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A city guide to Nairobi, the blossoming Kenyan capital

Home to experimental chefs, edgy art galleries and eco-minded boutiques, Kenya’s capital has blossomed in recent years with a lively bar scene and innovative places to eat, shop and stay.

Rooftop view across the Central Business District.

Photograph by Brian Siambi
Published 27 Nov 2021, 15:00 GMT, Updated 6 Dec 2021, 11:23 GMT

Clumsy, soggy and uncomfortably abrasive — there’s nothing remotely romantic about being kissed by a giraffe. Batting its femme fatale eyelashes, my suitor sticks out its purple tongue, eagerly probing for food. I hang back, as other guests pop edible pellets between their lips, inviting the hungry animals to retrieve them with a slobbery, wet snog.

Feeding a community of endangered Rothchild’s giraffes is a highlight attraction for visitors to Nairobi. Founded in 1979 in a bid to boost numbers of the ailing subspecies, the Giraffe Centre in the city’s upmarket Karen district is now an educational resource and one of the few places in Africa where it’s possible to get so well-aquainted with the world’s tallest animal.

Even more intimate shows are reserved for guests staying at the neighbouring Giraffe Manor hotel, where the gangly ungulates troop daily across manicured lawns to stick their heads through ivy-wrapped windows, or trot around the property’s new spa and swimming pool.

As the capital of Kenya and a gateway to adventures in the Maasai Mara and beyond, it’s no surprise wildlife takes centre stage in Nairobi: a national park lies at the heart of the city and pockets of protected forest fringe its outskirts. But in the past few years, East Africa’s electrifyingly creative hub has wrestled free of its safari roots.

Across the city, experimental chefs have opened restaurants on organic farms, in wooden cabins or in partnership with boutique hotels. Proving there’s more to African cuisine than traditional meat and maize staples, menus are varied, combining local flavours with international techniques.

Several dedicated food and drink markets have also popped up in the Westlands entertainment district, with international fare served up from ingeniously designed stalls: dine inside a converted bus; prop up a bar constructed from cassette tapes; and listen to Afrobeat DJs while hanging out with the city’s trend-setting crowd. The art and fashion scenes are equally dynamic, with galleries and ateliers making bold statements about politics and culture, raising a voice that’s finally being heard by the Western world. 

Admittedly, though, Nairobi isn’t the easiest place to explore. Its districts are sprawling, traffic can be dreadful and the public transport network is basic. Rumblings of street crime and shuddering memories of terrorist attacks have also put visitors off in the past. But Kenya’s capital is a city that’s rapidly evolving, becoming safer, friendlier and more accessible every day. Progressive and dynamic, it buzzes with a sense of possibility. Jumping on board for the journey promises a thrilling ride.

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant orphanage.

Photograph by Mirjam Bleeker

Six must-visit places


Sheldrick Wildlife Trust: Few scenes can steal hearts like a baby elephant being milk-fed. Orphaned as a result of poaching or other human-related activities, rescued animals are rehabilitated at a nursery in Nairobi National Park and eventually rewilded in Tsavo East National Park. Watch them feed and play and you’ll find it near impossible to leave without signing up to the adoption programme. 

Karen Blixen Museum: Times may have changed, but Out of Africa, by Danish author Karen Blixen, still perfectly sums up the romantic lure of Kenya. Visit the farmhouse that featured prominently in the 1937 memoir, which focused on Blixen setting up home in the country and finding love. Set below the Ngong Hills, in the smart, leafy district named after her, it’s now a museum filled with memorabilia. 

Nairobi National Park: It’s no match for the Maasai Mara, but where else in the world can you see a towering giraffe against a backdrop of skyscrapers? The world’s only national park set inside a city, it’s home to a healthy population of classic safari megafauna, including leopards, cheetahs and wildebeest. Pop into the rhino sanctuary or explore walking trails at the hippo pools. 

Circle Art Gallery: Nairobi is the main focus for the energetic arts scene emerging in East Africa. One of the best places for an introduction to what’s on offer, this gallery showcases contemporary art from across the subregion. A sister studio has recently opened in London. 

Kitengela Hot Glass: A beaded rope bridge leads to this bohemian red-brick dome rising from the Kenyan bush. Built by Anselm Croze, who grew up nearby in a converted double-decker bus, the studio creates tableware, furniture and jewellery from scrap metal and glass that it melts down. Learn how to blow a glass bubble or make a goblet from scratch and stay for lunch at an organic cafe set in a sculpture garden. 

Nairobi National Museum: Trace the origins of Kenya — and humanity — through this collection of national treasures. Hominid skulls found near Lake Turkana are displayed in glass cabinets, along with the skeleton of beloved tusker Ahmed the Elephant, which the president famously placed under 24-hour surveillance by five armed rangers at the height of the 1980s Kenyan poaching crisis. Nature trails wind through the surrounding botanical gardens.

Kitengela Hot Glass, which creates tableware, furniture and jewellery from scrap metal and glass.

Photograph by Mijam Bleeker & Brian Siambi

Where to eat


Cultiva: Having started as a pop-up, Cultiva proved so popular it took up permanent residence. A farm-to-fork restaurant, its menu changes with the seasons. A former caterer for upmarket mobile safaris, Ecuadorian co-founder Ariel Moscardi is on a mission to revive lost seed species, while championing a variety of largely vegetarian and vegan meals. T: 00 254 701 579902.

The Talisman: The former home of photographer Alan Root is now a dining room. Embroidered scatter cushions, antique, carved trunks and a globe-trotting selection of trinkets fill the cosy interior. The menu is just as international, mixing sushi with Thai curries, burgers and bao buns. Wonderfully diverse, it’s consistently excellent. 

Embark Restaurant: Only a dozen diners at a time can enjoy the palette-twisting creations of this restaurant, which uses homegrown ingredients in unusual ways: maize staple ugali, for example, is reimagined as a petal-strewn dessert. 

Cultiva, which serves a constantly changing seasonal menu using produce from its greenhouse and garden.

Photograph by Brian Siambi

Where to shop


House of Treasures: A turning off the busy Dagoretti Road leads to a surprisingly Zen enclave of shops with a spa and an outdoor cafe. Browse a selection of homeware and fashion from global designers, including ethically produced garments made with natural fibres at Hamaji. 

Suave Kenya: Ever wondered where denim goes to die? Gikomba, the largest flea market in Kenya, is a graveyard for European cast-offs, but any unsold items ultimately end up as landfill. In a bid to reduce this waste, this entrepreneurial brand transforms unwanted jeans into extremely covetable bags. 

Ocean Sole: A symbol of cheap living and disposable culture, flip-flops are one of the most common items of rubbish to wash up on coastlines. This social enterprise has found a novel solution to the problem by using discarded flip-flops to make animal sculptures. Profits fund salaries for 100 
low-income Kenyans employed by Ocean Sole’s Marula Studios workshop and store. 

Wasp & Sprout, a coffee shop in the Loresho district that also sells sustainably produced Africa homewares and furniture.

Photograph by Mirjam bleeker

Locals' tips


Read Between the Lines: Public spaces for learning and monuments of historical importance, Nairobi’s libraries are being given a new lease of life by social activist and architectural restorer, Book Bunk. Join its mission by attending music concerts, art exhibitions, literary festivals and gala events set in these ‘Palaces for the People’. 

Hug the trees: Although skyscrapers are springing up across the rapidly developing city, Nairobi is still surprisingly wild. Karura Forest Reserve (which was saved by Kenyan Wangarĩ Maathai, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts) forms a green belt around Nairobi. More than 30 miles of trails weave through bamboo clusters, waterfalls and caves once used by Mau Mau rebels.

Buy Real Art: An antidote to the many craft markets selling identical wares, Nairobi’s independent galleries showcase an electrifying selection of contemporary art for sale. Surrounded by five acres of greenery, One Off features an exhibition space and a sculpture garden that allow visitors to delve into East Africa’s art scene. 

Visit Eastlands Library, one of many historic institutions being restored by Book Bunk.

Photograph by Brian Siambi

Where to drink


Nairobi Street Market: Bar-hop and snack-stop in this trendy street food market, where vendors are conveniently clustered under one industrial warehouse roof. Drink fine Portuguese wines at Library 68 or hang out at the Social Roof Top Bar. Even the industrial chic loos at the Westlands venue — launched this summer — have been an Instagram hit. 

INCA: Perched on top of trendy hotel The Social House, this Peru-inspired bar and restaurant whisks guests to another continent with its Amazonian setting of bold murals and hanging plants. Come at sunset to sip cocktails as pink light floods through a glass ceiling. A ceviche menu is a refreshing alternative to traditional African fare.

The Alchemist: Cool, young Kenyans fill the bold, kitenge-print sofas and wooden tables of this creative food, drink and shopping hub in Westlands. There are food trucks and a nightclub, and there are cinema screenings and open-mic sessions throughout the week, along with DJ sets and music from live bands. Happy hour runs from 5-7pm. 

Where to stay


Tamarind Tree Hotel: Bright murals cover the walls of this upbeat, modern hotel, close to Wilson Airport, the departure point for all flights into safari country. Popular with locals and visitors alike, it has a lively atmosphere, with parties around the outdoor pool and neon-lit bar often lasting until the wee hours. 

Hemingway's Nairobi: A plantation-style manor house with views to the Ngong Hills, this elegant property has an atmosphere that evokes the days when European writers and artists discovered the joy of safari. Bars are stocked with crystal decanters and bathrooms glisten in marble, all kept in shape by a personal butler, on hand to prepare tea or plump pillows. 

Giraffe Manor: Rooms sell out months in advance for this country escape. Set amid 140 forested acres, the ivy-clad manor house is steeped in grandeur, but guests are only here for one thing: giraffes. Every morning, the bold browsers stick their necks through open windows, searching for edible pellets left in jars. 

Breakfast guest at Giraffe Manor, an ivy-clad hotel set amid 140 forested acres, often visited by giraffes.

Photograph by Brian Siambi

Essentials


Getting there & around
British Airways and Kenya Airways fly from Heathrow to Nairobi.

Average flight time: 8.5h

KLM, Air France, Ethiopian and Emirates offer one-stop flights via their national hubs.
  
Cars dominate the streets in Nairobi, leaving little room for pedestrians. The most convenient and cheapest way to cover long distances in the city is by using Uber. Public minibuses (matatus) also operate, but they can be crowded and uncomfortable. Alternatively, hire a car with driver for the day for around £81 (for up to six people).

When to go
The dry season falls between June and October when temperatures are also cooler — especially at night. But even during the summer months (December to mid-March), warmer weather is still tolerable (up to 28C). There are two rainy seasons: mid-March to May and late October to December.

More info
Unbowed: My Autobiography, by Wangari Maathai (Arrow, £8.99)
The Cockroach Dance, by Meja Mwangi (HM Books, £12.99)
A Grain of Wheat, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Penguin, £9.99)
Out of Africa (film, 1985)
Magical Kenya.

How to do it
Abercrombie & Kent offers three nights at Hemingways Nairobi from £899 per person (two people sharing a Deluxe Room) on a B&B basis. Excludes flights. 

Published in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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