I spent seven days in Nairobi.
I didn’t go to the Maasai Mara, or Mombasa, or Mount Kilimanjaro or any of the other places that tourists usually fly or drive to after passing briefly through Kenya’s capital city. I suppose living in Johannesburg, which tourists also tend to quickly pass through on their way to somewhere else, has given me an appreciation for African cities. I made Nairobi my sole destination and spent a full week getting to know it.
The Nairobi skyline at dusk, viewed from the top of the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) downtown.
I booked a flight on frequent flier miles and a cheap apartment on Airbnb. Other than that I did zero preparation before my trip, and relied solely on recommendations from my friends once I arrived in Nairobi. My good friend Michelle lives there, along with some colleagues and Instagram buddies. They all made suggestions and took me to some of their favorite places. The result was an extremely enjoyable week.
Here are ten cool things that I did in Nairobi, virtually none of which I would have done without the recommendations of my local friends. (Note that I’m going to write a separate post about Karen — a famous Nairobi suburb filled with tourist attractions — because I have too much to say about Karen to include here.)
1) The Maasai Market
In many ways this is an average souvenir market. But the Maasai Market’s roving nature makes it unique. The vendors are generally always the same, but the market sets up in a different place each day of the week. Despite the name, the market offers souvenirs from all over Kenya and not just from Maasai traders.
Maasai tartan blankets and other Kenyan fabrics for sale at the Maasai Market.
I visited the Maasai Market on a Wednesday when it was set up outside a mall called Capital Centre. I’ve visited lots of souvenir markets before but I really enjoyed this one — there was huge diversity of items, with lots of good quality workmanship hiding among the piles of “africrap”. I bought a few articles of clothing and some beautiful Maasai jewelry.
A Maasai jewelry vendor who sold me a lovely necklace and bracelet.
Here’s a post listing the daily locations of the Maasai Market, as well as some tips on bargaining in Kenya. I wish I’d read this before I went — I suck at bargaining.
Thanks to Michelle’s husband Conrad for taking me to the Maasai Market.
2) Amani ya Juu
I loved Amani Ya Juu so much, I went twice. Amani ya Juu, which means “Peace from above”, was founded in 1996 by a group of refugee women selling placemats. Two decades later, Amani ya Juu produces and sells a large range of fair trade home decor products, clothes, and accessories. There is a great café on the property and customers are welcome to tour the factory facilities. (You just have to ask.)
Lunch. Amani ya Juu is known for its coffee and salads.
I’m not usually an enthusiastic shopper but I go crazy at places like this. I bought myself half a new wardrobe at Amani ya Juu. The clothes aren’t cheap by local standards, but a fraction of what you’d pay for beautiful hand-made clothes in America or Europe.
The children’s room at Amani ya Juu.
Thanks to Eric, my Kenyan colleague from the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatirc AIDS Foundation, for introducing me to Amani ya Juu.
3) Guided Nairobi City Tours
I love doing walking tours wherever I go. We spent Friday afternoon with Augustine from Guided Nairobi City Tours and it was a great introduction to downtown Nairobi.
A World War II memorial in downtown Nairobi.
Augustine is a Nairobi local with a passion for history. He walked us up and down Nairobi’s hectic streets, supplying interesting anecdotes about Nairobi’s architecture and colonial history. The highlight for me was the Nairobi City Market, a huge Art-Deco-era building that serves as a butchery, souvenir market, and flower market.
The fishery/butchery in Nairobi City Market. The guys on the right are looking at a cell phone picture that they just took of me. Haha.
The souvenir market inside Nairobi City Market. How amazing is the ceiling?
The Guided Nairobi City Tour costs KES1500, or about $15. Thanks to Michelle and Conrad for this idea.
4) Uhuru Park
We visited Uhuru Park, a downtown park similar to Joburg’s Zoo Lake, during our walking tour. I enjoyed this park mainly for the people-watching — this is the main place downtown where people go to hang out and be with their families. We enjoyed ice cream cones for a dollar and had our portrait taken by a local photographer.
John, a portrait photographer in Uhuru Park, holds the photo he just took of Michelle, Conrad, Augustine, and me. John and his colleagues use an instant printer set up under an umbrella in the park, and charge KES100 ($1) per print.
5) Kenyatta International Convention Centre
The KICC, a 28-storey building in downtown Nairobi, is the city’s most popular spot for skyline photography.
The KICC looks kind of like a small Ponte City.
It costs KES4000 ($4) to go to the top of the KICC but — frustratingly — that amount only allows you to stay until 6:00 p.m., just before the sun goes down. If you want to stay for sunset you must purchase a far more expensive group photography permit for KES7000 ($70). My friends and I sprung for this permit; it was painful but worth it.
I met a fun group of girls at the top of KICC. We had a nice photography session.
I was fascinated by this crazy stretch of street, a parking area for matatus (Kenyan minibuses).
Thanks to my friend Samir (@samdave69) for organizing our visit to KICC.
6) Diamond Plaza
Diamond Plaza is a large, indoor-outdoor mall, similar to Joburg’s Oriental Plaza, with a crazy food court packed with Kenyan-Indian deliciousness. This is the place to go for cheap but tasty chicken tikka, fatty beef skewers, exotic juices, and spicy paneer shawarmas. I was in heaven.
A food vendor at Diamond Plaza.
The moment we sat down, we were literally swarmed with waiters from the different food stalls thrusting their menus forward so we would order from them. Unfortunately I didn’t get my camera out fast enough to capture the height of the madness; at this point the crowd had diminished to just two or three vendors. Conrad (left) was as baffled as I was but luckily Samir (center) knew what to do.
Thanks to Samir for taking us to Diamond Plaza.
7) Uhuru Gardens
Uhuru Park and Uhuru Gardens are two different places. Conrad and I discovered this by accident, when we asked a taxi driver to take us to Uhuru Gardens, which is actually Uhuru Park, and we wound up at Uhuru Gardens and couldn’t figure out where we were. Confusing, I know, especially because Uhuru Gardens is not the best description for this place — there isn’t much of a garden there, at least not anymore.
Uhuru Gardens does, however, have a very interesting memorial commemorating the 20th anniversary of Kenya’s independence, and that is why I’m including it in this post. The memorial is worth a look, even if the rest of the gardens are not.
The impressive monument at Uhuru Gardens.
I was particularly fascinated by this flag-raising statue, which resembles the Iwo Jima memorial in Washington D.C.
So just remember: Uhuru Park is in the CBD (central business district) and Uhuru Gardens is outside the CBD on Langata Road. Uhuru Park is free and Uhuru Gardens costs KES200 ($2).
8) Best Western Rooftop
I had my first dinner in Nairobi on the rooftop of the Best Western Hotel in Hurlingham. The Lebanese food was delicious, the ambiance is great, and the sunset views are stunning. Bring a sweater because it can get cold after dark.
Sunset on the roof of the Best Western.
Great dinner idea from Michelle.
9) Nyama Choma
Nyama choma is the Kenyan version of South African shisa nyama — barbecued meat. (Read about shisa nyama in my recent post about South African food.) A South African friend (who shall remain nameless) told me that nyama choma is even BETTER than shisa nyama, so I was eager to try it. I wasn’t disappointed.
A messy table of nyama choma — roasted goat meat, ugali (cornmeal porridge — the Kenyan version of pap), sukuma wiki (kale), and a delicious tomato and cilantro relish that tastes much like pico de gallo. We also had chicken.
Nyama choma is available all over town but we went to a place called the Road House Grill in Kileleshwa, which was near to where I stayed. Was it better than shisa nyama? I’ll let you decide. But was it was definitely delicious.
Thanks to Michelle and her colleagues from Kiva for organizing this meal.
This is a Nairobi pastime that I discovered on my own. I loved standing in the street, or watching out the window of a car, as the matatus sped past. Matatus are the Kenyan version of minibus taxis, on steroids. Many of the buses are painted with crazy colors and designs with themes ranging from Kenyan betting sites, to blockbuster films, to international rap stars, to American NFL teams.
I posted this picture on Instagram and learned that this matatu was painted by a famous Swiss graffiti artist named Boogie.
An Avengers matatu, shot quickly from a speeding car.
I only caught half of this one.
The best way to photograph matatus is to find a spot on a busy road, get your camera ready, and just wait. You’ll see at least five great ones within 60 seconds.
Nairobi Travel Quick Tips
A few travel tips I picked up during my brief time in Nairobi:
1) Sim cards are easy to buy at the airport and data is reliable and cheap. Be sure to buy a local sim and a few gigs of data when you arrive so you have immediate access to google maps, Uber, and other indispensable online services. My Airbnb was hard to find and I never would have gotten there without a functioning phone.
2) Traffic is terrible in Nairobi. Don’t ever plan to get anywhere in a hurry. If you need to travel three kilometers or less at rush hour, you’ll be better off walking than driving.
3) I walked quite a bit in Nairobi, especially in the Kileleshwa and Kilimani areas, and never felt unsafe. Use common sense and wear comfortable shoes that you don’t mind getting dusty.
4) Buy fruit from street vendors — it’s delicious.
5) Beware of taking photos in the Nairobi CBD. I didn’t have any problems but that’s only because I kept my camera hidden and only took photos when Augustine, our guide, said it was okay. I’ve heard some horror stories and after my near-arrest in Dubai, I wasn’t taking any chances.
6) Nairobi gets cold at night. Bring a hoodie, scarf, and long pants for windy evenings.
Thanks again to all the friends who made my stay in Nairobi awesome.
I grinned about your awesome Best Western dinner/ view. When driving around Europe with friends, we stayed in this amazing Best Western in Sion, Switzerland. It had an incredible view of an old castle on a hill, marble floors, etc. Not what this American expected from a Best Western.
Haha. Yeah this Best Western is really swank! Not like the ones we grew up with.
I was taking photos on the streets near parliament buildings before one of the army guys grabbed my camera and demanded I delete the photos I took – a little scary. Was also shocked at the high levels of security in most places, but it’s a great city (once you get over and accept the crazy traffic)
Yeah, the metal detectors at the malls are also a little unnerving. But my friend says things have actually settled down quite a bit lately.
Great post, and so true about only ever passing through instead of visiting Nairobi for real. I adore the picture of the women with the city as backdrop!
Thanks, that was my favorite too 🙂
Great post. Always good to discover a city away from the usual tourist spots.
Ah, I wish I’d asked you to buy me a few kikois.
I was in Nairobi 20 years ago and I found it MAD, even then…
This however sounds amazing.
Oh! I’ll let you know if I get to go again 🙂
well I hope you do!