Time for Nairobi

Whether you are in transit or planning to spend a few days in Kenya’s capital, Msafiri has some recommendations that will help you to make the most of your visit there

Nairobi“Smile, you’re in Kenya!” reads the sign at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. There’s already a beaming grin on my face as I hurry towards customs.

The second you step foot off the plane, you’re greeted with warmth: the light, crisp Nairobi air, friendly Kenyan people and sincere African hospitality. Nairobi’s city tagline is ‘Green City in the Sun’ and it’s one of the biggest reasons that I love living in Kenya. Throughout the year the warm sun beams on the city that’s scattered with parks and forests.

Great weather and people are a huge part of Nairobi’s (and Kenya’s) appeal, but these are not the only reasons to visit this vibrant East African city. I recently tweeted, “I was from Kenya before it was cool” because, let’s be honest, Nairobi is now the economic and entrepreneurial equivalent of Soul Cycle, CrossFit, or the Paleo diet. It’s the hot new East African trend. Nairobi is on an upward trajectory with its fast-growing middle class and startups flocking to stick their roots in Kenya’s fertile soil.

So here you are, on your way to this exciting city. What exactly can you expect? How will you maximise your time here? Let’s get down to business.

A few hours?
If you’re confined to the airport in transit, stop by one of the many Java House restaurants, grab a comfortable chair, and settle in with a good book or your tablet. Java House is a popular string of coffee houses that offer snacks, meals, and beverages ranging from fresh juices to coffees. For the most part, Java doesn’t sell alcohol, but if you’re at JKIA you’re in luck! There’s no better way to unwind than grabbing a refreshing cold Tusker, Kenya’s unofficial national drink.

If you have enough time to leave the airport, visit the Ole Sereni, a five-star luxury hotel that’s only a 20-minute drive from the airport, sitting on the edge of the Nairobi National Park. Enjoy luxurious fine dining at the Eagle’s Steak House or hang out at the Waterhole Bar, where you can sip on delicious cocktails overlooking the serenity of the African bush!

A whole day?
A full day in any city is both a blessing and a curse. You get to have a glimpse of city life but if you fall in love with the city, as many often do with Nairobi, you’ll leave wishing you could have experienced more. So, let’s make this decision as painless as possible. First, you’ll want to home in on your priorities. Do you want to go shopping? Learn a bit of history? See a few animals? Explore the heart of Nairobi? All are possible in a single day if you choose wisely.

There are some great open-air markets, referred to commonly as ‘Maasai markets’, that occur throughout the week. At these markets you can expect to find local goods, from home decor to jewellery, to unique kitenge or kikoy cloth. These markets are often held near or in shopping malls so you can easily find a full day’s worth of shopping, eating, and relaxing in one go.

Nairobi has a great and ever-growing selection of shopping malls. Locals’ favourites include Junction Mall on Ngong Road, Capital Centre on Mombasa Road and Yaya Centre on Argwings Kodhek Road. Westgate Mall on Mwanzi Road is also back in business with many new shops and restaurants opening.

Nairobi has a few cultural sites that are rich with history. Take a tour through the National Museum of Kenya and learn about Kenya’s unique history, visit the art gallery, or stop by the snake park if you want to flinch in front of some of the most dangerous serpents on the planet.

Karen Blixen was the author of Out of Africa and you can learn about her life and a bit of Kenya’s colonial history by visiting her home. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Karen Blixen Museum, and her home-turned-museum offers a glimpse into colonial times with a stunning view of the Ngong Hills, which inspired Blixen’s novels.

Nairobi has a vibrant and growing arts scene, which is perhaps best exemplified by the Kuona Trust Centre for Visual Arts. Kuona Trust is dedicated to the generation, presentation, and promotion of innovative contemporary visual arts in Kenya. Stroll through the gallery and interact with Kenyan artists (or check their website for up-and-coming events). This is a great space to appreciate and purchase contemporary Kenyan art.

Diamond Plaza, commonly known as DP, is not your average mall: a substantial portion of
the large Indian community in Nairobi seem to congregate and do business here. DP is home to Indian grocery stores, food stalls, clothing and jewellery shops. If you’re looking for a little more physical activity, try a free yoga class with the africa yoga Project on the top floor, or get active on the rock climbing wall. You can easily immerse yourself in Diamond Plaza for a full day with its twisting and turning corridors and surprises around every corner and don’t miss tucking into a plate of maru bhajias at DP’s food court, a feast of battered and fried sliced potatoes flavoured with herbs and spices.

Wildlife encounters
If you’re only in Nairobi for a day and want to guarantee that you see some wildlife while you’re here, you could make a visit to either the Nairobi Animal Orphanage or the Giraffe Centre.

The Animal Orphanage is located at the entrance of the Nairobi National Park (www.kws.go.ke). Although you may be tempted to go for a game drive, the Animal Orphanage is the best way to guarantee seeing some animals. Established in 1964, the Animal Orphanage is a refugee and rehabilitation centre for wild animals found abandoned or injured throughout Kenya. Animals you’ll see: cheetahs, hyenas, jackals, warthogs, leopards, monkeys, ostriches and more!

Continue down the road from the Animal Orphanage to the Giraffe Centre (www.giraffecenter.org. Climb up the stairs and onto the platform where you can feed a giraffe by placing a pellet in your mouth, puckering up, and letting the giraffe ‘kiss’ it from you! Get some up-close and personal photos with the giraffes while you learn a little about these majestic creatures.

Alternatively you could visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Nairobi elephant nursery, open to the public for one hour between 11am and midday, when orphans enjoy their daily mudbath. You can foster your own elephant as a lasting reminder of your trip to Nairobi at www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org

Nairobi’s Central Business District
Exploring the Central Business District (CBD) of Nairobi can easily be longer than a full-day activity. However, if you want to see the true heart of the city, this is where it lies. Head to the top of the Kenyatta International Conference Centre and catch the best aerial views of the city. On a clear day, you might even catch Mt Kenya in the distance.

Do you enjoy learning how things work? The Nairobi Railway Museum is on the outskirts of the CBD and will teach you all about different steam engines, intertwined with information on Kenya’s history. The construction of the railways was a significant part of Kenya’s colonial past and played a large role in Kenya’s cultural and economic development.

A long weekend?
If you have a long weekend to spend in Nairobi, you’re in luck. There is plenty to do and see around the city (see above), plus some great places to eat out. Add in a day trip to complete the perfect weekend break.

Lake Naivasha & Malu Farm
It’s funny how an hour’s drive out of the city can quickly change the view out of your window from urban city life to something out of The Lion King. The drive to Naivasha town is a picturesque exploration of the Great Rift Valley, enchanted-looking forests, and small local towns.

Going to Lake Naivasha is an easy single-day excursion. The freshwater lake offers breathtaking views and is home to a variety of wildlife including birds, hippos and fish. Head to Malu Farm for lunch and indulge in a three-course Italian meal with home-grown produce and fish caught from the lake! This quaint lodge tucked into the hills near Lake Naivasha is a perfect way to enjoy the scenery and serenity of the bush with great nature walks, waterfalls and a man-made plunge pool to cool off in.

Food & Drink
EatOut (www.eatout.co.ke) is the region’s largest online restaurant guide and features the tiniest venues to the talk of the town – with photos, menus and reviews for hundreds of restaurants. Fine dining lovers can check out special wine-paired tasting menus at the city’s top 12 restaurants as determined by the recent Taste Bar & Restaurant Awards 2015.

If you want to experience local Kenyan cuisine and atmosphere, Njuguna’s is the place to be. Njuguna’s is a local pub/restaurant that serves some of the best nyama choma in Nairobi. It’s a popular joint for watching football matches and getting drinks with friends.

J’s Fresh Bar and Grill is a new addition to the ever-growing Nairobi restaurant scene. This British gastropub serves incredible food with local ingredients from J’s Fresh Garden. It’s also a favourite with some of Kenya’s best DJ’s, who contribute to the development of J’s music, making it East Africa’s version of Cafe Del Mar.

With Nairobi’s large Indian population comes some fabulous authentic cuisine. Haandi serves up North Indian cuisine, with rich creamy sauces, aromatic spices, and traditional recipes – this is a restaurant you don’t want to miss.

Where to stay
There’s the perfect pillow for every need in Nairobi

Best for Families
• Jacaranda Hotel 
The Jacaranda Hotel in Westlands is close to many shopping areas and urban facilities, making it a great spot for families. Walk across the street to the Sarit Centre for a wide array of quality shops, cinema, and a food court.
• Southern Sun Mayfair
The Mayfair Hotel is located in Parklands and has quiet grounds. The Spurs restaurant offers steak house meals and a playground that kids will love. Alternatively, a good comfortable base can be found in some of Nairobi’s serviced aprtments – try YaYa (yaya-apartments.com) or Mimosa Court (mimosacourt.com).

Best for couples
• Sankara
Sankara is a great stay for couples who want to explore the restaurant and bar scene along Westland’s ‘Electric Avenue’. Sankara also offers its own five-star dining facilities as well as a spa, fitness centre, and rooftop pool.
• Tribe Hotel
If you’re looking for an all-in-one stay, Tribe is your destination. Tribe is a luxury boutique hotel that shares a parking lot with one of Nairobi’s major malls. Tribe frequently host events such as yoga and wine for you to enjoy.
• House of Waine
In 2004 this family house was converted into a boutique hotel that sits on 25 acres of land in Karen. Family owned and run, this hotel has ten rooms and one suite, each decorated and designed after a unique theme.

• Villa Rosa Kempinski
The Villa Rosa Kempinski hotel chains are world-renowned for their five-star service and style. Kempinski has five different restaurants to choose from, each offering a cuisine from a different part of the world. Just a 30-minute drive to the CBD and within a stone’s throw of different night life and restaurants in Nairobi.
• Fairmont The Norfolk
If you’re looking for luxury but need to be close to the CBD for business, The Norfolk is just for you. The Norfolk preserves its traditional charm with dark wood furnishings and beautiful gardens. The hotel has four different dining establishments, including Tatu, their award-winning signature restaurant. The Norfolk is also an easy hotel to conduct business
in, with conference facilities and more.

• Dusit D2
Dusit D2 in Nairobi has a contemporary chic way with everything it does. This hotel is one of the Dusit hotels found the world over. This hotel exudes modern comfort and style from its outdoor poolside lounge Rouge Deck, to Zing, its cocktail bar and restaurant. If you don’t plan on staying here but are looking for a sundowner venue, you’re sure to spot some of Nairobi’s Who’s Who sitting at the Dusit restaurant and bars.
• Palacina
Palacina offers both residences and suites in the quieter neighbourhood of State House Valley. This hotel is family run and owned and their emphasis is on making guests feel at home.

Close to the airport
• Summerdale Inn
If you want mid-range accommodation close to JKIA and Wilson Airport, Summerdale Inn is for you. A convenient location for a quick stopover.
• EkaHotel
Eka Hotel is where convenience meets comfort. Only a few minutes away from JKIA and 5km from Wilson Airport, this hotel will provide you with a comfortable stay for a short stop over.

On a budget
• SleepOut
An African version of AirBnB lists unique guest houses, small apartments, and cottages for cheap short-term self-service accommodation.
• Kahama Hotel 
Kahama Hotel is in Ngara, about 20 minutes from the Central Business District of Nairobi. Here you’ll find clean, comfortable, and affordable accommodation for as little as US$50 per night.

Great for business
• Best Western
The Best Western Hotel offers state-of-the art conference facilities and modern equipment with highly trained staff who attend to your conferencing needs. You have four different meeting rooms with customisable seating arrangements to choose from. Seating can be in banquet, board, classroom, theatre or U-shape form. A great venue for a conference and a drink at the rooftop Level 8 – Ciroc Bar.
• Sovereign Suites
Enjoy the Nairobi branch of the Sun Africa Hotel collection. In the past four years Sun Africa Hotels have been awarded 13 World Luxury Hotel Awards and it shows in all that they do. This stature translates to the rooms, conference facilities, and grounds at Sovereign Suites. An ideal location for high priority clients.

Still can’t find what you’re looking for? Visit SleepOut Kenya’s website (www.sleepout.com) for a full range of accommodation options all over Kenya. This great site will help you quickly narrow down your options.

This might feel like a lot of information to digest, but Nairobi has a lot to offer. Whether you’re in town for a few hours or a few weeks, I hope that one day when you step off the plane at JKIA and see that old sign, you too will feel your feet pick up their pace and your face beam with excitement. After all, you are in Kenya.