Nairobi is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Generally known as the gateway to the magical African safari, Nairobi is a bustling modern city and a metropolis that lives and breathes magic. The Green City has many attractions that reflect nature, heritage and culture. Here is a list of the best travel attractions in Kenya’s capital city. Basically, must-do things in the city of magic, nature and enthralling beauty.
Nairobi is the capital and the largest city in Kenya. It is also the administrative seat of the province of Nairobi. Interestingly, the town got its name from the Maasai phrase ‘enkare nyrobi’, meaning place of cool waters, a reference to the river which flows through the place. Nairobi is in the south-central part of Kenya and founded in 1899. Later in 1963, when Kenya got independence, Nairobi became the official capital of the country.
Apart from being the most important city in East Africa, Nairobi is one of the largest cities in entire Africa. Besides, it houses the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Program and the United Nation’s African offices. Today it is a bustling and cosmopolitan city and home to about 5 million people of different ethnic origins.
The Lunatic Express – how it started
Nairobi city has an exciting history representing its present-day culture. Earlier, the city started as a storage depot for the Uganda Railways, more popularly known as the Lunatic Express. It was called the ‘Lunatic Express’ because of the high cost of its implementation without any viability of the line.
The British were keen on connecting the port of Mombasa with Uganda by rail to facilitate their trade and troop movement and to discourage slave trading. Consequently, they initiated a massive exercise of surveying the entire landscape for laying the railway line. Significantly, this survey is the first general map of the region.
The railway project was challenging for the British because the landscape was uneven with Savannah forests, lakes and rivers, and the massive escarpment of the Great Rift Valley. Given that local expertise was not available, to help them build this rail line, they imported many Indian workers. Because by then, India had an extensive network of railways and the workers were familiar with rail construction.
Eventually, the line was completed in 1901. Despite the huge cost and the travails, the British finally connected the Mombasa port to Lake Victoria in Kisumu. Following the rail line’s completion, many Indians stayed back in Kenya, adding to the profile of the multicultural nation that Kenya is now.
Storage Depot to Town
While the rail line was still under construction, the Chief Engineer of the Uganda Railways, Sir George Whitehouse, was looking for an ideal spot to build a storage depot and a resting place for the workers. Subsequently, after several surveys, he identified a site in the south-central part of Kenya for the storage depot and resting place.
According to the survey result, he felt the location was ideal since it had an excellent temperate climate, adequate water supply with a perfect flowing river, and good elevation. Evidently, he was convinced that it would be a good resting area for the workers and storage of the material. Moreover, the spot was a few kilometers away from the Rift Valley escarpment, where the railway line began its steep climb.
He then named the place Nairobi after the Maasai word.
Growth of Nairobi
When the railway line reached Nairobi on 30 May 1899, the place had grown to be a good-sized settlement with shops, houses and eating places. The Indian workers formed most traders, and the population consisted of a mix of African, Indian, and white people. By the year 1910, the town had over 16,000 residents and replaced Mombasa as the capital of East Africa Protectorate.
Above all, the cool climate, the connectivity because of the rail line, the growing economic activity, and the big game’s availability close by brought in many visitors. The town saw a growth in the hotels, restaurants, trading places, and new housing estates along with visitors. Very soon, Nairobi became a major European settlement in eastern Africa.
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However, the continuous expansion of the city and the increasing number of foreigners caused racial tensions. As a result, it angered the native Maasai and the Kikuyu tribes. And this led to the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s and eventually paved the way for Kenyan independence in 1963. Nairobi was made the official capital of the country.
Climate and Best Time to visit
Nairobi is located very near to the equator. Because of its high elevation, the place has a temperate climate and is cool throughout the year. During the winter season, especially in June/July, the temperatures can go down to as low as 9°C requiring a comfortable jacket or a pullover. However, the daytime temperatures reach 24°C in the summer months, from December to March.
This makes Nairobi an ideal place to visit throughout the year. Although the city has two rainy seasons, generally, they are short. The city receives moderate rainfall. But because of the poor drainage system and uncontrolled urban expansion, even a short spell of rain causes massive traffic jams. Consequently, the entire traffic in Nairobi can come to a standstill leading to long delays in commuting.
As a city, Nairobi offers some of the best places to visit. It is also the gateway to famous national parks like the Masai Mara, Amboseli National Park, and the equator. Additionally, Mombasa, Lamu island, and Diani’s beautiful beaches are just an hour’s flight from Nairobi. But within the Kenyan capital, there are several tourist attractions; here is a selection of the finest.
Best Travel Attractions in Nairobi
1.Nairobi National Park
Without question, Nairobi National Park is the only park globally, situated adjoining an international airport and sharing a boundary with a busy metropolis. A safari in Nairobi National Park is a must for those who do not have the time to visit the other famous parks in Kenya, like the Masai Mara. Even when you drive out of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, you can spot zebras and giraffes grazing across the fence!
The park is home to various wildlife, including the endangered black rhinos, which are often elusive and difficult to spot unless one is lucky. The park also has over 100 mammals, including lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, elephants and buffaloes spread over the 117 square kilometers of the park area.
Because of the proximity to the city, Nairobi National Park is quite popular with film shootings and corporate events. Most hotels and tour operators operate game drives to the park or arrange a quick trip of 3-5 hours detour before catching your flight.
Remember that leaving early for a game drive will help in better sightings of wildlife. Although Nairobi National Park has several animals, there is no guarantee that you will sight a lion or a cheetah during the game drive. Patience is the key to a Kenyan safari!
Though the park is near the city, there are very few human-animal conflicts in the Nairobi National Park. Perhaps this is the only place in the world where you can see a lion against the backdrop of the Nairobi skyline.
Comparatively, Nairobi National Park is smaller than the other more famous parks of Kenya. But for wildlife enthusiasts who are in Nairobi for a short time, this park offers a quick glimpse of what African safari is about.
2.Karen Blixen Museum
If you have seen the movie ‘Out of Africa’ starring Meryl Streep, you would recall the majestic house where the principal character, Karen Blixen, lived. This house is today the Karen Blixen Museum in Nairobi. The film was based on the story of Danish author Karen Blixen and won several Oscars. And it was entirely shot around the foot of the Ngong Hills, where the Karen Blixen Museum is located.
Karen Blixen, a Danish citizen, came to Africa in 1914. Thereafter she and her husband started a coffee farm on the 4500 acres they owned near Nairobi. Later in 1917, they bought out a house built by a Swedish engineer, and Karen and her husband made it their farmhouse.
Out of Africa
However, their marriage resulted in a divorce. Following the divorce, Karen managed the coffee plantation till the 1930s, when she returned to Denmark penniless because of the losses she incurred in the coffee farming. Subsequently, she became an author and wrote three books, including ‘Out of Africa’ under her pen name Isak Dinesen.
After she departed from Kenya, the farmhouse and the coffee estates changed several hands. The Danish Government gifted the farmhouse to the Government of Kenya. This later became the Museum. And the coffee estates were converted to housing plots. This area around the farmhouse is now one of the best suburbs of Nairobi, named after her, Karen. Today, Karen is a leafy suburb with some magnificent houses, a much sought-out place for the wealthy.
The Karen Blixen Museum in Nairobi offers a glimpse into the historical pattern of European settlement in Kenya. Though the museum is small, it depicts the lifestyle and the cultural traditions of the settlers. It is a beautiful place, and guided tours are available explaining the various aspects of the museum. Besides, it uses the original props from the movie to recreate life in the early part of the 20th century.
The Museum also has a coffee shop and a souvenir shop selling handicrafts, posters and other mementos. The Karen Blixen Museum is open on all days from 0930 am to 6 pm.
3.Elephant Orphanage, Nairobi
Compared to any other attraction in Nairobi, the elephant orphanage is the most popular one. It draws more visitors than any other tourist attraction in Nairobi. Even with the residents, the orphanage is very popular.
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust operates this animal orphanage for elephants and rhinos just on the outskirts of Nairobi. Dr Daphne Sheldrick established this orphanage in 1977 in memory of her husband, a famous naturalist and founding Warden of Tsavo East National Park. Incidentally, the orphanage is the first rescue and rehabilitation programs for elephants in the world.
It is well known that poaching of ivory is a major problem the wildlife faces. Despite strong security, elephants are still killed by poachers for ivory. This leaves the baby elephants orphaned. The Trust involves in rescuing orphan elephants and actively nursing and rehabilitating them.
The rescued baby elephants are given loving care, emotional support and a proper diet. Once they reach a mature age, they are released back into the wild.
Besides caring for the baby elephants, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust also monitors the neighbouring Tsavo National Park through aerial, anti-poaching mobile units. They work closely with the Kenya Wildlife Services and have rescued and rehabilitated more than 263 animals.
The orphanage is open to the public from 11 am to 12 noon, when the visitors can watch the baby elephants feed. They are fed through giant feeding bottles. It is a great experience to watch the baby elephants gulping down the milk from the bottles. However, due to the COVID pandemic, the visitations have been canceled. Please check on their website for the current timings. https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org
Nairobi is often called a green city because of the number of leafy neighbourhoods the city boasts of. The most important one is Gigiri, where the UN has its Africa headquarters. Abutting the Gigiri suburb is Karura forest, one of the few urban forests in the world. It is spread over 2570 acres and has over 200 bird species and small animals like the bush-bucks, civets, honey badgers, porcupines, etc.
Thanks to the intervention of the conservationists and Friends of Karura, the forest maintained its green cover and withstood the urban encroachment. At one point, Karura Forest was a dangerous place and was famous for muggings and theft. However, the Kenya Forest Service guards and the local police launched a sustained effort and cleared up the anti-social elements in the vicinity. Today the forest is safe for all visitors for walking, running and cycling.
Karura forest has regular activities involving nature; forest walk, bird watching, hiking campaigns and cycling competitions. It is estimated that, on average, over 16,000 people visit the forest every month. There are many picnic sites and scenic waterfalls, and rivers within the forest to relax and enjoy nature. Besides these, the Mau Mau caves are a significant attraction in the forest. Local guides are available in the forest to guide visitors on long walks and spot different birds species.
5.Giraffe Center, Nairobi
The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife created the Giraffe Center in Nairobi. The objective of the Centre is to educate school children about wildlife and the environment. Besides, it also provides a place for visitors to enjoy and appreciate giraffe, the world’s tallest animal. Jock Leslie-Melville and his wife Betty established it in 1979.
Though there are different species of giraffes, the Rothschild Giraffe is found only in the grasslands of East Africa. Giraffe Centre was established to protect the Rothschild Giraffe, which was dwindling in their numbers. It started with two young giraffes raised at the centre. Today there are over 300 Rothschild giraffes in various Kenyan national parks.
Visitors to the Giraffe Centre get a close opportunity to see the giraffes and even feed them food pellets. The food pellets are made of corn, wheat, grass and molasses. You can climb up a raised platform to go much closer to the tall giants, and you may even get a wet lick from them! https://www.giraffecentre.org/about-us/
The adjoining Giraffe Manor is an exclusive boutique hotel. It has many Rothschild giraffes that visit the hotel and interact with the guests for treats.
6.Bomas of Kenya
Bomas of Kenya is one of the top places to visit, especially to understand the rich and unique Kenyan culture. The government of Kenya started this centre in 1971 to preserve, maintain and promote the rich and diverse culture of the various ethnic groups in Kenya and preserve the national heritage.
Bomas means an enclosure. In this place, many bomas are depicting the culture of the different tribes of the country. Daily shows with dance and live music represent the diversity of Kenyan traditional music. The presentations consist of over 50 dances from various ethnic communities.
Moreover, the place also has a conference facility and a souvenir shop. The Utamaduni restaurant at Bomas of Kenya serves authentic Kenyan dishes and cultural foods, including the famous nyama choma (roast meat).
7.Nairobi National Museum
Nairobi National Museum is unique because it is a repository of artefacts and has sections for culture, contemporary art and a snake park, botanical gardens and a nature trail.
The museum has an extensive collection of specimens. Significantly, it is the largest collection of natural history specimens in the world. It is also a perfect place for visitors to understand the natural heritage of Kenya. Moreover, the Museum is easily accessible as it is located in the city centre on Museum Hill. It is open 365 days of the year.
The museum hosts the artefacts in four themes: Kenyan Culture, Nature, History and Contemporary Art. It also hosts several Temporary Themes focusing on a specific area of interest.
The Botanical gardens attached to Nairobi National Museum have several species of birds and a nature trail through the bushy and wooded areas. Besides this, the education center within the museum encourages school children and youth to learn more about Kenyan culture and traditions.
Other places to visit in Nairobi
Unquestionably, Nairobi is a modern city and a great place for good food and entertainment. At the same time, a walk through the streets of Nairobi will give you the feeling of the excitement and vibrancy of the city. Numerous shopping malls, theatres and sports bars dot the city. Moreover, the repertoire of food available is vast, from specialized Jain vegetarian to the game meat; everything is available.
However, public transport is not very significant, and most of the local commuters use 16 seat minibusses called the matatus. Besides the matatus, taxis are available. Though there is no meter for the taxi fare, agree on the fare beforehand. Most of the cab drivers carry the printed schedule showing the fare from point to point.
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The central business district has many high-rise buildings and has Uhuru Park (Freedom Park), a vast expanse of greenery. On any working day, one can find zealous preachers praising God at the top of their voices or damning the sinners of the apocalypse to come.
Locations nearby Nairobi
The weekly Maasai Market, organized at various locations in the city, sells wood carvings and other trinkets at a reasonable price. However, though the accepted currency is the Kenya shillings, some high-end hotels also accept US dollars. Besides, most places accept credit cards.
The equator is about 150 km away from Nairobi, near Mount Kenya, the second-highest peak in Africa. And the beautiful Lake Naivasha is just after the Great Rift Valley, about 80 kilometres away with its pink flamingos. Besides this, Lake Nakuru has some exciting animals for viewing, including the white rhino.
In conclusion, we can definitely say that Nairobi is undoubtedly one of the top tourist destinations in Africa for wildlife safaris. Moreover, it is well connected to the rest of the world by air. The Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is one of the busiest in Africa and home to the national carrier, Kenya Airways.
As they say in Swahili: “Karibu Nairobi” (Welcome to Nairobi)!
“I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious“, Albert Einstein.
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I am a professional Risk Manager and an Insurer. I have a PhD in Psychology besides degrees and qualifications in insurance and marketing. As an executive I have been managing companies and people for over three decades in different parts of the world.