Where is Zanzibar? What is Zanzibar? How Do I Get There?
Zanzibar. The very name conjures up a romantic exoticism akin to ancient Babylon or Aladdin’s Agrabah. Can such a place really exist? If yes, where on earth is it?
So Zanzibar is in East Africa. But it’s not a country, it’s an island that’s part of Tanzania. Well kind of. It’s actually considered a “semi-autonomous region” of Tanzania. And it’s actually not just an island, it’s an archipelago of many islands. And there are really just two bigger islands, and it’s just one, called Unguja, that people care about. Unguja is also known as Zanzibar, and it’s home to Zanzibar’s capital, Zanzibar City. And within Zanzibar City, is Stone Town – which isn’t really a town at all, but really just a part of Zanzibar City. Because all of this is so confusing, here’s a diagram.
Ever since I watched this video of Matt Harding dancing around the world in 2008, the idea of Zanzibar has been crawling deeper and deeper into my brain. When I had the opportunity to meet Matt and work with him on this video in 2010, he told me all about Stone Town, and I decided that I would have to go there. It took me a few more years, but I finally made it.
In case you are curious, there are basically two ways to get to Zanzibar: by plane or by boat. Coming from Dar es Salaam on mainland Tanzania, there are several unscrupulous options for both means of transportation. I would therefore stick to Precision Air if you want to fly, or Azam Marine to go via ferry. The flight is hilariously short, and the ferry ride is only an hour 45 minutes so you can’t go wrong either way.
A (Brief) History of Zanzibar
The history of Zanzibar is incredibly complex and chock full of bloody violence, slavery, a very short war and big shocker…the British. The short version is that until 1890 Zanzibar was a Sultanate which was for awhile, part of Oman and controlled much of East Africa mostly thanks to favorable trade routes (i.e. Africa-Asia slave trade). in 1890 Zanzibar became a protectorate of Britain which lasted until they became a constitutional monarchy of their own in 1963. At this time, there was no Tanzania. The country we know today as Tanzania was then called the Republic of Tanganyika. A month after Zanzibar’s independence from Britain they fell into a bloody genocide called the Zanzibar Revolution so in 1964 Zanzibar merged with mainland Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar which was soon renamed simply the United Republic of Tanzania, of which Zanzibar remains a semi-autonomous region.
On an amusing side note, from 1919 to 1961 Tanganyika itself was a British United Nations trust territory and their flag featured a cartoon giraffe. I kid you not. I laughed out loud when I saw this for the first time.
Who are the Zanzibari?
As you can imagine, a group of islands off Africa in the Indian Ocean that for nearly a millennium has served as a trade center for everything from spices to slaves that used to be part of Oman, then Britain, then Tanzania with bouts of independence along the way…is a pretty diverse place. For over a thousand years, ethnic Swahili have migrated from the mainland to the Zanzibar islands making up most of the population of just under a million. Thanks to the trade routes centered around Zanzibar, however, there is also a strong minority population of Asians, originally from India and Arab countries. It all makes for a pretty interesting mix of people as you wander around the streets of Stone Town.
The most interesting Zanzibari has to be Farrokh Bulsara, otherwise known as Freddie Mercury. Yes, that Freddie Mercury – the lead singer of Queen. Mercury was actually born in Zanzibar and grew up there as well as in India while both were under the British crown (which is why he was considered to be British). But as I walked the streets of Stone Town, past the house Mercury grew up in, humming Bohemian Rhapsody, I couldn’t help but be in awe that someone so iconic, whose songs are known by everyone both young and old the world over, came from such an unusual place that most people couldn’t find on a map. It says a lot for Zanzibar, but it says even more for Freddie Mercury and what he accomplished.
Although you won’t see Timon and Pumba sauntering the streets of Stone Town lamenting “ze sweet caress of twilight”, you will be greeted by nearly everyone you see with a hearty “Hakuna Matata!”. In fact most of the names you know from The Lion King are actually just commonplace Swahili words or expressions. Hakuna matata really does mean “no worries”, Simba means lion, Rafiki means friend, and Pumbaa means slow-witted (aww poor Pumbaa).
What is this Stone Town You Keep Speaking Of?
Zanzibar as a whole is a massive place filled with world-class resorts, endless beaches and friendly people that span many islands. But Stone Town, on the main island of Unguja (also known as Zanzibar) within Zanzibar City (still confused?), is the place you really want to explore. I would describe Stone Town’s architecture as “crumbling-chic” with it’s 19th century facades that embody a unique mixture of Arab, Persian, Indian and European elements.
In most cases, walking around is all the entertainment you’ll need. Check out the countless decorated “Zanzibar Doors” the city is famous for, talk to locals that in most cases won’t leave you alone (hakuna matata), walk the ramparts along the coast, shop for some of the most random artifacts you’ve ever seen, and enjoy a cuisine that can only be described as a hybrid of middle eastern, Asian and African. A must visit is the Zanzibar Curio Shop on Hurumzi Street (tell Murtaza I sent you) and dinner on the roof of Emerson Spice.
So yes, Zanzibar is real. And now you know where it is, how to get there and what to do. So what are you waiting for?