Lovingly dubbed the ‘Spice Islands’ due to their age-old trade of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, the Zanzibar archipelago in Tanzania is true island utopia. Imagine yourself relaxing on palm-fringed white-sand beaches under the equatorial sun, alongside the clearest ocean you’ve ever seen.
But while the Zanzibar archipelago is easily Tanzania’s most famous island cluster, it’s not all there is. There’s also the lesser-known Mafia Island archipelago, floating national parks, and quiet beach escapes off the coast of Dar es Salaam. Each offers something a little different – be it world-class diving, spectacular snorkeling, excellent seafood, or a historic town worth exploring.
Changuu is a small island located northwest of Stone Town, the historic center of Zanzibar’s largest island. Perhaps better known as Prison Island, Changuu once served as a jail for slaves and a yellow fever quarantine station during the 1800s. Today, most of the island is reserved exclusively for guests staying at Changgu Private Island Resort.
Visitors can hang out at the beach with its fantastic swimming and snorkeling opportunities or explore the old prison cells; these are home to some of the enormous Aldabra tortoises that call the island home, whose ancient relatives were brought to the island from Seychelles over a hundred years ago – some of which are still alive today!
Another highlight on Changuu Island is the former estate of the British governor, General Lloyd Matthews.
9. Chumbe Island
Chumbe is a small, uninhabited, and privately-owned island off the coast of Zanzibar that’s famous for its spectacular shallow-water coral reef and thriving marine life. Unfortunately, it’s not open to boaters or divers.
The reef is in excellent condition because it was once part of a restricted military zone. Later, in the early 1990s, both the island and the coral reef were protected as part of what’s now known as Chumbe Island Coral Park, a privately managed nature reserve.
Due to a lack of fishing or damage to the corals, today, the reef is home to hundreds of species of coral, tropical fish, hawksbill turtles, and the occasional dolphin. But it’s not just the underwater life that’s worthwhile; there are 50 species of birds to be spotted on the island, such as the endangered roseate tern. Don’t forget your binoculars!
8. Mnemba Island
Mnemba Island is a small, triangular-shaped island off the coast of Unguja, the largest island in the Zanzibar archipelago. The privately-owned island is home to a luxury &Beyond beach resort, and use of the island is reserved exclusively for its guests. Non-guests are welcome to make use of the reef, but they’re not allowed close to the shore.
The highlight of the island is the extraordinary Mnemba Atoll, a spectacular coral reef situated on the northeast coast of Mnemba Island. Scuba divers will be in their element here: the reef has been declared a marine reserve because of its incredible diversity of aquatic life. Take your time exploring this underwater wonderland of lionfish, stingrays, turtles, barracudas, and moray eels.
Back on land, the palm-dotted island is a nesting site for green turtles, and whales and dolphins are often spotted from the shoreline.
7. Rubondo Island
Located in the south-western corner of Lake Victoria, Rubondo Island is the largest island national park in Africa. The majority of the uninhabited island is covered in dense subtropical rainforest, and the rest is made up of marshland, liana, and reeds that provide a home for all sorts of fascinating wildlife species.
The island is a sanctuary for a variety of endangered and introduced animals, such as chimpanzees, hippos, black and white colobus, giraffes, crocodiles, elephants, and amphibious sitatunga antelope, while Lake Victoria is a breeding ground for tilapia, Nile perch, and terrapins.
A paradise for bird watchers, Rubondo Island is home to over 300 species of birds, including marabou storks, darters, white egrets, and fish eagles. Today, the island offers its own semi-safari experience, where visitors can discover the island’s incredible wildlife for themselves.
6. Mbudya Island
Mbudya Island is an uninhabited island located north of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s capital city. One of the four islands that make up the Dar es Salaam Marine Reserve – and just a short boat ride away from the capital – Mbudya Island is a common day trip from the city, particularly for those looking for a quiet beach escape.
You can take a traditional dhow to the reserve and spend the day away from the chaos of the capital. Pick a beachside hut and order fresh seafood delivered straight from the ocean to your plate. Apart from sunbathing, swimming, and snorkeling, there are also some great nature trails on the island, where you can spot and learn about snakes and rare coconut crabs.
5. Kilwa Kisiwani
Kilwa Kisiwani, which means ‘Island of the Fish,’ is a small island situated off the southern coast of Tanzania. It was once home to the capital of the prestigious Kilwa Sultanate, and a popular trading hub for gold, porcelain, quartz, spices, and ivory. In fact, between the 9th and 19th centuries, Kilwa Kisiwani was one of the most important empires in East Africa. It was so wealthy during its prime that it even had its own currency.
Today, just the ruins remain to tell the tale of this historical empire, such as the 16-domed Great Mosque – the oldest standing mosque on the coast of East Africa and the Husuni Ndogo (Little Fort). The Palace of Husuni Kubwa (the Great Fort) is another interesting landmark, once the largest building in sub-Saharan Africa. Tourists can visit the ancient settlement with a permit from the local government’s Antiquities Department.
4. Bongoyo Island
Part of the Dar es Salaam Marine Reserve, Bongoyo Island is a small uninhabited tropical island just off the coast of the Msasani Peninsula. With its two white-sand beaches, warm water, and laidback attitude, it’s a popular day trip just a 30-minute ferry ride from the capital.
Once you get to the marine reserve, the focus is on ultimate relaxation – swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing, picnicking, and eating seafood with your toes in the sand. Those looking for something a little more active can try their hand at kitesurfing.
3. Pemba Island
Pemba Island (the Green Island) is part of the Zanzibar archipelago in Tanzania. One of the lesser-known islands of the cluster, it’s still largely undeveloped, characterized by lush hilltops, clove plantations, mangrove forests, secluded coves and lagoons, pink and white sand beaches, and colorful coral reefs.
Today, Pemba Island is celebrated for its excellent scuba diving and fishing opportunities. Life underwater is filled with all manner of marine life – from turtles, barracudas, and swordfish to reef sharks, yellowfin tuna, and Napoleon wrasse.
Back on land, there’s some fascinating history to uncover. Visit the main town, Chake Chake, with its ruins of an 18th-century fort and museum. The offshore island of Misali is also worth a visit, where you can catch sight of the endangered Fischer’s turaco.
2. Mafia Island
Mafia Island, which means ‘healthy dwelling place’ in Swahili, or ‘group’ in Arabic, is part of the tranquil Mafia island group. Floating off the coast of Dar es Salaam in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, Mafia Island is easily one of Tanzania’s best-kept secrets.
Dotted with coconut palms and miles and miles of uncrowded beaches, most of the island’s coastline and coral reefs are protected by the Mafia Island Marine Park. Snorkeling, scuba diving, and soaking up the slow life are the main attractions here.
Spend your days exploring life underwater, discovering a range of marine life – from sea turtles and endangered whale sharks to hundreds of species of tropical fish. There’s plenty of adventure to tempt you back on land too, with over a hundred bird species to be found along the nature trails in the jungle-clad interior. Don’t miss a visit to the historic 850-year-old Kua Ruins on Juan Island while you’re here.
Zanzibar Island, officially known as Unguja, is the highlight of the Zanzibar archipelago. Known as the Spice Island, it was once one of the most prosperous trading centers in East Africa. It’s the largest, the most populated, and the most easily accessible island of the entire island group. So while it boasts some alluring temptations – from white-sand beaches to ancient traditions – it also comes with a crowd, particularly during the summer months.
Take your time exploring the cobbled streets of the historic quarter of Stone Town located on the west coast of the island’s capital, Zanzibar Town, where you’ll find a heady mix of African, Arabic, Indian and European influences. Booking a spice tour while you’re here is a must; you’ll be able to visit the local vanilla, lemongrass, cumin, and turmeric root plantations and get to smell and taste these famous spices for yourself.
Other activities on Zanzibar Island include swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving the extraordinary coral gardens found just offshore, as well as visiting the Old Fort of Zanzibar, the Sultan’s Palace, the St Joseph’s Cathedral, and the Dharajani Market.