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The Ultimate Zanzibar Travel Guide: Everything You Need To Know

Zanzibar has a very rich history and was once one of the most important areas in East Africa. Following Vasco de Gama’s visit in 1499, Zanzibar was ruled by the Portuguese and remained this way for almost two centuries.

Nowadays, it’s one of the most popular beach destinations in Africa and with good reasons. Zanzibar’s coastline offers some of the best beaches in the world, but sand and surf vary depending on what side of the island you’re on. On the east coast, waves break over coral reefs and sand bars offshore, and low tide reveals small pools of starfish, small minnows, and anemones. Up north, ocean swimming is much less susceptible to the tides, and smooth beaches and white sand make for dazzling days in the sun.

nungwi zanzibar
Beach bar in Nungwi

I spent numerous months traveling around Zanzibar as you can read in my detailed cost of living breakdown of Zanzibar. I stayed in numerous areas all over the island, really allowing me to get a feel of the place. This guide will serve to give an overview of all the things you need to know about traveling here!

How to get to Zanzibar

Zanzibar is easily accessible from the world now. It’s built itself as the premier beach destination in East Africa and it’s accessibility proves it. It’s not as upscale as the Seychelles and positions itself as a place both budget and luxury travelers can visit.

Zanzibar island is well connected by international flights around the world. Qatar flies direct from Doha allowing travelers from Europe and America to easily visit. In addition, Ethiopian Airlines has directs flights from Addis Ababa to Zanzibar allowing for easy international connections. Flights are getting cheaper by the day and it’s easy to use miles nowadays to book trips to Zanzibar. 

From Tanzania, you can quickly reach Zanzibar by air from popular places like Kilimanjaro and Arusha. If you’re staying deep in the Serengeti like Seronera, you can take direct flights to Zanzibar.

Take the ferry to Zanzibar

If you are traveling through Tanzania and on a tight budget (or just want to take a ferry on the high seas), there are regular ferry services from Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar. This is a popular way to get to the island as it’s fast and cheaper than a flight. While flights will be roughly $60-80 one way, the ferry is half the cost.

From Dar Es Salaam’s main port, there are four ferries a day making this trip. The ferries are mostly newer with plenty of outdoor space allowing you to stretch out and enjoy the views. They seem to make new ferries every few years and on my recent trip in 2020, the ferry took 1h 45min to make the trip from Dar to Stone Town.

When you purchase your ticket in Dar Es Salaam, just make sure to reject the swarms of people that will offer to take your bag to the ferry. This is unnecessary and although they’re trying to make a living, you don’t need anyone to take your bags. The ferry terminal is pretty standard with a waiting room that you can absolutely get to yourself.

Entry Visas

As Zanzibar is part of Tanzania, it is subject to the same visa and entry requirements of the mainland. For most Western travelers, you will need a visa to enter Zanzibar/Tanzania.

The entry visa can be:

  • Purchased on arrival at the airport. The cost of this is $50 for every nationality besides the US which is $100.
  • Purchased online as an e-visa before arrival

In recent years, you can even pay for the visas by using a credit card! No need to pay using USD cash anymore.

When to visit Zanzibar – best time of year

Zanzibar enjoys warm weather year round. The sun is strong and all your tropical beach dreams will be fulfilled here. Nevertheless, there are some times that are better than others. Here is a breakdown of the seasons in Zanzibar.

High Season: June to October

Right after the stormy season, starting from June is when the high season begins. This time of year sees cooler temperatures but almost no rainfall. It’s popular as many people will visit the Serengeti during this time to witness the Great Migration and come to Zanzibar for beach time afterwards.

Second High Season: Dec to Feb

December to February is the next high season. The temperatures are much warmer during these months and there’s a general low amount of rainfall. This is also the high season for winds which makes places like Paje extremely popular for kitesurfers.

Rainy Season: Mar to May

The big rainy season in Zanzibar is between March and May. During this time, lots of the resorts close down as you can see torrential downpours for weeks on end. Many of the people I spoke with said this time of year sees almost no tourists but it’s a welcome reprieve from the unbearable heat in the months prior.

November is the “small rainy season” where you can see spotty rain showers at various points of the day. I actually spent a month in Zanzibar during this month and did not find it bad at all. Sure there were some days where it rained, but for the most part, it was sunny and beautiful throughout my trip.

Different areas of Zanzibar

Zanzibar is a huge island. From north to south it is over 200km and 100km from east to west. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to explore the whole island on a trip if you have anything under a month.

If you’re visiting just to go to a resort for a week or less, it’s likely you’ll stay in one area and never leave that part of Zanzibar. Having spent over a month on the island, I was able to explore most of the island without much effort.

For the most part, Zanzibar is beautiful all around. You will find beautiful beaches, stunning properties and picturesque ocean views everywhere.

Stone Town

The capital of Zanzibar is where everyone will start off. Whether you fly or take a ferry, you will stop in Stone Town. Whether you choose to spend a night or two in the vibrant capital is up to you. If you’re looking for beautiful tropical beaches, this is not the place.

The town is worth a night or two in my opinion if you have the time on your trip.

Nungwi and Kendwa

Located in the far north, Nungwi and Kendwa have in my opinion the most beautiful beaches on the island. The tides are not so extreme and you don’t see the crazy amounts of seaweed and sea urchins that you will find elsewhere. Think of stunning blue beaches and white sand for as far as you can see.

beach baby lodge nungwi zanzibar

Nungwi is also home to all the huge luxury resorts. If you’re keen for upscale all inclusive 5* resorts with beautiful beaches, Nungwi is your place. Resorts like the Riu, Zuri, and Gemma will satisfy all your desires. Nungwi gets very busy during the high season. In recent years, it’s become somewhat of the party spot. In addition to ultra luxury resorts, there are plenty of budget options here which has kind of turned it into the Phuket equivalent of East Africa.

Kendwa, the town just south of Nungwi is a great option if you want to enjoy the same beaches without the big crowds of people. Both options are prime for enjoying sunsets as the areas in the east, while beautiful, don’t enjoy such things!

Matemwe, Kiwengwa, Pongwe, and the northeast

Matemwe is an area in the northeast of Zanzibar. It’s roughly 1.5 hours from the Stone Town airport by car.

Matemwe is known to be a chilled out beach side area with a collection of boutique hotels. Unlike Nungwi with its huge resorts, there are few standalone restaurants here and no huge hotels. It’s much more chilled, laid back, and offers beautiful views of the beach. Being on the east side, the beaches here have huge high and low tides.

During low tide, the beach extends 500m out to where the reef breaks. It’s fascinating watching the tides come in and out twice a day. I stayed at a beautiful Boutique resort called Zanzibar Sunrise at Bandas which had Makuti style bungalows right in front of the beach.

It’s also the launching point to visit the famous Mnemba Atoll which is the private island off the coast of Zanzibar. This beautiful island is home to a protected Marine park and is home to endless options for scuba diving/snorkeling.

Paje, Jambiani, Michamvi in the southeast

In the southeast of Zanzibar is another very popular area for tourists to stay. This part of Zanzibar has perhaps the best beaches outside of Nungwi. The tides are extremely dramatic but the beaches are mostly sand as opposed to corals and urchins in the north.

Paje is the biggest town here and is the kitesurfing capital of Zanzibar. The winds blow east to west here almost the entire year. Nearby towns like Jambiani, Bwejuu, and Michamvi are also crowd favorites.

The most famous restaurant in Zanzibar, The Rock, is located in this peninsula. It’s well worth the visit if you decide to stay here!

the rock restaurant zanzibar
The Rock restaurant!

How to get around Zanzibar

Zanzibar being a huge island requires planning to get from place to place. If you’re only staying for a few days, it’s unlikely you’ll need to read up on this because you’ll likely just take a taxi to your resort and call it a day. Here are some general price ranges for taxis that I found from taking taxis all over the island.

Typical Dala dala in Zanzibar
Typical Dala dala in Zanzibar

Note that these are just broad estimates. Your ability to negotiate and the desperation of your cab driver on the day will dictate your fee. Alternatively, ask your accommodation what they can offer. If you are booking a hotel with a super fancy resort, expect to pay much more than if you’re staying at a more personalized guesthouse.

Stone Town to Matemwe: $30-40

Stone Town to Nungwi: $40-50

Stone Town to Paje: $30-$40

Stone Town to Kiwengwa: $30-$40

Nungwi to Paje: $50-60

Paje to Michamvi: $10-$15

Matemwe or Kiwengwa to Nungwi: $25-30

Budget traveling in Zanzibar

For those that aren’t keen on taxis, then know that Zanzibar is serviced primarily by dala dalas which are the local forms of transport. Think old school hippie style vans. These are common throughout Africa and are the preferred method to get around for those on budgets. Some dala dalas are just trucks with the trunk converted as seating.

This method will be significantly cheaper than taking a taxi and especially useful if you’re a solo traveler. For example, Stone Town to Paje or Stone Town to Nungwi is roughly $2. Of course, with cheaper prices, you can expect it to be much slower. I’d budget for at a dala dala to take 2x as long as a taxi given how often it must stop to pick up and drop off people.

Which areas do I like the most?

Having spent much time on this island, I’ve been able to visit most of the areas. For most tourists, it’s likely you’ll stay at one hotel and stay in that area for the duration of your stay.

It’s not so feasible to just rent a car in Stone Town and cruise around the island. I’ve heard of some people doing this, but the police road blocks on the island make it less than ideal. However, if you are stuck on where to concentrate your efforts, then hopefully this part will help.

Zanzibar dhow
Well, the ocean is pretty beautiful everywhere.

If you want the most beautiful beaches

The best beaches in Zanzibar are in the Nungwi and Kendwa area in my opinion. Paje and the area in the southeast are also very beautiful.

Residence hotel Zanzibar
Staying at the Residence Hotel in Zanzibar

If you like the big 5* all inclusive resorts

If you are keen for the big luxury resorts with multiple pools, big dining areas, and fancy common areas, then I think Nungwi will be your best bet. The beaches are fantastic here but the all inclusive style resorts here are big and luxurious.

Riu Palace Zanzibar
Nungwi Riu Palace

If you like boutique hotels on the beach

If you fancy upscale or midscale boutique hotels with beautiful beach views and luxurious accommodations but with few people, then my favorite areas are Matemwe and the southeast. The area of Michamvi is the boutique hotel capital in my opinion. Bwejuu, Paje, Jambiani all have really nice hotels as well.

Boutique Hotel matlai
One of my favorite boutique hotels. Boutique Hotel Matlai

The beaches here are also very nice in this part of the island.

Source: Johnnyafrica