An inside guide to the Kenyan cities of Nairobi and Kisumu

From the pulsing beat of capital Nairobi to the gentle lapping shores of lakeside Kisumu, we take a dive into two of Kenya’s cities.

By Kenya Tourism Board
Published 13 Oct 2021, 11:13 BST
Unusually for a city, big wildlife can be found right on the doorstep of Nairobi, with ...

Unusually for a city, big wildlife can be found right on the doorstep of Nairobi, with four of the Big Five residing in the surrounding national park. Here, a rhino stands in front of the city.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. Nairobi: the dynamic East African capital

With a bustling, modern centre, Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, is far more than just a springboard bouncing adventurers into East Africa’s safari heartlands. It’s a multi-faceted city, strong on culture, commerce and even wildlife-watching. Its streets can be frenetic, with hawkers dodging traffic jams and matatus (minibuses) hurtling along and stereos blaring, but its ample green spaces ensure there’s tranquility to be found. Unusually for a fast-growing capital, wilderness is on the doorstep: land at Jomo Kenyatta International or Wilson Airport in the morning and you can be in lion country for lunch. Nairobi National Park, a generous stretch of greenbelt with genuine conservation clout, lies immediately south of the city — there are several hotels and lodges on the periphery of the national park. The park protects four of the Big Five, including rhinos, lions, leopards and buffaloes; for the fifth, head to the adjoining Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which cares for orphaned elephants. Nairobi’s other leading wildlife sanctuary, The Giraffe Centre in Langata, has Rothschild giraffes, who famously like to pop their heads in for breakfast at Giraffe Manor, the upmarket hotel next door.

Nairobi buzzes with commercial activity, with street food connoisseurs snapping up fresh fruit, grilled maize, chapatis and mutura (spicy sausage), bargain hunters sifting through secondhand clothing in Gikomba Market and souvenir shoppers haggling over baskets and bangles in the Maasai Markets. Social enterprises and craft co-operatives operate open workshops and showrooms: at Kazuri Beads, ceramicists craft glossy beads, while Kitengela Hot Glass upcycles bottles into ornaments. Ocean Sole turns flip-flops into bright sculptures and Spinners Web has pieces from weavers, stitchers and local food and coffee producers.

The cosmopolitan restaurant scene includes Carnivore, where hungry diners enjoy dawa cocktails and barbecued meat including crocodile and ostrich (farmed, for conservation reasons). Vegetarians and vegans can browse the sustainable menu at Boho Eatery in the leafy suburb of Karen, or at one of the city’s many excellent Indian restaurants such as Chowpaty in Westlands, home to the UN’s African headquarters.

Getting around
Nairobi has many vehicle rental companies, taxis, Ubers and buses. Cash-strapped locals often hail matatus. Rush hour can be chaotic, so plan accordingly. To explore Nairobi National Park, you ideally need a 4WD. 

A fishing boats sails in Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake by area. Kisumu sits on the shores of this lake, once a fishing village, but today Kenya's third largest city.

Photograph by Getty Images

2. Kisumu: Kenya’s lakeside city

Once just a trading post and fishing village on Lake Victoria’s northeastern shore, Kisumu is now Kenya’s third-largest city. Despite its prodigious population growth, however, it’s far smaller and airier than Nairobi and Mombasa, with a calm, up-country feel. 

That’s not to say Kisumu is sleepy; thanks to recent waves of investment, boosted by preparations for the ninth UCLG Africa Africities Summit, which it will host, there’s a spring in the city’s step. Billions of Kenyan shillings have been spent on renewing its ferry dock, fishing port, airport and Nakuru-Kisumu railway, and new tree-shaded pavements with solar-powered lighting have made the commercial centre greener and more pedestrian-friendly. 

To learn about local heritage, head for the city-centre Kisumu Museum, which celebrates Luo customs through a collection of tribal artefacts, a full-scale model village, drumming and dance. For a slice of contemporary life, walk around the daily Jubilee Market, the best in the region, with vendors selling everything from dried Lake Victoria tilapia, neatly stacked tomatoes and giant watermelons to kettles, textiles and wigs. Kisumu also has a Maasai Market similar to but generally cheaper than Nairobi’s, with souvenirs such as clothing, beads and soapstone carvings.

When you’re ready to refuel, grab some finger food from The Backyard Patio on Ogada Street, or order something from the grill at Lolwe Lounge, a stylish new garden bar that catches the lake breeze — a boon on the city’s hottest days.

Kisumu’s revamped port serves commercial shipping rather than travellers, but there are great views of Winam Gulf — the extension of Lake Victoria on which the city stands — from Hippo Point, southwest of town. Nearby restaurant Le Pearl offers fried fish, ugali (a starchy porridge) and cool Tusker beers, with golden sunsets thrown in.

To see more of Africa’s largest freshwater lake and fringes, seek out the community-run Dunga Beach Ecotourism project, which offers birdwatching, boat trips and homestays in a Luo fishing village. Alternatively, book a stay at an island eco-lodge or campsite. Ndere Island appeals to birdwatchers, while Mfangano has fig trees, boulders and Batwa rock art.

Heading inland, you’ll soon find yourself immersed in West Kenya, homeland of Barack Obama Sr, father of the former US president. It’s an appealingly rural region, scattered with ultra-lush smallholdings and precious pockets of equatorial trees such as Kakamega Forest.

Getting around
Locals who don’t have their own transport get around town by boda boda (bicycle or motorbike taxi), tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) or matatu. You can charter a motorboat to Ndere Island from Hippo Point in Kisumu. Mfangano Island can be reached by matatu and motorboat via the lakeshore hamlet of Mbita. Kenya has been added to the rest of world list, which means that UK travellers can now travel without the need to quarantine on their arrival or return.

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