By Nanjala Nyabola
With a reputation for grit and glamour, Nairobi is an African city whose outsize reputation precedes it. It’s a heavy and earned reputation — at its worst the city can be a tough and unforgiving place. In order to avoid much of the grime, most travellers opt to remain in what locals call the “expat bubble” — high cost spaces that keep foreigners away from locals ostensibly to keep them safe, but in fact giving them a version of Nairobi that the average Kenyan doesn’t recognise. For the budget traveller, this can mean multiplying your budget by tens if not more, further earning Nairobi a reputation for being one of the most expensive cities in Africa.
Yet there are ways around this. As a budget traveller with over a decade of backpacking experience, I prepared this guide to help two kinds of people — those who want to see Nairobi outside the expat circuit, and those who are travelling on a budget. Don’t get me wrong — everyone should try this stuff! But if you fit either one of those categories, you’ll find the advice here comforting. If you keep your wits about you and approach the city for what it is — a large, aggressive space that shares the same struggles as any other major city in the world — visiting Nairobi can be an enriching and illuminating experience.
Avoid arriving in Nairobi on a Friday evening. The main international airport — JKIA — is about 17 km from the central business district and has some of the worst traffic in the entire city. Rush hour on Mombasa road can start as early as 3 p.m. and run as late as 8 p.m., and it’s not unheard of to be stuck in the worst of it for three to four hours, although an hour and a half is more typical. Avoid it anyway — a late night arrival is good, mid morning is better, early morning is probably the best.
If you must arrive at this time, escape the worst of it by taking the highway up to Lang’ata road. Start at a local watering hole like Rafikiz opposite the Wilson Airport where many wait out the traffic into the CBD, or if you can get that far, bars like Klubhouse (K1) and Choices on Baricho Road.
The Carnivore features on every recommendation list on Nairobi for a reason. It’s a Nairobi institution. The main restaurant serves a churrascaria style barbeque, where various cuts of meat including some pretty exotic stuff (zebra, anyone?) are brought to the table until you raise your surrender flag. Carnivore is popular because it also hosts a massive entertainment space that has over the years hosted high profile concerts, comedy shows and festivals, so Friday night is a great night to be there because you might stumble upon an amazing night out.
If you’re looking for something more downmarket and have a Nairobian with you, you could also visit one of the many local nyama choma (roast meat) joints. Many are residential houses that have been — to varying degrees of legality — converted into restaurants. Nyama choma joints are the most typical night out for Kenyans and it’s here where you’ll find us at our raucous best. Njuguna’s on Waiyaki way is the icon, Roadhouse on Dennis Pritt road is massively popular because it is in one of the more upmarket neighbourhoods (scarce parking), and the market stalls at Kenyatta Market off Mbagathi way are more working-class and very simple, even basic. Keep your wits about you — security here can be an issue.
Kenyatta International Conference Centre Helipad
(8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.)
Start your full day in Nairobi with a 360-degree panorama view of the city that will help you get your bearings. For most of the Kenya’s 53-year history, the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) was the tallest building in the country. (Three other buildings have since surpassed it). You may recognise the iconic design of the building from just about any postcard showcasing the CBD — the tower with the roof fanning out and the small pyramid beside it.
When it was initially constructed, the top of the tower was a rotating restaurant that allowed breathtaking views of the city. This design feature didn’t make it into the 1990’s after the building was taken over as headquarters of the ruling party during the one party era. However, after many years, the helipad is now open to paying visitors, and even though it doesn’t rotate, on a clear day it provides amazing views of the city and beyond — as far as Mount Kilimanjaro. The KICC helipad is also one of Nairobi’s hottest date spots so expect to share your views with lots of canoodling couples.
Read about the history of this iconic building before you visit to get the most of the visit — no guides are available. Look out for Parliament buildings and the Uhuru Park, as well as the Chyulu hills, Ngong Hills, and the Abederes range which surround the city, and the Nairobi National Park with Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti in the distance, dominating the south west of the city.
Unfortunately, the building is inaccessible to guests in wheelchairs as elevator access only runs until the 27th floor, leaving 3 more flights of stairs. ($1.50 local, $4 international)
The Murumbi Collection
(8:00 a.m. to noon at the National Archives; 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Nyayo House)
Former Vice President the late Joe Murumbi is known as Kenya’s foremost art collector. While he was alive, he amassed a vast treasure trove of African art, including textiles, books, paintings, carvings and other items from all over the continent and the diaspora. Murumbi initially bequeathed his collection to an African Studies Centre that was to be established in his name but the Moi administration reneged on the agreement and destroyed the house. Thankfully, through no modest efforts of Allan Donovan at the African Heritage House and Murumbi’s wife Stella — herself an avid collector — Murumbi’s treasures found a home in both the National Museum of Kenya and the National Archives, on whose board he once sat.
Today, the books and much of the printed materials from his vast archive is on permanent display at the National Archives on Moi Avenue ($1 for Kenyans, $4 international) and at the Nyayo House Gallery of the National Museum of Kenya. Visit these collections for a snapshot into contemporary Kenyan history and a taste of the heady Pan Africanism of the 1960’s.
The Archive is only open half day on Saturday so start there first and then walk or drive across to the other edge of the CBD for the Nyayo House collection, which closes at 5:30.
Lunch and the City
There are a number of Western style restaurants in the Nairobi Central Business district, including at the many five star hotels and if that’s your flavour, by all means indulge. But if you only have a limited amount of time and want to partake in some local cuisine, you could do worse than visit some of the local restaurants in the CBD. Keep in mind though that except for Kenyans from the Coast and of Asian descent, for the most part, Kenyans eat to live: our food is simple, filling, and sometimes an acquired taste.
The streets around Jamia Mosque are a great place to eat. K’Osewe Ranalo’s on Kimathi Street is the toast of the political class and is known for serving hearty, simple Kenyan food (starting at $6 for two). Jamia Plate by City Market specialises in Somali fare including pastries (prices start at $10 for two). Simmers on Kenyatta Avenue is a restaurant by day and bar by night that’s popular for the local staple — ugali and nyama choma. If you’re after a quick fix, try any of the local chain restaurants — Nairobi Java House (various locations — think Starbucks). All prices are fixed — no need for bargaining.
Architecture of the CBD
Walk off your lunch with a tour of the CBD. Set out in a grid layout, the heart of the city has historically been the most racially, ethnically and economically heterogenous part of the country — often purely by necessity rather than goodwill.
For those who pay attention, Nairobi CBD has many buildings of great architectural significance, telling the story of how this stopover town became one of Africa’s great capitals. On Kenyatta Avenue, look out for the General Post Office building (1907), the Standard Chartered Bank building (1911), Kipande House (1913), the redbrick Cameo Cinema (1912 — the cinema is long gone), the McMillan Library (1931) the Bank of India (Formerly bank of Baroda). The Nairobi Town Jamathkhana (1922 — ask for Khoja Mosque) from the same period is on Moi Avenue and has a museum that is accessible by appointment.
Smaller turn of the century buildings can be found on Biashara Street the former main trading street in the city — with their years of completion etched on the front. Art Deco is present everywhere but a little harder to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for because of awful paintwork– there’s a fairly well preserved block on Koinange street between Standard street at City Hall way (by the Holy Family Basilica — the largest Catholic church in East Africa). 1960’s brutalism is everywhere as are the garish gleaming glass modernism. City Hall is classical revivalism and the parliament building with its elaborate symbolism is best described as African Modernism.
There are several blogs dedicated to Nairobi’s architecture that should help you get your orientation. Generally, if you stay within the square created by University Way, Uhuru Highway, Haile Selassie Avenue and Moi Avenue i.e. the less crowded parts of the city, you should have plenty to keep you occupied. Do be careful while taking pictures in the CBD. Police are extremely nervous about people (local and international) waving their cameras about in the CBD — technically, it’s illegal to take photos in the CBD.
If the buildings bore you, cross the highway into the parks — Uhuru and Central — that help make Nairobi Africa’s greenest capital. Join local families on a boat ride in the artificial lake at Uhuru Park. Visit the Mau Mau memorial to Kenya’s independence struggle and Freedom corner where many protests, including Prof. Wangari Maathai’s iconic Mother’s Movement resistance, start. But do travel light — a big bag will attract unsavoury attention.
You can also skip the afternoon in the city altogether, pack a picnic lunch and head to one of the protected forests in or near the city. Karura Forest is known as the forest Prof. Maathai fought for — a sizeable indigenous forest about 20 minutes from the CBD (with no traffic) with a sizeable network of trails where you can walk, ride bikes or on a good day, spot one of the dik dik that live there. The Nairobi Arboretum is a smaller, secondary forest in the Kileleshwa suburb that is great for picnics and short walks to clear your head. The Ngong’ Hills are further away but boast more wildlife and a selection of interesting remote campsites and rental properties like Miti Mbili on Champagne Ridge. (You can also just pull over and picnic anywhere that’s not fenced in).
The Original Maasai Market
(8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.)
Finish your afternoon at the largest and the original Maasai Market, located at the Judiciary parking lot in Nairobi’s CBD. The idea for Maasai markets took hold in the mid 1990’s as Maasai women came to Nairobi to sell cheap, handmade beaded jewellery — mostly earrings and necklaces — for women. Over time, the original Wednesday market near the Grogan Road roundabout grew so large that it caused massive traffic jams and had to be relocated and the dates changed. Today, everyone knows that their best bet for affordable trinkets is a late afternoon visit to the Saturday market, after the traders’ resolve has been worn down by the city sunshine and the barrage of customers. Products have diversified as artisans have become more experienced too — you can get carvings in wood and soapstone, bags, hats and all sorts of collectibles at the market.
Carry a hat and bottled water on a warm day. Tree cover is sparse and there’s no food or water on sale inside the market.
Go down to Electric Avenue
If your feet can still hold you after a full day of walking, it’s time to hit Electric Avenue. Although the nightclubs and bars in Nairobi’s Westlands district have been around for years, in the last few years they have taken on a new lease on life. Some of this has to do with the increasing spending power of young people in the country, but a lot of it has to do with exiles and émigrés from the region and beyond. These are not working class watering holes, and expect European prices on everything.
More of an outdoor event space than a bar, The Alchemist is the only venue that regularly charges a cover (Up to $20 if an international act is playing). On Mpaka Road (Electric Avenue proper) Havana and Black Diamond are popular with an older crowd that goes for the classic floor fillers, Brew Bistro attracts a younger, more international crowd (sample their in house brews!) and Crooked Q’s is a pool hall where a quiet drink is possible.
Whatever you do, don’t take a driver with a car — use a ride share app or a taxi because parking is rare and the street gets very crowded at night so it can be impossible to leave when you’re ready.
Nairobi National Park (7:00 a.m. to sunset)
Spend your Sunday in Nature and head up to the Lang’ata neighbourhood, home to the Nairobi National Park, the only wildlife park in a capital city in the world. Schedule an early morning game drive for your best bet in capturing images of lions, cheetahs or wildebeest if the season permits, or giraffes, buffalo and various members of the antelope family all year round. A guide can be provided on request at the main gate.
If the previous nights activities got you too tired to make a 7 a.m. drive, spend an hour or two at the Nairobi Safari Walk and the Animal Orphanage — a zoo like installation that allows you to see animals that have been rescued but cannot be returned into the wild. ($4 local, $30 international)
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
(11:00 a.m. to 12 noon)
At 11 a.m. leave the main park and head to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust — also at the Park but accessible using a separate entrance on Magadi road. David Sheldrick was a pioneer conservationist focused on saving Kenya’s endangered elephant population. The Trust takes in young elephants that have been injured or orphaned by poaching and raises them until they are fit to be returned to the wild in one of the larger parks in the country. Between 11 a.m. and 12 noon members of the public can watch the elephant feeding and learn about the lives of these fascinating creatures. Bonus — if you pay to sponsor an elephant, you get invited at 5:00 p.m. to help put them to bed. If your heart doesn’t melt at the sight of a baby elephant snuggling with his keeper, you need to have your wiring checked. ($5 local, $7 international)
You are now in Karen — the most affluent neighbourhood in Kenya, perhaps in East Africa. If your pocket allows it, by all means head to the Talisman on Ngong’ Road. The food is excellent, the ambience is top notch and the service is tremendous. If you have more time than you do money, try some ostrich or crocodile steak at the Mamba Village just off Lang’ata Road (follow the signs). They also serve “normal” fare like fish or beef. If you’re short on both time and money, head to the food court at the hub, a new shopping mall in the Karen area that boasts Nairobi’s first authentic Afghani restaurant, Afghan House, started by one of Kenya’s few Afghani refugees. Eat buffet style at the restaurant or get some to go, but whatever you do, don’t skip the baklava!
(9:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.)
After the spending time with the elephants, head up to the Giraffe Centre to feed the giraffes who eat and are adored on a more flexible schedule. The Centre also organises brief ad hoc talks that can be particularly fascinating especially for younger guests, but really people head there to kiss the giraffes. Do recall that the Giraffes are wild animals — they love the kisses but do follow the guide’s instructions and avoid getting head butted.
Give yourself ample time to get to the airport — traffic in Nairobi can be very unpredictable and especially at the entrance to the airport if there are plenty of flights taking off, security can create bottlenecks.
Nanjala Nyabola lives in Nairobi where she often thinks about things and sometimes writes about them. One time she climbed a mountain, but she didn’t write about it. @nanjala1