A necklace of tropical islands beaded along the coast of Tanzania, Zanzibar has long been a popular spot to wind down after a safari holiday on mainland Tanzania. But there's much more to this laid-back coral archipelago – anchored by Unguja, informally known as Zanzibar Island – than palm-fringed beaches and sunset cocktails. Awarded World Heritage status in 2000, the spice-scented alleys of Stone Town are a delight to lose yourself in, while the scuba diving around Mnemba Atoll, the endemic wildlife of Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park and the castaway vibe of Zanzibar's smaller islands tempt excursions further afield.
While Zanzibar is a year-round destination, most travellers visit during the drier months from June to February. With a new international airport scheduled to open next year, however, now is the time to experience the islands before the real crowds arrive.
Why is now a great time to visit?
While the opening of Zanzibar's new airport has experienced several delays, development has been humming along elsewhere. A raft of new hotels have opened this year alone, for example, including Hotel Verde Zanzibar – which positions itself as the island's 'greenest' hotel – and the luxe Zuri Zanzibar, which also has a strong sustainability focus.
In recent years, there's also been a concerted effort to restore Stone Town's heritage structures, with dilapidated palaces given new life as cultural institutions, and crumbling mansions reborn as gourmet restaurants, hip cafés, and charming boutique hotels. Improvements to Unguja's roads have also cut travel time from Stone Town to the eastern beaches from four hours down to around one, making this once remote corner of the island more accessible than ever.
The rooftops of Stone Town © Pearl-diver / Shutterstock
What shouldn't I miss?
In Stone Town, make your first stop the Old Slave Market, a simple museum erected on the site of Zanzibar's original slave market that recounts the islands' dark history as one of Africa's largest slave trading ports. Lacking few other major sights – aside from the House of Wonders museum, which is currently closed for renovations – Stone Town's key appeal lies in its labyrinth of alleyways. Sooner or later you'll end up at Jaws Corner – so named for its colourful mural, this buzzing meeting place is a great spot to people-watch over a cup of Arabic coffee sold cheaply in the square.
Home to Zanzibar's own species of red colobus monkeys, Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park can be visited as a day trip from Stone Town. Snorkelling and scuba diving trips to Mnemba Atoll, off the island's northeast coast, are most easily arranged from the resorts on Zanzibar's beautiful but touristy northern beaches, and from the more secluded eastern beaches, home to one of the island's top eco-luxe escapes, Matemwe Lodge. Still a major spice producer to this day, many of Zanzibar's spice farms are open for tours.
Mnemba Atoll © Pearl-diver / Shutterstock
What about Zanzibar's other islands?
Known for its ecological innovation, Chumbe Island boasts Zanzibar's most exquisite reef, home to 90 per cent of East Africa's hard coral species. Snorkelling day trips can be arranged from Unguja, but it's well worth overnighting in one of the pristine island's seven eco-bungalows, which provides the opportunity to hang out with the protected colony of coconut crabs – the largest land-dwelling crabs on the planet. Possible as a half-day trip from Stone Town is Changuu Island – also known as Prison Island for its use as its namesake for rebellious slaves. Its reef has nothing on Chumbe's, but the 1893 prison building and the handful of giant tortoises housed here make it a worthwhile excursion.
More conservative and less developed than the main island, Pemba, Zanzibar's second-largest isle, offers a more rustic travel experience beyond the gates of its top hotels.
Chumbe Island, Zanzibar © E X P L O R E R / Shutterstock
Where should I eat?
With some of the most varied cuisine in Sub-Saharan Africa, Zanzibar is the place to arrive with an empty stomach. Every evening, Stone Town's seafront Forodhani Gardens morphs into a sizzling street food bonanza, with dozens of stalls hawking everything from barbecued octopus to the crispy stuffed pancakes known as 'Zanzibar pizzas'. Tucked down Stone Town's alleys, you'll also find some excellent cheap local restaurants – to sample some of the best with a local guide, sign up for Urban Adventures' excellent new Culinary Stone Town tour.
Arguably Stone Town's best rooftop restaurant, Emerson on Hurumzi serves a decadent, Persian-inspired feast backed by live Taarab music on its cushion-strewn rooftop from Tuesday to Sunday. For great coffee, follow your nose to Puzzle Coffee or Zanzibar Coffee House, which also serves hearty breakfasts.
What is there to do in the evening?
In a nod to its Muslim-majority population, evenings in Zanzibar are a relatively low-key affair. That said, Stone Town has a couple of bars – try 6 Degrees South for a sundowner with sea views, or Taperia (entry off Shanghani St) for brews and tapas-style bites. You'll find more action at the smattering of late-night bars on the northern beaches such as Cholo's Disco, and at Kendwa Rocks Hotels' famous full moon parties.
Top image: © Marius Dobilas / Shutterstock