Zanzibar. Stunning beaches. Untouched nature. Incredible history. What more could you want in a travel destination? If I’m being completely honest, Zanzibar was never really on my radar of countries to visit. I don’t feel like you hear much about it or see many pictures. It just sounds like some far off, exotic place.
I knew literally nothing about Zanzibar before my first visit to the country. All I knew was that it was an island. That’s all. I wasn’t even exactly sure what the relationship was between Tanzania and Zanzibar (Zanzibar is technically a part of Tanzania but also autonomous). But there was still time to learn!
History of Zanzibar
Before traveling to Zanzibar I decided to learn as much as I could about this interesting little island I had only heard mentioned in the passing. Was Zanzibar its own country? What is its history? I had so many questions. I listened to as many podcasts I could find and I found them all fascinating.
Zanzibar is an archipelago of over 50 islands. Unguja is the largest island and most visited, and what you normally consider ‘Zanzibar proper’, even containing the capital city of Stone Town. Pemba, a bit more north, is the second largest.
Zanzibar is strategically placed as an incredibly important part of the trade route through the Indian Ocean. As a result, it even gained the nickname of “Spice Island” throughout the years as they exported and traded a huge amount of exotic spices throughout history.
Between Oman and Portugal and Great Britain and then Oman again, countless colonial powers seemed to constantly fight over this little island in the Indian Ocean. Oman, which seemed to have the largest and longest influence in the religion and culture, used the island for more tragic purposes – for the slave trade.
The island is peppered with remains of the huge slave industry that had Zanzibar as its hub. Prison Island off the coast of Stone Town was used as a jail for rebellious slaves and the less rebellious were sent to the Americas to work on plantations. This island was so important to Oman and their slave industry that the Sultan of Oman even made it the capital city in 1832.
In the 60s a revolution began among the African locals to overthrow the apartheid Omani rule, which was successful! Zanzibar united with the neighboring Tanganyika to form what we now know as Tanzania.
Coronavirus in Zanzibar
Tanzania and Zanzibar have a very unique corona policy. As a matter of fact, the official policy of the government is that corona does not exist in their country. They went into a very brief lockdown in March/April and then simply stopped testing people. They do not report new cases or new deaths and simply continue on with their lives as if corona never happened.
Tanzania and Zanzibar are completely open for tourism with no requirement to produce a negative test or to quarantine. Once you land, you will be asked to fill out a health form to sign that you do not have corona or corona symptoms and that is the extent of their precautions.
Mask wearing is not required in Tanzania/Zanzibar and not even suggested. You probably won’t see a single mask wearing person in the country. Big gathering are allowed, nightclubs are open, in short….it’s a mini oasis of life before corona.
Although I highly doubt that corona simply does not exist there, the country does not seem to be suffering from increased deaths, overrun hospitals, or the like. Interestingly, the death rate has not increased since last year.
What to Wear in Zanzibar
Although Zanzibar is a predominantly Muslim country. 99% of the population is Muslim, with a very small Christian minority. Despite this, there is no real requirement to dress conservative. They are very moderate/secular Muslims and used to seeing tourists. No one will make you uncomfortable for wearing shorts, short skirts, sundresses, or bare shoulders throughout the town, or bikinis on the beach.
Before I visited, I read many suggestions to dress conservatively, but from my experience that is not necessary or even expected. In some of the smaller, less touristic towns far from the beach, you may consider dressing a bit more conservative. Also if you are visiting a mosque, be sure to cover your shoulders and knees. But overall, Zanzibar is very open so feel free to dress as you would in just about any beach destination.
Is Zanzibar Safe?
From my experience in Zanzibar, I would say that it is a very safe country. The people are very relaxed (as in most beach destinations) and we walked around late at night and never felt unsafe. The people are very friendly and their economy relies heavily on tourism.
However, as in ANY location, always be careful. Pickpockets and thieves are everywhere.
Zanzibar is very untouched. I think we probably saw just a handful of traffic lights during our entire stay on the island. Even the largest of roads are just one lane in each direction, and many of them are made of dirt. That’s all apart of the beauty of Zanzibar. The tourism industry is fairly new, giving you a truly authentic experience.
The best way to get around Zanzibar is by taxi. There are registered taxis that you will see everywhere. They are almost van like with two rows of seating. For a one hour drive, you’ll pay about $20. We hired a driver for the entirety of our trip. He, or someone he worked with, would come to pick us up and often wait for us to drive us back home. It helped to ensure we always received a fair price.
I wouldn’t recommend renting a car in Zanzibar as there are practically no road signs, the roads are difficult to maneuver, and you will most likely get lost. There is also the option in some of the beaches to rent a scooter along the beach, particularly on the eastern coast.
Busses or public transportation is also an option and very much cheaper than taxis. However, you just have to ask a local when you arrive for directions as there is no real official bus system with official bus stops in place.
Most countries require a visa to enter Zanzibar and the cost is $50. It can be done online before, but it is also possible and recommended to simply complete it at the airport. At the airport itself YOU CAN ONLY PAY WITH CASH and there are no ATM’s at the airport so be sure to bring enough cash with you.
Weather in Zanzibar
As very few people want to go for a beach vacation and be stuck inside with rainy weather, the worst time to visit Zanzibar is March – May, which is Zanzibar’s rainy season. Although still warm, afternoon downpours are quite common and you’d probably find yourself stuck indoors most of your trip. The best time to visit is from June to October, the dry season filled with reliably warm and sunny days. From November to February, you may experience light rains, but they last for such a short time that they’re unlikely to ruin any plans. Located just 6 degrees south of the equator, Zanzibar is usually warm throughout the year with temperatures ranging from 25°-35° C year round. (75°-95° F).
Depending on what kind of traveler you are, Zanzibar can be very cheap or very expensive. If you are open to staying in hostels or small bungalows and eating at small, local restaurants, it can be around $50-$100 a day per person. However, hotels can get quite expensive. The Northern coast – Nungwi and Kendwa are the most expensive, but the Eastern coast is almost half that price. Prices are pretty similar to what you’d find in most Western European countries. It is, after all, considered a honeymoon destination, so the prices stay in line with what people are willing to pay. If you choose to stay at hotels and eat at more western places, it’ll be closer to $150-$200 or more per day per person.
Also as a note, tourism is fairly new to Zanzibar. Only within the past 10 years have they really built the majority of the hotels and western style tourism establishments, so the prices are still low compared to many other African countries (despite what many people think, many African countries are extremely expensive for tourists, especially Kenya), but they are slowly getting more and more expensive every year as mass tourism begins.
- Wi-Fi – The Wi-Fi in Zanzibar was ceratinly a challenge. Even at the nicest hotels, the service was iffy at best. There were a few restaurants with decent service, but I did struggle to work remotely while there. If you do need to work while there, I would suggest getting a local SIM.
- Cash – The official currency in Zanzibar is the Tanzania shilling (1 USD = ~2,300 TZS) however USD are widely accepted and oftentimes preferred. I hardly carried local currency with me at all during my stay. Just be careful to stay on top of the exchange rates!
- Food – Although the food itself tasted fine in most places, I would be cautious of food poisoning. Both my boyfriend and I had multiple bouts with food poisoning during our stay, even from the meals at the fanciest hotels.
- Language – The official language of Zanzibar is Swahili. Many locals also speak Arabic and English. Due to the high prevalence of Italian and Russian tourists, many locals also spoke bits of Russian and Italian. In hotels and tourist locations, most people will speak English, although it may be difficult to communicate outside of the very touristic areas.
- Medical – Malaria is a bit of a risk in Zanzibar, but far less than in most of the neighboring East African countries. Try to avoid mosquito bites and you should be fine!
- Alcohol – Although it is a majority Muslim country, alcohol consumption is permitted and most places serve alcohol. It is suggested, however, to avoid being blatantly drunk especially walking through Stone Town or other towns.
If you are looking for the best travel/tour operator within Zanzibar I would highly recommend Amnaf Shellah. He helped us so much to organize boat trips, provide us with reliable taxis, and so much more! It’s a small family business and they are really the best. Contact Amnaf at +255 777 45 4254.
Any more questions about Zanzibar? Check out 18 AMAZING THINGS YOU CAN’T MISS ON YOUR TRIP TO ZANZIBAR | THINGS TO DO
Lots of Love and Safe Travels,
Danielle and Brooke, Colorful Sisters