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.

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.


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.

Statistics on pre-trial detention in Kenya

Infographic with various figures about pre-trial detention in Kenya
Image via Nation NewsPlex

The Daily Nation recently ran an interesting article about pre-trial detention in Kenya.  Some key facts:

  • Fully 52% of people in Kenyan prisons are in pre-trial detention.  Only 48% have actually been sentenced.  (Note that the percentages are incorrect in the infographic above.)
  • The average length of stay in pre-trial detention is one year.  Some people have waited up to eight years without a hearing.
  • 90% of people in pre-trial detention are there because they were granted bail but couldn’t afford it.  Bail amounts range from Ksh 500 / US$5 to Ksh 10 million / US$100,000.
  • Many people in pre-trial detention have had their cases mentioned numerous times in court, but no decisions were taken because the complainants or witnesses didn’t show up, and the defendant was then returned to jail to await a new court date.  It’s not clear to me why default judgements would not be entered in cases where complainants don’t show up to court.

Links I liked

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got Mali’s 35-year old foreign minister, the dodgeball association of South Sudan, accountability for Mozambican mayors over gay rights, the future of nuclear power on the continent, and more.

View of the Nile, with green banks on both sides and a blue sky full of puffy clouds above
Here’s the view I’ve been enjoying in Jinja during Nyege Nyege Festival this weekend

West Africa: Ghana’s plan to build a new national cathedral is coming in for heavy criticism.  Also in Ghana, cocoa companies are working with local chiefs to improve property rights for cocoa farmers.  The Nigerian government is allegedly forcing internally displaced people to return to their dangerous home regions so that they can vote in upcoming primary elections.  Félicitations à Kamissa Camara, qui est devenue chef de la diplomatie malienne agée de 35 ans.  In Niger, farmers are using a nitrogen-fixing tree to improve their soil quality and fight climate change.  Here’s a good background article on current politics in Togo.  The latest edition of West Africa Insights is all about urbanization in the region.

Central Africa:  Read all about the DRC’s upcoming election, including its unusual single-round voting that can allow a president to be elected with a tiny minority of votes, and Kabila’s preferred candidate for the presidency.  Désarmement dans le Pool : le pasteur Ntumi fait « un pas dans la bonne direction », selon Brazzaville.  This article situates Uganda’s social media tax in a long history of unfair colonial taxation.  Museveni has threatened to abolish the Ugandan Parliament after protests over the beating of prominent opposition MP Bobi Wine, whose popularity clearly alarms him.  Listen to this piece about poor conditions on Uganda’s prison farms.  Tanzania is cutting off markets in refugee camps in an apparent attempt to force Burundian refugees to return home.  Rwanda is trying to boost tax revenue by simplifying its tax code at the same time it raises tax rates.

Map showing more than 4 million internally displaced people in the DRC, and flows of hundreds of thousands of refugees to neighboring nations
Map of the massive population displacement in the DRC, via Africa Visual Data

East Africa:  Tanzania wants to make it illegal to question government statistics.  If you’d like to approach the government with a non-statistical matter, definitely read these insider tips on how policymaking works in Tanzania.  South Sudan’s newest athletic league is a dodgeball association for teenage girls.  Read this insightful article about how John Garang’s death led to the fracturing of the SPLM.  Don’t miss this recent report from the Kenya Human Rights Commission about the country’s high rates of extrajudicial killings.  This article suggests that the Kenyan security forces routinely ignore tips about planned mass shootings, and that perpetrators are rarely arrested.  More than 90% of Somalia’s new cabinet ministers are said to hold MA or PhD degrees, but only 8% are women.

Southern Africa: At some South African universities, nearly 80% of black students report that they sometimes don’t have enough to eat.  A South African court has ruled that marriages between Muslim couples in the country must be legally registered and not simply recorded with religious authorities, giving women legal protection in the event of divorce.  Zimbabwe’s harsh laws criminalizing the transmission of HIV are discouraging people from coming for testing and treatment.

A hopeful headline from Mozambique, showing a newspaper asking mayoral candidates in Nampula how they plan to combat discrimination against gay people (via Tom Bowker)

Public Health: I’m excited to hear about sensors.AFRICA, which is using low cost monitors to track air quality in several countries across the continent.  A non-profit organization is offering cash transfers to women who bring their children in for vaccinations in Nigeria.  One Nigerian woman has created a mental health hotline after struggling to access treatment for depression.

Economics: This was a really interesting thread about how legal uncertainty is increasing fuel prices in Kenya — an exemption on VAT for fuel expired on August 31 with no legal guidance on whether it was meant to be extended, leading to strikes by fuel importers.  South Sudan is beginning to bring oilfields back online after production was drastically reduced by the civil war.  An economist discusses how the cedi’s depreciation lead to the recent collapse of several banks in Ghana.  This was an interesting piece on the history of Ghana’s failed attempts to create a local rubber processing industry.  A new book argues that political conflict determines when protests take place in Africa, but economics determines who participates in them.  Is there a future for civilian nuclear energy in Africa?

Map showing what rotating savings groups are called throughout Africa
Great map of regional names for rotating savings and credit associations across the continent (via Funmi Oyatogun)

China in Africa:  This article shared some interesting reflections on the shortcomings of standard “China in Africa” narratives.  Chinese handset maker Transsion is capturing the African market with affordable phones that feature built-in radio reception and cameras calibrated for darker skin.

Arts and Literature:  Check out Robtel Neajai Pailey’s interactive website for her anti-corruption children’s books about Liberia, and Lupita Nyong’o’s upcoming children’s book as well!  Apply to work with the British Library on their collection of African-language materials.  Lots of interesting articles to be found in the Johannesburg Review of Books.   Read this dispatch from the Mogadishu Book Fair.  The Goethe Institut is calling for submissions of young adult literature by African authors in English, French and Kiswahili.  Here are all the African film festivals you can attend in 2018.

Black and yellow print showing a woman with her fist upraised, and a slogan at the bottom reading "Now you have touched the woman you have struck a rock; you have dislodged a boulder; you will be crushed.  9 August SA Women's Day"
Art for the day from Medu Art Ensemble, who created this poster for a 1956 women’s march against apartheid (via Women’s Art)

Conferences and Scholarships: Register for the Decolonial Transformationsconference at the University of Sussex — and before you do, read this great curriculum which a group of Cambridge students put together for decolonizing the Human, Social and Political Sciences degree.  Submit a paper to the Africa Social and Behavioral Change conference in English, French, Portuguese or Kiswahili.  The Working Group in African Political Economy is now accepting paper applications.  You can also send your scientific papers or science journalism to the African Science Desk to have them turned into short documentaries and explainers.  Spread the word about this multidisciplinary post-doc for African scholars at Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

Links I liked

Here’s the latest cross-posting from my Africa Update newsletter!  We’ve got the paradox of powdered milk in cattle-loving Somalia, the national airline of Chad, challenges of urban planning in Kenya, free African documentaries online, and more.

Tweet from Samira Sawlani: "There's really no such thing as the voiceless.  There are only the deliberately silence, or the preferably unheard" - Arundhati Roy
Thought of the day, via Samira Sawlani

West Africa: Because Dakar lacks public space, kids play on the beaches, despite a high risk of drowning in the strong Atlantic currents.  Stereotypes about single women in Nigeria make it difficult for them to rent apartments on their own.  “Many Nigerian small businesses are products of ‘necessity entrepreneurship’ and therefore would not exist if there were more large-scale employers offering better salaries.”  This was a thought-provoking article about why former combatants in Côte d’Ivoire generally refrained from going to work as mercenaries in Mali.

Central Africa: There’s a large Congolese refugee population in Kenya, but they lack access to support since they usually stay in Nairobi rather than in designated camps.  An activist group in the DRC has launched an online portal to track the quality of election implementation.  Kabila has finally named his successor in the DRC’s presidential race, but there’s little reason to expect that this will change the quality of governance.  The competitiveness of elections is limited by the fact that all Congolese presidential candidates must pay US$100,000 to get onto the ballot.  Lisez cet article : « Au Rwanda, la transformation agricole à marche forcée. »  Chad is launching a new national airline, which is clearly the most important priority for a poor, conflict-prone country.

Chart showing infrastructure funding flows from various sources to Africa
Interesting chart on fragmented flows of infrastructure funding, via Africa Visual Data

East Africa: Read about the informal courts maintaining order in IDP camps in South Sudan.  Over 40,000 Kenyans have been denied compensation for alleged torture during the colonial era after a British judge said their case exceeded the statute of limitations.  Kenyan activist groups are repurposing famous dates from the democracy struggle to call attention to extrajudicial killings.  This is a great story about the challenges of setting up Kenya’s first domestic athletic shoe brand.  Nairobi tried to get its private buses to go cashless, but they failed to get buy-in from an obvious constituency: the drivers.  Many Somalis drink powdered milk instead of fresh because a lack of regulation makes fresh milk dangerous, but one dairy is trying to change that.  Deaf footballers in Somalia have set up their own league after being blocked from joining existing leagues.  This was an interesting piece about path dependence and the end of sanctions in Sudan, where people who are accustomed to working outside the formal banking system are reluctant to re-engage with it.

Southern Africa: In Botswana, a new antiretroviral drug could save the lives of HIV patients, but there are concerns about whether it may lead to birth defects, since pregnant women are rarely included in studies of drug safety.  The Magamba Network offers regular polling data on citizen sentiment in Zimbabwe.

Two maps showing the distribution of development aid to Africa, from the World Bank and from China
Map interlude: check out Tilman Graff’s work on the locations of aid projects across Africa

Urban planning in Kenya: Residents of poor areas in Nairobi are mapping their neighborhoods to make it more difficult for the government to demolish them and then claim they don’t have records of who lived there.  Kibera residents are also speaking out against the “poverty tourism” which brings foreign visitors to their neighborhoods to gawk at them.  Kenya’s president has a plan to build social housing, but one critic points out that the mortgage rates are still out of reach for most people who really need access to better living conditions.  Buildings in Nairobi are being demolished for encroaching on rivers, but some commentators are asking how the demolitions will meet the city’s broader mission of urban regeneration.

Infrastructure week: Kenya and Ethiopia are close to completing construction for cross-border electricity transmission, in a step towards creating a regional power pool.  Foreign architects are accused of building schools for form rather than function in Nairobi.  The perils of distributive politics are clear in Uganda, where a politician destroyed boreholes he had installed in his constituency after he lost an election.  In Kampala, race-based restrictions on housing from the colonial era are still visible in the build environment today.

Great chart on electricity generation from Africa Visual Data

Arts and culture: A Beninese artist planted a copy of a 19th century royal throne at an archaeological dig to protest the fact that the original throne is held at a museum in France.  A dozen authors from the Middle East and Africa who were invited to the Edinburgh International Book Festival had their visas denied for unclear reasons.  AfriDocs has a number of African documentaries available to watch online for free.  Check out the online resources for teaching African decolonization at the National History Center.

Fellowships and workshops: The Women for Africa Foundation offers visiting positions at Spanish centers of excellence in science for female researchers from Africa.  If you’re a writer in Nairobi, don’t miss this great writing workshop being offered by Nanjala Nyabola and others on August 28.  Journalists should apply for the African Investigative Journalism Conference from October 29 – 31.

The politics of urban poverty in Mathare

A panoramic photo showing the rusted tin roofs of the single-story buildings in Mathare
The view from the MSJC building

My partner and I have recently been learning more about the excellent work done by the Mathare Centre for Social Justice.  They’re a small organization which documents human rights abuses in the neighborhood, and organizes for environmental protection and better services for people with disabilities.  They’re also part of a broader network of social justice centers in poor neighborhoods across the city, including Dandora and Kibera, which run coordinated advocacy efforts to get the city to stop extrajudicial killings.  (To learn more about MSJC’s work, check out this excellent piece by Nanjala Nyabola from earlier this year.)

A few weeks ago we stopped by the MSJC office at the invitation of Wangui Kimari, their research coordinator, to learn more about how we could get involved.  There, we met JJ Chindi, their program coordinator, who’s been doing community organizing work in Mathare for some time.  JJ highlighted the center’s documentation work, culminating in this thoroughly-researched report on extrajudicial killings.  He then gave us a quick tour of the neighborhood, including a number of sites which had been recent locations of police violence.

What stood out to me the most was the sense of intentional, politicized insecurity which underpins many of the challenges of daily life in the neighborhood.  The underlying problem seems to be that the owners of the land don’t have legal title to it, and thus the tenants who rent from the landowners also don’t have legal title to their houses.  This has all sorts of knock-on implications which result in lower quality services at higher prices, with much of the price differential representing the cost of payments to the police to look the other way.  State agents thus benefit from this insecurity and have little incentive to change it.

Take water and electricity provision.  Because of the lack of titling, the city government won’t allow any formal electrical or water connections in the area.  Most houses still have water and electricity which is tapped illegally from a nearby air force base, but this means that these services are frequently interrupted, and often dangerous.  (A young girl died recently after she touched a live wire that someone left on the ground when they were making a new connection.)  There’s a cost to set up and maintain the connections, and then an additional cost in the form of payments to the police who regularly threaten to cut the connections.

This is also visible in the built environment.  There are few permanent structures with concrete walls.  Most buildings are single-story houses with tin walls and roofs.  It speaks to the danger of investing in a permanent structure if the government might come through to demolish it at any time — as well as the added expense of building a permanent structure and then having to regularly make payoffs to the police to keep it safe.  The permanent structures that do exist are mostly apartment buildings of eight stories of more.  According to the MSJC coordinator, getting access to land in a densely populated area is a real impediment to construction.  Some of the large apartment buildings were constructed on sites where fires had mysteriously destroyed the previous occupants’ homes, leaving the land “unoccupied.”

The same pattern of what might be called licit illegality is apparent in the management of the main industry in the neighborhood: distilling chang’aa liquor from sugarcane.  It’s legal to produce chang’aa as long as it’s done in a regulated factory and sold in glass bottles with appropriate health warnings, little of which appears to be the case for the Mathare producers.  The industry is right out in the open, with men chopping sugarcane and carting firewood to the riverside distilleries just off the main road.  The police are well aware of this, and come through occasionally to collect payments for protection or destroy the equipment of those who don’t pay.  Of course, people return to distilling after each raid because they need to make a living, and because there’s significant local demand for the drink.

All of this highlights that poverty is political and not just economic.  People in Mathare often lack access to stable and well-paying jobs, but they also have to pay more for basic services since the state has chosen not to provide them, and face regular extortion from police for trying to meet their needs.  There’s no shortage of NGOs trying to make up for some of these shortfalls, but this clearly isn’t a good substitute for actual public service provision by the government.  As Nanjala writes in a recent piece about another poor neighborhood in Nairobi, “Kibera is also synonymous with well-meaning but often poorly researched interventions. The settlement has become a testing ground for everything from innovations in sanitation … to political initiatives … to yoga…  These interventions make life for locals more bearable – a worthy pursuit in itself – but do little to challenge the political interests that keep the slum going.”