When it comes to tropical Indian Ocean paradises, you can’t get much better than the Maldives or Zanzibar. However due to their remote nature, visiting either is costly and the airplane journey long. So making the choice between Zanzibar or the Maldives for your dream getaway is vitally important.
However other than their remoteness, these islands are vastly different. Having spent time in both we compare them below. We show you what to expect in each, and some of the best places to check out.
We look at which has the better beaches, what excursions are available, compare the culture, food and more!
Maldives or Zanzibar: A Quick Overview ?
For beach lovers, you will find spectacular beaches and turquoise swimming waters in both the Maldives and Zanzibar. We tell you some of our favorites further on in this article. But the Maldives, as a nation made up of 1000+ different islands and cays, is the better choice if world-class beaches are your top priority.
However many islands in the Maldives are privately owned by a resort complex, and so activities on the island revolve around the resort and what it offers. That also means that many of the beaches in the Maldives are not public.
That’s not the case in Zanzibar where all beaches are public. So you have the right to sunbathe and swim on them all. Zanzibar therefore tends to give you a more local experience where you can explore the country, go for picnics on the beach, and interact within the community.
There are also many accommodation options in Zanzibar – from guest houses through to five-star hotels. That makes it a far more affordable destination than the Maldives, which is focused on high-end resorts and is very expensive. Although as it specializes in this, the resorts tend to be exceptionally well run with great service.
With a large population, Zanzibar is an interesting island in terms of culture, and there’s many excursions to do away from the beach. We outline some of our favorites later. A vacation to Zanzibar also opens up the opportunity for a safari on mainland Tanzania.
In contrast, the Maldives is very much a beach-focused holiday with very few excursion options. Although it also has some of the world’s best snorkeling and diving spots, so expect a lot of underwater fun in the Maldives too.
Below we look at some of our favorite places in both destinations, before comparing the culture in each. Spoiler alert – they’re very different!
Maldives or Zanzibar: Stunning Indian Ocean Paradises
Ever seen pictures of crystal clear turquoise water, with those stunning wooden hotel huts sitting over it? That’s what you should expect throughout the Maldives, a country that specializes in up-scale resorts and honeymoon vacations.
Some of the world’s best beaches happen to be in this nation too. One of our favorites is the powder white coastline at Lhaviyani Atoll where the palm tree lined beaches look like a computer screensaver. We’ve found that the west side of the atoll has wider beaches and softer sand, so is perfect for a day’s sunbathing.
As many of the islands are privately owned by resorts, you may be limited as to where you can go on each island in the Maldives. That’s not an issue in Zanzibar though.
However what this means is that if you’re staying at a Maldives resort you are pretty much guaranteed to have a spectacular beach, and a coral reef for snorkeling, right beside your room. When it comes to high-end beach vacations, this country really does excel.
It also excels when it comes to snorkeling, with a spectacular colorful underwater life that can be seen easily thanks to the gin-clear water. However most snorkeling is done with a resort, due to the privately owned nature of many islands in the Maldives.
One of the best snorkeling spots is Manta Point, which is home to Manta Rays! Also known as Emas Thila, this is probably one of the best places in the world to swim alongside these gentle giants, just make sure you take a great underwater camera with you – like this one.
For a burst of color, Banana Reef is another great spot to snorkel and dive. Here you’ll see rays, sharks, and many different types of reef fish including Royal Blue Tangs. You might not have heard that name before, but you will recognize the fish if you’ve seen ‘Finding Nemo’ – ‘Dory’ was a Blue Tang! (Recommended: Snakes and Sea Snakes in the Maldives).
While the Maldives has the better beaches, Zanzibar won’t disappoint either. This coral reef ringed island has gorgeous stretches of white sandy beaches, and one of our favorites is Kendwa Beach. This dreamy slice of Zanzibar has the softest sand as well as warm water for swimming. Outlined by gently swaying palm trees, it’s a true tropical paradise.
Up and down Zanzibar you will find beaches which are perfect for enjoying a beer at the water’s edge, but the coastline here is also great for snorkeling.
It’s easy to snorkel off the coast throughout the main island, but our favorite spot is definitely Mnemba Island. Two miles off Zanzibar’s north-east coast, this protected marine area is teeming with life. The crystal clear water makes it exceptionally easy to spot colorful reef fish like Blue Tangs and Clown Fish!
Inland, Zanzibar is an exciting and interesting place. This island doesn’t revolve around tourism – like the Maldives does – and therefore has many different things going on.
One of those is spice farming. Nutmeg, cinnamon (which is a real ‘superfood’), and many other spices are grown throughout, and it’s a real pleasure on the senses as you explore. Tangawizi Spice Farm, a few kilometers from the capital is a must visit. There you can take a tour of the farm, taste the local spices and fruits, and get a sense of working life on this paradise island.
The beautiful Changu Island is worth visiting. Also known as ‘Prison Island’, this little place has a dark past as it was used as a prison for rebellious slaves in the 19th century. A small boat can take you there from Stone Town (30-50 USD return), whilst the entrance fee to the island costs under 5 USD.
A visit will not only give you an insight into Zanzibar’s dark history, but will also give you an opportunity to meet the giant tortoises who have now taken up residence on the island!
Maldives or Zanzibar: Experience Paradise and Island Life
As the Maldives is more focused on resort-based holidays, interaction with the local community and culture tends to be limited. That’s unless you make a trip away from the private island resorts, and into the population centers.
Hotels and guest houses in Zanzibar are far more integrated into the community, so a Zanzibar vacation will have more of a ‘local’ feel than one in the Maldives. That also opens up opportunities for excursions away from the hotel, as well as the opportunity to try street food – which is very cheap!
As a majority Muslim country, the Maldives is a conservative nation, although within resort complexes you are free to act as you would in any liberal Western country. However if you plan to make any excursions into population centers – like the capital Malé or public beaches – then be sure to dress conservatively, and avoid things such as alcohol.
The culture in the Maldives is vibrant, interesting, and definitely worth discovering though.
Bodu Beru is a traditional rhythmic dance performed by upwards of 15-20 people, and was introduced to the Maldives around 1000 years ago. It’s been a tradition here ever since, and many resorts have cultural nights where dancers perform.
If venturing into Malé, a visit to the Maldives National Museum is a must. Not only does it give an insight into the history of this nation, but it also has a great collection of historical artefacts from the region, some several centuries old.
Zanzibar has been a major trade route for centuries, from the horrendous trade of humans during the times of slavery, through to the trade of spices that continues to this day. All of that has left its mark on this fascinating culture-rich island.
Much of that trade centered on Stone Town – the ancient part of Zanzibar City which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The centuries old buildings and winding alleyways in Stone Town haven’t changed in hundreds of years, and a trip to the Old Fort – the oldest building in the city – transports you back in time. As will a trip to the Old Slave Market, which has been kept as a sobering reminder of Zanzibar’s past.
Stone Town’s most famous son may well be Freddie Mercury – front man of rock group Queen. For something a little more contemporary, a trip to the Freddie Mercury Museum is well worth a visit.
Zanzibar’s Arabic influence can be seen in the spice farms and shops throughout the country. Darajani Market is a bustling market where many of these spices end up, and is an exciting and sensory-filled day out.
To get a sense of daily life in Zanzibar, head to one of the smaller villages like Matemwe. Locals are mainly involved in agricultural activity and fishing, including seaweed farming.
A Taste of the Tropics
Both island destinations have delicious seafood, and will provide a unique treat for your tastebuds.
Considering the first settlers to the Maldives came from India and Sri Lanka, the food here has an Indian twist.
Curry is therefore one of the most popular dishes. We recommend trying Mas Riha. Made with freshly caught tuna, coconut, and a good number of chilies, this is a truly unique and delicious Maldivian dish.
Seafood is also popular and traditional dishes include Garudhiya (a type of fish soup) and Kulhi boakiba, which is a fish cake made from smoked tuna, coconut, ginger and rice.
As for what to drink, resorts in the Maldives have countless number of cocktails to try. However the coconut water in the Maldives is delicious and refreshing – especially when drunk direct with a straw.
Zanzibar’s cuisine is a real mash-up of influences and styles, which makes it a foodie’s paradise.
For seafood lovers, one traditional dish to try out is Pepper Shark – which is shark cooked with a variety of locally-grown spices. Octopus is another popular seafood eaten here, and octopus boiled with coconut milk can be found on menus up and down the island.
A more modern invention is the Zanzibar Pizza. Which doesn’t really taste or look like a pizza! Diced onions, minced meat, cream cheese, mayonnaise and egg are all lumped together on a pizza-like base, and the sides are then folded in. It’s more like a savory crepe, and tastes better than it sounds.
The Maldives or Zanzibar: Which is the Better Choice?
Both the Maldives and Zanzibar will provide an unforgettable experience, but also very different holidays.
If you’re looking for an all-inclusive resort holiday where you’re guaranteed great beaches and world-class snorkeling, then the Maldives may suit you better. Resorts are what this country excels in, however the prices are expensive, and excursions can be limited.
Zanzibar, on the other hand, will provide a vacation with great beaches and swimming waters, but also other excursion possibilities. Tourists and locals intermingle throughout the island, so a Zanzibar holiday will be more of a cultural and local experience than one in the Maldives. Accommodation and food options in Zanzibar are far cheaper than the Maldives too.