When you think of Kenya, you probably think of safaris: seeing the Big 5 (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, and leopard) on vast African savannahs. Kenya is world-renowned for its safaris, and for good reason. The country holds some of Africa’s largest parks (Tsavo East and Tsavo West National parks cover 8,808 square miles) and the wild animal population is so dense, you can even go on safari in the middle of the capital city, Nairobi! As a result, it’s the perfect place to see animals in their natural habitat, as well as visit some animal conservation centres that are doing great work. In this guide to Kenya I’ll tell you about its incredible national parks, as well as the low-down on its other unmissable sights, locations and eateries.
Nairobi is Kenya’s bustling capital, with a population of 3 million people. It is quickly growing and developing: its population has doubled since 1986, and Kenya was designated a middle-income country in 2014. Nairobi’s evolving technology scene has led to the city being dubbed ‘Silicon Savannah.’
Things to see:
If you’ve come to Kenya, chances are you want to see wild animals. Luckily, you can see a huge variety of animals, all within an hour’s drive of the CBD.
- Nairobi National Park – a huge, open safari park right in the city centre! It’s a bizarre sight to be able to see wild animals in the plains with the backdrop of a city skyline. You can spend a half-day here and see lots of animals, just a short drive from the city centre.
- David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – elephant orphanage. DSWT is home to baby elephants and rhinos who have been abandoned or badly injured in the wild – often due to the mother being killed for ivory. The centre does get very busy, but it is open to the public only for a short period once a day, where you can watch the baby elephants being fed by the keepers. The elephants are released back in to the wild when they’re ready – the DSWT have saved over 150 to date. You can ‘adopt’ your own baby elephant to further support the trust in their work. They tell some really heartwarming stories during the feeding hour – including tales of female elephants bringing their newborn babies to visit the handlers, years later!
- Giraffe Centre: Africa Fund for Endangered Wildlife. You may have seen photos of the Giraffe Hotel – a grand, colonial-style hotel where you can have breakfast whilst giraffes poke their heads in through the windows. If your budget doesn’t stretch to staying there, you could visit the giraffe centre, which hosts the same giraffes.
I always make sure to do a lot of research before visiting anywhere that hosts animals – many tourist attractions with animals are at best misleading of their intentions, and at worst, may be abusing the animals and keeping them in awful conditions. It’s much better to see them in the wild! While I was a little unsure about the level of interaction with the giraffes at the Giraffe Centre (you can feed them pellets which are provided, including putting them in your mouth for the giraffe to ‘kiss’ you – quite slobbery!), the Giraffe Centre is doing a lot of education in the local area as well as protecting one particular species of giraffe. The Rothschild giraffes are endangered, and the centre has released over 40 back into the wild so far. The giraffes also live on a huge piece of land, and only come to interact with guests of their own accord – it’s certainly not a zoo.
If you’ve had your fill of the animals, Nairobi has plenty of other things to see and do, from shopping at craft markets and malls, to other activities like escape rooms; or you could try Maji Magic, a new water-based activity centre, with lots of bouncy obstacles to climb and navigate!
Places to eat:
I don’t know about you, but I usually base my holidays around great places to eat! It’s really easy to be vegan in Nairobi. Outside of the more built-up places, you can still find things to eat—many local foods are vegan, such as ugali (corn meal), sukuma wiki (cooked leafy greens), ndengu (bean stew), or mandazi (fried flat bread—similar to donuts). If in doubt, my go to ‘back up’ meal would be a chapati filled with avocado, and then a banana—filling, simple and delicious.
Here are my favourite restaurants in Nairobi:
- Boho Eatery is a predominately plant-based spot for breakfast and lunch. The setting is beautiful, with comfy bench swings to sit on outdoors where you can soak up the sun. The food is delicious and super fresh. Make sure you try the vegan cheesecake!
- The Talisman has a dedicated vegetarian and vegan menu with plenty of choices. It’s a popular spot, both for couples or groups of friends, and is open late at weekends.
- At Artcaffe (several branches around the city) you can find an enormous savoury vegan breakfast, which includes herby tomato aubergine and courgette with a tahini dressing and a side of flatbread.
- Tin Roof Café is an eco-conscious restaurant, with several vegan options including a delicious all you can eat salad bar.
- Last but not least, in the city centre you can find (if you look hard enough!) Nook – a tiny, super trendy café hidden behind a car park. It has a constantly changing, limited menu, but usually has one or two vegan items. It also has a small jewelry and accessories shop attached.
Masai Mara: Lions, leopards and cheetahs (oh my!)
The Masai Mara is Kenya’s star conservation area; home to the Maasai people as well as vast numbers of wild animals, and the annual wildebeest migration. Going on safari in the Mara was an incredible experience—we were able to get very close to the animals in their natural habitat. Highlights included a huge pride of lions with a recent kill of a zebra, two cheetah brothers showing off to a female, and seeing the elusive leopard—all in the same day! The Saruni Mara lodge hosts a tame eland – a large type of antelope, with twisted horns that made him resemble a character from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. ‘Jackie’ (his nickname) had been abandoned by his mother, and was looked after by the staff. He’s completely free to come and go, but enjoys hanging out with the staff!
For fitness buffs, Kenya has over 20 peaks to hike, including the second-highest peak in Africa after Kilimanjaro: Mt. Kenya (5199m). The bonus of Mt. Kenya is that it’s much less busy than Kili, and said to be much more beautiful too, with a multitude of routes depending on whether you’re planning to hike only to Point Lenana, or to get your ice picks and crampons at the ready to scale the icy summits (if you’re an advanced hiker). Slightly less high but just as beautiful are Mt. Elgon (bordering Uganda and Kenya) or Mt. Longonot (which has a giant crater at the summit with its own ecosystem). You could also trek through the Aberdare National Park for some misty, lush green mountainous views, complete with elephants and rhinos.
Alternatively, check out Hell’s Gate National Park for a combination of active adventures and wild animal viewing. There, you can rent bicycles and cycle through the park. Don’t worry, there are no predators—it’s amazing to ride through stunning scenery with giraffes and zebras only metres away from you. There’s also a stunning gorge to walk through, and a place to practice your rock climbing skills near the entrance. Hell’s Gate is also where the setting of The Lion King was based—there’s even a real Pride Rock! Fun fact: Did you know all the characters’ names from the Lion King come from the Swahili language? Simba means lion, Mufasa means king, Rafiki means friend and Pumba means slow-witted. In the evening you can cool off at a hotel or hostel overlooking Lake Navaisha (no swimming though, due to the hippos that live in the lake!).
For laid-back beach vibes, with the softest pure white sand, and crystal clear swimming in the Indian Ocean, check out Kenya’s coastline. You can fly direct to Mombasa from some European countries, or from Nairobi, it’s a short internal flight. Alternatively, you can take the train—the modern railway between Nairobi and Mombasa has recently opened, and for an extremely pocket-friendly price (approx. $10USD for economy seats, for a 5 hour journey), you can relax and check out the scenery whilst on the move to your next destination.
The best places to visit on the coast are Watamu (north of Mombasa) or Diani beach (south of Mombasa). Both offer laid-back vibes and seawater in the shades of blue that dreams are made of. Here you can kick back and relax on the beach, visit a marine park, go snorkeling or scuba diving, take a traditional wooden dhow boat trip, or take up kite surfing. If you want to get even further off the beaten track, try visiting Kilifi—a small, sleepy town, dotted with impressive baobab trees, and a beautiful creek you can sail down at sunset. Kilifi comes alive during the new year’s eve period, hosting a boutique electronic music festival—one of the best music festivals on the African continent. It also hosts a Mind / Body / Soul area, with talks, yoga, meditation and more.
On the north-east of Kenya you’ll find Lamu island and the other islands of the archipelago, only a short flight from Mombasa. Lamu island is a melting pot of traditional Swahili and Islamic cultures, with historical influences from trading with Arabic, European and Persian communities. The best place to stay in Lamu is Shela—a calm, pristine and non-touristy part of the island. Lamu island is generally very quiet, but also hosts a few festivals and events during the year, including a week-long yoga festival, typically held during March.
Karibu (welcome) to Kenya – Hakuna Matata! (It really does mean no worries!)
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Photo: Dr. Kirstie Fleetwood