The city itself can be a great place to explore if you just have a few days and want to hit some bucket list items, *or* if you have more time and plan it out well and catch interesting events and exhibitions happening, to get a richer, deeper sense of the city, and perhaps even find a way to contribute to it.
Get as specific as you want: where can I see community mapping projects? where can I learn about drainage? a good orchestra? a photography initiative? where’s a controversial infrastructure project? where can I buy peanut butter that supports women’s empowerment? where can I get a really awesome Kenyan hoodie? what fun things are happening this weekend? what’s a lovely tiny getaway of overnight in/around Nairobi?
About events, the best way to check them out is by subscribing to Twitter feeds, FB pages, IG accounts, or a few newsletters that aggregate them, like Nairobi Now (events, concerts, etc) www.nairobinow.wordpress.com or KenyaBUZZ www.kenyabuzz.com. (There are probably newer ones that I don’t know.)
Sampling of unconventional things & places to visit within Nairobi:
- Catch events & exhibitions at art-filled spaces like Kuona Trust, GoDown Centre, Pawa254, Circle Art Gallery. Concerts at GoDown Centre, Ngong Race Course, Alliance Française. Many more smaller, newer arts spaces.
- There are various lovely artisan markets. My very favourite is Pop Up & Chill, every two months or so: excellent shopping, great music, nice place to chill/eat/drink/hang, great for kids to run around or make some art. Check for the next event, see photos, salivate over the amazing range of tempting artisan goods on their instagram page or FB. There are many handicraft markets (this one’s just more fun).
- To get a sense of the startup ecosystem, larger coworking spaces that regularly have events and are friendly to visitors are iHub (the most established tech-oriented space), Metta Nairobi, and Nairobi Garage, in the techie startup scene. But there are many others. Many are social enterprises.
Two third of Nairobi’s residents live on 2% of the city’s land. There are decently honest and good ways to visit Kibera or other informal settlements (slums) through organisations and friends. Just like in any big city, don’t just go wander around in someone else’s ‘hood, though. Have a purpose, or for public places a plan to patronise. For places less accessed by outsiders, make sure you go with a good local host or fixer.
- In Mathare, a friend/mentee’s very awesome initiative of (other) single moms from her ‘hood going back to class to study & take their high school diplomas. They gather in the afternoons/evenings. Inua Kike. inuakike.org
- Have lunch (or do your laundry, or both) at Kibera Town Centre, Kamkunji grounds, Olympic area. Nice local lunch options, lots of clean water, a feat of engineering, fluffy towels, and the only espresso machine in Kibera.
- Close to Olympic, you could also visit and learn about the work of Carolina for Kibera. I think some of their programme participants sell some handicrafts, or else think about making a small donation if you’re going to ask them for their time/energy for a full tour.
- Street art in different ‘hoods. Check out work like in this @maumauarts little piece https://t.co/uS8zgCMkh1. In Kariobangi there are a few amazing streets covered in collaborative community-building artwork, organised by some of my favourite colleagues who are graffiti artists. Also a bus library & car wash social enterprise nearby.
- Mustard Seeds, a community organisation in Dandora, helped communities to create beautiful oases in walled compounds in a really tough ‘hood. It started with some young local guys digging up old buried drainage systems. Then a bunch of those communities got together to really fix up their own mini-hoods: drainage systems, greenness, colour, painted trash cans, etc! Mustard Seeds, Dandora Transformation League.
- Dandora Hip Hop City nearby.
Established cultural things
National Museum — Good for smaller children who like reptiles, or those interested in history, wildlife. Can be quite dated and sociologically interesting for that reason. The museum also hosts concerts in a nice auditorium, events in the courtyard, and talks and screenings in others spaces. Plan for at most a half day, really. It’s a little worn and tired in my view.
National Theatre (opposite the Norfolk Hotel, near the museum) — Events in a large cavernous theatre space. Quite newly renovated.
The Karen Blixen Museum (Karen) — Karen Blixen is the famed author of the book “Out of Africa” — Feels a bit colonial to me, but a history buff will enjoy. A very well informed guide can give you an hour-long tour or so. Pay a small tip afterwards to the guide, in addition to the entry fee. Some cool historical equipment and curated grounds to look around. And run around a bit. http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g294207-d311548-Reviews-Karen_Blixen_Museum-Nairobi.html
Bomas Cultural Center — Feels a little weird to me, but it’s supposed to be an introduction to traditional cultures of Kenya. http://www.bomasofkenya.co.ke/
Nature, animals, lovely spots
To explore on your own, here are some recommended activities in/around Nairobi, with the first few being in my experience better.
Karura Forest — A morning or afternoon venture. Magical, peaceful, high-inducing oasis from the city. A well maintained, rather mystical forest on the Gigiri / Spring Valley side of town, right next to the UN and near embassies. Dozens of kilometers of wide straight and (if you prefer) narrow windy paths, rentable bicycles, a lily pond, a few kinds of monkeys. http://www.friendsofkarura.org/
(within Karura Forest) River Cafe a really nice giant deck cafe overlooking the forest (the site used to be meadows/forest 😳), with small playground on the grass for kids and pretty decent food (good variety) cocktails and service. A really lovely spot for a brunch or afternoon. Gets very crowded on weekends: reserve your spot. But wide open and peaceful on weekdays. To start the trail at a higher point (and closer to cafe), drive inside the first gate, and up to the centre (or cafe) parking. (You don’t need a guide.) Open daylight hours (both the forest and the cafe). (the previous location overlooked a river… I think they kept the name)
Baby elephant orphanage: David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Karen, on the periphery of Nairobi National Park.
- The standard visit option for $15 per person is for one hour (about 10:30am daily) interactive viewing when the babies are gathered for milk. Good photo ops; just watch out for other tourists scrambling for a good shot. A guide talks all about the babies, and they wander around cutely, often close enough to touch (or even pee on you). Every day at 11am for only one hour. Can be a bit muddy after rains. As of 2022 must be booked in advance.
- An extra special option is to foster your own elephant ($50 for an individual or a family) and then you get an extra-special visit with other foster parents around 5pm… evening milk, snacks, and bedtime. Totally worth it! Must foster and book appointment in advance. As of 2022 not sure these visits are happening.
- Note: The entrance off the main road is not that prominently marked. Once you take the road past Galleria Mall, go down a few km and watch carefully on the left for a relatively small sign at the gate/entrance, or use GPS but still watch carefully.
More info: https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/. Also http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g294207-d1569686-Reviews-David_Sheldrick_Wildlife_Trust-Nairobi.html
Giraffe Center (Karen) — Good stop, especially for younger kids, but for adults the tour guides are very informative. Fairly close to baby elephant sanctuary. Good photo ops. A tiny bit zoo-like for my taste, but it’s actually a really cool legit sanctuary breeding Rothschild giraffes, who are rare (thanks of course to humans!) Kiss them at your own risk — consider how many other human lips have already been on that tongue. http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g294207-d459948-Reviews-Giraffe_Centre-Nairobi.html
Nairobi National Park — Where people who are passing through Nairobi go on safari. The safari is the real deal (optimal to get someone who really knows the park). If you’re already planning to go to other national parks, you won’t be missing anything. But NNP is now seriously jeopardised by an illegal railroad extension being built through it More info on that: https://dontrapethepark.wordpress.com/ For the best experience, drive yourself, or hire the one open-sided large KWS vehicle and official guides who really, really know the park (call KWS and ask for it… great secret!) (~7000 KES for a big open-sided vehicle with KWS staff who really know the terrain and animals).
Nearby getaway lunches and overnights
Just driving 30–60 minutes can take you to completely different worlds, from lush green tea country around Tigoni on one side of town, to windy hardscrabble savannah cliffs and views towards Kajiado. Every area has special lodges and excursions at various budgets. Though most are not locally owned or managed. Samples:
- Banana Farmhouse in Tigoni (30 min from most of Nairobi) (not sure current status, but there are other such places)
- Brown’s Cheese lovely informative farm visit and notable lunch (great for small groups)
- Lunch (or luxury all-inclusive stays) on the quietest side of Nairobi National Park, such as at Ololo Lodge and/or quirky Kitengela Glass factory and café
Shopping & Artisan Items
- Aforementioned pop up markets are the best!
- Spinners Web — Expansive one-stop shop in a nice environment. Probably 10,000 artisan items made by Kenyans. I think proceeds are split 50/50 between artisan and shop. Artists set their own prices, so there’s a huge variety by item. Also a nice little cafe inside. Generally higher prices, but no negotiating at all — only a leisurely shopping experience. http://www.spinnerswebkenya.com/
- Masai Market — There are souvenir/curio markets everywhere in different shopping centre locations on different days. There is also a big market downtown on High Street, open Saturdays and Sundays. The market at the Westlands roundabout is convenient (open everyday), but they don’t give you very good prices. https://www.facebook.com/MaasaiMarketNairobi/
- Karen Farmer’s Market on Saturday behind the KSPCA on Langata Road. A dozen+ artisans selling lots of items (clothes, fabrics, bags, baskets, wooden items, ceramics, etc.) for very reasonable prices — they are mostly items directly sold by the artists. Lots of organic veggies and foods, prepared foods to sample, some to carry (honeys, butters, nuts, chocolate, herbal things). And other vendors like coffee specialists: best latte I’ve ever had in Kenya!
- Kitengela Glass Factory (Karen) — A long drive, the last bit on a bumpy road, but absolutely worth a visit — watch glass being hand-blown, buy glass products, serene peaceful spot, cafe… — http://www.kitengela-glass.com/ Also, right nearby is Rolf’s Place, for daring people who want to cross over a high footbridge to get to a restaurant with a nice view (even if mediocre food).
- Kazuri Bead Factory (Karen) — Shop amongst may glass and ceramic items, 80% jewelry that’s relatively affordable (for what you get!) but also during regular hours you can go nextdoor to get a really nice tour of 100+ women working in the big factory space, making beads and shaping ceramics together. They are friendly, and it’s really actually neat to see how they are all made. http://www.kazuri.com/aboutus.html#
Examples of other excursions
Masai Ostrich Farm — I haven’t done this yet, but apparently you can ride ostriches and eat ostrich burgers?
Ngong Rd. Racecourse — Most Sundays, there are horse races you can bet on. There’s also a golf course in the middle of the racecourse. Be careful with traffic. There are also regular concerts alongside a pond. And nearby polo fields with matches on the occasional weekend.
Nairobi sub-community spaces — You can see the workings of (or wait for an event at) collaborative and open spaces, whether art or tech:
- Pawa254 (pawa254.org) young people’s visual performing etc arts, graffiti studio, free events, drop by anytime
- Kuona Trust — visual art centre (exhibitions), drop by normal hours
- GoDown Arts Centre — warehouses of artists, industrial area
- Creatives Garage
- Circle Art Gallery
- The Nest
- Kibera Town Centre
- so many more!