6 reasons to stay in Nairobi before you head off on safari

updated 9/1/2021
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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, though, and you’ll get to know the real Kenya.

The city is full of vitality and buzz, with some excellent food and a host of fun and fascinating activities to keep you busy before you head off on safari. From the Rough Guide to Kenya, here are a just few reasons to sample some of the many things to do in Nairobi.

1. To get 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 a 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 – but it’s still thriving with small businesses, from wedding dress shops to bakeries and butchers.

Take a tour with a trusted operator (Kibera Tours or Explore Kibera both run reliable and responsible excursions) or local NGO worker.

Kibera slum in Nairobi © Black Sheep Media/Shutterstock

2. To 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, Nairobi National Museum is a must-see.

The Great Hall of Mammals has some impressive displays: giraffe, 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.

3. To sample the excellent shopping

If you’re after Maasai crafts (whether traditional beaded jewellery or items made up for the tourist industry), or carvings and crafts in general, 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.

You’ll sometimes find prices well below those in the tourist markets, but you’ll likely have to bargain hard to get what seems like an acceptable price. All the markets are open roughly from 8am to 3pm.

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. To 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.

If you’re keen to do some game watching, 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.

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5. To 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.

© Pixabay

6. To 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 – where 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.

Top image © Shutterstock

Explore more of Nairobi with the Rough Guide to Kenya. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

Travel advice for Kenya

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updated 9/1/2021
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