Way back in the 1990’s Nairobi earned its nickname Nairobbery as crime was rising. People still call it that, but does that mean you should avoid it? Is it unsafe for tourists? Should you skip Nairobi and its cheap flights to the East-African region? Or, should you fly into Nairobi and not spend a minute of your holiday there, or at least not more time then you absolutely have to, to get to your final destination, a national park or a conservancy?
The Answer is No!
Don’t avoid Nairobi. Go to Nairobi, spend a few days and fall in love with the city like I did. Make use of the best and cheapest tickets to the region, as Nairobi is still the gateway to the region, the largest hub in East Africa, and has the best connections and the cheapest tickets.
Immerse yourself into the vibrancy of this growing, but still very green mega city and absorb the culture, feel the excellent vibe, eat its tasty dishes, see and experience the amazing number of world-class tourist attractions and wonder why you hesitated to add a few days to your holiday in this city.
And sure, inhale some of its exhaust fumes, see the heart-breaking poverty, sigh at the number of potholes littered across many of Nairobi’s streets, and despise the plastic bags in the streams and the rubbish on the streets. But remember, these issues are not exclusive to Nairobi, to Kenya, or even to Africa.
What to Expect?
I am not going to tell you there is no crime in Nairobi, that it is all roses over there. It is not. Of course there is crime. Just like your bag can be snatched in London, New York, Moscow or Sydney or you can be mugged in Oxford, Chicago, Vancouver or Vienna. It’s a big city, so make sure you are aware of your surroundings and stay vigilant. Don’t walk alone at night, preferably don’t walk anywhere at night. Organise trips with your tour operator, or if you prefer to fly solo, be street-smart when using public transport and taxis.
Having lived in Nairobi for nearly 2 years, and falling in love with it within a few weeks of arriving, I feel I have the right to defend Nairobi’s unwanted nickname. I will show you the beauty, I will make some suggestions on what you can do, and even some suggestions I feel you simply must do, in your time there.
But whatever you do, go. Visit Kenya, explore Nairobi, indulge yourself and go on a safari. You will not regret it!
To be honest, there are so many interesting, amazing and fun things to see and do in Nairobi, there is not enough space here to list them all, but here are my top tips. I think it’s a good list to start with.
11 Places That will change your perspective of Nairobi:
1. Better known as the elephant orphanage
A must for all visitors to Nairobi. You will regret it if you don’t go. I will write a separate blog just about the elephants and the orphanage as there is so much to tell, but this is what you need to know to visit.
Every day at 11am you can watch as the baby elephants come to the mud-hole for a bath and their bottles of milk. They will tell you all about each elephant, you can ask as many questions as you like (and get an answer from the experts), and you can touch them if they come close to you! An absolute joy for the kids, but all adults join in the fun too.
You pay a small fee as you enter and if you feel you want to do more for these elephants you can adopt one (or more!). Arrive a little earlier to ensure you don’t miss the arrival of the baby elephants from the forest. They are hungry and don’t wait for you!
Once you have adopted an elephant you get some extra special privileges, like being allowed to come (for free) at 5pm, every day if you like, when the baby elephants come back to the stockades for yet more milk and to go to bed. You can wander around for an hour and see the non-elephants in their care too. An experience never to forget. You need to call them up to let them know you are coming and which elephant you have adopted as this is for elephant-parents only.
After the elephants head back to the forest, there are plenty of elephant-themed items for sale, with all proceeds also going to the support of the work they do.
2. Giraffe Centre
Another one for the animal lovers. A breeding centre for the Rothschild’s giraffes where you can feed them and, if you want, can get a kiss from a giraffe. I usually try to visit in the morning as it is quieter and the giraffes seem to always be very keen on the food handed out to them. You can ask the staff any question you have about giraffes. They are very happy to answer them all.
I can’t really recommend the café, but the souvenir shop is pretty good.
3. Nairobi National Park
I thought I would mention the Nairobi national park here too, as it is the only national park with free roaming wild animals inside a capital city and it is pretty special. You have a very good chance of seeing your first lions here, as well as black and white rhino, giraffes, buffalo, hippo, and a lot of other ‘common’ animals like zebra, gazelles, birds and baboons. If you are lucky you might even see a leopard or a serval, although they are not often spotted, but they are there.
Try to go there with your own transport. They do offer visitors a tour in a bus, but this means less freedom and no option to spend a few extra minutes with your favourite animal.
They sell maps which have numbered junctions, the same as you will find in the park. Don’t forget to ask where special animals have been spotted that day, the staff at the gate always keep a list with any sightings reported.
If you are only visiting Nairobi for a quick work trip and you don’t have time to go on safari, then this is an absolute must. I always love spending some hours here. It is huge and in one day you are most likely not going to see it all…
The café and souvenir shop are pretty useless.
My favorite workshop and success story. The ladies here all live in Kibera, Nairobi and possibly Africa’s biggest slum, and most are single mothers. They create beads. By hand. And paint them. By hand. Every single one.
And once all these beads have been created, painted and fired in the kilns, they are turned into the most exquisite jewellery. Necklaces, bracelets, earrings, even hair clips and Christmas tree ornaments are all created, by hand, right here in the workshop.
You can get a free tour here any time of the day, but check for opening times in the weekend. Don’t arrive last minute before closing time as they will all be packing up and there won’t be much to see. After the tour you are gently guided to the shop where you can pick up as many of these beauties as fit in your suitcase. I have a whole collection just for myself, all different in style and colour.
They make unforgettable souvenirs and great gifts. And if beaded jewellery isn’t your thing, head over anyway as they also make animal statues and a whole range of crockery.
Give the café here a miss, unless you are just after a soft drink or a bottle of water. There are better places for lunch or a coffee around.
5. Marula Studio
This is a studio where they pay people to bring in rubber flip-flops and other rubber trash and turn it into colourful, sculpted animals. Support the artists as well as the environment! You can rock up at any time when they are open for a free tour. A shop and a café are all on the same grounds to make it easy for you.
6. Amani ya Juu
Amani ya Juu teaches ladies to make things with fabric. The tablet / ipad covers and handbags are the most popular items, but they also have a range for Christmas and kids. The café in the same grounds is run by the same ladies and is a relaxed place for a drink or tasty lunch.
You’ve guessed it, they make bronze artwork here. Unfortunately, you can no longer see the craftsmen at work, but they have an excellent gallery with their amazing pieces as well as some paintings and drawings from other artists. And, also here you find an excellent café to make it another perfect stop for lunch. It’s also located very close to the giraffe centre.
All things glass are made here, a very quirky place with lots of art spread around. You can see the artists at work, have a drink in the café, and you can browse the many things for sale. They work on commission here as well. If you don’t have the time to get there, it’s a little out of the way, they also have some shops that sell their excellent glasswork in the major shopping malls.
9. Maasai Market, Triangle Market, CBD, Spinners Web, Utamaduni and Shuka Duka
For souvenir and unique gift shopping in Nairobi, I can recommend several locations. The Maasai Market and the Triangle Market are for those who love the traditional style souvenirs and don’t mind bargaining for a good price. Be aware the Maasai Market is held in a different location every day.
For those who don’t like to negotiate a price and who would still like to buy some excellent quality souvenirs, Spinners Web, Utamaduni and Shuka Duka are the best places in town. All have fixed prices and offer a wide range of crafts.
The CBD is my favourite location for fabrics, although some can also be found in the markets and shops mentioned above. Kitenge, kikoy, khanga and shuka are the traditional ones. If you love colour, you will love these.
A leather and canvas workshop with a small shop where you can usually pick up a bargain. Their official shops are located in some of the large shopping malls and they make beautiful travel bags. Mine goes with me on every safari.
Yes, Nairobi has museum. If you have read the book ‘Out of Africa’ by Karen Blixen, you might want to pop into her old house in Karen. Another museum to visit is the Nairobi National Museum. The bird collection is impressive, although lacks an interesting display. There are interesting rooms on culture, history, and animals, but don’t bother with the snake park. It’s a sad place where a few snakes and reptiles are kept in too small cages. The one thing you must not miss is the area where the hominid fossils are on display. They are impressive and a must when visiting.
The huge skeletons in the middle of the big hall of the Nairobi National Museum.
Image from: www.facebook.com/nationalmuseumsofkenya
Other museums to put on your list if you are an avid museum lover are the Railway Museum and the Bomas of Kenya, a great one to visit with kids where you can learn more about Kenyan culture and its different tribes in an outdoor setting. They also have a great performance showcasing traditional dances, well worth it.
I think the above list will keep you busy for quite a few days. Don’t forget traffic can be an issue in this big city, so don’t plan too much in one day. If you need more ideas what to do in Nairobi, you can look into tea plantation tours, go walking, running or biking in Karura Forest, visit the Brown’s cheese factory and have lunch there too, play a round of golf on one of Nairobi’s many excellent golf courses or take the kids to Nairobi’s waterpark.
If after reading the above suggestions you still need another reason why you should go, then remember that without tourists there will be no protection for the animals. You are the best protection the elephants, lions, cheetahs, leopards, giraffe, rhinos and pangolins can wish for. If lots of people visit the national parks and other wildlife areas, there is a reason to maintain them. They will provide jobs to the people of Kenya, and they will see the value of nature.
What are you waiting for? Book your flights to Nairobi and start the anticipation and excitement of the holiday of your lifetime now!