Exploring Stone Town - A Maze of Deliciousness
Updated: Jul 30, 2022
As advertised, our time in Nungwi was the perfect R & R after the go, go, go craziness of the safari. But, after a few weeks, that stir-craziness kicked in, and we were ready for the next adventure. Next big stop: South Africa. But, before then, we’d spend a week exploring Stone Town, the maze-like historic center of Zanzibar City - and eat some delicious food in the process!
A Stone Town Overview
Named after the stunning, pink coral stones used to construct most of its buildings, Stone Town is a place of, to say the least, multiple influences. As both a natural harbor and key stop in the spice trade, it has attracted all sorts of rulers and residents over the years.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to set foot there. And, doing the Europeans-in-Africa thing, they claimed the harbor as their own. For the next 200ish years, they’d rule the city before losing control to the Sultanate of Oman. Opting for a relocation, the sultan then moved his seat of power from Muscat, Oman to Stone Town, officially beginning the Sultanate of Oman and Zanzibar.
After some palace intrigue, this combined rule fell apart, with the Sultanate of Zanzibar declaring sovereignty - and bringing a massive influx of Arabs to the island in the process. But, with the British doing British Empire things, they’d eventually take power away from the Sultanate, establishing colonial rule in 1890.
This varied background has created an absolute cultural melting pot - really more like a Jackson Pollock painting - in Stone Town. Within about 100 yards of each other in the city’s labyrinthine back alleys, you’ll see Omani architecture, Indian restaurants, local African crafts, an Anglican cathedral, Turkish baths, and stalls hawking some of the most fragrant spices imaginable.
For visitors, this eclectic nature comes close to causing sensory overload - almost too much to absorb, but it’s a hell of a time trying!
Our Stone Town MO - Get Lost / Eat Food
As a popular tourist destination, you definitely can spend a ton of money at high-end Stone Town hotels. On a remote work budget, we opted for a compromise. Tembo Hotel - housed in a gorgeous, colonial-era palace - also offers a lower-cost option - apartments. We’d actually never seen this model before, but you can rent long-term apartments under the Tembo umbrella - for a fraction of the cost of the rooms - while still having access to the hotel’s amenities (and absolutely gluttonous buffet breakfast spread!).
So, each morning, we’d wake up, have some coffee in our kitchenette, then stroll over to the hotel proper to crush a smorgasbord of different cuisines’ breakfast delights (Chipp) / eat a responsibly-portioned meal (Jenna). After working for a few hours - and digesting - we’d head out for a day’s explorations.
If we haven’t already made it clear, Stone Town is an absolute maze of narrow, high-walled alleys. If you’re lucky, you can catch a bit of sun at the right time to get your directional bearings. But, most of the day, it’s a fool’s errand trying to stay oriented. Instead, just embrace the wander. Rather than try to find any particular place, we’d just set out and stroll, spending hours meandering our way through the twists and turns of the city.
And, the city’s layout somewhat lends itself to this approach. On three of four sides, Stone Town’s surrounded by water, and a modern thoroughfare bounds the fourth side. If you hit one of those catching features, just turn right back around and lose yourself in the alleys.
At some point every afternoon, the calorie bomb of a breakfast would wear off, and the delicious smells of the city would start to take hold. As the saying goes, with nowhere to go, you can’t get lost. Embracing this philosophy, we’d find a cool-looking restaurant, usually something carved - cave-like - into the coral stone of a centuries-old building. This approach grated against Jenna’s normal compulsion to over-research everywhere we ate, but we weren’t let down!
Quite the contrary, Chipp had his horizons expanded on one of these stumble-upon meals. Indian restaurant? Looks great - let’s try that! Well, turns out the place was a vegetarian Indian joint, something we didn’t discover until already seated. Chipp’s normally pretty firm with this belief: if you’re going out for a meal, there needs to be some dead-animal protein involved. Indian’s now the exception - with the absolutely incredible combination of sauces, spices, rice, and naan, the no-meat thing quite quickly became irrelevant!
The Beauty of Finding the High Ground in New Places
We touched on it in our stories about Istanbul and Izmir, but we’ve completely bought into the idea of finding the highest point when you get to a new city - great way to see the area and get a sense of your surroundings. Trying to learn our way around the Stone Town maze, this bird’s eye view would be even more important.
Enter Zanzibar Coffee House. Part-boutique hotel, part-coffee shop, this beautifully refurbished building from the Omani era offered the best views in town (short of a helicopter trip). We heard about it, found it on the map, and then - amazingly - found the place in real life.
After winding around all of the alleys surrounding the building, a helpful spice merchant eventually pointed us in the right direction. Stepping through an ornate archway, you enter the hotel’s reception area. Then, you need to wander your way (even the inside of buildings are mazes here!) up a Shoots & Ladders game to find yourself at the rooftop cafe and its 360 degree views of the city - what a spot for an afternoon pick-me-up.
First, you escape the oppressive humidity of the urban canyons and are welcomed by a cool, ocean breeze. Second, coffee in hand, you can walk around the perimeter of the roof, taking in some unbelievable views - and kind of figuring out where you are (e.g. “Oh, that’s where we walked in circles for 30 minutes….”).
Zanzibar’s Night Market at Forodhani Gardens
Back to food. If you find yourself in Stone Town, a stop at the Night Market is a must. Every night, dozens of street-food vendors set up shop at the waterfront Forodhani Gardens. Tourist, local - it doesn’t matter. People go because it’s absolutely delicious. You’re just as likely to bump into a group of German backpackers chowing down on shawarma as a couple Tanzanian moms chatting while three or four little ones bomb around between the stalls.
While in Nungwi, we met some college kids who’d been volunteering/teaching on the island for a couple months. They pointed us in the right direction, insisting that we swing by the Night Market. Do you need to go? No, of course not. But, if you like outstanding food and choose not to go, well, poor choice.
Sadly, Jenna was under the weather for a day or two. Unfortunate for her, certainly, but it also gave Chipp carte blanche to eat greasy, fatty street food without a “do you really have to eat that?” admonishment.
Round one: shawarma. For lack of better terms, this Middle Eastern “burrito” is an absolute flavor torpedo. Good start, but not enough.
After doing a couple laps around the stalls to check out potential targets, round two became obvious: pizza, “Zanzibar style.” It’s hard to call this pizza, but, such is the local moniker. On a piping hot skillet, a cook starts with a heaping pile of ground beef. Add a bunch of spices and an egg, dice it up, then throw it all together into some dough. Fold the dough over, fry up both sides, toss it onto a plate, cut it up into tiny squares, and you’re ready to go - just dig a toothpick into a piece to enjoy the mouthwatering deliciousness!
Freddy Mercury! Plus Some Revisionist History…
The world knows Freddy Mercury. But, people who aren’t die-hard Queen fans may not know that Freddie Mercury, a.k.a. Farrokh Bulsara, is from Zanzibar. Born on the island, he moved to India for boarding school before returning to Zanzibar after high school. Eventually, he’d move to England with his family, and the rest is history.
With this Zanzibar connection, the island has embraced Mercury’s roots. A block away from Tembo - right in the heart of Stone Tone - people can stay at his childhood home, which is now a guesthouse. Just next door to that, the government recently opened the official Freddy Mercury museum, an intimate reflection of his childhood and rise to stardom.
But, as we’ve written, Zanzibar - while not Tehran - also isn’t Greenwich Village. Naturally, we were curious how the government’s official narrative about Mercury’s life would tally with reality. Surreal, to say the least. As cool as the museum was - tons of handwritten letters, family photos, and every Queen record cover - it left a strange taste in the mouth.
Not one mention of Mercury being gay. Not one mention of him dying from AIDS-related complications. It almost had a Thanksgiving dinner sense of underlying tension, with the diametrically opposed father and son accepting a tacit truce: we love each other, so we just won’t address our disagreements. Let’s just focus on the history that binds us.
Despite this interpretation of events, the museum is absolutely worth visiting, if for no other reason than it’s proximity to Mercury’s childhood haunts, that is, before he was Freddy Mercury. On a trip to Stone Town, check it out.