As the sun rises each morning in equatorial East Africa, Nairobi, Kenya, is already bustling with traffic, streams of pedestrians and people pushing carts. In Nairobi's markets, the floors are washed, and fresh produce is artfully arranged; the tea sellers unlock their stalls and light their fires; and merchants raise the iron screens from their store windows. Flowers are everywhere, and it is particularly attractive on some of the city's main avenues and in Uhuru Park around December when the jacaranda trees are in bloom.
Travelers will find that Nairobi is more cosmopolitan and less stressful than many capital cities in Africa. The city center has a lively and modern Central Business District (CBD), some fine colonial buildings, and spacious squares and leafy well-tended parks that are popular with office workers at lunchtime. The attractive and peaceful suburbs to the west, which peter out to the picturesque Ngong Hills overlooking the Rift Valley, are where most of the sights and better accommodations are located.
But you should still be prepared for frustration and inconvenience. Nairobi is a place of contrasts, combining all the trappings of the developed world (high-rise office blocks and upscale shopping malls) with the Third World, evident in the frantic matatu and bus stands, heaving markets, and the slums and townships that ring the city.
Most travelers to Kenya spend a couple of nights in Nairobi before or after a safari. This is time enough to do some curio shopping or perhaps visit the National Museum or the Karen Blixen Museum. Other Nairobi attractions include the Giraffe Centre, where you can feed a giraffe, and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant orphanage, where each morning visitors can watch the baby elephants at bath time.
Lying on the outskirts of the city, Nairobi National Park is one of the easiest to visit in the country. Combined with visits to the Animal Orphanage and Safari Walk at the entrance, a half-day visit is a good introduction to the wildlife you are likely to encounter on a longer safari in the rest of the country. Nairobi also boasts the best restaurants and nightlife in Kenya; the most famous is Carnivore, which is on most travelers' itineraries.
Because of Nairobi's high unemployment rate and associated poverty, travelers should always be alert to the possibility of robbery. However, there have been successful efforts to improve Nairobi's appearance and security, and petty crime and muggings have been considerably reduced in the city center. Several police information centers and CCTV have been installed in downtown Nairobi, making the police more accessible to the city's residents. During the day and early evening, the upper part of the city center, west of Moi Avenue, is considered generally safe. But in the east of the center, around the crowded markets and bus stands, you still have to be extremely alert.
Sights—Rhinos, hippos, lions and giraffes at Nairobi National Park; baby elephants and rhinos at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust; a quiet moment of reflection at the August 7th Memorial Park.
Museums—Leakey family discoveries at the Nairobi National Museum, as well as Kenyan artifacts and art; nostalgic displays and locomotives at the Nairobi Railway Museum; the restored coffee estate and home of author Karen Blixen; political and tribal art at the National Archives.
Memorable Meals—Nyama choma at Carnivore; superb seafood at Tamarind; spicy Indian cuisine at Haandi; flavorful Eritrean food at The Smart Village.
Especially for Kids—The snake park at the Nairobi National Museum; feeding a giraffe at the Nairobi Giraffe Centre; petting a cheetah at the Nairobi Safari Walk and Animal Orphanage; ice skating at Panari Hotel; bowling at Superbowl.
In one of the most diverse and beautiful countries in Africa, Nairobi sits just 90 mi south of the equator, at approximately 5,500 ft above sea level. The city center is densely packed, a roughly rectangular area 12 blocks long and six blocks wide. Boundaries are University Way on the north end, Haile Selassie Avenue on the south, Uhuru Highway to the west and Moi Avenue to the east.
Upscale, fast-growing Westlands, a neighborhood northwest of the city center, is teeming with hotels, shopping malls and restaurants. Karen and Langata in the south and Gigiri in the north are well-kept areas with enough shops and attractions to make them noteworthy. Ngong Road to the south of the city has also followed this trend; shopping and other recreational activities are now thriving there. To the east is a vast industrial area that stretches almost to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Nairobi's traffic is at times severely congested and the pollution palpable, but it is fairly easy to get oriented.
The Maasai called the swampy plain along the river enkare nyarobi (the place of cool waters), as it was originally a watering place for the Maasai and their cattle. It wasn't until the Mombasa-Uganda railway arrived in May 1899 that modern-day Nairobi was born. By 1907, it became large enough to take over from Mombasa as the capital of the British colony. The climate was considered by the British officials to be better than at the coast.
By the 1920s, the city had prospered as European immigrants farmed the surrounding lands. Nairobi also became home to communities of Indians, Arabs and Somalis, who came to trade. By the time of its independence from British rule in 1963, Nairobi was a glorious city, noted for well-kept streets, stunning gardens and a cosmopolitan population.
After independence, rapid urbanization followed, turning the city into one of Africa's largest commercial centers. Since the early 1980s, the city has been dealing with an increasing population, rising unemployment and student- and civil-society-led demonstrations, which were especially frequent in the 1990s. Keeping up the maintenance of basic infrastructures has also been a struggle.
However, after the election of the country's third president, Mwai Kibaki, in December 2002, things appeared to steadily improve. In December 2005, Kenyans voted for sweeping constitutional changes in a first-ever national referendum. When few changes were brought into effect, discontent mounted in the build-up to the 2007 general elections. Hailed as the most open and closely contested election in Kenya's history, more than 70% of the country's 14.3 million registered voters turned out to cast their votes. As the votes were counted, however, accusations of electoral fraud quickly surfaced as President Kibaki came from behind to defeat opposition leader Raila Odinga, of the Orange Democratic Movement, by a slim margin.
Initial protests escalated into unprecedented violence and destruction, leading to more than 1,000 deaths and the internal displacement of more than 350,000 people. While Nairobi was at the center of the violence, parts of Mombasa as well as towns in the Rift Valley, including Naivasha and Nakuru, were also affected. Following lengthy peace talks chaired by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, a power sharing agreement was eventually signed between Kibaki and Odinga on 28 February 2008.
In 2010, Kenyans again voted for changes to the constitution in a referendum, which also saw a high voter turnout of more than 70%, and the process passed peacefully. To avoid a repeat of the confusing 2007 election, under the new terms, a presidential candidate now must get a 50% plus one vote majority in the National Assembly, and at least 25% of the vote in the constituencies.
In March 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta won the presidential election, narrowly avoiding a runoff election against Prime Minister Odinga. The 86% voter turnout was the highest ever recorded in Kenya.
These days, local citizens continue to address some of Nairobi's problems, and there are positive signs that the current government is taking on the issues of burgeoning slums, corruption and crime. Recent measures have been taken to cut down on bribery by police and civil servants, to crack down on traffic offenses, to prevent overcrowding in vehicles, and to arrest anyone carrying a firearm.
Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is unique in that it borders the Nairobi National Park. Thus, at certain times of year, you can look out while your plane taxis into Nairobi and see giraffes and impala grazing.
Nairobi's famous Norfolk Hotel opened on Christmas Day 1904, and is older than both the Savoy and the Ritz hotels in London. It became a focal meeting place for Kenya's early colonial settlers and adventurers.
Kibera in Nairobi is one of the largest slums in sub-Saharan Africa and is home to an estimated 1 million people. Tour operators run informative half-day walking tours of Kibera and allow visitors to meet the residents; they may also visit an orphanage, school or market.
Diamond Plaza, near Westlands, is Kenya's "little Bombay," resplendent with an Indian shopping mall and all sorts of Indian restaurants.
"I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills …" is the opening line of Out of Africa, the memoirs of Karen Blixen (also known as Isak Dinesen) published in 1937. The movie was filmed in and around Nairobi in 1985. It stars Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, and it won seven Oscars.
In 1989, 12 tons of confiscated ivory were burned in Nairobi National Park. The fire was lit by then-President Moi and the event was a symbolic gesture to protest against the mass slaughter of elephants by poachers in Kenya. The mound of ash can still be seen in the park today.
Public minibuses, known as matatus, are one of Nairobi's public forms of transportation. With their custom paint jobs, decorated interiors and loud sound systems, matatus are Kenyan cultural icons.
To get a feel for Nairobi, first visit the City Market on Muindi Mbingu Street, which is a vibrant place. There are butchers, fresh-flower stalls, an array of colorful fruit and vegetables, and crafts and curios where you will be able to haggle with the traders. Interestingly, the market was originally built as an airport hangar. Curio markets are held in different places all over the city on designated days of the week.
Among Nairobi's other attractions are the superb National Museum (ethnographic, paleontological and ornithological displays) and the Nairobi Railway Museum.
For those who can't wait to see animals (or who are visiting just Nairobi), the nearby Nairobi National Park has lions, giraffes, impala and more. (Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to see animals.) At the edge of the park, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust houses elephant and rhino orphans and allows visitors to watch the baby animals being fed.
Alternatively, you can take a rather pricey taxi ride to the Giraffe Centre, where the Rothschild giraffe was saved from extinction, and where you can feed the animals. This excursion to Langata is often combined with a visit to the home of Karen Blixen (who wrote Out of Africa under the name Isak Dinesen). Blixen's farmhouse, which was presented to the Kenyan government by Denmark, is now a museum.
Local crafts to look for include wood carvings of people and animals by local Kamba craftsmen, Kisii soapstone carvings, sisal baskets wound by Kikuyu and Kamba women, beadwork made by the Maasai and other tribes, decorated gourds and musical instruments. Gemstones are another popular item to shop for: You'll find tanzanite (a blue stone from Tanzania), tsavorite (an emeraldlike stone) and rubies. Clothes—especially the colorful kangas, kikois and saris worn by women—are a good buy.
Prices in shops are set, whereas the prices in markets and at roadside stalls are always negotiable. Traders expect tourists to attempt some haggling, and if you take your time and are good-natured, some bargains can be found. If you're headed for less-developed countries, be aware that most of them ship their best crafts to Nairobi for sale and that you'll seldom see this level of quality again.
Do keep in mind that some taxi drivers and safari guides may encourage you to go to certain stores or may try to discourage you from going to those where they don't get a high commission. If your driver starts making alternate recommendations, just be persistent in telling him the name of the shop you want to visit
Eating out in Nairobi is never boring. The sheer number and variety of restaurants could keep you dining for many months without ever visiting the same spot twice. Although restaurants open and close regularly, you'll always find an astonishing variety of cuisines from around the globe.
Local specialties include samosas (deep-fried pastry filled with minced meat), mandazi (a semisweet flat bread similar to a doughnut), kienyenji or irio (maize and green vegetables mashed together), sukuma wiki (greens cooked with meat or meat broth) and ugali (cornmeal cooked into a thick porridge).
The fruit in Kenya is heavenly—the mangoes are superior to any grown in North or Central America, and the papayas (pawpaws), custard apples, passion fruit, green oranges, green bananas, small yellow bananas and pineapples are all delicious.
For many Kenyans, nyama choma (barbecued meat) is an epicurean delight. Usually, each diner chooses a cut of meat at the counter, and it is prepared to order. Some restaurants serve Kenya's coastal cuisine, in which meat, poultry, fish or vegetables are cooked in a curried coconut sauce.
Wines are mostly imported to Kenya from South Africa and Europe. Kenyan Tusker beer is worth trying and has won many awards at various beer festivals around the world.
Restaurants are most crowded 1-2 pm for lunch and 7-8:30 pm for dinner. With Nairobi's strict laws banning smoking in public places, all bars and restaurants now provide separate smoking areas.
It's customary to shake hands when meeting and saying goodbye to people. Upon meeting, always ask, "How are you?" In the African culture, it is important to show great respect for older people.
Kenyans appreciate it if you try to use even a few words of Kiswahili: jambo (pronounced JAM-bo) is "hello." Habari gani? (pronounced haBAH-ree GAH-nee) means "how are you?" Asante sana (pronounced ah-SAHN-tay SAH-nah) is "thank you."
Never photograph someone without asking first, and it's expected that (with strangers) you'll tip them in return, especially in the countryside. The Maasai in particular will not pose for photographs without payment.
Dos & Don'ts
Do remember that Kenya is not the same as all of Africa. Most Kenyans are patriotic and will not mind references to things generally Kenyan. They will, however, draw the line at generalizations equating a visit to other parts of the continent as the same in Kenya.
Do learn something about local politics. Kenyans love to talk about politics, and this will help break any ice.
Don't take photographs of any government building. The same goes for officials, whether they are civil servants in normal dress or anyone in uniform.
Do get to know your guide or driver if you are going on safari. They are excellent sources of information on the country's national parks and wildlife.
Don't dress sloppily or immodestly. Kenyans take great pride in their appearance and love to get dressed up for special occasions.
Do be flexible. Sometimes things simply won't run as smoothly as you had imagined, but don't get frustrated; just be patient.
Do greet others—both men and women, elders and youth—with a light handshake (not a firm handshake like in the Western world).
Don't ever eat with your left hand (unless you're using utensils). Traditional Kenyan food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand—the left hand is reserved for sanitary purposes.
What to Wear
Temperatures during the day vary from mild to hot (and humid). Light cotton clothes are ideal, but in case of rain showers or sudden drops in temperature, you'll want a light jacket or sweater. During the rainy seasons, showers come unexpectedly, and an umbrella or lightweight raincoat is vital.
Only businesspeople need to wear a light suit or formal shirt at the least. Restaurants prefer smart-casual attire, but no dining establishment is formal enough to require a jacket and tie. Try not to wear safari gear in town—it marks you as a gullible tourist.
Likewise, it's best to dress modestly. Kenyan men almost never wear shorts outside, but rather jeans or slacks. Women almost always wear dresses, long skirts or wrap-around kangas. Because of Nairobi's red mud and unmaintained sidewalk conditions, it's best to wear a sturdy pair of shoes rather than sandals.
Nairobi is at a fairly high altitude (5,500 ft above sea level), so use hats and sunscreen to avoid sun exposure
Passport/Visa Requirements: Most travelers to Kenya require a visa, including visitors from the U.S., Canada, European Union countries, Australia and New Zealand. A three-month entry stamp is issued on arrival. Kenyan authorities state that at least one blank passport page is required for entry.
Visas can be easily obtained upon arrival, although there is also the option of getting one in advance at a Kenyan embassy or high commission. Reconfirm travel document requirements with your carrier before departure.
Languages: English, Kiswahili. English is the predominant language of education and business.
Predominant Religions: Christian (Protestant, Roman Catholic), indigenous, Islamic minority.
Time Zone: 3 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+3 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 240 volts.
Telephone Codes: 254, country code; 020,city code
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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
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