and all-inclusive, leading to a very exclusive atmosphere in this part of Zanzibar. Interestingly, many of them are Italian-owned, which has led to the nickname of ‘Little Italy.’ Kiwengwa is the ideal place if you are looking for a truly peaceful spot to enjoy the sun, sea, and sand of this part of the world.
There are local attractions outside of the resorts in Kiwengwa, however. Visit the Kiwengwa Caves, an untouristed natural gem complete with an interesting history as well as crystals embedded in the walls! There is also a kite-surfing school right on the beachfront, so you could have a go at this exhilarating sport. Otherwise, this is the perfect place to spend time at the beach bars and chill out on the sand.
You will find Michamvi in the southeast corner of Ugunja island. This peninsula is well known for its gleaming white beaches, scatterings of palm trees, as well as a stretch of the incredible barrier reef to explore. The tide goes out for hundreds of meters here, and it’s a great place for snorkeling or splashing around in the shallows.
A relatively rural and untouched part of this island, the backpackers who used to frequent this ten-kilometer peninsula have been replaced by luxurious holidaymakers staying at beach retreats. However, there is still plenty of room – development hasn’t completely overrun this part of the island. On the east side of the peninsula, there are plenty of dive schools; these are great places to learn to dive since they’re not overcrowded. The Oba-Oba Lagoon is here, where diving and snorkeling are the order of the day. Kite-surfing and sailing are not out of the question, either.