Note that you can start anywhere on this circular route, depending on where you are staying, but for ease of reference, we start off at:
1. Forodhani Gardens
Located on the seafront and laid out in 1936 to mark the silver jubilee of Sultan Khalifa, the gardens have recently been revamped and are pleasant enough to stroll through. However, they really become one of Stone Town's main attractions in the evenings, as storeholders set up for the night market, lighting their fires and lacing fresh seafood onto skewers. This is both the cheapest and most convivial place to pig out on fresh lobster, prawns, fish, and Zanzibari "pizza."
Directly behind the gardens, on Mzingani Street, is the:
2. Old Fort
This is the oldest structure in Stone Town, its dark brown, windowless walls topped by castellated battlements. Built between 1698 and 1701 by Seyyid Said's grandfather into the ruins of a Portuguese chapel, the Old Fort never saw much military action. Today it is home to hawkers selling tourist tat and an open-air theater where evening performers tout for dollars, as well as a private tourism bureau run by the charming "Octopus" (so named because he has a finger in many pies).
Adjoining the fort is the:
3. House of Wonders
This is the most elegant building in Stone Town, with proportions like those of a Southern plantation mansion, its facade broken by tall tiers of pillars and deep balconies, and topped by a grand clock tower. Built in 1883 by Sultan Barghash as a ceremonial palace, it is the most ostentatious of follies and impressed his subjects (aside from its grandiose architecture, it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electric lights and an electric lift), who dubbed it Beit el Ajaib (House of Wonders). Housing the Museum of History and Culture, it is still one of the largest buildings in Zanzibar, and while the displays look somewhat forlorn and more like high school projects, it is well worth a visit if only to familiarize yourself with the tale of Princess Salme, a daughter of Seyyid Said who eloped with a German merchant in 1866. It contains family photographs and excerpts from her book, as well as a sample of her typical wardrobe. Also, don't miss the interesting exhibition of kangas, the traditional cloths the local women wrap around their bodies and heads, with Swahili slogans that are integral to the design; translations range between the amusing and the poignant, such as Mama nipe kuishi radhi na walu kazi, translated as "Mother, give me your blessings; living with people is really tough," referring to the practice by which a new wife moves into the homestead of her in-laws.
From the balconies of the House of Wonders, you can look into the rooftops and castellated battlements of the Palace Museum, which was built on the site of the first sultan's palace that Seyyid Said erected in 1832. The current building dates back to the late 1890s and housed members of the sultan's family, becoming the official residence of the sultan of Zanzibar from 1911 until the revolution of '64, when it was renamed the Peoples' Palace. It is not really necessary to enter; nothing seems to have been done since it opened as a museum in 1994, with dusty interiors and moth-eaten, haphazardly arranged furnishings doing nothing to evoke the lifestyle of this once powerful dynasty. Both Palace Museum and House of Wonders are open daily 9am to 6pm; entrance $3.
Having passed the Palace Museum, you will continue walking along Mzingani Road, looking out for the massive fig tree, known locally as "Big Tree." Just before this is:
4. Old Customs House
This is where Sultan Hamoud was proclaimed sultan in 1896. Note the solid timber door, one of the oldest in Zanzibar (as you can tell from the shape; the more modern doors are semicircular at the top). Zanzibari doors (also found in Lamu and Mombasa) are a distinctive feature of Stone Town architecture and were coded communication about the status and wealth of the people living behind them. Many of the doors have an Arabic inscription carved into the top frieze (usually from the Koran) and are richly decorated around the frame; the more ornate, the wealthier the inhabitant. Those with gold studs protruding were imported from India, where they were designed to repel the elephants that the Rajput used in battle. An inventory done some 30 years ago recorded 800 historic doors; sadly, this number has been drastically reduced by voracious antique dealers.
Take a Break -- Depending on inclination or time of day, you may want to stop and have a drink at Mercury's, diagonally opposite the Old Customs House, one of Stone Town's most popular beachfront bars/restaurants, with great ocean views.
Alternatively, keep walking, looking out for most ornate facade in Stone Town:
5. Stone Town Cultural Centre
This is also known as the Old Dispensary and was originally commissioned by Tharia Topan.
From here you leave the beachfront and venture into the heart of Stone Town, crossing it to reach the market. There are literally a hundred routes, but perhaps easiest is to backtrack to the Big Tree and head down Jamatani Road, looking out for signs (or asking) for:
Take a Break -- Zanzibar Coffee House, where you can stop for the best coffee in town.
After the relative calm of the coffee house, head to the:
6. Darajani Market
The covered market is quite an assault on the senses, located in a gable-fronted building erected in 1904. There are separate markets for red meat and fish, and dozens of traders selling fruit, vegetables, spices, and grains that spill out onto Creek Road (officially Benjamin Mkapa Rd.); on Wednesday and Saturday, they are joined by antique dealers.
The market is the most vibrant place in Stone Town, bustling from 8am to 6pm (though it quiets down from 2pm) with people who travel from all over the island to trade for a variety that is unrivaled elsewhere in the archipelago. Auctions are held in the morning fish market, and everywhere there is the cacophony of people bargaining, gossiping, and touting their wares. If you are squeamish, try to come first thing in the morning before the smell of fresh meat can turn rank; even then, those with sensitive stomachs are warned to stay away from the red meat section, where the smell of raw meat and the rivulets of blood may turn even hardened carnivores vegetarian. You can always concentrate on purchasing spices (this is a good place to stock up on masala tea; spice sellers tend to be concentrated to the east of the main building) or a few brightly colored kangas (you'll find them packed out on the ground behind the dala-dalas on the left toward Darajani Rd.).
When you're done touring the market, head down Creek Road. A major thoroughfare, usually clogged with traffic, Creek Road denotes the end of the historical quarter and the start of Michenzani (New City), an unattractive sprawl of buildings most tourists will only pass through on their way to the coast. A few minutes' walk down Creek Road (going south from the market), you'll find the:
7. Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ
Built between 1873 and 1883 by the Universities' Mission in Central Africa (UMCA) under the auspices of Edward Steere, third bishop of Zanzibar (1874-82), the church itself is not much to write home about. Its artifacts, however, are a reminder of the most sordid aspects of Zanzibari history, and for many, a visit to the cellars ★, beneath the nearby St. Monica's Hostel and said to be where the slaves were kept in holding cells before being sold, are a chillingly worthwhile experience that stands in distinct contrast to the blissfully benign beach experience the island is usually associated with.
Along with missionary-explorer Dr. David Livingstone, another fierce antislavery campaigner, Steere was much resented by the sultanate for the fierce battle he fought against the slave trade, a crusade he finally won in 1877. In celebration and thanks, Steere built this church on what used to be the island's largest slave market, apparently positioning the altar over the exact location of the whipping post. He also had the Cathedral's timber cross carved from a branch that once hung over Livingstone's heart, where it is buried at Chitambo, Zambia. Several other missionaries are remembered on plaques around the cathedral wall.
You can visit the cathedral to pray, but if you are here purely as a tourist, you will have to pay the $5 entry fee, which entitles you to a visit to the cellars, as well as a guide.
After the cathedral, you have two options. If you're interested in an overview of Zanzibari history, continue south down Creek Road for about 400m (1,312 ft.) and look out for:
8. Beit el Amani Memorial Museum
Literally "House of Peace," Beit el Amani is a grand colonial-era building designed by J. H. Sinclair, the same architect who designed the island's High Court and a man who was, thankfully, a great fan of traditional Zanzibari architecture, incorporating much of the local style into his own. Inside is a hodge podge of displays relating to the island's history and the figures who shaped it. Along with a collection of the lithographs, maps, and photographs dating from the 19th and early-20th centuries, there are various items belonging to the sultans, slave traders, locals, colonial administrators, missionaries, and many explorers who used the island as a base. Next door is a small natural history museum that is largely missable unless you want to visit the large land tortoises that live outside; it's worth it if you're not doing a trip to Prison Island.
From here you turn right onto Kuanda Road, which becomes Kenyatta Street, one of the main shopping drags. Take the left fork into one of the narrow alleyways (ominously called Suicide Alley) to wander past:
9. Tippu Tip's House
Around 100m (328 ft.) from Serena Inn, this was once the home of a famous slave trader, and though it's a private residence, the current proprietor is often happy to show visitors the interior (which is dirty and in ruin), much to the chagrin of his family living in penury inside.
After this you could:
Take a Break -- Choose to either relax at the large balcony bar of the nearby Africa House Hotel or head for one of the wicker chairs at the patio outside the Serena Inn bar; both are perfectly positioned to toast the setting sun.
An alternate route after the cathedral will have you cutting across town. You will likely get lost, so ask for directions to the:
10. Hamamni Persian Baths
Located in its namesake neighborhood in the middle of Stone Town, the baths are well worth a visit. Commissioned by Sultan Barghash in the 1880s, the Hamamni (literally Place of the Baths) offers a cool respite from the heat, as well as insight into what life for Stone Town's upper classes must have been like more than a century ago. The baths have been well preserved and are usually empty (the best time to visit; if the baths are full of people, it's worth coming again later). Upon entering, you are faced with a number of cubicles, each with a specific function, such as the area where people disrobed (incidentally, men and women had separate hours of admittance); from here, you walk deeper into the baths, into what used to be the "warm room," heated by underground hot-water aqueducts, and then into the heart: the hot baths with the cold baths adjacent and more private areas.
After the baths, you could wend your way to Cathedral Street to look at the ornate:
11. St. Joseph's Cathedral
A far prettier building than the Anglican church, this cathedral was built between 1886 and 1898 by French missionaries, but thanks to a dwindling congregation the doors are, sadly, almost always closed.
From here, keep heading toward the seafront Mizingani Road. Once there, turn left onto it and head for a beachfront bar to watch the harbor traffic with your feet in the sand and a cool drink in your hand, and time your return to Forodhani Gardens for around 7pm, when the barbecues will be smoking with finger-licking-good seafood snacks.