Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, is remarkably green, welcoming, and rich in crafts and culture. Don’t skip over this cosmopolitan city on your way to one of Kenya’s famous photo safaris. Instead, make Nairobi your home base for a week or so to soak up the essence of Kenya through the city’s plentiful parks, museums, and attractions. You’ll eat and shop well, too, and have time to enjoy a couple fascinating day trips.
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How to get around Nairobi
With a little help from hotel desks, local hosts, or tour companies, travelers to Nairobi will quickly discover the benefits of driver/guides. With its international crowd and usual flow of tourists (Nairobi is home to some 90 embassies and high commissions, plus dozens of companies whose African or world headquarters are in the city) it is no wonder the travel trade is efficient, accommodating, and knowledgeable.
There’s no need to sign up for group tours if you want to travel on your own. Get a combination driver and guide day by day as your plans develop.
Nairobi Travel Tip: Trust us, you will want a driver. Americans, especially, might want to avoid driving in Kenya because they drive on the left. (Kenya is a member of the Commonwealth.) But more to the point, roads and traffic are, at best, unpredictable. Overloaded trucks combined with scooters, pedestrians, superfluous speed bumps and the occasional cow can make commutes exciting. The number of car owners is increasing quickly, as are the number of inexperienced drivers on the road.
Kenya, however, is a proud leader among East African nations, a republic with a fast-growing economy and a rich amalgam of tribal people. Kenya has been an independent nation since 1963. Both English and Swahili are official languages.
Here’s our guide to places to visit in and around Nairobi. As usual we share details on places we’ve visited in person. In this case, though, we’re adding notes about other worthwhile attractions, mostly so we can keep track of things we want to do when we return to Nairobi.
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Nairobi Parks and Attractions
Take advantage of all the green space in this city of 5 million people, in a metropolitan area of nearly 10 million. Dubbed “The Green City in the Sun,” Nairobi boasts comfortable temperatures and weather (and relatively few mosquitos) due to its elevation of nearly 6,000 feet and its situation near the equator.
Just a few minutes from the United Nations district on Nairobi’s north side (off Limuru Road), Karura Forest Reserve offers hiking and biking trails winding along a river to waterfalls and caves nestled in a natural forest. Community organizations have stepped up to improve and protect the parkland and its users, while the park is managed by Kenya Forest Service. Cave excavations have revealed prehistoric settlements dating back 300,000 years. Guided eco-tours are available, covering birding, vegetation, wildlife, and history and culture. Self-guided walks are perfectly fine. Playground and picnic areas (which can be reserved) provide nice spots to relax. An on-site restaurant (see below) gave us a good excuse to return another day.
Given its proximity to central Nairobi and the international airport, it might be easy to dismiss Nairobi National Park the opportunities for wildlife viewing here. Our best advice: start early and devote as much time as you can. There is lots to see and many forks in the road – which just made us want to follow every path.
We visited with specific time constraints, but even so enjoyed watching and photographing gazelle and impala, baboons and monkeys, giraffe, zebra, waterfowl, and scenic vistas. Though we didn’t chase the lions or rhinos (ask the entry guards for updates on sightings if that’s your intent), we loved stumbling on packs of monkeys, the elegant Gray Crowned Crane, and gangly giraffes. We followed our noses, the signs, and GPS, bumping along freely on our self-guided visit in a rented Toyota Prado, the ubiquitous SUV in Nairobi.
Next time, if we’re more serious about wildlife spotting, we’ll hire a driver/guide.
Travel tips for Nairobi National Park visitors: Like all of Kenya’s national parks, Nairobi National Park is managed by Kenya Wildlife Services. Park rules are clearly stated at the entrance. The entrance area includes wildlife sculptures (photo ops!), bathrooms, and a gift shop. Snacks and restaurants are available, but we’d recommend packing in your lunch and beverages. These can only be consumed, of course, in designated areas within the park.
The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust operates the famous elephant orphanage located at one edge of the Nairobi National Park. (The Orphanage and Park are separate entities requiring separate admissions.)
A deep sense of honor overcomes visitors to the elephant orphanage. Without saying so, everyone seems to realize the proximity to these vulnerable elephants is a rare privilege. Our visit was a special small group; all visits require reservations. The keepers provide an overview of their program and answer all sorts of questions as the elephants guzzle their special milk formula, play in the mud, and then saunter around bumping unwitting visitors with their muddy trunks or shoulders. Their personalities show in a moment, and it seems life friendships are made in a second before the group is sent on its way.
We learned new arrivals at the orphanage have staff sleeping in their stalls to feed them every three hours at night and drape them with blankets to assure they are warm. The staff knows the back stories for each resident and are happy to share details of their habits and future.
There will never be enough time mingling with your ele-friends, so just plan on adopting one.
The exceptional Sheldrick Trust website, kept up to date with staff journal entries, follows the life of each elephant until they are rewilded.
Here's a convenient link to book a tour of the Sheldrick Trust elephant sanctuary and the nearby Giraffe Centre.
The Giraffe Centre is a well-organized attraction with tons of info on giraffes and plenty of space for visitors to observe and feed the giraffes from an elevated platform. If you happen to stay in the luxury Giraffe Manor, you don’t have to mingle with others to meet the giraffes; they just poke their heads into the hotel located on one side of the reserve. But the very same giraffes step over to the Giraffe Center for snacks between meals.
Each guest is offered a dish of giraffe treats with directions on how to hold the treat and feed the long-tongued long-necks. The giraffes were well-behaved, photo opportunities plentiful, and the staff helpful. Now we know how to distinguish between the Rothschild, Maasai, or Reticulated Giraffes found in Kenya. We appreciated the cleaning stations for hand washing before and after interacting with the giraffes.
The center is primarily an education and conservation facility, instrumental in protecting and breeding the Rothschild giraffe native to East Africa. Just as out in the wild, warthogs can be found underfoot at the Giraffe Center. Warthogs presumably enjoy the company of giraffes who can spot danger from their higher vantage point.
Located at the Nairobi National Museum, Snake Park can be visited separately or in combo with the Museum. Do both. Best views are from walks around a small central courtyard (so many snakes, the more you look the more you see!) and a larger pond exhibit with tortoises, crocodiles, and more snakes. Inside, small glass front habitats are low enough for children’s viewing, but might be partially obscured by messy glass. If you’re lucky, an attendant might bring out a safe snake to hold.
Next time: Nairobi Arboretum
Since we were constantly marveling over all the beautiful trees and native plants in Nairobi, next time we'll be sure to visit the Nairobi Arboretum, home to hundreds of plant species, dozens of bird species, and a few monkeys thrown in for good measure.
An excellent, compact museum that’s home to natural history exhibits, art galleries, social and political history exhibits, the Snake Park (above), and a leisurely walk through a botanical garden. Highlights include the collection of prehistoric skulls with interpretation, the permanent collection of botanic drawings by Joy Adamson (naturalist, artist and author of Born Free), and work inside and out by Kenyan artists.
Like the Nairobi National Museum, this is administered by National Museums of Kenya. The historic site provides an expansive view not just of the woman Karen Blixen (a.k.a Isac Denesen) made famous through her books (including Out of Africa), but also of the pre-colonial era in Nairobi. Even viewed through the privileged lens of the Danish woman, the museum tells a vibrant story of the land and the three tribal groups who lived and worked in this north Nairobi area. Excellent guides will lead you around the ground to view the coffee farm equipment.
You can book a combo tour of the Karen Blixen Museum, along with other Nairobi attractions via this link.
Next Time: Railway Museum
Exhibits about the storied construction of the now defunct East African Railway, built by the British to connect Uganda to the sea at Mombasa.
Next time: BOMAS
Village of cultural exhibits and performances representing various ethnic communicates of Kenya.
Next Time: Nairobi Gallery
To check out the historic building and the Murumbi Art Collection.
Nearby: Day Trips from Nairobi
Take a drive to Mlango Farm to enjoy picking your own vegetables (800 shillings (about US$7) per basketfull, including the basket!). The savvy visitors will make a reservation in advance for lunch and enjoy excellent cuisine made of fresh farm ingredients. (Bring your own to-go containers. Purchase some delicious jams or preserves to take home, too.)
Mlango Farm is a testament to the rich harvest potential in the region, as well as to the imagination and vision of residents building their communities from within. The organic farm with over 50 different crops offers environment education to school groups, its growing staff, and to guests.
For those of us who want to climb every hill for a better view, the volcanic Mount Longonot offers nicely marked trails to a first rim (about an hour up) and to the top (another hour or more). Hiking tip: these are exposed trails. Prepare for heat and sun exposure. For more detailed info, try the AllTrails site or application.
We were satisfied with a partial trip up and back, enjoying the landscape along the way. Be assured that from the top you can circle the entire rim and enjoy views across the Rift Valley and to Lake Navaisha.
Lake Navaisha in the Rift Valley northwest of Nairobi could technically be visited as a day trip. But better to visit this freshwater lake with leisure time to view hippos and flamingos and diving fisher birds. A portion of the shore meets Lake Navaisha National Park. Plenty of lake area resorts provide lodging and access to area activities. Highlights, besides the hippos, include a boat trip to Crescent Island and views of the forested banks of the lake.
Next Time: Ngong Hills Forest Reserve
The fabled hills outside Nairobi to which Karen Blixen escaped for picnics and where her paramour, Denis Finch Hatton, is buried. Hiking trails and picnic areas. Find a tour to Ngong Hills with Trip Advisor.
Shopping in Nairobi
Shopping is part of the Kenya experience you won’t want to miss. Craft markets are largely taken up with products made by the Maasai people (about 2 million people of Kenya and Tanzania). Around the world, Kenya is known for its baskets, beadwork, pottery, glass making, and stone and wood carvings. Here’s where to start, including links for shopping online now. Better yest, visit these Nairobi gift shops in person.
We recommend starting here to survey the wide range of products made in Kenya. It’s the IKEA of Kenya craft, weaving you through several levels and many boutiques within the store: many vendors with one convenient check-out. The advantage of shopping here is getting an overview of products, a consistent high level of craftsmanship, and a sense of fair pricing. Bonus feature: a nice café and courtyard, though we suggest ordering your food before you shop. It may take a while!
Just ask around, and you’ll learn what day of the week a pop-up Maasai market is available in your neighborhood. You’ll find a massive amount of product presented by dozens and dozens of vendors, often selling the same popular goods. Sales pressure can be intense, so be prepared with a sense of what you want and how much you are willing to pay. Somehow, most of the vendors throughout the parking lot site we visited knew our first names within minutes! Check out this online store to get a sense of the beautiful, colorful crafts available.
You might discover samples of Kitengela's beautiful blown glass objects – including chandeliers, lamps, vases, glassware, and beads – in various small showrooms and shops across the city. But head to the factory and education center near Nairobi National Park for the full story of this company started in 1981. The Kitengela Glass center is committed to education and local artisans, and offers workshops and outdoor recreation activities on its spacious site. (Read their website directions and don't use Google maps to find the place.) For more product detail and shopping online, visit Anselm Kitengela Hot Glass.
Shop these ceramic beads from a World Fair Trade Organization established to support single motherhood women. These beads are a hallmark of Kenya craftsmanship. Look for their shops or visit the Kazuri Beads Factory in Karen.
Shopping Tip: Most local retailers forgo websites, or the site they have may not be well maintained. Instead, look for local shops and restaurants on Instagram. Here's Kazuri Bead's IG page, for example.
Great textiles from a company that specializes in the East African version of a sarong, with many modern twists. For him, her, and kids, too. Shop online.
Arts, Crafts, and Social Entrepreneurship
The past 25 years have seen many initiatives toward social justice and education in Kenya. In particular, many organizations working with women combine training and welfare with the production of beautiful artisan goods. When you look for hand-crafted items, take time to read the back stories and meet the people involved. Some examples:
Amani Ya Ju The project started with hand sewn place mats. Now a full shop and garden cafe.
Project Biashara Women-owned businesses and jewelry-making cooperative.
Mama Africa Kenya Hand sewn creations by an organization that trains and employs underprivileged women.
Shopping Malls in Nairobi
Nairobi's modern shopping malls offer many of the gift shops we mention here, plus pop-up markets, food markets and restaruants, and various family entertainment options. The Village Market mall, for example, has a large sea-themed kids' play area, a bowling alley, game rooms, and lots of restaurants. Other popular malls include Westgate Shopping Mall and Galleria Shopping Mall.
Restaurants in Nairobi
After just three weeks in Kenya, we’re only qualified to offer a smattering of restaurant recommendations. But let it be known that there are many great options in Nairobi, befitting its international population. Here’s a start:
Especially popular for breakfast or brunch. This farm-to-table restaurant is a crowd pleaser, offering sweet rolls, French toast, breakfast burritos, egg dishes, shakshuka and more. The huge yard keeps children busy amongst trees and playground equipment, in plain sight of outdoor seating. The shop sells hand-crafted products and homemade taste treats. Shamba hosts a farmers’ market every Saturday.
A pleasant, open dining room in the Karura Forest (see above) serves up breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus everything from smoothies, coffee and tea, to wine and cocktails. Weekly specials emphasize salads, quiche, and grilled meats. We enjoyed the expansive lunch menu including burgers, bean and veggie quesadilla, and pan-fried fish.
The Gigiri Courtyard
For casual dinners wanting a lot of alternatives, head to this little collection of restaurants off Gigiri Lane. Kids love the trampoline strategically placed in the parking lot for all to see. Among the hits here are The Daily Café, Josephine Carribbean BBQ, Little Beirut, an ice cream shop, and a wine bar.
A steakhouse with tones of American, African and Brazilian fare. Two locations (Kitisuru and Kilimani). Ankole is named after the native East African long-horned cattle. We can recommend tasty lamb ribs and ribeye steaks, perhaps with a South African pinotage selected from the nice wine list.
For a luxurious experience in a predictable setting, Hemingways serves Hollywood-themed lodging and dining in the Karen section of Nairobi.
More places to eat in Karen
We didn't spend a lot of time in the Karen neighborhood, but most visitors do. So, based on good authority, we can also recommend these restaurants in the bustling Karen area: Tin Roof, Matbronze Cafe, and The Talisman Restaurant.
Where to Stay
Radisson Blu Hotel & Residence at Nairobi Arboretum
We like the Radisson Blu brand, and the Radisson Blu Hotel and Residence at Nairobi Arboretum location is cool. Another Radisson Blu property (Nairobi Upper Hill) is near the Nairobi National Park.
Nairobi Serena Hotel
The Nairobi Serena Hotel is another upscale but not overboard option.
The Giraffe Hotel
For a luxury treat, head to this property by the Safari Collection, now featuring adjacent spa facilities
Ibis Styles Hotel Westlands Nairobi
The Ibis Styles Hotel Westlands is a moderately price option by a dependable brand.
Tours in Nairobi
Many of the sites we mention above can be visited with an organized tour, including a driver. (And, as we mentioned above, in Nairobi, you want a driver. The tours available through the links below also include trips to the various wildlife sites such as Amboseli National Park and the Maasai Mara.
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