Africa. The Motherland. Home. This massive continent, the second most populous after Asia, houses over 50 countries. Yet when most people dream of adding it to their travel bucket list, they tend to shrink it down to two countries: Kenya and South Africa. However, there’s so much more to Africa than Kenyan safaris and Nelson Mandela’s cell block.
A short plane ride away from both Kenya and South Africa lies the East African paradise of Zanzibar. This semi-autonomous region of Tanzania is infused with a unique heritage, full of Caribbean-like charm, yet distinctly African. If you’re looking to experience a different side of Africa, a trip to Zanzibar needs to be at the top of your list. Here are six reasons why once you step foot on Zanzibar, you’ll fall in love and never want to leave.
1. Stone Town
From the bustling markets, vendors selling handmade goods, men selling fresh sugarcane juice, women carrying groceries and kids rushing off to school, the capital city of Stone Town seems to always be filled with welcoming energy. The massive, ornate doors that line the streets speak to the island’s Arab, Indian and European heritage. Yet historic buildings like the House of Wonders (a former palace of the sultan of Zanzibar) could easily remind you of those found on Caribbean islands like Jamaica and Trinidad.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Stone Town is also full of history. Exploring sites like the last open slave market, presided over by Arab traders until it was shut down by the British in 1873, and the oldest building in the city, the Old Fort, can help you feel more connected to the island and its people.
The sunsets in Zanzibar are, without question, simply breathtaking. From golden tones to hushed pink hues, it often feels like no two sunsets are ever the same, and you could spend your entire time on the island lost in its trance. But what makes sunsets in Zanzibar truly special are the Sunset Jumpers. Just before sunset, nearly everyone in Stone Town gathers in Forodhani Gardens to watch an amazing spectacle: the Sunset Jumpers. These local kids compete to see who can do the best flips into the water, and with the sunset as their background, the results are nothing short of amazing.
3. Foodie Heaven
They don’t call Zanzibar the “Spice Island” for nothing. Every dish is enveloped in the most delicious spices certain to awaken your senses. Get a taste of Zanzibar’s local cuisine during the Night Market in Stone Town. Everything from seafood straight from the ocean to fried cassava chips and the island’s famous Zanzibar pizza is at your fingertips.
Before you think, “I’m not going to fly all the way to Zanzibar to try pizza,” know that this is no ordinary pizza. Zanzibar pizza is more of a delicious crepe filled with whatever sweet or savory topping your heart desires. Trust me: just eat it.
One of the perks of being an island is that Zanzibar is chock-full of fresh fish. For an excellent seafood experience, make sure to head to the coast for a meal at the Rock Restaurant. Just looking at it is an experience, especially since the restaurant literally sits on top of a rock in the Indian Ocean. During high tide, a small boat carries you to the restaurant steps; during low tide you can simply walk. Either way, the views are spectacular, and only matched by the delicious seafood they serve.
4. Zanzibar Blue
There’s no way you can go to Zanzibar and not experience their beaches. The seemingly endless views of the turquoise blue waters will be music to your soul. The village of Nungwi on the north coast boasts amazing beaches and a more personal view of Zanzibari life. You can watch local women cast nets for fish along the sandbanks or watch children play soccer along the shore as the sun sets.
The clear waters are also the perfect setting for exploring Zanzibar’s marine life. Hire a local tour company and spend the day swimming with dolphins, diving among beautiful reefs, or snorkeling alongside colorful fish. Paje Beach on the southeastern coast offers waters great for surfing, dhow sailing and more jaw-dropping, uninterrupted views of the Indian Ocean that’ll ensure Zanzibar blue is your new favorite color.
5. Color, Color Everywhere
One of the first things I noticed about Zanzibar (aside from the laid-back vibe) was the abundance of color. Coming from New York City, a literal concrete jungle, I rarely see bright, vibrant colors that aren’t on a billboard in Times Square. People joke that the official uniform for New Yorkers is anything black. Not in Zanzibar. From the multicolored tin roofs to the gorgeous kangas local women wear, the island is full of bright colors that play a supporting role to the natural beauty and make you feel you’re enveloped in pure sunshine. I made sure to stock up on plenty of fabrics and art to bring a little Zanzi color back home with me.
6. The Spirit of a People
Food, beaches, colors and sunsets are all wonderful things to love about Zanzibar, but what you’ll ending up loving the most won’t fall into any of these categories. Almost every single person you encounter in Zanzibar will be happy. Even if they’re talking to you about some hardship they are experiencing, they will so with a smile. Everywhere you go people will greet you with, “Hakuna matata! Welcome to Zanzibar.” Before you know it, you’ll find yourself letting go of that stranger-danger shell and starting to smile and talk to everyone you meet. You’ll find joy in seeing children playing with each other (not apps on their iPhones), singing Zanzibari songs with taxi drivers and having coffee on street corners with elders. The people of Zanzibar are like a Pharrell video, and I guarantee you’ll want to bottle it up and take it home with you.—Danielle Poindujour