The beaches of Zanzibar are the reason tourists from all over the globe travel to this remote corner of Africa. With pristine turquoise waters and powdered sugar-looking sand, Zanzibar is considered one of the ultimate destinations for sunseekers.
The beautiful archipelago of Zanzibar is located on the Indian Ocean, about 25km from mainland Tanzania. The ‘Spice Island’, known for producing cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper, consists of several small islands and two large ones: Pemba and Unguja. The latter, informally known as Zanzibar, is the main island (and Freddy Mercury’s place of birth!). It has a lovely historic centre, Stone Town, which is a World Heritage Site, as well as an international airport and seaport.
Fishing boats are a common sight in Zanzibar
Beaches of Zanzibar: a complete guide
Arriving at Stone Town
Whether you arrive by ferry or plane, Stone Town will be your first stop in Zanzibar. And although it is well worth a visit, I wouldn’t recommend making it your home base. The best beaches are about a 60 to 90-minute drive from Stone Town. You can either take a taxi or hire a car or a driver. No official public transportation is available in Zanzibar.
There is, however, the dala dala. This informal means of transport consists of minibuses or converted trucks used to transport people. Incredibly cheap, and equally uncomfortable, dala dalas have no schedule and will depart when full, so you can expect them to always be packed. If you are in for an adventure, you can give it a try. I wasn’t brave enough!
Coastal view of Stone Town
Are the beaches in Zanzibar public?
The beaches in Zanzibar are public by law, so technically, you are free to walk anywhere you like. And so are the vendors that will hassle you to buy all sorts of trinkets. On the most popular beaches, you’ll be repeating the words ‘No thank you, hakuna matata’ like a broken record. Don’t leave unattended bags at the beach!
Some resorts may allow visitors to use their private beach clubs for a fee to access loungers, the pool, and toilet facilities.
The main problem with Zanzibar’s beaches (apart from the pushy vendors) is accessibility, as not that many roads are available around the island. Nevertheless, there are some great alternatives, which I’ll continue to explore.
Where to stay
The best place to stay in Zanzibar will depend on the type of activities you want to enjoy. The island is heavily affected by the tides, which means at certain times of the day the water can recede up to one kilometre for several hours. There are apps and websites that can assist you in checking the tides, as the time changes every day.
Visitors to the island largely stay in either the northern or eastern sides. If you want to spend your time swimming, the beaches in the north are best as they are less affected by low tides. The east is known for its kitesurfing activities, and although it has some beautiful unspoiled beaches, the tidal effects are significant.
The west coast houses some great resorts but is less appealing due to its rocky shoreline in some areas. And the south is largely populated by locals, lacking the infrastructure to cater to tourists.
It is possible to go swimming with horses in the northern and western parts of the island
Beaches of Zanzibar: North and Northwest
Located on the northernmost point of the island, this is an area of outstanding natural beauty, and its picture-perfect beach, a favourite among tourists.
Although it can get busy at times, there is a great mix of tourists and locals. It is one of the very best beaches on the island for swimming, as it is not as affected by the low tide as the east. Sunsets in Nungwi are not to be missed, and if you are looking for a place to unwind after dark, you’ll find plenty of bars and restaurants along the coast.
Nungwi is also one of the few places on the island in which you can go horse riding along the beach (and even go for a dip in the ocean with the horses!)
How far? 60km (37mi) – about one hour 30 minute drive
Best for: swimming – nightlife – sunsets – horse riding
Lively Nungwi is a great beach for swimming
Only four kilometres south of Nungwi you’ll find Kendwa, looking out to the island of Tumbatu. As with Nungwi, the tide doesn’t affect the area as much, so it is a great beach for swimming. Also popular for its nightlife and sunsets, Kendwa is more frequented by younger crowds. The Full Moon Party is celebrated in Kendwa monthly.
How far? 60km (37mi) – about one hour 30 minute-drive
Best for: swimming – nightlife – sunsets
Kendwa attracts younger crowds and hosts the Full Moon Party every month
Beaches of Zanzibar: Northeast
Matemwe’s beach becomes vast at low tide and is not the best for swimming. This means it is usually less crowded than the northern part of the island.
Matemwe is ideal for relaxing and experiencing local life. You’ll often see women picking seaweed at low tide and fishermen with their catch on high tide.
With small resorts and a few nice restaurants scattered along the beach, Matemwe feels somewhat unspoiled. If you are an early riser, you’ll enjoy some pretty amazing sunrises.
Matemwe looks out to the small and exclusive island of Mnemba, a Mecca for both divers and snorkelers, just 2.5km off the coast.
How far? 40km (25mi) – about one hour drive
Best for: relaxing – solitude – long walks on the beach – local life – snorkelling – diving
Pro tip: be wary of sea urchins when walking on the beach at low tide. For extra safety, wear water shoes.
Wide coastal line in Matemwe during low tide
Beaches of Zanzibar: East
The beach that runs down this part of the island is, as with Matemwe, significantly affected by the tides. And it also has the same laid-back atmosphere. You can expect to see kite surfers making the most of the windy conditions.
Kiwengwa is dubbed ‘Little Italy’ due to the number of Italian-run resort hotels in the area. There are several shops and restaurants along the beach.
Nearby Pongwe and Uroa are quieter, with not much going on around them, making it a popular destination among honeymooners seeking privacy and solitude.
How far? 40km (25mi) – about one hour drive
Best for: long walks on the beach – kitesurfing
Zebu cattle passing by Kiwengwa beach
Sparsely populated, the Peninsula houses the famous The Rock restaurant, located in Pingwe, to the east.
On the other side of the Peninsula is Michamvi Kae, the only beach on the eastern side of the island where you can see the sunset. As the sun comes down the beach bars will begin to play music, acrobatic shows put on display, and campfires built on the beach!
How far? 60km (37mi) – about one hour 30-minute drive
Best for: nightlife – sunsets
The Rock restaurant, only accessible by boat on high tide
Beaches of Zanzibar: Southeast
Dongwe and Bwejuu
Both Dongwe and Bwejuu are good alternatives for those seeking solitude. You won’t find much around except for a few beach bars. But with livelier Paje and Jambiani only a few kilometres south, it is a convenient location with plenty of lodging options.
How far? 60km (37mi) – about one hour 30-minute drive
Best for: relaxing – solitude – long walks on the beach
Pro tip: unless you stay in a resort type of hotel, check that your chosen accommodation offers security, as break-ins and robberies do happen, especially in the more remote areas. Power cuts may also happen daily in smaller establishments.
Paje is considered the best beach for kitesurfing on the island. But it is also a great spot for snorkelling, diving, and water sports generally. With plenty of shops, bars, and restaurants, the busy Paje beach has a buzzing nightlife and is frequented by youngsters and low-budget travellers.
It is well connected to the Jozani Forest, which makes an excellent day trip, as well as nearby Jambiani beach.
How far? 50km (30mi) – about one hour drive
Best for: nightlife – kitesurfing – snorkelling – diving
Kitesurfing in Paje beach
Located south of Paje, Jambiani is also a popular beach, with various local restaurants, hotels, and activities, including snorkelling, diving, and kitesurfing.
If you enjoy long strolls along the beach, you can walk from Jambiani to Pingwe via Paje, Bwejuu, and Dongwe, through 20km of beautiful coastline.
Like Matemwe, Jambiani beach is a good place to observe local life. Seaweed farmers and fisherfolk come and go depending on the tides, but despite its popularity, Jambiani is less affected by tourism than nearby Paje.
How far? 55km (34mi) – about one hour 10-minute drive
Best for: kitesurfing – snorkelling – diving – long walks on the beach – local life
Local life in Jambiani beach
Beaches of Zanzibar: South
A bit off the beaten path, Mtende may not be the best area of Zanzibar to stay in, but it is definitely worth a visit. The cosy and peaceful beach offers amazing photo ops during low tide, as you’ll hardly find any visitors. With its rock formations and stunning greenery, some could say Mtende looks more like Thailand than Zanzibar.
At low tide, the beach is non-existent, but enjoyable nonetheless. The Usumba Rock restaurant is a great place to stop for a bite and take in the fantastic views.
Beware that there is a 1 USD entry fee to the beach, which I don’t fully understand since all beaches in Zanzibar are supposed to be public.
How far? 70km (44mi) – about one hour 30-minute drive
Best for: day trip – photography
Mtende beach at high tide
Kizimkazi beach is the place where it is pretty much guaranteed you’ll spot bottlenose dolphins. But beware of tour operators offering to take you swimming with them! They are for the most part unethical and dangerous to both people and the dolphins.
Dozens of boats will relentlessly chase and corner the poor animals in the open ocean and get people to randomly jump (without life vests!) and swim with them. As the dolphins find a way to escape, the boats will begin yet another chase, whilst some people are still in the water. There have been instances in which dolphins were harmed and killed. I haven’t heard about incidents with people, but the whole thing is just a tragedy waiting to happen.
Kizimkazi is a fishermen’s village, and an ethical approach to dolphin spotting is finding a reputable local who will take you on his boat just before sunrise when there’s absolutely nobody else around, and dolphins are roaming freely without harassment.
Despite being a good spot for snorkelling and diving, Kizimkazi lacks the infrastructure to cater to tourists. There’s not much in the area apart from a few lodges along the coastline.
How far? 60km (37mi) – about one hour 10-minute drive
Best for: snorkelling – diving – dolphin spotting
And the other islands?
There are other local islands worth a visit. Changuu Island, also known as Prison Island, was used as a prison for slaves in the 1860s and nowadays houses a tortoise sanctuary with dozens of Aldabra giant tortoises.
But if you are looking for total seclusion and have money to splurge, a private island may be the option for you. Mnemba Island is popular with celebrities with prices starting at around a whopping 1,300 USD per night. It is possible to find mid-range private island accommodation, with prices in the region of 250 USD per night.
A final note
On and all, the beaches of Zanzibar are quite diverse and have a lot to offer, but it is fundamental doing some research before booking your accommodation to guarantee the best possible experience.
If you love holidaying in sunny islands, you may also want to read my guide to finding accommodation in the Maldives.