Here’s how to plan an urban vacation in Nairobi

Two white women standing in front of a table with six cups of coffee on itCoffee tasting at Fairview Coffee Estate

Recently my mom came to visit me in Nairobi for 10 days.  I suggested that we spend some of that time at the Mara or on the coast, but she wanted to focus on exploring the city.  We ended up having a great time, and I discovered a lot of fun new activities which I hadn’t previously known about.

Aside from the inevitable expense of the flight to Kenya (because we didn’t find a good deal on Secret Flying), this was also a surprisingly affordable way to spend a holiday.  With the exception of guided tours, most of the activities we tried had fees ranging from Ksh 50 / US$0.50 to Ksh 1000 / US$10 for one person.  Taxis booked through Taxify are generally not more than Ksh 1000 / US$10 even for a long trip from the outer suburbs into town.  Eating out can be expensive, but buying groceries and cooking for yourself is fairly cheap.

Here are my top recommendations for visitors to the city!

Where to stay

Nairobi is still very much shaped by its colonial-era urban planning.   The city was founded as a railway depot in the late 1800s, and zoned into commercial and residential areas segregated by race.  The northern and western suburbs were allocated to Europeans, and built up with single-family homes on wide, leafy streets, while the southern and eastern suburbs tend to have higher density housing or informal settlements.  These patterns have persisted to the present day, with well-to-do Kenyans and white immigrants living in the former European colonial zones.  Many visitors stay in these areas as well.  It’s really not great to advocate continuing this pattern, but it’s also the case that many activities which might interest visitors are around these areas.

Balcony with a small wooden table and two chairs on it, and a view looking out across a leafy valley towards another high rise apartment building

The view from Kilimani

Pick a neighborhood based on your plans in Nairobi.  If you’re primarily interested in seeing wildlife, there are a number of good options for this around Karen, far to the west of downtown.  If you’d like easy access to restaurants and shopping both in the neighborhood and in the central business district (CBD), consider Kilimani, which is immediately west of downtown.  If you’d prefer peace and quiet, look for something around Gigiri, north of downtown.  If you’re only passing through for a night on your way out to one of the national parks, it’s best to stay close to the airport in Embakasi, as traffic coming from the airport to any of these other areas can be quite heavy.

The best way to stay is definitely with AirBnB.  There are a number of great housing options available, and it’s almost always cheaper and more comfortable than a hotel.

What to do

Start your trip with a panoramic view!  The Nairobi National Museum just north of downtown has an excellent exhibit on Kenyan history — or you could go for a literal panorama from the helipad at the Kenya International Convention Centre in the CBD.

Learn more about Kenyan arts and culture with a trip to one of the city’s many art galleries.  The Nairobi Gallery is in the CBD, and the GoDown Arts Centre  is just south of that.  Farther out of town, past Gigiri, are a range of excellent galleries including One-Off Contemporary Art, Red Hill Art Gallery, and Banana Hill Art Gallery.

The Kenya National Theatre in the evening
Attending a play at the National Theatre

Catch a concert, play, or spoken word performance at venues including the National TheatreAlliance Française, or Goethe Institut, all of which are downtown.  If you’re interested in traditional dance, don’t miss the daily shows at Bomas of Kenya near Karen, which feature dances from across the country’s 47 regions.  The Nairobi Now newsletter is also a great resource for new performances.

Stock up on souvenirs at one of the city’s many craft shops.  The Maasai Market is held at various locations around town on different days.  If you’re near Karen, stop by Langata Link Shops or Utamaduni Artisans, both of which have well made crafts.  If you’re a more serious collector of African art, there are several interesting shops selling antiques and contemporary art at Village Market in Gigiri.

There are lots of opportunities to get outside for hikes or picnics within the city limits, thanks to the work of environmental campaigners like Wangari MaathaiKarura Forest in Gigiri has miles of hiking trails.  The Nairobi Arboretum near Kilimani is a lovely spot for a walk or a picnic.  In Karen, Oloolua Nature Trail is a lovely place to spend an afternoon.

IMG_5827
The Nairobi Arboretum

If you’re passionate about wildlife, Nairobi is definitely the place for you.  You can visit orphaned baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, feed a giraffe at the the Giraffe Centre, and or go on a half-day or full-day safari at Nairobi National Park, all of which are close to Karen.  For the safari, you will need to drive through the park.  It’s best to go with a tour guide for this, as they’ll be familiar with the places where animals usually gather.  Check out TripAdvisor’s suggestions to find a guide.

Don’t miss the chance to explore the beautiful countryside around Nairobi either.  A drive out to Lake Naivasha will take you past the Rift Valley, where you can stop to appreciate the stunning view.  You can also connect with your food by doing guided tours of Kiambethu Tea Farm, Brown’s Cheese Farm, or Fairview Coffee Estate, all of which are shortly outside Nairobi.

Where to eat  

Kenya’s unofficial national cuisine is nyama choma, or grilled meat.  Every neighborhood has a good choma place, and it’s best to ask your host or just do a bit of Googling to find them.  Two of my favorites are Peponi Springs in Spring Valley, somewhat north of the CBD, and the choma stalls at Kenyatta Market south of the CBD.  A more upscale version of the same experience is provided by Nyama Mama in Westlands, west of the CBD.

A bottle of White Cap beer and a half-full glass of beer next to it on a red table, on a patio with lots of trees around itRelaxing on the patio at Peponi Springs

Ethiopian and Eritrean food are also well represented around Nairobi.  Habesha in Kilimani has a lovely garden, and Asmara is a quiet spot in Spring Valley north of the CBD.  Kesh Kesh in Kilimani is more of a café, but also serves excellent Eritrean food.

There has been a large Indian population in Kenya ever since the colonial era, partly as a result of economic migration, and partly as a consequence of the colonial policy of bringing people from India as indentured laborers.  Today, many prominent business owners in Kenya are of Indian descent — and there are also a lot of excellent Indian restaurants.  Two of my favorites close to the CBD are Haandi and Chowpaty.  In Karen, Open House is quite good.

Other international foods are also quite well represented.  I’m fond of Mercado (excellent Mexican close to the CBD), Caffe Concerto (a tiny, outstanding Italian place in a converted house in Kilimani), and Misono (sushi in Kilimani).

If you’d rather cook for yourself, every major mall has a good supermarket.  In Kilimani, you can choose between two Kenyan supermarkets: Nakumatt at Prestige Plaza (which is well-stocked, unlike its sad situation last year) and Chandarana at AdLife Plaza (identical selection to the Chandarana across the street at Yaya Centre, and much less crowded).  In Gigiri, there’s a Zucchini greengrocer at Village Market.  In Karen, there’s a massive Carrefour at the Hub.

It’s also easy to get takeaway through Jumia Food, which does delivery from a wide range of restaurants throughout the city.

Logistics

Most nationalities need visas to enter Kenya.  Apply for an e-visa before you leave, and take the printed approval form to passport control on arrival.

The entrance to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at nightGoing through the first security check at JKIA

The vast majority of Kenyans are on one mobile network: Safaricom.  Get a SIM when you arrive, and don’t forget to sign up for mobile money with MPesa.  Every merchant accepts it, and it’s much easier than carrying around cash.  If you have an American, Canadian or British bank account, you can use Wave to easily transfer money to your MPesa account.

Within the city, use Taxify to get a taxi from door to door, SafeBoda if you’d rather hop on a motorcycle and beat traffic, and Ma3Route (pronounced “matatu route”) if you’re not in a rush and would rather take the bus (a.k.a. a matatu).

Malaria incidence is quite low within Nairobi, and you don’t need to take anti-malarials.  You will be asked for proof of a yellow fever vaccine at immigration, however.

If you need medical care while you’re here, there are pharmacists / chemists at every major mall.  The Nairobi Hospital near Kilimani and Aga Khan Hospital in Parklands near the CBD both provide good care.  You can call St John Ambulance for transport at +254 203 340 262.

6 thoughts on “Here’s how to plan an urban vacation in Nairobi

  1. Hi Rachel,
    Thanks for this wonderful post, and for planning all the great activities in Nairobi! It was a memorable visit, and I was so glad
    to have time together with you and Tom. Thanks again for an amazing visit!!
    love always,
    mom

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Rachel! This is such a great list. I have added a couple of places already to my Tembea Kenya bucketlist…and I am a born-Nairobian! I hope your mum had a great time. Have you attended any of the Engage Talks? If not, they are held bi-monthly at Braeburn. ; quite similar to TEDx talks but they upload on YouTube afterwards/

    Liked by 1 person

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