6 Things to Do in Nairobi
Featured destinations: Nairobi
Published 21 December 2016
Most people travelling to Kenya for a safari, some time at the beach, or both, will fly into Nairobi. Although many just pass through, it’s definitely worth taking a little time to explore the city’s attractions. Having spent the last four years living and working in Nairobi here’s my guide to the best things to see, do and know during a short stay in the city:
Nairobi street flickr id: 6975699573
With a large expatriate population and a burgeoning middle-class, Nairobi offers some of Africa’s finest shopping malls and restaurants - from The Village Market (with 150 stores in an open setting) to the more traditional mall experience of The Junction on the other side of town. Beyond the traditional wood handicrafts you can find quality leather products fit for any safari. The Rift Valley and Sandstorm outlets are recommended – and prices are considerably less than you would pay for the same quality in Paris, New York or London.
Carnivore Restaurant, Nairobi flickr id: 5194912864
When it comes to where to eat, it really helps to like red meat in Nairobi but pescetarian and vegetarians won’t go hungry either – the level of variety around here is high.
Since 1980 the pioneering and legendary Carnivore restaurant, situated in Langata, three miles from the city centre, has served as a final safari stop due to its close proximity to Wilson Airport - the launch pad for most Kenyan fly-in safaris. This place is out-and-out African style and centred around a massive braai (BBQ) grilling and roasting complex in classic boma layout. Government decrees have limited the diversity of the game meats on offer these days but if you are tempted to try the crocodile, camel or ostrich (served at your table from Maasai swords and on to sizzling, cast iron plates by an army of carvers wearing zebra striped aprons and straw hats) you will not be disappointed. When the feeding frenzy is over the adjacent Simba Saloon offers live music and entertainment and there is the inevitable souvenir shop near by.
Karen Blixen's Homestead
Many restaurants are found in carefully manicured gardens but few can match The Tamarind, situated at the former, ill-fated coffee plantation of Karen Blixen next to her former homestead. This is now a museum, perhaps as much to Hollywood as to authenticity, but well worth a visit. Along with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, the house starred in the 1974 movie Out of Africa and you can wander the gardens and look out towards the Ngong Hills where the object of Blixen’s desires - Denys Finch Hatton - lies buried after his untimely death in a plane crash in 1931.
Tamarind ice cream flickr id: 529048227
Less touristy, for now at least, is the nearby Talisman. This is a self-styled gastro lounge serving tamarind ice cream, amongst other must-try delicacies. Closer to town, the scenic River Cafe in Karura Forest is now rapidly gaining a reputation as the place to be seen – consequently bookings are essential.
Oysters and champagne
Surprisingly for a city situated nearly 300 miles from the Indian Ocean coast, there are some excellent seafood restaurants around too. The Tamarind (above) specialises in fresh giant prawns, sweet young crabs, juicy lobsters, squid, octopus and oysters. Nearer the city, the Seven Seafood and Grill at ABC Place, conveniently situated next to Nairobi’s first champagne bar, flies in oysters and other fresh seafood daily. Its signature dish is grilled line fish served, as if still swimming in the Indian Ocean and across your table, upright between two wooden support pillars. For those on a more limited budget the South African Ocean Basket chain opened a Nairobi branch at the Oval, Westlands in 2015.
Nairobi National Park with the Nairobi skyline visible
Look for wildlife
Nairobi National Park is unique in its close proximity to a city centre and gives safari-goers the chance to picture wildlife against the backdrop of increasing numbers of skyscrapers rising out of Nairobi in the distance. A visit to the grass plains and scattered acacia bush that play host to a wide variety of wildlife is a must. Visitors can enjoy the park’s picnic sites and the walking trails while watching planes constantly land and take off. Indeed, most flights in and out of Nairobi will approach and/or depart over the park, offering some unique game viewing opportunities. If you’re very lucky you might even seeing giraffe ambling past the car park as you drive out of the airport!
Elephant feeding time at the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage
Meet the elephants
Compensate for the absence of elephants in the Nairobi National Park with a visit to the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. African elephant numbers are in serious decline, driven by relentless poaching and habitat loss. The charity accommodates the young, orphaned and often traumatized survivors of this trade. Dedicated staff hand-rear the survivors, preparing them for eventual reintroduction into the wild. Visiting times coincide with the elephants’ feeding (with specially formulated milk), bath and play time. For the benefit of the animals the orphanage has strictly limited visiting hours so crowding can sometimes be an issue – but witnessing the feeding and socialising of these young elephants is a moving experience. They have been ambassadors for conservation to generations of schoolchildren – and, of course, their elders!Giraffe Manor, Nairobi flickr id: 4406304648
Meet the giraffes
Visits to the Elephant Orphanage usually also take in the nearby Giraffe Centre in the grounds of an old colonial folly, Giraffe Manor, now an upmarket hotel. Here, you can get up close with rare Rothchild’s giraffe and hand-feed pellets to them at head height from raised platforms – a very memorable experience and a not half bad selfie opportunity. It is estimated that only 1,500 Rothschild’s giraffes remain in the wild in Kenya and northern Uganda. A visitor centre, staffed by dedicated Kenyans who will enthusiastically tell you everything you ever wanted to know about giraffes, gives hope for the future of wildlife in the country.
Thorn Tree Cafe, Nairobi flickr id: 6203311468
Step back in time
Nairobi’s colonial legacy and Swahili influences provide much of the character that underwrites the city’s attractions, with some unique architectural gems that remain reflections of the city’s eclectic past. Chief amongst these is Nairobi’s original hotel - now the five-star Fairmont Norfolk Hotel – but still known more affectionately as just ‘The Norfolk’. The Norfolk served for over a century as a main social center of Nairobi along with the Muthaiga Club, Nairobi Club and others. A relatively more recent institution is the Thorn Tree Café at the Stanley Hotel. The actual thorn tree, now in its third incarnation, no longer receives the same number of pinned messages and notices that made it the legend it once was amongst backpackers of the 1960s and 1970s. Alas, social media has put paid to that, just as modernity is stamping its imprint on Nairobi generally.
People travel to east Africa for the wildlife of the open plains and the sky blue waters of the Indian Ocean, but for anyone who wants to delve a little deeper into what makes this part of the world tick, utilising your time spent here is never going to be a waste. Indeed, you will be much the richer for paying the city a visit while on your Kenya safari.