Featured image credit: gisella g. (foursquare.com)
Clockwise from top left: walking through a spice market in Stone Town; jumping into the water at sunset in Stone Town is a nightly ritual; a taarab concert; coastal waters; a carved door in Stone Town
DIEGO IBARRA SANCHEZ FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
By RACHEL B. DOYLE
The name Zanzibar conjures up visions of sultans’ palaces, paradisiacal beaches and winding alleyways leading to spice-filled bazaars. Indeed, this coral archipelago in the Indian Ocean, 23 miles off the eastern coast of Tanzania, still has many of the features that it did when it was an important trading center and its historic Stone Town served as the capital of an Omani sultanate. Zanzibar’s largest island, Unguja, is home to most of the cultural attractions, many of them found in beguiling Stone Town, which was awarded Unesco World Heritage status in 2000. In recent years, there’s been a concerted effort to restore and give new life to the city’s distinctive structures. Palaces have been turned into museums and cultural centers, and grand Swahili mansions have been reborn as restaurants and boutique hotels. Yet the coast still offers the “delicious view” that the explorer Sir Richard Burton recorded, of a “cocoa-fringed shore of purest white, and the sea blue as a slab of lapis lazuli.” (Note: Prices in Zanzibar are routinely quoted in dollars — alongside, or occasionally instead of, the island’s official currency, the Tanzanian shilling.)
1. Stone Town | 4 p.m.
Wandering down the narrow lanes of Stone Town in the late afternoon, past coral rag houses and dimly lit curio shops, might be this city’s simplest pleasure. Many buildings date to the 19th century, and their most striking feature is their ornate doors. Carved out of mahogany or teak, some Zanzibari doors are adorned with brass spikes, while others have intricate patterns, like vines or lotus flowers, etched onto them. Standout portals include the golden door at the House of Wonders, the entrance to the Old Fort, and a collection of doors on Baghani Street. A map of Stone Town’s finest doors can be bought for $4 at the Gallery Bookshop, while a refreshing mango and coconut smoothie (4,000 shillings, or $2.55, at 1,570 shillings to the dollar) can be ordered to go at Lazuli, a tiny cafe with a turquoise door.
2. Sung Poetry | 6 p.m.
The island’s celebrated music genre, called taarab, fuses Swahili, Arab and Indian influences, reflecting the many cultures that have passed through Zanzibar. This style of mellifluously sung poetry accompanied by a full orchestra became popular here in the 1870s, when it was played in the sultan’s court. Today visitors can enjoy taarab concerts at the Mtoni Palace Ruins, the one-time residence of a 19th-century sultan. Led by the esteemed musician Mohammed Issa Matona, students from the local Dhow Countries Music Academy perform complex and haunting songs in an open-air courtyard lighted by a bonfire. The event ($45) also includes a Zanzibari dinner of coriander-spiced tuna, ginger beef and honeyed dough balls, and, be warned, some goofy historical re-enactments.
3. Waterfront Snacks | 9 p.m.
Take a leisurely stroll through the evening food market at Forodhani Gardens, a popular meeting place on the waterfront. The park received a face-lift several years ago, and now has new walkways, better lighting and plenty of benches. There are dozens of stalls, selling everything from fish skewers to spicy soup to mango slices dusted with chile salt (starting at about 6 to 10 p.m.). Even if you can’t eat another bite, try a cup of hand-cranked sugar cane juice infused with ginger and lime.
4. Nighttime Diversions | 10 p.m.
As in many conservative Muslim cities, the night life here verges on sleepy. Yet there are pockets of liveliness. At the waterfront institution Mercury’s, the live music on weekends does its best to channel the hometown hero Freddie Mercury, who was born in Zanzibar in 1946. For swankier surroundings and less chance of hearing off-key Queen covers, head to the chic rooftop lounge at the Maru Maru hotel for a dawa cocktail, made with the molasses-flavored Tanzanian spirit Konyagi, honey and lime (8,000 shillings); and views overlooking the 17th-century Old Fort.
5. Spice Island | 9:30 a.m.
Yes, it’s touristy. And yes, there will be teenagers twisting coconut leaves into crowns for you in the hope of a tip. But no, you should not skip taking a tour of the famous spice plantations. Guides tell how spices like cardamom, nutmeg, vanilla and cloves are harvested, although what’s most surprising is seeing where they come from — black peppercorns from a climbing plant more than 10 feet high; cinnamon from the inner bark of a slim tree. Many spice tours (from $15) also stop at the nearby ruins of the 1882 Maruhubi Palace, where one sultan housed a large harem, and the Kidichi Persian Baths, which date from 1850.
Inside House of Spices. DIEGO IBARRA SANCHEZ FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
6.ITALIAN ACCENT |12:30 p.m.
Situated inside a gorgeously restored 18th-century merchant home, the House of Spices restaurant serves Indian Ocean fare with an Italian accent. The dining room, a covered terrace once used for drying spices before they were packed for shipment, is a breezy, relaxing place, painted green and full of plants and antique cabinets. Here, well-executed dishes like black marlin (23,000 shillings) and an exceptional seafood ravioli in saffron sauce (14,500 shillings) are elevated by judicious use of local flavors. Desserts like chile-chocolate mousse are creative and decadent, while a house-brewed cinnamon iced tea hits the spot on a hot day.
Sipping a cup at Msumbi Coffee DIEGO IBARRA SANCHEZ FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
7. White Sand |2 p.m.