Zanzibar conjures up exotic images of castaway-style beaches, where fine coral sand meets the azure Indian Ocean and the scent of spice and mangoes perfumes the breeze. It’s true that this archipelago is a tropical oasis, with more than its fair share of snorkelling, sunset watching, and luxury hotels. But it also makes a captivating escape for the curious traveller. Inhabited for over 20,000 years, these islands have a long and tumultuous history, the culture a beguiling mix of Arabic, African and European.
Rice and beans sold at a traditional food market
The lemongrass-scented squares and alleys of Stone Town (Zanzibar City’s old quarter) make a great base for exploring the island’s history. Narrow alleys, once walked by slave traders, snake past peaceful mosques and the crumbling ruins of the sultan’s palace. At Darajani market, baskets of cinnamon, black pepper, and nutmeg perfume the streets. It’s a place to sightsee slowly, drinking in the relaxed pace of island life – and sampling plenty of Zanzibari dishes along the way. Freshly caught fish, lobster, and prawns are not to be missed, nor the bustling market stalls with their fried cassava, beef biryani, and charcoal-grilled kebab.
Like the island’s famous octopus curry, Zanzibar’s spiritual world often simmers behind closed doors. Locals believe that shetani (spirits) wait and watch in every shadow, and with many of the city’s houses built on top of old cemeteries, they may have a point. In town, herbalists open their shops to cleanse the souls of unwanted guests, while mganga, or witch doctors, commune with spirits from the coastal rocks.