Zanzibar: A Precious Jewel in Swahili Culture and History

August 18, 2023 No Comments
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Zanzibar is known around the world for many different reasons. Such as its breathtaking beaches, spice farms, historical signs, churches, food markets, and more. Zanzibar is quite a melting pot of cultural influences and that’s a huge part of why it’s so attractive. There’s a lot to learn about Zanzibar as a jewel in Swahili culture and history and that’s what we want to help with today. Let’s take a journey to Zanzibar and see a few of the many wonderful things it has to offer!

The Basics of Zanzibar

Before we dive deep into Zanzibar culture, reasons to visit, sights to see, and more, let’s learn the basics. Firstly, Zanzibar is an archipelago, so it’s not just one island. The largest island is known simply as Zanzibar, but the official name is actually “Unguja”. In the entire archipelago, only Zanzibar, Mafia Island, and Pemba are inhabited by people. Also, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a country, it’s rather a semi-autonomous Tanzanian region. This means that, politically, Zanzibar is part of Tanzania.   

Top 5 Reasons to Visit Zanzibar

Now, it’s time to discuss a few of the main reasons why visiting Zanzibar can be such a great idea:  

1. The beaches are stunning and the sunsets are enchanting

The beaches and sunsets are two of the main attractions of Zanzibar. The island is truly a paradise, known for its silky white sands and crystalline waters. If you’ve ever dreamed of watching the kind of sunset where you can see a pod of dolphins jumping on the horizon, Zanzibar is where that kind of stuff happens. The average temperature in Zanzibar is 24 to 28 degrees Celsius, so it’s quite tropical weather, perfect for disconnecting and recharging.


2. Stone Town

Stone Town is the cultural capital of Zanzibar and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a treasure and it’s an ancient town that can transport visitors back in time. The preserved medieval architecture, narrow alleys, lively bazaars, and beautiful mosques provide an authentic experience of the old days. If you want to experience some of Swahili culture and history, this should be your first stop.  

3. Great variety of sustainable ecotourism activities

More and more people have adopted ecotourism practices and if that’s a priority for you, Zanzibar doesn’t seem to disappoint. The island offers tourists a great variety of sustainable activities that help them have unique experiences and connect with the culture without causing any damage to the environment. For example, tourists can volunteer at marine conservation programs, take ethical dolphin tours, stay at eco-lodges, and much more.  

4. Inexpensive destination

Tourists can get a lot of bang for their buck when visiting Zanzibar because 1 Tanzanian Shilling equals 0.00040 USD. You won’t only be able to enjoy an inexpensive holiday and take advantage of as many opportunities as possible, but you will also be directly contributing to the local economy. Income generated from tourism is very important for the locals and you get amazing memories in return.  

5. Lively local markets

Another great reason to visit Zanzibar is to explore the local markets in person. They’re an essential part of daily life for locals and they offer a window into their daily life. Plus, markets expose you to the local culture through the products and the interactions you get to have with the locals. Additionally, local markets are the best places to find the freshest seafood for a meal you simply won’t forget.


The Dos and Don’ts of Visiting Zanzibar

One of the best ways to get to know a place is by becoming familiar with the dos and don’ts. This provides a lot of insight and it’s also very useful if you plan on visiting at some point. So, let’s learn a bit about that:  

Do make time for must-see attractions

For evidence that Zanzibar is essential to Swahili culture and history, you have to learn a bit about the must-see attractions. If you get the opportunity to visit, there are many places that are worth your time. Starting with Stone Town, which is the first stop for most people who want to have an authentic experience.

Additionally, there are places like the House of Wonders, an amazing historical site, Zala Park, local markets like the Forodhani Night Market, museums, and historical places like the Old Fort, Mtoni Palace, and more. There are also beautiful mosques like Ijumaa Mosque, among others. Every place has its own history and learning it can bring you closer to Swahili culture. Learning basic Swahili words will help you have an easier time exploring.  

Don’t wear anything revealing

While the weather in Zanzibar is wonderfully nice and there are many adventures to have, wearing revealing clothing is a no-go. This is a conservative Muslim culture, so you have to be modest when you’re visiting. Being covered up while you’re out and about will show that you respect the local culture. So, opt for loose-fitting clothes that cover your legs, stomach, and chest. Avoid anything too tight or see-through while still remaining comfortable.


Do learn basic Swahili

We already mentioned this, but it deserves its own section because it’s very important if you want to have a more immersive experience. While a lot of locals speak English and Arabic, Swahili is the official language. So, it will help a lot to learn a few words and phrases that you use in everyday life. For example, hello is “jambo”, “hujambo” or “salama”, and goodbye is “kwa keir” or “kwa herini” if you’re talking to several people. Please is “tafadhali” and thank you is “asante”, these two are very important. If you want to learn more Swahili, you should read this article.  

Don’t drink tap water

While locals can drink tap water without an issue, it’s recommended that tourists avoid it. Why? Because the contaminants in the water can make foreigners feel ill. So, it’s best to stick with bottled water. Tourists who wish to avoid plastic consumption usually invest in water bottles with filtration systems, which are quite effective and very easy to use.  

Why Zanzibar Is Important in Swahili Culture

At the heart of Zanzibar’s significance lies its historical role as a crossroads of trade and culture. For centuries, Zanzibar has been a pivotal point in the Indian Ocean trade routes, attracting merchants, explorers, and settlers from various corners of the world. The island’s strategic location made it a melting pot of cultures, where African, Arab, Persian, Indian, and European influences came together. This rich blend of influences is reflected in the Swahili culture that was born from that.

Additionally, Zanzibar’s role in the development and preservation of the Swahili language is notable. Swahili, a language with deep African roots and a vibrant blend of Arabic and other linguistic elements, is the lingua franca of the region. The island’s unique linguistic environment led to the emergence of a distinct dialect, known as “Kiunguja,” which is considered the basis for modern standard Swahili. Thus, Zanzibar’s linguistic influence has made a huge mark in Swahili culture.


Cultural expressions, artistry, and creativity also thrive on the island. Zanzibar boasts a rich tradition of music, dance, and storytelling, where Taarab music is particularly influential.

Zanzibar’s significance in Swahili culture extends to its gastronomy as well. The island’s cuisine reflects its diverse cultural influences, incorporating flavors from India, the Middle East, and Africa. Dishes like biryani, pilau, and spiced seafood showcase the unique fusion of ingredients and cooking techniques that define Swahili cuisine.

Religion is another very important aspect of Zanzibar and of Swahili culture as well. The island has a predominantly Muslim population, and its mosques, such as the iconic Old Fort and the Malindi Mosque, are true architectural marvels that reflect the wonderful blend of Swahili and Islamic influences. The call to prayer echoing through Stone Town’s streets is something that you will never forget once you hear it.  

Zanzibar – Precious Jewel

Zanzibar’s importance in Swahili culture has many different layers you can explore. From its historical role as a crossroads of trade and culture to its contributions to language, art, cuisine, and religion, the island has left an indelible mark on the identity of the Swahili people. Zanzibar is a great example of the beauty of cultural diversity and the power of coexistence. This place is, without a doubt, a vibrant and true example of Swahili culture.      

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I'm an elementary school teacher who loves what she does! I enjoy creating resources in my Native language "kiswahili". My goal is to spread the beautiful language of "Kiswahili" inside and outside the classroom. Thanks for stopping by! Read More

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