Zanzibar travel tips. 8 Things you should know before you go.

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  1. Travel Documents

You need a passport to travel to Zanzibar. If you are an East African citizen and don’t have a passport you can also get a temporary permit by applying on the eCitizen portal. I used a temporary permit since I did not have my passport at the time I was travelling as I had applied for the digital passport.

Once you have completed the application, make the payment via Mpesa (Kes 350 for an adult), print the temporary permit and attach a passport size photo. Don’t bother going to immigration to have the temporary permit stamped. I woke up so early to go to Nyayo house only to be told that the permit would be stamped port of exit so it was stamped at the airport. 

If you are coming from Kenya, you also need to get yellow fever vaccination and present a yellow fever certificate at the airport. You can get the vaccination at City Hall Annex, Port Health at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Wilson Airport or private hospitals in Kenya e.g Aga Khan, MP Shah, for approximately Kes. 2,500. Please note that you must get the vaccination a minimum of 10 days before travel. East Africans do not require a visa to go to Tanzania.

TIP: Always check the validity period of your travel documents. Your passport should be valid for at least 6 months before your travel and should have at least one empty page for stamps.

2. How to get there

The two times I have gone to Zanzibar I have gone by air. The first time I went with Kenya Airways and the second time with Safarilink. An air ticket from Nairobi to Zanzibar costs around Kes 30,000 – Kes 50,000 ($300-$500) depending on the season and timing of the flight. It takes about 1hour 40 minutes.  I usually use Skyscanner to search for available flight itineraries then go to the individual airline websites to make the booking.

Another way to get to Zanzibar from Nairobi is going by road to Dar es Salaam and then taking a ferry to Zanzibar. It would be a nice way to also see the Tanzania countryside. This would require that you have enough time to travel since it takes about 14 hours to get from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam by road and around 2 – 2½  hours to get to Zanzibar by ferry. You could also consider having an overnight stop in Moshi or Arusha. The cost of a VIP bus ticket from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam on Modern Coast bus is Kes. 3,850 and the ferry from Dar to Zanzibar costs around USD 35 or Kes 3,500

 

TIP: Sometimes the flight cost on a search engine like Skyscanner is not all inclusive so when you check the actual cost on the airline you may have to pay extra costs for instance baggage fee, seat and meals, especially for low cost airlines. Please be sure to check these when reaching a decision on which airline to use. 

I usually try to make a booking all the way until I reach the payment stage, without paying so that I can see if there are any additional costs involved. Also, be sure to read the terms and conditions on the flight ticket and call the airline to confirm if not sure of anything. 

3. Where to Stay

I am a total beach bum. When I go to Zanzibar, or any island, I always want to stay on the beach, wake up by the beach, go out and explore other areas during the day and then come back and watch the sun setting over the sea.

When choosing where to stay in Zanzibar, your itinerary and budget would be the starting point for making the decision. If most of the activities you want to do are in or around Stonetown then you can consider staying around the Stonetown area. If you are like me, then definitely stay on any of Zanzibar’s many beaches. 

Also if you are going to stay in Zanzibar for longer than say a week, you could ‘hotel-hop’ and stay in Stonetown for 2 or 3 days then move to the beach. Then again it would depend on how much luggage you have and what transportation means you are using. 

My preference when looking for accommodation in Zanzibar was The North Coast, South East Coast and East Coast.

The North Coast is home to the popular Nungwi and Kendwa beaches with a long stretch of beach and a lot of water-sport activities like diving and snorkeling. This area is full of life, with a bustling nightlife so you can get a little bit of everything here.

The South East Coast stretches across Jambiani, Paje, Bwejuu, Dongwe and Pingwe beaches on the map.  On my first trip to Zanzibar I stayed at Mbuyuni Beach village which is between Paje and Jambiani. I loved this area and I really enjoyed the nightlife, especially the beach parties at Jambo Beach Bungalows. Other places you can explore for the night life are Paje by Night hotel bar and Red Monkey Lodge beach bar.

The East Coast which is around the Pongwe and Uroa area on the map is also beautiful with a whole lot of beach. I stayed at Uroa Bay Resort on my last trip to Zanzibar and it was great. It is a quiet and serene area and very good for a relaxing holiday. The tide would go out in the mid morning and you can walk out to the sea and get your own little stretch of an island within an island and then come back before the tide comes back in. There was no night life in this area but this was ok since on this particular trip I was not really keen on partying.

TIP:  Check accommodation options according to your budget and preferred areas on Booking.com. You can also check reviews and photos submitted by travelers on Tripadvisor to help you reach a decision. I usually book accomodation either through booking.com or the directly with the property, whichever is cheaper. 

Go to Zanzibar during low tourist season to save on accommodation costs. You can get discounts on hotels if you go between March and early July. March to May is monsoon season with long rains though so check the weather forecast when planning your trip.

4. What to Do

There is no shortage of activities and excursions in Zanzibar. Here are some suggestions. 

  • Take a walk through Stone town

Enjoy all that this historical town which is a UNESCO world heritage site has to offer. Walk through the alleys, have a look at the beautiful doors, Vistit the Hamami baths, Old Fort, Freddy Mercury’s former house. Just walk around and take in the beauty of Stone town.

  • Take a tour through and shop at Darajani market

Darajani market is a colourful market with a wide variety of products including spices, fresh food and fabric. If you want to experience Zanzibari culture, Darajani market is a must visit.

  • See the red colobus monkeys at Jozani forest Chwaka Bay Park

There are guides who will take you around the park where you will get to see the Zanzibar red colobus monkeys as well as take a walk on the Mangrove Boardwalk. The entrance fees is USD 8 per person.

  • Visit Prison Island and learn about the Zanzibar

Take a boat ride from Stone town to Prison Island which was once a holding place for slaves as they waited to be transported and is now home to tortoises, including some very giant and aged ones. I paid $30 for the 30 minute each way boat ride with only me, my mum and sister as passengers in the boat and $4 per person at the island.

  • Spice up your trip with a Spice farm tour

Zanzibar is aptly named spice island. A visit to Zanzibar is incomplete without a trip to one of the several spice farms where you get to see how spices are grown and buy some too.

  • Enjoy some good food at Forodhani gardens

In the evenings Forodhani gardens is teaming with food vendors selling different kinds of Swahili food including grilled meat, fish, vegetables as well as refreshing drinks. You can also watch young boys jumping off the pier into the sea.

  • Zanzibar butterfly centre

Visit the butterfly centre to see how the butterflies are bred and watch the beautiful creatures flying around. There is a charge of $6 per person. 

  • Water sports – Swimming, diving and snorkeling

There are numerous spots for water sports including the famous Mnemba Atoll.  

  • Make an international phone call for free at jaws corner.

Only if you can reach the phone!! Otherwise just have some coffee and enjoy. 

  • Take a ride on a dhow

From Stone town you can take a dhow ride and for a more serene trip, take the boat just before sunset so that you experience the sun setting over the ocean.

  • Get a henna painting / tattoo

My sister had this done at our hotel. 

  • Be a beach bum

Just lie on the beach and do nothing except eat, drink cocktails and sunbathe. I had so many activities planned out for my last trip to Zanzibar with some on the second last day of our trip but after a couple of excursions we decided to cancel everything planned for that day and just bum at the hotel. So remember to save one day, preferably the last day, or even more for this, otherwise you may end up being more tired after your vacation than you were before.

TIP:  It is very possible to get around Zanzibar without booking an excursion. For the stone town tour, I asked my contact at the car hire company to recommend a guide. The guide charged $20 for the stone town tour though it is very possible to get one for $10. Alternatively you could just use your google maps to find the places you want to see, or ask shop owners for directions. Be careful not to be scammed by the many touts that will approach you offering to show you around. 

For the spice tour, you can take a taxi or public transportation or,  if you have hired a vehicle, you can drive to one of the spice farms and there will be some guides to show you around. You can leave them a small tip after the tour.  For the island excursions for instance to get to Prison island, you can go to the pier and negotiate a price with the boat owners. There will always be plenty of boats looking for business. Make sure you haggle about the price, do not accept the first price they offer. Same goes for buying anything on the island, unless it is a fixed price in a store. Haggle, haggle, haggle.  

5. What/where to eat

  • Lukmaan Restaurant

Eat at one of the most popular restaurants in Stonetown, Lukmaan restaurant and enjoyed the variety of authentic Zanzibar dishes served there at a reasonable price. We had some sumptuous biryani rice, chicken and tiger prawns washed down with fresh juice. The restaurant is very busy though so if you are not able to get the waiter’s attention, go to the counter, pick out what you like, pay for it then carry it to your table. Also try to avoid going during lunch hour (12.30 to 1.30 p.m.) as this is the busiest hour and go either before or after.

  • Zenji food lovers joint

Our guide took us here after our Stonetown walking tour. We were just happy to see a restaurant and food after walking for a bit. We had some fish and rice which was quite tasty.

  • Forodhani gardens

You can enjoy a variety of food and drinks at Forodhani gardens in the evenings. There is so much food, you will be spoilt for choice.

  • Rooftop restaurants

Experience the magical sunset in Stonetown while overlooking the Indian Ocean from a rooftop restaurant. Food can be a bit pricey at the roof top restaurants but you can always order a coffee or some other drink and drink slowly.

  • Street food

Street food in Zanzibar is amazing! There are always street food vendors along the highways selling grilled meats, French fries and sea food. When in Zanzibar I hardly ever eat at the hotel. I just grab some street food on my way to or from the hotel.  

TIP:  You must try the ‘Zanzibar pizza’! And the sugar cane juice with lime. So refreshing!!

6. How to get around

There are public transportation means like mini vans and Dala-dala which we call matatu in Nairobi. It would be important to research on where you are going to stay, which dala-dala goes there and where they can be found. This would be suitable if you are not planning to travel much around the island and are going to stay more or less around the same area.

There are also taxis but these can be quite expensive.

I always prefer to hire a car. On my second trip to Zanzibar I hired a Suzuki Grand Vitara (5 door) from Zanzibar Best Car Rental  for $30. You need a temporary driving permit which costs $10 per person. I picked up the car at the airport and returned it there as well. Before you take the car, inspect it, go around and note if there are any dents or scratches and also check the insurance and make sure it is valid.

Within stone town and residential areas the speed limit is 40 to 50km/h. While driving on the highways, I was advised to go at a speed of 60 km/h on the highway by my contact at the car hire company.  It seemed annoyingly slow especially when I had had a long day and wanted to get to the hotel and rest, but I was not about to get pulled over for over speeding.

TIP: When driving around Zanzibar, always be on the look out for people, bicycles, scooters and other vehicles. I noticed a lot of people walking along the highways at night and others cycling people walking and cycling along the road while not wearing any reflective clothing. I almost always had full lights on because there were people everywhere along the road. I was driving like a learner, edging forward, my face almost touching the windscreen and eyes wide open. Another reason why you need to drive slow. Also, do not drink and drive! That’s a no brainer though.  

If you are planning to use Google maps and are not roaming buy a SIM card at the airport so that you can have internet connection for about USD 20 for 12 GB.

7. Currency

The local currency in Zanzibar is Tanzania Shillings. However, US dollars are widely used and most hotels, restaurants and vendors accept US dollars so if you have USD, it is not necessary to change too many bills into Tanzania Shillings. Break the dollar bills into smaller nominations though for easier transactions in smaller establishments.  There are currency exchange bureaus in Stone town where you can change money. If you use a credit card to pay, you will likely be charged an extra fee.

8. What to wear

Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim so when going into Stonetown or outside the beach areas, dress conservatively. For ladies, avoid short skirts,shorts and cleavage revealing clothes. Some places will require you to have your arms and legs covered so either wear some loose fitting trousers or a long dress or skirt to be on the safe side. Alternatively, you can carry around a wrap around /shawl/ lesso / shuka to cover up when need be. When at the beaches though, you can wear whatever you want.

Carry light clothing since it is very hot.

If you want to venture into the sea carry sea shoes to protect your feet from coral rocks.

Do not forget to bring your hats and sunglasses and definitely do not forget to bring sunscreen. And yes, people of colour or if you like, black people also need sunscreen! It is not only for white people . Protect your skin, please!!!!

So start planning that trip!! A wonderful adventure awaits!!

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