For many visitors to Kenya, Nairobi is simply a transit point en route to the country's world-famous game reserves or idyllic coastal resorts. But as you would expect from East Africa's booming economic hub, there are plenty of attractions to keep tourists content for a day or two of sightseeing. In this article, we look at eight of the city's top attractions. If you're worried about staying safe in the capital, consider booking an organized tour of Nairobi's main sights rather than going it alone.
This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on September 28th 2017.
The David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage
Dame Daphne Sheldrick has been raising elephant orphans since the 1950s, when she lived and worked in Tsavo National Park. In the late 1970s, she established an elephant and rhino nursery in Nairobi National Park as part of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, named in honor of her husband. The orphanage has successfully raised more than 150 infant elephants, many of which are ultimately released back into the wild. The project aims to counteract the devastating effects of poaching and habitat loss. By visiting, you're helping to ensure the future of Kenya's most iconic animals. The orphanage is open to the public every day between 11am and noon, when the babies are enjoying their daily feeding and mud bath.
Nairobi National Park
Nairobi is the only city in the world that is gazed upon by wild zebra, lion and rhino. Nairobi National Park was established in 1946 long before the city burst its seams, but is now located just 7 kilometers from the city center. Despite its compact size, the park is remarkably diverse. It is home to a bevy of animals including the black rhino, all three big cats, several antelope species and more than 400 bird species. The park plays a vital role in education, as its proximity to the city allows easy access for school children who may otherwise never have the chance to go on safari. Game drives and bush walks are on offer for visitors. If you don't feel like sleeping in the city proper, you can even spend the night inside the park. The Nairobi Tented Camp is an eco-camp with eight luxury ensuite tents.
Nairobi National Museum
The Nairobi National Museum was founded in 1920, and established at its present location in 1929. It offers visitors the chance to learn about Kenya's history, culture, paleontology and art. The Museum building got a complete overhaul in the past decade, and reopened its doors in 2008. Many of the fascinating anthropological discoveries made by the Leakey family can be found in the Museum, including several exhibits that support East Africa's claim as the origin place of humankind. The large collection of stuffed birds is also impressive. A botanical garden and two restaurants help to establish the museum as a sanctuary from the more crowded, traffic congested city center. The Nairobi National Museum is open from 8:30am to 5:30pm daily.
The Giraffe Center
The Giraffe Center is a successful breeding center for the rare Rothschild giraffe, found only in East Africa. It was established in the 1970s by Jock Leslie-Melville, who successfully raised a baby Rothschild giraffe at what was then his home, in the Lang'ata area of Nairobi. The breeding program has worked well, leading to the reintroduction of several breeding pairs back into the wild. An education center to teach school children about conservation has also done important work to raise local awareness about conservation issues. The center is open daily for tours and visits from 9:00am - 5:30pm. Visitors can also opt to spend the night at the associated Giraffe Manor, where giraffes frequently visit guests at breakfast.
Kibera Slum Tour
Located on the outskirts of the city center, Kibera is the largest urban slum in Africa. It is home to more than a million Kenyans from every national tribe. The ethics of slum tourism tend to divide opinion, but generally tours are meant to benefit the local community and fund social projects designed to better the lives of those living in Kibera. It is also an eye-opening experience for visitors, who may otherwise only see the side of the country presented by a luxury safari itinerary. The local guides are from the township and offer a good insight into daily life. If you choose to visit Kibera, make sure you always ask permission to take photos, and expect to spend a little money on local community initiatives. Choose a responsible operator like Explore Kibera Tours.
Kazuri Beads Factory and Pottery Center
The Kazuri Bead Factory and Pottery Center is a good stop for those interested in local crafts. The ceramic beads, pottery and leather goods are all handmade by disadvantaged women. "Kazuri" means "small and beautiful" in Swahili and was chosen by the founder when she started the company with just two Kenyan employees in 1975. The factory now employs more than 400 women, most of them single mothers. Factory tours show the process of firing and glazing the beads, and take about an hour in total. On weekends the factory itself may be closed, but the shop remains open. The factory is a popular stop en route to other sights in the Karen neighborhood. Opening hours are 8:30am - 6:00pm (Monday - Saturday) and 9:00am - 4:00pm (Sunday).
Karen Blixen Museum
The Karen Blixen Museum is housed in the farmhouse where Danish author Karen Blixen lived during the period of her life detailed in her iconic book, Out of Africa. Built in 1912, the house was purchased by Blixen and her husband Baron Bror von Blixen Fincke in 1917. The museum will delight fans of her books (and of course, the movie starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep). The movie was not shot at the house itself, which was deemed too dark; but the set was built on the grounds. On a tour of the house, you can see Blixen's bedroom and dining room filled with furniture she owned at the time. A museum shop sells Out of Africa souvenirs and local handicrafts. The gardens are still lovely and the view of the Ngong Hills remains unchanged. Opening hours are 9:30am to 6:00pm daily.
Shopping in Nairobi
For an authentic souvenir shopping experience, check out the Maasai market held at various points in the city on alternate days. Goods for sale include traditional crafts, wooden carvings and beaded necklaces. The downtown City Market is also worth a browse. For unique gifts (some made from recycled flip-flops and cans) head to Marula Studios in Karen. Here, you can get a tour of the flip-flop recycling process, purchase a pair of Maasai sandals, and enjoy a good cup of coffee in the café. For innovative design, jewellery and unique home decor pieces, head to design showroom Spinners Web. For more crafts in a less hectic setting than the outdoor markets, check out Utamaduni Craft Center in Karen. The building houses over a dozen shops each selling traditional crafts, ceramics and cloth.