The vastness of Kenya can be overwhelming for first time visitors. The country isn’t even one of the biggest in Africa, but its still huge compared to many other parts of the world. Unless you’re taking serious time to travel around, or are on a pre-booked safari, you’ll likely never leave the capital when you visit for the first time. Here’s our guide to making the most of a short trip to Nairobi.
Nairobi has the initial appearance of a bustling city that might appear indistinguishable from any other African metropolis. That’s the impression I got when I flew in at night, but if you’re flying in during the day and happen to be in a window seat, you’re going to get an incredible view that frames where you’re landing in an entirely different way. With a trendy downtown area, smart residential suburbs and an incredible natural attraction right in the heart of the city, here’s why you won’t need to leave town to get a full taste of Kenya.
You’ll want to situate yourself in an easily-accessible location, especially as traffic can clog up the streets in the centre of the city. The Social House Nairobi is in a quiet district, and also has everything you need onsite to eliminate the need to spend too much time stuck in a car. There are three great restaurants serving up local favourites as well as twists on Peruvian and Mexican cuisine. The atmosphere is laidback and conducive to remote working, if you want to spend your time here sat behind a screen.
A particular highlight of my recent stay were the delightful creations by chef Anibal Torres. Working with other creative minds, Torres serves up a series of dishes that have proven hugely popular with locals and hotel guests. Copper has an open kitchen and grill where a number of small plates will fill you up before you know it. The wine selection here is also top-notch and again attracts connoisseurs from around Nairobi as the cellar is regarded as one of the best in the country.
INCA on the rooftop is a great late night hangout with DJs, inventive cocktails and fresh Peruvian cuisine. If you want to get a sense of the cool, diverse vibe in the city this is the place to head to and also one spot you will want to be seen in too. Finally there’s The Other Room, a smart indoor/outdoor diner where you can lounge by the pool, grab a late breakfast or just relax in the open space and catch up on work.
Nightly rates at The Social House Nairobi start from $170 / £140 based on two people sharing
If you’ve ever experienced a safari park in any part of the world away from Africa, you might feel like you’ve seen it all before. Trust us, there is nothing comparable to seeing wild animals in their natural surroundings. What’s more appealing about doing a Safari in Kenya is that you don’t even have to leave the city to get the full experience, making a trip to Nairobi National Safari Park an absolute must. We left Social House at the crack of dawn and got to the park just as the sun was still rising over the horizon. It took less than 30 minutes, and from there we were on the hunt for the Big Five.
Within moments we caught a glimpse of a lion. Soon after a herd of wild buffalo lumbered into view followed by two grazing rhinos. It might sound overly dramatised, but we genuinely ran into all these majestic creatures within minutes of getting to the park. Timing is crucial, and our guide and hosts at insisted on the early start. They made the right call as you definitely get to see more before the intensity of the sun sends the animals into hiding.
Elephants are the only beasts of the fabled Big Five that you won’t find in the park. The others (lions, African buffalo, rhinos and leopards) are all found here, but even for a sizeable slice of wilderness like this, there just isn’t enough room for the final member of the group. Not to worry, we were soon on our way to an elephant sanctuary to see the animals up close.
We can get into the unfortunate habit of calling places like this ‘sanctuaries’, and that is often a loaded term. The Sheldrick Trust is actually an elephant orphanage where animals are brought in from all parts of Kenya.
The animals aren’t asked to perform for crowds or go on display for visitors, you can only see them when its feeding time. You’ll also hear stories about how the elephants came to be orphaned in the first place, and its usually at the hands of poachers. There’s a small giraffe centre nearby too, and here you’ll get a close up look at the animals you will have previously seen in the safari park.
The centre of Nairobi is hectic. The traffic is everywhere and the heat feels even more intense than it does in the open spaces of the safari park. Thankfully the streets are clean and safe, and you can only really expect to get hassled as a tourist when you enter the market spaces.
If you want a bargain, you will want to head to the Maasai Market. Be ready to stand your ground and haggle, but most of it is done in good spirits. The organic farmers market is a more sedate experience, and far more my pace. The products are all exceptional here, and there’s also room for a little price reduction if you know what you’re doing. Be sure to try the fresh food here, that’s the real selling point.
If you are in the centre of town and want to find out more about the history of the country, then a walking tour is our pro-tip. We visited with one of our local hosts, and she commented on how informative it all was even for her. I’ve been on a few of these around the world but this one stood out thanks to the engaging guide and sheer breadth of culture scattered around a small area. Make sure you book a tour that ends at Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC), the the Brutalist architecture offers up a great view of Nairobi.
Browns Cheese Farm and Factory was a delightful addition to our itinerary, and an unexpected treat. The brand is popular here, and produces a number of dairy-based products that can be found in supermarkets around the country. We took a short tour and leisurely look around the farm which thankfully included a full lunch and cheeseboard. It would have been criminal to leave here without tasting the goods!
On another morning we took the chance to visit the Karen Blixen Museum. The museum sits in the Karen suburb of Nairobi, an area named after the famous Danish author. Its a fascinating story and building dedicated to a woman who has shaped many people’s view of the continent, at least from a western perspective.
Another influence of the west in Africa is tea production, or at least in the vast quantities that we have consumed the beverage in the last few centuries. Coffee might be the drink we best know Kenya for, but there’s plenty of tea to be had here too.
Later on the same day we visited a tea plantation and were struck by how green and lush the vegetation was in the area. It wasn’t just the plants used for growing tea that transformed the landscape, the surrounding gardens, fields and hills looked like they came straight from the English countryside. Similar to how Browns Farm had caught me off-guard, this environment came as a surprise, although that is certainly down to my lack of knowledge about Nairobi.
I plan on returning to Kenya soon and exploring other parts of the country by train. I’m hoping to visit Mombasa and the coastal region as well as spending some nights sleeping under the stars in a safari lodge. Nairobi, however, will still be my first port of call, and probably the place I end up spending most of my time in. There’s everything you could possibly want from a trip to Africa here, and with a great willingness to embrace art, culture and modern sensibilities without relinquishing centuries-old traditions, Nairobi is easy to call home.