Stone Town is Zanzibar’s historic heart, a bewildering maze of streets and alleyways that form the westernmost tip of Zanzibar Town. These days the island’s bustling capital is home to some quarter of a million people, but lost in the tangle of Stone Town’s narrow streets it’s easy to imagine yourself floating back in time.
Stone Town of Zanzibar (Arabic: مدينة زنجبار الحجرية), also known as Mji Mkongwe (Swahili for “old town”), is the old part of Zanzibar City, the main city of Zanzibar, in Tanzania. The newer portion of the city is known as Ng’ambo, Swahili for ‘the other side’. Stone Town is located on the western coast of Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar Archipelago. Former capital of the Zanzibar Sultanate, and flourishing centre of the spice trade as well as the slave trade in the 19th century, it retained its importance as the main city of Zanzibar during the period of the British protectorate. When Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined each other to form the United Republic of Tanzania, Zanzibar kept a semi-autonomous status, with Stone Town as its local government seat.
Stone Town is a city of prominent historical and artistic importance in East Africa. Its architecture, mostly dating back to the 19th century, reflects the diverse influences underlying the Swahili culture, giving a unique mixture of Arab, Persian, Indian and European elements. For this reason, the town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
Due to its heritage, Stone Town is also a major visitor attraction in Tanzania, and a large part of its economy depends on tourism-related activities.
Things to do in Stone Town
Walk the streets: The best way to explore Stone Town is on foot, though renting a bicycle is an option if time is short. Hiring a local guide is a great way to discover the hidden histories and lesser known sights and end of Ramadan is especially festive with lanterns lining the alleys and a feast of street food on every corner.
Go shopping: From neat, sustainable fashion boutiques to the loud, chaotic market on Creek Street, Stone Town has plenty to offer the dedicated shopper. Look out for brightly coloured kanga and kikois (traditional wrap-around clothing), silver and tanzanite jewellery, handmade leather bags, sandals and shoes, a seemingly endless range of woven baskets, wooden carvings, throws, wall hangings, rugs, antiques and ornaments of all shapes and sizes, not to mention spice-infused beauty products and oils and, of course, the spices themselves.
Take a spice tour: Spice tours can be arranged from your hotel or from one of the many tour operators around town. A variety of tours are available, some including lunch and/or spice cooking classes, but all with the opportunity to head out into the still active plantations and see, touch and taste Zanzibar’s many spices in their natural environment.
Try the local food: Forodhani Gardens food market is the place to go to sample the best of Zanzibar’s eclectic street food. Crisp samosas, fresh fish and coconut curries, and the misleadingly-named ‘Zanzibar pizzas’ (more of a filled pancake) are just a few of the available options. Alternately, search out one of Stone Town’s more sophisticated new restaurants where quality seafood and delicious traditional recipes are the order of the day.
Visit the museums: Stone Town has a number of small but fascinating museums with exhibitions ranging from dhow construction to the evils of the slave trade. Seek out in particular the Palace Museum, Livingstone House Museum, Princess Salme Museum and the House of Wonders (the first building in Zanzibar to install electric lights).
If you’re visiting during Ramadan be aware that many restaurants close, and the usual daytime buzz on the streets is somewhat subdued. Some hotels also close down during the March to May low season although still others offer discounted rates to encourage visitors.
Organise any tours or travel arrangements directly with your hotel or a reputable agent and treat the street touts (known locally as papaasi) with caution. Pickpockets are also an occasional hazard in Stone Town’s narrow alleys so take the appropriate precautions.
Remember that Zanzibar is a predominantly Islamic society and covering shoulders and legs below the knees is considered appropriate for both men and women. Bars serve alcohol, as do most (but not all) restaurants, and drinking on the street is frowned upon, although not actually illegal.
The Old Dispensary
The first thing every traveler checks out in the Stone Town is the Old Dispensary. We already mentioned it before, when we talked about Zanzibar’s local building renovations and restorations. However, this grand four-story building deserves to be written about.
Also known as the Stone Town Cultural Centre, the Old Dispensary will leave you in awe with its decorative balconies. It is located on the seafront, on Mizingani road, halfway between the harbor and the Palace Museum.
For the first half of the 20th century, this historic building served as a dispensary. Tharia Topan commissioned it in 1887. He intended to build a charitable hospital for the poor. Unfortunately, he died before the building was finished. In 1900, Indian Merchant, Haji Nasser Nurmohamed bought the house and turned it into a dispensary.
Over the years, the Old Dispensary decayed. Fortunately, it was successfully restored in 1994, with funding from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Things you need to know about Stone City
Even though its name might confuse you, Stone Town is not a town for itself. Also known as Mji Mkongwe, it is the cultural heart and the old part of Zanzibar City which is the capital and the largest city of Zanzibar, semi-autonomous region of the state of Tanzania.
If you are in search of an authentic experience of traditional African towns, this is a place to go.
For the past 200 years, the Stone Town managed to remain unsullied by the hand of modern culture. That is one of the reasons why it has recently been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Stone Town is a perfect place for getting lost in the labyrinth of winding streets and alleyways and wandering through bustling bazaars for hours, discovering fascinating handiwork of the locals. Its mosques and extravagant Arab houses will amaze you.
Unfortunately, as the locals found out years later, the coralline rock, which was Zanzibar’s main building material, wasn’t durable enough.
It started eroding, and the Stone Town Conservation Authority had to step in and organize the restoration of several buildings to preserve the towns unique magnificence. As soon as you visit the Old Dispensary, you will realize what are we talking about. Also, it is most likely that the hotel you are staying at is housed in one of the Stone Town’s renovated buildings.
You have to admire their effort to preserve their cultural heritage.