Nairobi's heart is a grid of old streets, colonial-era buildings and modern glass and concrete.
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NairobiKenya’s sprawling, traffic-choked capital is an unavoidable stopover on many itineraries, and most people wouldn’t choose to spend longer in the city than necessary. But Nairobi is not nearly as bad as its ‘Nairoberry’ reputation might suggest: there are some great hotels and restaurants, and the shopping opportunities – in malls or outdoor curio markets (so-called ‘Maasai markets’) – can be very good. More importantly, Nairobi has some creditable must-sees of its own, of which the standout attraction is the remarkable Nairobi National Park.
Flying into Nairobi and where to stayThe main Nairobi airport is Jomo Kenyatta International, known as JKI or JKIA. The city’s second airport is the domestic airport, Wilson airport, which is closer to the city centre. Most safari flights leave from Wilson. There are no flights between the two airports and transfers between the two frequently take an hour or more.
Nairobi may leave every visitor with a different impression, but one thing everyone agrees on is the indescribable madness of the traffic. Traffic jams of stationary vehicles lasting for hours are commonplace on many of what would be the city’s arterial roads if the traffic were moving. Tales of Nairobi residents who took less time travelling from European capitals to Nairobi than from the airport to their homes are legion and commutes of three to four hours – in both directions – are not unusual. All the traffic to the central highlands, the Rift Valley and northern and western Kenya passes through the city. While major road-building projects are beginning to relieve the pressure, you shouldn’t underestimate the potential for delays in one of the most snarled-up cities in the world. Bearing that in mind, and depending on your timing, there’s a lot to be said for staying close to the airports in the southeast, or even in Nairobi National Park itself, which now has highly recommended options.
- All our road transfers in Nairobi are handled by a very long established and highly reputable safari operator and you will be met outside the arrivals hall by a uniformed driver-guide.
The Mombasa RoadIf you want to avoid the city’s traffic, which as the rush hours get longer, is increasingly unavoidable for most of the day, then staying out of town in the south-east, close to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), is probably the best solution. As well as a popular hotel in the former American Embassy about 12km towards the city from the airport, if you take a 30-minute drive down the Mombasa highway towards the coast you’re on the Athi Plains, where the Swara Plains Conservancy, a former game ranch, offers a charmingly rustic safari lodge and surprisingly good wildlife viewing.
Karen & LangataMany visitors opt to stay in the leafy suburbs of Karen and Langata, in the south-west of the city where there are several very pleasant and comfortable country-house style hotels and guesthouses. There are several worthwhile activities out here, too, including the captivating elephant orphanage run by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where you’ll get close encounters with tiny pachyderms; the Giraffe Centre run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, where you can look into the eyes of a Rothschild giraffe at treetop height; a number of interesting crafts shops and workshops; and the Karen Blixen Museum celebrating the life of the colonial-era, Danish writer who lived here.
The Central Business District & West NairobiIf nothing but central Nairobi will do, or you want to stay in one of the city’s iconic old hotels, dating back to the early years of the last century, than you’ll be staying in the central business district (CBD), or simply ‘town’ to most Nairobians. You’ll be able to walk to the Kenyatta International Conference Centre for 360-degree, rooftop views of the city, to the National Archives and City Market, and to take a short cab ride to the National Museum for an introduction to Kenya’s cultures and wildlife.
Westlands and GigiriThese relatively central parts of Nairobi to the north of the CBD offer the convenience of being close to some of the city’s best shopping centres and restaurants and not far from the National Museum and the city centre’s handful of attractions. Gigiri has the Village Market, Nairobi’s best shopping mall and entertainment complex, which is also close to one of the city’s best green spaces, the beautiful Karura Forest, where you can safely go birdwatching, walk to caves and waterfalls, or go for a run.
History of NairobiThe first inklings that a city was going to appear here came in May 1899, when the British builders of the railway into the interior built a camp here as they figured out how to get the line up the steep slopes ahead and then down the vertiginous escarpment into the Rift Valley beyond. The city started life as a supply depot, railway switching yard and campground for the Indian labourers working on the line. The location was originally called Nakusontelon, ‘Beginning of all Beauty’, but the name it came to be known by came from the Maa words enkare nyarobi, ‘the place of cold water’, which the Maasai used to describe the area.
Without any planning, the settlement took root and was made the capital of the newly formed ‘British East Africa’ in 1907. In 1902, the Stanley hotel (now the Sarova Stanley) had opened, followed two years later by the Norfolk. The city grew rapidly in the run-up to World War I and was the capital of the dissolute ‘Happy Valley set’ in the inter-war years. There was a further burst of settler arrivals, and increased migration from the countryside, after World War II. After independence in 1963, the city centre started sprouting high-rise buildings, but as the city spread out in every direction, the old central business district lost its shine in the 1980s and early 90s and acquired a notoriety for beggars, street children and muggings. Since the late 1990s, it has been transforming again as businesses return, and a limited amount of beautification has taken place: even street lighting has been installed and the term “nightlife" once again has a meaning.
Meanwhile, the relentless spread of the suburbs – up to Kiambu and towards Thika, down to Kitengela and Athi River, out to Kiserian, and to the lip of the Rift Valley – continues unabated.
MarketsIf you want to do some souvenir shopping, Naiobi’s markets are irresistible. Try to visit one of the weekly, so-called ‘Maasai markets’ that rotate around various car parks and shopping mall rooftops: their prices tend to be lower than those in the curio shops. City Market, in the CBD, tends to be quite pricey, but it’s open daily. Other markets, like Kariokor and Gikomba, are very much markets for local produce and daily needs. If you’re interested, your driver would be able to escort you.
Nairobi landmarksIf you’re going to be stopping over in Nairobi for a day or more, one excursion option would be a half- or full-day city tour. These normally take in Nairobi’s broad Kenyatta Avenue, lined with shops and offices and with its palm tree central reservations. Just a stone’s throw from Kenyatta Avenue is the first president’s mausoleum, City Square and nearby the Kenyan Parliament building. Just behind, stands the iconic Kenyatta International Conference Centre, with its heli-pad roof. It’s easy to take the elevator to the top for superb views of the city. To the south you’ll see the sidings and railway yards at Nairobi station, where the Railway Museum makes for a fascinating brief visit. There are more substantial exhibits at the often overlooked National Archives on Moi Avenue, which includes some very good ethnic crafts and weaponry. For this kind of thing, plus a lot of stuffed animals and birds, you should reserve a couple of hours for the National Museum. While it doesn’t match everyone’s expectations, it does do a reasonable job of preparing you for what you’ll see on safari.
Nairobi National ParkThis is no Central Park or Wimbledon Common: Nairobi National Park covers 117km2 and, in an area that in any other capital would be suburbs, the park is a rolling wilderness of grasslands, streams, woodland and ravines, where lions hunt, black rhinos browse, white rhinos graze and giraffe do their slow motion cantering against a skyscraper background. At the other end of the wildlife spectrum, on our last visit in 2012, we stopped to watch a young python moving off the earth road one evening, and paused to look at a large leopard tortoise – significantly out of its species’ normal comfort zone at this altitude. If you stay either in the camp or lodge located in the park, you may be able to do a short night game drive, as they have permission to transfer guests to or from the airports after dark.
Dozens of species of plains wildlife, including wildebeest, impala, zebra, hippo, waterbuck, warthog, eland, jackal and hyena (the only major absentee is the elephant) live completely natural lives in Nairobi National Park, only stopped from wandering into the city by a fence along the northern boundary, but free to move out onto the plains to the south across the Mbagathi River.
You have a good chance of seeing lions in the park (on our last visit, two big males were tussling over the weighty head of an eland) and sightings of leopards and cheetahs, although much less common, are far from unknown. Leopards used to be notorious for making nocturnal sorties out of the park to hunt dogs in the south-west suburbs. That unauthorised activity seems to have been taken over by lions, which sometimes appear unexpectedly in suburban streets.