Solo Female Traveler's Guide to Zanzibar
Most people have never heard of Zanzibar. However, it has been on my radar for a couple of years now. Like with most places, I first learned about Zanzibar through Instagram. Many people start by doing a safari on the mainland of Tanzania and then head to Zanzibar after that for a bit of luxury, beach time and relaxation. Zanzibar is actually a Tanzanian archipelago. Its main island is Unguja (also informally known as Zanzibar Island).
You will not find any of the animals you would see on a safari in Zanzibar. The island itself is not only different in that sense, but also in that its unique culture is a mix of Arabic, Indian and Swahili. You can see the influences from these cultures in the way that people dress, what they eat and especially in the architecture. This is what drew me to Zanzibar. Of course it looked beautiful in photos, but I wanted to see what the mix of cultures was like in real life. I wanted to see what it looked like, what it smelled like, what it tasted like.
This trip was extra special for me because not only was it my birthday trip, it was also my first trip going completely solo and having organized it myself. I have traveled on organized tours alone or with friends, but never solely and completely alone. At first, I was anxious about this idea – going to Africa alone. My friend had told me she was not going to be able to go because of work, but I was not going to let that get in the way of me traveling to one of my dream destinations. I was going to make it happen - even if that meant going by myself.
I started googling things like "how not to get bored when you're alone on a trip" and "how to avoid feeling lonely while traveling alone.” It sounds so silly, but I wanted to know because when you are with other people – you pretty much have a conversation the entire time. When you’re alone, it’s always different. I do actually enjoy my own company and value my alone time - which probably helped me on this trip.
What I did find useful when searching for those things, however, was the idea of making sure my days were completely planned out. I knew I wanted to fill my schedule up with tours and activities. I wanted to do and see as much as I could while I was there. I'm a natural planner anyway, and this wasn't the first trip where I had planned the itinerary entirely on my own. So, that part was easy for me.
When the day of the trip came, I was ready. I think I had had enough time to wrap my head around the fact that I was about to go to Africa by myself. And to be honest, I was totally calm. I was actually calmer than I normally am. Maybe because I wasn't worried about trying to meet up with a friend or a tour group at a specific time. I don't know exactly.
To be honest, what I was most worried about…. Was spiders. Lol. Who is going to handle it (or “the bug” as I call them because I don’t even like speaking about them) if one makes an appearance? I have extreme arachnophobia, but I just told myself - what are the chances that there will be a giant one that shows its face? I also took advice from my friend, Frances, and contacted my hotels ahead of time to let them know my concerns. Both hotels were so sweet, totally understanding, and they set my mind at ease. I also packed a ton of peppermint oil just in case (LOL).
My flight to Zanzibar was from Columbus > Toronto > Addis Ababa > Zanzibar. From Toronto to Zanzibar, I flew Ethiopian Airlines for the first time. The flights themselves were okay. My only complaint would be that there was no WiFi. This usually isn't a big deal but when the flight is 13 hours... WiFi would be nice. The gate was changed 4 times in Ethiopia, and the flight was delayed two hours. Nonetheless, 28 hours after taking off from Columbus – I had made it to beautiful Zanzibar.
I had done my research while planning this trip, like I always do, to determine what I wanted to see. I reached out to the hotels I was staying at, and they gave their recommendations as far as companies to connect with and tours to take. I was able to get in contact with Stefanie from Mrembo Spa and Zanzibar Different Tours who helped to arrange all of my activities during my stay in Stone Town. I also used my usual resources (aka Trip Advisor).
Stone Town Walking Tour
On my first full day in Zanzibar, I had an awesome introduction to the beautiful Stone Town. Stone Town is full of sounds of children playing soccer and motorbike horns beeping. There are stunning doors at every turn. Many of the doors show the influence of the different cultural backgrounds combined.
East African Slave Trade Exhibition
This is a quick but important stop to make. Here you can read about the history of slavery in East Africa and see the disturbing slave chamber where slaves used to be kept before being taken to the auction. Many slaves died of starvation and suffocation. It was a sick feeling being down there.
Mrembo Spa, Beauty Experience and Incense “UDI” Workshop
The staff at Mrembo Spa were so nice. Originally, I was supposed to do a soap-making workshop arranged by the spa, but the instructor had an emergency, so the plans changed which was okay.
I started with a traditional massage. It was definitely an experience. The woman doing the massage was blind. The separation between other parts of the spa and the treatment “room” consisted of only thin sheets. I could hear people on the streets. I could hear people shopping in the spa. It was different. The room was cold. The massage itself was great. However, it was cold because the fan was on. After the massage, I got a body scrub followed by a shower. These photos aren’t the best, but you get the idea.
To continue Mrembo’s Beauty Experience – I learned how to make coconut oil and a natural body scrub. In place of the soap workshop was the Incense “UDI” Workshop.
Spice Tour & Pilau Cooking Workshop
This was an absolute treat. The spice tour was at a spice farm a little bit outside of Stone Town. My guide walked around the farm showing me all the plants, letting me smell and taste them, and explaining their benefits. It is wild how all of these plants grow right next to each other. I even got to see a man climb a really tall coconut tree – twice.
After the spice tour, I went to my guide’s home where his wife had all of the raw foods waiting for us to cook. When I booked the Pilau Cooking Workshop I thought we were just going to be making the pilau rice. Nope. We made pilau rice, falafels, curry, Ndizi Tamu/Sweet Plantain (cooked in coconut milk), salad and chutney.
It was hard to actually write down what I was doing in order to remember how to do it at home. I think this activity is usually done with more than just one visitor. Nevertheless, I did a great job with their help. It was hard work and it took a while to cook everything, but the food was incredible. Worth it.
Jambiani Culture Tour & Beach
Jambiani is a village a little over an hour drive southeast of Stone Town. This tour was a bit repetitive as far as the coconut milk making and walking around to see some of the different types of plants and fruit trees. My guide was not very nice. He seemed annoyed and like he did not really care. However, I really recommend this tour because I was able to visit an elementary school and a primary school. That was a highlight for me.
This tour is supposed to be paired with seaweed farming, but I did not get to experience that due to the tide. The tour guide also walked me down the beach too far. The beach is much more stunning closer to Paje than on the end where Jambiani is. I’m not sure why the guide was so unpleasant. The tour has “beach” in the name, and he seemed annoyed that I wanted to change and enjoy my time at the beach. I asked if he could take me somewhere, where I could change and he pointed out a completely open area, like a porch, on the beach. I said no.
Eventually we stopped in at a nicer hotel restaurant where I could change. I was able to enjoy the beach for a little bit. Not as long as I had hoped considering it was one of the most beautiful beaches I had ever seen, but at least I got to be there for a little while. Next time I go, I will go by myself without a guide. That was really disappointing and kind of a buzz kill.
This was the #1 thing to do in Zanzibar on Trip Advisor. My advice is to book that directly through Safari Blue. Some hotels, especially the luxury ones, will charge way too much if you try to arrange it with them. Safari Blue has a website you can book on which makes it super easy.
I wouldn’t say this was my favorite activity of the trip, but it was pretty cool. The driver picked me up from my hotel in Kiwengwa, and we drove about an hour and a half, maybe a little less, down to Fumba. From there we all (me plus all of the other people there for the safari) split up into smaller groups of maybe 15 people. Then we boarded our own traditional dhow boat.
They told us that 85% of the time they see dolphins in the Menai Bay Conservation Area (area where Safari Blue sails). The dolphins are a big highlight. Many people book this excursion for that reason alone. We tried spotting dolphins in the beginning, but saw none. So, they took us to an area to snorkel.
I have never in my life snorkeled. They gave us these big flippers for our feet. I should have stayed away from those (lol). I put my gear on that they supplied and jumped in the water. I instantly freaked out, got water in the tube, and scraped up my knees trying to climb back up the ladder! I was a hot mess. So, one of the Safari Blue crew members helped me out by pulling me around using a lifesaver ring. It was way easier that way. Oh, and I ditched those stupid flippers.
They gave us snacks on the ride, which was awesome. Fresh snacks like watermelon, pineapple, and coconut meat.
Next up was a stop at the beautiful, stunning, unbelievable sandbank. Everyone agreed that this would’ve been a much more enjoyable experience if it was just us. There were so many people on the sandbank. There was music blaring. It was loud. I would have loved to be there alone. After the sandbank, we made a quick stop to see the mangroves and swim in the lagoon.
Then it was time for our seafood BBQ on Kwale Island. The cost of this excursion, not including transfer, was $65. Therefore, I wasn’t expecting much when it came to the food. I was pleasantly surprised though. It was so good. In the states, you could spend $100 on seafood easily. So, to get the whole excursion including a seafood BBQ for so little – was a great deal.
Once we were done eating lunch and spending some time on the island – it was time to go back. And finally – we saw some dolphins. There were only two, and we didn’t see them for long, but it was a wonderful end to the day.
Explore the Beach During Low Tide
While staying in Kiwengwa, I had the opportunity to explore the beach each morning during low tide. A fisherman, Luka, walked with me and showed me many starfish and sea urchins. This was a lot of fun and a great way to get to know some of the locals. TIP: Wear water shoes. You could step on a sea urchin or many other things during low tide. So, it’s better to be safe!
I felt completely safe while I was in Zanzibar. I felt safer there then I do in Ohio. People often forget that many countries' economies rely on tourism to thrive. Therefore, generally tourists are treated very well. I also let the hotels know ahead of time that I was a solo female traveler. They assured me not to worry and that if I needed an escort somewhere - they would be happy to arrange that for me.
Currency & Tipping
Cash is King in Zanzibar. Even when card is accepted, I found that cash is preferred because the card machines do not always work. They take different currencies in Zanzibar along with Tanzanian shilling. I used USD mostly, but I believe they will accept Euros as well. It was nice to be able to use USD because I didn’t have to pay the large exchange rate to get money converted ahead of time. I took out shillings at an ATM in Stone Town to use for tipping.
I did feel pressured to tip while I was there. I ended up tipping too much on my tours. I would’ve done that over if I could have, but it’s okay. I went home with a little less, but it probably made someone else that needed it more than me very happy. I tipped the tour guides, the workshop leaders, the drivers and the man than brought me my breakfast to my room in Stone Town every morning.
This is what I suggest: Tour Guides and Workshop Leaders: $5-$15 is appropriate. If you really enjoyed your guide – give more. Hotel staff: $1-$2. I gave $2 daily to the person that brought my food to my room. He had to carry a heavy tray up so many stairs – he deserved it. Driver: It depends on how far they are taking you and how much the transfer cost is. If your transfer is an hour or longer – I think $5-$10 is good.
I’m no pro here, and there were mixed reviews about tipping when I did research before traveling to Zanzibar, but my advice is to just go with what you feel comfortable with. If you’re already paying a premium for something – you probably don’t need to tip. If you feel that people are lingering, kind of expecting a tip – give a little if you feel it’s right. My transfer from Kiwengwa to the airport was $78, and the driver didn’t act like he expected a tip. He did not linger or anything like that. Therefore, I didn’t tip. Overall, I spent most of my money while there in tips.
Where to Stay
For my suggestions on where to stay in Zanzibar, check out my hotel review here >>> Zanzibar ~ Where to Stay
It felt so good to be able to do what I wanted, when I wanted. It felt good to be able to relax in my amazing rooms in the peace and quiet. It felt good having breakfast on my terrace alone - no conversation - just the sounds of Stone Town in the background. It felt good walking along the beach just listening to the waves. It was peaceful. It was beautiful.
I didn’t realize this before the trip, but Zanzibar is a big honeymoon destination. I don’t know how many times I was asked why I came alone or “You’re alone?” I don’t know how many times I was asked why I don’t have a fiancé or husband. A lot of people from home also thought I was crazy for coming to Africa by myself. But like I said, I like being alone. Being lonely – no way. Alone – why not?
It is important to be able to enjoy your life alone. To be able to stand on your own two feet. I love myself, and of course I would love to travel with a friend or a lover, and I know I will. But why can’t I travel alone too? I tried to say that to the people I met that asked me those questions.
This trip taught me that I am capable of so much. Even more than I’ve already accomplished. Even though I already knew this, this trip validated that I do not need a man or anyone else in order to have fun, live my dreams, live my life - love my life. This trip taught me that no matter what – I have myself. And that is what matters most.