The Nairobi Rundown
The diverse and energetic capital of Kenya is a sundry, pluralist standout on the African continent. Nairobi is a metropolis of 3 million plus people that serves as the de facto political, financial, social and cultural nexus of East Africa. A vital broker on the global stage, the vast region includes the Horn of Africa states, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, the Seychelles, Madagascar and more. More than Addis Ababa, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, Maputo, or, indeed, the second city of Kenya, Mombasa, Nairobi is the pulse point of it all.
Yet “The Green City in the Sun”, like so many capitals in Sub-Saharan Africa, is under pressure. Mass rural flight and subsequent lawless urban expansion has led to socio-economic imbalance, the dilation of motley, illicit slums and civil unrest. As a result, the pace of change in Nairobi can feel hyperactive, with painful, often irreparable results.
What a contrast from the time, not so long ago, when Nairobi was a swamp cum railway supply post between Kampala and Mombasa. In the Interwar years, the city’s pheonix-like surge was part Out of Africa idyll - the Kenya memoir by Karen von Blixen-Finecke, not the film adaptation that won the Best Picture Academy Award in 1986 - and part arena of violent ethnic strife. Both aspects permeate the capital even today, from leafy, tony suburbs to rusty, feculent shanty alleyways.
Promise, however, is on the horizon, in the form of a new Bill of Rights and a comprehensive long-term plan - Vision 2030 - that seeks to transform Kenya into a middle-income country over the next two decades. As the foremost gateway to safari hinterlands, the Great Rift Valley, Maasai Mara National Reserve et al. Nairobi is sublime. Do make time, however, for the soul of East Africa’s urbane charms.
Nairobi’s Top 10
10. Parliament is the home of the National Assembly of Kenya.
5. Jamia Mosque is one of the most prominent religious landmarks in Kenya.
9. Village Market is a shopper’s paradise and full-scale cultural immersion in Nairobi.
4. National Archives of Kenya is run by the all-important Ministry of State for National Heritage and Culture.
8. Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage is a paramount pachyderm haven.
3. Nairobi National Park was Kenya’s inaugural national park back in 1946. The wildlife sanctuary lets visitors observe the likes of giraffe, rhinos and wildebeest with the city skyline in the background.
7. Ol Donyo Sabuk National Park, in central Kenya, is a popular day trip from the capital.
2. Ramona Rahimtulla Museum of Modern Art is a small but vital gallery in Upper Hill, Nairobi.
6. Karen Blixen House and Museum is a must-see pilgrimage point for Out of Africa fans.
1. National Museum of Kenya is the best and most important museum in Nairobi, with a comprehensive collection of natural and cultural artefacts.
- Jamia Mosque – The largest mosque in the country that contains three silver domes.
- Nairobi City Hall – An old colonial-style building that is now a mashup of architectural styles.
- Railway Museum – Housed in the old railway building, it contains stock and locomotives tracing the history of the railway in Kenya.
- Parliament House – An iconic building due to the English-style clock tower, it was built in the 1950s.
- McMillan Memorial Library – The oldest library in Nairobi, this building was designed using traditional Nairobi blue stone.
Nairobi Art & Culture
- Gallery Watatu – Private gallery that contains more than 160 pieces of Afro-nomad and African artwork.
- Bomas of Kenya – Tourist village that displays several villages of Kenyan tribes.
- Karen Blixen Museum – Museum located in the home of Karen Blixen, author of the book Out of Africa.
- Nairobi Natural History Museum – This museum was founded in 1911 by those interested in the nature of the surrounding area.
- Gallery of Kenyan Tribes – Artwork that features many Kenyan tribes in their traditional clothing.
- Sarit Centre – The largest and busiest shopping centre in Kenya that is known as a city within a city.
- Prestige Plaza – A large shopping mall that contains two cinemas and three banks, as well as shops, restaurants and boutiques.
- Village Market – Contains more than 150 stores located in the Gigiri area of Nairobi.
- Spinners Web – Store that contains handicrafts from self-help groups and workshops around the country.
- Maasai Market – Held every Tuesday near Slip Road, it is a great spot for tourist shopping.
Gay & Lesbian Nairobi
- Gipsy Bar – Gay bar that frequently has a DJ or live band.
- Pavement – Major club that has good food, music and theme nights.
- Olives – The first completely gay bar in Nairobi, opened in 2007.
- Buru Buru clubs – Not strictly gay, but frequently by many gay patrons.
- Steps – Pub that frequently has gay patrons out to enjoy a drink.
- Nairobi National Park – The first national park in Kenya and the country’s most successful rhinoceros sanctuary.
- Langata Giraffe Centre – Sanctuary for Rothschilds giraffe run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife.
- American Embassy Memorial Garden – At the former site of the American Embassy located between Haile Selassie and Moi avenues.
- Snake Park –A recreated snake park with a guided nature trail.
- Nairobi Sailing & Sub Aqua club – Sailing club that offers temporary daily memberships.
- Catch a game at the Moi International Sports Center.
- Watch a footy match at the Coca-Cola Stadium or find out what other events are on.
- Play or watch rugby or cricket at the Nairobi Gymkhana.
- Enjoy a round of golf at the oldest golf course in Nairobi, the Royal Nairobi Golf Club.
- Spend a day at the races watching thoroughbred horse racing at Ngong Racecourse.
Nairobi has well over 3 million people, with countless precincts and suburbs spread out over a large area. Many slums of significant breadth jockey for position within relative sight of the Central Business District and cosmopolitan, multi-cultural heart of the city.
For visitors, the main divisions of importance are Central, Dagoretti, Embakasi, Kasarani, Kibera, Makadara, Pumwani and Westlands.
As the financial capital of East Africa, the city has affluent suburbs in spades, most of which reside to the north and west of the CBD. A remnant, for the most part, of colonial times, the suburbs include Karen, Langata, Lavington, Gigiri, Muthaiga, Spring Valley, Loresho, Kilimani, Kileleshwa, Hurlingham, Runda, Kitisuru, Nyari, Kyuna, Lower Kabete, Westlands and Highridge.
Neighbourhoods in the lower-middle and upper-middle strata include Avenue Park, Fedha, Pipeline, Donholm, Greenfields, Nyayo, Taasia, Baraka, Nairobi West, Madaraka, Siwaka, South B, South C, Mugoya, Riverbank, Hazina, Buru Buru, Uhuru, Akiba, Kimathi, Pioneer, and Koma Rock.
Umoja, Kariokor, Dandora, Kariobangi, Embakasi and Huruma are poorer areas east of Central. In terms of slums, Kibera is one of the most destitute and poor in all of Africa. Home to close to 200,000 people, the chockablock, haphazard settlement is only 5 km from the CBD. Despite a lack of basic infrastructure, government oversight and formal social services, Kibera, fetid, squalid and dangerous as it is, hums with the quotidian pace of city life and has a considerable informal economy. Such is the story of much of urban Sub-Saharan Africa.
Nairobi Eat & Drink
Nairobi restaurants reflect all the inherent highs and lows, multi-culturalism and contradictions of the dynamic capital. From corner cafés to upscale haute-cuisine kitchens, expat bars to marketplace stalls, the food scene in the city has it all.
Pasara Café (Standard Street, City Centre, Lonhro Building) is equally comfortable as a breakfast joint, sandwich shop and bar.
Chic Joint (Utalii Street, City Centre, Utalii House) is a swanky bar and grill with a lively atmosphere at night.
Taverna (Woodvale Grove, Westlands) has a debonair ambiance, with quality pasta and seafood dishes to match.
Nyama Choma Place (Milimani Road) is a butcher that cooks custom cuts of goat, mutton et al over open flame in true nyama choma style.
China Jiangsu Restaurant (Westlands Road, Westlands) is the most soigné Chinese restaurant in Nairobi.
Alan Bobbé's Bistro (Koinange Street, City Centre, Cianda House) is a Gallic culinary icon that has fed Nairobi’s upper crust since 1962.
Café 21 (Kenyatta Avenue, City Centre, I&M Bank Tower) is a popular snack stop and lunchtime buffet.
Blue Nile (Argwings Kodhek Road, Hurlingham) serves ethereal Ethiopian cuisine.
Supreme Restaurant (River Road, City Centre) is exactly that, if you like curry that is.
Carnivore (Langata Road, near Wilson Airport) is the most famous game restaurant in the world and a holy pilgrimage for meat lovers.
As a foremost cultural epicentre in Kenya and East Africa, Nairobi has a busy yearly calendar of events.
Kijani Kenya Music Festival is a premier international music and dance festival in the city that raises money for HIV/AIDS, environmental conservation and music education every March.
Kenya Fashion Week cements Nairobi’s status as a paragon cosmopolitan capital in Africa every June.
Kenya Music Festival lures some of the top talent on the continent to Nairobi for ten days of concerts in August.
Kenya International Film Festival, held in October, is one of the most important events for cinephiles in Africa.
Craft of Africa features a bevy local artists and artisans and is a good reason to visit the city in the rainy month of November.
Jamhuri Day, on December 12, is the national day of Kenya.
Kenyatta Conference Centre is a frequent events host that also affords superb views of the metro cityscape.
GoDown Arts Centre is a contemporary gallery with a constant rotation of exhibits, shows and other events.
When To Go
Nairobi has two moderate rainy seasons which, while not quite tropical monsoon-like, may not bode well for avid pedestrians in the city. With that, avoid the months of April, May and November if you disdain rain. December can be rather precipitation-prone as well. Overall, the four months receive more than half of Nairobi’s 1,000 mm plus annual average rainfall.
The city’s subtropical highland climate is the result of two factors: proximity to the equator and a relatively high position above sea level. Both cancel each other out in a way, with temperatures a very moderate and steady 50°F (10°C) to 78°F (25.5°C) for the year.
What To Miss
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office advises against all non-essential travel to townships and low-income areas of Nairobi where incessant crime, violent and otherwise, threatens the safety of foreign visitors in particular. If you want to visit the slums, for whatever reason, it is best to do so with a local guide.
Political demonstrations should be avoided without exception and every precaution taken wherever crowds gather in the Kenyan capital. Snatch and grab operators lurk in obvious places in Nairobi, such as markets, bus stations, train platforms, busy intersections and the like. Be vigilant, make sure valuables are secure and avoid overt displays of wealth. Any suspicious pleas for attention from strangers should be met with firm, dismissive body language.
Certain parts of Nairobi change dramatically after dark, particularly north and east of River Road. It is wise to travel with others at all times, especially on foot, and when in taxis, keep the windows up in dodgy areas.
Local transport and safari scams menace visitors to Nairobi as well. As hospitable and warm as the vast majority of locals can be, do not trust too easily when financial transactions take place. Negotiate fares and prices in advance as much as possible and be mindful of amateur national park tour operators who eschew the rules and promise the moon. Entrepreneurial city guides abound and offer a risk-reward proposition that visitors who want to see Nairobi, warts and all, must weigh and consider on the fly.
Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is the foremost hub in East and Central Africa, let alone Kenya, and welcomes close to 5 million passengers a year, with plans to upgrade capacity to 9 million. The airport is 15 km from the Central Business District and services the continent at large, in addition to destinations as far-flung as London-Heathrow, Amsterdam, Brussels, Dubai, Istanbul, Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Rome-Fiumicino and Zurich.
Comfortable first class sleepers make rail transport a decent option from the likes of Mombasa and Kisumu. The national bus network offers reliable service throughout the country as well.
For travel within Nairobi proper, affordable options range from omnipresent minibus fleets (matatus) to taxis. Neither is especially desirable for long-distance trips to the suburbs and outskirts, however. If you can afford to hire a private car and driver, do so.
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