NAIROBI CITY, KENYA
Nairobi has been the starting point for safaris since the days of Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway. It is still the first stop for many travelers heading into East Africa for business trips, vacations, or holidays. With both Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Wilson Airport, Kenya’s burgeoning capital city is the central hub for visitors, and you’ll likely be spending at least an overnight here between flights.
Since colonial times, Nairobi, the capital and largest city, has been Kenya’s cosmopolitan urban core and travel gateway into East Africa. What makes Nairobi stand out as an African destination is how it blends the urban feel with the wilderness of Nairobi National Park, a large game reserve for endangered black rhinos, giraffes, zebras, and lions. Next to it is a well-regarded elephant orphanage operated by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Nairobi’s modern skyline often surprises first-time visitors, whose visions of the country are often shaped by stories of its colonial legacy or wildlife safari documentaries.
As one of the fastest developing cities in sub-Saharan Africa with around 4.3 million people, Nairobi city is dominated by modern offices, shopping, and residential towers. This isn’t to say the city has lost all its charm, though. Some early historical architecture survives here and there—the venerable Norfolk Hotel still recalls the elegant lifestyles of the city’s early settlers. At the same time, the colonial farmhouse of Out of Africa author Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) still sits at the foot of the Ngong Hills and reminds Kenya’s coffee heritage.
However, Nairobi has more than its share of urban problems. This city has paralyzing traffic jams, many unsafe or overloaded vehicles on the road, and no hint of emissions control. Crime can be an issue, and there are occasional incidents of muggings and carjackings. In addition, there’s a growing inequality between rich and poor: private estates on the edge of Nairobi feature opulent mansions with stables, tennis courts, and swimming pools, while not far away you can glimpse vast mazes of tin shacks in slums, many with no electricity or running water.
But with booming economic growth and being the preferred seat of many corporate institutions like the United Nations, Nairobi has done much to shake off its chaotic past in recent years. Neighborhoods have become more affluent, the middle class is expanding, crime is reducing, and infrastructure improves all the time. For example, the sleek Nairobi Bypass was recently completed, which has gone a long way to alleviate chronic traffic congestion. For the visitor, there’s an exciting cross-section of attractions, good shopping and restaurants, and many top-class hotels serving safari-bound tourists.
Getting There & Around
Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA)
The Nairobi National Park is located south of the city and is adjacent to both Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) and Wilson Airport. Tourist hotspots and hotels are situated in the suburbs of Karen and Langata, which can be found southwest of the city center. Further beyond these suburbs are the Ngong Hills, which are situated on the periphery of the Great Rift Valley. If you travel north of the city center, you will come across the suburbs of Muthaiga, Gigiri, and Limuru.
International airlines, as well as some domestic airlines, operate flights into JKIA, which is Kenya’s primary airport and is located 16 km (10 miles) southeast of the city center. The airport has modern terminals that offer left luggage facilities, ATM-equipped banks, mobile phone stores, Forex Bureaux, and cafes.
It usually takes about 40 minutes to drive from the airport to the city center by taxi (from US$25; always negotiate first), although it can take up to two hours in rush hour. Many hotels have comfortable shuttle services in a/c vehicles from about US$35 per person; be sure to organize this when you book your room.
Wilson Airport, 5.5 km (3.4 miles) southwest of the city center off Langata Road, is Nairobi’s second airport. It’s used for domestic, charter, and some regional flights. It has few facilities, but some of the airlines like Airkenya and Safarilink have lounges and cafés. A taxi into the city center from Wilson is about $15, and again, hotels can organize shuttle services.
You’ll probably only be in Nairobi overnight or for a few hours, so you won’t need to rent a car. Take a taxi to the attractions, but remember it’s compulsory to buckle up, and always negotiate the price before setting out. Locals travel around on matatus (passenger minivans carrying up to 15 passengers), but the drivers are notoriously reckless and the vehicles are not always roadworthy.
Tailored Kenya Safaris
EXPLORE NAIROBI, PLACES TO VISIT
Nairobi is more than a gateway to your dream Kenya safari destination: it’s a thriving city with restaurants, shopping malls, museums, exciting wildlife, and vacation attractions. If you only have a few hours in the morning, combine the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where you can watch adorable baby elephants at the orphanage, and the Giraffe Centre, where you can hand-feed Rothschild’s giraffes from an elevated tower. If you have more time or days, check out the big safari animals (minus elephants) on a game drive in the Nairobi National Park. It’s just a 20-minute drive from downtown Nairobi (7 km/4 miles). You could also take in some history and culture at one of the museums or go shopping for souvenirs in the many markets or curio stores—from carved wooden animals and batik art to Maasai beaded jewelry and leather sandals.
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Take the morning excursion at 11 am, which you can book through our tour guide or hotel concierge, to this fantastic elephant rescue center and orphanage on the edge of Nairobi National Park. Dame Daphne Sheldrick set it up after her husband, David, famous for his anti-poaching activities in Tsavo East National Park. You’ll watch baby elephants at play or having a bath, knowing that one day when they’re old enough, they’ll get back into the wild. It’s an absolutely unmissable and heartwarming experience. Donate, however small, or go for gold and adopt your baby elephant. The center is only open between 11:00 – 12:00. If you miss, the 11 am tour, book for the following day. It’s found at Nairobi National Park entrance at maintenance gate off Magadi Rd., Nairobi, 16 km (10 miles) southwest of the city center
Karen Blixen Museum
Out of Africa author Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) lived at this estate from 1913 to 1931. This is where she threw a grand dinner party for the Prince of Wales and where she carried on a torrid relationship with the aviator, white hunter, and premier safari outfitter, Denys Finch Hatton. The museum contains a few of her belongings and furniture, and outside is some of the farm machinery she used to cultivate the land for coffee and tea that guides showcase on a Blixen tour. There is a magnificent view of the Ngong Hills from her lawn, dominated by euphorbia, the many-armed plant widely known as the candelabra cactus. On the way to the museum, you may notice a signpost reading “Ndege.” On this road, whose Swahili name means “bird,” Finch Hatton once landed his plane for his visits with Blixen. After his plane crashed in Voi, he was buried nearby in the Ngong Hills.
Established by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW), this unique giraffe sanctuary is an exciting family excursion. Located in Nairobi’s western suburb of Langata, Giraffe Centre has contributed significantly to boosting Kenya’s population of rare Rothschild’s giraffes. After birthing and growing up at the center, many are relocated to the game parks and reserves. The original house of the founders is now the imposing Giraffe Manor hotel. You can climb a giraffe-height tower for an eye-to-eye view, and it’s not unheard of for a giraffe to give a friendly and grateful lick as you feed them—great for photos. There’s a café and a short nature trail where you might also spot warthogs.
Nairobi National Museum
Located at Museum Hill just to the north of downtown Nairobi, Nairobi National Museum has good reproduction rock art displays and excellent prehistory exhibits of the archaeological discoveries of Richard and Mary Leakey. When working near Lake Turkana in the 1960s, the Leakeys discovered the skull and bones of Homo habilis, believed to be the ancestor of early humankind. Their findings established the Rift Valley as the possible Cradle of Humankind, although both South Africa’s Sterkfontein Caves and Ethiopia’s Hadar region claim the same distinction. There are also excellent paintings by Joy Adamson, better known as the author of Born Free, and a good collection of Kenya’s birds and butterflies. There are some good craft shops and a museum shop, and it’s worthwhile wandering around the gardens to see the sculptures and perhaps visiting the small snake park.
Nairobi City Market
Designed in 1930 as an aircraft hangar, this vast space between Muindi Mbingu Street and Koinange Street is a jumble of color, noise, and activity. The Nairobi City Market has dozens of stalls selling wooden and soapstone carvings, drums, shields, and Maasai jewelry, and there are also fruit, vegetable, and flower sellers and butchers. Look for kikois and kangas, traditional colorful fabrics worn by Kenyan women, suitable for wearing over a bathing suit or throwing over a picnic table; they are half the price here than in the hotel shops.
Nairobi Railway Museum
Established to preserve relics and records of East African railways and harbors, Nairobi Railway Museum is enormous fun for rail enthusiasts and adventurous children. You can see the rhino catcher that Teddy Roosevelt rode during his 1908 safari and climb into the carriage where Charles Ryall, a British railroad builder, was dragged out a window by a hungry lion. There are great photos and posters, plus silver service from the more elegant days of the overnight train to Mombasa. You can clamber over the British-built locomotives in the old rail yard.
WHERE TO EAT
Average main $40
The interior of Fairmont The Norfolk Hotel’s fine-dining restaurant is minimalist and modern, with large black-and-white prints of communityspeople on the walls, an open-plan kitchen, leather tablecloths, and soft lighting in muted shades of orange, yellow, and green. The menu specializes in steaks, with some interesting sides, such as truffled Parmesan fries and mac-and-cheese. It is well known for its contemporary decor, historic venue, and excellent service.
Average main $60
Hands-down the finest seafood restaurant in Nairobi, Tamarind is famous for its deep-fried crab claws, ginger crab, and Piri Piri (spicy, buttery prawns grilled over charcoal). Everything is flown up daily from the coast, including the Malindi sole and the Kilifi oysters, tiny but very flavorful and served either raw or as classic oysters Rockefeller. It is known for seafood, outside garden tables, and a refined atmosphere.
Average main $45
A firm fixture on the Kenya safari tourist trail, Carnivore became famous for serving wild game. Although this is no longer the case, you can still get crocodile and ostrich as well as beef, pork, and lamb. Known for: all-you-can-eat meat; Dawa cocktails; a Maasai barbecue pit.
WHERE TO STAY
There are two landmark lodgings in Nairobi capital, the Norfolk Hotel, and the Sarova Stanley that have opened their doors to visitors for more than a century. Both have been recently renovated and now have all travel amenities from health clubs to business centers. However, newer luxury hotels, such as Sankara Nairobi, give a more contemporary experience to modern travelers and are getting attention.
Fairmont The Norfolk Hotel
Price from $665
This grand old colonial lady will take you back to the heady early days when settlers, adventurers, colonial officers, and ladies arrived in the capital to make their names and fortunes. Pros: the breakfast buffet is the best in town; the terrace is a great place to watch the world go by; a sizeable heated swimming pool. Cons: lost a bit of its old-world charm in modern refurbishments; can be dominated by large conferences; excellent but expensive restaurants.
Price from $965
Yes, giraffes do pop their heads through the windows and bat their eyelashes at you at this stately old look-alike gabled Scottish hunting lodge. Pros: rates are full board and include most drinks; nonguests can book a table for lunch, subject to availability; there’s a vehicle available for local sightseeing tours. Cons: you need to book ahead as it’s often fully booked; no pool; children need to be supervised in the garden because of the giraffes.
Price from $385
Named after writer Ernest Hemingway, this Nairobi airy and elegant boutique hotel is in a peaceful location in Karen with views of the Ngong Hills. Pros: beautifully furnished with African artwork and contemporary touches; high level of service with butlers for every room; close to attractions in Karen. Cons: food and beverages are expensive; swimming pool is unheated; some rooms are a long walk from the main facilities.
House of Waine
Price from $665
You’ll find nostalgia, history, and romantic surroundings at this family-owned boutique hotel. Pros: you can choose to take your meal in your room, next to the pool, or in the dining room; the swimming pool is heated; the Karen Blixen Museum is just next door. Cons: the dining room feels too formal; the wooden floors can be noisy; some may feel it’s overpriced.
Price from $193
This stylish city hotel is conveniently located in Westlands, close to several restaurants and shopping centers. However, you will find all you need for a relaxing stay in the hotel itself. Pros: varied dining options; the hotel has been beautifully designed; great views of Nairobi’s skyline from the rooftop. Cons: the pool is small; spa treatments are expensive; children are welcome, but it’s more business-orientated.
Price from $190
Also one of Nairobi’s oldest hotels, the Stanley was named after the journalist Henry Morton Stanley who immortalized himself by discovering a long-lost Scots explorer with one of the best sound-bites in history: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Pros: security is good; the pool is heated; good choice of well-priced restaurants and bars. Cons: standard rooms are small; there’s often heavy traffic around the hotel; service can be slow at busy times.