Since moving to Kenya just over 2 years ago, I’ve been sharing my love for the Kenya coast and its unmatched beauty like it’s my job. It’s just that beautiful! As a South African, I definitely remember the beaches of Thailand and Mozambique being advertised by travel agents as dream destinations while I was growing up, but I can’t say I really knew anything about Kenya’s glorious coastline until I moved here. And what a pleasant surprise it was!
So much more than a safari destination, Kenya offers some of the longest and most beautiful – and easy to enjoy – coastline on the continent! One of the most frequently-asked questions I’ve been receiving from South African travellers recently is “Where should I go on the Kenya coast?” followed by “What’s the best beach destination in Kenya” or simply “Diani Beach, Lamu or Watamu?”. And having spent time in Lamu Island, Watamu and Diani Beach, I’m happy to be able to share my personal experiences and recommendations, hopefully inspiring you to grab your passport and head to Kenya for your next beach holiday. Here’s my guide on Diani vs Watamu vs Lamu.
Planning a trip on the Kenya Coast: Lamu vs Watamu vs Diani
Kenya Coast: What to expect
Kenya’s coastline stretches over 500km along the east coast of the continent, from Somalia in the north down to Tanzania in the south. While Lamu Island, Malindi, Watamu, Kilifi Creek, Mombasa and Diani Beach are all popular coastal holiday destinations, I am going to be focussing on Lamu Island (which is in the north), Watamu (which is kind of in the middle) and Diani Beach (which is in the south) as I have personally spent time in each destination. While they’re all set along the same stretch of coast, each destination is vastly different, with a completely unique history, heritage and culture.
FAQ: Can I visit the Maasai Mara and the Kenya Coast on a budget/on a short trip to Kenya?
If you’re visiting Kenya for the first time, you probably want to make the most of your trip by visiting several highlights while you’re here. On a budget, or if you’re planning a shorter trip, this would unfortunately be quite tight, as the coast and the Maasai Mara are very far apart (click here for reference) and flights between the destinations are expensive. A road transfer from the coast to the Mara is pretty much out of the question, unless you are willing to set aside 24 hours and have some anxiety meds on hand. You will just have to come back!
FAQ: Can I drive between Lamu, Watamu and Diani for a day-trip?
Lamu is an island, so international visitors would typically not drive from the island to any destination. There are however, flights available between Lamu and Malindi, and Lamu and Mombasa. I’ve detailed how to get from Malindi to Watamu and Mombasa to Diani further down in this post. Diani and Watamu are about 170km apart, but the drive typically takes 4-6 hours and can include a ferry if you drive via Mombasa. So the short answer is unfortunately no to day-trips.
What to expect: Weather
The weather in Kenya is pretty mild all year round and I’ve had gorgeous mid-winter beach breaks in June and July. The hottest months are February and March and the coolest months are July and August, but even so, the temperature really only fluctuates by a couple of degrees. January and February are hot and dry and July to October are cool and dry. In November and December the country experiences “short rains” and from April to June “long rains”. The sun rises at 6:30am and sets 6:30pm 365 days a year (give or take a couple of minutes based on the season), giving you 12 hours of sunlight all year round. The water is always warm and the air is always humid. If you typically find it difficult to sleep in the heat, make sure to book accommodation with A/C, especially if you’re travelling December through April.
What to expect: Culture
What to expect: Culture on Lamu Island
Picture Swahili culture, Moroccan architecture, the pink bougainvillea of Santorini and the warm waters of the Indian ocean, dropped just off the coast of Kenya. Lamu island, which was granted World Heritage status in 2001, is one of the oldest and best-preserved examples of Swahili architecture in Africa, with maze-like alleys and hidden interior courtyards behind tall coral stone walls that diffuse the sun to reflect a warm, coral glow throughout the town. It’s important to respect local culture by covering your knees and shoulders while walking around Shela town and Lamu.
What to expect: Culture in Watamu
Sometimes called “the Little Italy of Africa”, Watamu is known for its strong Italian ties ranging from restaurants to language – most Kenyan locals speak fluent Italian! Italians have been settling in Watamu since the end of WWII, with a huge influx of Italian immigrants during the construction of the Broglio Space Centre about 30kms off the coast of Malindi in the 1960’s. The destination has been a hotspot for Italian tourists ever since. It’s even been said that you can find some of the best Italian food in Africa in this little beachy town in Kenya.
What to expect: Culture in Diani Beach
Diani’s tourism industry is probably the strongest of any coastal town, making it feel slightly less “authentic” on the one hand, but very easy for visitors to navigate on the other hand. Swahili culture is a big part of daily life in Diani, and you’ll see traditional dhows dotting the horizon as local fishermen head out to sea at sunrise. It’s acceptable to dress in your swimsuit and summer clothing in Diani, so feel free to bring your summer wardrobe.
What to expect: Activities
Snorkelling, scuba diving, kite surfing and deep sea fishing are all hugely popular in Watamu and Diani, so if you’re an activity junkie on holiday, these destinations are for you. Even if you’ve never done any of them, you can start from scratch with lessons from professionals while you’re on holiday. Lamu is much more of a culture trip, with a far more laid-back energy and not as many organised activities. Lamu does offer day-trips out to Manda Toto island, and daily sunset dhow safaris that are breathtakingly beautiful, but time on this part of the coast is best spent strolling the beach, enjoying your incredible accommodation, eating as much incredible Swahili food as you can and exploring Shela village and Lamu Old Town.
How to get there
Driving from Nairobi to the coast
Driving from Nairobi to Watamu or Diani is possible, although it’s not my favourite way to get there. The drive from Nairobi to the coast along Mombasa Road can be quite hairy, with hundreds of trucks trying to overtake each other on a single lane road. The distance from Nairobi to Diani or Watamu is less than 600km, but the drive take an average of 9 – 10 hours, due to traffic and the quality of the roads. If you do decide to drive to Diani or Watamu, I recommend stopping at Tsavo West National Park for a couple of nights to break up the trip. We stayed at Severin Safari Camp on our trip down and I can highly recommend it.
Read more about Nairobi with my comprehensive Nairobi Travel Guide
Flying from Nairobi to the coast
Flying to the coast is much easier and is my preferred way to travel. Affordable flights depart from both Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Wilson Domestic Airport regularly. Once you get to the coast, it’s easy and affordable to get around using taxi cabs and tuk-tuks.
Flying from South Africa via Nairobi to Lamu
To get to Lamu Island from South Africa, you would fly Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. You can either connect to Manda Airport (Lamu) at JKIA, or spend a night or two exploring Nairobi, and depart to Manda Airport from the small domestic airport, Nairobi Wilson. Flights to Manda Airport depart several times a day from Nairobi Wilson and are pretty affordable, depending on when you’re travelling and how far in advance you book. Most accommodation in Lamu offers free boat transfers from the Manda Airport to Shela, which you should arrange ahead of your arrival.
Flying from South Africa via Nairobi to Watamu
Travelling from South Africa, you can either stay over at an airport hotel and fly Jambojet from JKIA to Malindi or spend the night in Nairobi (I recommend the Westlands/Kilimani area) and fly Skywards Express or Fly540 from Wilson, the small domestic airport in Nairobi to Malindi. From Malindi you can transfer by car to Watamu. The last time I travelled to Watamu in 2021, the taxi cost about R500 one way. Your accommodation can arrange the transfer for you, and typically you’ll pay the driver directly.
Flying from South Africa via Nairobi to Diani
The best way to get to Diani Beach from South Africa is to fly direct to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International airport and connect to Diani’s Ukunda airstrip on board domestic airline Jambojet. You could also fly to Mombasa’s Moi International Airport and take a taxi to Diani Beach, which could take anywhere from 2 – 4 hours depending on the roads and typically costs around R500-R600 one-way, but this is not my recommended route. If you’re planning on spending a night or two in Nairobi on the way, you can fly to Ukunda airstrip from Wilson Domestic Airport. Flights on board domestic airlines depart frequently and are relatively affordable (around R1500 return.
Which part of the Kenya Coast is best: Lamu, Watamu or Diani?
Which part of the Kenya Coast you choose to travel to will depend on what kind of experience you are interested in. From my experience, Watamu, Diani and Lamu each have their own charm and beauty, and are right for different experiences.
Final thoughts: Lamu
For some of the most beautiful coast and bucket-list beautiful architecture, Lamu is a must. I’ve been to many places in this world and Lamu, particularly Shela Village, remains in my top 5 favourite destinations of all time. It’s a place unlike any other, with a pace that slows down your heartbeat. There are only 3 cars on Lamu Island and they can’t drive very far, because there’s hardly enough room for 2 people to walk next to each other in some of the little alleyways. There are also the estimated 5000 donkeys providing transport for humans and goods, and you’ll often see them being dragged into the shallows for a cool down and a wash.
Where to stay: Read my full Lamu Travel Guide below
Read more about Lamu with my comprehensive Lamu Travel Guide
Final thoughts: Watamu
For interesting culture, beautiful accommodation options and really nice restaurants, Watamu is perfect. It also offers nice diversity, with the beach as well as Mida Creek to explore and enjoy. Watamu has a great food scene to choose from, with hotpots like Lichthouse and Papa Remo Beach attracting a diverse crowd of cool locals and visitors. Personally, it’s not my favourite beach destination, but that’s because I prefer wide open stretches of white sand and turquoise water. It is however a great place to get active, with a young crowd of international watersports enthusiasts in residence year-round.
Where to stay: I would personally recommend Ocean Sports Resort or Median Palms
Final thoughts: Diani Beach
My favourite destination for the beaches alone, Diani offers a near-endless stretch of white sand and bluer-than-blue water, sprinkled with just enough restaurants and beach bars to keep boredom at bay. Diani is super easy to get to, with the Ukunda airstrip located slap-bang in the middle of the “strip” aka Diani Beach Road, which stretches from Tiwi in the north to Chale Island in the south. The water here is picture-perfect and accommodation options range from basic but nice beachside rooms to luxurious holiday homes great for groups or families to luxurious resort for honeymooners. There are two major supermarkets, a very good hospital and loads of transport options so you can easily get around without a car.
Where to stay: I would recommend Kenyaways on a tighter budget, The Cove for a bigger group of friends or Maisha Marefu for a smaller group of friends or family
I hope that answers all your questions about the Kenya Coast! If you have any others, feel free to comment or email me via my contact page. You can follow my adventures in Kenya and beyond on Instagram, where I love to keep in touch too!