Most people coming into Kenya will arrive in Nairobi, but head straight for the country’s vast national parks and beautiful coastline. Stay a little longer in the capital, and you’ll get to know the real Kenya. The city is full of vitality and buzz, with excellent food and a host of fun and fascinating activities to keep you busy before you head off on a safari. Here is our pick of the best of the many things to do in Nairobi.
1. Get the context in Kibera
Some 60% of Nairobi’s residents live in slum areas, which make up just 6% of the city’s land. Take away some added awareness and leave a little extra cash behind on a tour of the biggest: Kibera – a sobering but not depressing experience.
Around 250,000 people are thought to live in Kibera (no one really knows exactly how many there are), most of whom sleep in make-shift shacks. The area isn’t without its problems – there’s a high HIV infection rate and no proper drainage for waste and sewage. However, it’s still thriving with small businesses, from wedding dress shops to bakeries and butchers.
2. Visit the excellent Nairobi National Museum
By far the biggest and best museum in the country, and a good introduction to Kenyan culture and natural history, visiting Nairobi National Museum is one of the best things to do in Nairobi. The Great Hall of Mammals has some impressive displays: giraffes, elephants, zebras and okapi all feature in a few excellent dioramas, and the majority of the country’s mammals are on display along the walls.
Visit the human origins exhibit to see the near-complete “Turkana Boy” – a 1.6-million-year-old skeleton found near Lake Turkana in the north.
A fascinating tailor-made trip to the best of Kenya and Tanzania. 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.
3. Sample the excellent shopping
If you’re after Maasai crafts (whether traditional beaded jewellery or items made up for the tourist industry), the city’s various Maasai markets are excellent – though they are no longer the cheap, hot tip they once were.
Initiated downtown opposite the post office in the mid-1990s, the original group of Maasai and other women from rural areas (as well as a number of men) were moved several times by city council askaris and now convene to display their wares at various places throughout the week. All the markets are open roughly from 8 am to 3 pm.
Alternatively, head to Gikomba, the largest general market in Nairobi. It’s a spot that few tourists ever see, a labyrinth of muddy alleyways, courtyards and open sewers. It’s also a place to experience an exhilarating slice of Nairobi life, and just about anything can be found on sale, from school uniforms to industrial-size ovens.
4. See big cats just outside the city
On Nairobi’s doorstep, Nairobi National Park is home to most of Kenya’s big mammals, and the place for classic photos of plains animals against a backdrop of skyscrapers.
One of the best things to do in Nairobi for game watching, is to come in the few hours after dawn (ask the rangers for the latest updates on arrival on where to see what) and you might be lucky enough to spot a leopard.
Hippos can usually be viewed at a pretty pool at the confluence of the Mbagathi and Athi rivers, and the far southeast of the park is the best place to spot zebra, antelope, giraffe, eland, buffalo and ostriches.
5. Discover the Kenyan Culture at the Bomas of Kenya
Opposite Magadi Road, near the entrance to the Nairobi National Park, the Bomas of Kenya is a permanent exhibition of traditional homesteads (or bomas) representing various Kenyan cultures. The main event is a multicultural drumming, dancing and acrobatic display that represents a cross-section of traditional Kenyan cultures performed by a troupe of professional dancers that change costumes for each different dance.
Though a little contrived, it is a dynamic and exciting performance, marred only by the warehouse acoustics of the tall roofed auditorium.
6. Pet baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
This highly regarded elephant and rhino orphanage is a heart-warming way to see some of Kenya’s tiny, orphaned pachyderms. Often, victims of poaching, staff hand feed the baby elephants during an hour-long open house, where visitors can sometimes pet the playful creatures through the casual rope fence.
Many of the animals here, including rhinos, are rehabilitated to return to the national park. They’re taken for regular walks with their keepers across the plains, and their scent is spread strategically to introduce their presence to other wild residents.
One of the most heart-warming things to do in Nairobi is to witness baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust © Pixabay
7. See the beginnings of man at the Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site
This stark site in the Southern Rift Valley has huge numbers of early hominin stone tools preserved in situ. Trails and informative signs lead visitors around the excavations – though the guided tour is also excellent. Here you can see the original cleavers, axes and round balls made by the early people who inhabited the area between 400,000 and 500,000 years ago.
8. Meeting Rothschild Giraffes at Langata Giraffe Centre - one of the best things to do in Nairobi with kids
About 30 minutes southwest of Nairobi, the AFEW Giraffe Centre, or African Fund for Endangered Wildlife is a private sanctuary to breed Rothschild’s giraffe — which is endangered in the wild. The breeding program here has allowed populations of Rothschild’s giraffe to be established similar to that of Lake Nakuru National Park and the Soysambu.
Visiting the Center is especially exciting for children, who can feed specially formulated pellets to these serene giants from a raised observation platform. Other activities include a self-guided bird walk in an adjoining patch of natural forest, and wildlife videos and lectures in the auditorium.
Take your (grand)children and embark on this tailor-made family adventure of a lifetime: 7 days in Kenya, with up-close animal encounters, game drives to see the Big 5 and plenty of fun day activities.
9. Head to the Nairobi Arboretum
Today, Nairobi’s trees and gardens are as distinctive a feature as its towering skyline. Yet when the railway arrived, the land that now comprises the city centre had very few trees – as is clearly shown in early photographs. The transformation was thanks to Administrator John Ainsworth, who immediately set about making shaded avenues out of Nairobi’s dusty tracks, often planting trees that were not native to Kenya.
And some indigenous forest also stands within the city limits, preserved within the City Park, bounded by the Limuru and Forest roads just north of the centre. The Nairobi Arboretum, just off State House Road, is another significant forest within the close bounds of the city that is being preserved for future generations.
10. Get amazed at Oloolua Nature Trail
One of the best things to do in Nairobi to enjoy the local nature is to visit the Oloolua Nature Trail, a scenic trail located on the outskirts of Nairobi. The trail is located in the Oloolua forest, a small indigenous forest that covers around 250 acres of land. It is approximately 5 kilometres in length and the trail will take around 2-3 hours to hike.
In addition to enjoying the natural beauty of the Oloolua Nature Trail, visitors also have the opportunity to see different species of birds, monkeys and other wildlife. The trail winds its way through the forest and features a small waterfall, a cave and a gorge.
11. Admire the views from Kenyatta International Convention Centre
Probably the best-known landmark in the city centre is the Kenyatta International Convention Centre. The 27-storey round tower whose sober 1960s architectural style has been ‘Africanised’ with a tumbling riot of flowers and shrubs, and an amphitheatre supposedly designed in the shape of a traditional hut.
Standing 105 metres (340ft) tall, the KICC was the highest building in Nairobi when it opened in 1973, and it remained so until the turn-of-the-millennium construction of the 140-metre (455ft) 38-storey Times Tower. Tickets to the top floor of the KICC, which is reached by a speedy lift and offers sensational views over the city centre and beyond, can be bought in the foyer.
12. Test your nerves at the Nairobi Snake Park
One of the best things to do in Nairobi for snake fans is visit to the Nairobi Snake Park in the Nairobi National Museum. This is a nature conservation facility that aims to provide visitors with information about the role of snakes and other reptiles in the ecosystem, as well as their behaviour, habitats and the threats they encounter.
Snake Park hosts a diverse collection of snakes, including some of the world's most poisonous species, such as the black mamba, the spitting cobra and the puffer snake. Other reptiles, including crocodiles, lizards and turtles, can also be seen here.
13. Conquer the Ngong Hills
The town of Ngong, the jumping-off point for the Ngong Hills, is 8km beyond the Karen shopping centre; turn right after the police station in Ngong. If you have the chance, stop on the way at Bulbul, 4km from Karen, and take a look at the pretty mosque of this largely Muslim village.
The walk along the sharp spine of the Ngong Hills was once a popular weekend hike and picnic outing, easily feasible in a day. Unfortunately, the hills got a reputation for muggings in the 1980s, curtailing independent expeditions, and KWS rangers usually now provide an escort.
The views, of Nairobi on one side and the Rift Valley on the other, are magnificent, the forested slopes are still inhabited by buffalo and various species of antelope. With a car – and it has to be 4WD if it’s been raining – you can get to the summit, Point Lamwia, which offers a 360-degree view. If you want to walk and are reasonably fit, allow a minimum of three hours to get to the top and back to your car.
14. Enjoy delicious food and Kenyan Coffee
For the vast majority of Kenyans, meals are plain and filling. For culinary culture, it’s only on the coast, with its long association with the Indian Ocean trade, that a distinctive regional cuisine has developed, with rice and fish, flavoured with coconut, tamarind and exotic spices, the major ingredients.
For visitors, and more affluent Kenyans, the cities and tourist areas have no shortage of restaurants, with roast meat, seafood and Italian restaurants the most common options among a range of cuisines that runs the gamut from Argentine to Thai.
Coffee, despite being a huge Kenyan export, is often just instant coffee granules if ordered in a cheap hotel or restaurant. However local chains of American-style coffee shops have sprung up in Nairobi, Mombasa and Nakuru. The coffee is often excellent, and many chains such as Java House and Dorman’s also sell packets of Kenya-produced coffee beans.
15. Visit Uhuru Gardens Memorial Park
Uhuru Gardens Memorial Park is a public park and national monument that was created to celebrate Kenya's independence from British colonial rule. Throughout the park are a variety of monuments and exhibits reflecting Kenya's history and culture. The main landmark of the park is the Independence Monument, a 24-metre-high construction that represents Kenya's journey to independence.
Other highlights of the park feature a fountain, a miniature lake, a children's playground and some walking trails. Exploring the various exhibits is also one of the best things to do in Nairobi for appreciation Kenya's cultural heritage.
- For central location: Sarova Panafric Hotel
- For luxury: Crowne Plaza Nairobi Airport, an IHG Hotel
- For price and quality: L'Aziz Suites
- For couples: Lotos Inn & Suites
Where to stay in Nairobi
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