As the sun rises each morning in equatorial East Africa, Nairobi, Kenya, is already bustling with traffic, streams of pedestrians and people pushing carts. In Nairobi's markets, the floors are washed, and fresh produce is artfully arranged; the tea sellers unlock their stalls and light their fires; and merchants raise the iron screens from their store windows. Flowers are everywhere, and it is particularly attractive on some of the city's main avenues and in Uhuru Park around December when the jacaranda trees are in bloom.
Travelers will find that Nairobi is more cosmopolitan and less stressful than many capital cities in Africa. The city center has a lively and modern Central Business District (CBD), some fine colonial buildings, and spacious squares and leafy well-tended parks that are popular with office workers at lunchtime. The attractive and peaceful suburbs to the west, which peter out to the picturesque Ngong Hills overlooking the Rift Valley, are where most of the sights and better accommodations are located.
But you should still be prepared for frustration and inconvenience. Nairobi is a place of contrasts, combining all the trappings of the developed world (high-rise office blocks and upscale shopping malls) with the Third World, evident in the frantic matatu and bus stands, heaving markets, and the slums and townships that ring the city.
Most travelers to Kenya spend a couple of nights in Nairobi before or after a safari. This is time enough to do some curio shopping or perhaps visit the National Museum or the Karen Blixen Museum. Other Nairobi attractions include the Giraffe Centre, where you can feed a giraffe, and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant orphanage, where each morning visitors can watch the baby elephants at bath time.
Lying on the outskirts of the city, Nairobi National Park is one of the easiest to visit in the country. Combined with visits to the Animal Orphanage and Safari Walk at the entrance, a half-day visit is a good introduction to the wildlife you are likely to encounter on a longer safari in the rest of the country. Nairobi also boasts the best restaurants and nightlife in Kenya; the most famous is Carnivore, which is on most travelers' itineraries.
Because of Nairobi's high unemployment rate and associated poverty, travelers should always be alert to the possibility of robbery. However, there have been successful efforts to improve Nairobi's appearance and security, and petty crime and muggings have been considerably reduced in the city center. Several police information centers and CCTV have been installed in downtown Nairobi, making the police more accessible to the city's residents. During the day and early evening, the upper part of the city center, west of Moi Avenue, is considered generally safe. But in the east of the center, around the crowded markets and bus stands, you still have to be extremely alert.
In one of the most diverse and beautiful countries in Africa, Nairobi sits just 90 mi/145 km south of the equator, at approximately 5,500 ft/1,700 m above sea level. The city center is densely packed, a roughly rectangular area 12 blocks long and six blocks wide. Boundaries are University Way on the north end, Haile Selassie Avenue on the south, Uhuru Highway to the west and Moi Avenue to the east.
Upscale, fast-growing Westlands, a neighborhood northwest of the city center, is teeming with hotels, shopping malls and restaurants. Karen and Langata in the south and Gigiri in the north are well-kept areas with enough shops and attractions to make them noteworthy. Ngong Road to the south of the city has also followed this trend; shopping and other recreational activities are now thriving there. To the east is a vast industrial area that stretches almost to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Nairobi's traffic is at times severely congested and the pollution palpable, but it is fairly easy to get oriented.
The Maasai called the swampy plain along the river enkare nyarobi
(the place of cool waters), as it was originally a watering place for the Maasai and their cattle. It wasn't until the Mombasa-Uganda railway arrived in May 1899 that modern-day Nairobi was born. By 1907, it became large enough to take over from Mombasa as the capital of the British colony. The climate was considered by the British officials to be better than at the coast.
By the 1920s, the city had prospered as European immigrants farmed the surrounding lands. Nairobi also became home to communities of Indians, Arabs and Somalis, who came to trade. By the time of its independence from British rule in 1963, Nairobi was a glorious city, noted for well-kept streets, stunning gardens and a cosmopolitan population.
After independence, rapid urbanization followed, turning the city into one of Africa's largest commercial centers. Since the early 1980s, the city has been dealing with an increasing population, rising unemployment and student- and civil-society-led demonstrations, which were especially frequent in the 1990s. Keeping up the maintenance of basic infrastructures has also been a struggle.
However, after the election of the country's third president, Mwai Kibaki, in December 2002, things appeared to steadily improve. In December 2005, Kenyans voted for sweeping constitutional changes in a first-ever national referendum. When few changes were brought into effect, discontent mounted in the build-up to the 2007 general elections. Hailed as the most open and closely contested election in Kenya's history, more than 70% of the country's 14.3 million registered voters turned out to cast their votes. As the votes were counted, however, accusations of electoral fraud quickly surfaced as President Kibaki came from behind to defeat opposition leader Raila Odinga, of the Orange Democratic Movement, by a slim margin.
Initial protests escalated into unprecedented violence and destruction, leading to more than 1,000 deaths and the internal displacement of more than 350,000 people. While Nairobi was at the center of the violence, parts of Mombasa as well as towns in the Rift Valley, including Naivasha and Nakuru, were also affected. Following lengthy peace talks chaired by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, a power sharing agreement was eventually signed between Kibaki and Odinga on 28 February 2008.
In 2010, Kenyans again voted for changes to the constitution in a referendum, which also saw a high voter turnout of more than 70%, and the process passed peacefully. To avoid a repeat of the confusing 2007 election, under the new terms, a presidential candidate now must get a 50% plus one vote majority in the National Assembly, and at least 25% of the vote in the constituencies.
In March 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta won the presidential election, narrowly avoiding a runoff election against Prime Minister Odinga. The 86% voter turnout was the highest ever recorded in Kenya.
These days, local citizens continue to address some of Nairobi's problems, and there are positive signs that the current government is taking on the issues of burgeoning slums, corruption and crime. Recent measures have been taken to cut down on bribery by police and civil servants, to crack down on traffic offenses, to prevent overcrowding in vehicles, and to arrest anyone carrying a firearm.
To get a feel for Nairobi, first visit the City Market on Muindi Mbingu Street, which is a vibrant place. There are butchers, fresh-flower stalls, an array of colorful fruit and vegetables, and crafts and curios where you will be able to haggle with the traders. Interestingly, the market was originally built as an airport hangar. Curio markets are held in different places all over the city on designated days of the week.
Among Nairobi's other attractions are the superb National Museum (ethnographic, paleontological and ornithological displays) and the Nairobi Railway Museum.
For those who can't wait to see animals (or who are visiting just Nairobi), the nearby Nairobi National Park has lions, giraffes, impala and more. (Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to see animals.) At the edge of the park, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust houses elephant and rhino orphans and allows visitors to watch the baby animals being fed.
Alternatively, you can take a rather pricey taxi ride to the Giraffe Centre, where the Rothschild giraffe was saved from extinction, and where you can feed the animals. This excursion to Langata is often combined with a visit to the home of Karen Blixen (who wrote Out of Africa under the name Isak Dinesen). Blixen's farmhouse, which was presented to the Kenyan government by Denmark, is now a museum.
Venturing out for a taste of Nairobi's nightlife is not for the nervous or meek. Most Nairobi bars are in dicey neighborhoods, and we can't recommend them to travelers. If you do head out for a night on the town, go in a group or at least as a pair, and take taxis rather than walk. Entrance fees for nightclubs tend to be cheaper for women.
The large international hotels are the best places to go for a drink. Locals and expats mingle at bars in the Norfolk, Hilton, InterContinental and Serena hotels or at the Carnivore restaurant's Simba Saloon.
Eating out in Nairobi is never boring. The sheer number and variety of restaurants could keep you dining for many months without ever visiting the same spot twice. Although restaurants open and close regularly, you'll always find an astonishing variety of cuisines from around the globe.
Local specialties include samosas (deep-fried pastry filled with minced meat), mandazi (a semisweet flat bread similar to a doughnut), kienyenji or irio (maize and green vegetables mashed together), sukuma wiki (greens cooked with meat or meat broth) and ugali (cornmeal cooked into a thick porridge).
The fruit in Kenya is heavenly—the mangoes are superior to any grown in North or Central America, and the papayas (pawpaws), custard apples, passion fruit, green oranges, green bananas, small yellow bananas and pineapples are all delicious.
For many Kenyans, nyama choma (barbecued meat) is an epicurean delight. Usually, each diner chooses a cut of meat at the counter, and it is prepared to order. Some restaurants serve Kenya's coastal cuisine, in which meat, poultry, fish or vegetables are cooked in a curried coconut sauce.
Wines are mostly imported to Kenya from South Africa and Europe. Kenyan Tusker beer is worth trying and has won many awards at various beer festivals around the world.
Restaurants are most crowded 1-2 pm for lunch and 7-8:30 pm for dinner. With Nairobi's strict laws banning smoking in public places, all bars and restaurants now provide separate smoking areas.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 560 KSh; $$ = 560 KSh-1,120 KSh; $$$ = 1,121 KSh-2,800 KSh; $$$$ = more than 2,800 KSh.
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