Nairobi’s polarising character ensures that the city is reviled and loved in equal measure, and even those who love it might well admit that it’s the kind of place many rave about only once they’re away from it. For those who call it home, the city’s charms include a vibrant cultural life, fabulous places to eat and exciting nightlife. With a fabulous national park on its doorstep, the excellent National Museum and a series of quirky sights, Nairobi’s reality will often come as a pleasant surprise.
Nairobi is a bustling and cosmopolitan city with numerous attractions. Behind the All Saints’ Cathedral, the open green swathe known as Uhuru Park; the largest memorial park in Kenya overlooking the city, was designated a recreation park by the late President Kenyatta in 1969. Another national monument worth visiting is Uhuru Museum Garden – set aside in 1963 and the place where the first Kenyan flag was raised at independence. Nairobi is also home to several other museums, sites, and monuments, as follows….
1. The National Museum of Kenya
The National Museum of Kenya opened in 1930 as a place for local naturalists to collect and display their specimens. But in 2005, the museum doors closed and the once archaic structure got a much-needed facelift. Today, it houses more than mere evidence of Kenya’s unique flora and fauna (although its massive East African bird collection is impressive and the botanical garden and nature trail are perfect for afternoon wandering). In addition to biological wonders, the National Museum now houses galleries that examine the rich culture and traditions of its numerous tribes, outline the nation’s history, and even galleries that display the talents of Kenya’s contemporary modern artists.
Kenya’s wonderful National Museum, housed in an imposing building amid lush, leafy grounds just outside the centre, has a good range of cultural and natural-history exhibits. Aside from the exhibits, check out the life-size fibreglass model of pachyderm celebrity Ahmed, the massive elephant that became a symbol of Kenya at the height of the 1980s poaching crisis. He was placed under 24-hour guard by President Jomo Kenyatta; he’s in the inner courtyard next to the shop.
The museum’s permanent collection is entered via the Hall of Kenya, with some ethnological exhibits such as the extraordinary Kalenjin cloak made from the skins of Sykes Monkeys and a mosaic map of Kenya made from the country’s butterflies. But this is a mere prelude. In a room off this hall is the Birds of East Africa exhibit, a huge gallery of at least 900 stuffed specimens. In an adjacent room is the Great Hall of Mammals, with dozens of stuffed specimens. Off the mammals room is the Cradle of Humankind exhibition, the highlight of which is the Hominid Skull Room – an extraordinary collection of skulls that describes itself as ‘the single most important collection of early human fossils in the world’.
Upstairs, the Historia Ya Kenya display is an engaging journey through Kenyan and East African history. Well presented and well documented, it offers a refreshingly Kenyan counterpoint to colonial historiographies. Also on the 1st floor, the Cycles of Life room is rich in ethnological artefacts from Kenya’s various tribes and ethnic groups, while at the time of writing there was also an exhibition (which may become permanent) of Joy Adamson’s paintings covering Kenya’s tribes.
If you’re keen to really get under the skin of the collection (or the adjoining Snake Park), consider a tour with one of the volunteer guides who linger close to the entrance of both the National Museum and the Snake Park.
2. Karen Blixen Museum
Better known by her pen name, Isak Dinesen, Karen Blixen is the woman behind the colonial-era love story ‘Out of Africa’. Her historic farm, located at the foot of the Ngong Hills just outside Nairobi, was the setting for her timeless story of a broken marriage, cross-cultural romance and adaptation to a new foreign land. Today, literary buffs, history junkies and nature lovers can all enjoy a visit to Blixen’s former home and farm. The museum, which explores her life within the context of Kenya’s rich history, is situated on a portion of the original 4,500 acre plantation where scenes from the movie were also filmed.
3. The Railway Museum
The main collection here is housed in an old railway building and consists of relics from the East African Railway. There are train and ship models, photographs, tableware and oddities from the history of the railway, such as the engine seat that allowed visiting dignitaries like Theodore Roosevelt to take pot shots at unsuspecting wildlife from the front of the train.
In the grounds are dozens of fading locomotives in various states of disrepair, dating from the steam days to independence. You can walk around the carriages at your leisure. At the back of the compound is the steam train used in the movie Out of Africa. It’s a fascinating introduction to this important piece of colonial history.
Nairobi is also nicknamed the Safari Capital of the World or the City Under the Sun, and has many hotels to cater for safari-bound tourists that wish to visit some of the following attractions.
1. Nairobi National Park
Welcome to Kenya’s most accessible yet incongruous safari experience. Set on the city’s southern outskirts, Nairobi National Park (at 117 sq km, one of Africa’s smallest) has abundant wildlife that can, in places, be viewed against a backdrop of city skyscrapers and planes coming in to land – it’s one of the only national parks on earth bordering a capital city. Remarkably, the animals seem utterly unperturbed by it all.
The park has acquired the nickname ‘Kifaru Ark’, a testament to its success as a rhinoceros (kifaru in Kiswahili) sanctuary. The park is home to the world’s densest concentration of black rhinos (more than 50). Lions and hyenas are also commonly sighted within the park; rangers at the entrance usually have updates on lion movements. You’ll need a bit of patience and a lot of luck to spot the park’s resident cheetahs and leopards. Other regularly spotted species include gazelles, warthogs, zebras, giraffes, ostriches and buffaloes.
The park’s wetland areas sustain approximately 500 bird species, which is more than in the whole of the UK. With the exception of zoos, there are few places on earth that put visitors face-to-face with wild animals in urban settings.
2. Giraffe Centre
This 120-acre conservation center in the heart of Kenya’s largest city provides a natural breeding ground for one of Africa’s most graceful animals. As part of a concerted effort to increase numbers for these endangered species, giraffe calves are bread, born and raised in this protected environment before being introduced to the wild at the age of two. At the Giraffe Centre – a sanctuary for the endangered Rothschild Giraffe – you can feed these gentle creatures from a raised feeding platform, feel the brush of their tongues on your palm and study their long eyelashes. Visitors can sit in on talks about the center’s conservation activities and efforts, then climb a raised platform to pet and feed giraffes before taking to the 1.5-kilometer nature trail for guided birding or a tree identification tour.
3. Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Also in the neighbourhood, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust raises orphaned animals, mainly baby elephants – before rehabilitating them into the wild in Tsavo East National Park, where the late David Sheldrick was warden. Kenya is a nation dedicated to conservation and this elephant and rhino rescue just outside the city is a pioneer for protection and rehabilitation. Expert team leaders retrieve orphan animals from the wild and rehabilitate them to return to their natural environment. Keepers bottle-feed babies every three hours, 24-hours a day, and often sleep with elephants until they can be returned to the wild. The trust no longer allows visitors to feed the animals, but it still offers the rare opportunity to see the offspring of Africa’s largest mammals up close. The sight of these vulnerable little elephants having their mud baths and going out to feed in the loving and watchful care of their individual keepers is extremely moving.
OTHER ATTRACTIONS, SHOPS & RESTAURANTS
1. Bomas of Kenya
The talented resident artists at this cultural centre perform traditional dances and songs taken from the country’s various tribal groups, including Arabic-influenced Swahili taarab music, Kalenjin warrior dances, Embu drumming and Kikuyu circumcision ceremonies. It’s touristy, of course, but still a spectacular afternoon out. The complex consists of a number of bomas (villages), each constructed in the architectural style of Kenya’s major ethnic groups.
2. Kazuri Beads & Pottery Centre
An interesting diversion in Karen, this craft centre was started by an English expat in 1975 as a place where single mothers could learn a marketable skill and achieve self-sufficiency. From humble beginnings, the workforce has grown to over 100. A free tour takes you into the various factory buildings, where you can observe the process from the moulding of raw clay to the glazing of the finished products.
Love it or hate it, Carnivore serves up Kenya’s most famous nyama choma (barbecued meat) – it’s been an icon for tourists, expats and wealthier locals for over 25 years. At the entrance is a huge barbecue pit laden with real swords of beef, pork, lamb, chicken and farmed game meats such as crocodile and ostrich. It’s a memorable night.
4. Karen Blixen Coffee Garden
The Coffee Garden offers diners five areas in which to enjoy its varied menu, including the plush L’Amour dining room, the historic 1901 Swedo House and the recommended main section, a casual restaurant set in a veritable English country garden. Dishes range from gourmet burgers to Swahili curries from the coast.
It’s just down the road from Karen Blixen’s House & Museum.
Utamaduni is a large crafts emporium and easily one of the best places to souvenir shop in Nairobi, with more than a dozen shops selling all kinds of excellent African artworks and souvenirs. A portion of all proceeds goes to local conservation and other charitable projects.
There’s an on-site restaurant and playground.
This classy cafe-bar-restaurant remains fashionable and it rivals any of Kenya’s top eateries for imaginative international food. The comfortable lounge-like rooms mix modern African and European styles, while the courtyard provides some welcome air. Classics such as feta and coriander samosas and twice-cooked pork belly perk up the palate no end.
More than 600 wildlife bronzes by Denis Mathews (from jewellery and small lion-cub-footprint dishes to the much larger, extravagant) make this one of the most appealing places to shop in Kenya. It’s all produced at the on-site foundry and every piece is a work of art.
There’s also a small cafe serving light meals.
8. Alchemist Bar
One of Westlands’ best nights out, Alchemist is an all-encompassing take on the Nairobi night, with the city’s best DJs, terrific food (including a food truck outside) and mixologists adept at creating perfect cocktails. There’s an outdoor lounge area for when the dancing gets too hot and sweaty.
9. Lord Delamere’s Terrace and Bar
Once one of Africa’s classic bars, the Lord Delamere Terrace was the starting point of many epic colonial safaris, and the scene of tall tales told by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and the Great White Hunters of the early 20th century. Not much of the former atmosphere remains, but come here as a pilgrimage to the Africa of old.
Some of Kenya’s more creative artists, photographers, leatherworkers and other high-quality artisans and artists have come together under one roof – the result is one of Kenya’s most discerning shopping…
10. Go-Down Arts Centre
The Go-Down Arts Centre, a converted warehouse in Industrial Area, contains 10 separate studios and is a hub for Nairobi’s burgeoning arts scene, bringing together visual and performing arts with regular exhibitions, shows, workshops and open cultural nights.
11. Tin Roof Café
This place has all the ingredients to be a Nairobi favourite: a quiet garden setting in Karen, great coffee, amazing juices, an Ottolenghi salad bar and a commitment to healthy eating.
The House of Treasures Emporium, a fabulous shopping experience, is on the same property, which makes this an obvious place to combine lunch and shopping.
12. Thursday Maasai Market
Busy, popular Maasai markets move around the city according to the day of the week and are excellent shopping experiences. Wares include beaded jewellery, gourds, baskets and other Maasai crafts.
13. Kitengela Hot Glass
Brave the suspension bridge and enjoy a stroll around the quirky, colourful grounds of Kitengela Hot Glass. There are regular glass blowing demonstrations in the studio and visitors can buy handmade, recycled glass objects at a discounted price in the shop. The cafe has great views onto a gorge and serves a range of tasty snacks and homemade ice cream.
14. African Heritage Design Company
With various outlets around town, including this one out in Karen, the African Heritage Design Company has a classy range of statues, ceramics and textiles. Not all of the items are from Kenya, but the quality is good.
ABOUT ORIGINS SAFARIS
At Origins Safaris we are passionate about wildlife, cultural heritage, adventure and exploration. We customize each and every safari to your personal requirements and expectations, ensuring an exclusive, unique and authentic experience every time.
Origins Safaris is a family business, founded in 1963 by Don and Margaret Turner. It is managed today by two subsequent generations of the family, and predominantly by Don’s son, Steve. We are so much more than just a travel broker – our years of experience, professionalism and reliability means that we go the all-important extra mile, to make sure your dream safari is safe, memorable, educational and most of all great fun. We are renowned for our meticulous safari planning from start to finish, and the highest standards of natural history interpretation.
Contact us on https://www.originsafaris.com for more information and pertinent itinerary advice.
Origins Safaris – Authentic African Experiences Since 1963.