Everything you need to know about your Zanzibar holiday
Welcome to Discover Africa’s Zanzibar holiday guide. A Zanzibari holiday offers the intrepid traveller the best that Africa’s coastal destinations has to offer. From the legendary Stone Town with its intriguing history, to its pristine coastlines with tropical beaches. Curate your holiday experience and let us do the rest for you. It couldn’t be more easy.
- January marks the start of the short dry season in Zanzibar, a period of relatively hot, humid weather that builds gradually from late December and runs through to the beginning of March. Average temperatures remain fairly constant throughout the year, but January is one of the hotter months, with daytime highs regularly up to 35°C (95°F). Although generally sunny, there may still be the occasional afternoon thunderstorm. These clear quickly however, and won’t disrupt your beach time too much. With sea temperatures of up to 30°C (86°F), they’re unlikely to put you off swimming either, but expect a few blustery days as the north-eastern ‘kaskazi’ wind blows.
- The north-eastern kaskasi is a major factor in choosing where to holiday in January. Beaches along Zanzibar’s north and east coasts bear the brunt of the wind – a steady, stiff breeze that’s usually between 20 and 30 km/h (11-17 knots). Wind and waves can also wash seaweed onto the eastern beaches although many resorts make a point of clearing the bathing areas in front of their properties. If you’re a kite surfer all this is great, of course, and the stable, moderate winds are also ideal for beginners. Paje in particular is very popular at this time of year, as is Kiwengwa, although it’s a bit more low-key. If you’re looking for a something more sheltered, then try Kendwa or Ras Kizimkazi. Day trips to the west coast atolls of Chumbe and Prison Island are also ideal at this time of year.
- January is mango season across Zanzibar and the markets are full of fresh, ripe fruit. It also marks the end of the clove harvest in Pemba, with fragrant piles of the islands’ main export drying in the sun. January is prime time for swimming with whale sharks off Mafia Island and the visibility is at its best over the coral gardens of Chole Bay.
- Kitesurfing aside, January’s only real disadvantage is the kaskasi wind, which although rarely so strong as to be unpleasant, can nevertheless blow seaweed onto the eastern beaches and erode the sand along the north-eastern coast. The seas may also be too rough for some off-shore dive sites, but there are always other options along the more sheltered west.
- February is Zanzibar’s hottest month and also one of its driest. Daytime highs regularly exceed 35°C (95°F) with sultry, humid conditions that build and build until the clouds burst in March. The north-eastern ‘kaskasi’ wind, having reached its peak in January, eases off gradually as February unfolds. It’s an excellent month for dedicated beach time, with minimal chance of an afternoon shower, moderate to light breezes and warm (if not hot!) seas, which can easily top 30°C (86°F), especially in the shallower bays and lagoons.
- Although the kaskasi wind slowly dies down throughout February, Zanzibar’s southern and western coasts are still the more sheltered. Kendwa’s wide, protected beach is ideal for sunbathing and swimming and it’s a good time of year for dolphin excursions off Ras Kizimkazi. To the west and south of Zanzibar Town, Prison and Chumbe Islands make for great day trips – Chumbe for its protected snorkelling reef and Prison Island for its giant tortoises. None of this is to suggest that the east coast is off limits, in fact the mellowing kaskasi can bring welcome relief from the heat. February is a popular month all along the east coast, but especially in Paje which remains popular for kitesurfing.
- Zanzibar’s main rainy season begins in March, but the first heavy downpours may only arrive mid-month. Until they do, the archipelago remains at its hottest and most humid as the summer winds subside and the beaches bake in the sun. Daily highs reach over 35°C (95°F) before the monsoon hits and brings some relief. Early March is prime beach time across the islands, but the towering thunderheads signal the low season and a number hotels and resorts close. Overall, however, March weather is difficult to predict. Some years the rains come early or late, and even once they begin there can be some very fine days in between.
- March’s unpredictable weather extends across Zanzibar and throughout the islands it can be fine and hot, or pouring. As the rains arrive, the prevailing northeaster dies completely; March is the least windy month anywhere on the islands. Many visitors avoid Zanzibar in March, but on good days the glassy seas are wonderful for diving and snorkelling, with excellent visibility and few other visitors on the reefs. West-facing resorts are treated to simply incredible sunsets as vast banks of clouds glow pink and purple over the sea.
- March is the start of pineapple season, with pineapples so sweet you may wonder if you’ve ever tasted one before. Although some hotels and resorts close, many others offer discounts and March to May are the best months for deals. Glassy seas and spectacular sunsets are the rewards for those who travel in low season. Afternoon storms can be heavy, but most mornings are clear and you’re more likely to find a piece of paradise all to yourself.
- Some hotels and lodges close from March to May so your preferred accommodation may not be available. The rains themselves put many people off, which is ideal if you’re after solitude, but a definite draw back if you’re not. March is undoubtedly the worst month for wind sports. If that’s what you’re after, then avoid this time of year.
- April is Zanzibar’s wettest month, the height of the main rainy season that runs from mid-March to the end of May. With the rains come slightly lower temperatures, but most days still climb above 30°C (86°F). A relatively windless month, April marks the transition between the north-eastern ‘kaskasi’ and southern ‘kusi’ winds. As the month progresses the breeze gradually swings around to the south, building slowly to its peak in June and July. Despite regular downpours, April can still see some very good days. The sea is still warm (28°C / 82°F), and the mornings can be clear and fresh. Storms tend to build in the early afternoon and are usually short and fierce; only occasionally does the rain set in for a few consecutive days.
- Weather-wise there’s little to distinguish one region from the next in April. Light winds and sudden storms are the norm across the islands. It’s impossible to predicted how much rain might fall and where. In one region, a downpour may cause extensive flooding, while just an hour away it’s warm and dry. Sunsets can be spectacular from the west-facing resorts, but those on the east coast can enjoy breathtaking sunrises. April, in short, is a bit of a lottery. Choose your region based on the quality of the accommodation and be prepared to spend at least a little time indoors.
- April is Zanzibar’s quietest month and a great time to visit for the near-empty beaches. Low season rates may also apply, especially for stays of a week or longer. Between the cloudbursts you’ll have some perfect, windless days, so if you have time to spend, then April can be ideal.
- April is, on average, the cloudiest month across Zanzibar. Most days still see sunshine, but it’s not the best time to work on your tan. Some hotels and resorts also close during April so your first-choice accommodation may not be available. The main disadvantage, however, is April’s unpredictable weather. Conditions can be idyllic, but then rapidly change. Excursions of any kind become difficult to plan and occasional flooding can affect both taxi transfers and public transport.
- Early May sees heavy rain throughout the Zanzibar archipelago, but by the end of the month conditions usually improve. Afternoon showers become shorter and lighter, and more consecutive sunny days fall in between. As the skies clear, the seasonal ‘kusi’ wind freshens from the south, a steady, building breeze that can hit 20 to 30 km/h (11-17 knots). With the rains’ slow withdrawal, temperatures steadily fall, but seldom drop below a pleasant 28°C (82°F). By the end of May, more predicable weather returns to the islands, heralding the start of the long, dry season that generally lasts until November.
- As the kusi wind picks up from the south, the northern resorts enjoy the most wind shadow. The light to moderate breeze finds its way into all corners of the archipelago, but Kendwa, Nungwi and the resorts around northern Michamvi Peninsula tend to be calmer. Pemba’s north-western Ngezi Peninsula, however, is still fairly exposed and is at its windiest from May to July. Paje and the other east coast kitesurfing hotspots generally don’t pick up until June, making May a good time for beginners in search of lighter winds and fewer people on the lagoons. Throughout May, heavy downpours can hit any part of the islands, but good beach time is still very possible, especially towards the end of the month.
- Quiet beaches and discounted hotels are the main advantages of visiting Zanzibar in May. By the end of the month the rain has usually eased off, with beautiful, calm, clear days punctuated with the season’s final, spectacular storms.
- Despite an increasing number of dry, sunny days, May’s major disadvantage remains the unpredictable weather. Fierce storms can still whip up at a moment’s notice, which makes planning any activities tricky at best. Some resorts and dive operators also close completely for May so be sure to check your options carefully before you travel.
- June marks the start of Zanzibar’s long dry season, and June itself is often the sunniest, driest month of the year. Daytime temperatures are warm, averaging around 28°C (82°F), with pleasant nights (c. 20°C / 68°F) and generally low humidity. By the middle of June, the southern ‘kusi’ wind is in full flow, a fresh, steady breeze that can blow hard up the eastern coasts. Wind speeds can get up to around 35 km/h (about 18 knots), which is ideal for kite surfers, but some days may be a bit blowy for beach tanning. Beyond the protected reefs the wind can also whip up the seas, especially along the southern coasts which are at their roughest in June and July.
- If you’re into wind sports, then Zanzibar Island’s eastern shores are for you. Paje is the islands’ kite surfing capital, but all the east coast’s major centres will offer wind-based water sports too. If it’s more relaxed beach time you’re after, then June should see you head for the north-facing resorts instead; the northern seas are also usually calmer in June, which is better for diving and snorkelling. That said, if the wind really picks up then even the north can get choppy, and on the whole the best diving is usually later in the year. Around Mafia, diving is only certain in the calmer waters of Chole Bay, but June is also the start of Mafia’s turtle hatching season, a major highlight of the southern archipelago.
- One of nature’s great spectacles takes place between June and September as thousands of tiny turtles dash for the sea. Juani Island, off Chole Bay, is the best place to see them, and guided boat tours from Mafia Island can be booked with the local turtle NGO, Sea Sense (https://www.seasense.org/).
- June is an excellent time to be in Zanzibar, but the strong southern wind can hamper open water diving. Visibility in general tends to be lower at this time of year (although still usually over 10m) and while there’s no definite rule, diving tends to be better once the wind drops in September.
- July is generally dry and warm across Zanzibar, with daytime temperatures averaging around 28°C (82°F). This is about as cool as the islands get throughout the year, but even so the nights rarely dip below 18°C (64°F). The surrounding seas are also at their coldest in July and August, but sea temperatures of 25°C (77°F) are still the norm and the shallow lagoons often feel even warmer. July is Zanzibar’s windiest month, with a more or less constant, stiff breeze blowing from the south. This southern ‘kusi’ wind can get up to 35 km/h (18 knots), but is far more gentle on the islands’ leeward sides.
- When the kusi blows from the south, Zanzibar’s north-facing resorts are the most sheltered, so head to Nungwi and Kendwa if you’re after the calmest diving and beach conditions. Elsewhere across the islands you can expect a light to moderate breeze daily, except on Zanzibar Island’s east coast where’s there’s an ever-present stiff wind. July is arguably the best month for wind sports in Paje and you’ll find the beach and lagoon full of swishing, leaping kite surfers. Across the islands, but on Pemba in particular, July is also the start of the clove harvest season, and the scent of cloves is everywhere as they lie in piles in the sun. But perhaps the best place to be on Zanzibar is Stone Town where the unmissable Festival of the Dhow Countries takes over the Old Fort district for the first two weeks of July each year.
- Two of Zanzibar’s most vibrant cultural festivals take place in July: Stone Town’s Festival of the Dhow Countries (organised by ZIFF, the Zanzibar International Film Festival), which is held over two lively weeks at the beginning of the month and, at the end of the month, the Mwaka Kogwa festival which takes place in the southern village of Makunduchi. The Festival of the Dhow Countries has grown and grown in recent years into perhaps the largest cultural festival in East Africa. Incorporating music, film and dance from all over Africa and Asia, it’s a reason all on its own to visit Zanzibar in July. Mwaka Kogwa is much smaller, but no less energetic, an originally Persian new year festival that includes plenty of dancing, singing and even some mock fights, and attracts locals and foreigners from across the islands.
- July is a busy month on Zanzibar and you’ll need to book your accommodation well in advance. This is true all over the archipelago, but especially if you’re staying in Stone Town while the Festival of the Dhow Countries is on. July is also not an ideal time for diving. The protected northern reefs are usually unaffected, but the open water sites may be too windy and rough.
- August is the last of the slightly cooler months on Zanzibar. Hot days can still be over 30°C (86°F), but somewhere around 28°C (82°F) is more common. Sea temperatures also reach their lowest in August, although far from icy at a very reasonable 25°C (77°F). August to October is perhaps the most pleasant period on the archipelago: not too hot, not too humid and with steadily softening breezes from the south. By the middle of August, the southern ‘kusi’ wind begins to fade, although it usually stays strong enough for the kite surfers in Paje. August can be seen as a transition period in Zanzibar, a mix of perfect beach and diving days, with some blustery, choppy days thrown in.
- August is an excellent time to be anywhere on Zanzibar – only divers need to plan carefully as some off-shore sites may be too rough. The southern kusi wind can still churn up the southern channels, and dive sites along the northern coasts tend to have calmer conditions. Although slowly fading, the kusi still draws kite surfers to Paje and both Paje and Matemwe offer good steady winds and flat lagoons for beginners. In other parts of the archipelago, Pemba’s clove harvest is in full swing and on Mafia’s Juani Island it’s still a great time to see the hatching turtles. For the calmest, most tranquil beach days, the northern coastlines remain best, especially Nungwi and Kendwa which can be particularly serene.
- Besides great beach days and good diving off the northern coasts, August is prime time for sport fishing off Zanzibar. Deep sea boat tours can be arranged to search for sailfish and marlin, which can be hooked off the east coast right through until February.
- August is a busy time to be on Zanzibar and it’s essential to book well in advance. Budget accommodation is usually easier to find, but the more popular hotels and resorts – especially the smaller, more intimate boutiques – can fill up fast.
- If August is a great time to be on Zanzibar, then September just gets better. It’s one of the sunniest, driest months across the islands, with average daytime temperatures gradually climbing over 30°C (86°F). The southern ‘kusi’ wind has blown steadily since May, but now eases back to a cooling breeze. In Paje some kitesurfing is still possible until October, but the season is slowly drawing to a close. With the gentling breeze the seas also calm, and by the middle of September the more challenging deep-water dive sites are usually accessible. The sea starts to warm up (to around 26°C / 79°F) and September and October can produce some of the best diving conditions of the year.
- September is a wonderful month all over Zanzibar, but the Mafia archipelago has something special to offer. Not only are the turtles of Juani Island still hatching, but the calmer seas allow for some incredible diving in the deeper channels. Here you’ll find colossal 3-metre grouper, and for even bigger thrills, it’s the start of the annual whale shark season. Above the waves, September is ideal for the beach and all the islands’ resorts are popular at this time of year. Nungwi and Kiwengwa can get particularly busy, but it’s quieter in the less developed regions such as Matemwe and Pingwe.
- Swimming with whale sharks is one of the most astounding wildlife experiences on the planet and these huge, gentle creatures begin to arrive off Mafia Island in September. By the end of the month the water visibility increases – up to 25 metres on the calmest days. All over Zanzibar the diving is excellent and the warm, sunny days make for perfect beach time too.
- September’s major disadvantage is its popularity and unless you book well in advance you may not get your first-choice hotel. The smaller boutiques can fill up especially fast as they’re often in the most sought after areas, where the beaches are least busy.
- October is usually an idyllic time on Zanzibar, with light southerly breezes, clear skies and calm seas. As the month progresses, the heat gradually builds, and daytime highs regularly top 30°C (86°F). Nights are also warmer (over 20°C / 68°F) and get increasingly humid as the brief November monsoon draws near. The monsoon’s exact arrival varies unpredictably each year and some regions may see heavy rainfall before the end of the month. October is one of Zanzibar’s least windy periods and ocean visibility is often excellent – up to 25 metres or more. Sea temperatures also start to climb throughout October, reaching around 27°C (81°F) by the beginning of November.
- Sunny days and calm seas are the norm in October and no single region has a monopoly on the great weather. The beaches around Nungwi can be particularly busy, and Kiwengwa and Paje are also very popular and often full. In fact, all the major resort areas can get busy in October so if you’re looking for more exclusivity then the smaller villas and boutiques around Matemwe and Pingwe are usually best. Ras Kizimkazi is also a quiet option throughout the year, but whereas it can be quite windy from June to August, by October the light breeze is now cool and refreshing. Pemba and Mafia are also always much quieter than Zanzibar Island and both boast some of their best diving and snorkelling in October.
- Calmer seas off Ras Kizimkazi mark the start of the dolphin spotting season. Tours can be arranged from Zanzibar Town, but with the lighter southerly wind it’s also a great time of year to stay in Ras Kizimkazi itself. Further south, whale sharks are amassing off Mafia, with wonderful opportunities to swim with these giant beasts. October is an excellent month for diving across the archipelago. There’s generally superb visibility (25 metres or more) and most, if not all, dive sites are accessible.
- If you’re planning to visit in October you’ll need to book well in advance, and may need to avoid the busier regions if you’re after some privacy. There’s also always the chance of an early monsoon downpour, though these are less likely at the beginning of the month.
- November is the month of the ‘short rains’ in Zanzibar, a brief period of sporadic storms that may begin as early as mid-October and ease off during December. These short rains rains are generally much lighter than the main wet season (from March to May), but consecutive days can be cloudy, and good beach tanning time is not guaranteed. That said, November mornings are still quite often clear, there’s very little wind and there can be some very fine days too. Throughout the month temperatures continue to rise, with nights around 22°C (72°F) and daily highs above 30°C (86°F). Although sudden storms can hit unpredictably, the otherwise light winds can produce some wonderfully glassy seas. By the end of November sea temperatures are up to 29°C (84°F) and there’s great diving and snorkelling to be had, at the risk of a few squalls.
- Visiting Zanzibar in November is not usually recommended, but if you find a good deal it can still be well worth the trip. You may find yourself caught indoors now and then, but the storms rarely last long and can be beautiful over the sea. As the rains ease off, the north-eastern ‘kaskasi’ picks up, but rarely exceeds a light breeze this early in the season. Even so the flattest seas are generally to the south – Ras Kizimkazi’s dolphin-spotting boat tours are ideal at this time of year. There’s good diving to be had all over Zanzibar in November, but again the calmest water and best visibility is off the southern shores. Mafia too can receive some rain in November, but it’s still possible to swim with whale sharks and enjoy some of the best diving in the archipelago.
- November’s highlights include glassy southern seas, great diving conditions just about everywhere, and attractive deals at some hotels and resorts. November is one of Zanzibar’s least busy months – a pro or a con, depending on what you’re looking for.
- The main risk in November is the unpredictable weather and although it’s generally warm and still, there’ll be some rain and a number of cloudy days. It’s certainly not Zanzibar’s best month for tanning, though you don’t necessarily need sunshine to swim in a 29°C (84°F) sea.
- Early December can see showers across Zanzibar, becoming more sporadic as the month goes by. Temperatures throughout the islands gradually climb and hot days can peak around 35°C (95°F). December’s prevailing wind is the north-eastern ‘kaskasi,’ which gets increasingly fresh along the islands’ east coasts. As the northern wind builds it whips up the sea and the exposed northern coastline can get a bit rough. December is a fairly unpredictable month, when stunning beach days can give way to sudden storms. On balance, however, the forecast is good, with more chance of sunshine towards Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
- Zanzibar’s southern and western coasts are more sheltered in December so head to Kendwa or Ras Kizimkazi for the calmest seas. Chumbe Island is also fairly protected from the northeaster and has a stunning coral reef for snorkelling. Along Zanzibar Island’s east coast the wind attracts the first kitesurfers of the short summer season. The wind is usually not as strong as June and July and it can be a good time for beginners to learn. Paje is the east coast’s kitesurfing centre, but Matemwe and Kiwengwa also offer good winds. For diving, the southern dive sites tend to be better and some open water sites off Pemba and Mafia may be too rough. Swimming with whale sharks is still possible off Mafia and across the archipelago the seas are at their warmest – up to 30°C by the end of the month.
- December’s main highlights are the whale sharks off Mafia and the crystal-clear diving on the Zanzibar’s southern reefs. Fresh mangos and dried cloves are piled high in the markets and although Christmas isn’t widely celebrated, there’s a definite holiday atmosphere on Zanzibar’s streets.
- Although locals don’t make a huge fanfare of Christmas, it’s still a popular time for visitors from abroad. Christmas on the beach is a wonderful novelty, but be sure to book well in advance if you’re planning to visit at this time of year.
Few world destinations conjure such exotic visions as the spice islands of Zanzibar. Look beyond its postcard-perfect beaches, turquoise seas and stunning luxury lodges and this archetypal island paradise is so much more than it first appears.
Beneath the tranquil surface a fascinating and turbulent past lies veiled; whispers of a time when giraffes were sent as gifts by sultans and spices were worth much more than gold.
The frenetic focal point of African, Arabian, Indian and Persian trade for over a millennium, this East African archipelago has harboured Portuguese carracks bound for India and been the staging post for some of the Victorian era’s greatest explorers – David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley to name just two. But it’s not only sultans and sailors and dhows stuffed with spice, Zanzibar’s enchanting history has a dark side too. For hundreds of years her crowded slave market was the grim epicentre of a vast network that stretched inland to the shores of Lake Tanganyika, south around the Cape Peninsula and northwards to Oman and the date palms of Arabia
Today, evidence of this rich, troubled history can be readily found in Stone Town’s unique mix of Swahili, Arabic and Indian architecture, the thought-provoking museums, the fusion of fragrant cooking styles and, of course, the ever-present scent of spices caught on the passing breeze.
Visitors can enjoy locally-guided spice tours, cooking classes, stylish boutiques and colourful markets awash with hand-crafted silver jewellery, leather goods and clothes. Away from the bustle of Zanzibar Town, the islands’ beaches are some of the best in the world and off shore there’s scuba diving with turtles or whale sharks, and sunset dhow cruises to deserted, tidal sandbars.
On the archipelago’s three larger islands you’ll find a range of lodges and activities for every dream and budget. The main Zanzibar Island (proper name ‘Unguja’) is the largest and busiest, then Pemba to the north with its excellent diving and laid back vibe, and finally the more exclusive Mafia Island in the far south – the best place to see hatching turtles (between June and September). Between these main landmasses, a scattering of smaller isles shelter protected reefs and some of the most stunning barefoot luxury resorts in the world.
A holiday to Zanzibar isn’t just a holiday to any tropical island, but a unique blend of cultures and experiences, a chance to bask in an ancient archipelago with a still-tangible history like no other in the world.
Zanzibar’s islands have been inhabited for many hundreds of years and although ancient records refer to imported elephants and other iconic species, you won’t find any of Africa’s major land mammals here today.
For the best chance of seeing Zanzibar’s smaller, rarer and in some cases, endemic species, head to Jozani Forest Reserve just south of Zanzibar Town or Ngezi Forest Reserve on Pemba Island. Jozani is home to the fabulous Kirk’s red colobus monkey, which with its distinctive grey tufts and ochre-red back is one of the rarest sights in Africa. Even rarer, and much harder to spot, are the diminutive Zanzibar suni, Ader’s duiker and Pemba blue duiker, all species of antelope found only in the archipelago. The Pemba flying fox (really a huge fruit bat with a wingspan over 1.5m) is another native to the northernmost island, while Chumbe and Chapwani Islands are known for their giant coconut crabs, and nearby Changu (Prison Island) for its resident (though introduced) giant tortoises. Over 200 species of bird have also been recorded across the islands, including the Pemba sunbird and Pemba scops owl, both endemic to Pemba Island.
Beyond the mangrove and coconut forests, shallow tidal lagoons give way to stunning coral reefs and beneath the waves a whole new world unfolds. Zanzibar is a breath-taking destination for diving and snorkelling, though overfishing and careless management have damaged some areas. Chumbe Island, south of Zanzibar Town, has a protected reef which is reserved for snorkelling only. For diving, the best sites are off Pemba and Mafia – the former known for its spectacular wall dives and open-ocean pelagic fish and the latter for Chole Bay, arguably the best coral garden in East Africa. Visit Mafia between September and March and you’ll also have the chance to swim with whale sharks, while from June to September nearby Juani Island hosts one of the world’s most special sights – the mad seaward dash of hatching turtles.
It’s impossible to soak in everything Zanzibar has to offer without maxing out your visa and staying the full three months.The main Zanzibar Island itself is already more than can be explored on the average summer holiday, and Pemba and Mafia are wonderful destinations in their own right. With its superb diving, myriad islands and inlets, rich cultural history, delicious seafood and broad mix of laid back, luxurious (and often very affordable) lodges and hotels, Zanzibar pulls visitors back time and again.
Happily, a trend towards sustainable tourism is also increasingly evident in recent years, allowing visitors to support the excellent work many operators are doing to promote local development and wildlife conservation. But whether you’re combining the islands with a mainland safari or treating yourself to the spice isles alone, Zanzibar is a paradise not to be missed, a dream that only gets stronger once you first touch its shores.