Exploring a cosmopolitan city is probably the last thing you’d expect – or even want – to do when you’re planning a safari tour. But, the unexpected is the only guarantee while overlanding in Kenya and that’s what makes it so exciting. Since the vast majority of East African safaris start or end in Nairobi, a pitstop in this bustling city is almost inevitable. So buckle up and prepare yourself for a cosmopolitan adventure like no other.
Nairobi is East Africa’s gateway to the untamed wilderness that lies just beyond the city’s towering skyscrapers. Exploring this concrete jungle is a rite of passage that is sure to change the way you think of Overlanding in Africa. So leave your preconceived notions at the door; Nairobi’s reality – like that of so many places in Africa– will come as a pleasant surprise.
While many travellers are familiar with the capital’s nickname: ‘Nairobbery’, the city actually gets its name from the Maasai phrase “Enkare Nyarobe”, which means “a place of cool waters”. And, like any good watering hole, this thriving metropolis is home to a melting pot of diversity. Locals, tourists, and ex-pats alike bustle their way around Kenya’s beating heart.
But be warned, the city can get overwhelming and, if you’re not ready, you can easily be swept up in the bustle and miss out. So, to help prepare you for the mind-boggling trip you’re about to have, here are a few of our favourite places in Nairobi plus a few tips on how to navigate this city like a pro.
Our favourite things to do in Nairobi
1. Practice your game viewing at the Nairobi National Park
Don’t let all this big city talk give you the wrong impression. We know it’s the wildlife you came for and you’ll get plenty of it. Just a stone’s throw away from the capital, the Nairobi National Park is the perfect place to practice your wildlife watching skills before moving on to the larger reserves.
Just 7 KMs away from the city centre, this is the only place in the world where you can go on a real safari with a backdrop of towering skyscrapers. You’ll spot everything from antelope to zebras, hyenas on the prowl, and even a few of the Big Five.
Unfortunately, there are no elephants in this park. But, worry not; the Nairobi Elephant Orphanage is filled with baby elephants and rhinos and is well worth a visit. Just don’t wear your best whites – these guys love to spray water over unsuspecting tourists.
2. Sip tea with giants at the Giraffe Sanctuary
For even more wildlife action, why not rub noses (literally) with one of the region’s most underrated endangered animals – the Rothschild’s giraffe. The famous Langata Giraffe Centre protects these playful animals, and features a conservation platform that is brimming with information highlighting the benefits of conservation to people, as well as animals.
As for the giraffes themselves – they’re super friendly and visitors are welcome to stroke, kiss and feed giraffes a tasty grub of pellet-shaped biscuits. And, if you were looking for a bit of grub for yourself then head over to the tea house where locals, tourists, and giraffes mingle over Kenyan tea and cuisine.
3. Drink Kenyan tea and coffee
One of the best things to do in Nairobi is drink a cuppa. Over the last century and a half, Kenya has been providing the world with some the best coffee available. And there’s hardly a better place to sip a freshly brewed cup than in Nairobi.
If you want to go straight to the source then go on a coffee tour of the the Karunguru Estate. Just 30 mins out of the city, this 500 acre coffee farm has been been around since 1928 and offers visitors a chance to see the entire bean to cup process.
Though Kenya itself is not particularly a coffee drinking country, there are plenty of places that serve a wide range of ethically-sourced coffees. For a touch of glamour with your morning brew, Cafe Villa Rosa at the Kempinski hotel is the perfect place to luxuriate in a slow morning. But, for something a little more down to earth, check out Gibson’s Coffee House. This Nairobi institution has been a local haunt for over 50 years and serves up delicious coffee alongside local dishes.
4. Feast on Kenyan cuisine
Speaking of local food… Visiting Nairobi would be incomplete without eating like a local. A word of warning though, Kenya is not really the most vegetarian friendly. While you will find some staple dishes like ugali (stodgy maize porridge) and vegetables such as spinach; most of the dishes are very much meat-based.
Those who love putting their canines to use will definitely have their taste-buds blown. The Carnivore restaurant is a staple dinner spot for visitors. As the name suggests, the menu is brimming with speciality meats skewered on real swords and cooked over a huge barbecue pit. Sure, it’s touristy but the nyama choma is mouth-watering.
If the weather is fine then be sure to tuck into a Kenyan Karoga at the Mystique Gardens. A Karogoa is like a Kenyan cook-out where people gather over drinks and Indian cuisine. While it’s origins are ambiguous, this communal style of cooking is believed to have started from the Indian community and later spread to other communities.
And, for homemade regional cuisine try Ranalo Foods. This local haunt pays homage the Luo, in western Kenya, with speciality fish dishes that have been passed down from mothers to their sons and daughters.
5. Catch your breath at the K.I.C.C Helipad
As you can see by now, Nairobi has a lot going for it. The city is forever bustling with the sights, sounds, and smells of local living. Being on the ground is overwhelming and exhilarating all at once.
But, sometimes you just need to take a step back, let time slow down, really take it all in. For moments like this, head over to the K.I.C.C. Formally, the 28-story building is an internationally renowned venue for conferences, meetings, exhibitions and special events. Informally, it’s the best place to watch the sunset in Nairobi. The view from the rooftop is unrivaled and, on a clear day, you can see as far as the Nairobi National Park.
6. Revel in Nairobi’s nightlife
And finally, when the sun goes down and you’ve caught your breath, brace yourself for Nairobi’s nightlife. At sundown the city’s bars beckon with great music and heavenly cocktails. For one of the best nights out check out The Alchemist Bar.
This all-encompassing creative hub is the perfect place to sip on local drinks while immersing in Nairobi’s art, fashion, and music scene. The events calendar is insanely diverse and on any given night you’ll find yourself watching classics in an open-air cinema or browsing local art in a collective exhibition or even dancing the night away with the city’s best DJs. The options are endless and the cocktails are divine.
How to not look like a Mzungu (foreigner)
Now that you know what to expect, here’s a few tips on local etiquette.
1. Don’t ask people what tribe they’re from
In fact, this applies to every African country you visit. Many tourists are fascinated by the concept. I don’t blame you for being curious. After all, every single East Africa travel guide has something to say about Kenya’s famous tribes. And, while being from a certain tribe is considered a thing of pride, it does not define a person from Kenya.
Since there are many stereotypes surrounding tribes, asking people about it can be misconstrued to mean you are stereotyping them, even when you are not. So instead of asking “what tribe are you from” consider asking about the different tribes in the country.
On this note…
2. Please don’t call Kenya “Africa”
Like the question about tribes, stating that you’re so excited to be in ‘Africa’ when talking about Kenya might be met with eye-rolls. We get it; it’s probably your first time on the continent and maybe it has been on your bucket list for a while. But, nobody likes generalisations.
So instead, try be specific when referring to places. And, if you’ve visited other countries while on your overland tour then mention them by name. It’s way more interesting and shows that you’ve paid attention to the cultural diversity this continent truly has.
Also, try not to be shook by how modern it is. Think Kenya, and you think safari, untamed spaces, tourists in khaki clothing, locals in Masaai clothing, right? Well, I’m here to remind you to put those stereotypes to bed. Sure, Kenya is a world-renowned safari destination but beyond this Nairobi is one of the most modern and fastest growing places in Africa.
3. Try not to refuse hospitality, especially food
Kenyan hospitality is the pride of the country. In fact, it is so deeply ingrained in the cultures of the people that invitations to dinner at restaurants and homes are to be expected and accepted graciously. Of course, it’s not always possible to say yes, but keeping this in mind is crucial to understanding the people.
Most Kenyans feel insulted when you don’t eat something they’ve offered you. So if there is no major reason to decline then why not politely nibble? Accepting local hospitality is a fantastic way to try new foods and go beyond the guide books. Plus, you might also discover something you like.
4. Try not to use foreign currency
This may go against every other guide that tells you to carry plenty of USD. But, nothing screams “rip me off” more than flashing a wad of dollars. While the USD is widely accepted in Kenya, it’s best to pay local vendors and outlets in Kenyan shillings and keep your dollars for emergencies. When exchanging your money, make sure you do so at a reputable bureau like the ones in your hotel or the malls.
If you really want to travel like a local then I’d suggest immersing in the country’s mobile money revolution. Kenya is a trailblazer in the mobile money industry. In fact, the most popular mobile platform transacted over $7 Billion in 2010 and generates more in a month than PayPal Mobile does in a year.
So, if you’re going to be in town for a while then why not join the revolution? Instead of carrying cash everywhere you go, you could register a SIM card and see how convenient it will prove to be for purchases at local supermarkets, stores, cab fare and other informal payments.
And speaking of paying local vendors…
5. Try not to over haggle
Bargaining isn’t something that is unique to Kenya. Wandering around a maze of markets and haggling with local merchants is a travel staple around the world. But keep in mind that there is a limit.
While it may be true that local merchants tend to overcharge tourists for certain items, what you also need to know is that haggling too much can also be seen as rude/privileged. Bargaining is acceptable and encouraged but remember that this is their livelihood.
6. Do be aware of the law and customs
While most laws are universal, there are a few new municipal laws in Kenya that might trip you up. For example, you don’t want to get caught crossing the road while on your phone – it’s illegal. Leaning or sitting on ledges is a no no, so is serving drinks after 11 PM. And smoking on the streets of Nairobi’s city center is against the law, except in designated smoking zones.
On the cultural front; it’s disrespectful to point at someone using the index finger, being overly affectionate with your partner in public is distasteful (PDA couples, we see you…and would rather not), and a conservative dress code should be adhered to.
Finally, if you want to say ‘hi’ then please say ‘Habari!’ and save the ‘Jambo’ for the resorts.