If you're visiting Kenya, there's a good chance you are flying into and out of it's bustling capital, Nairobi. Here we list 13 of the top things to do in this great city, pre- and post-safari.
Nairobi National Museum
Situated on Museum Hill, a ten-minute drive from Nairobi CBD, lies the Nairobi National Museum. It was opened on this site in 1930 and closed in 2005 to undergo major renovations, reopening in June 2008.
The museum and its surrounds link to the four pillars of Kenya’s national heritage – nature, culture, history and contemporary art. The museum precinct includes not only the actual museum, but an art gallery, botanical gardens, snake park and shopping/eating facilities.
Learn about the rich cultural heritage of Kenya and the archaeological origins of man, see the animals and birds of Africa in the galleries, appreciate contemporary Kenyan art, and then go for a stroll through the beautiful botanical gardens. If you’re brave, visit the snake park and get up close and personal with some of Africa’s favourite reptiles.
The museum is open 365 days a year, from 8:30 to 17:30.
Drink Kenyan Tea and Coffee
Kenya is known for both its coffee and tea plantations so where better could you be to sample them?
There are a number of branches of the Java House coffee shops across Nairobi. They specialise in coffee, tea and fresh, light meals. There’s nothing quite like reading the morning paper with a steaming hot cup of fresh coffee, grown locally.
If you’re looking for something to take home as a gift, Dormans offers a wide range of ethically-sourced Kenyan and Tanzanian coffees. Visit one of their coffee houses and try them out. You’ll probably find yourself popping in at regular intervals, it’s so delicious.
Nairobi National Park
You think just because you’re in the middle of a bustling city, you can only do city things? Think again. Nairobi National Park is a mere 7 km away from Nairobi’s centre. It boasts four of the Big Five – lion, rhino, leopard and buffalo – along with over a hundred other African mammals.
Beside the animals, the scenery is pretty spectacular, with varying vegetation, from open grass plains to highland dry forest and riverine forest. Dams have been made in the park and have added further habitats for the animals and over 400 species of bird that call the park home.
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, located in the Nairobi National Park is most famously known for its elephant and rhino orphanage. The trust has done incredible work in the conservation of Africa’s wildlife, since 1977. They have successfully hand-raised over 150 orphan elephants!
Once the baby elephants ‘graduate’ from the nursery, at about two to three years’ old, they are reintegrated into the wild in Tsavo East National Park.
A visit to the centre is well worth it, not only to support their great work, but the cuteness factor of these li’l ellies is off the scale! Contact the centre before you go, to find out feeding times etc.
The Masai Market is held each day (except Mondays) in a different place in Nairobi. See here for where it is on the day you want to go, and check with your hotel reception. The market is a bustling, colourful, loud and busy experience and is the place to go for truly African pieces to take home for yourself, or as gifts. Buying gifts from locals supports loca economy directly, so its a win-win situation.
Remember some basic rules, though:
- Do not express interest in an item, if you don’t really want it. Take time to walk through the market and see everything before deciding. You may find the same thing, but made better, two stalls down.
- Do bargain. It is normal, and expected. Often prices are inflated by more than double, so hold your ground.
- Avoid mass-produced goods. This is a market that has both commercial, factory-made stuff and handmade. Speak to the vendors, many of whom are the artists/crafters themselves. Who wants a mass-produced t-shirt when you can have a handmade beaded bracelet instead?
- Do take local currency, in small denominations, to make bargaining easier. Also, take only what you need, and keep it in a body wallet.
- Avoid the ‘guides’ who offer to show you around and take you to the ‘best stalls’. In general, they extort money from the vendors in return (and, despite what they say, you’re not getting a bargain!)
- Do give yourself sufficient time to take in the sights and sounds of a truly African market.
Karen Blixen Museum
‘I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.’
Who doesn’t remember that line, spoken by Meryl Streep in the opening scene of the Oscar-winning film, Out of Africa? No longer is the house part of a farm, Nairobi having spread since Karen Blixen’s times, but it has been turned into a museum.
Karen Blixen, a Danish author, moved from Denmark to Kenya with her husband, and lived in the house from 1917 to 1931. Her husband insisted on trying to farm coffee. After they divorced, Karen continued fighting for the farm and the locals, and fell in love with an Englishman.
The museum allows you to relive the romanticism of those years, and hardships endured by Karen Blixen. Tea in the beautiful, serene gardens, and a view of her beloved Ngong Hills, will make you feel like you’ve been transported back to those colonial days.
Experience Local Transport: Matatus
Matatus, or taxis, are the privately-owned (or taxi company-owned) vehicles that predominate Nairobi’s public transport system.
It looks chaotic, it sounds chaotic, it is a little chaotic, really, but it’s a great way to experience Nairobi as the locals do. Brightly-coloured and often with slogans that’ll keep you grinning throughout the trip, these taxis are like nothing you've seen before.
A couple of warnings, though:
- Know where you’re going. Preferably take a local with you.
- Find out what the trip should cost, before you go, so that you don’t get fleeced.
- Leave your valuables behind. You’ll find yourself jostled and squashed. There are pickpockets. Keep your wits about you.
- Enjoy the trip. It could get wild!
Langata Giraffe Centre
Opened in 1983, the Giraffe Centre has made a huge impact on protecting the endangered Rothschild Giraffe. The centre focussing on teaching the local community about conservation and they provide free conservation workshops to local school groups.
The centre allows you to see these gorgeous creatures close up, and learn a bit about their habits and habitat. Giraffe conservation is vital to protect these beautiful, gangly, creatures from extinction. After you’ve met the giraffes, relax at the tea room for a cup of tea and take in the beautiful surrounds.
Need a break from the hustle and bustle of the city? Head to the Karura Forest and be amazed by its cool serenity, right in the city. With a gorgeous waterfall and many walking and cycling trails through cool forest glades, it’s easy to forget you’re in the city at all.
Take a picnic basket and enjoy your lunch in the shade. Just beware of the naughty monkeys – they’ll steal your lunch if you turn your back for a second.
As in any 'isolated' place, it's preferable not to walk alone. Guided tours are offered.
Enjoy Kenyan Cuisine
What’s a trip to a new country without sampling the local food? Different communities in Kenya have different ‘signature dishes’, and there a number of good restaurants that specialise in traditional Kenyan dishes. The focus is on locally-sourced, fresh ingredients. One tip: skip breakfast and go hungry!
Amaika is the Luhya (the people from western Kenya) word for the traditional cooking area. Initially specialising only in Luhya cuisine, Amaica now offers dishes from all regions of Kenya, which allows you to sample a wide range of dishes.
The Westlands’ branch is situated overlooking the beautiful Karura Forest, providing a tranquil environment in which to enjoy your meal.
As its name suggests, Carnivore is known for its meat, which is cooked over coals in the pit at the entrance to the restaurant. Referred to as the ‘Ultimate Feast of Beast’, a wide array of meat is served, from beef to goat to crocodile.
The set price includes soup, the meat feast with a vast selection of salads and vegetables on the side, followed by coffee and dessert, which only comes once you admit defeat by lowering the white flag on your table. Until then, the servers keep coming with food.
It certainly is an experience, with a rustic atmosphere created with rough-hewn beams, local wood and tropical gardens (including streams!) A vegetarian menu is also offered.
Africa is a continent of extremes, and this applies to living conditions as much as anything else. In an area of approximately 2.5 km2, over 1 million people live, which is approximately one third of Nairobi’s population. This is Kibera, about 3 km south east of Nairobi CBD.
With no permanent residential buildings, and minimal urban services – on average, one pit toilet per 50 to 200 residents – the area is a busy hive of shack dwellings and people. The people of Kibera come from all the ethnic backgrounds of Kenya, and the railway runs through the slum.
And while living conditions are atrocious, life goes on for these people and they’re friendly and welcoming and more-than-ready to chat to visitors. Get a glimpse of all sides of Africa and go on an organised tour of Kibera.
Drink Beer (Or Cocktails)
Africans love their beer. There’s nothing nicer than a cold ale after a day in the hot sun. Whether you’re a fan of Tusker, Kenya’s most well-known lager, or like to try out craft beers, Nairobi has something for you.
The Brew Bistro and Lounge is a stylish, vibey bar on Ngong’ Road. It has various sections and prides itself on providing a feast for the senses. With an in-house brewery creating craft beer, it’s the place to go if you’re a beer connoisseur.
And if beer’s not your thing? Go anyway, they have an extensive drinks menu - including some mighty fine cocktails - that’ll delight every taste. And the food is good, too.
Kazuri Handmade Beads And Pottery
What started out in 1975 as a tiny workshop experimenting with making ceramic beads is now a ceramic bead and pottery factory employing over 300 women. Many of these women are single mothers and providing employment to disadvantaged communities was one of the driving forces behind Kazuri.
The beads are made from scratch and hand-painted, creating beautiful, colourful pieces. The factory is situated in what used to be part of Karen Blixen’s estate. Contact Kazuri to organise a factory tour and stock up on beautifully handmade gifts to take home.