It’s the spaghetti streets and highways that hit you first. Only born and bred Nairobians, not simply Kenyans, but Nairobians know where you’re going. Thank God for the Chap Chaps and Boda Bodas. Only they can navigate, as Kenyans lovingly call it, the organized mess.
But within this organized mess is organized peace. I’m talking about the green spaces of Nairobi, like Karura Forest, and of course, Nairobi National Park.
Where is Nairobi?
Nairobi is the capital and largest city of Kenya, located in the country’s south-central part, close to the eastern edge of the Great Rift Valley. It’s also the effective terminus of the Uganda Railway (also known as the “Lunatic Express”) that stretches to Mombasa.
How to get to Nairobi
The main primary airport in Nairobi is Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). It’s the largest and busiest airport in Kenya and serves as a major gateway to the rest of Kenya and East Africa. From here, you can get domestic flights to other destinations in Kenya and Africa.
You’ve also got three primary railway stations in Nairobi:
- Nairobi Central Railway Station: This historic station has been the traditional hub for long-distance passenger and freight rail services within Kenya, connecting Nairobi with other major towns and cities, including Mombasa, Kisumu, and Nanyuki.
- Syokimau Railway Station: Opened in 2012, Syokimau Station marked the beginning of the modernization of Kenya’s rail transport. It serves as a terminus for commuter services between it and the Nairobi Central Station, easing congestion heading towards the city.
- Nairobi Terminus (SGR): Located on the outskirts of Nairobi, near Syokimau, this is the main station for the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) services between Nairobi and Mombasa (high-speed rail).
Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Nairobi Terminus are very close to each other in case for any reason you need to pair a train trip with a flight. For example, we booked an extra night in Nairobi coming out of Tsavo National Park, thinking we would need it to realistically catch a domestic flight to Eldoret without worrying about things being on time. As it turns out, the train ran flawlessly on time and we didn’t realize the terminus was right next to the airport until our driver zoomed passed it en route to the hotel. Had we known this in advance, we probably would’ve just booked a flight that same day to Eldoret to get an extra day at the running camp in Iten. Oh, well. At least you know!
Best time of year to visit Nairobi
The good news is that most of the year is a pretty good time to visit Nairobi, at least as far as the weather is concerned. The dry seasons run from July to October and from January to February. During these months, the weather is generally sunny and dry, making it ideal for wildlife viewing in nearby national parks and reserves, as well as for exploring other outdoor attractions in Nairobi and throughout Kenya. July to October, for example, coincides with the Great Migration in the Maasai Mara, and is a common addition for anyone planning a trip to Nairobi. You’ve got cooler temperatures and minimal rainfall during these periods, meaning comfortable conditions for travelers.
Things to do in Nairobi
Nairobi is a city of nearly five million people. Suffice it to say, there’s plenty to do in the city. Most international visitors will stay and hang out around the Westlands neighborhood. Popular hangout spots include The Alchemist, an entertainment cultural venue that features an outdoor bar, food trucks offering a variety of cuisines, and a market space where local artisans and entrepreneurs sell their crafts and products. The venue also hosts a range of events, including live music performances, DJ sets, film screenings, and art exhibitions, making it a dynamic space for creative expression and cultural exchange. (Full disclosure: We didn’t get to take full advantage of the space, stopping by merely for a happy hour beer before heading to dinner.)
Another popular spot to end the night at is the Havana Club, also in the Westlands. Here you’ll find a mix of Kenyans and international travelers or residents sharing a late-night drink.
Karura Forest is the world’s largest gazetted urban park. We can thank the likes of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Wangari Maathai and her Green Belt Movement for protecting this land from development.
Now visitors, an overwhelming majority of whom are Kenyans, can enjoy the collective 50 kilometers of trails and historic natural sites, like Karura Waterfall and the Mau Mau caves where Kenyan rebels against colonial rule hid their men, weapons, and provisions. Grossly overgeneralizing, they were the ones who told the Brits to take their stupid fucking crown and shove it up their ass.
Nairobi National Park
The green continues on the southern-edge of the city at Nairobi National Park –– dubbed the world’s only wildlife capital thanks to famous shots of giraffes with sky rises in the background. Here you can find just about any animal you’d hope to spot on an African safari. Zebras, giraffes, rhinos, lions –– you name it. Of course, nothing is guaranteed. This is, after all, their territory.
The best way to see the park is to have a friend who lives in Nairobi with a park pass and is willing to take you out for a drive. In lieu of that, you’ll have to book with a company. We booked with Kenya Bush Expeditions. They’ll pick you up at your hotel bright and early (6 a.m. for us) along with other guests joining your drive. Our vehicle had six people plus our driver, Lawrence.
The vehicle itself was a little on the raggedy side. But it got the job done. On our roughly four-hour drive, we saw giraffes, zebras, ostriches, hippos, wildebeest, oryx, rhinos, and just as we were heading out, we spotted a lioness. Honestly, I was surprised by the density of animal sightings. I foolishly thought that, because a city is so nearby that you can easily see the skyline behind the animals, we wouldn’t see much. To the contrary, we saw quite a bit.
Sheldrick Trust Nairobi Elephant Nursery + Giraffe Centre
Almost every guide and tourist package for Nairobi National Park will tell you to pair a trip to the park with stops at the Sheldrick Trust elephant nursery and giraffe centre. At the elephant nursery, you listen to an hour-long presentation while the hosts tell you about the elephants, you watch them drink some milk, and eat before trotting back away from the guests. Then it’s another short drive to the Giraffe Centre where you walk up a platform that puts you at eye-level with the giraffes and you can feed them small pellets.
Now here’s what no tourist package or guidebook will tell you… Unless you are absolutely enthralled with these animals, you can skip these stops. It’s a long, tiring day to get up at the ass-crack of dawn, do the game drive, and then add two more stops. I was perfectly content with our game drive in Nairobi National Park and the knowledge our driver had of the animals. If I were to do it again, I’d do the game drive, get lunch in Nairobi, rest at the hotel, and head back out into town in the late afternoon.
That’s not meant to be a negative comment on the tremendous work the elephant orphanage and giraffe centre are doing. It’s merely a comment on my level of energy.
National Museum of Kenya
It’s a small museum, but one worthy of your visit if you’re not too zapped from Nairobi National Park. Of course, you get some facts and stories about animals. But what I found most fascinating was the exhibition on human evolution, showing visitors what we used to look like and how we got to who we are today –– and how long that took.
Spinners Web in Nairobi is a treasure trove of Kenya’s rich craft heritage. Located in the leafy suburbs of Nairobi, this expansive shop and café offers a wide selection of handcrafted items, ranging from intricate textiles, beautiful beadwork, and unique wood carvings to contemporary art pieces. It serves as a collective showcase for hundreds of artisans, designers, and craftspeople from across Kenya, making it a vital platform for local talent.
Nairobi Market Tour + Cooking Class
I’m recommending this even though I didn’t do it. It’s my biggest regret about my time in Nairobi. But it sounds right up my alley. Frankly, I feel like a fool for not signing up for one of these. I saw a couple of highly rated options on Airbnb Experiences. As much as I don’t care for Airbnb, the experiences usually do check out. So have a look and consider including it in your Nairobi plans!
Restaurants in Nairobi
I’ll admit that I did not know what to expect of Nairobi’s culinary scene. But suffice it to say, it did not disappoint.
One thing I will say before sharing some of the restaurants we visited is that you will have to get familiar with hiring taxis to get to these restaurants. Nairobi is not a walking city, for the most part. And most every hotel and restaurants are hidden behind a gate. Nairobian drivers know the drill and they know where they’re going, so it’s easiest to just trust them. And the easiest way we found to order a taxi (or ‘chap chap’) is using Uber, as instructed by a friend living in Nairobi.
bamba is situated around the leafy edges of Nairobi and the restaurant embraces its natural surroundings. You’ll feel like you’re dining out on an elaborate campground with a diverse menu ranging from the Levant (eggplant with pomegranate) to good-old-fashion pizza.
We paired a stop at ạtė with our hike around Karura Forest. Like bamba, ạtė is on a quiet, leafy suburban street. We tried a little bit of everything on the menu and nothing disappointed. The memory of their mushroom dumplings, eggplant tataki, arancini, and their eggplant/tofu in sticky bean sauce with cape malay curry still sits on my palate.
Our visit to CJ’s came after our stop at the National Museum. We had a hard time making sense of Nairobi’s urban layout. But this area on Google Maps appeared to be a familiar collection of grid-like streets. So we thought we’d pop over and have a look. Fortunatley, CJ’s was worth the visit. There’s a bright French brasserie vibe inside with mostly Kenyans stopping by for lunch. Come here if you want an excuse to visit the central business district and walk around afterwards.
beit é selam – ቤተ ሰላም
This Ethiopian restaurant seems to have a bit of a Swahili flair alongside the national favorites. But as much as I enjoyed the Ethiopian eats, I’m here to tell you about the corn ribs. This was probably my favorite dish of my entire trip to Kenya. They do make the effort to cut the corn into the shape of ribs, making it easy to pick up and nosh away. But it’s the spices and garlic aioli they put on it that did it for me. Just absolutely phenomenal.
Hotels in Nairobi
Skynest Residences by CityBlue
We picked this place purely for the convenience of staying near our friend at the Mövenpick. But I’d happily stay there again on my next visit to Nairobi. The staff were wonderful and welcoming. And it was here that we learned about the extensive security measures throughout the city. Your driver will pull up to the gate, someone will check for bombs underneath the car, they’ll open all of the car doors, maybe ask you a question or two, and then let you in. From there, there’s a scanner for your luggage before walking up to reception.
It sounds intense, but it’s all done in remarkably chill fashion. Our driver suggested that the increased security throughout the city (you’ll find it entering the airport and train station as well) was a result of the Westgate Mall terrorist attack in 2013.
The rooms are apartment-style, so you can get a sense of what it might be like to live in the Westlans of Nairobi. There’s also a wonderful rooftop pool with a great view of the city skyline. We happily took advantage of the nearby gym before jumping in.
The only con I’ll note is the breakfast. Breakfast gets delivered to your room in the morning in several plastic containers. The vegetarian sandwiches were soggy, but the samosas were actually pretty delicious. Also, if you pay for breakfast, note that you’ll end up missing it if you sign up for a safari to Nairobi National Park. I’d suggest booking without breakfast and finding something else around town.
Last point worth mentioning… There’s a convenience store attached to the hotel, so it’s easy to pick up water and any snacks you might want to keep on you during your busy days in Nairobi.
Mövenpick Residences Nairobi
A friend who’s been living in Nairobi for about the past year is still here. So that to me is a good enough recommendation in and of itself.
The Boma Nairobi
We stayed here on our return from Tsavo National Park, thinking it’d be a good spot to get to the airport quickly. In reality, it’s moot these days thanks to the massive Nairobi Expressway (opened in 2022) that cuts through Nairobi traffic and gets you to the Westlands in 20 minutes. (Our drivers said it used to take as long as two hours.)
That said, The Boma might still be a good pick if you want to stay closer to Nairobi National Park. I’d give the nod to Skynest myself, but this place is definitely worth considering.