While walking tours are nice and can be arranged with a guide, getting lost in Stone Town is fun and harmless. Because the town is small and all roads eventually lead to either the waterfront or large, car-traffic roads, tourists can wander and explore while they take in the sights; eventually, they will arrive at a building or landmark visible on a map. Local people, both adult and child, are very helpful in aiding visitors to find their way, and there are no dangers as long as you’re getting lost during the day. While in town it is polite (and much appreciated) to observe local custom by keeping your knees and shoulders covered; this applies to men and women. Be sure to ask for permission before taking pictures of Stone Town residents. This is especially important when the subject of your picture is a woman.
Built in 1780 by the Omanis (not by the Portuguese, as is commonly thought), the large stone structure next to the House of Wonders (Beit-el-Ajaib) was used to protect people from at least one attack from the mainland. It was later used as a prison and a barracks. Within its walls are leftover structures from a Portuguese church and a previous fortification built by the Omanis in the beginning of the same century. The modern-day fort is a great place to stop for lunch and at night there are often Taarab, Ngoma (local styles of music and dance) or movie nights. Also inside the Fort are shops and a beauty salon that does henna painting.
Quickly becoming a posh neighborhood with the opening of the Zanzibar Serena Inn and a new full service beauty salon, Dia Beauty Centre, Kelele Square was once the site of a slave market. The square was presumably named during the time of the slave trade and it must have been a source of considerable noise as its name suggests: ‘kelele’ is the Swahili word for noise.
Zanzibar’s High Court of Justice building is a combination of Arabic design and Portuguese influence and was designed by J. H .Sinclair, an architect and former British resident. It is on Kaunda Road near Victoria Gardens and the President’s House.
Hamamni Persian Baths
The Hamamni Persian Baths were commissioned by Sultan Barghash bin Said (son of Said the Great) and were built for public use. Hamamni translates into “place of the baths” and is now the name of the neighborhood where these baths once were. (The tubs are still there, but the water is gone). The baths are an interesting place to visit, but depending on how much time you have, how well you deal with heat, and how interested you are in history, you may want to skip the guide and have a look on your own. There’s a nominal fee for entering and it’s payable in US or local currency. The front rooms were used for changing, barbering, paying dues and socializing. The long hall leads to the warm room that was heated by underground hot-water aqueducts. Remaining rooms include hot baths, cold baths, toilets and private shaving areas. The original building was larger and featured an arcade and restaurant but that part has since been turned into private residences. Although they were public, the baths were frequented by the wealthy classes only; the poorer classes could in no way afford such a luxury.
The entrance fee to the Hamamni Baths was about ten cents and was therefore only for the upper classes. Although the baths were open to both men and women, they had separate hours of admittance, open to women in the mornings and men in the afternoons. It was (and still is) customary for married Muslim men and women to rid themselves of all body hair; shaving vestibules were provided within the bathhouse.
Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ
The Anglican Church is located on Mkunazini Road and can be reached by car. The church was started in 1873 and it is said that the altar stands on the exact location of the whipping post from the island’s largest slave market. There is a small museum just before the church where tourists can crawl into a space that was allegedly used to hold slaves before they were sold (the space was originally built by missionaries who created it for cold storage). It’s a horrifyingly small space and gives the visitor a glimpse into the terror of the trade even if it wasn’t actually used to store slaves. Visitors pay a fee to enter the museum and this usually includes a guide for the museum and the Church. The Church has a history written inside, in the event that a guide is unavailable.
St. Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral
Built between 1893 and 1897 by French missionaries, St. Joseph’s Cathedral was designed by the same architect who designed the cathedral at Marseilles, France. Its spires can be seen from any elevated point in town and it serves as a handy landmark for those in search of Chit Chat restaurant although the spires are hard to see from the narrow streets of Stone Town.
The Old Dispensary
The recently restored Old Dispensary, also known as the Aga Khan Cultural Centre is worth a visit for the small museum on the upper level that describes and depicts the restoration process. Old photos of the waterfront are also on display. The first stone of the Old Dispensary was laid in 1887 and the building was finished in 1894. It was built by Tharia Topan, one of Zanzibar’s richest men, in order to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.
The Shakti Temple had a sizable congregation before the revolution, but after a large number of Hindus departed from Zanzibar in 1964, this temple is now rarely full. It is almost always open and welcomes visitors, and will provide a tour but it is almost impossible to find without a guide. Its chimes and bells, rung every day around sunrise and just before sunset, can be heard from the rooftop restaurant of Emerson’s & Green, just across the street (as the crow flies).
Aga Khan Mosque
Another place of worship that was built for a larger congregation than it now services is the Aga Khan Mosque. It is a large and beautifully detailed building with an airy courtyard in the front. The façade shows European influence in its gothic windows.
One of Stone Town’s oldest mosques, the Malindi Mosque was built by the Sunni sect in a typical simple style. This mosque is unusual because its minaret is conical, one of only three in East Africa. Another unusual trait is that the minaret sits on a square platform instead of starting from the ground as most minarets do. To see the minaret you’ll need to stand on a baraza (stone or cement benches on the outside of Swahili style buildings) of a neighboring building that is down an alley and across the road from the mosque itself. You may need a guide to find the best view of the minaret and the door. Across from the mosque entrance is an old mausoleum, one of the few left in Stone Town.
The Palace Museum has a room dedicated to the life of Princess Salme of Zanzibar, daughter of Sultan Said. It contains family photographs and excerpts from her book titled, “Memoirs of an Arabian Princess,” as well as a sample of her typical wardrobe. The Palace also has other rooms on display showing a mix of various types of furniture acquired by the sultans over the years. The rooms are in various states of disrepair but provide a good idea about the quality of life for the sultan’s family toward the end of their reign. They also show proof of a typical lack of funds for historical preservation. Standing on one of the balconies and looking out toward the harbour, one might get a similar view to what the Sultans saw from the same spot.
Memoirs of an Arabian Princess, by Princess Salme, is an account of her life in the royal court of Zanzibar in the 1800’s. It is considered to be a very important work because it is the only one of its kind. Women in the royal court of Oman and Zanzibar were not taught to read or write (outside of basic Koran lessons) and therefore there are no written legacies that describe what life was like for them, except for Salme’s. The book is available at some shops in town and it is highly recommended reading for those visiting Zanzibar.
The Peace Memorial Museum
Located on Creek Road near the intersection of Kuanda Road and designed by the same architect who designed the High Court, J. H. Sinclair, the National Museum is home to many of Zanzibar’s memorabilia including, most notably, Livingstone’s medical chest. Also on display are a piece of Zanzibar’s (and East Africa’s first) railroad, and an old, palm oil-powered bicycle lamp. For history buffs it’s a great place to read up on Zanzibar’s history as it relates to everything from slavery, the royal families, coins, stamps, local crafts, trade and the many and varied colonial years. Next door to the museum is a small Natural History museum that includes some stuffed and jarred specimens along with a few bones, including those of a dodo. The only live specimens are the large land tortoises that live outside in a large cage. If your trip doesn’t allow you to get to Prison Island – make sure you swing by the Peace Memorial Museum to check out the big tortoises – they’re the only ones in town!
Beit-el-Ajaib (House of Wonders)
Sultan Barghash built Beit-el-Ajaib (Arabic for ‘House of Wonders’) in 1883 on the site of former Zanzibar Queen Fatuma’s residence of the 16th century. It got its name by being the first house in Stone Town with electric lights. It was also the first building in East Africa to have an electric elevator. It is easily found because it’s the largest building on the island; it’s white, has a clock tower, and faces the ocean and fronts on Mizingani Road. In 1896 the building was slightly damaged during the Shortest War in History. Right after the turn of the century the British used the building for their local offices until the revolution of 1964. In 1977 the CCM (Chapa Cha Mapinduzi, Swahili for ‘the Party of the Revolution’) made the House of Wonders their party school and museum. There are still CCM signs up around the ground-floor veranda and some larger signs closer to the clock tower. Since the CCM moved their museum in the early part of the 1990’s, the building has been used for little else other than dust collecting. Some of President Karume’s old cars, including a Zephyr and an Austin are inside, covered in dust. Aside from a small craft consortium that has been granted permission to make a small bazaar of the front ground-level porch and foyer, there is nothing, despite plans to make a museum, planned for the building. Apparently, plans had been made for the restoration and development of the building into a museum but after the much-disputed election of 1995, many aid organizations put their generosity on hold.
Darajani Bazaar and Dala-dala Station
Zanzibar’s ‘mall’ is across Creek Road near the main market on Darajani Road. Also known as Darajani Bazaar, this shopping strip is a fun walk and a must to avoid the ‘in-town’ prices across the street. However, the things available in the Darajani bazaar are mostly Chinese and Iranian imports such as sheets, synthetic fabrics, metal pans, plastic shoes, radios and other products of the modern world. For people planning a long stay in Zanzibar, Darajani is a great place to stock up on items like portable mosquito nets, thermoses and flip-flops. It’s also a good place to pick up fabric to take to a local tailor to have some clothes made. Keep in mind that the only natural fabrics you will find are cottons in the form of West African prints, locally-worn kangas (printed in India) and imported plain cotton in different colors. Silks can be found in town but it’s a time-consuming search. For people looking for kangas, there are usually kanga sellers behind the dala-dalas on the left toward Darajani Road. They don’t have stalls; they lay the kangas on tarps on the ground.
Right next to the beginning of the Darajani Bazaar is the main terminal for Zanzibar’s short-haul public transportation system. Dala-dalas crowd the parking lot waiting for passengers. The fare is low, but if you don’t have exact change, the fare goes up so try to have an assortment of coins when you climb aboard. They go in four major directions and have letters above their cabs indicating which route they travel. B stands for Bububu and this dala-dala will travel from Stone Town to the center of Bububu village just north of Stone Town. U stands for Uwanja wa Ndege (airport in Swahili) and travels from the town center directly to the airport. (Allow plenty of time in case the driver pokes along hoping for more fares.) A stands for Amani and travels up the hill to Amani stadium, passing the main Post Office and Telephone office (TTCL). M Stands for Magomani and J stands for Janjgombe. These two dala-dalas travel to other villages near Stone Town, but their access routes are the same as traveled by some of the other dala-dalas.
Matwani or Basi, the giant wooden-sided trucks, are the long-haul public transport vehicles. They stop on the Stone Town side of Creek Road near the market. They travel to village destinations beyond the reach of the dala-dalas but they travel slowly and usually there is only one trip to a village per day.
A Dala-dala is a small pickup truck whose bed has had benches installed around the edges and a roof placed on top. The tailgate has been removed and in its place steps have been installed making the dala-dalas easy to board. Passengers sit on the benches in the trunk-bed as well as whatever available seats are in the cab. Plastic tarps are rolled down from the roof on the outside when it’s raining. The roof has a rack where parcels are placed.
Dala-dalas got their name from the Swahili pronunciation of ‘dollar’; the original fare was a five-shilling coin the size of a silver dollar.
David Livingstone was born on March 19, 1813 in Scotland. He first went to Africa in 1841 as a missionary doctor. His travels led him to East Africa where he landed on Zanzibar and then went into the interior on various expeditions. In 1871, after Livingstone had not been heard from for some years, he met up with Welsh-born American Henry Morton Stanley who had been dispatched by his newspaper to find the famous explorer. After some months of exploring together, Stanley went back to Zanzibar and would never see Livingstone again. Livingstone died in the bush, in search of the source of the Nile, in 1872 in present-day Zambia.
Henry Morton Stanley
Dispatched from New York by his employers at a newspaper there, Stanley reached Zanzibar on January 6, 1871 from where he would begin his search for David Livingstone. After meeting with the Sultan and receiving letters of recommendation that would help him in the interior of the mainland, he set off on his search. Almost a year later on November 10, 1871 he found Livingstone in Ujiji. Stanley’s recollection of the meeting includes the words, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume.” At the time of their meeting, Livingstone was in a bad state suffering from foot problems and dysentery. The two stayed together for about two weeks while Livingstone’s health improved after which they embarked on an expedition. They explored the northern territory of Lake Tanganyika until Stanley returned to Zanzibar in May, 1872 without Livingstone, who was still exploring, and on his way to the southern shores of Lake Tanganyika.