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.

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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.

Travel tips: Accra on two wheels

The photo shows two men driving motorcycles with the setting sun behind them in Kigali, RwandaPhoto: Getty Images

The major innovation of this trip to Ghana (at least for me) has been my commute.  I’ve been zipping around Accra on a Yamaha Crypton, which has been fantastic.  In cities with heavy congestion and limited infrastructure, motorcycles offer a commuting option that’s cheap, fast and versatile.  They’re good for cutting through stalled traffic, or navigating unpaved roads with ease.  They offer a great chance to explore areas that couldn’t otherwise be easily reached with public transportation.  And sometimes you just want to drive along the road by Labadi Beach with the salt wind in your face.  In short, very fun and highly recommended.

That said, learning to drive a motorcycle well enough to to do safely in Accra required a substantial amount of up-front investment.  Here are some tips for getting started with a motorcycle and learning to ride safely in urban traffic.  I don’t mean the volume of them to sound discouraging, but there is real risk to riding a motorcycle, and if you can’t commit to doing it as safely as possible, then you shouldn’t do it.

  • Spend a few weeks as a bike commuter.  No bike lanes allowed!  Riding a bicycle is the best way to prepare for handling a motorcycle at low speeds, which is mostly what you’ll encounter in traffic-plagued cities like Accra.  You’ll also need to get used to being in close proximity to cars.
  • Get a new motorcycle.  The used motorcycle market here is large, cheap, and full of lemons.  You do not need your mirrors to fall off at the first pothole you hit.  I bought a new moto from a dealership here for about $1300, and expect to recoup most of that cost when I sell it at the end of my next research trip.
  • Get geared up.  A helmet is non-negotiable.  For preference, you should also wear close-toed shoes (or ideally over-the-ankle boots), jeans, a jacket and gloves.  An armored jacket is ideal, but at minimum you should do a durable raincoat or denim jacket.  All of this can be rather hot if you’re stopped in the sun, but as long as you’re moving I’ve found it to be quite comfortable.
  • Find a safe place to practice.  It took me at least a month of daily commuting on quiet back streets before I felt like I had an intuitive sense of how to handle the moto.  It’s essential that you find a safe place to practice until you reach this point.  If you have to consciously think about how to turn, swerve, or stop, it will be difficult to respond rapidly enough to all the challenges you’ll encounter in places like Accra.
  • Be prepared to respond to problems coming from every direction.  Anyone who’s learned to drive is used to scanning for potential obstacles in front of them, and to the sides when changing lanes.  You’ll also have to get used to scanning below you, for potholes or loose gravel; above you, to avoid things being thrown out of car windows; and behind you, where cars are likely to creep up to your back tire to try to force you to speed up or move over.  (In situations like these, slow down, move over, and let the other car get their way.  You can’t control their behavior and you’re not going to win a contest with them.)
  • Obey the traffic laws, but don’t expect that others will.  I would say that 75% of drivers here follow the laws fairly well, with the exception of small things like failing to signal turns or stop completely at intersections.  The worst offenders by far are other motorcyclists, who have all collectively decided that they are bound by neither law nor physics and drive in a manner which reflects this.  I spend more time scanning for motorcycles than any other type of traffic, since the erstwhile advantages of being small and fast make it difficult to see them in advance and respond quickly to any unpredictable behavior.
  • Don’t outride your brakes.  Or, put differently: you always need to try to identify a safe path forward, and be prepared to stop if you can’t find it.  Even if you’re on a well-lit road with limited traffic and a clear line of sight, it’s difficult to predict what you might find ahead of you — uneven pavement, a pedestrian dashing across the street, a turn that comes up more rapidly than you expected.  Drive more slowly than you’d like to, particularly if it’s your first time on a certain road.
  • Be extremely careful at night.  I’ve driven several thousand kilometers in a wide range of conditions, and am confident in my ability to handle most driving challenges.  I still actively limit the amount of time I spend driving at night in Accra because of the high levels of risk involved.  Take all the issues outlined above, add a lack of street lights and the problem of having opposing cars’ headlights constantly in your eyes, and an accident becomes a question of “when” rather than “if.”  If you are going to drive at night, stick to well-lit routes and drive even more defensively than normal.

In short: be safe and have fun!

Travel tips: the essential carry-on only strategy

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 Autumn 2016: five countries, three months, one carry-on

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I couldn’t fit everything I’m bringing in a single photo, hence the slightly messy composite, but I could fit all of it in a single carry-on

I’ve written previously about my penchant for managing long trips in low income countries with only a carry-on, and I’m continually refining my methods for this.  Here’s my current list of essentials.  Some of the luggage in particular is rather expensive, but it’s always worth paying more up front if you can.  This travel strategy means that you’ll be using all of your bags and clothing more intensely than you likely would at home, and cheap items will wear out more quickly.

Luggage

  • A waterproof duffel bag that’s slightly larger than standard carry-on size.  (Most airlines will let you get away with this as long as it still fits in the overhead bin.)  I have a slightly larger version of this Poler duffel which also converts into a backpack, and which has held up in nearly mint condition after two years of round-the-world travel
  • A waterproof backpack — essential for a day at the office or a weekend hike.  Current favorite is this daypack from Topo Designs, which is spacious without looking bulky
  • A waterproof, zippered shoulder bag for more formal meetings or trips to the market.  I’ve never found a better bag than the Longchamp Le Pliage, which is the perfect size for a laptop, capable of folding down to nearly nothing, machine washable, and overall quite durable.  My current version is four years old and still looks nearly new
  • A waterproof toiletry case — much better than trusting to easily-torn plastic bags.  If you’re passing through an airport which is strict about having liquids in a transparent plastic bag, like Heathrow, you can put your plastic bag inside the toiletry case and take it out for security.  Most of the other airports I’ve visited will accept a colored toiletry case at security
  • Drawstring bags for organizing shoes and small items of clothing, and a jewelry roll, which can also double as storage for pens, small electronics, extra SIM cards, etc.

Clothing

  • My current strategy is to bring about five days’ worth of clothing, but do laundry as frequently as every two to three days in order to maintain a cushion of clean clothing.  (Particularly important if you’re drying clothing outdoors during the rainy season, when a single storm will undo a day’s worth of drying.)   I’ve previously written a bit about what type of clothing to bring
  • I find it easiest to wash small loads of laundry by hand when I’m doing it so frequently.  If you won’t be staying in a single place long enough to warrant buying laundry soap, bring along some travel soap sheets and stain remover
  • I’ve never liked carrying around sleep masks or neck pillows, so I’ve sorted out how to sleep comfortably on planes using only clothing that I was already planning to bring.  A key step is finding an outfit that’s comfortable to sleep in, like this great maxi dress from Athleta.  I pair this with a cardigan and sandals for easy removal at security, then switch into socks on board when the plane inevitably gets uncomfortably cold.  I also bring two lightweight pashmina scarves, then use one as a pillow and one as a blanket

Health

  • Replace your liquid toiletries with their solid equivalents, like this shampoo, conditioner and perfume from Lush.  And don’t forget a pumice stone — essential foot care if you’ll be spending a lot of time walking around in dusty areas
  • Your travel pharmacy is probably overstocked.  You can get by perfectly well with hand sanitizer, band-aids, DEET-free insect repellant, ibuprofen, and the anti-malarial of your choice.  For my female readers, I would strongly recommend looking into an IUD as well.  It’s one of the most effective forms of birth control and will lighten or stop menstruation for many users, meaning up to 100% fewer tampons to pack (!)
  • If you, like me, can’t function without caffeine but also dislike Nescafé, you might try caffeine pills.  I was entirely hesitant about this, as I’d somehow got the impression that I would take one and then be miserably awake for the rest of my life, but they’re actually an excellent coffee substitute.  One 100 mg pill is the equivalent of approximately one cup of brewed coffee or a double espresso.  It’s a more compact solution than carrying around a travel French press

Miscellany

  • A lightweight tablet + keyboard setup is an increasingly good replacement for a laptop.  (For my research, I use this with Evernote to organize, tag and automatically back up my interview and reading notes.)  Just make sure get a waterproof case and a travel wall adapter if you’ll be switching voltages, as the small USB wall adapters that come with most tablets can’t handle voltage conversion
  • Bring the gym to your hotel room with a jump rope and some resistance bands.  I also carry my own helmet if I’m going to be cycling.  My indulgence for this trip is bringing my climbing kit in hopes of finding some new belay partners.  (Also on the note of helmets, consider bringing your own motorcycle helmet if you’ll be riding or driving)
  • Not directly related to the carry-on issue, but you might exchange your usual wallet for a wristlet or a front pocket wallet.  Both are less likely to get nicked out of your hand or pocket when you’re out and about

What else is on your travel must-have list?

Travel tips: packing for mobility

This summer, I’ll be spending about six weeks traveling around west Africa learning about the social protection programs being implemented in the region. I’m actually trying a new model of travel planning for this trip.  Rather than picking specific dates for each country in advance, I’m going to be based in Accra, and take cheap regional flights to other countries as promising opportunities come up.

This puts a premium on packing lightly while still looking professional.  The last time I tried to check any luggage on a trip of this length, in 2012, Kenya Airways lost my checked bags on two separate occasions and I nearly missed a connection in London after pulling my overladen suitcases through multiple Tube transfers.  Since then, I’ve been refining my carry-on only strategy, and thought I’d share it here as the latest installment in the travel advice series.  Check out the rest of the posts as well!

How to Pack

  • Invest in a waterproof duffel bag.  Having to carry the bag puts a natural limit on how much you’ll pack, as Jan Chipchase points out.  It’s also quite useful if you’ll be arriving in a place where many of the streets aren’t paved, since this undermines the purpose of a wheeled bag.  I have a duffel that’s slightly larger than regulation carry-on size, and it’s always been allowed on the plane.  There are some classic styles at Poler and REI.
  • Pack no more than five days’ worth of clothing.  Everything should be business casual, with perhaps one or two pieces for more formal meetings.  Rewear what you can, or commit to doing laundry every three days.
  • Rethink your toiletry bag.  Skip the liquid shampoo and conditioner, which won’t last more than a few weeks, and pick up some solid shampoo instead.  Fill the space that this frees up with things you might have a hard time finding on arrival, like waterproof sunblock, hand sanitizer, and stain remover.
  • A tablet is the ideal travel accessory.  You can download guidebooks at the last minute with Kindle, install the local version of Yelp, and use the maps application to navigate without paying for data.  (When you’re connected to wifi, open the map to the area you’ll be visiting and zoom in and out to make it load at different levels of resolution.  Once you’re no longer connected to wifi or data, the app should keep the pre-loaded image on the screen, and will use GPS to track your location.)
  • Get a power bank Perfect for recharging when you’re on the road.
  • Bring a jump rope and resistance bands.  They’re a good in-room substitute for the gym if you’re staying in a budget hotel.

Other Considerations

  • Check the visa policies of all the countries you might be visiting.  The decision to offer visas on arrival or not appears to be completely random.  Don’t assume you’ll be able to get one at the airport.
  • Use a free ticket reservation to get visas for countries which want proof of a return flight.  But, you are asking, how can I get that five-year multi-entry visa for Ghana if I don’t know when I’ll be there and haven’t purchased my return ticket?   Most airlines will allow you to reserve a ticket for 24 hours without having to buy it.  Send this in as proof of your return flight.
  • Call local airlines the day before your flight to confirm your seat.  They often have small fleets and need to reschedule flights due to delays or maintenance issues.
  • Book your hotels at least a day in advance.  No good has ever come of trying to find a hotel on arrival, unless for some reason you really enjoy driving aimlessly around a new city looking for places that aren’t closed, dirty or fully booked.  AirBnB is also an increasingly good option, particularly in larger cities.
  • Pretend you’re in primary school and always bring a snack.  Good for long flights with inedible meals or late night arrivals after all the airport restaurants have closed.

What other tips do you have for staying mobile?