People always ask me what my favorite travel destination in the world is and, while that is a very difficult question to answer, I always end up mentioning Tanzania among my top 5. A few years ago, we spent New Years Eve in the Serengeti going on safaris and then headed to Zanzibar for 5 days to unwind and relax. Pristine white sand beaches, clear turquoise waters, palm trees and fresh coconuts, Zanzibar it’s a real paradise! Here’s my complete Zanzibar travel guide & itinerary.
- How to get to Zanzibar: we always buy our flights through Skyscanner to find the best offers. You can fly directly from Europe to Zanzibar with many different companies, or if you are already in Tanzania mainland doing a safari (like we did) you can use local companies like Air Tanzania to get to Zanzibar. There is also a ferry from Dar es Salaam but I wouldn’t recommend, it takes 2 hours and it’s always extremely packed, while the flight is like 20 minutes, and pretty scenic too, and usually around 100$ or less.
- Best time to visit Zanzibar: the weather on the island is tropical, meaning they have a wet season and a dry season, but it’s always hot. The best time to visit is between June-October and January-February. From March until May it’s the monsoon season, so try to avoid those months.
- How to move around Zanzibar: if you have been to Africa before you know how public transport is. If you haven’t, I definitely don’t recommend trying it. I mean, you can try if you want to experience what’s like to be a local and use the dalla-dalla, but don’t rely on it. They are like minibuses that get extremely packed and run on a weird schedule. We personally decided to move by taxi, which is not cheap but it’s kind of affordable (just make sure to close a price before jumping in!), but another option would be to rent a car. Keep in mind you are in Africa, and driving is also an experience itself. They drive on the left side of the road and there’s no such thing as traffic lights or signs, roads are tight in some places and there’s always some kind of roadwork going on.
- Logistics: you can get a visa upon arrival in the country for 50$. The currency is the Tanzanian shilling, make sure to go to an exchange office as soon as you arrive in the main city and get enough money for your trip, many places won’t accept cards, only cash.
- Vaccinations and health: you must have the yellow fever vaccine to enter the country and have your vaccination log with you, and I recommend consulting a professional about other vaccinations. We already had most of the recommended vaccines from when we were children, but we had to get yellow fever, cholera and Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis). There is also Malaria and dengue in Tanzania, so it’s very important to use a mosquito repellent with a high concentration of DEET. We personally chose not to take the anti-malaria pills but to be very conscious about using repellent and wearing long clothes in the afternoons, especially during safaris. Tap water is NOT safe to drink, always drink bottled water and make sure to wash your fruit with it too. Reduce the consumption of not cooked vegetables like salads. It is also recommended to brush your teeth with bottled water.
- Safety: there is crime in Tanzania, especially in big towns. That said, we took usual precautions and we felt very safe all of the time.
- What to wear in Zanzibar: unlike mainland Tanzania where the main religion is Christianity, Zanzibar is a muslim island, so I’d recommend to dress accordingly if you are going in town. When we were at the beach I was wearing bikinis and shorts, but when we went into town I would wear a long summer dress (mine has a split side up to my thighs so even if it’s a long dress my legs are not covered), and I had no problems at all nor did I felt observed or uncomfortable. I also remember going into the local market one evening wearing shorts and felt like no one cared. So I wouldn’t worry too much about this!
- Where to stay in Zanzibar: even though is not that big of an island, the scenery and the vibe of North, South, East or West is completely different. There’s also a private island if you are looking for a more intimate-Maldivian experience! I wrote a guide about the best hotels in Zanzibar here. We stayed at Zanzibar Bandas Hotel, all the rooms are bungalows in front of the ocean.
- Travel insurance: when traveling to Africa there’s many things that can go wrong. Having a good insurance is SO important. We always use World Nomads travel insurance as they have great prices and always respond if something happens.
OUR 5 DAY TRIP TO ZANZIBAR
After spending almost a week going on safaris every day we were exhausted and couldn’t wait to be sitting on a beach drinking cocktails. We didn’t have a smooth start, as we arrived to the airport in Arusha we were told that they couldn’t find our booking and wouldn’t let us board. After spending 3h sitting in an office I finally managed to find our booking on their system (turns out we were there, the man just didn’t know how to use his computer), and we were allowed to board but the plane had a 5h delay. Obviously we missed our connection flight, so after an unplanned night in Dar Es Salam we made it to Zanzibar!
There’s a lot of things to do in Zanzibar and the island is bigger than it seems, obviously I couldn’t fit it all on my Zanzibar travel guide but here’s my own experience. Both the scenery and the activities drastically change from North to South, or East to West, so if I were to go again I would try to spend at least 1 week and stay half of my trip in a hotel the North and the other half in a different hotel the South.
We only explored the Northern part of the island, as we only stayed for 5 days and didn’t want to be changing hotels, after being on safari and sleeping in a different place every night and driving for 10h each day, we wanted a bit of relaxation, even if that meant missing out on some things. Here’s our Zanzibar itinerary and my personal recommendations!
DAY 1: STONE TOWN + PRISON ISLAND
Since we landed in Stone Town in the morning, we decided to use the day to explore the city and its surroundings. We chose to stay at a hotel in the East Coast because we wanted to relax and enjoy the quiet beaches of the area, so from Stone Town it was around 1.30h drive. We had asked the hotel to arrange a driver and closed a price for the transport, and we also asked him to take us around town and wait for us for a bit extra.
There’s a lot to explore in Stone Town, in fact, it was declared a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site in 2000, and you could spend hours getting lost in the small alleys and local markets. It’s charming and chaotic, and definitely worth a visit. You can stop by an old slave market, the Sultan’s Palace museum, and the house in which Freddie Mercury was born to name a few. No Zanzibar travel guide would be complete without a visit to Stone Town! If you want to discover everything Stone Town has to offer but are short on time I’d recommend booking a guided tour here.
Another popular spot and the one we didn’t want to miss was Prison Island, which back in the day was used as a prison for rebellious slaves and later on as a quarantine station for yellow fever patients. This island, which is accesible by a 30 min boat ride from Stone Town, is now famous for being home to giant tortoises. After becoming government-owned, it was turn to a sanctuary for these turtles, which were a gift from the British governor of Seychelles. There are over a 100 turtles on the island, the oldest being 190 years old!
Once you arrive to the island (after a very rough boat ride in our case) and paying the entrance ticket, you can walk around freely. There’s a small restaurant in the old prison building in which we had a very decent pizza. It’s a very popular spot and it gets VERY hot so, if you have the chance, I’d recommend visiting early in the morning.
You can head to Stone Town port and try to bargain with the locals to get a ride, or you can book a tour to Prison Island before hand here (I’d definitely do this if you don’t want to be chased by 20 locals trying to sell their tours at the higher price possible).
We arrived at the hotel in the afternoon, had a late nap by the beach and spent the evening drinking cocktails and playing board games in the hotel’s gardens.
DAY 2: EXPLORING THE EAST COAST
After waking up in our little bungalow to the amazing ocean views, we had breakfast in our porch and decided to take it easy for the rest of the day so we could get some rest (as easy as me and my FOMO can take it). We explored the beautiful beach of Matemwe, which is an endless stretch of white sand and palm trees that is pretty deserted. We had the whole beach to ourselves, apart from the random wild donkeys that passed by (and didn’t want to be my friends) and the ocasional Masai selling local souvenirs.
A thing that surprised us a lot is the tide phenomenon in Zanzibar, I’ve never seen this anywhere else in the world! When the tide is low, the ocean goes back 2 or 3 km, leaving a giant pool behind of very little depth, so you can walk from the beach up to where the “new” shore is formed. All the dhows and boats stay kind of floating, kind of on the ground, and it’s very scenic.
We decided to walk around and explore the new beach, and as soon as we started walking through the water we discovered that the sea floor was completely covered with sea urchins. There are MILLIONS. There are also a special GIANT sea urchin that I’d never seen before and it’s everywhere (and apparently super dangerous). Sorting through them can seem a bit difficult at the beginning as sometimes the water is only up to your knees but some others can go a bit higher and you can’t really see the sea floor so we were a bit scared of stepping on one.
We got approached by many young locals asking if we wanted a guide, and eventually we agreed to one of them and ended up deciding it was pointless. We did this walk 2 more times in the following days perfectly on our own! Apart from the sea urchins there’s also lots of starfish, the most colorful ones I’ve ever seen!
This day we also had a reservation at The Rock, the iconic restaurant in the middle of the water on top of a big rock, but we ended up cancelling it as it was 2h by car each way and it would just have been a complete waste of our day. The hotel also offered paddle boards and dhow sailing which seemed a way better option.
DAY 3: SAILING AND SNORKELING
One of the main reasons why we chose to say in Matemwe, beside the quiet and beautiful beach, was the proximity to Mnemba Island. I read it was the best spot for diving on the island, and y’all know how crazy I am about the underwater world! We booked the activity through our hotel, got picked up in the morning and taken to a dive center.
You can choose to dive or just snorkel, so since I’m still not PADI certified (I know, I know…) we went for snorkeling. After borrowing some fins (we always bring our own snorkel equipment!), we got on a traditional dhow and sailed to Mnemba Island. It was such an scenic ride, the ocean would change from dark blue to electric blue to turquoise and it was incredible! We were told that sometimes you can even spot dolphins but we weren’t that lucky.
After a 30′ boat ride we did two stops for snorkeling and saw lots of colorful fishies and starfish, our guide was a great free diver and I had the best time looking under the big rocks and finding barracudas and a couple lion fish too. The water was warm and I could have stayed there forever! The visibility was also incredible and we loved the wall dive, even though there were lots of people and boats. You can book the same tour to Mnemba Atoll here.
Because of the tides the boats have to come back to land through the North beaches, so while we waited for pick up we also enjoyed that beautiful turquoise beach. Since it was still early we decided to go to the street market at Nungwi, which was awesome. There’s lots of shops and stalls selling art and crafts and everything was beautiful and incredibly cheap. There’s a lot of shops selling paintings and in some of them the painter was there creating so you could see the whole process and we were amazed at the beautiful pieces they create. We ended up buying 4 paintings to decorate our home.
Eventually we arrived back to the hotel and had live music at the bar that night (also beat Mitchell at monopoly twice hehe).
DAY 4: TURTLE SANCTUARY AND HORSE RIDING
This was my absolute favorite day. We started off with our idyllic breakfast in our porch, and went for another starfish spotting walk along the beach. Around midday we asked the hotel to arrange a driver for us and went to the turtle sanctuary at Nungwi. This is a rehabilitation center for turtles that have been injured by fishing nets or can’t be released for some reason. There is a natural pond around which the centre has been built, and for 5$ you can visit and spent as much time as you want.
There are two entrances to the pond in which you can sit and the turtles will come to you, the staff of the centre will give you algae to feed them if you want! You can also swim with them in the pond and it was such an experience! There are just SO many turtles and they really don’t care at all about you so they’ll push you or try to go in between your legs or bite your bikini! They are just so playful.
There were groups of other people coming and going but we were having such a fun time we stayed for hours. It was one of the highlights of our trip and I have been asked about it a million times so I had to obviously include it in my Zanzibar travel guide. You can book a tour to the turtle sanctuary here.
At lunch time we stopped at one of the north beaches (can’t remember the name!) and had food in a restaurant just on the beach and went for a swim, since they are not affected by the tides it was great! After that I had planned something I was very excited about, so we drove to the West coast to the Sea Cliff Resort where we had an appointment with a lovely woman named Rosa and we were going to go horse riding!
I used to ride every week when I was a kid and besides diving it’s my other passion, so I was over the mooooooon. We arrived a bit too early so had some drinks by the resort pool which was DREAMY! It’s sitting on a cliff and has the most amazing views. When the right time came we went to the stables and got on our horses and rode to the beach where we went for a swim with the horses. I’ve never felt anything like that! Horses swimming feel even more powerful than galloping, the sun was setting, the ocean was incredibly warm and the moment was so magical I even cried of happiness.
DAY 5: SANDBANK AND FLYING OUT
On our last day we had the flight late in the afternoon, so I wanted to do something in the morning and there was a sandbank in Mnemba that we couldn’t visit the previous days so why not? We tried calling some tour operator companies but they all had a closed schedule and we wouldn’t make it back in time for the airport if we’d join them. So we went to the beach and were approached by “beach boys” (this is very popular in Zanzibar, locals offer tourists tours on their fishing boats), and since it would be a private tour we’d have a flexible schedule and that was perfect for us. We made it to the most perfect sandbank ever (even more beautiful than the ones in Maldives!).
If you want to read our story of how we almost died take a look at this instagram post. It’s a fun story though! If you don’t want to risk it like we did (I definitely DO NOT recommend what happened to us!), I suggest booking a private tour to Mnemba Atoll.
Let me know in the comments if this Zanzibar travel guide was helpful or if you have any questions!If you want to know which camera I use read my photography gear guide here.
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