Nairobi is lively, cosmopolitan and full of contrasts. It is a place of smart office workers and mansions and expensive suburban shopping centers as well as overcrowded slums and people struggling to survive day-to-day. Nairobi is East Africa's commercial and aid hub and a significant capital in its own right, displaying enormous vitality and buzz. It’s even more surprising when you realized that the city only celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1999. The city has grown from a tiny rail station at the turn of the last century to a city that is expected to have a population of more than 5 million people by 2015.
Many East Africa safari itineraries include at least a few hours or even an overnight in Nairobi often at the beginning or the end of a trip. This day doesn't need to be a waste, there is a lot to see and do in this city. Here are just a few of the activities we recommend to our clients who are passing through Nairobi.
Karen Blixen Museum
To get a feel for life in the early 1900’s in Kenya, you will want to visit Karen Blixen Museum, the former house of the Danish Baronness, Karen Blixen (1885-1962) author of the book Out of Africa. Karen Blixen lived the house from 1914 to 1931 when she left permanently for Denmark. When the house was built in 1910 it had 6,000 acres of land but only 600 acres were developed for growing coffee; the rest was retained under natural forest. Much of the original furniture is on display in the house and most objects were either used by Karen herself or for the shooting of the film Out of Africa and donated to the museum. The Museum is open to the Public every day (9.30 am to 6pm) including weekends and public holidays. Visitors are encouraged to be at the Museum by 5.30. Guided tours are offered continuously.
AFEW Giraffe Center & Manor
At the AFEW Nature Center you can hand-feed the rare Rothschild giraffe that live on the grounds and wander freely through the lush gardens. The giraffe were brought here by Jock and Betty Leslie-Melville, who founded AFEW (African Fund for Endangered Wildlife) and built the Nature Center to help educate young African children about wildlife conservation. The Rothschild giraffe are the tallest giraffe species and may reach 18 feet in height, but you can see eye to eye with them on the elevated walkway at the center. Next to the AFEW center is Giraffe Manor, a beautifully maintained colonial home, now an exclusive guesthouse. The center's giraffes pay the occasional visit to the house itself, often pushing their heads through the french windows to inspect the breakfast table. Space at Giraffe Manor is hard to come by, if you have your heart set on staying here definitely book well in advance!
Near the Karen Blixen coffee plantation is Kazuri. Kazuri means "small and beautiful" in Swahili and this describes each and every beautifully hand-made ceramic bead which is shaped by hand by the women who work at the Kazuri workshop. Kazuri was started in 1975 by Lady Susan Wood with the social mission of making work for a few women. What started with just 10 women making beads in her garden shed is now 350 people making Kazuri beads, necklaces and earrings. You can take a guided tour through the factory where each bead is made from local clay. After your tour of the factory, visit the showroom where you can purchase beautiful earrings, necklaces and bracelets made from these unique beads. The quality of these items is remarkable and the prices are very reasonable. There are also hand-made pottery, handbags and wall hangings for sale. There is also a small cafe for refreshments.
Kenyatta International Conference Center
A trip to the top of the Kenyatta International Conference Center in downtown Nairobi will give you some great views of the city for just a few dollars. Take the brief tour offered by the guide and get some Nairobi history, an overview of the current neighborhoods and some great photos. A quick activity and well worth it. (If you look at the picture of the skyline above the conference center is the cylindrical building that looks like it has a flying saucer on top of it).
Kenya National Archives
An interesting alternative to the Museum is the National Archives. The Archives are a less-visited museum and art gallery that has a huge range of paintings, photographs and other unique objects from war masks to stamps that cover the Kenya and East Africa's history. The National Archives itself is a grand building (the old Bank of India building) on Tom Mboya Avenue in a busy part of Nairobi. The collection is fascinating and the 300 shilling entry fee ($3.50) is a bargain. The Archives are open 8am-5pm Monday through Friday.
Nairobi National Museum
Another very interesting place to visit is the Nairobi National Museum, Botanical Garden and Snake Park. The entire museum has been completely remodeled recently. It is an excellent place to learn about the peoples of Kenya, the history of Kenya and the paleontology finds by the Leakey family in Kenya and Tanzania. They also have a huge birds of East Africa display which gives you a great change to get an up-close look at many of the birds you are likely to see or have seen on safari. We recommend you pay the nominal fee for a guided tour.
Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage
We always recommend a visit to the Daphne Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage for our clients who are spending a night or two in Nairobi. The orphanage was founded and is still managed by Daphne Sheldrick, the widow of David Sheldrick, a famous naturalist and warden of Tsavo National Park from 1948 to 1976. The center is a nursery and rehab center for infant elephants that have lost their families, as well as the occasional rhino, zebra and other wildlife. Daphne Sheldrick was the first person to successfully raise orphan infant elephants, developing a system and feeding formula that is now used widely. The orphans are eventually released into the wild at Tsavo East National Park, living in groups with other orphans who have been successfully reintroduced to the wild. Visitors are welcome to watch the 11am feeding for just a few dollars, but here is a tip: if you “adopt” an elephant (minimum $50.00) then you are entitled you to a more exclusive visit in the afternoon where you can actually interact with the baby elephants. The orphanage is located near Nairobi National Park, another great option for a day-long/ overnight activity just outside Nairobi.
Where to Stay
Nairobi Serena (pictured below)
Near the Airports
The Ole Sereni (pictured below), The Palacina
In Nairobi National Park
We also have recommendations if you want to stay in Westlands or near Village Market but we tend not to use them because of their distance from the airports.
Keep in Mind
Nairobi traffic can be terrible which means that you might want to plan on doing a few things that are close together and avoid combining activities that are across town from one another. For example the Kazuri, the Giraffe Centre and the Karen Blixen are all in and around the suburb of Karen and are fairly close together but they are across town from the Natural History Museum and the National Archives. You should also keep the traffic in mind if you are trying to fit in an activity before a flight: leave PLENTY of time to get out to the airport.