Apart from strolling around in markets, talking with people and looking at all the Stone Town doors – we ate. A lot and often. Because just as Stone Town was filled to the brim with visible traces of its cultural heritage – it was also a culinary rainbow of contrasts: From a first class rooftop Persian and Omani food experience, to deep fried Indian treats served on today’s newspaper on the street, and of course our first experience of Ethiopian food – you can imagine we were very happy.
Guided by Tripadvisor reviews as well as our own “let’s try this one!” exclamations, our taste buds got to experience the following:
Lukmaan restaurant is a local lunch spot serving huge portions at very affordable prices. The food is really “Zanzibar food” – mixing African and oriental spices in what I would refer to as elephant servings. Going here for lunch means that, despite sharing a portion, you probably won’t be hungry again until the next day. We ate really early, shared and didn’t really finish everything (sorry) because we knew we had booked a spot later that same evening – but still. Worth a visit if you’re on a budget and want to know where those Darajani market cow heads end up. Needless to say, I opted for the vegetarian option.
The Emerson on Hurumzi Tea House Restaurant was very worth pre-booking and probably our favourite food experience in Stone Town. The Persian/Omani restaurant is situated in a historical building on top of a hotel with the same name, and if you arrive early and ask the staff nicely you can sneak in to some of the rooms – all decorated as if for royalty. As would be expected from a #1 on Tripadvisor – everything in this place was impeccable, the food was rich in taste, the service was excellent, the singing and music entertaining – and the decor and view really hard to beat.
We were asking our waiter, Omar, so many questions that he decided to keep us company during dinner and told us about how the Islamic tradition of prayer is practiced in Stone Town – about how the city comes to life early in the morning with the Fajr and in many ways breathes and adjusts to the times of contemplation while at the same time adjusting to a modern way of life with jobs and errands. As we sat there, the Maghrib (sunset) call for prayer sounded from a nearby mosque, and the buzz of voices in the restaurant went silent.
On our last day in Stone Town we decided to try something different, and made our way to the Abyssinian Maritim which is an Ethiopian restaurant with nice Tripadvisor reviews. I had been trying to convince my mother to go with me to Ethiopia for years – so this would serve as a way to get a taste of it in the meanwhile, literally. The restaurant is, again, beatifully decorated and situated – and the injera flatbread, hand washing ceremony and way of eating was all good fun. The service was well.. really bad frankly, but the overall experience made it worth it and we had fun. Life is too short to eat bad food!
That same evening, as if we hadn’t already eaten enough, we made our way to what was portrayed as a secret oasis in town – The Secret Garden of Emerson Spice – squeezed in between the buildings of the narrow Stone Town streets, located in what looked like a roofless ruin of a castle. With only a few tables and almost no people around it made for a perfect place to have a good conversation, laugh, chat with the staff and try some dessert. We were so full that we impossibly could imagine eating anything more but we really wanted to pay the place a visit. I don’t have a photo of the bathroom but it had a pool in it, seriously.
On our last stroll, headed back to the hotel for our last sleep in Stone Town, my mother met a lady selling deep fried.. somethings. Oily, hot and served in a newspaper. Since our motto is a bit “if it’s hot, it’s probably safe” she insisted on having one. I was full – but curious, so we had one. Of course. Or at least shared one and gave the rest away because we realized that there was no way we were going to be able to eat more that evening. The taste? Deep fried. My mom was happy, deep fried is her favourite taste. haha!
The view from our room in Maru Maru after we had kindly asked for a room upgrade and kindly gotten one. Staff in hotels seems to really like the idea of a mother-daughter duo travelling together. Yay!
And then we said good bye and thank you to gorgeous Stone Town – a true gem!
Elaborately carved and grand – the unmissable wooden doors in Zanzibar’s Stone Town are the main manifest of the city’s cultural roots – a beautiful mix of Swahili, Arab and Indian patterns that tell stories about the residents’ social status, religion, heritage and even profession.
While walking around town, several people wanted to tell us the particular story behind their family door, all coded into the design – pride passed on through generations. Wave-like patterns were a sign of the owner’s role in seaborne trade, vines about spice-trade, and flowers at the top of the door were an indication of how many families used to live in the building. Chains were supposed to protect the building from evil spirits, or – maybe related – mark the houses of slave owners.
Then of course there are the brass studs. These are from India where brass studs were used to protect against elephants and while there aren’t any elephants on Zanzibar, the studs were still considered beautiful and showcased the wealth of the resident. Arab doors are the most detailed ones, often decorated with Arabic inscriptions and Quran phrases on the top frame, while Swahili doors are more simple – square, modest and without fancy decorations.
Can you tell which door is which kind? Enjoy the details.
On our second day in Stone Town, we took a stroll away from the touristy parts of town and headed to the Darajani market. A market where people go for food and where I guess much of the fish we had been eating so far came from. For a person trying to limit her meat consumption, it was like entering a vegan nightmare – a morgue-like pavilion packed with people and severed animal faces, a stark smell of blood and fish, and way too many flies to be considered sanitary. It felt rather claustrophobic, no matter how inviting the people were and how much Mr. Omar insisted on showing us the cow head he had in his stall – we got out of there pretty quickly. And on the way out he was there, the smiling man with the oranges. We were safe.
We arrived to Zanzibar’s Stone Town with our taxi by noon, and dropped our bags in Maru Maru hotel which we had chosen as our base. We were very happy with the pick – not only was the staff very friendly, but the rooms were beautiful and the hotel was perfectly located for our planned strolls. So we headed straight out for lunch and had a first taste of the town, which immediately became a favourite. Colourful, friendly, interesting to walk, full of art and very interesting – perfect for the way we like to explore cities. The city is made up of mazes of streets, full of little shops and beautiful doors that I couldn’t stop photographing.
In the evening we went to the Forodhani Gardens which were just around the corner from Maru Maru, where we stood for a while watching young men jumping into the sea, and then enjoyed the evening food market – where one among street food such as fruits and meats can choose from Mr. Banana Pizza, Mr. Superman Pizza, Mr. Nutella Pizza and dozens of other little tables with delicious sweet pizza options. We settled for, simply, Mr. Zanzibar Pizza – and shared a chocolate, banana, peanut butter option which was absolutely delicious.
Later on, in the Old Fort art market, I found two paintings that I immediately liked – they were thrown into a storage corner and were going to be discarded. Unlike other tinga tinga art (which I find quite messy), these had one colour as the base and then focused on ONE animal each, and were much more minimalist in their style while still being fun and vivid. The sales person didn’t like them, but I did – so I brought them home.
On our way back from Paje, we stopped by the Jozani forest where we took a tour to see the endangered Colobus monkeys, the mangrove, and a spice tour. A great pit-stop on the way.
We got to see the friendly Colobus monkeys – a species that only can be found on Zanzibar – up-close, hear the stories of how important cloves historically have been for the economy of Zanzibar, but also smell, touch and taste different spices, and maybe most importantly – buy quite a bit of really delicious Zanzibar cardamom.
After a couple of days of rough travelling, and my own months of a pretty intense Red Cross contract (immediately after my Belize contract) – I was more than excited for some relaxing beach time on Zanzibar. Our safari driver dropped us off by the ferry terminal in Dar es Salaam, and after the 2h boat ride we hopped straight into a cab by the ferry terminal. Be careful with the prices as they are trying hard to rip people off, there are even laminated “Government price lists” which are almost 4x the actual price. I had called our Zanzibar hotel the day before and asked what a cab should cost so we had a bargaining goal which we were able to hit.
The driver took us to Paje beach on the other side of the Island, where we checked in at Dhow Inn and had a good night’s sleep after having spent another entire day travelling. What we did next was my favourite of activities – absolutely nothing! We chilled on the beach, read books, walked around, painted our nails, had nice dinners, went to nearby Pingwe to the hyped restaurant The Rock which indeed was very cool – and spent the entire afternoon just chilling at Upendo, a chilled bar where we had fruit cocktails while a dj was spinning Fela Kuti tracks. We stayed until the mosquitoes came out.
Paje was a quiet and calm town with crispy white beaches, low tide and palm trees, friendly Masaai men selling handicrafts without being too pushy, and kite surfers with long hair spending their entire days on their boards. It was low season so there weren’t a lot of people around and it would probably have gotten rather boring to spend another day there – but to really get a proper break and some quiet time, Paje was absolutely perfect.