The Ultimate guide to Unguja Zanzibar
Unguja is also known as Zanzibar Island. Situated just a few miles from the mainland of Tanzania and famous for some of the best instagram-worthy beaches in world.
Long stretches of white sand beaches, clear azure tropical water, it is also home to incredible snorkelling and rare wildlife such as the Red Colobus Monkey, the Zanzibar leopard and Servaline Genet and diverse marine life.
With warm temperature all year around due to its proximity to the equator, Unguja is the perfect destination for sun, sand and sea.
But it is not only famed for tourism, the island’s main industry is spice growing and is also known as Spice Island, cultivating cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper.
Throughout the centuries, the Persians, Portuguese, Omani and British all battled to gain control of this island, seen as a gateway to the East African mainland. Zanzibar was a trading post where ivory, slaves and spices were bartered and sold and shipped to other countries.
Its colonial trading past is visible in the architecture, which you can visit on the island.
Beaches, jungle safaris and history, Unguja has plenty to offer and here we will give you our ultimate guide to Unguja.
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How to get to Unguja, Zanzibar
From outside of East Africa, air is the easiest method to reach Zanzibar. From Dar es Salaam you can book the short flight to Zanzibar. Travellers arriving at Zanzibar Airport may be overwhelmed by the chaos and the lax security measures or non-existent baggage reclaim.
Be aware that loss or delays of luggage are very common on flights to East Africa, especially if you have several transfers; so make sure you pack the most important and vital things in your hand luggage, enough things that you may need for three days. Flights from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar cost around US$100 per person.
You can also travel by ferry from Dar es Salaam. Be aware that there are two kinds of ferries, the newer, more modern and more expensive ferries and the older, more rickety kind that are riskier. Prices vary from US$20 – 50 each way.
It is advisable to take the more modern ferries on offer, even if the price is slightly higher. The high-speed boats offer four trips a day and the journey takes around two hours.
You can also fly from Nairobi to Zanzibar, as international flights into Nairobi are often cheaper.
Most of the connections by air to Zanzibar are by use of small aircraft, upon departure it is not uncommon for the official porters to ask for money to load your luggage onto the airplane, a US$1 should do the trick.
What to expect in Unguja, Zanzibar
Zanzibar’s main appeal is the great outdoors especially in relation to the sea, the amazing diving, snorkelling, swimming with dolphins and various watersports will keep all nature lovers and adrenaline junkies happy. Zanzibar is not the place for highly developed cities or shopping malls. Shops are more on the small side, selling local handicrafts.
Before visiting Zanzibar, you will need to get a vaccination for Yellow Fever; tourist visas for Tanzania are impossible to obtain without it. Malaria is also a common concern, so you will need to take precautions such as anti-malaria medication, bring DEET mosquito repellent and cover your arms and legs at dusk to avoid being bitten by mosquitos.
The voltage in Zanzibar is 220-240v with three-pronged British plugs. A converter will be necessary for some appliances from different countries. Electricity is not very reliable, especially in Stone Town, so be prepared for power outages. Most places have backup generators for these situations It is advisable to bring a flashlight with you just in case you find yourself on the street during one of these power outages.
The official currency in Ugunja is the Tanzanian Shilling, though many places also accept US dollars. It is advisable to bring small notes in US dollars. There are only a few ATMs in Stone Town so make sure you withdraw enough cash while you are there, some of the larger places do accept credit cards but it is always best to carry cash just to be sure.
Tipping in Zanzibar is not compulsory but due to its popularity with western tourists, the workers are accustomed to receiving tips for their services. It is customary to give US$1-2 per day for hotel staff and a tip of 5% at restaurants. It is recommended to tip around US$8-15 per day for tour guides or drivers and these tips can be shared if you are travelling in a group.
Zanzibar is an excellent destination for value for money. A three course meal will cost as little as US$20 per person and street food varies between US$$3-10. When shopping, bargaining is expected but remember to be sensitive and ensure a win-win situation and the price works for both you and the vendor.
How to get around Unguja, Zanzibar
The cheapest way to get around Unguja is by taking a Dala Dala, which is a minibus share taxi from Stone Town, this costs around US$1.50 per person.
There are also normal taxis from Stone Town to coastal areas of Zanzibar for around US$50 or shared taxis for around $10 per person. It is also worth negotiating with your hotel for free transportation and often transfers to and from Stone Town can be organised via your resort.
Alternatively if you want to explore the island by bike, you can rent a bicycle at Bike Zanzibar, there are guided day tours and cycling trips including trips for only women, and bike rental for the adventurous souls who just want to get out and explore.
They also offer a spice tour by bike and tours to Jozani Forest as well, this is the perfect combination trip for travellers short on time.
The best time to visit Unguja, Zanzibar
The best time to visit Unguja is between the months of June and October as these are the cooler and dryer months of Spring. December to February are also popular times to travel and the temperature is hot and dry. Unguja has excellent weather almost all year round, being so close to the equator.
There are rainy seasons twice a year. The long rainy season lasts from March until May and this is the worst time to travel for a beach vacation given that there are epic monsoons and torrential rains. The shorter rainy period occurs between November and December, with less intense torrential bursts of rain.
Where to stay in Unguja, Zanzibar
Though the beaches in Unguja may be straight off a luxury travel magazine and the resorts look luxurious, it is possible to stay in Unguja without breaking the bank, in fact you may be surprised about the excellent prices for beachfront resorts.
For beachfront bungalows that are simple but comfortable you can find prices between €18 to €35 per night. Obviously if you want a more luxurious holiday experience you can pay around €160 a night upwards.
Here is a selection of the best budget beachfront hotels in Zanzibar for the budget conscious traveller:
Sipano Beach Lodge – This beautiful beach lodge offers sea view accommodation with a spa centre and fitness centre as well as a private beach area and free bicycles for guests.
Miramon Retreat Zanzibar – A beachfront resort situated on the North-East of Zanzibar is a perfect hub for outdoor activities including snorkeling, diving, fishing and kiteboarding. The rooms are individual bungalows; some modern and some built in a more traditional style.
Things to do in Unguja, Zanzibar
Go to the beaches
Beaches, beaches and more beaches! Take a dip in crystal clear blue waters and feel the powdery white sand between your toes. Zanzibar is the perfect place to go if you love nothing more than catching some sun and lazing around the beach.
On the North West tip of Zanzibar, there is Nungwi beach, one of the world’s best beaches and is the perfect place to catch the sunset. Here there are a wide variety of activities such as water sports, Jet Ski, paragliding and scuba diving.
Alternatively, there is Kendwa beach, which is a quieter area than Nungwi with less things to do and less people as well, providing a more secluded feel. The Kendwa Rocks Hotel is also the host to the monthly full moon party, but more about that later.
You can travel from Nungwi to Kendwa using a water taxi and explore both beaches in the same day.
Party under the Full Moon at Kendwa Rocks
Every month, the Kendwa Rocks Hotel hosts a Full Moon party, usually on a Saturday. These parties are not as wild as the Full Moon Parties in Thailand.
Here you can enjoy the sound of African beats, good food and reggae music. There are dancers wearing animal print and fire dancers dancing around the fire pits.
This a great place to chill under the stars and watch people dancing as well as mingle with other travellers. You can find dates for the party here.
Zanzibar has amazing trade winds called the Kusi and Kaskazi winds, making it a superb place for kiteboarding.
The Kusi Winds blow in from the South-East in mid-June to mid-October, while the Kaskazi blows in between December and April from the North-East.
Visit Zanzibar Kite Paradise or Kite Centre Zanzibar if you’re in Paje or you can kiteboard with Jambiani Kite Centre in Jambiani.
The winds also bring excellent surf and though it is not famed for surfing, there are several places where you can go catch some waves.
The best place to stay for surfing is along the Southeast coast, Aquaholics and Surf Zanzibar are surf schools with plenty of local knowledge to make sure that they take you to the best places with the best waves, the seasons for surfing correspond to Kiteboard season and the changing trade winds.
See the endangered Red Colobus Monkey in the Jozani Forest
The beautiful Jozani Forest is a unique swamp forest filled with lush trees and ferns, it is also the home of the endangered Red Colobus monkey which is native to Zanzibar and its population is estimated to consist of only 2,000 – 3,000 individuals, making it one of the most endangered monkey species in Africa.
A visit to the forest will let you get up close and personal with these rare monkeys and you can either go by tour or take bus 309 or 310, alternatively you can also take a chartered taxi.
Go Horse Riding
Have you ever dreamed of riding a horse down a beautiful beach or through the beautiful coconut groves as the sun is setting?
In Zanzibar, you can ride along the beach and in the water at sunset at the Sea Cliff Resort on the western coast of Zanzibar Island.
Get lost in Stone Town
Stone Town is the heart of Unguja and is the perfect place to get lost while wandering through the winding streets, admiring the Arab style architecture. Declared a UNESCO cultural heritage site in 2000.
The city with its maze like alleys is also the perfect place to admire the incredible woodwork on ancient doors, ornate and preserved. The most famous and most photographed door in Zanzibar is the one of Tippu Tip’s home, a slave from Zanzibar who became an ivory trader in the 18th century.
Learn a New Skill
If you want to learn how to make your own batik or learn some African drumming, Mrembo Spa offers various classes in English.
The money earned from lessons supports the Dhow Countries Music Academy, which organizes free education for locals and children, as well as children with disabilities and supports local village orchestras. Learn something new and help others at the same time!
Learn to Cook Zanzibari Style
Learn to cook the local cuisine at Tangawizi restaurant, Stone Town. Here you can do market tours and cooking courses and learn about the local culture as well as enjoy the delicious results at the end of the cooking class. Classes start from around US$50 per person.
Watch the Sunrise
On the East coast of Zanzibar you can wake up early and catch the magical sunrise over the Indian Ocean, where fisherman in their boats are out on the water, silhouetted by the glorious colours of the rising dawn.
Places to visit in Unguja, Zanzibar
Visit Prison Island
Half and hour by boat from Zanzibar is Prison Island, a reminder of the dark history of Zanzibar. Here, slaves were once detained and once slavery was abolished it became a camp where people with dangerous diseases were sent.
Nowadays, it is a nature reserve for giant tortoises and visitors can explore the ruins where a prison once stood.
House of Wonders
This significant building is visually impressive and is home to an exhibition on Swahili and Zanzibar culture.
The largest and most impressive building in Stone Town can be found by the seafront just in front of the Forodhani Gardens.
The Old Fort
The Old Fort on the seafront was built in the 17th century for the purpose of defending the island from invasions from the Portuguese seafarers.
It is now a popular tourist destination where you can explore the ruins of the fort and see local vendors selling their produce in the courtyard.
The amphitheater is still functional and there are many events held at the fort.
What to eat in Uguja
Because of Uguja’s tragic history of invasions and colonization as well as its significant role in the spice routes of the past, Zanzibar’s cuisine is a rich and interesting fusion of international flavours, incorporating Indian, Arab, Chinese, Portuguese and African culinary traditions into their heritage.
Food from Zanzibar uses a rich variety of spices including cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and nutmeg.
Try the Swahili curries and Indian chapattis, pilau, biryani as well as the diverse selection of delicious seafood on offer.
Some seafood specialties include octopus curry or orojo, a soup with crispy fritters with turmeric and coconut flavours. Another dish to try is Zanzibar pizza, an island favourite, prepared with egg, mayonnaise, meat and vegetables all wrapped in dough before being fried. The best place to try it is in the Forodhani night market or in Stone Town street stalls.
Eat your way around Forodhani Market
Savour the local flavours in Stone Town’s night-time market. There is a vibrancy and buzz in the atmosphere of this market and you can find all the local produce including grilled fish, meats and freshly-caught seafood.
This is an excellent place to try the local cuisine as well as take in the atmosphere of Zanzibar.
Fine Dining at The Rock
The Rock restaurant is THE place to go for stunning views of the island, it is literally a restaurant perched on a rock in the sea.
Here you can enjoy fine dining and taste the best freshly-caught seafood that Unguja has to offer. Book early as here are only 12 tables and its always full!
Tours to do in Unguja
Take a Spice Tour
Spice Island earned its name due to the trade of spices grown on the island; these include vanilla, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, cloves and more and are widely used in the traditional cuisine and medicine of Zanzibar.
A guide will explain the unique properties and uses of each spice and the history of the spice trade in Zanzibar.
This tour can be a little touristy and is organised through all the resorts on the island. For a different experience, a cookery course will give you a different perspective and will be sure to stimulate all your senses.
Day trips from Unguja
You can visit the first private marine park in Africa, where all proceeds are used in the conservation of marine life around Zanzibar.
Though you can stay in the seven eco-bungalows on the island, the cost per night is quite high, but you can visit the island on a day trip to enjoy the excellent snorkelling.
Book in advance to ensure that you can go on a day trip to the island as availability depends on the number of overnight guests staying at the resort.
For a close encounter with wild rescued animals, you can visit Cheetah’s Rock on a guided 3 or 4-hour tour. This park allows you to get up close and personal and even interact with bush babies, cheetahs, a white lion and ring-tailed lemurs.
The animals in the centre are rescue animals or gifted by legal conservation centre and care of the animals is ensured as well as safety for the visitors.
Recommend budget tours in Zanzibar
- Half Day Zanzibar Mnemba Atoll Marine Reserve Snorkeling Tour
- Stone Town Walking Tour in Zanzibar
- Spice Tour of Zanzibar
- Jozani Forest Reserve Half-Day Guided Tour from Zanzibar
- Stone Town and Prison Island from Zanzibar
- Prison Island Half-Day Tour from Zanzibar
- Dolphins and Jozani Forest Reserve Wildlife Tour from Zanzibar
- 8 Days Explore Zanzibar and Pemba Islands
- 1-Day Ruaha National Park
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