It’s holiday season in Nairobi and Nairobians know how to celebrate in style, always seeing the year out in a blaze of glory! Local writer Millicent Muthoni gives her insider guide to this year’s celebrations…
l Iove the nostalgia that the end of every year brings to the city of Nairobi – the familiar colours, the sounds and smells. We start by painting the town red – literally. Santa Claus may be black in Nairobi, but he doesn’t lose the red suit. He camps at every shopping mall and children love to clown with him.
In fact, nowhere is the spirit of Christmas more felt than in the shopping malls. The Christmas shopping experience in Nairobi nowadays is quicker and more convenient with the proliferation of modern malls housing world leading brands as well as local brands. Shop display windows are painted. Christmas lights turn the glitzy malls into a starry spectacle. The atria in the malls are kitted out with the season’s paraphernalia – giant Christmas trees, jingle bells, dummy gift boxes, even reindeer. They put up performances. Thika Road Mall will have acrobats entertain families while Yaya presents a choir (of angels) singing Hallelujah! The high-pitched advertising on radio and TV only dials down towards the end of December. Look out for offers and sales, pre-packed gift hampers and ‘Buy One Get One Free’ offers. There are discounts on flights, meals, clothes, household items and all sorts of products.
Other innovative and more intimate shopping opportunities include craft fairs and pop-up shops at restaurants and events. Here, as in the popular Maasai market, which hops around the city, you will find more ethnic-chic, handmade, rustic, even bespoke local items such as jewellery, fabric, the Maasai shuka (the plaid, brightly coloured African blanket) and home decor knick-knacks. These are good gifts for friends who prefer items made from the labour of love to the glossy stuff.
Christmas in Nairobi also means year-end corporate parties and weddings. Venues are usually fully booked and filled to capacity. Churches hold Christmas cantatas and carol services, and these are fun for families.
Most people save a good number of leave days for December, so while offices are abandoned, the streets and coffee houses are full of happy, relaxed people on their downtime. In homes, the Christmas decor – garlands, ribbons, balls and the Star of David – comes out of last year’s stow-away boxes.
The holiday cheer, the smell of good food, the ring of Christmas carols, the warmth and magic of the season abound.
Christmas Day in Nairobi is a predictable affair. The clanging and banging of the holiday season comes to an abrupt end from around 20 December as families flee the city for a deserved break. The city goes on mute. Many travel upcountry, to their rural homes, their ‘real’ homes, to celebrate with their extended families. Going ‘shagz’ is always a safe option for broke parents because it only costs a tank of fuel and a bag of shopping for grandma. Of course there is the ceremonial goat that bleats its last at Christmas. Nyama choma, Kenya’s most popular roast meat, is a must. It’s the white smoke of the barbecue that says ‘we have Christmas!’
For other families, Christmas is the one time they reward themselves for slogging away during the year. Holiday destinations are booked as early as August and so begins the excruciating countdown. The coast with its offerings – the island of Mombasa, Watamu, Lamu and the South Coast – is a favourite hideout for those not venturing outside the country. There’s nothing like the sun, sand and sea combo to help refuel. It’s a beach-perfect holiday!
Not to say that Nairobi is dull. If you’re spending your Christmas in the city, we’ve got you covered. There are lots of beautiful, meaningful activities you can engage in, whether alone, as a couple, with friends or with family.
Where to party
Newscafé at Sarit Centre in Westlands is a good bet for food and a drink. They also serve some of the best cocktails in the city.
For a night on the town, Brew Bistro Westlands is a good place to start for a polite drink before hitting the dance floor at The Alchemist, which has a rustic, artsy ambience to it. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the latest music sensation on stage, because they feature the coolest DJs and artists. If you’re in the Kilimani or Hurlingham area, Kiza on Galana Road is the new attraction; the kind of place that sets the pulse of the nightlife. Good food, good music, good vibes all round.
Every second Friday of the month, Purdy Arms in Karen lets you sing your heart out karaoke-style, while seasoned karaoke host Sanaipei Tande is at Space Lounge on Ngong Road every Tuesday.
For family time
The Hub in Karen has a mini-golf park, a child-friendly amusement zone, Funscapes, that offers a variety of hair-raising activities and Kenya’s first planetarium. The skateboard park is flanked by eateries, which means parents can supervise their kids.
The Nairobi Safari Walk is on Lang’ata Road, and showcases the unique asset of the city – wild animals. The raised boardwalk gives you a vantage point from which to enjoy the Nairobi National Park, and the children get a chance to view caged animals too. Carry drinking water, picnic items, binoculars, camera, hat, sunscreen and sunglasses.
For a lesson in Kenya’s history, head to the National Museums of Kenya at Museum Hill. Sample the country’s rich heritage and have fun while you get educated. You can also visit the snake park at the museum and view the different types of snake and see the crocodiles being fed. The botanical garden is a beautiful thematic display of different species of plant.
Jaffery Sports Club in Lavington offers karate classes for families, at Ksh3500 per person per month. Why not sweat it out while you build your body, and your family?
Planet Media Cinema at Westgate Mall, Fox Cineplex at Sarit Centre and Century Cinemax at the Junction Mall bring you all the Hollywood and Bollywood action this season. If in the CBD, check out the Imax theatre.
Give me a break!
Need a massage? Look no further than some of Nairobi’s best hotel spas and check in for some relaxation at the Sankara Hotel, Kempinski, DusitD2 or Boma Hotel. Give yourself that deserved treat and your body will thank you.
Bikram yoga or hot yoga takes place at Lavington Green Shopping Centre, and you can pay for one-off sessions or as many classes as you wish. It’s the best way to lose weight, de-stress and feel great.
Want to learn about the brewing of craft beer so your mind can read what your lips sip? Team up with ten friends and take a guided tour of Brew Bistro’s brewery at their Ngong Road branch, hosted by none other than the brew master. The ingredients, process and technology are all explained.
You could also take a walk in Karura Forest or rent some multi-speed trail bikes at one of the two depots (use Gate A, Limuru Road, or Gate D, off ICRAF Road, for one and Gate C, off Kiambu Road, for the other).
For a different experience, how about booking a day at Brown’s Cheese Farm in Tigoni? You get to experience the cool verdant area of Limuru just minutes from the city and learn about cheese from Kenya’s leading supplier of natural cheese. Lunch can be thrown in for good measure, and you can be sure you will have your fill.
Got high ideas? Arrange a picnic with a view from the top. The 28-storey Kenyatta International Conference Centre in the CBD offers a 360-degree panorama of the city from its rooftop, which you can access for a few shillings.
Staying at home?
If you’re dreaming of a light Christmas, with as little activity as possible, you can still enjoy your holiday. Try whipping up a special Kenyan meal or putting your mixology skills to the test with some cocktail experiments. Check out some Kenyan food bloggers. We suggest pendolamama.co.ke or africankaya.com for local recipes. Sandy Thethy of tastesafari.co.ke will give your Christmas meal a spicy Indian twist!
If Christmas to you is the intoxicating smell of a new book, stop by Bookstop at Yaya and pick up My Camera, My Life by Sir Mohinder Dhillon. It is fresh off the press and is the remarkable life story of the 83-year-old pioneering Kenyan news cameraman who covered most of the dramatic events of the 20th century and used his lens to expose injustice, hunger and poverty. It comes in three volumes, which should keep you so busy you won’t notice December turning into January!
Reason for the season
To get back to the true meaning of Christmas, sample Nairobi’s carol services. Nairobi Music Society and the Nairobi Orchestra hold a carol concert at All Saints Cathedral every Christmas. The gospel is sung and played by professional classical music performers.
Another must-attend is the Karen Vineyard Church Carols by Candlelight. It is held in Karen, usually in the open air (if it doesn’t rain!). It is quite a spectacle as thousands of people, huddled in families with their picnic baskets, light candles in the night and sing along to Christmas songs.
Follow your art
To sample the art of the city and the region, visit Little Gallery in Karen or Red Hill Art Gallery in Limuru. At the Godown Art Centre, which is 10 minutes from the CBD, you can visit artists at their studios and purchase directly. Dust Depot at the Railway Museum in the CBD is also open to the public.
You could also visit the Nairobi Gallery at the Old PC’s office in the CBD to view part of the extraordinary art and artefacts collection of Kenya’s second vice president, Joseph Murumbi. There’s a rich documentation on Kenya’s history. The rest of the collection is housed at the National Archives.
Another exciting activity is to attend an artisan workshop that teaches you to create your own Christmas gifts. The best local jua-kali artisans in Nairobi help you come up with ideas and make unique presents, from baobab-inspired Christmas trees to beaded stars. Last year, designer Nicola Armitage organised the workshop at Juniper Kitchen. Let’s see where she goes this year. What a way to take matters into your own hands!
Nairobi’s malls offer something for everyone. One of our top picks is Little Red Menswear. This season they are offering a beautiful holiday collection from Hugo Boss and an evening and party collection from Giorgio Armani as well as a very sophisticated collection of smart casual wear from Ermenegildo Zegna and Brioni. This Christmas they will have elegant silk shirts and accessories from the luxury Italian houses of Stefano Ricci and Kiton. The leather shoes from Salvatore Ferragamo are beautiful for the Christmas and festive season. Their womenswear shop is also full of seasonal specials.
We also love these Maasai sandals from Adelphi at the Yaya and Sarit centres (top right) and if you want to have a taste of the coast in Nairobi, Kenyan themed cotton t-shirts, kikoi pants, linen, leso print shirts and dresses are the way to go – One Way at Yaya is your stop. For more cotton comfort also try Bossini at Village Market.
Where to dine!
Depending on what your palate wants, the city has many beautiful restaurants and hotels. Tapas at Westgate mall is great for lunch with friends for their delicious entrées.
Asmara in Spring Valley has the best Ethiopian food and great ambience and decor for fine dining. Nyama Mama at the Yaya food court serves a mean steak and in the same mall is Sierra Brasserie, which offers great wine and continental meals. Emerald Garden Thai Restaurant and Bar in Gigiri will blow your senses with their curries, noodles and stir fries as well as the lush and airy semi-open seating.
Seven Seafood and Grill is your best bet for, you guessed it, seafood. Soko at DusitD2 in Chiromo offers an elaborate lunchtime buffet, while J’s Fresh Bar and Kitchen in Karen was voted the best gastropub and bar in the Chefs Delight Awards 2016.
Millie’s mall treats
Millicent Muthoni made a trip to Nairobi’s malls to pick up some treats for herself and her loved ones…
This is a great gift for a friend or a couple that hosts a lot. Break out the bottle of wine and slice the cheese with ease.
• 4 piece cheese set Ksh6500; 3-piece bar tool set Ksh3800; Palacina Interiors at Yaya Centre, Junction, Westgate, Village Market, The Hub, Two Rivers
Sparkly little black dress
This little number is perfect for evening soirées, evening wedding parties or corporate dinners. The sparkle is perfect for the festive season.
• Dress Ksh8500; LA Elegant, Yaya Centre
These two sunny pieces are great for festive times! They will dress down and pretty up any outfit!
• Mustard yellow leather multi-pocket crossbody bag Ksh9900 ; Maasai Sandals by Kweta Ksh2500 ; Adelphi: Yaya and Sarit Centre
This little white textured dress by Ginger Mary will take you across the party scene this season. Accessorise for the occasion and you’re good to go… anywhere!
• Ksh7000; Ginger Mary, Yaya