Everything you need to know about Zanzibar Island and the Swahili Coast

Swahili means ‘coastal’ in Arabic, and the Swahili coast refers to Tanzania’s coastline, a beautiful and historic region rich in history, natural beauty, art and culture. Ancient Greek manuscripts show that the east coast of Africa was visited by sailing vessels in classical times. In the ninth or tenth centuries came Shirazi Persians from modern-day Iran, sailing their ancient dhows across the Indian Ocean.

Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Indonesian merchants and pirates, traders and adventurers, all arrived over the centuries during which the Swahili coast was the center of a thriving commercial civilization, with its own language, economy and artistic traditions. When Europe was still floundering in the dark ages, the light of eastern civilization had fallen on the Swahili coast, unknown to the rest of the world.

Today, reminders of the Swahili coast’s magnificent past can be found up and down the length of Tanzania. The brass-bound chests and heavy wooden doors of the Swahili empire are found far inland, imported originally by the Arabic slave traders who led caravans into the interior in search of fortune. On the coast itself, crumbling mosques nestle among palm trees by white beaches and Persian baths lie ruined in the remains of ancient villas.


Zanzibar Island

Zanzibar’s lasting mystique has attracted travelers from around the world for centuries. From its early days as a Swahili port, Zanzibar has done a thriving business in the cargo of the day. In generations long past, ivory, slaves and spices were transported on large wooden sailing dhows across the Indian Ocean to the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. Although spices remain a main export, these days Zanzibar’s main attraction is the beauty of the island itself.

Zanzibar’s history stretches back to when the first dhows from Arabia and India discovered its natural harbor. Using the island as a stopover point for caravans that journeyed deep into the African interior, permanent settlement soon created the beginnings of what became Stone Town. Merchants from Oman, Gujarat and around the Indian Ocean moved their families from across the ocean to start a life in Zanzibar, some amassing great fortunes and building the high stone houses so indicative of Stone Town today. Although Swahili civilization in the area of Kilwa Kisiwani further south peaked in the 14th century, Zanzibar’s prosperity came much later, with the arrival of the Omani sultans in the 18th century. Living and ruling from Stone Town, the sultans presided over the slave and ivory trade, planting vast spice plantations that survive to this day.

Remnants of the hey-day of Swahili civilization in Zanzibar still remain, vestiges of a vanished past that people still look to with a sense of heritage and pride. In Stone Town, the House of Wonders greets visitors arriving by sea, a grand building once used by the sultan for his administrative duties. His town palace stands adjacent to it, the walkways that connected the two buildings still in dilapidated existence. Nearby, the Portuguese Fort recalls the brief occupation of the island by foreign rule, while the nearby Anglican Cathedral built over the site of the old slave market soothes the wounds of a sobering past. Today, Stone Town is as much of an attraction for visitors as Zanzibar’s beaches, world-renowned for their idyllic seascapes and island charm. Guests have their pick of beaches famed for their tropical climate and soothing crystal-clear waters. Swahili fishing villages, snorkeling, diving, or just beachcombing offer perfect choices of relaxing itineraries. 

For cultural connoisseurs, it’s best to time a visit around one of Zanzibar’s many festivals. Vibrant occasions occur throughout the year, days of celebration when the island and its people truly come alive. The annual ZIFF Festival of the Dhow Countries film festival and the Sauti za Busara Swahili Music Festival are the main attractions, with the Swahili festival of Mwaka Kongwe not to be missed.

Yet there’s more to Zanzibar than the main island of Unguja. To the north, Pemba Island offers world-class diving in pristine surroundings. Accommodation ranges from the most basic to the utmost in barefoot luxury and visitors agree that a visit to Pemba is well worth the effort. To the south is the little-known Mafia Island, its reefs affording perfect diving in tranquil surroundings. Covered in coconut palms and abandoned fruit groves left by Arab merchants centuries before, Mafia’s charm is unique to the Swahili coast, its shores untouched by development or change. Other smaller islands surround Unguja, the main island in the archipelago, and make pleasant day trips for visitors from Stone Town.

Come to Zanzibar and you will experience the hospitality of the Swahili people, the beauty of the island, and the lasting mystique of its regal history. Visit Zanzibar, and you will understand why century after century, travelers have come to its shores in search of magic and romance. And also it offer one of the Africa's best diving locations.



Bagamoyo was once the center of slave and ivory trading. It was the last point reached by the caravans of slaves who arrived here for transportation to faraway places. Today, this attractive coastal town still bears reminders of its past - the fortified house where slaves were kept while waiting for transportation still stands, as does the tree under which they were bought and sold.


Kilwa Kisiwani Island was once the trading center of the Swahili empire. The ruins of the settlement still remain and are considered to be one of the most important Swahili historical sites in East Africa. The famous traveler and chronicler Ibn Battuta visited Kilwa in the 14th century, describing his admiration for the architecture and graceful situation of the capital city. Later the island became a trading post for slaves traveling north from Mauritius and Mozambique. The end of the town’s supremacy as a trading port came when it was sacked by a tribe of cannibals in 1588.

Mafia Island

The name Mafia derives from the Ma-afir, a tribe from ancient Yemen who dominated the coast around 1000 BC. Mafia Island is the largest of an island archipelago, off the beaten track and known to only the most discerning travelers. The island is surrounded by a barrier reef so rich in marine life it has been designated a Marine Park by the World Wide Fund for Nature. A tiny population of pygmy hippo lives in the remains of an old lagoon, cut off from the mainland centuries ago. Mafia’s interesting history and stunning beaches, combined with several luxurious and discreet hotels, make it one of Tanzania’s hidden gems.

Tanga and Pangani

Ruins close to the active port of Tanga attest to its importance as a trading post in the Swahili civilization. The ruins, once a large mosque, include more than 40 tombs. Tanga also has pleasant beaches and is a convenient point from which to visit the spectacular Usambara Mountains. Just south of Tanga is Pangani, once the home of Arab slave traders, set on a lovely estuary of the Pangani River.