12 Best Things to Do in Kenya

Lion Crossing in Front of Safari Vehicle and Hot Air Balloons in Masai Mara
Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty Images

Perceived by many as the original safari destination, Kenya is still one of the best choices for a classic African experience. Lion prides range across the vast open spaces of the Maasai Mara, while wildebeest and zebra arrive by the millions for the annual Great Migration and in some places, pastoralist Maasai and Samburu tribespeople continue to live as they have done for thousands of years. There's a lot more to this country than its popular game reserves, however, as Nairobi offers multi-faceted culture while the Swahili Coast sports historic towns and picture-perfect beaches. Here’s a look at 12 of Kenya's top attractions, all places you should check out on your next trip.

01 of 12

Spend Some Time in Nairobi

White rhino against an urban backdrop in Nairobi National Park, Kenya

Verónica Paradinas Duro / Getty Images

National Park, Nairobi, Kenya

Most visitors to Kenya will find themselves flying into Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. Instead of continuing your journey right away, consider spending a night or two in the capital. From museums, wildlife experiences, and crafts markets during the day to a rollicking nightlife and foodie scene at night, there's plenty to keep you busy for a few days before (or after) a safari adventure, especially in and around the affluent suburb of Karen, home of the city's central business district.

It's easy to get around town via taxi or by taking Kenya Bus or a traditional matatu minivan. Visit the Nairobi National Museum and the Nairobi Gallery to learn more about the city's thriving history, art, and culture. Spot wild lions and black rhinos at Nairobi National Park, watch rescued baby elephants being fed at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant orphanage, and come face-to-face with rehabilitated Rothschild's giraffes at the Giraffe Center. Out of Africa fans will love the Karen Blixen Museum, located in the author's own home at the foot of the Ngong Hills.

02 of 12

Enjoy Kenya's Coast and Marine National Parks

On the beach at Watamu, Kenya

Antonio Zanghì / Getty Images

Malindi, Kenya

Balance some time in the bush with seaside relaxation along the white-sand beaches of Kenya's idyllic central coast. Malindi is a lively option, as an established resort destination with upscale hotels, restaurants, and bars, while neighboring Watamu charms with its rural atmosphere and protected palm-fringed shores. 

Popular beach town activities include sunset dhow cruises, scuba diving, snorkeling, and deep-sea fishing. It's just a five-hour train ride or a one-hour flight from Nairobi to Mombasa, then a two-hour drive up the coast, or you can fly one hour straight into Malindi from Nairobi. Watamu Marine National Park & Reserve is a great place to see green turtles living among its coral gardens as well as the humpback whales that pass through the area from July to October.

Located at the bottom-right corner of the country near the border with Tanzania, Kisite-Mpunguti Marine Park & Reserve is also worth a visit, with the chance to see endemic sea life like dolphins, sea turtles, whales, coral reef systems, and more than 250 species of fish, making it a prime spot for snorkeling and diving. Bird watching is also popular here, as migratory birds use the area to nest in large colonies.

03 of 12

Take a Hike in Hell's Gate National Park

Fischer's Tower in Hell's Gate National Park, Kenya

Nigel Pavitt / Getty Images 

Hells gate National Park, Kenya
Phone +254 770 070405

Situated about three hours northwest of Nairobi, Hell's Gate National Park is unlike any other place in Kenya. Part of the Great Rift Valley, the area is a center of geothermal activity, boasting a mix of soaring cliffs, plunging gorges, and immense rock pillars. Plumes of escaping steam and swimmable thermal springs only add to the sense of drama here. 

Unlike the country's other national parks, Hell's Gate allows walking safaris and has designated trails just for hiking and mountain biking. Sites like Fischer's Tower are popular among rock climbers while birders flock to the Mervyn Carnelley Raptor Hide to see nesting birds of prey in the wild, including Egyptian vultures and the majestic Verreaux's eagle.

04 of 12

Witness the Great Migration

Wildebeest Crossing the Mara River, Kenya

Piper Mackay / Getty Images

Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Every year, millions of wildebeest, zebra, and antelope make their way from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. While their exact movements are dictated by the rains, the herds typically enter the country in August and spend September and November grazing on its lush southern plains.

The Great Migration (and the Mara River crossing in particular) is one of the world's most iconic natural spectacles. The area is also home to the Big Five (elephant, lion, leopard, black rhinoceros, African buffalo) and known for its robust predator sightings. To make sure you get front-row seats to all the action, consider staying in a mobile camp like Enaidura or Nkorombo.

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05 of 12

Visit Both Sides of Tsavo National Park

Lioness in Tsavo National Park, Kenya

Alberto Ghizzi Panizza / Getty Images

Tsavo National Park, Kenya

In the far southeastern part of Kenya is Tsavo National Park, which makes up Kenya's largest protected wildlife area and is split into two distinct sections: Tsavo East and Tsavo West. Though the safari experience in each park is quite different, both sides offer a chance to spot the Big Five and 600 species of birds. 

Tsavo East is known for its picturesque red dust plains, intersected by the beautiful Galana River, which attracts diverse wildlife, including large elephant herds. This park is also home to the world's longest lava flow, the Yatta Plateau. Tsavo West, on the other hand, is wetter, greener, and even more scenic—be sure to visit Mzima Springs—although the animals living here can be harder to spot.

06 of 12

Discover Swahili History on Lamu Island

Lamu Town, Kenya

Nigel Pavitt / Getty Images

Lamu, Kenya

Head to northern Lamu Island to immerse yourself in Kenya's Swahili culture. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Town has been continually inhabited for more than 700 years and is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Visit landmarks like Lamu Fort (which now houses the fascinating Lamu Museum) or wander through labyrinthine streets admiring the traditional coral stone and mangrove timber houses. 

The Arabic, Persian, European, and Indian architectural influences you’ll see are a testament to Lamu Island's rich trading history. There are no motorized vehicles on the island, just donkey carts and dhows offering beach trips, snorkeling tours, and other touristic activities like swimming with dolphins.

07 of 12

Photograph Flamingoes at Lake Nakuru National Park

Flamingoes on Lake Nakuru, Kenya

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Box 539, Nakuru, Kenya
Phone +254 20 2664071

Located in central Kenya, Lake Nakuru National Park is situated on the floor of the Great Rift Valley. It’s perhaps best known for its vast soda lake, which takes up approximately a third of the park's total area and attracts hundreds of thousands of greater and lesser flamingoes who come to mate, raise their young, and feed on the lake's algae. 

Although pollution has caused the flamingoes to migrate elsewhere in past years, recent clean-up efforts have seen many of them return to the area. Flamingoes aside, Lake Nakuru National Park is a birding hotspot, with more than 450 different avian species calling it home. You’ll also be able to see lions, leopards, and white rhinos, while its spectacular euphorbia forest is the largest in Africa.

08 of 12

Trek to the Top of Mount Kenya

Summit of Mount Kenya

Nigel Pavitt / Getty Images

Mount Kenya, Kenya

Mount Kenya is Africa's second tallest mountain and the inspiration for the country's modern name. Those who wish to climb it can choose between three peaks: Batian (17,057 feet/5,199 meters), Nelion (17,021 feet/5,188 meters), and Point Lenana (16,355 feet/4,985 meters). 

While the first two peaks require technical equipment and training, it's possible for amateur trekkers to reach the summit at Point Lenana. Mount Kenya's slopes are cloaked in forest and moorland, which gives way to layers of rock, ice, and snow. The best time to climb is during the drier months of January to February or from July to October. Whenever you go, be sure to book with a reputable operator like Go to Mount Kenya.

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09 of 12

Search for Elephants at Amboseli National Park

Elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya

oversnap / Getty Images 

Entonet, Loitoktok District, Rift Valley, Kenya
Phone +254 716 493335

If seeing large herds of elephants up close is at the top of your Kenya wish list, visit Amboseli National Park. Located in the southern part of the country, the reserve is known for amazing elephant sightings set against the dramatic backdrop of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, which is visible across the Tanzanian border. The best time to visit is from June to October.

A diverse array of habitats also makes the park a hotspot for other animal and bird species. Keep an eye out for all three big cats, the endangered African wild dog, and more than 600 different types of birds. Maasai villages situated around the edge of Amboseli National Park offer opportunities for insightful cultural visits.

10 of 12

Admire the Desolate Beauty of Lake Turkana

Lake Turkana, Kenya

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Lake Turkana, Kenya

Also known as the Jade Sea because of its pale green color, Lake Turkana is the largest permanent desert lake on the planet and a great off-the-beaten-track spot for those who appreciate stark beauty. 

The barren shores and saline waters also happen to house the world's largest concentration of Nile crocodiles, who breed in Central Island National Park among a vivid landscape that includes three active volcanoes. Hippos and large flocks of flamingoes can also be seen here, though the park’s main attraction is its lunar scenery. Lake Turkana also has great anthropological importance as the discovery site of some of the earliest hominid fossils ever found.

11 of 12

Book a Stay on a Kenyan Conservancy

Black rhino, Lewa Conservancy, Kenya

Daryl Balfour / Getty Images 

6CGR+58 Isiolo, Meru, Kenya
Phone +254 722 203562

For a more exclusive safari experience, book a stay on one of Kenya's famous conservancies—like Recommended conservancies include Lewa, Loisaba, and Ol Pejeta—or tracts of land owned by Indigenous communities that are rented by eco-tourism companies and operated as private game reserves. 

Choosing this type of accommodation comes with many benefits. Firstly, you can rest assured knowing your money is directly benefiting the local community, which helps to reduce conflict between traditional landowners and native wildlife, thereby promoting conservation. Secondly, conservancies aren't restricted by the same rules as national parks so they can offer special perks like night drives and walking safaris.

12 of 12

Explore the Cultures and Landscapes of Northern Kenya

Samburu warriors performing a traditional dance, northern Kenya

Bartosz Hadyniak / Getty Images

Samburu, Kenya

Kenya's most iconic game reserves may be located in the south, but it's well worth venturing north to check out Samburu, Shaba, and Buffalo Springs National Reserves. Located virtually next door to one another among an arid landscape dotted with granite outcrops and twisted acacias, the three National Reserves straddle the banks of the life-giving Ewaso Ng’iro River. The unique habitat is home to equally unique wildlife, including the desert-adapted gerenuk and oryx antelopes, the endangered Grévy's zebra, and the reticulated giraffe, which is also endangered. 

Animals are not the only attraction here, as this area is home to the semi-nomadic, pastoralist Samburu Indigenous people. Cultural tours here provide fascinating insights into their way of life.

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12 Best Things to Do in Kenya