Last Updated on November 15, 2022 by Jeremy
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Normally when we visit islands, particularly islands known for their beaches, figuring out where to stay is rather easy. We often find a property we like and can afford on the best beach and go from there.
But Zanzibar is a little bit different. On the beach side, there is no standout winner of “best beach” to us if only because every beach we visited was stunning. Likewise, you'll be enjoying the island for far more than the beaches with options like exploring the spice farms and historical Stone Town to name a few. As this island is small enough to be explored in day trips but large enough that those trips will take the bulk of an entire day, figuring out a prime location takes on a few more layers than you would otherwise think.
In another post, we discussed how many days in Zanzibar are really needed (and whether to visit the island before or after a safari). So in this one, we wanted to take a different look and discuss the top locations for visitors outright.
Where to Stay in Zanzibar is Tied to Your Time and Interests
When it comes down to it, there are a few things you need to keep in mind when planning where to stay in Zanzibar:
- Your main goal for visiting (e.g. enjoying beaches vs Stone Town vs spice farms)
- How long do you have on the island proper (and the time of your flights)
- The overall experience you want to have (resort vs backpacker vs city distinction)
First, let's start with the overall experience you wish to have on the island, as we can discuss some of the more clear-cut options out there concerning locations. However, note that we will be generalizing a lot as well, so this should only be treated as a starting point.
For those who want a full resort experience in Zanzibar, it is hard to beat the northern beaches of Nungwi and Kendwa. These two beaches have many high-end properties (including some branded chains) featuring an array of amenities, beachfront access, and more.
While there are indeed many high-end options available elsewhere, often focused on exclusivity on their respective beaches, Nungwi and Kendwa are generally felt to have the largest concentration of proper resorts in Zanzibar. Some are walled off for privacy with security, and most offer ample beachfront chairs and lounges, clubs/bars, and more. During our visit, these were also the most bustling beaches, both for those staying at properties and day trippers, and felt like the premier resort zone on the island (with the good and bad that comes with it).
For those who want a backpacker experience in Zanzibar, Paje is for you. This is one of the busier beaches on the east side of the island and comes packed full of amenities for those traveling on a budget ranging from hostels to restaurants and activities. So if enjoying a great beach without breaking the bank is what you seek, we'd start here.
For those who want a city experience in Zanzibar, you should stay in Stone Town. With its proximity to the airport and historical attractions, this is your best option in Zanzibar for city-level tourism. That being said, most of Stone Town's highlights can be enjoyed in a half day (or, if you pack it in, a full day), so we personally think you would do well to stay at a beach and day trip here insofar as you have enough time on the island to do this. After just a few hours here, we were quite content to explore more of the island.
- Check out hotel options in Stone Town here.
Where things get tricky from there goes into the time element (point #2) and for those looking for a relaxing beach experience outside of high-end resorts or budget backpacking.
How Long You Have on Zanzibar Matters
Yes, we wrote an entire post on figuring out how long you need in Zanzibar, but this plays into choosing where to stay, too.
To put things bluntly, if you leave Stone Town for any of the top beaches, you will have a 60-90 minute drive on your hand each way. If you want to go explore anywhere else on the island, you're looking at a 60-90 minute drive between attractions, as well. (And if you do this, please hire a driver- we do not recommend renting a car in Zanzibar at all.)
Apart from checking out a beach immediately next to where you are staying, it is really hard to go anywhere in Zanzibar in under an hour.
For those who are limited on time, adding on two to three hours of driving each day may make you be a bit more strategic about where you stay as that extra transit time eats into your vacation quite a bit. Likewise, as most international flights land and depart in the middle of the night, hopping in a taxi at 2 am to catch a 5 am flight may be a turnoff to some as well when the airport is just minutes away from Stone Town proper.
Does this mean that you should book a hotel in Stone Town to be close to the airport if you are short on time or have an inconvenient flight time? Not necessarily. You can easily get a taxi to take you anywhere you want even in the dead of night for the right price. Does this mean you shouldn't book a resort if you are short on time and want to do a bunch of day trips? There is a value proposition to consider there, we will admit, but we won't say no outright, either.
Ultimately, we're only mentioning this because you should take a good, hard look at your goals as long travel times may play an important role in deciding on a particular location.
We don't have a good answer for this that would apply to everyone, but if you stay in Zanzibar for less than five days you will likely have to make some concessions that those staying five or more may not- this may impact your decision for where to stay as a result.
For Everyone Else, Jambiani Beach is Pretty Stellar
We may be biased because we loved Jambiani Beach, but there is a good reason for it- it checks a box that we haven't discussed up until this point. That is to say, those who want a beach experience outside of resort or backpacker beaches.
While there are “resorts” per se on Jambiani Beach, many of these have more of a secluded villa feel. Instead of massive properties that can house hundreds of guests, these rentals are much better suited for smaller volumes either via private property rentals outright to just one or two dozen guests a night. (We stayed at the aptly named Jambiani Villas, which had three properties within ~15 minutes of walking for about 30 guests in total, and enjoyed it immensely.)
To us, this beach offered a best-of-all-worlds experience. The beach was gorgeous. It was bustling enough but also quiet. The volume of hotels resulted in competitive prices without catering to the backpacker crowd too much. There are touts, but there are fewer than on the resort beaches. There were ample restaurant options within walking distance without being overwhelming. And, since we had a bit of time, the 60-90 minute drive elsewhere on the island was not too bad, either.
This one was a good catch-all beach for anyone who doesn't find themselves wanting a true backpacker or resort beach outright.
Are there other beaches on the island that can satisfy this requirement? Certainly. In all honestly, most of the beaches on the eastern coast of Zanzibar have similar setups to Jambiani. Some may be larger with a bit more amenities, and many are much smaller with hardly any 3rd party amenities at all. In the latter case, you may be trapped to make most of your purchases almost exclusively through your hotel- so if variety is a concern, keep this in mind.
Unless absolute seclusion is your goal (to which many properties around Zanzibar can satisfy this if you have the right budget), we honestly would shift our thoughts back north to Nungwi and Kendwa beaches for a solid value proposition. But if you want a mix of everything, don't overlook Jambiani!
- Check out hotel options on Jambiani Beach here.
Overall, it is really hard to simply throw out the best places to stay in Zanzibar if only because the island is large and has varied experiences to offer visitors. Throw on the fact that your visit to the island may be brief, and this adds another wrinkle to your decision on where to stay.
Ultimately, if we had to make blanket recommendations, the above would be good places to start. But this is not a comprehensive list, and as mentioned at the start of this article we are generalizing a lot more than we should. But if you were like us and are feeling overwhelmed at all the options and don't know where to begin, these are all great starting points for where to stay in Zanzibar.
Where did you end up staying in Zanzibar and why did you pick it? Comment below to share if you made a good decision or not!
About the Author: Jeremy is a full-time travel writer based in Pittsburgh and primary author of this site. He has been to 70+ countries on five continents and seeks out new food, adventure activities, and off-the-beaten-path experiences wherever he travels.