Stone Town is a town like no other. We could talk here in many cliches: of the town's dark and mysterious atmosphere born of a turbulent history, of sultans' intrigues and explorers' dreams, of historic buildings, of spice and slave traders, but a few hours in Zanzibar's Stone Town are enough to realise that - while this is all true - it's not the whole picture.
As you step into the crumbling pedestrian alleys the reality is that there's a wider angle which includes the fact Stone Town is still a living town, a chaotic one at that, with broken shutters, rusty rooftops, mosque loud speakers, satellite dishes, scrawny crows, and washing lines. This is good, it means Stone Town is still very much alive and though the traders now hawk souvenirs, they also sell vegetables, old tellies, chiffon nighties and mobile phones.
Unlike many historic town centres, Stone Town is also not over-restored to the point of being a museum. Although there has always been Ngambo, literally “the other side‚ beyond Creek Road - a typical African town where much of the town population lives - Stone Town is also FULL of people just doing their daily thing. Houses, often derelict, with or without beautiful carved Zanzibari wooden doorways, are still inhabited by real people, who are crammed cheek by jowl into less than half a square kilometre.
If you stay in the heart of the Stone Town, you'll see and hear all of them, and have an experience that can't be duplicated anywhere. The best hotels here will also offer you some retreat: breezy rooftops that rise way above most of the town, iced drinks, room service, furnishings that recall the grander days of arab princes. But most of all, there's no better place from which to spy on urban life than through the shuttered window of your Stone Town room, looking down on comings and goings in the alleys, listening (and sometimes blocking your ears against) old ladies reprimanding wailing urchins, the muezzin's call to prayer fighting with the president's speech blaring from the TV across the street, tom-cats fighting for dominance of their patch. Armed with this knowledge, we urge you to try it.