Shamim Ehsani, a resident of Nairobi and native Kenyan, and Danielle Petrie, an avid traveler and explorer, divulge some juicy local secrets in this vibrant travel guide to Nairobi.
On your first day here, seeing this is a must:
Petrie: Arriving at Nairobi International Airport can be both intimidating and exciting; there is a frantic buzz from the busy atmosphere that waits outside. It doesn’t have the best reputation for being the safest city centre, so care must always be taken, but on the flipside it does offer many unique attractions to explore. Most visitors use Nairobi as the hub before embarking on safari, or a beach retreat, but I think that’s selling the city short. On their first day here, visitors should get right into the thick of this cosmopolitan city and head towards the Nairobi National Museum to get a true sense of life in Kenya, past and present. The museum is open every day of the year 8.30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Be sure to take your time while touring the first floor as it offers a fascinating collection of contemporary African artwork that is available for sale. There are also picturesque botanical gardens, shops and some great dining facilities.
Most people don’t know this, but to get a true taste of the local culture”…
Petrie: Head towards Uhuru Park, easily the most famous park in Kenya since the 1960’s. Located in the city centre, this busy green space is where locals love to play sports (especially football) in every available area they can get their feet on while passionately chatting about (oddly enough) Manchester United! Mention the team and you’re almost guaranteed a most friendly response. On Sundays, many locals love to spend their free time strolling around, snoozing in the sunshine, picnicking with their families or attending open air mass in the park. The best way to soak in this vibrant scene is by walking around or just sitting under a tree listening to gospel singers practice their verses; watching children at play; and breathing in the smells of local dishes being cooked at nearby food stalls.
For a glimpse of daily life, I recommend this form of transportation:
Ehsani: Take a matatu! These often reckless mini-buses are the most accessible form of public transport. Decorated with disco lights and graphics of iconic catch-phrases, matatus are artistic expressions of current affairs. On board entertainment includes action movies, local music videos and blaring music. Beware of pick-pockets!
The meal at this local eatery had me salivating for days:
Petrie: Make your way to Nyama Choma on Milimani Road for the ultimate Kenyan food experience. Highly regarded by locals, this little eatery allows you to choose your own meat from the butchery downstairs before it’s barbequed on the fire and plated for you at the restaurant above. (Disclosure: It’s not the quickest experience but it’s well worth the wait!) “˜Nyama choma’ or barbequed meat, is a staple in Nairobi, so an experience here is a must. Try the roasted goat: tender, moist meat cooked to perfection, accompanied by chapatti, similar to the Indian bread but slightly thicker, a salad and ugali. It is truly a delicious and a unique experience. (My mouth is watering just describing it!) Meat lovers will worship this place ““ sorry vegetarians!
I had my best night’s sleep at:
Petrie: This is a gruelling question as often the more you spend, the better quality accommodation you’ll get. I do have to mention the Bush House and Camp, an incredible guesthouse and hostel located close to all Nairobi’s best attractions, which offers budget accommodations. You’re guaranteed a great night’s sleep here and will also meet lots of like-minded people to share your travel stories with. The staff is very welcoming and is open to helping you arrange anything that is needed, whether it be transport, tours, or just advice. On the opposite end of the price range is Tribe Hotel, a very modern property located in the city’s up-market diplomatic district with all the facilities you could ever need. Remember to set your alarm here as you could quite easily sleep all day. (Note from Ehsani: Tribe blends a New York aesthetic with the warmth of Africa through its design; with over 900 pieces of original African art throughout the hotel.)
Best place to find artisan handicrafts:
Ehsani: Check out one of the city’s ‘Maasai Markets’ – the largest and longest running market is at The Village Market (East Africa’s largest shopping and recreation complex) every Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The colorful market hosts 350 artists and vendors offering wood sculptures, beaded jewelry, masks, paintings and local textiles.
Local celebration not to be missed:
Ehsani: Blankets and Wine is a monthly festival with performances from established Kenyan artists. Held on the first Sunday of every month, Blankets and Wine attracts families and young professionals for a chilled out, picnic-style music session.
Ehsani: Cafes and coffee shops are social hot spots in Nairobi. Art Caffe has become an iconic destination for urban socialites, with four locations across the city – good music, free wifi and a casual vibe that makes meeting people and striking up random conversations easy.
Petrie: Taking the bus to the Nairobi National Park, located on the outskirts of the city. I love leaving the hectic, hot city behind to visit a park filled with wild lions, cheetahs, leopards, buffaloes, hippos, giraffes, gazelles and more. It’s a very accessible experience that reminds you you’re still in Africa close to the country’s raw wildernesses.
For a more bucolic/green setting I escape here:
Ehsani: Karura Forest, stretching across the northern side of Nairobi, is one of the largest urban forests in the world. The protected forest is one of the city’s greatest assets and a feature every visitor should see. Follow the running and hiking trails through the dense forest and you’ll pass by waterfalls, lakes and caves – providing a striking contrast to the frenetic pace of this cosmopolitan city.
The art/music scene is alive and well here:
Where the locals get tipsy:
Ehsani: Brew Bistro, a micro-brewery on Ngong Road (the city’s answer to Silicone Valley), has a selection of house-brewed beers. The vibe is energetic, feeding off the area’s thriving technology ventures.
If I had only 24 hours to explore Nairobi I would:
Visit Nairobi National Park where you can go on a quick game drive on the outskirts of the city and get up close and personal with a variety of wild African animals. Daphne and David Sheldrick’s Elephant Animal Orphanage is also a must-do while in Nairobi — open at 11 a.m. to noon — here you can watch orphaned baby elephants get their daily mud baths, and learn about the incredible projects the organization has done for the conservation of elephants and rhinos in Kenya. There are a few museums worth visiting: the Railway Museum, the National Museum, and the Karen Blixen Museum. (Editor’s Note: the African Heritage House is also worth a look). Stop by the junction, an area known for its collection of upscale shops, or scour the Maasai markets for lovely handmade handicrafts. (Editor’s Note: Finish the evening with dinner at Blanco’s Bar & Lounge for an authentic Kenyan meal in a contemporary setting.)
Ehsani: Have a croissant and coffee for breakfast at Art Caffe before going to Daphne and David Sheldrick’s Elephant Animal Orphanage and the Giraffe Center. Have lunch at Talisman, a garden restaurant in Karen with art for sale and delicious coriander and feta samosas, their signature dish. Drive over to The Village Market for a bit of retail therapy and an afternoon coffee to energize you for a leisurely walk through Karura Forest. Book the Kenya Gold treatment at Kaya Spa before dinner at Jiko in Tribe Hotel. Refreshed, recharged and well-fed; go to Nest, the hotel’s rooftop bar for one of their signature martinis and a hookah before you take on the city’s nightlife. Return to your ultra-comfortable bed at Tribe Hotel to digest the day’s events.
*For more in our “Get Cultured” series, check out last week’s guide to Cape Town and be on the lookout for the next installment in the series.
About Shamim Ehsani
Shamim Ehsani is the Marketing Director of Tribe Hotel and The Village Market. Raised in Kenya, Shamim has seen Nairobi transition from a sleepy city to the regional hub of fashion, art, film and music ““ a cosmopolitan, dynamic, capital of culture in Africa.
About Danielle Petrie
Danielle Petrie was born, and currently lives in mountainous North Wales. She has visited Nairobi several times during her many trips to Kenya. After plenty of exciting adventures and a bucket list bigger than any bucket, she has an avid passion to write and share both past and present experiences with you all! Always trying to satiate her hiking and mountain climbing addiction/hobby, whilst seeing the sights around the globe! Petrie dreams about one day becoming a travel journalist and emigrating out to New Zealand. You can read more about her travels at : www.mrsptravels.com
This post was updated on 9/17/12
Feature photo: flickr/Andrew Turner
Massai market photo by khym54