Mention Nairobi to the Average Joe and you’re likely to be subjected to a barrage of incredulous questions along the lines of “You do realise it’s EXTREMELY dangerous, don’t know?”
Often mislabelled and maligned by a sometimes ruthless and distorted media as the granddaddy of hazardous African cities (alongside Nigeria’s Lagos and South Africa’s Johannesburg, of course), Nairobi, Kenya, is to many travellers simply a no-go zone. Tourists usually opt for a quick-in-and-out half-day tour (safely accompanied, of course) on their way to East Africa’s wilder attractions.
This is their loss, for, in reality, Nairobi is one of region’s biggest draws, catering to all types of interests. To help you make the most of your time there, below is a list of six unforgettable and essential, but slightly off-the-beaten-track Nairobi experiences.
1. David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage
Often, when people think of Africa, they’re reminded of its impressive wildlife. So what better way to start off a trip to the continent than meeting some of its most famous inhabitants up close and personal?
Located about 45 minutes by public transport (25 minutes by taxi) outside of Nairobi’s centre lies a fantastic haven for orphaned elephant and rhino calves. Sure, it may be a bit touristy (it’s a staple of the ‘tourist’ tour of Nairobi), but as an animal interaction programme, it’s pretty much perfect. You’re guaranteed a personal encounter, as elephant calves of all sizes wrestle amongst themselves for attention and photo opportunities!
To get close to an elephant, the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanageis the place for you. The rhinos aren’t involved in this display, so make sure you check them out separately before you leave!
Ubiquitous in nearly every African capital city, Carnivore is Nairobi’s must-see restaurant, an exotic meat boma (that’s barbecue to you and me), serving everything from ostrich steak to buffalo testicles (really). Whilst some of what’s on the menu may sound disgusting, it isn’t: take my word for it. When the food is washed down with a signature Tusker beer, you wouldn’t want to be eating anything else! After all, when in Africa….
After your meal, have a few drinks at the adjacent Simba Saloon, a popular nightspot, particularly on weekends. Carnivore is located between the city and the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, a 40-minute taxi ride from downtown.
3. Nairobi National Park
Home to the aforementioned Sheldrick Orphanage, this park is unique to Nairobi. Where else in the world can you capture a lion and a skyscraper in the same picture frame? Home to the Big Five, Nairobi National Park offers the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. There are daily safari drives and, whilst this is no Masai Mara, you stand every chance of seeing a wide variety of wildlife. Lower your expectations a bit, though, and you’ll be more than impressed, especially if you’re not lucky enough to see a leopard or a cheetah; however this pretty much applies to every national park in the country!
To get to the park, catch a matatu, bus, or taxi here from pretty much anywhere in the city.
In a city where nearly every market stall sells the same touristy arts and crafts at competing prices, the Masai Market, held every Tuesday in central Nairobi, offers an excellent selection of uncommon keepsakes and souvenirs. If you’re prepared to bargain hard, a wide range of goods can be yours for a pittance, a major savings over what you would pay back home. Hand-crafted animal sculptures, necklaces, bracelets, plates, mugs – you name it, it’s here. You can even buy Masai warrior spears! Take it from me: you’ll end up coming away with far more than you ever thought you would!
Nairobi also has an array of shopping malls dotted throughout the city’s suburbs. Here, you can find all the trappings of Westernisation (cafes, restaurants and cinemas), but with a distinctly African edge. They’re a perfect place to linger if you’ve spent a long time backpacking on the dusty African road.
Most African capital cities have excellent nightlife, and Nairobi is no different. Kenyans seem to love a party! Start the night by having a Tusker beer in one of the local watering holes where people are friendly, talkative and laid back. Head onward to any of the bars and clubs in the suburb of Westlands, a hot spot when it comes to nightlife. Every night here is different, but you are sure to find something to your taste. Locals tend to club hop, so you probably won’t wind up where you started anyway! Be sure to take a taxi to and from here at night.
6. Lake Naivasha
Lake Naivasha isn’t technically in Nairobi, but it’s close enough. Accessed via matatu or minibus (an hour and 15 minutes on a good day), this area is truly stunning, offering the perfect escape for an easy day trip. Technically there isn’t really much to do, but that’s kind of the point. One particular highlight is camping by the hippo-infested lake, safely behind an electric fence at the Fisherman’s Camp, half an hour outside of Naivasha town. Going to sleep to the sounds of grunting hippos is strangely peaceful, but beware of the monkeys; they WILL steal any clothes you leave out!
If it’s animals that interest you, take a half-day cycle to and through Hell’s Gate National Park. Located in the heart of the magnificent Rift Valley, this area is busy with wildlife (including buffalo, giraffe, zebra and supposedly hyena). It can be quite a thrill hurtling past them on two wheels and with nothing but air between you!
In conclusion, Nairobi isn’t a ‘bad guy,’ as the city is often portrayed, but is instead one of East Africa’s most exciting hubs. Be sure to spend at least a day or two here. Forget the rumours and give this city a chance! You won’t regret it.