Sleazy, hot and physically tropical in a way that could hardly be more different from the capital, MOMBASA is the slightly indolent hub of the coast, with a sense of community and depth of history that Nairobi lacks. The city centre – neatly isolated by the sea from its suburbs – is faded, flaking and occasionally charming, like a small town that was once great.

While it’s a chaotic city, the atmosphere, even in the commercial centre of what is one of Africa’s busiest ports, is relaxed and congenial. Rush hours, urgency and paranoia seem to be Nairobi’s problems (as everyone here will tell you), not Mombasa’s. And the gaping, marginal slums of many African cities hardly exist here. It’s true that Miritini and Chomvu and especially Likoni and Changamwe are burgeoning mainland suburbs that the municipality has more or less abandoned, but the brutalizing conditions of Nairobi’s Kibera are absent.

Ethnically, Mombasa is perhaps even more diverse than Nairobi. The Asian and Arab influence is particularly pervasive, with fifty mosques and dozens of Hindu and Sikh temples lending a strongly oriental flavour. Still, the largest contingent speaks Swahili as a first language and it is the Swahili civilization that accounts for Mombasa’s distinctive character. You’ll see women wearing head-to-foot buibuis or brilliant kanga outfits, and men decked out in kanzu gowns and hip-slung kikoi wraps.

Arriving in Mombasa by plane or train in the morning, there’s ample time, if you don’t find the heat too much, to head straight out to the beaches – the nearest is Nyali Beach on the north coast mainland. But you might want to spend a day or two in Mombasa itself, acclimatizing to the coast, catching the cadences of the coast’s “pure Swahili”, or Kiswahili safi, and looking around Kenya’s most historic city.

Mombasa doesn’t have a huge number of sights, but most visitors will want to check out its main one, the museum-monument Fort Jesus, in the shadow of which lies Mombasa’s Old Town, still an atmospheric hive of narrow lanes, mosques and carved Swahili doorways. In the modern town centre, the tusk arch that features on so many postcards is not wildly exciting, though fans of 1930s architecture might appreciate one or two of the buildings from that era on Digo Road. Further afield, the baobab forest and Mbaraki Pillar, a seventeenth-century pillar tomb, are worth a visit.

Brief history

Mombasa is one of East Africa’s oldest settlements and, so long as you aren’t anticipating spectacular historical sites, it’s a fascinating place to wander. The island has had a town on it, located somewhere between the present Old Town and Nyali Bridge, for at least seven hundred years, and there are enough documentary snippets from earlier times to guess that some kind of settlement has existed here for at least two thousand years. Mombasa’s own optimistic claim to be 2500 years old comes from Roman and Egyptian adventure stories.

Early tales

Precisely what was going on before the Portuguese arrived is still hard to discern. Ibn Battuta, the roving fourteenth-century Moroccan, spent a relatively quiet night here in 1332 and declared the people of the town “devout, chaste and virtuous, their mosques strongly constructed of wood, the greater part of their diet bananas and fish”. But another Arab traveller of a hundred years later found a less ordered society. “Monkeys have become the rulers of Mombasa since about 800 AH [1397 AD],” he wrote. “They even come and take the food from the dishes, attack men in their own homes and take away what they can find. When the monkeys enter a house and find a woman they hold congress with her. The people have much to put up with.”

Early Portuguese visitors

Mombasa had considerably worse depredations to put up with after Vasco da Gama’s expedition, full of mercenary zeal, dropped anchor on Easter Saturday 1498. After courtesy gifts had been exchanged, relations suddenly soured and the fleet was prevented from entering the port. A few days later, richer by only one sheep and “large quantities of oranges, lemons and sugar cane”, da Gama went off to try his crude diplomacy at Malindi, and found his first and lasting ally on the coast.

Mombasa was visited again in 1505 by a fourteen-strong Portuguese fleet. This time, the king of Mombasa had enlisted 1500 archers from the mainland and people stored arsenals of stone missiles on the rooftops in preparation for the expected invasion through the town’s narrow alleys. The attack, pitching firearms against spears and poisoned arrows, was brutal and overwhelming, and the king’s palace (of which no trace remains) was seized. The king and most of the survivors slipped out of town into the palm groves which then covered most of Mombasa island, but 1513 Mombasans had been killed – as against five Portuguese.

The king attempted to save Mombasa by offering to become a vassal of Portugal, but the request was turned down, the Portuguese being unwilling to lose the chance to loot the town. The victors picked over the bodies in the courtyards and broke down the strongroom doors until the ships at anchor were almost overladen. Then, as a parting shot, they fired the town. The narrow streets and cattle stalls between the thatched houses produced a conflagration that razed Mombasa to the ground.

Portuguese occupation

In 1528, the Portuguese returned once again to wreck and plunder the new city that had been built on the ashes of the old. In the 1580s, it happened twice more. On the last occasion, in 1589, there was a frenzied massacre at the hands of the Portuguese on one side and – coincidentally – a marauding tribe of cannibal nomads from the interior called the Zimba on the other. The Zimba’s unholy alliance with the Europeans came to a treacherous end at Malindi shortly afterwards, when the Portuguese, together with the townsfolk and three thousand Segeju archers, wiped them out.

Remarkably, only two years after this last catastrophe, Mombasa launched a major land expedition of its own against its old enemy, Malindi. The party was ambushed on the way by Malindi’s Segeju allies, who themselves stormed and took Mombasa, later handing over the town to the Portuguese at Malindi. The Malindi corps transferred to Mombasa, the Malindi sheikh was grandly installed as sultan of the whole region, and the Portuguese set to work on Fort Jesus, dedicated in 1593.

Once completed, the fort became the focus of everything that mattered in Mombasa, changing hands a total of nine times between the early seventeenth century and 1875. The first takeover happened in 1631, in a popular revolt that resulted in the killing of every last Portuguese. But the Sultan, lacking support from any of the other towns under Portuguese domination, eventually had to desert the fort, and the Portuguese, waiting in Zanzibar, reoccupied it. They held it for the rest of the seventeenth century while consolidating their control of the Indian Ocean trade.

Omani rule

Meanwhile, the Omani Arabs were becoming increasingly powerful. As Dutch, English and French ships started to appear on the horizon, time was running out for the Portuguese trading monopoly. Efforts to bring settlers to their East African possessions failed, and they retreated more and more behind the massive walls of Fort Jesus. Between 1696 and 1698 Fort Jesus itself was besieged into submission by the Omanis who, with support from Pate and Lamu, had already taken the rest of the town. After 33 months almost all the defenders – the Portuguese corps and some 1500 Swahili loyalists – had died of starvation or plague.

Rapid disenchantment with the new Arab rulers spilled over in 1728 into a mutiny among the fort’s African soldiers. The Portuguese were invited back – for a year. Then the fort was again besieged, and this time the Portuguese gave up quickly. They were allowed their freedom, and a number were said to have married and stayed in the town. But Portuguese power on the coast was shattered for ever.

The new Omani rulers were the Mazrui family, who soon declared themselves independent of Oman, outlawing slave-trading in Mombasa, and directly challenging the Busaidi family who had just seized power in the Arabian homeland.

British takeover

Intrigue in the Lamu Archipelago led to the Battle of Shela and Lamu’s unwittingly disastrous invitation to the Sultan of Oman, Seyyid Said, to occupy its own fort. From here, and by now with British backing, the Busaidis went on to attack Mazrui Mombasa repeatedly in the 1820s.

There was a hiccup in 1824 when a British officer, Captain Owen, fired with enthusiasm for defeating the slave trade, extended British protection to Mombasa on his own account, despite official British support for the slave-trading Busaidis. Owen’s “Protectorate” was a diplomatic embarrassment and – not surprisingly – did not last long. The Busaidi government was only installed when the Swahili “twelve tribes” of Mombasa fell into a dispute over the Mazrui succession and called in Seyyid Said, the Busaidi leader. In 1840, he moved his capital from Oman to Zanzibar and, with Mombasa firmly garrisoned, most of the coast was soon in his domain. Surviving members of the Mazrui family went to Takaungu near Kilifi and Gazi, south of Mombasa.

British influence was sharpened after their guns quelled the mutiny in 1875 of al-Akida, “an ambitious, unbalanced and not over-clever” commandant of Fort Jesus. Once British hegemony was established, they leased the coastal strip from the Sultan of Zanzibar and Fort Jesus became Mombasa’s prison, which it remained until 1958. It was opened as a museum in 1962.

Independence on the coast

Mombasa has played a key role in Kenya’s first fifty years of independence – as Kenya’s second city and East and central Africa’s most important port. Before independence, the coast had been leased by the British from the Sultan of Zanzibar, but the possibility of a federal union with the former Kenya Colony was soon buried by Jomo Kenyatta and the upcountry political elite of the 1960s. Since 1999, the Mombasa Republican Council, a group that claims “Pwani si Kenya” (“The Coast is not Kenya”), has campaigned for independence for the coast and against the marginalization of coastal interests by Nairobi. Their movement, however, has been tainted by its linkage with Islamic extremism, which also has found some appeal in poorer areas, and in recent years Somalia’s terrorist group Al-Shabaab has succeeded in making some common cause with the coast’s disaffected youth. In August 2012, the assassination of a Muslim cleric in Mombasa led to riots as local youths fought street battles with police brought down from Nairobi; the extrajudicial killings of several other religious leaders since then have only served to heighten tensions between authorities and the local community.

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