For many visitors, Nairobi is little more than the gateway to their Kenyan adventure. However, there’s more to the capital than the arrival and departure lounges of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Chaotic and colorful, Nairobi has something for every kind of traveler. Shopaholics are spoiled for choice with everything from traditional Maasai markets to upscale suburban malls. For the nature lovers, there’s the world’s only inner city national park, while cultural lessons wait to be learned in the city’s museums and galleries. Above all, Nairobi is a foodie’s paradise, with restaurants offering a spectrum of cuisines from all over the world. Discover the best ways to pass your time in East Africa’s liveliest metropolis.
Kenya may be an iconic safari destination, but few realize that you can view wildlife without even leaving the capital. Seven miles from downtown Nairobi lies Nairobi National Park, a 45-square-mile sanctuary that allows you to view iconic animals like giraffe, buffalo, lion, and cheetah against an incongruous backdrop of city skyscrapers. With more than 400 avian species, it's a haven for birders, as well as one of the best places in Kenya for spotting both black and white rhino. Opt for a self-drive or guided game drive, or strike out on foot on one of the walking trails. Entry costs $35 for non-resident adults and $20 for children.
A particular highlight of Nairobi National Park is the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Orphans’ Project. Set up by renowned conservationist Dame Daphne Sheldrick, the project cares for baby elephants and rhinos orphaned by poaching, drought, or any other human-wildlife conflict. The babies are hand-fed and cared for around the clock before eventually being rehabilitated back into the wild. The orphanage is open to the public for one hour every day, between 11 a.m. and midday. Come to watch the babies being given their milk or enjoying a dust bath; if you want to, you can choose one to adopt. Entry requires a minimum donation of $7 or 500 Kenyan shillings per person.
With so much to see and do, consider staying overnight in the national park at the spectacular Nairobi Tented Camp. Ranked as the top bed and breakfast accommodation option in the capital, the camp is set deep within the park’s riverine forest and features nine luxury safari tents. Each one has its own en-suite bathroom with hot water and solar electricity, and gives you the chance to experience the magic of the park after dark. There is a central mess tent with a fully stocked bar, and stays include three set meals a day—typically served al fresco. Rates range from $115 to $145 per person, depending on the season.
Located in Lang’ata, the Giraffe Centre offers up-close wildlife encounters of a different kind. The center was founded in 1979 as part of a breeding program launched to save the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe from extinction. Today, the global population of Rothschild’s giraffes has risen from approximately 130 individuals to over 1,500. Visitors to the center can meet the giraffes that are currently in residence, and may feed and pet them from a special raised platform. There’s also a nature trail and an auditorium for giraffe conservation lectures. The center is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and tickets for non-residents are priced at 1,500 Kenyan shillings.
If you feel that a day visit won’t give you enough time with the residents of the Giraffe Centre, consider booking a night or two at the luxurious Giraffe Manor. Located on the same property, this magnificent former hunting lodge dates back to the 1930s and evokes the Golden Age of safari with its ivy-wreathed exterior and colonial rooms. The highlight of a stay at this exclusive boutique hotel is its resident herd of Rothschild’s giraffes. Close encounters are inevitable, perhaps at breakfast when the giraffes extend their long necks through the dining room windows, or during afternoon tea on the terrace. Rates start from $875 per adult sharing.
If you loved the iconic movie "Out of Africa" starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, the Karen Blixen Museum deserves a place near the top of your Nairobi bucket list. Blixen was the author of the memoir that inspired the film, and the museum is housed in the Ngong Hills farmhouse where the love story between Blixen and Finch Hatton played out. The museum is decorated with many original pieces of furniture that once belonged to the Blixens, while its graceful verandas and beautiful garden transport visitors back in time to colonial-era Kenya. Admission includes a guided tour and costs 1,000 shillings for adults and 500 shillings for children.
Hike the Ngong Hills Trail
To fully experience the landscapes of Blixen's Kenya, embark on a Ngong Hills hike. The route takes you along the spine of seven hills, each one taller and more challenging than the last. Although the total distance is only around 7 miles, reasonable fitness is required. There is much to see along the way, from local settlements where village children sell homemade beads, to a wind turbine farm and stunning Nairobi and Great Rift Valley views. Keep an eye out for the flora and fauna of the Ngong Hills Forest Reserve, including wild buffalo. Tours by companies like Great Horizon Trails give you the benefit of a local guide and armed guard.
Since 1975, the Kazuri Bead Factory has been producing exquisite hand-crafted and hand-painted ceramic beads. The team has now expanded to employ more than 340 women, many of them single mothers from townships in and around Nairobi. Visitors to the factory can hear the ladies’ stories and watch as they make the beads and string them together to create beautiful jewelry. The factory also produces pottery painted in uniquely African colors and patterns, all of which make fantastic souvenirs. Located on what was once the Karen Blixen Estate, the factory is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and until 1 p.m. on Saturdays.
Shop for Souvenirs at the Maasai Market
Kenya’s Maasai people are famous for their bold traditional dress and beaded jewelry. You can purchase a part of their rich culture to take home with you at the Maasai Market, where local artisans sell traditional paintings, wood carvings, fabrics, woven baskets, and jewelry. The market is held on Kijabe Street opposite the Norfolk Hotel on Tuesdays, at the Capital Centre on Wednesdays, at Nakumatt Junction Shopping Mall on Thursdays, and at the Village Market on Fridays. On Saturday and Sunday, you will find it in the High Court parking lot and at the Yaya Centre respectively. Be prepared to haggle.
If bartering and crowds aren’t your thing, head out to the affluent suburb of Karen for some of the most upmarket shopping Nairobi has to offer. The Hub Karen has more than 85 stores, including well-known international brands and proudly Kenyan ones. Shop for African fashions; grab a bite to eat; or stock up on travel essentials like SIM cards, adaptors, and ingredients for whipping up a meal at your self-catered accommodation. If you’re traveling with kids, The Hub’s play area is a great way to kill a few hours in between activities. The mall is open every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
African Heritage House is the life work of Alan Donovan, a gallery curator who has lived in Kenya for more than 50 years. Built using a combination of traditional mud architecture styles from across the continent, the house’s imposing ocher walls rise from the surrounding greenery like castle battlements. Inside, a priceless collection of African art and artifacts adorn every room. Come for a guided tour, or for a meal at the rooftop restaurant with its swimming pool and views of Nairobi National Park. For a truly immersive experience, you can also stay the night in one of the house’s luxurious, art-filled rooms. Tours cost 4,000 shillings for up to four people.
Want to learn more about African heritage? Head over to the Nairobi Gallery. This National Monument was constructed in 1913 and originally served as a civil service office for recording births, marriages, and deaths. Today it is a gallery with six main rooms; some host temporary exhibitions by local and international artists, while others are home to the Murumbi African Heritage Collection. Curated by former Kenyan vice president Joseph Murumbi and his wife, Sheila, the collection showcases African artwork and artifacts from all over the continent. Located at the intersection of Kenyatta Avenue and Uhuru Highway, the building also serves as Kenya’s Point Zero from which all distances are measured.
Located on Museum Hill and built in 1929, Nairobi National Museum offers a more specialist insight into the national heritage of Kenya. Exhibits cover Kenyan history, culture, nature, and contemporary art, and feature artifacts from each of the country’s 42 officially recognized ethnic groups. Highlights include examples of traditional ceremonial dress, black and white photographs of tribal life, musical instruments carved from ivory, and a collection of portraits drawn by the famous naturalist, Joy Adamson. After perusing the indoor exhibits, be sure to visit the museum’s botanic sculpture garden and nature trail. The museum is open 365 days a year from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Nai Nami City Tour is an initiative that employs former street children, providing them with an income and purpose, and giving other children from impoverished backgrounds role models. You can support it by signing up for a three-hour walking tour of downtown Nairobi. You will visit the places where your guides once lived, and learn how they ended up on the streets and how they survived. After visiting a secret market and sharing lunch at a local kibanda, you'll have a new understanding of what life is really like for the majority of Nairobi’s residents. Tours start at the Hilton Hotel; tickets cost 3,500 shillings and include lunch and soft drinks.
Kenya is renowned for its coffee. Find out why at Fairview Estate, located just north of Nairobi in the Central Highlands. This picturesque farm occupies 100 acres, is sustained by the Riara River, and has been producing world-class coffee since the early 1900s. You can learn all about the process of growing, harvesting, and processing the beans on a two-hour coffee tour led by one of the estate’s coffee specialists. Afterwards, you will get to sample some of Fairview’s best-loved brews. Bring a picnic with you or order a packed lunch from the farm. Tours depart at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily and cost $30 per non-resident.
Situated on the outskirts of Nairobi, serene and secure Karura Forest is one of the world’s largest gazetted forests found entirely within city limits. It offers around 2,500 acres of unspoiled woodland, with streams, waterfalls, and scenic trails for walking and jogging. Two bike depots hire out multi-speed trail bikes, and there are designated picnic sites and a tennis court, too. However you choose to explore, keep an eye out for the forest’s abundant flora and fauna, including Sykes’ monkeys, suni and duiker antelope, bush pigs, butterflies, and more than 200 species of birds. Guided nature tours can be booked from the guide desk at the gate on Limuru Road.
Towering Kenyatta International Convention Centre is one of Nairobi’s most recognizable landmarks. Although it is primarily a space for conferences, functions, and entertainment events, it’s also a popular destination for those wanting a bird’s-eye view of the capital. Its 30th-floor observation deck is the highest in the city, and offers breathtaking 360-degree views—especially at sunrise and sunset. The deck is open to all members of the public; to reach, you'll climb four flights of stairs after riding an elevator to the 27th floor.
Nyama Mama restaurants are a great choice for those wanting to explore Kenyan cuisine for the first time. The brand is headed by Mama, a former safari chef who has dedicated her career to bringing the traditional flavors of her childhood home to the masses in Nairobi. Dishes are inspired by the roadside barbecues found in townships across Kenya, but are given a semi-gourmet, modern twist. Try chapati wraps and goat curry stews, flame-grilled meats, and unique sides such as ugali fries and coconut cassava balls. There are two full-service restaurants (one in Westlands and the other on Mombasa Road) as well as an express outlet at the Village Market food court.
Explore the Capital’s International Culinary Scene
Gourmets will be pleased to hear that Nairobi’s culinary scene is famously diverse. In addition to traditional Kenyan fare, you will find restaurants dedicated to authentic Italian, French, Mexican, Brazilian, and Indian cuisine. Particular favorites of ours include Abyssinia, a no-frills spot for tantalizing Ethiopian food served in the traditional style, and Inti, the first restaurant in Africa to serve the unique fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine known as Nikkei. One of the best restaurants in Nairobi is Mawimbi Seafood Restaurant, loved for its dizzying array of fresh seafood prepared using techniques from all over the world—think Thai salmon curry and Japanese-style tempura lobster.