Lapped by the Indian Ocean, and straddling the equator Kenya is a richly rewarding place to travel. With Mount Kenya rising above a magnificent landscape of forested hills, patchwork farms and wooded savanna, the country’s dramatic geography has a lot to offer. Here is our pick of the best things to do in Kenya.
1. Hike Mount Kenya
An extinct volcano some 3.5 million years old, Mount Kenya is Africa’s second-highest mountain, with two jagged peaks. Formed from the remains of a gigantic volcanic plug – most of its erupted lava and ash have been eroded by glacial action to create a distinctive, craggy silhouette.
There are four main routes up Mount Kenya. From the west, the Naro Moru trail provides the shortest and steepest way to the top. The Burguret and Sirimon trails from the northwest are less well trodden.
Sirimon has a reputation for lots of wildlife. Allocate four or five days for this hike — especially if you’ve just arrived in Kenya and are used to living at sea level.
2. Visit Tsavo East National Park
Northeast of the highway, the rail line, and the apparent natural divide that separates Kenya’s northern and southern environments, lies Tsavo East National Park. Although it is the larger part of the combined Tsavo parks, the sector north of the Galana River has few tracks and is much less visited. It’s easy to get away off the two or three beaten tracks, and you may find something special.
After decades of poaching, rhinos are very rare in Tsavo East, but you may be lucky enough to spot one grazing quietly somewhere — especially north of the Galana. By contrast, you are absolutely certain to see a lot of Tsavo East’s delightfully colourful elephants, be they huge, dusty-red adults, or little chocolate babies fresh out of a mud bath.
3. Watch stars at Night
Booking a night out in nature under the stars at Il Ngwesi Eco-Lodge and sleeping on a specially adapted “star bed” atop a secure platform is one of the authentic things to do in Kenya. This much-lauded eco-lodge, owned and managed by the local Maasai community, is perched along a ridge facing a game-rich valley. Uniquely, all the proceeds go to the local community.
The six spacious, raised, open-fronted bandas incorporate twisting branches and wonderful views, while bandas #1 and #5 have star-beds which can be pulled out onto their decks. There’s also a small infinity pool. Guaranteed wildlife, including elephants, seen daily at the waterhole.
Kenya is the safari capital of East Africa and in our guide to the best safari lodges in Kenya you will find some of the best options.
Try this fascinating tailor-made trip to the Best of Kenya & Tanzania across the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Areas. Learn more about the traditions and cultures of the Maasai and stare in awe at the wild roaming wildlife on your several game drives in different national parks.
4. Go bird watching at Lake Baringo
An internationally recognized Ramsar wetlands site since 2002, Lake Baringo is a peaceful and beautiful oasis in the dry-thorn country, rich in birdlife and with a captivating character entirely its own.
Depending on lake levels, the waters are either heavily silted with the topsoil of the region and appear a rusty red or streaky yellow. Or it runs through a whole range of colours from coral to purple to a brilliant aquamarine, according to the sun’s position and the state of the sky.
Baringo’s 470 species of birds are one of its biggest draws, and even if you don’t know a superb starling from an ordinary one, the enthusiasm of others tends to be infectious.
With its nature, varied safari options and abundant wildlife, Kenya is the best place for an exciting holiday with the whole family. For even more of these destinations, check out our guide to the 30 best places to go with kids.
5. Find a festival – at Lake Turkana, the Rift Valley or Lamu
Join over a dozen local tribes for three days of traditional song and dance in a relaxed international atmosphere. Kenya may have fewer major festivals than you might expect or desire, but the few annual events that do take place are definitely worth planning a safari around. The pre-eminent festival is the Lake Turkana Festival in May, a vibrant cultural celebration held in one of the country's most remote towns.
In August, the Rift Valley Festival, a more European-style music festival, is held on the shores of Lake Naivasha and is easily accessible. Meanwhile, the Lamu Festival, held every November on the far-flung shores of the Indian Ocean, features donkey and dhow races, traditional stick fights, processions, beach barbecues, and crafts displays, with the entire old Swahili town taking part.
6. Train with warriors
Head to a Maasai-run eco-camp and learn the ways of warriorhood – which you'll soon discover involves playfighting with sticks and much singing and jumping. On most safaris in Kenya, you’re likely to meet Maasai warriors, and soon realise this is no dressing-up club but a part of every Maasai man’s life.
The training for this age grade is long and arduous, but you can now sample the lifestyle at a number of camps. For the most engaging warrior training experience, sign up for a 3-to-7-day programme with Laikipiak Maasai warriors at Bush Adventures Camp.
For a quicker, low budget taste of the action, closer to Nairobi, the low-key Maji Moto Eco-Camp. Located in the greater Mara ecosystem, this experience includes warrior-training – stick throwing, dancing, singing, tracking – with every stay in its tidy dome tents.
7. Go on a Boat Ride at Lake Naivasha
One of the best things to do in Kenya and the perfect getaway from Nairobi. Here you'll find excellent backpackers hostels, boating, a music festival, hippos, a rich array of birdlife and the secluded Crater Lake Game Sanctuary. Naivasha, like so many Kenyan place names, is a corruption of a local Maasai name, this time meaning heaving or rough water, E-na-iposha, a pronunciation still used by Maa-speakers in the area.
The lake is slightly forbidding – grey and placid one minute and suddenly green and choppy with whitecaps the next – but is hugely picturesque. Its purple mountain backdrop and floating islands of papyrus and water hyacinth are sure to wow.
8. Exploring Nairobi National Park - one of the best things to do in Kenya for a wildlife experience
Despite all the buzz, it's truly amazing that Nairobi National Park exists almost unspoiled, right within earshot of Nairobi's bustling downtown traffic. This park, which contains over 80 species of large mammals (excluding elephants), boasts the highest density of megafauna of any city park worldwide.
In contrast to the noisy and congested city streets, the park offers a serene wilderness where humans are just temporary visitors. It's a great place to spend some time during a layover or before an evening flight, with excellent chances of spotting various species.
Even though the park is fenced along its northern border, it's open to the south, allowing migratory herds and their predators to come and go freely. Despite the low-flying planes and minibuses, Nairobi National Park offers the best opportunity for witnessing a predator kill among all the parks in Kenya.
9. Visit Desert Lake
Straddling the Ethiopian border at its northern end, Lake Turkana stretches south for 250km, bisecting Kenya’s rocky deserts like a turquoise sickle, hemmed in by sandy wastes and black-and-brown volcanic ranges. The water, a glassy, milky blue one minute, can become slate-grey and choppy or a glaring emerald green the next.
Lake Turkana is the biggest permanent desert lake in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a shoreline longer than the whole of Kenya’s sea coast. It spread south as far as the now desolate Suguta Valley and fed the headwaters of the Nile.
Today it has been reduced to a mere sliver of its former expanse. a gigantic natural sump, with rivers flowing in but no outlets, it loses a staggering 3m of water through evaporation from its surface each year.
10. David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Get on petting terms with tiny pachyderms at this highly regarded centre. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant and rhino orphanage, inside the western end of the Nairobi park, offers a chance to see staff caring for baby elephants. Sometimes baby rhinos, which have been orphaned by poachers, or have been lost or abandoned for natural reasons, can also be seen.
The trust is run by Daphne Sheldrick in memory of her husband, the founding warden of Tsavo National Park. During the hour-long open house, the elephant keepers bring their juvenile charges up to an informal rope barrier where you can easily touch them and take photos.
11. Explore the history of Lamu Island
There is nowhere in the world like the ancient seafaring town of Lamu, with a fort, a maze of alleys and cool lodgings on every corner. Perhaps best left until the end of your stay in Kenya, Lamu island may otherwise precipitate a change in your plans as you’re lulled into its slow, soothing rhythm, deliciously lazy atmosphere and some of the best things to do in Kenya.
All the senses get a full workout here, so while there are sights and activities on offer, actually doing anything is sometimes a problem. You can spend hours on a roof or veranda just watching life go by, feeling its mood swing effortlessly through its well-worn cycles – from prayer call to prayer call, from tide to tide and from dawn to dusk.
For more ideas on spending your time on Lamu Island, take a look at our guide to why it's time to return to Lamu.
- For beaches location: Jua House
- For stunning surroundings: Banana House and Wellness Centre
- For couples: The Majlis Resort
Where to stay on Lamu Island:
12. Share a beach house – or rent a tree-house
Chilling on the coast is one of the best things to do in Kenya to relax after the full-on activity of a safari. There are plenty of hotels and guesthouses on the shores of the Indian Ocean, but renting a house on Tiwi Beach tops them all.
The fully staffed Olerai Beach House sleeps up to ten, so it’s ideal for a tropical house party. In the huge gardens, there’s a stunning swimming pool with a water slide and landscaped caves, while the beach lies right in front of you through the palms. It’s quite remote, so there’s the option to have a minibus and driver at your disposal for trips into Mombasa and other excursions.
However, if you’re on more of a shoestring budget, then Stilts Backpackers, on Diani Beach, is a great location for the budget traveller. Funky treehouses (huts on stilts), a tree-level bar-restaurant and plenty of convivial company make it a popular base. Here the beach is just a five-minute walk away.
13. Stay in a rainforest lodge in the Shimba Hills – or explore a ruined city
Coastal adventures come in many shapes and sizes. Just inland from the beaches of the south coast lies Shimba Hills National Reserve. The hills, teeming with elephants and forest wildlife, house an authentic rainforest lodge. Here trees grow through the wooden building, and a treetop walkway winds through the forest to a waterhole.
Also in the forest, near the small resort town of Watamu on the north coast, the ruins of the stone town of Gedi lay hidden in the jungle for hundreds of years. The identity of the sixteenth-century inhabitants of the town, excavated in the 1940s, is still unknown, but today their houses and mosques can be explored and are particularly atmospheric at dusk.
14. Head south into the Rift Valley
From Nairobi, everyone thinks of the Rift Valley as north of the city, focused around tourist hotspots like Lake Naivasha with its gardens and boat trips, or Lake Nakuru with its busy national park. But, if you head south – driving yourself or in a limited selection of beaten-up buses or taxi vans – you can explore an equally fascinating but almost unvisited stretch of the Great Rift.
The first possible stop is Whistling Thorns – much like an English Lake District youth hostel, but with ostriches and gazelles instead of sheep. Then, as you plunge down the dramatic face of the escarpment, you head out onto arid plains where there’s a great prehistoric stone-tool site, Olorgasailie, with cheap camping and cottages.
Finally, you reach the bizarre soda pans of Lake Magadi, where a factory town supports a major chemical industry. There’s a beautiful public swimming pool and excellent bird life near the hot springs, and a few options for staying if you don’t have a tent.
15. Spend a day at Lake Nakuru National Park
Just 5km outside Nakuru, Lake Nakuru National Park is one of the most popular in the country and one of the best things to do in Kenya for wildlife enthusiasts, offering one of the best chances in Kenya of spotting black and white rhinos. With more than 300,000 visitors each year, this is one of Kenya Wildlife Service’s two “premier parks” (the other being Amboseli).
Though not large, it’s a beautiful park, the terra firma mostly under light acacia forest and well provided with tracks to a variety of hides and lookouts. The contrast between these animated woodlands and the soda lake with its primaeval birds gives it a very distinctive appeal.
Explore Kenya's vast national parks such as Lake Nakuru, the famous Maasai Mara and the well-known 'red' elephants in the Tsavo National Park on this tailor-made Bush To Beach Safari. After a few days of waking up early to spot wildlife, relax on the fine sandy beaches of Diani in the Mombasa area.
16. Witness the Great Migration at Maasai Mara National Reserve
For a long list of reasons, Maasai Mara is the best game reserve in Kenya. Set at nearly 2000m above sea level, the reserve is a great wedge of undulating grassland in the remote, sparsely inhabited southwest of the country, right up against the Tanzanian border and, indeed, an extension of the even bigger Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
This is a land of short grass and croton bushes (Mara means “spotted”, after the yellow crotons dotted on the plains), where the wind plays with the thick, green mantle after the rains and, nine months later, whips up dust devils from the baked surface. Maasai Mara’s climate is relatively predictable, with ample rain, and the new grass supports an annual wildebeest migration of half a million animals from the dry plains of Tanzania.
17. Visit Giraffe Manor
One of the most unique things to do in Kenya is to stay at Giraffe Manor. Set in 140 acres of virgin forest in the Nairobi suburb of Langatha, the property is a boutique hotel. With its elegant interiors, sunny terraces and green courtyard gardens, the place feels as if it is transported back to 1930s Africa.
A distinctive feature of the estate is the herd of giraffes that live in the area and occasionally enter the grounds hoping for a treat.
Take your (grand)children and embark on this tailor-made adventure of a (family) lifetime: 7 days in Kenya, with up-close animal encounters, game drives to see the Big 5 and plenty of fun day activities.
18. Enjoy a camel ride
There’s a positive jungle all year round at the oasis village of South Horr (horr means “flowing water”), the largest settlement between Baragoi and Loiyangalani, wedged tightly between the Nyiru and Ol Doinyo Mara mountains.
With its pleasantly somnolent atmosphere, ample shade and relaxed Samburu camel herders lounging under the trees with their beasts, this is a great place to bunk down for a night or three. Making friends with local Samburu is easy. It’s also a good place from which to set our for a walk with camels for a few hours or a few days.
19. Backpack along the Swahili coast
The Swahili are not a “tribe” in any definable sense – they are the result of a mixed heritage. And, while Swahili culture is essentially Muslim, people’s interpretation of their religion varies according to circumstance.
Like the Swahili language, it used to be thought that the towns of the coast began as arab or even Persian trading forts. It is now known that Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu and a host of lesser-known settlements are essentially ancient African towns that have always tolerated immigration from overseas.
20. Discover Hell's Gate National Park by bike
Named after the narrow break in its tall basaltic cliffs, Hell’s Gate was the outlet for the prehistoric freshwater lake that stretched from here to Nakuru and which, it’s believed, would have supported early human communities on its shores. Today it’s a spectacular and exciting park, the red cliffs and undulating expanse of grassland providing one of the few remaining places in Kenya.
The most popular route through the park is to enter at Elsa Gate and drive, walk or cycle right through, along the main tarmacked road along the valley beneath the cliffs. You can either return the same way or exit from the Olkaria Gate, a distance of about 14km.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Kenya without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
We may earn commission from some of the external websites linked in this article, but this does not influence our editorial standards - we only recommend services that we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.
Top image © Shutterstock