Nairobi is a city often overlooked by travellers en route to the lush Kenya Coast or the exciting Maasai Mara, but having lived in the city for the past 18 months, I can honestly tell you that Nairobi is an African city worth exploring! It’s a truly surprising African metropolis, so make sure to set aside a couple of days to get under its skin – oh, and prepare to spend some time in traffic!
Google “Nairobi” and you’ll find a list of the most frequently-asked questions: “Is Nairobi rich or poor?” “Is Nairobi safe?” and “Do they speak English in Nairobi?”. Like every major city the world, Nairobi simply cannot be summed up as easily as safe or dangerous, rich or poor. It is a hugely diverse city, with more than 9 million inhabitants spread across slums, suburbs and an ever-developing city. There are multiple layers to this city, which deserve more than 8 hours of your time as you transfer to your final destination.
**For my top 10 tips for visiting Nairobi, scroll down to the bottom of this article.
Here’s my Nairobi Travel Guide and my Top Tips for visiting Nairobi
*** This is not an exhaustive list of Nairobi’s museums and tourist hotspots. This is my personal list of some of the more well-known highlights I think are worth your time and a few of my own favourite experiences. So if you’re looking for a full list of the top 20 tourist attractions in Nairobi, this isn’t it.
What to Expect
If you’re picturing a city of dusty roads and sweltering heat, think again. Nairobi is a fast-growing metropolitan melting pot with skyscrapers punctuating the horizon and a mild year-round average temperature of 24°C (75°F). I was expecting hot, humid weather that left me sweating, but Nairobi’s weather is actually pretty mild as it’s located so close to the equator. December (summer) is warm, but not desert hot, while June (mid-winter) is cool and overcast, but not freezing cold.
There’s a multicultural food scene and a late-night nightlife culture that only slows down when the sun comes up. The infamous traffic really is as bad as advertised, so prepare to spend some time on the roads. It’s a modern and fashionable African city, so make sure to bring your normal streetwear, as you’ll feel like a total tourist in head-to-toe safari gear.
Nairobi can be an expensive city to visit if you are planning on eating and drinking at city hotspots and staying at high-end hotels. For South Africans, prices can feel comparable with Europe or the US. There are special rates for residents and citizens, so it is worth reaching out to accommodation establishments to ask whether they offer special rates for South Africans before booking. Having said that, I have found that sometimes Booking.com offers even better rates than the “residents rates” offered.
Everyone in Nairobi speaks English and road signs, menus and just about everything else is in English too. Locals love when tourists at least say hello in Swahili though, so don’t be shy to start with “Jambo!” (hello) and thank them with “Asante”.
Travel tip: I have been asked many many times whether Nairobi is safe for female travellers. As an avid solo female traveller myself, I personally feel that Nairobi is a relatively safe and easy destination for female travellers to navigate. The city is very diverse, with a huge population of immigrants from around the world due to major international organisations like the UN and the World Bank having HQs in the city. Having said that, Kenyans are also very friendly, welcoming and proud of their country and they are always willing to go the extra mile to help a visitor. As with any other city around the world, you need to take precautions like sharing your location with friends, making sure your phone is charged when you go out and being streetwise.
How to Get There
Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) is really a gateway to the rest of the world, which means you can find a direct flight from most major international cities. The airport is about 15km (9 miles) from the city, but it can take hours to drive that short distance. You’ll need a yellow fever vaccination certificate upon arrival, or you can get your shot at the airport for $150 USD (cash only). South African travellers do not need a visa for stays up to 3 months and receive a passport stamp upon arrival. Make sure you get a local SIM card on arrival – airtime and data are both cheap and you’ll need your phone to research, navigate, find transport and make reservations.
Flights from South Africa depart regularly from all major international airports can range anywhere from around R6000 to around R15 000 return, depending on when you’re flying and which airport you’re departing from. It’s always a good idea to sign up to airline newsletters to stay in the loop for specials and deals and downloading airline apps for sneaky access to app-only offers.
Travel tip: The local currency is Kenya Shilling. Mpesa, the local mobile money network, is widely accepted and often preferred throughout Kenya. Visitors can register for Mpesa using their passport when they buy a Safaricom SIM card, and cash money can be loaded onto an Mpesa account at Mpesa agents, who can be found across the country. Paying for accommodation, transport, meals and everything else is super simple using the Safaricom app.
When to Visit Nairobi
Nairobi is really a year-round city, so when to visit will depend largely on whether you’re planning to explore further afield to the coast or the Maasai Mara. Nairobi’s weather is mild for most of the year, with two rainy seasons from March to May and October to December. The best time to visit the Maasai Mara is during the Great Migration (August – September) and the best time to visit the coast is during the summer months (November – March). Bearing in mind that these are the peak tourist seasons, so prices will reflect the demand. If you are looking to visit on a budget, it’s best to travel outside of these peak periods (for the coast, this includes July, when the Northern hemisphere is on summer holiday).
How Long Should You Spend in Nairobi
I’ve been here for 18 months and I still feel like I haven’t seen all the city has to offer. If this is your first visit, I would recommend around 4 days in Nairobi. This will give you enough time to explore the food and drinks scene, do some shopping and explore some of the nature and wildlife experiences on offer, without feeling rushed or losing half your trip to traffic. My personal recommendation would be to spend 2 nights in the city (Westlands/Kilimani/Lavington area) and two nights in Karen. There is more info on what to do in Nairobi below.
How to Get Around
Nairobi is notorious for some of the worst traffic in the world, so I was expecting absolute chaos on the roads – incessant hooting, off-road taxis and general gridlock hell. But I’ve been surprised to find that even though there are far too many cars on far too few roads, traffic jams are calm, with very little road rage.
You can use Uber to get around the city, but for longer day trips or airport transfers, I can recommend the services of a diver. Especially for a day-trip outside of the city, I’d recommend booking a driver because it can be difficult to find an Uber in the outlying areas. In peak traffic, you might want to consider jumping on a boda-boda, the local motorbike taxis that zip through cars. You can hail one on Uber – they provide you with a helmet.
The local minibus taxis are called Matatus, but I personally don’t travel using them because I prefer taking the options I just mentioned.
Travel tip: If you’re in need of a driver in Nairobi, I can highly recommend John, who has been helping me get around Nairobi since I moved here and is so reliable and so lovely. You can reach him via What’sApp on +254 739 090309 to book your transfers.
Where to Stay in Nairobi
The traffic plays a major part in considering where to stay when you visit Nairobi. Depending on what your interests are, my top recommendations would be the Westlands/Lavington/Kilimani area for access to nightlife and restaurants or Karen for animal encounters and galleries.
Getting between the two parts of Nairobi for day trips or dinners can take hours, so it’s best to base yourself in the area you’re planning on exploring. Ideally, you’d want to book a couple of nights in the city and a couple of nights in Karen, so that you have the chance to experience both. There are a variety of accommodations available across Nairobi to suit most budgets, ranging from Airbnb apartments to 5 Star Hotels.
Top 5 Things to Do in Nairobi: City Area
1 Shopping at the Maasai Market
At the Maasai Market you’ll find local trinkets, souvenirs and handmade curios from all over Kenya. The market seeks to empower local crafters by offering them a place to sell their own goods, rather than having to sell them through high-end restaurants and resorts for a fraction of the profit. The market moves around Nairobi, so you can find it at a different venue every day.
Website | Location:
- Tuesday – Kijabe Street Park next to Nairobi River and Prestige Plaza along Ngong Road
- Wednesday – Capital Center along Mombasa rd
- Thursday – The junction Mall & along Ngong road
- Friday – The Village market along Limuru road & Langinton Mall
- Saturday -The High court parking in the city Center opposite Re-Insurance Plaza & Prestige Plaza along Ngong road
- Sunday -Yaya Center along Valley Road in Hurlingham
Travel tip: While bartering is typical, it’s frowned upon to try to cut prices in half. These artisans are trying to make a living, so if you really want an item, it’s encouraged to pay a fair price, rather than to battle the artisan for a “bargain”.
2 Food, Drinks & Instagram at Nairobi Street Kitchen
This industrial space offers a taste of Nairobi’s eclectic food and drink scene, with a street food concept offering everything from Korean chicken burgers to Mumbai street snacks served out of a colourful minibus. The rooftop bar is really *the* place to be right now, and offers a selection of inspired cocktails, local craft beers and a pretty decent selection of in-house wines. It’s the most Instagramable spot in Nairobi, so make sure you’re dressed the part because it’s crawling with the local cool kids and influencers.
3 Weekend Drinks & Live Music at K1 Klub House
Great food, great drinks, live music and a really cool crowd make K1 Klub House a weekend must. Whether you’re keen to people watch, catch the football on a big screen, meet some fellow travellers or feast on Kenya’s famous nyama choma (meat cooked over the fire) served with ugali (maize meal) and kacumbari (a tomato, onion and coriander side dish), you can find pretty much whatever you’re looking for at this OG hotspot. Their weekend market is also a great place to find local artisans that are offering something different to the average Maasai Market goods.
4 Nightlife at The Alchemist
Let me just start off by warning you that the nightlife scene in Nairobi kicks off late. If you arrive at 8:30pm, you’ll find a mostly empty space and look like the tourist you are. Try aiming to get there around 11:30pm, when things start to heat up. The music is great, the bar is always pumping and the dance floor heaving. It’s a really fun night out and will give you a taste of what the city gets up to after dark. **(Of course Covid regulations and curfews will impact this)
5 A Walk in Karura Forest
Karura forest is the perfect place to escape the hustle, bustle and traffic of the city. There are lots of clearly marked paths and walkways to explore, including a route that takes you to a waterfall and ancient caves. The soil is a deep red and often wet, so wear appropriate shoes. The forest is safe to explore and there are often hikers, bikers and families on the routes with you. There’s also a lovely cafe in the park for a drink and something to eat when you’re done. Single use plastic is not allowed in the park, so bring a reusable water bottle.
Fees: 600 Kenya Shillings
Opening hours: Open 365 days of the year, 6am – 6pm
Top 5 Things to Do in Nairobi: Karen Area
1 Visit the Baby Elephants at Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Normally, when it comes to animal encounters, my motto is “just leave the animals alone”. I steer clear of lion cub petting, shark cage diving, swimming with dolphins or any other activities that promise touch interactions with wild animals because too often, the animals are exploited for human pleasure. But when an animal encounter is run ethically, with conservation at the heart of the organization, I’ll happily support it.
This is really a highlight. You’ll have the opportunity to visit some of nature’s cutest babies in an environment where they are being nurtured and cared for by a team of super passionate human-parents, but you’re also supporting this incredible organisation and the work they do to protect these babies. Watch the baby elephants have their breakfast, take a mud bath and play with each other (and sometimes with you too). You’ll also learn about their history and future and how they came to be at the David Sheldrick Trust.
Fees: $7 USD and payable in cash only. To adopt an elephant, supporting its care for a year, costs $50 USD
Opening hours: Open every day of the year except Christmas. The 11am visit (60 minutes) is open to the public. For a more intimate visit with the elephants, there is the option for adopters to visit at 5pm (60 minutes). This visit is especially for people who have adopted an elephant, and is by appointment only, to see the babies have their bed time bottles and be tucked in for the night by their loving keepers.
2 Feed the Giraffes at the Giraffe Centre
Especially in Africa, where visitors from around the world are dying to interact with their favourite animals, it’s vital to research the organisations you are visiting and ensure that they operate within responsible tourism guidelines. The Giraffe Centre in Nairobi is not a “petting zoo”. They are working toward saving the endangered Rothschild Giraffe through their breeding and education program, offering visitors the opportunity to feed these elegant beauties in a safe environment. It’s a really nice experience, getting to see these graceful creatures up-close.
Hint: These are the exact same giraffes that live at the famed Giraffe Manor, so if you can’t get a room (it is booked out years in advance) or afford the hefty room rate, this is a perfect alternative.
Fees: $15 USD
Opening hours: Open every day from 9am-5pm
3 Early Morning or Sunset Game Drive at the Nairobi National Park
Nairobi National Park is the only national park in the world with a city skyline. But don’t let that put you off, because as soon as you drive through the gates, it feels like you’re really in the bush. Established in 1946, just 7 km from the city, the park is home to lions, leopards, rhino, buffalo, hippos, cheetah, and even Nile crocodile. There are dedicated picnic spots at view points throughout the park, and even a tented camp located within the heart of the park itself. The Nairobi Tented Camp is unfenced, and as you sit around the bonfire after dinner, you can hear lions roaring not far away. Maasai guides even walk you to your tent in the evenings! It’s one of my favourite places in Nairobi, and a really great place to spend the night, if you’re looking for less-than-typical accommodation in the city.
Travel tip: This curated Google map is the most extensive and well-plotted map I’ve found of the Nairobi National Park and includes points of interest and picnic sites.
Fees: $35 USD
Opening hours: 6am – 6pm
4 Afternoon Tea at Hemingways
Served from 3pm to 5pm every day, the famous Hemingways High Tea offers a traditional selection of miniature cakes, scones and sandwiches and an array of teas in a luxurious setting. While you’re there, you might as well stay for a sunset gin & tonic or a signature cocktail with a view of Ngong Hills at Hemingways Bar right? This is one of Nairobi’s most beautiful properties, so even if you’re not spending the night, it’s worth visiting for the experience.
5 Dinner at Talisman
The must-do Karen restaurant for visitors and locals alike. The ambience is great, the food is delicious and it’s where Karen locals spend their evenings. Bookings are essential, as it’s very popular. The feta and coriander samosas, Talisman wings and famous Knickerbocker Glory will knock your socks off.
Where to Eat in Nairobi
Nairobi’s food scene is influenced by the multicultural community. Here’s a list of my personal recommendations.
Top 10 Travel Tips for Visiting Nairobi
- Visitors from outside of Africa require a visa to enter Kenya, which needs to be purchased online ahead of arrival. Visit the eVisa website for more details
- You really can’t overestimate the traffic. The main stretches to watch out for when you’re planning travel in the city are Wayaki Way and Ngong Road. Both of these busy roads can add hours to your travel time and can make getting from one side of Nairobi to the next a nightmare. If you’re travelling in peak morning of evening hours, plan accordingly or try a boda-boda motorbike taxi
- Tipping is customary in Kenya and at least 10% is recommended. If you’re paying with cash or a card at a restaurant, you should either tip the waiter directly with cash or ask them for the cellphone number and send their tip using Mpesa
- Make sure to update your telephone number to your local number within the Uber app when you are using it Kenya, as drivers tend to call you as soon as you request a cab within the app to ask where you are and where you are going (don’t ask me why)
- The soil in Nairobi is red and it can absolutely ruin your shoes if you plan on walking in the forest or visiting in the rainy season. White sneakers are not recommended
- In fact, Nairobi is not a particularly walkable city, so don’t expect to stroll down a cobblestoned street, hopping from one coffee shop or bar to the next
- While much of Kenya is highlighted on healthcare websites as “malaria hotspots”, malaria is not common in Nairobi and anti-malarial medication is not required
- If you are planning to fly to the coast or Maasai Mara from Nairobi, it is recommended to fly from Wilson domestic airport, which is located within the city and is a much easier travel experience than flying domestically from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Local airlines like Skywards Express and Fly540 depart from Wilson regularly
- Kenyans absolutely love it when visitors use a little Swahili, so don’t be shy to use “Jambo” (hi), “Asante” (thanks) and “Sawa” (ok)
- Nairobi has some really tight security around public spaces like airports and shopping centres, so don’t be surprised when your car is checked by security and you’re required to walk through a metal detector upon entry
- BONUS: If you’re in Nairobi for more than a couple of days, you should definitely consider a day trip to a tea plantation or Browns Cheese in Kiambu. Read more about these day trips from Nairobi here