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
Nairobi National Park is to the south of the city, with Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) and Wilson Airport on the park periphery. Karen and Langata, the suburbs of Nairobi where there are hotels and sightseeing attractions, are southwest of the city center, while beyond them are the Ngong Hills, on the edge of the Great Rift Valley. The suburbs of Muthaiga, Gigiri, and Limuru are to the north of the city center.
International airlines and some domestic services fly into JKIA, Kenya’s major airport, which is 16 km (10 miles) southeast of the city center. It has modern terminals with cafés, left luggage facilities, mobile phone stores, and ATM-equipped banks, and Forex Bureaux.
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 tribespeople 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.
Kenya Travel Essentials
Kenya is a relatively safe country, but occasional crime incidents are a reality for residents and tourists alike; follow these basic precautions for a safe trip.
Mugging, purse snatching, and pickpocketing can occur in big towns. Leave good jewelry and watches at home, and unless you’re on safari, keep cameras, camcorders, and binoculars out of sight. Always lock valuables in the hotel or lodge safe. If you must carry valuables, use a money belt under your clothes; keep some cash handy, so you don’t reveal your money belt in public. Don’t leave belongings out on balconies or terraces or show them in a vehicle. If you’re unfortunate to be a robbery victim, you will need a police report to make an insurance claim. Please bring copies of all your essential documents and stash them away from the originals. Carry extra passport photos in case you need new documents fast.
Always take a taxi after dark, and never take food or drinks from strangers—it could be drugged. Be on the lookout for street scams like hard-luck stories or appeals to finance a scholarship. If you’re driving, be polite but firm if you’re stopped by police officers charging you with an “instant fine” for a minor infraction. If you ask to go to the police station, the charges are often dismissed.
The best of Kenya safari attractions are nowhere near the terrorist zones in the northern and northeastern borders that have been for a long time restricted to tourists. Exercise increased caution in the terrorist strongholds on the northern border due to crime, terrorism, and kidnapping. These incidents occur very far from the premier tourism attractions. You’re much safer on a game drive in a Masai Mara than driving your car on a multi-lane turnpike.
The Kenyan Government deals with the international terror threat in much the same way as other modern countries. You’ll find strict security at airports and visible policing in places like shopping malls and outdoor markets, ensuring it is safe to visit Kenya.
In some instances, you’ll fly out of Nairobi immediately after landing, heading to the Samburu, Masai Mara, Amboseli, or any other attraction. Our staff traveling to Kenya regularly, staying in both Nairobi and the Masai Mara with travelers, have reported high airport security levels. Some hotels in the capital city have instituted security measures for additional peace of mind and ensure it is safe to visit Nairobi.
Before you travel, please be informed of the likelihood of catching CORONAVIRUS if you don’t follow operating procedures put in place to protect you and others. For update local information, visit travelbans.org/africa/kenya/ or the government website www.health.go.ke. Otherwise, Kenya is open for tourism, and for entry, you’ll need a negative PCR COVID test certificate issued 92 hours before.
The majority of inbound travelers are not subject to quarantine upon arrival at any of our ports of entry, take advantage of the relaxation of overall protocols and take that much-needed holiday. All the suppliers and partners we work with are compliant because your safety comes first!
COVID-19 ENTRY RESTRICTIONS
- Passengers entering or transiting through Kenya must have a medical certificate with a negative Coronavirus (COVID-19) PCR test result. The test must have been taken at most 96 hours before arrival. The certificate must be in English.
- Passengers whose medical certificates have expired due to the transit time will be subject to a test for Covid-19 at their own cost upon arrival at a recognized facility.
- Passengers are required to fill in a Passenger Locator Form during their flights to Kenya.
- Passengers must complete the “Travelers Health Surveillance Form” online at https://ears.health.go.ke/airline_registration/ and must hold a QR code showing they have completed the form.
- Passengers are subject to medical screening and quarantine. A list of quarantine exemptions can be found at https://www.kcaa.or.ke/quarantine-exempted-states.
- There is no quarantine for inbound travelers unless you show the virus symptoms on observation.
Before you go to Kenya, make sure all your routine vaccinations are up to date. The risk of malaria is low during Green Season and very low during peak season. It is higher if you are going into rural areas and villages outside the parks and reserves. If you are going scuba diving afterward, be sure to let them know to ensure they prescribe the correct prophylactic. Check with your travel doctor if you need vaccinations, and be sure to get them timeously.
Yellow fever (before 2013)
The country requirement at entry: a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required for travelers aged one year or over arriving from countries with a risk of yellow fever transmission.
WHO vaccination recommendation: yes
We recommend for all travelers aged nine months or over, except as mentioned below and generally not recommended for travelers whose itineraries are limited to the following areas: the entire North Eastern Province; the states of Kilifi, Kwale, Lamu, Malindi, and Tanariver in Coastal Province; and the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa.
Malaria (before 2018)
Malaria risk due predominantly to P. falciparum exists throughout the year in the entire country. Usually, there is little risk in Nairobi and the highlands (above 2500 m) of Central, Eastern, Nyanza, Rift Valley, and Western provinces.
WHO recommended prevention: C
Always use sunscreen and bug repellent with DEET. The HIV infection rate is high, so exercise caution. Malaria is an issue in certain areas (not in Nairobi but definitely on the coast and low-lying game reserves). Consult your health provider well in advance about the best malaria prophylactics to take, as most medication needs to start before arrival in Kenya.
You’ll need full medical travel insurance that includes repatriation in the event of a medical emergency. If you plan to dive, trek, or climb, make sure your insurance covers active pursuits. Medical bills are often paid upfront in Kenya, so keep all paperwork to make an insurance claim.
The AMREF Flying Doctors service provides air evacuation and transportation between health-care facilities for medical emergencies in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, or anywhere within a 1,000 km (621 miles) radius of Nairobi. The planes fly out of Nairobi’s Wilson Airport 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Local landline and mobile calls are pretty cheap, but hotels add hefty surcharges to phone calls. The need for public telephones in Kenya has fallen away, given that the majority of people carry a mobile phone, so most have been decommissioned or removed. If you don’t want to use your mobile phone because of expensive international roaming fees, buy a Kenyan pay-as-you-go SIM card (from one of the service-provider stores or street vendors—there’s no shortage of them) and add airtime as you need it. The local providers are Airtel, Safaricom, and Telkom. Coverage is good throughout most of the country but can be patchy in remote places—don’t expect to get a signal at an out-of-the-way safari lodge or camp.
Calling Within Kenya
City codes are (020) for Nairobi, (041) for Mombasa, (040) for Diani Beach, and (012) for Lamu; include the first 0 when you dial within the country. When making a phone call in Kenya, always use the full 10-digit number, including the area code, even if you’re in the same area.
Calling Outside Kenya: When dialing out from Kenya, dial 000 before the international code. So, for example, you would dial 000 (0001) for the United States. Other country codes are 00044 for the U.K and 00027 for South Africa.
Internet is widely available in Kenya. Free Wi-Fi is available in many public places in Nairobi and Mombasa such as restaurants and coffee shops and at almost all hotels—although again, in remote places you won’t be able to connect. You can top up your own phone with data on a Kenyan pay-as-you-go SIM card.
Kenya prides itself on game meat and seafood, organically grown vegetables, and excellent tropical fruits (such as passion fruit, papaya, and mangoes). When you’re near the coast, sample traditional Indian and Arabic food and look for Kenyan-grown tea and coffee and Tusker beer, a local brew.
“Swahili tea” is very similar to chai in India. You’ll find most cuisines, from Chinese to French to Ethiopian, in restaurants in Nairobi.
Kenya’s main airport is Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO), located 15km/9mi southeast of Nairobi. Kenya’s second international airport is Moi International Airport (MBA), located 9km/6mi west of Mombasa, but aside from flights to Zanzibar, this is mainly used for domestic and charter flights. From Nairobi or Mombasa, one can fly or drive between reserves or opt to do a bit of both. Most domestic flights out of Nairobi depart from Wilson Airport (WIL), 6km/4mi south of Nairobi.
In Kenya, several domestic and regional airlines fly from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Wilson Airport in Nairobi, and Moi International Airport in Mombasa. Several major towns have airports, and Kenya also has a vast network of well-maintained airstrips at the safari destinations. One airstrip will service an entire park or reserve, or in some parks like the famous Masai Mara, there are several airstrips that each serve a group of safari lodges and camps.
In most cases, transfers are provided from the airstrip to your accommodations. Schedules for the Kenya safari airlines often work in circuits and drop off and pick up at several destinations and may often return on the same route.
Search within Kenya Airways (the national carrier), Virgin Atlantic, or British Airways for direct affordable flights to Kenya.
There are plenty of efficient domestic airlines offering daily flights. Kenya Airways flies between Nairobi JKIA and Eldoret, Kisumu, Malindi and Mombasa, and several regional destinations, including Entebbe in Uganda, Kigali in Rwanda, and Kilimanjaro, Dar es Salaam, and Zanzibar in Tanzania. Kenya Airway’s no-frills airline, Jambojet, flies between Nairobi JKIA and Diani Beach (Ukunda), Eldoret, Kisumu, Lamu, Malindi, and Mombasa. Fly540 flies from Nairobi JKIA to Eldoret, Kisumu, Lamu, Lodwar, Malindi, Mombasa, Kilimanjaro, and Zanzibar in Tanzania. From Nairobi’s Wilson Airport, Airkenya flies to Amboseli, Diani Beach (Ukunda), Lamu, Lewa Downs, Loisaba, Malindi, the Masai Mara, Meru, Nanyuki, and Samburu, and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Mombasa Air Safari has its hub at Moi International Airport. It flies in circuits from Mombasa, Diani Beach (Ukunda), and Malindi on the coast to Amboseli, the Masai Mara, and Tsavo West. Also from Wilson Airport, Safarilink flies to Amboseli, Diani Beach (Ukunda), Lamu, Lewa Downs, Lodwar, Loisaba, the Masai Mara, Naivasha, Nanyuki, Tsavo West, Samburu, and Kilimanjaro, and from the Masai Mara to Migori, which links travelers from the Mara to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
Suppose you want to arrange your timetable to the safari destinations or coast. In that case, there are several air charter companies based at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport, such as East African Air Charters and Reliance Air Charters. Small planes like Cessnas are utilized, which can seat 5–13 passengers. Although more expensive than scheduled flights, charters are convenient and are an option for families and groups.
All domestic, regional, and charter flights can be booked directly with the airlines. Alternatively, ask your travel agent, or local accommodation, or a Kenyan tour operator to book as part of your package. Airport departure tax is included in all scheduled flight tickets but maybe additional on charter flights.
Be aware that the baggage allowance is usually 15 kg (33 pounds) per person on the small planes to the airstrips in the parks, including hand luggage and camera equipment, and bags should be soft-sided. If you are carrying more than this, most hotels in Nairobi will store extra luggage or ask your airline if they have facilities.
Whichever mode one chooses for travel, in most cases, our local driver or guide will pick you up at the airport and all further transportation as part of the Kenya safari package.
Self-drive Kenya safaris are an option; however, poor road conditions in many places mean there’s often a big difference between distance on a map and driving time. For example, it takes about five hours to drive from Nairobi to the Masai Mara, a 150-mile/240-km journey. Several car rental companies specialize in 4x4s, and most will also offer the services of a driver. Expect to pay $110 a day to hire a 4×4 and $20 a day for a driver.
All arriving passengers into Kenya now must apply and get their Visas online; this is a much easier method which saves you time from embassy visitations or long ques that use to be for those who opted to get these on arrival at our airports.
- Your passport must have at least two blank pages and be valid for a minimum of six months after your date of entry into Kenya. Most nationalities require a visa, including citizens of the United States.
- Single-entry visas are available online. Multiple-entry visas must be applied for prior to traveling to Kenya. Single-entry visas (US$50) are valid for three months and allow reentry to Kenya after going to Tanzania and Uganda. Children under 16 years accompanying their parent(s) do not require visas.
- Obtain the latest information on visas, as well as any additional details regarding entry requirements, from the Embassy of Kenya, 2249 R Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20008, telephone (202) 387-6101, or the Kenyan Consulates General in Los Angeles and New York City.
- You should have proof of yellow fever immunizations, or you may be denied entry.
When is the best time for a Kenya safari holiday?
Generally, a Kenya safari is an all-year-round holiday. Traveler base on many options to tell when the best time is for a safari in Kenya. A traveler can consider how much they’re willing to spend, which places they’ll be visiting and how much time you have on your calendar fixed for the trip.
Most Kenya Safari attractions are showcasing their best during wildlife drama and action between January through March. During this time, the climate is friendly, mostly no rains, and wildlife viewing is climaxing. The dry season is the peak season for a safari in Kenya. Everyone else also considers this the best time for a Kenya Safari trip.
However, mid-March’s downpour through June and October through December, the rainy season, is mostly avoided by travelers. But we would urge you to travel during this time if you want to avoid the crowds and take advantage of off-season discounts.
When is the best time for the great migration in Mara, Kenya?
The best time for viewing the great migration in Masai Mara on a Kenya safari is between mid-August and late October when the wildebeest and zebra herds cross the border from Serengeti National Park. It’s not easy to accurately tell when the migrating animals will be crossing the Mara river, but it’s sometime between August and October. There’s no wildebeest movement from January through to June in Masai Mara. So that should help you narrow down your calendar options.
When is the best time to visit Kenya’s coastal beaches?
The best time to visit Kenya beach destinations is a moot point: Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast is hot and humid all year round, and rain can fall at any time. However, we would recommend avoiding the Kenyan coast during the mid-March to late May season when temperatures and rainfall are highest.
The official currency is the Kenya shilling (KSH). Available notes are 50, 100, 200, 500, and 1,000 shillings. Available coins are 1, 5, 10, and 20 shillings.
Most things are priced and paid for in KSH. However, many businesses in the tourist industry like hotels, safari companies, and airlines may quote in U.S. dollars and shillings. If you pay with dollars, check that you’re getting a fair exchange rate.
If you exchange U.S. dollars at a bank or bureau de change, bring new notes; any old, worn, or damaged bills will not be accepted.
ATMs and Banks
Banks open at 8:30 on weekdays and close at 4; on Saturday, they open at nine and close at noon. Banks are closed on Sundays and public holidays. Most ATMs are open 24 hours.
Many banks can perform foreign exchange services or international electronic transfers. Try to avoid banks at their busiest times—at nine and from noon to 2 on Friday, and at month’s end—unless you’re willing to arrive early and line up with the locals. Major banks are Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), which has the largest branch network in the country, and Barclays, National Bank of Kenya, and Standard Chartered.
Credit cards are widely accepted, but for small amounts like restaurants, shopping, taxi fares, fuel, and tips, it’s easiest to withdraw shillings from an ATM once you’re in the country. Most ATMs dispense large denomination notes; try and break these when you can as taxi drivers and souvenir vendors often don’t have change for large bills.
Major credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard are accepted at Kenyan banks and by ATMs. Most ATMs accept Cirrus, Plus, Maestro, Visa Electron, Visa, and MasterCard; the best place to withdraw cash is at an indoor ATM, preferably at the airport, in a shopping mall, or guarded by a security officer.
Tipping in Kenya isn’t mandatory, but porters do expect something, and 10% is customary in restaurants. Some hotels and most safari lodges and tented camps have a gratuity box for you to put a tip for all of the staff at the end of your stay. Tip your safari driver and guide approximately US$10–US$15 per person, per day. It’s not necessary to tip taxi drivers as the fare is determined before you set off.
Kenya has a broad choice of safari accommodations ranging from intimate tented camps and luxurious boutique hotels to mid-range safari lodges and beach resorts as well as local lodgings and campsites. Hotel rates in Nairobi and other towns tend to stay the same throughout the year (although there could be midweek specials), but all room prices in the wildlife and coastal areas are seasonal. It’s essential to book in advance in the high season and look out for specials during the low season, while during rainy months.
There’s a bewildering choice of safari lodges and tented camps in the national parks, game reserves, and wildlife conservancies. Lodges tend to be large solid structures with hotel-like rooms and restaurants. Most are family-friendly, and many have extra facilities like a swimming pool. Smaller tented camps have spacious and often luxuriously appointed walk-in tents with bathrooms, meals are taken communally in a dining tent or outside, and most are unfenced, allowing for greater connection with the wildlife (as such, children aren’t always permitted).
Prices at lodges are almost always all-inclusive, which includes accommodations, meals, and activities such as game drives and walks; find out in advance if park fees (US$40 to US$100 per day) are included. Campsites in the wildlife areas have few or no facilities and aren’t an option for visitors with time restrictions or first-timers. Still, there is the option of going on a camping safari with a tour operator.
Nairobi has hundreds of hotels, and many international chains are represented, but there are also charming independent hotels and some older establishments with colonial ambiance. All kinds of accommodations can be found on the coast, from luxurious honeymoon hideaways to all-inclusive family beach resorts. On Lamu, some beautifully restored historic Arabic houses have opened as hotels. Standard prices usually include a full English breakfast, and other meals are available in the hotel’s restaurant. Hotel reviews have been shortened.