By far the largest settlement on the island, Stone Town is unlike any other African capital. Strung along a widget of the coast, the history and atmosphere of the old city surrounding the port, declared a UNESCO site in 2000, is tangible, its town planning almost medieval: a labyrinth of narrow winding lanes lined with tall crumbling buildings and virtually identical peeling facades guaranteed to confuse and disorientate. Wandering ever deeper, looking skyward for a minaret, spire, or any other recognizable landmark, you could as easily turn a corner and be dazzled by the sparkling ocean as find yourself in a courtyard, halted by the rhythmic drone of local schoolchildren intoning the Koran. African men in long dresses stride past women draped in black, their faces hidden but talking into cellphones as gold as their sandals and the embroidery on their sleeves. On the seashore, bare-backed men sweat beneath huge bags of spices as they load them onto the waiting boats, while holidaymakers sit with their feet in the sand drinking cocktails or listen to taraab musicians sing songs of lost love at the Serena, an aromatic meal on their plate.
Merchant traders from India, Arabia, Persia, China, Japan, and Russia have roamed the shoreline for centuries, but it was only during the 11th century that the first permanent structure, a mosque, was built at Kizimkazi in the south. After taking control of this small trading outpost, the Portuguese (who, thanks to Vasco da Gama and his crew, the first Europeans to circumnavigate Africa, ruled the entire east coast with impunity during the 16th and 17th centuries) moved the main harbor to the bay now overlooked by Stone Town. The only remnants of this era are the rather insignificant-looking archway you will see on your right as you approach old Stone Town and the cannons that guard the entrance to the House of Wonders.
Sultan Seif bin Sultan, imam of Oman, liberated Zanzibar from the Portuguese "tyranny and extortion" in 1698, but the real impact of this was felt more than a century later when the then-ruler of Oman, the pragmatic Sultan Seyyid Said, saw the obvious benefits of moving his court from the hostile and desert-harsh environment of Muscat to the benign island of Zanzibar. Not only would this position him much closer to his business interests, the slave and ivory trade, just 40km (25 miles) away on the mainland, but Zanzibar also provided the sultanate with hectares of fertile soil. Keen to promote trade with India, with its riches in cloth, jewelry, and arms, Seyyid Said invited Indian merchants from Gujarat to settle here and embarked on an ambitious clove-planting project, threatening his local subjects with eviction if they did not plant two clove trees for every existing coconut palm. At the same time, he controlled the mainland slave trade; all slaves "harvested" on the mainland had to pass through the island where a tax was extorted, turning Zanzibar into the largest slave-trading center on the East African coast.
The move to Zanzibar was astute, and as the sultanate became wealthier and the economy expanded nearly five-fold, the stone buildings housing his expansive family and the avaricious traders it attracted spread north and east of the harbor. Seyyid Said himself built two large palaces, one in Stone Town and another a few kilometers north at Mtoni (the ruins of the latter still stand), where his principal wife was said to hold court over a household of 1,000. But it was his successor, the extravagant Barghash, who despite his brief rule (1870-88) was to be Stone Town's most prolific builder, of which the most ostentatious relic is Beit el Ajaib, the House of Wonders, so called because it was the largest and tallest building in Zanzibar and the first to have electric lights and an electric lift.
Aside from the traders, the wealth generated by the sultanate attracted Indian artisans who arrived to decorate, carve, and stitch for their Arab patrons, as well as moneylenders attracted by the abundance of spice and ivory. The Indians left an indelible mark on the architectural fabric of Stone Town, as did the later arrival of the English and German colonialists, though the latter's effect was, in many cases, a synthesis of the city's existing design ethos. The colonialists approach to power rather than architecture was less subtle.
From the outset, the sultanate welcomed the colonial trading partners with a diplomacy born of necessity, but during the last 15 years of the 19th century, the colonialists appropriated most of the empire of Zanzibar for themselves. By the time Khalifa Bin Harab took over in 1911, the sultan was a constitutional monarch without powers, and by the 1920s, Zanzibar was an established British protectorate, which it would remain for the next 4 decades until it made a successful bid for independence in 1964.
Despite its UNESCO-protected heritage status, Stone Town is home to a real community, where locals live, work, and worship, indifferent to tourist trade. If you are expecting pristine streets and well-maintained buildings, you will be disappointed. Many historical buildings are crumbling, rotting refuse collects in corners, and the locals are unapologetic about their desire to get on with their lives without interference (and generally do not like to be photographed while doing so). Certainly, it is not a beach destination -- though there are beach bars, the culture is conservative, and women are discouraged from dressing scantily -- and, because it's also a bustling port, is not conducive to sunbathing and swimming. However, you could easily base yourself at one of the beach resorts located a mere 10 to 15 minutes north or south of the center.
Stone Town offers a totally different experience from the rest of Zanzibar and is ideal as an overnight stop only if, after experiencing a large dose of the wilderness on the mainland, you are ready to immerse yourself in an African destination that offers history and culture, not to mention a fair bit of shopping.