Zanzibar is an island paradise, although it is not as famous as similar budget beach destinations like Thailand or Sri Lanka. This is largely due to its position off the south coast of Africa and its lack of nightlife or party scene. Due to the island hosting a largely Muslim population, alcohol is not as readily available as in some other countries.
However, the main city of Stone Town has become very westernized and as a result hosts, several bars and most Western hotels and restaurants serve alcohol. Don’t expect crazy hostel parties until 4am though – after midnight the city goes deathly quiet (except for Tatu which stays open a bit later on weekends).
The island is quite an odd place. It’s not technically its own country (it’s part of Tanzania) but you need to pass through immigration to enter it. While its official currency is the Tanzanian shilling (Tsh), the US dollar is more willingly accepted due to some or other tax laws.
The majority of places on the island use an inflated conversion rate of $1 = Tsh2400, so paying in US dollar is cheaper.
To visit Zanzibar, visitors from most countries outside of Africa will need to apply for a Tanzanian visa for around $50. You can fly directly into Zanzibar airport which is a short 10-minute drive from Stone Town, or fly into Dar Es Salaam (if it’s cheaper) and catch a ferry to the island.
There is a fast (2 hour) ferry for $35 or a slower (3.5 hour) ferry for $20. I took the slow ferry which leaves daily at 12pm (noon) and it was very comfortable, with airline-style seating and a TV playing western movies. There is also a small canteen with snacks and drinks.
Zanzibar is an ancient slave island and Stone Town was the base of operations. There are many old slave buildings and forts around the town that are now museums or attractions. It was also the birthplace of Freddie Mercury and features the famous Freddie Mercury restaurant. There is an endless supply of merchants selling clothes and curios along its maze of streets and you can easily spend a day just wandering around. At night there are several fish markets along the promenade and more locally on the main street.
Prison Island is popular for its population of giant turtles. These huge beasts have populated the island for hundreds of years and some are over a century old. The island used to be a prison but the buildings have now been converted into a hotel, bar and library.
For $10 you can visit the island from Stone Town and go snorkeling in the many reefs surrounding it. This is preferable to trying to swim or snorkel near Stone Town where the water is full of sewage.
The rock is a restaurant situated on a rocky outcrop on Michamvi beach. I didn’t have a chance to visit so I can’t comment on the quality of the food but I assume it’s expensive. It makes for an excellent photo opportunity if you’re in the area though.
Zanzibar is not really a backpacker destination but it can still be done relatively cheap. I visited in low season which helped to keep my accommodation costs down but still offered all the benefits. In ten days there I had only two days of heavy rain – the rest of the time was beautiful beach weather.
Bottoms Up, Stone Town
This was my favourite hostel, set right in the heart of old Stone Town. It is only $12 a night and includes a fairly decent breakfast of egg, fruit, bread and coffee or tea. The hostel is a confusing maze of staircases and rooms with a fabulous rooftop sitting area that has amazing views across the city. They don’t have a bar but keep a small amount of $2 beers and $1 bottles of water in a fridge that seems to operate on an honesty system.
Nearby is the local restaurant Lukmaans, which does great local meals from as little as $3. Unfortunately, they get very busy and the staff seem a bit clueless, so service is terrible, but you can fetch your own food from the counter to save some time and confusion.
Around the corner is a slightly more expensive western restaurant that serves beer for $2 and has meals for $10 – $15.
There is a fancy hotel nearby called Swahili House that has a (tiny) rooftop pool and does happy hour between 4:30-7pm with cocktails for $3.20 and beer for $2. It’s a great place to have sundowners and a dip at the end of the day, which I did several times.
Lost & Found, Stone Town
This hostel is closer to the touristy part of town and is more modern than Bottoms Up. It costs $13 a night for a bed in a huge 18-bed dorm and doesn’t include breakfast. The aircon works a little very well though and the mixed dorm has a nice balcony overlooking the main street.
Across the road is a pricey Spanish bar called Taperia that does live music every night and has a wide selection of expensive imported wines. Beers are about $2.50.
Further south towards the beach is a three-story pool bar and restaurant called Tatu which does beer for $2.50 during happy hour is another good place to watch the sunset from.
Ananda Hostel, Paje
The cheapest hostel I found was Ananda Hostel in Paje, a beach town on the opposite side of the island. It was $10 a night for a bed in a 6-bed dorm room and didn’t include any extras but breakfast is available for $2. It is certainly the best option for budget travellers, as it is well maintained and situated on an exquisite beachfront with several hammocks and sun loungers.
It was very quiet in low season so I can’t comment on the party scene but its a great place to relax and drink a beer on the beach. The nearby Africana BBQ restaurant does meals with veg, curry, goat or chicken for around $5 and serves large beers for $2. For delicious local seafood, the Fisherman’s restaurant a few meters up the beach does seafood platters of various fish, calamari octopus and lobster for between $6 – $8. They don’t officially serve beer but will gladly fetch you bottles for around $2.50.
A few meters south of Ananda is the Buccaneer Diving bar which does 2-for-1 cocktails between 4:30 and 7pm. This means you can mojitos, pina coladas or whiskey sours for as little as $2 each. The sun doesn’t set over the ocean this side but if the clouds are right it makes for a pretty amazing pink sky.
New Teddy’s on the Beach, Jambiani
This place is more of a boutique hotel than a hostel but it happens to have dorm rooms too. I didn’t stay here but a friend did and they said they paid $22 a night for a bed in a dorm. It has a huge fancy pool, a decent restaurant and bar with beer and cocktails and beautifully manicured grounds facing onto the beach. If you have the extra cash, it’s worth splashing out just for a night or two.
Kiteboarding is a very popular activity in both Paje and Jambiani but is quite pricey at $30 per hour. In low-season this can be negotiated down if you book 4-6 hours at a time, but not by much. Other popular activities include snorkeling and spear-fishing for around $10 per person.
Stone Town is small so you will be able to walk almost anywhere or catch a taxi short distances for $4-$5.
To keep costs down you can catch the local ‘Dala Dala’ buses around the island for a few dollars per trip. Private taxis are also available but prices fluctuate wildly depending on your negotiating skills. It will be anywhere from $20 to $50 to cross the island depending on how many people.