Nairobi is often described as a walkable city but although the Kenyan capital is relatively compact and has much to offer visitors from overseas, it is not always safe for tourists to explore on foot. Additionally, many of Nairobi’s top attractions are located outside the CBD in suburbs like Karen and Langata. Public transport occurs in several forms and using it can provide a rewarding insight into the local way of life, though there can be some safety concerns surrounding overcrowding and vehicle maintenance. In this article, we take a look at every option from matatus and buses to private taxis and ride-share apps.
Public Minibuses (Matatus)
Shared minibus taxis known as matatus are ubiquitous in Nairobi and across Kenya, and constitute the most popular form of public transport for local residents. Matatus are typically licensed to take up to 14 passengers but this limit is often exceeded. This can make for a crowded and uncomfortable environment exacerbated by the fact that the matatus are not always well-maintained and the are drivers who don't respect speed limits or other road rules. Pickpockets are also a risk on crowded matatus, and for these reasons, this form of transportation is not often recommended for tourists. If you do choose to travel by matatu, keep the following in mind.
- Most destinations in and around Nairobi are connected by the minibuses, which follow set routes and vie competitively with one another for passengers.
- During peak hours, matatus typically operate as an express service with a single pick-up and drop-off point. At other times they will usually make several stops en route.
- For the most accurate information on Nairobi’s matatu routes, consult this map by Digital Matatus.
- You can get on at any designated stops and will pay cash to the conductor as you board. Prices fluctuate depending on the driver, the weather, and traffic with costs increasing significantly when it’s raining or during rush hour.
The Kenyan government recently announced its intention to ban matatus from the Nairobi Central Business District (CBD) in an attempt to relieve congestion. However, this attempt is unlikely to be any more successful than several others in the city’s past because millions of Kenyans rely on matatus to get to and from work every day.
Riding the Bus
Buses offer a safer alternative to the matatus for a similarly affordable price. Official city buses are operated by the government-run Kenya Bus Service (KBS), although private companies like City Hoppa and Double M also ply the same routes as the matatus. The buses carry between 25 and 50 people and travel outwards from the central terminal along designated routes to the suburbs.
Fares are paid directly to the conductor, and since standing is no longer allowed, you will be given a seat. However, availability becomes more and more limited the further you are from the central bus terminal, and it can be impossible to get a seat when it’s raining or during peak travel times. If you have luggage, it’s often not even worth attempting to get on the bus.
Traveling by Private Taxi
Taxis are one of the most popular ways for visitors to get around Nairobi as they are private and comfortable. Licensed taxis in Nairobi are marked with a yellow stripe. They can be found on most street corners in the city center but also tend to wait outside popular tourist attractions and international hotels. At night, taking a taxi (or ride-share) is the only option and they often congregate outside restaurants, bars, and nightclubs.
Be aware that although taxis are a safer option than matatus and more convenient than buses, they can be overpriced and poorly maintained. Very few have a working meter, so you should be sure to agree on a fare before accepting the ride. Haggling is expected, and ultimately you should expect to pay around 500 Kenyan shillings for a trip within the city center and around 1,200 Kenyan shillings for a journey from the CBD to Karen or Langata. Taxis operated by private companies like Kenatco are generally in better condition than privately owned ones and can be booked online for added convenience.
Ride-share apps like Uber and Bolt are a relatively new phenomenon in Nairobi but have swiftly become one of the best ways for visitors to navigate the capital. They typically offer cheaper fares than conventional taxis and offer more peace of mind to tourists. Firstly, ride-share drivers have to undergo background checks and must maintain their vehicles to a certain standard. The fact that passengers review their service is an added incentive for drivers to keep cars in good working order, adhere to road rules, and treat clients in a welcoming and respectful manner. The ability to share your location and progress with friends and family also adds another element of safety to your experience. Finally, you can order a ride via your smartphone rather than having to hail a taxi on the street.
Renting a Car
If you plan on being in Nairobi for more than a day or two and feel comfortable driving on the capital’s busy streets, renting a car is another viable option. Several well-respected international car hire companies (including Europcar and Avis) operate from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Depending on the company, drivers must be 23 to 25 years old to hire a car and must have a valid credit card in their own name. Remember that Kenyans drive on the left and consider asking for a GPS to compensate for a lack of road signs throughout the city. Roads in Nairobi are variously maintained, with a greater number of potholes in the suburbs than in the city center. If you like the idea of having your own car but are nervous about driving, consider using a company like Adventure Upgrade Safaris that offers chauffeurs as well.
Tips for Getting Around Nairobi
- Because all of the public transport options in Nairobi are road-based, all of them are affected by peak congestion times. Try to avoid traveling during the morning or afternoon commute to prevent spending several hours stuck in traffic.
- If you choose to travel by matatu or bus, be sure to carry small notes. Change is often unavailable so you will end up paying more than necessary if you don’t have the correct fare.
- When traveling by matatu or bus, be aware of your belongings at all times to avoid any possible pickpockets or thieves.
- If you decide to travel by taxi and want to make several trips in one day, it is often cheaper to hire a driver for the day rather than paying for each trip individually. Your hotel should be able to arrange this for you.
- If you choose to rent a car, make sure to never leave valuables visible when you park and keep your doors locked and windows rolled up when driving in the city, especially at night.
- If you choose to explore Nairobi on foot, be sure to stick to main streets and avoid wearing flashy jewelry or carrying large cameras. We advise against walk alone at night in Nairobi.
- An alternative to all of the forms of transportation listed above is to visit attractions on a guided tour that includes transfers to and from your hotel.