Snapshots from Tanzania: Zanzibar's Street Markets

A table full of the fresh catch of the day at the Forodhani night market[Photograph: Brian Oh]

For a few weeks in February, I had the chance to spend some time in Nairobi, Kenya, for work. One weekend, I took an hourlong flight to Zanzibar, a small, semi-autonomous island archipelago just off the coast of Tanzania. Zanzibar is known mostly for pristine beaches but has a rich cultural history as a trading hub. The main island, Unguja, is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Stone Town.

An almost entirely Muslim city, Stone Town also has influences from Portuguese, Persian, and Indian cultures. Stone Town is the old part of the capital, Zanzibar City, and is a very small town that basically consists of beach front hotels and restaurants and an intricate network of alleyways within the interior. One of Stone Town's major attractions are its street markets.


Stone Town is a melting pot of different cultural heritages; two of the major landmarks are a historic mosque and cathedral a stone's throw away from each other

The Forodhani Gardens Night Market is one of the major tourist attractions. When the sun sets, fishermen and other vendors set up tables in a large courtyard lit with gas lamps. Most of the tables are filled with the catch-of-the-day ranging from octopus to barracuda to shark. There also also chicken and beef skewers, chips, and other small odds and ends.

With so many vendors selling the same thing, they all fight HARD for your attention. As you walk by the tables, vendors will approach you, call you "rafiki" (meaning friend in Swahili), and tell you about what they're selling. After you pass a few tables, you'll soon realize that they each basically have the same speech. Keep walking and haggling until get down to a few dollars for a full plate. Full disclosure: I paid about $10 and got laughed at by some locals I met at a bar later that evening.

Other things you shouldn't miss: a local sugarcane juice made from freshly pressed cane and lemon and lime and Nutella meat "pizzas." If you have any food leftover, set your plate down on the ground and watch as it's swarmed by hordes of stray cats.


One of the corridors of vendors at the Darajani market

If you're looking for a less touristy experience, StoneTown's other street market, the Darajani Central Market (or Estella Market), is less of a tourist spectacle and more of a shopping center for locals. As you cross through the maze of backstreets toward the east end of town, the narrow corridors begin to be lined with stalls filled with everything from spices and produce to piles of shoes and other small household goods. When you emerge from the last alleyway, you'll reach the main market center along a major road.

Vendors sell loaves of bread, carts full of dates, and anything else you could imagine. There are even meat and fish markets that are mercifully shielded from the equatorial sun in two narrow, adjacent huts along the road. Duck inside and you'll find a crowded space filled with freshly butchered carcasses on hooks and a menagerie of organs spread out before them. Waste not. I also stumbled into a small concrete room filled with baskets of hundreds of live chickens. Chickens are prodded and poked until they're taken into back room and slaughtered to order.

Both the Forodhani and Darajani markets are fascinating looks into life in Zanzibar, albeit on different ends of the tourist friendliness spectrum. While I was all but mobbed in the Forodhani Gardens, no one gave me a second glance along the corridors at the Darajani Market. To follow along with my walks through Zanzibar's markets, click through to the slideshow!

Forodhani Gardens Mizingani Road, Tanzania (map) Open from sundown to when everyone leaves

Darajani Market Darajani Road, Zanzibar (map) Best in the mornings before it gets to hot and crowded