1 – Zanzibar is not like the mainland

The semi-autonomous archipelago is a 23-mile hop from the mainland of Tanzania, and although officially part of the East African country, in almost every aspect – politics, religion, culture, food – life there is different. 

As a base for traders from the African Lake District, India, and the Arabian Peninsula, Zanzibar became a hub for the region’s slave and spice trade. 

Most Zanzibarians consider themselves Zanzibarians rather than Tanzanians, and their territory has its own leader and governing bodies. The mainland of Tanzania is a mix of Christian, Muslim and indigenous groups, but Zanzibar, which ruled the Sultanate of Oman for centuries, is almost entirely Muslim. 

(The Sultanate, in turn, had seized the islands from the Portuguese, and they became a British protectorate much later, until Zanzibar’s independence in 1963).

2 – Set Swahili time

The timing is initially confusing, but it actually makes a lot of sense. 

In Swahili culture, people start counting time at sunrise instead of midnight, which means that 7 a.m. Western time is 1 a.m. Swahili time, and 7 p.m. 1 p.m. the night. 

(This works because sunrise and sunset times are relatively constant throughout the year, as Zanzibar is very close to the equator.) One trick to cracking this code is to imagine drawing a line directly across the face of a watch: three become nine, four become ten.

When arranging meeting times, it is better to specify the time of day you would like to meet (morning, afternoon, evening, night) that way, even if you don’t have numbers, you are likely still going online.


3 – Do not fear the ferry (high speed)

Transit to Zanzibar is by plane or boat, probably departing from Dar Es Salaam. 

The plane ride involves about half an hour of cruising in a shaky Cessna, but the ferry is cheaper and can be a much more enjoyable experience. 

High-speed boats run four times a day each way, take about two hours, and a ticket will cost you less than half the cost of flying. 

Don’t be deterred by exaggerated travel advisories that mention capsizing boats – high-speed boats are safe, modern, and comfortable. 

Interestingly, the 2013 movie  Captain Phillips,  a Hollywood retelling of an actual hijacking of Somali pirates in 2009, is often the preferred inflight entertainment. If the weather is nice, or you are prone to seasickness, the top deck is windy and has the best views.


4 – Greetings matter

Stop and say hello – Swahili is an easy language to learn and the initial learning curve is quick. 

Learning just the basics will get you pretty far. Do not assume that the constant attention of people on the street is an attempt to sell you something or to trap you into taking some kind of tour; That happens, but saying hello is also an important part of the local culture. 

The «mambos» and «jambos» are usually just that, so it is a good idea to return the greeting. 

It can be overwhelming at first, but it’s nice to realize that so many strangers will take the time to acknowledge your presence and ask you about your day. (A «Shikamoo», usually reserved for those you don’t know, your elders or superiors, is a respectful greeting that the locals will appreciate).

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5 – Get lost in Stone Town

The old city, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, is charming, but basically a labyrinth. 

The act of taking directions through the winding alleys of the city usually involves a series of confusing hand gestures and nods of the head, and it probably won’t get you where you want to go faster. 

There are street names, something like that, but nobody really uses them. The positive side is that Stone Town is small and safe, and not knowing where you are going is part of the experience. The locals are helpful, so you can ask for directions as often as you like, but sometimes it’s better to get lost.

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6 – Life on the island is slow

In Zanzibar, life moves from  pole to pole  – to Swahili for slow. Things in Zanzibar don’t always make sense, they don’t always work out, or they may take a while. 

It’s important to enjoy the quiet chaos and follow the lead of the unhurried pace. It may take 45 minutes for your smoothie to appear, but it will be delicious and worth the wait. Lazuli, a small but wonderful restaurant in Stone Town is a good place to experience this.

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7 – Choose your own adventure

Zanzibar has become home to some of the finest luxury resorts in East Africa, which can be a jarring contrast to what is a quiet and economically challenged island (the average Zanzibar earns less than $ 1 a day). 

If you’re looking for a beach getaway with fellow Westerners, head north to Nungwi and Kendwa, where you’ll find the same all-inclusive packages and beach clubs you’ll find in most other warm parts of the world. 

For a slightly more Zanzibari experience, try quieter towns like Bwejuu or Jambiani, where their slice of island paradise mixes with the rhythms of village life.

8 – Zanzibar has two rainy seasons

Every year, there are long rains and short rains. In the immediate aftermath of the hot, sweaty East African summer, Zanzibar’s long rainy season lasts roughly from March to May. 

It is not a good idea to book a trip during this period if you are prepared for a beach vacation; the islands are hit by some pretty epic monsoons that will literally wipe out your time at the beach. 

Short rains generally take place between November and December, but are not as intense; they tend to appear in short, torrential bursts, then quickly fade to blue skies.

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9 – Taste the world

Zanzibar has had many rulers over the centuries, and its long and tragic history has created one of the most interesting cuisines in Africa. 

This is the original fusion food, a delicious mix of Indian, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese and African culinary traditions, all driven by the constant presence of spices (these are known as the Spice Islands, after all, where the cloves, the cinnamon, black pepper, and nutmeg come straight from the source.)

Try   African Ugali , Indian Chapatti, Swahili curries and eat as much fresh seafood as humanly possible. Look out for island specialties like curried octopus and urojo, a turmeric and coconut based soup with crunchy fritters and spicy potatoes that seems to have all of the island’s history contained in its broth. 

If you want to try these recipes at home, head to Darajani Market, the main bazaar, where locals shop for groceries, but get there early, before the heat hits.

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10 – Egg yolks are white, not yellow

Across Zanzibar and in many parts of mainland Tanzania, breakfast options are egg white or egg white, even when the yolk is included. 

There’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just that the buds are never sunny yellow. They don’t know different; The chickens here feed on a grain that causes them to produce monochromatic eggs. 

Sorghum that is eaten by chickens in Tanzania has less pigmentation than the yellow corn that is fed to chickens in other parts of the world.

11 – Common sense allows you to bring your own alcoholic beverage

In Zanzibar, drinking is possible and it is okay to wear beach clothes in the right places. That said, there are times and places where neither is appropriate. Better to avoid skimpy clothes and drunks dragged through Stone Town. 

There are a few bars in Stone Town, and you can drink at tourist and expat restaurants and fancier hotels in the city and on the coast, but remember that the waiter serving you probably won’t drink, so leave it a little quieter if your Opening a bottle of wine is not the most elegant. 

There are only a couple of shops in Stone Town that sell alcoholic beverages, and it’s a good idea to bring your own bag so you don’t brandish a bottle of gin on the streets.

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12 – Take some time for tea

The drinking culture is not just for rooftops and beach bars. The local tea scene is a great way to meet people who actually live on the islands, not just passing through. Try the  tangawizi  (ginger) chai and add vanilla if possible. 

Having a cup of hot and spicy tea on the side of the road is a good way to people-watch. Most tea stalls or carts start serving once the sun goes down. 

If you are in Stone Town, ask for the nearest Babu Chai, and someone should be able to point you in the right direction.

13 – There are no lions, elephants or giraffes

Tanzania is known for its impressive safaris, but this is not the Serengeti – all wildlife is underwater. 

If you do come to the islands, try visiting one of the many dive centers that offer scuba training courses and of course views of the life and corals of the Indian Ocean. 

But keep in mind that overfishing and a lack of environmental oversight have compromised many of Zanzibar’s best reefs. Some of the best snorkeling spots can be found on Chumbe Island, a protected marine park about a 10-minute drive and 45-minute boat ride from Stone Town. 

The day trip is considerably more expensive than cheap street packages, but the money goes to pay for a world-class staff of locals and to restore some of Zanzibar’s most fragile ecosystems. (Not to mention an amazing lunch and one of the best snorkeling spots in East Africa.)

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14 – Go out at night

Stone Town can seem spooky at night when you first arrive – the collection of narrow streets and dimly lit alleys doesn’t exactly invite the uninitiated to wander aimlessly. 

But don’t let concerns and travel advisories that require extra caution after dark keep you confined to your room after sundown. 

Stone Town is full of life in the afternoons, with children playing, couples strolling and people partying everywhere. The central park market turned at night, the Forodhani Gardens, is packed with locals and tourists who sample the two dozen fresh food stalls. 

Skip the seafood kabobs, which may have been sitting all day, and opt for grilled Indian spiced chicken and Zanzibar pizza, accompanied by fresh sugar cane juice.

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