Stone Town

Stone Town, also known as Mji Mkongwe (Swahili for “old town”), is the old part of Zanzibar City, the main city of Zanzibar, in Tanzania. (The newer portion of the city is known as Ng’ambo, Swahili for ‘the other side’). Stone Town is located on the western coast of Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar Archipelago. Former capital of the Zanzibar Sultanate, and flourishing centre of the spice trade as well as the slave trade in the 19th century, it retained its importance as the main city of Zanzibar during the period of the British protectorate. When Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined each other to form the United Republic of Tanzania, Zanzibar kept a semi-autonomous status, with Stone Town as its local government seat.

Stone Town is a city of prominent historical and artistic importance in East Africa. Its architecture, mostly dating back to the 19th century, reflects the diverse influences underlying the Swahili culture, with the East African culture being preeminent, there is a unique mixture of Arab, Persian, Indian and European elements. For this reason, the town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

Due to its heritage, Stone Town is also a major visitor attraction in Tanzania, and a large part of its economy depends on tourism-related activities.


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The heart of Stone Town mostly consists of a maze of narrow alleys lined by houses, shops, bazaars and mosques. Since most streets are too narrow for cars, the town is crowded with bicycles and motorbikes. The seafront has wider streets and larger, more regularly placed buildings.

Stone Town’s architecture has a number of distinctive features, as a result of Arab, Persian, Indian, European, and African traditions mixing together. The name “Stone Town” comes from the ubiquitous use of coral stone as the main construction material; this stone gives the town a characteristic, reddish warm colour. Traditional buildings have a baraza, a long stone bench along the outside walls; this is used as an elevated sidewalk if heavy rains make the streets impracticable, or otherwise as benches to sit down, rest, socialize. Another key feature of most buildings is large verandas protected by carved wooden balustrades. The most well-known feature of Zanzibari houses are the finely decorated wooden doors, with rich carvings and bas-reliefs, sometimes with big brass studs of Indian tradition. Two main types of doors can be distinguished: those of Indian style have rounded tops, while those in the Omani Arab style are rectangular. Carvings are often Islamic in content (for example, many consist of verses of the Qur’an), but other symbolism is occasionally used, e.g., Indian lotus flowers as emblems of prosperity.

Besides having interesting architectural features in most of its houses, Stone Town is punctuated with major historical buildings, several of which are found on the seafront; these include former palaces of the sultans, fortifications, churches, mosques, and other institutional buildings.

While Stone Town was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 2000, this designation does not provide complete protection for the town’s heritage. Despite the establishment of a Conservation Authority, about 80{766b2b455f1b5fc967b3a85d323f0fe3134163643b854fccb8a63a59a00bd75c} of the 1,709 buildings of Stone Town are in a deteriorating condition. As coral stone is very friable, frequent maintenance is needed for most of these buildings. Some major restoration projects (especially on the seafront) have been done in recent times by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC).

Population: There are over 16,000 people in the town today.


Zanzibaris speak Swahili (Kiswahili), a Bantu language that is extensively spoken in the African Great Lakes region. Swahili is the de facto national and official language of Tanzania. English is widely spoken.


Tanzanian Shilling (Tsh) … There are only two cash machines on the whole of Zanzibar Island, both in Stone Town.


Stone Town is located roughly in the middle of the west coast of Unguja, on a small promontory protruding into the Zanzibar Channel. The closest major settlement on the Tanzanian coast, opposite to Stone Town, is Bagamoyo (to the south-west). Stone Town is part of Zanzibar City, that also comprises the “New City” of Ng’ambo (“the Other Side”), which mostly extends in the interior of Unguja to the south-east. The ideal dividing line between Stone Town and Ng’ambo is Creek Road.


Stone Town along with the entire Zanzibar Archipelago experiences a similar climate throughout the year. The island has a hot tropical weather all year round with the hottest month being December and the coldest month being July. During most months of the year there is significant rainfall with a long rain season spanning from March–May and a shorter rain season from November–December. The lesser dry season occurs between December–February and May–August and consequently is the peak tourist season month due to beach tourism on the island.

Heritages and Museums

Palace Museum (Arab: Beit el-Sahel), actual name is Bait Serkal. Bait El -Sahel was destroyed in the Anglo Zanzibar war of 1886, is one of the main historical buildings of Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania. It is a 3-story building with merlon-decorated white walls, located in Mizingani Road, on the seafront, between the House of Wonders and the Old Dispensary.

Hurumzi Henna Art Gallery– About six years ago, a group of Zanzibari women who were masters of Swahili body painting learned to transfer their traditional designs to paint on canvas and paper. The work combines the flowing floral patterning, typically in dark executed in brown or black dye, with vibrant colors and sometimes collage or contemporary imagery.

The Beautiful Eyes‘ as a place to present art photography started in May 2008 when three photographers visited Zanzibar for a week of photography. They missed a place to talk, present and to even buy photography.” Visit their website for info about the gallery and workshops; check out their blog for stories such as ‘Belly Dancing in Stone Town.

Peace Memorial Museum, Exhibits relating to Zanzibar history & nature in a whitewashed, Arab-style building from 1920. Address: Benjamin Mkapa Rd, Zanzibar Town, Tanzania

Princess Salme Museum at Emerson on Hurumzi– is a small museum dedicated to the Princess Salme. The Princess was one of 36 children of the Omani Sultan, which at the time also meant ruling over Zanzibar.

Cultural Arts Gallery in Stone Town gives artists and local groups the encouragement and opportunity to sell their products to tourists. You can contribute in the creative and/or organizational and economic area.

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The streets in Stone Town are very narrow and almost getting anywhere within the town must be done on foot. The narrow streets provide shade and almost everything is accessible from within the town. However, on slightly wider roads historically bicycles and now most recently motor cycles are used to transport people and goods. The town is accessible from Zanzibar and the rest of the region through three possible ports of entry.

The main form of public transport in Zanzibar are the daladala share taxis; and the main station is located by the Darajani Market. Daladalas connect Stone Town to several island locations, such as Bububu (a village north of Stone Town), the airport, the Amaan Stadium, Jangombe, and Magomeni. For longer trips, “mabasi” (Swahili for “bus”, singular “basi”) are available, which are trucks adapted for passenger transport. The main “mabasi” station is also close to the Market and the “mabasi” network stretch across the entire island and is the cheapest form of long distance transit.

The main Zanzibar island harbour is in the heart of Stone Town and regular ferries from Dar es Salaam and Pemba connect the town to the mainland. The town is also in close proximity to the Island’s major airport. Zanzibar Airport, 9 kilometres (5.6 miles) south of Stone Town has flights to mainland Tanzania (especially Arusha and Dar es Salaam) as well as other African main airports such as Nairobi, Mombasa, and Johannesburg.

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