Nairobi travel guide
Nairobi is best characterised by its variety of locally-given descriptive names, representative of the city's contrasting images of wealthy spacious suburbs, charming flower-lined streets and a refreshing climate, alongside crime, corruption, filth and poverty: names like 'Green City in the Sun', 'City of Flowers' and the Masai name 'Place of Cool Waters' attempt to overshadow the all too real version of 'Nairobbery' that stands as a warning to newly arrived tourists.
Nairobi is one of Africa's largest and most interesting cities. It is a place of enormous energy, a tireless and thriving bustle of people, and a city of differences. Assorted races, tribes and origins are all a part of its make-up. Rural immigrants and refugees are drawn by the hope of wealth and opportunity, international businessmen are attracted by profitable business prospects, and tourists are promised the makings of the perfect safari. The city centre buzzes with the energy, aspirations and opportunism of moneychangers, safari touts, would-be thieves, food vendors, trinket sellers, prostitutes, shoppers, security guards, and sharp-eyed shoe shiners assessing the footwear of the hurried throngs. Among them are the disillusioned faces of the unemployed, the beggars and the destitute.
Safety has also been a concern for tourists, as the capital has in recent years been the target of a number of terrorist attacks. With safety in mind, travellers are advised to be vigilant when visiting the capital and keep an eye on official government warnings as to the latest safety information pertaining to Kenya. Yet despite these unfortunate few incidents, a trip to Nairobi is usually trouble free and tourists can still safely enjoy the beautiful flavour and culture of the vibrant and friendly city.
Kenyatta Avenue is the city's favourite tourist image, a broad avenue fringed by trees and flowers that was originally designed to allow a twelve-oxen team to make a full turn. There are several museums and places of interest in the centre, including the National Museum and Snake Park. There are numerous markets selling traditional crafts, especially the appealing Masai market. Just outside of the centre is the Nairobi National Park, and the nearby Bomas of Kenya host performances of traditional dancing and singing. The Langata Giraffe Centre offers visitors the chance to hand-feed the Rothschild giraffes that inhabit the area.
Nairobi is also the safari capital of Africa and a good base for travel in Kenya. From here excursions and safaris can be arranged to any of the national parks or reserves in the country.
Nairobi National Park and Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage
Nairobi National Park was established in 1945 and is Kenya's
first national park. Uniquely situated on the capital's doorstep it
is a well-kept, compact and beautiful area of plains and wild bush
containing a large number of Africa's best-known animals. Large
herds of zebra, wildebeest, buffalo and giraffe roam the plains and
black rhino, ostrich, baboons, cheetah, leopard and lions are some
of the other photogenic inhabitants.
In the park is the Animal Orphanage where sick, wounded and abandoned animals are cared for and rehabilitated into the park, as well as an Educational Centre featuring a Safari Walk. Other attractions include the Ivory burning site Monument and some wonderful picnic areas popular for corporate functions, weddings and the like.
Close by is the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, where infant elephant and rhino (orphaned because of poaching activities) are cared for and eventually returned to the wild in Tsavo National Park. The centre is open every morning and visitors can watch the calves bathing in the mud hole and being bottle fed by their human surrogate mothers. Seeing these baby animals playing and interacting with them is a special experience and the Elephant Orphanage is one of the top attractions in Kenya for many visitors.
The Giraffe Centre
Experience giraffes up close and personal at this wonderful centre dedicated to the preservation of the endangered Rothschild giraffe. Not only can you watch them from very close but visitors can experience the rare pleasure of hand-feeding these graceful and gentle creatures from a platform at eye-level with the animals: you can touch them, have them take food out of your hands, or even put a pellet in your mouth and enjoy a sloppy giraffe kiss! The photo opportunities are simply superb. You can also enjoy the nature walk in a lovely area with 160 species of bird and some amazing trees. There are warthogs and giant tortoises to meet as well. This is the single best attraction for children in Nairobi and there are often groups of school kids that come for tours. Guides at the centre give educational talks and answer any questions you may have. Betty and Jock Leslie Melville founded the Giraffe Centre in 1979 to preserve the Rothschild giraffe of which only 120 remained in existence; it is a non-profit organisation and all fees go towards the conservation of these wonderful animals. The manor house on the estate is very charming and a popular venue for weddings and other events.
Address: Giraffe Centre, Duma Road, Nairobi
Opening time: Daily 9am to 5pm.
Nairobi National Museum
This hugely diverse museum contains some world-class attractions
among its dusty relics and stuffed animals. The facility is home to
the great pre-historic finds from the Leakey family, including
relics from mankind's earliest ancestors. The most famous fossil in
the museum is the skeleton of Turkana Boy, the most complete early
human skeleton ever found, at 1.5 million years old (Turkana Boy is
officially classified as either homo erectus or homo ergaster).
There are also fascinating sections on art, geology, wildlife and
local history. The Nairobi National Museum is a nice looking
building with lots to offer visitors. In many ways it is a bit
old-fashioned, but it is a great place to learn about Kenya's
culture and history and a worthwhile attraction for visitors to the
city. Local guides are available at the museum and hiring one is a
good idea because their knowledge enriches the exhibits and fills
in any gaps there may be in information.
Apart from the wealth of artefacts and information in the museum, there are some wonderful sculptures and a herb garden in the grounds, and there is an attached snake park where some of the world's largest and also most venomous snakes are displayed, in addition to other animals like tortoises and crocodiles.
Opening time: Daily 8.30am to 5.30pm.
Karen Blixen Museum
Karen Blixen was a notable Kenyan personality who lived and
farmed on the outskirts of Nairobi from 1917 to 1931 when she
returned to Denmark bankrupt and heartbroken at being forced to
leave Africa. Writing under the name Isak Dinesen she authored
acclaimed books including Out of Africa which inspired an Oscar
winning film of the same name. The main building of the original
farmhouse, M'Bogani House, now houses the Karen Blixen Museum and
retains much of its original furniture and other photographs and
items of interest. The museum is situated in the suburb of Karen, a
short drive from the city centre.
Those who have seen the much-loved movie, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, may also be curious about the Muthaiga Country Club featured in the film: tourists can visit the original clubhouse, which is still active, but women won't be allowed in the members' bar - Karen Blixen is, to this day, the only woman who has been allowed to drink there. Fans of the movie should also note that although it was designed to look like it, the house in the film is not M'Bogani House. The stunning landscapes of the area, however, will be instantly recognisable.
Opening time: 09.30am to 6pm daily, all year.
Nairobi is the largest city between Johannesburg and Cairo, and a trip to the city gives visitors insight into the good, the bad and the ugly of urban Africa. The main reason people travel to Nairobi is to launch onto one of Kenya's famous wildlife safaris or a trip to the coast but the city itself offers buzzing markets, some interesting sightseeing and a lively nightlife. Many visitors to Kenya spend as little time as possible in Nairobi, partially because of the city's reputation for danger and congestion, and this is a shame because Nairobi is ultimately a welcoming and fascinating place with a range of worthwhile things to see and do. A day or two is all you will need to get the highlights package of Nairobi before setting off on your Kenyan adventures. It is a good idea to hire a taxi driver, based on a recommendation at your hotel, and to allow him to navigate you between the sights. Some of the top attractions are the National Museum, the delightful Giraffe Centre, the Karen Blixen Museum and the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, not to mention the national park on the city's doorstep.
A holiday in Nairobi can be taken virtually any time of year, although the summer months (November to February) are most popular with sunny, warm days. The altitude of the city makes for a moderate climate, and it can be fairly cool in winter, especially at night. The rainiest season is autumn.
Amboseli National Park
Amboseli is a park of giants, renowned for its herds of mighty
tusked elephants presided over by the magnificent backdrop of
Africa's highest mountain, Mt Kilimanjaro. One of Africa's most
unforgettable images is the picture of these large creatures
standing in silent tribute before the gigantic snow-covered
mountain just over the border in neighbouring Tanzania. It is a
relatively small park with wide plains merging with the distant
skyline, affording good visibility in all directions.
Observation Hill rises from the centre for breathtaking views over the park and towards Mt Kilimanjaro, especially in the pink light of dawn. Meaning 'Place of Water' in the Masai language, it has a continuous supply from Kilimanjaro's snowmelt, forming underground springs that feed the marshy patches and swamps home to hippos and a great variety of bird life. Predators are relatively scarce apart from jackal and hyena, but there are large numbers of grazers such as wildebeest, zebra and gazelles on the grassy plains and giraffe among the thorn trees. A popular way to take in the scenery is by way of a noiseless microlight flight, either from Nairobi or the Amboseli airstrip. There is a wide range of accommodation in and around the outskirts of the park for those wanting to extend the experience.
Transport: Four-hour drive from Nairobi
Opening time: Daily from 6am to 6.30pm.
Mount Kenya National Park
This national park encompasses Africa's second highest mountain, Mt Kenya, an extinct volcano with a series of jagged snow-covered peaks. The local Kikuyu people revere the mountain they call Kirinvaga or 'Place of Light' as the home of their Supreme Being, Ngai, and traditionally Kikuyu homes are built to face the sacred summit. Part of the attraction is the incredible variation in flora and fauna found on the mountain due to the changes in altitude and its position on the equator. The slopes are covered in thick forest, home to a variety of animals including the black leopard. Bamboo, moorland and alpine vegetation give way to rock, ice and one of the world's rarest sights - equatorial snow. The summit is a technical climb, but Point Lenana is a popular trekkers' objective; it is the third highest peak and can be reached by a number of different scenic routes, lasting from three to five days. The Mount Kenya National Park is a paradise for climbers who come to summit the various peaks and test themselves against the mountain. For those not wishing to climb the park offers a pristine wilderness, lakes and glaciers, and is good for game viewing and hiking.
Transport: Two-hour drive from Nairobi
Masai Mara National Reserve
Kenya's most visited park, commonly known as the Mara, is a
wildly beautiful place with rolling savannah grasslands. It is an
extension of the Serengeti Plains in neighbouring Tanzania. Much of
the film Out of Africa was filmed here and it offers wonderful
views and an extraordinary concentration of wildlife, including the
'Big Five'. It has the largest population of lion in Kenya, and
large herds of grazers also attract many other predators such as
cheetah, leopard and hyena.
The annual highlight is the Great Wildebeest Migration, creating one of the world's supreme natural spectacles, when an estimated two million animals form one large herd and leave the dry plains of Tanzania to seek greener pastures in the north, arriving in the Mara from late June onwards and returning again in September. Their entrance into the Mara makes a breathtaking spectacle, as they cross the crocodile infested waters of the Mara River. A once in a lifetime way to experience the magic of an African dawn over such a wilderness is by hot air balloon, drifting silently over the herds below. These can be booked through any safari company and operate daily from several of the lodges in the reserve.
Also within the reserve is a Masai village that holds demonstrations of traditional dances and music as a source of tourist income for the local communities of the Masai Mara National Reserve. Traditionally the lands were used by the Masai for their herds of cattle and the settlement programs set up to compensate for their displacement have only recently been accepted, albeit reluctantly. The proud warriors have become a symbol of tribal Kenya with their beadwork, feathers, spears, decorated gourds and red blankets. Today the Masai communities are allowed to hunt and graze their animals in the reserve, and the occasional flash of red glimpsed between the thorn trees and bush on the fringes of the Mara has become a natural part of the Mara's character.
Transport: 6 to 7 hour drive from Nairobi, or a short flight
Opening time: Daily 6.30am to 7pm.
Nairobi is possibly the best place in Africa to stock up on crafts and curios. The quality and prices of goods are not matched elsewhere, so make the most of a stay here to stock up. The local vendors will test your bargaining skills so be prepared to haggle. Typical souvenirs include Kamba woodcarvings, African masks, Kisii soapstone carvings, Masai beadwork colourful fabrics, handmade rugs and the distinctive square cloth known as kangas or kikhois. Do not attempt to buy precious stones or jewellery from freelance vendors.
The best place to go on a shopping excursion is the fascinating and always lively City Market on Muindi Mbingu Street. For a more local experience visit Kariokor Market where everything from vegetables to clothes is on sale. More local crafts can be found at the Maasai Markets (every Tuesday, Friday on the intersection of Moi Avenue and Monrovia Street; on Thursdays near the National Theatre; and Fridays near Limuru Road). Biashara (Business) Street in central Nairobi is lined with interesting stores and boutiques, with plenty of cafes in which to recuperate from the rigors of shopping.
Note that taxi drivers and local touts will pressure you to go to certain stores; they earn large commissions for doing so and therefore the prices you pay will be much higher.
Jomo Kenyatta International Airport
Location: The airport is situated 10 miles (16km) southeast of Nairobi.
Time: GMT +3.
Contacts: Tel: +254 (0)20 822 111
Getting to the city: The bus services leave fairly regularly for the city centre; most travellers however take a taxi or arrange to be picked up by their hotel or tour operator.
Car rental: Avis, Sixt and Budget, among others, are represented at the airport.
Airport Taxis: Taxis take passengers to the central city hotels and its best to negotiate a fixed fare upfront.
Facilities: The facilities at the airport are fairly limited, but include a bank and bureau de change, left luggage, telephones, medical aid, a bar and restaurant, duty-free shops selling curios, tourist information and hotel reservations. There are disabled facilities, but passengers should advise their airline in advance of any special needs.
Parking: Parking at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is charged at KSH 60 per hour for short-term parking, and KSH 700 per day for long-term parking.
Departure tax: US$20, but this is usually included in the ticket price.
The most popular form of public transport in Nairobi is the matatu, usually Nissan minibuses, which operate on set routes collecting as many passengers as possible along the way, with people boarding and disembarking wherever and whenever they choose. Loud music goes along with the ride in these cheap but unregulated and usually overcrowded vehicles that have become part of Kenyan culture. No less risky, but not as colourful, are the local bus services, which operate on set routes and schedules through the city streets, and are renowned for overcrowding and speeding. Taxis are widely available and convenient, usually congregated in the street around hotels and areas frequented by tourists. Taxis are not metered and the fare should be agreed upon before departure. Nairobi taxis are marked with a yellow line along the side of the vehicle, or they are, surprisingly, large black London taxis. The better taxi companies have more modern vehicles, which can be booked by telephone. The best option if you are spending a day or two in the city is probably to hire a taxi and driver recommended for you by your hotel or tour operator. Three-wheel auto-rickshaws, or tuk-tuks, are also used as taxis in Nairobi. Walking in the city can be dangerous and is not a good idea after dark or outside of tourist areas.
Nairobi has a maritime climate, tempered by its high elevation and tends to be less hot than the rest of Kenya. As the city is near the equator there is little variation between the seasons and generally people talk about wet or dry seasons as opposed to summer, winter, spring or autumn. However, summers, between November and February, are warm and pleasant, with temperatures ranging between 50°F (10°C) and 77°F (25°C). Winter days, between June and August, are mild with slightly cooler evenings, but temperatures much like summer. The rainy season in Nairobi is during late summer and into autumn, when it is often cloudy and damp, but rainfall is seldom very heavy. The drizzliest months are March to May and October to December.
Generally visitors flock to Kenya in the country's dry seasons, between January and March, and July and October, because these are the best months to go on safari in the national parks. The best time to visit Nairobi is in summer, between November and February, but ultimately any time of year is okay in the city and it is recommended that visitors decide on the time of their visit to Kenya according to their desired activities rather than the city's climate.
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