The mere mention of Zanzibar usually conjures up images of idyllic white beaches along the warm turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. For most travelers, Zanzibar is seen as the perfect place to relax and soak up the sun.
While the beaches in Zanzibar are definitely paradisiac and offer visitors numerous unforgettable experiences, there is a lot more to Zanzibar than only sea, sand and sun. With African, Arab and Portuguese influences, Zanzibar is alive with a vibrant culture and can offer travelers some exceptional cultural vacations.
Stone Town, recently declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the old city and the cultural heart of Zanzibar. It is a place of winding alleys, bustling bazaars, mosques and grand Arab houses. One of the highlights when visiting Stone Town is the city’s market, a vibrant place where everything under the sun is bought and sold. For those interested in the rich history of Zanzibar, the Palace Museum and the House of Wonders are a must-see.
The Palace Museum used to be the official residence of the Sultan of Zanzibar. It was converted into a museum dedicated to the history of Zanzibar’s Sultans in1994. The House of Wonders is a square-shaped building with several floors, surrounded by tiers of pillars and balconies and topped by a large clock tower. It was built in 1883 as a ceremonial palace for Sultan Barghash. Today, it is still one of the largest buildings in Zanzibar, and there are plans to open it as the National Museum.
One of the most popular cultural tourist activities on the island is the spice farm tour. Spice tours offer visitors a chance to see and savor some of the world’s most aromatic and mythical spices and fruits, from the thick, earthy bark of the cinnamon tree to fresh little peppercorns with the kick of a Zanzibari donkey. Guides will share some Zanzibari secrets with visitors such as the fact that Zanzibar’s women use nutmeg to get romantic and that they use the scent of ylang ylang to show absent husbands that they were missed when they return.
For tourists wanting to explore a different side of Zanzibar still, the island has recently seen the emergence of new and unexpected tours offered by a completely new ‘breed’ of tour companies. The guides of these new tour companies often have less encyclopedic knowledge but offer more in the way of camaraderie, a style that appeals mostly to younger travelers. One such tour operator is Mambo Poa Tours (Mambo Poa means “everything is cool, everything is fine” in Swahili).
On their off-the-beaten-track tours, Mambo Poa Tours will take visitors on a trip to explore local life at Mtende village in the very south of the island. Travelers can also pay a visit to the island of Uzi where locals are happy to welcome the occasional visitors but don’t want any tourism development to take place.
The more experiential travelers can partake in Swahili cooking lessons. Zanzibar has a unique cuisine flavored with those aforementioned spices. Travelers will learn how to cook kachumbari (Zanzibari salad), chapati, ugali (maizemeal) and Swahili curry.