As the sun rises each morning in equatorial East Africa, Nairobi, Kenya, is already bustling with traffic, streams of pedestrians and people pushing carts. In Nairobi's markets, the floors are washed and fresh produce is artfully arranged, tea sellers unlock their stalls and light their fires, and merchants raise the iron screens from their store windows. Flowers are everywhere, and it is particularly attractive on some of the city's main avenues and in Uhuru Park around December when the jacaranda trees are in bloom.
It is said that Nairobi is one of the only capital cities on the planet with a national park within its city limits. Those who travel on regional and safari flights from Wilson Airport get an up-close look at just how close the urban area is to this park.
Travelers will find that Nairobi is more cosmopolitan and less stressful than many capital cities in Africa. The city center has a lively and modern Central Business District (CBD), some fine colonial buildings, and spacious squares and leafy well-tended parks that are popular with office workers at lunchtime. The attractive and peaceful suburbs to the west, which peter out to the picturesque Ngong Hills overlooking the Rift Valley, are where most of the sights and better accommodations are located.
Still, be prepared for frustration and inconvenience. Nairobi is a place of contrasts, combining high-rise office blocks and upscale shopping malls with frantic matatu and bus stands, heaving markets, and the slums and townships that ring the city. Traffic jams are a frustrating and grueling way to waste time; they are all too common.
Most travelers to Kenya spend a couple of nights in Nairobi before or after a safari. This is time enough to do some curio shopping or perhaps visit some museums or other tourist attractions.
Lying on the outskirts of the city, Nairobi National Park is one of the easiest to visit in the country. Combined with visits to the Animal Orphanage and Safari Walk at the entrance, a half-day visit is a good introduction to the wildlife you are likely to encounter on a longer safari in the rest of the country. Nairobi also boasts the best restaurants and nightlife in Kenya; the most famous is Carnivore, which is on most travelers' itineraries.
In one of the most diverse and beautiful countries in Africa, Nairobi sits just 90 mi/145 km south of the equator, at approximately 5,500 ft/1,700 m above sea level. The city center is densely packed, a roughly rectangular area 12 blocks long and six blocks wide. Boundaries are University Way on the north end, Haile Selassie Avenue on the south, Uhuru Highway to the west and Moi Avenue to the east.
Upscale, fast-growing Westlands, a neighborhood northwest of the city center, is teeming with hotels, shopping malls and restaurants. Karen and Langata in the south and Gigiri in the north are well-kept areas with enough shops and attractions to make them noteworthy. Ngong Road to the south of the city has also followed this trend; shopping and other recreational activities are thriving there. To the east is a vast industrial area that stretches almost to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Nairobi's traffic is at times severely congested and the pollution palpable, but it is fairly easy to get oriented.
The Maasai called the swampy plain along the river enkare nyarobi
(the place of cool waters), as it was originally a watering place for the tribe and their cattle. It wasn't until the Mombasa-Uganda railway arrived in May 1899 that modern-day Nairobi was born. By 1907, it became large enough to take over from Mombasa as the capital of the British colony. The climate was considered by the British officials to be better than at the coast.
By the 1920s, the city had prospered as European immigrants farmed the surrounding lands. Nairobi also became home to communities of Indians, Arabs and Somalis, who came to trade. By the time of its independence from British rule in 1963, Nairobi was a glorious city, noted for well-kept streets, stunning gardens and a cosmopolitan population.
After independence, rapid urbanization followed, turning the city into one of Africa's largest commercial centers. Since the early 1980s, the city has been dealing with an increasing population, rising unemployment and student- and civil-society-led demonstrations, which were especially frequent in the 1990s. Keeping up the maintenance of basic infrastructures has also been a struggle.
However, after the election of the country's third president, Mwai Kibaki, in December 2002, things appeared to steadily improve. In December 2005, Kenyans voted for sweeping constitutional changes in a first-ever national referendum.
When few changes were brought into effect, discontent mounted in the build-up to the 2007 general elections. Hailed as the most open and closely contested election in Kenya's history, more than 70% of the country's 14.3 million registered voters turned out to cast their votes. As the votes were counted, however, accusations of electoral fraud quickly surfaced as President Kibaki came from behind to defeat opposition leader Raila Odinga, of the Orange Democratic Movement, by a slim margin.
Initial protests escalated into unprecedented violence and destruction, leading to more than 1,000 deaths and the internal displacement of more than 350,000 people. While Nairobi was at the center of the violence, parts of Mombasa as well as towns in the Rift Valley, including Naivasha and Nakuru, were also affected. Following lengthy peace talks chaired by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, a power sharing agreement was eventually signed between Kibaki and Odinga on 28 February 2008.
In 2010, Kenyans again voted for changes to the constitution in a referendum, which also saw a high voter turnout of more than 70%, and the process passed peacefully. To avoid a repeat of the confusing 2007 election, under the new terms, a presidential candidate must get a 50% plus one vote majority in the National Assembly, and at least 25% of the vote in the constituencies.
Kenyan elections continue to be a source of mayhem, and in the 2017 election, the vote was close enough that the results were not accepted. They were contested in the Supreme Court, and a new election was scheduled. Before that could take place, one candidate withdrew, leaving Uhuru Kenyatta as president.
To get a feel for Nairobi, first visit the vibrant City Market on Muindi Mbingu Street. Curio markets are held in different places all over the city on designated days of the week, and visitors can find butchers, fresh-flower stalls, an array of colorful fruit and vegetables, as well as crafts and curios to haggle over with the traders.
For those who can't wait to see animals, there are numerous opportunities in and around Nairobi.
Venturing out for a taste of Nairobi's nightlife is not for the nervous or meek. If you do head out for a night on the town, go in a group or at least as a pair, and take taxis rather than walk. Entrance fees for nightclubs tend to be less for women.
The most trustworthy bars and lounges are in hotels, especially larger international hotels, although there are fewer locals there. If you plan to go out, it is best to go with locals. Locals and expats mingle at bars in the Norfolk, Hilton, InterContinental and Serena hotels or at the Carnivore restaurant's Simba Saloon.
Eating out in Nairobi is never boring. The sheer number and variety of restaurants could keep you dining for months without ever visiting the same spot twice. Although restaurants open and close regularly, you'll always find an astonishing variety of cuisines from around the globe.
Local specialties include samosas (deep-fried pastry filled with minced meat), mandazi (a semisweet flat bread similar to a doughnut), kienyenji or irio (maize and green vegetables mashed together), sukuma wiki (greens cooked with meat or meat broth) and ugali (cornmeal cooked into a thick porridge).
The fruit in Kenya is heavenly—the mangoes are superior to any grown in North or Central America, and the papayas (pawpaws), custard apples, passion fruit, green oranges, green bananas, small yellow bananas and pineapples are all delicious.
For many Kenyans, nyama choma (barbecued meat) is an epicurean delight. Usually, each diner chooses a cut of meat at the counter, and it is prepared to order. Some restaurants serve Kenya's coastal cuisine, in which meat, poultry, fish or vegetables are cooked in a curried coconut sauce.
Wines are mostly imported to Kenya from South Africa and Europe. Kenyan Tusker beer is worth trying and has won many awards at various beer festivals around the world.
Restaurants are most crowded 1-2 pm for lunch and 7-8:30 pm for dinner. With Nairobi's strict laws banning smoking in public places, all bars and restaurants provide separate smoking areas.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 560 KSh; $$ = 560 KSh-1,120 KSh; $$$ = 1,121 KSh-2,800 KSh; $$$$ = more than 2,800 KSh.
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