Two weeks into my new job, I was asked how I felt about travelling to Nairobi in a week’s time for work. I’m not going to lie – I had a mixture of excitement and nerves. I’d be travelling alone and the American passport can create amazing travel opportunities but also alienate other travel possibilities depending on the Americana politics du jour.
So I researched as much as I could, found out which vaccines (this is a great source) I would need, was advised on what type of anti-malarial tablet would be best for me, visited the US and UK travel advisory pages and spoke to frequent flier colleagues about their experiences. And then I arrived in Nairobi, which was full of life, excitement and the passion of a developing city and people who are the ultimate hustlers – often working two to three jobs and still having time for family, friends and hobbies. And amidst the busy urban city hustle is the city’s national park – home to lions, cheetahs, black rhinos and much more – and other interesting experiences you don’t want to miss!
So, if you’re planning a trip to Kenya or elsewhere in East Africa, I highly recommend you add a day in Nairobi (most likely your international flight into East Africa or Kenya will arrive in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital so it shouldn’t be a difficult addition to your travel itinerary). For more information on flight recommendations, read this post.
1) Nairobi National Park
I spent my first day in Nairobi photographing indigenous cattle on a Masai farm at the edge of Nairobi National Park. Giraffes, zebras and gazelles danced across the horizon. The farmer told me that he and his farm hands take his cattle to graze in the park at night and despite the park being full of leopards, cheetahs, lions and hyenas – they seem to do well despite nature’s threats.
Nairobi National Park borders the south of Nairobi and from time to time you can spot skyscrappers dotted in the distance. The park is one of Africa’s smallest, which makes it perfect for a mini safari if your time is limited in Africa. This national park claims the world’s densest population of black rhinos – with buffalo, leopards, gazelles, zebras, giraffes, cheetahs, lions and over 400 bird species.
If you have your own vehicle, you can drive through the park doing your own safari tour, although a four wheel drive is preferred especially if it’s rainy. You can pre-book a tour with a provider before you arrive or if you’re staying at a hotel in Nairobi, contact your hotel to see if they offer safari discounts. Half day safaris (morning and afternoon trips are available) are from US $75 a person but check whether the park entrance fees ($50 per adult and $25 per child) are included in the price. You can also find some tour options that include other Nairobi landmarks such as the Karen Blixen Centre and the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. Plan to spend four hours on the safari. If you have a driver, ensure you agree to a price beforehand.
2) Karen Blixen Centre
If you’ve ever watched Out of Africa with Meryl Streep, you’ll recognise the story of Karen Blixen. Karen was a Dutch aristocrat who moved to Kenya with her Swedish husband to settle 4,500 acres of land off the Ngong hills in Nairobi. Karen’s former house and land allows viewers to have a peak of the colonial era in Kenya. The grounds are stunning with beautiful plants and trees scattered across the lawn and the smell of jasmine lingering in the air. You’re welcome to take photos around the grounds but no photography is allowed in the house.
Side note: When travelling in Kenya, do not take any photos/video of government buildings, including embassies, as its against the law and you may be detained. It’s also good manners to ask people if you can take their photos. They might ask for some money. Use your own discretion.
3) David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage
Unfortunately, elephant and rhino poaching is still happening in Kenya. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust rescues orphaned elephants and rhinos and rehabilitates them to re-enter the wild. To date the trust has raised over 150 infant elephants. The elephants are assisted by their carers who sleep near them as the orphaned elephants adjust to their new surroundings.
This is a must see if you’re in Nairobi and you can easily fit it into a one day visit. You can see baby and young elephants play in the mud, nibble on branches and be fed from 11 to noon every day. Make sure to get there 20-30 minutes early so that you have time to view the grounds before the tour starts. If you’re driving, ask your hotel concierge how early they would recommend that you would leave the hotel. The centre is 10 kms from the city centre and is next to Nairobi National Park. Traffic can, more often that not, be extremely heavy with long delays so it’s important to ask a local for their travel advice.
You can also choose to adopt an elephant of your choice for only $50 US for a year. As a foster parent you will receive an emailed adoption certificate, an interactive map to show where your foster elephant was found, a monthly update information from the keepers on how your elephant is progressing and a monthly watercolour painting from Dame Sheldrick, founder of the centre. As a foster parent, you will also be able to visit your elephant from 5-6 pm before (s)he goes to bed.
I recommend fostering an elephant before you visit and arranging an evening to visit with the centre before you travel. This will be an amazing once in a lifetime experience to spend time with an adorable elephant away from the busy tourist-heavy mornings. Perhaps a great Christmas/birthday/wedding gift for a close friend or family member?
4) The Giraffe Centre
Would you like to feed and pet some giraffes? If so, head to the Giraffe Centre to spot some pumbas (warthogs) and giraffes. After paying a donation to enter, you climb up a floor to stand nearly level with some giraffes. Grab some free feed and the Rotheschild giraffes will meander toward your outreached hand to nibble. You’ll be able to pet their soft nose (texture is similar to a horse’s nose) while you notice the warthogs on their front knees as the root around for grub. It’s a great experience in between the elephant orphanage, Karen Blixen Centre and the bead shop around the Karen district of Nairobi.
5) Kazuri Bead Shop
If you’re in the Karen district of Nairobi (home of the giraffe centre, Karen Blixen Centre and the elephant orphanage), pop over to the Kazuri Bead Shop. Kazuri means “small and beautiful” in Swahili. The bead shop employees over 300 struggling single mothers around Nairobi, pays them three times more than the average salary for agriculture and provides them with full health care coverage for them and their relatives. The women craft beads with clay from Mount Kilimanjaro and paint them to create beautiful beaded necklaces, bracelets and earrings.
When you visit the bead shop, you can book a tour to see each step of the process and watch the bead be crafted under the steady hands of the artists. Once you’ve gone through the tour, you can enter the shop and purchase some treats for friends and family back home. Prices vary but are all quite reasonable – around £10-£20 on average – and you leave knowing that, in a small way, you’ve supported disadvantaged single mothers in Kenya who are learning and growing in a supportive career. If you’re in the UK or in North or South America, you can also purchase some of the gorgeous jewelry online for presents for your loved ones (hint, hint for those early bird Christmas shoppers).
Have you been to Nairobi? What are your top 5 places to visit? I’d love to hear your recommendations for a future visit!