Nairobi City Tour: Top Things to Do in Nairobi

December 2, 2019

Nairobi is one of those intriguing cities that is constantly depicted in both fictional movies as well as real-time media reports. From the romanticized allure of Karen Blixen’s book and movie, Out of Africa, to the chaos and propensity for in this city of extremes, Nairobi is trendy and edgy and worth exploring. Contained in this Nairobi city tour itinerary, you’ll find enough nature, culture, art, and food finds to keep you busy for several days.

Nairobi is the capital, political, and economic center of Kenya and a growing city at that. There are those that say it has deposed Cape Town as the hottest city in Africa. You’ll see the same glitzy skyscrapers and traffic jams as you would in other bustling urban cities. Your best bet is to explore Nairobi with a guide and driver, especially if time is limited but if you are adventurous, you can try to brave the traffic yourself.

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Some of the twelve suggestions below for a Nairobi city tour will depend on whether or not you are visiting in conjunction with a safari in Kenya. If so, some of the animal-themed attractions may not appeal to you and can be omitted.

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Fast Facts

  • Elevation: 5,889′
  • Area: 268.7 mi²
  • Population: 4.4 million
  • Language: English and Swahili
  • Currency: Kenyan shilling

Brief History

The name Nairobi derives from the Maasai phrase enkare nairobi (“cool water”) referring to the Nairobi River which flows through the city.

Founded in 1899 by the colonial authorities in British East Africa as a rail depot on the Uganda Railway, Nairobi grew.  In 1907, it replaced Mombasa as the capital of Kenya. After independence was won in 1963, Nairobi became the capital of the newly formed Republic of Kenya. During the colonial period, Nairobi became an economic center for the sisal, coffee, and tea industry.

Is Nairobi Safe?

nairobi city tour

Like many large cities, Nairobi struggles with crime, poverty, and unemployment. From the slums of Kibera to the wealthy region of Karen, Nairobi runs the gamut of economic divide. In just recent years, it has experienced:

Political unrest with the invalidating of 2017 elections and subsequent demonstrations;

Terrorism target of Al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group on Kenya’s border, including attacks on the Westgate Mall, Garissa University, and Dusit Hotel.

For the most part, though, we found the city to be very safe and never felt threatened. Having said that, we did not venture out alone at night, as that was advised against. I also did not take my backpack which could be easily pickpocketed with my noticing. I used a zipped crossbody bag to carry my wallet, phone, and sunglasses.

To be honest, the precautions you’d take in Nairobi are really no different than in any other large urban city anywhere in the world.

Please note that the political situation changes daily, so please check government travel warnings for the most up-to-date information before booking your Kenyan adventure.  At the time we visited, the only recommendation was to stay away from some of the poor inner-city areas to avoid being a victim of crime.

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1 Giraffe Center

giraffe center

The Giraffe Center was my favorite place in Nairobi! I mean, doesn’t everyone want a wet, sloppy kiss from a giraffe?

Established in the 1970s and run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, the Giraffe Center is a breeding, research, and conservation center for endangered Rothschild giraffes found only in the grasslands of East Africa. Once down to only 130, there are now over 300 gorgeous Rothschild giraffes safe and breeding well in the wild in Kenyan national parks and conservancies.

Feeding of the giraffes is allowed, but only with special pellets that they give you to comply with their organic diet. As friendly as can be, the giraffes will come right up to you for the treats. If you dare to put a pellet between your lips, one of the long-legged beauties will gently lick slurp it off with their 18”-long, black sandpaper tongue!

If you want a face-to-face encounter, walk up onto the viewing platform and stand at the edge. Even the youngest members are not shy and will come over to you! Giraffes are beautiful and amazing creatures and this experience is unparalleled.

2 Maasai Market

maasai market

One of the most iconic experiences, the Maasai Market takes place at a different location around town each day. Vibrant stalls are draped with vividly-colored textiles, hand-carved wooden artifacts, leather goods, artwork, and all sorts of trinkets.

The Maasai tribes are renowned for their exquisite hand-beaded jewelry, which was one of the things I was on the hunt for. Take note, you need to hone your bargaining skills in this market. The first price is never the last. For me, it’s a very fun experience to engage with enthusiastic, friendly locals.

“You’ve done this before,” said Rosabell, our local guide. Indeed, yes, I’ve bargained with the best of them, all over the world. The trick is to make it a win-win scenario in which you get a good price but not so low that they can’t enjoy a profit or feel offended.

Note: plastic bags are illegal in Kenya, so be sure to bring lightweight, eco-friendly bag with you to hold your purchases.

If you want Maasai goods but prefer not to bargain, go to the Maasai Market at the Galleria Mall where the prices are fixed.

3 Nairobi National Park

Please note that the political situation changes daily, so please check government travel warnings for the most up-to-date information before booking your Kenyan adventure.

A safari to Kenya’s Meru National Park, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Maasai Mara National Park, or Loisaba Wildlife Conservancy is a memorable and life-changing experience. But if you don’t have that opportunity to see the Big Five, then the 30,000-acre Nairobi National Park is a must-do.

Oddly juxtaposed on the outskirts of the city, Nairobi is the only major city in the world where you can see endangered black rhinos, lions, herds of zebras, wildebeest and giraffes, lions, hippos, warthogs, and other safari animals. Established in 1946, it was the first national park in Kenya. Visitors can take their own car, take a game drive tour, or even do a safari walk.

INSIDER TIP: Here’s our guide to animals you’ll see on a Kenya safari.

4 Kazuri Beads

kazuri beads

Meaning “small and beautiful” in Swahili, the mission of Kazuri is to provide employment for disadvantaged Kenyans, which are mainly single mothers. At the factory and workshop, artistic, hand-made and hand-painted jewelry and pottery are created from the beginning to the end.

The factory, workshop, and retail store are located in the Karen suburb, just next to the Karen Blixen Museum. There’s also a clinic on the property which provides free medical care for their employees and their immediate family.

We toured the factory to see the process of making the ceramics, and then on to the workshop to see the women refine, hand-paint, and polish the stunning beads. Each piece of jewelry or pottery is a gorgeous original to be cherished.

I tell you the truth, I loved the brightly-painted dangling earrings so much that I bought 15 PAIRS for myself and to give as gifts, each pair different from the others. Not only are they beautiful additions to my accessorizing, but I love the idea of helping the women and community.

5 Carnivore

carnivore

I could not visit Nairobi without visiting its most famous restaurant, especially since I am an avid meat-eater. Carnivore specializes in nyama choma (roasted meats). Lamb, ostrich, crocodile, pork, ostrich, beef, camel, chicken, duck, sausage, ribs, and buffalo balls (!) are roasted on traditional Maasai swords over a huge charcoal pit.

After a soup and salad appetizer, waiters continuously circle through the festive, open-air restaurant, each carrying a different type of roasted meat, enticing patrons to partake of their savory beasts. They are so persuasive that one might think they get a prize for how fast they can empty their swords of the meat!

When you simply cannot eat another bite, simply lay down the little white flag on your table to indicate surrender. Take note: they will still impose a bevy of desserts on you!

I highly recommend Carnivore for both the succulent meat and the ambiance. My travel companion swears I devoured half my body weight in finger-lickin’ BBQ animals! Full transparency: I tried everything, and had seconds on the ribs and spicy/crispy chicken!

If you don’t eat meat, there are also fish and vegetarian options.

6 David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

nairobi city tour

A visit to this elephant orphanage may hinge upon whether or not you’ve had your fill of elephants on safari. Different than seeing elephants in the wild, though, the wildlife trust has been rescuing baby elephants from poaching and human water conflict situations since the 1970s. After rehabilitating and training them on how to survive on their own, the elephants are released back into the wild.

Visitors can adopt a baby elephant (a minimum annual donation of $50) to help with the high cost of raising them. The sanctuary, which can be a bit touristy, is only open to the public from 11 am-noon where visitors can observe the babies being fed bottles, frolicking in the water and mud, and roaming around the area.

7 Karen Blixen Museum

nairobi city tour

In the wealthy suburb of Karen which was named for her, Danish author Karen Blixen lived on this coffee farm-turned-museum at the foot of the Ngong Hills from 1917 – 1931 where she also wrote her memoirs. Much of the 1985 Oscar-winning movie Out of Africa about Kenya’s colonial era was filmed on the grounds.

The house is smaller than you might imagine, but still has some of Blixen’s original furniture and some props you might recognize from the movie which starred Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Outside the house, visitors can stroll around the gardens with views toward the beloved Ngong Hills that Blixen often mentioned in her book.

8 The Talisman

nairobi city tour

A cozy bistro set in the green suburb of Karen, Talisman had humble beginnings. Back in the 1990s, the small old house was occupied by famous wildlife photographer and author Alan Root. We’d heard that Talisman serves up some of the best food in Nairobi…

We loved Talisman! The décor was colorful and comfy in the interior dining rooms where we ate. Supplied with a delightful eclectic lunch menu, we dined on roasted beetroot salad, crispy nyati (buffalo) chicken wings with über-hot Taliban sauce (on the side, as recommended by our waiter), and feta and coriander stuffed samosas (pastry).

If you want a more romantic evening dinner, you can have a candle-lit experience outside in the courtyard surrounded by flowers, plants, and lanterns.

9 Bomas of Kenya

nairobi city tour

Photo credit: Steve Rwanda

Called a microcosm of Kenya, Bomas of Kenya is a tourist village six miles outside of Nairobi. The word boma comes from a Swahili word meaning homestead. 23 replicas of traditional village homesteads are a fusion of 40 Kenyan ethnic groups established by the government in 1971 to preserve the diverse cultural values of tribal Kenya. Visitors can observe traditional music and dance in the 3,000-capacity auditorium, the largest of its kind in Africa.

10 Matatus

nairobi city tour

A staple of African sub-culture, the inexpensive matatus buses have become wildly popular and you’ll see them everywhere. Founded in the 1960s, matatus are privately owned and neon-painted in the manner of street art depicting portraits of famous people, pop art, slogans, and catch-words. The busses also blare out music aimed at attracting millennials. While inexpensive and adventurous for tourists to ride a matatus, the driving has been branded as reckless and there have also been reported instances of crime aboard.

11 KICC

nairobi city tour

If you are seeking the best panoramic city views of Nairobi, head to the 28-story Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC). For a small fee, you can take an elevator to the top floor for stunning sweeping views and perhaps a bite in the revolving restaurant.

12 Kibera

nairobi city tour

Photo credit: Michal Huniewicz

Arguably the world’s biggest slum, there are pros and cons to taking a tour of this “residential” area. More than half of the city’s four million people live in these rustic conditions, some of which lack basics such as electricity or running water.

I observed Kibera from the highway but chose not to visit during my Nairobi city tour. While there are those that consider it to be innocuous, educational and a glimpse at their resilience, I personally do not support slum tourism – gawking at those who live in such unfortunate circumstances. Similar to what I experienced while traveling throughout India, it hurts my heart.

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About the Author

Patti MorrowPatti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.”  Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.

13 comments

  1. Comment by Kelsey

    Kelsey Reply December 15, 2019 at 11:00 am

    What a cool post! I’ve never been to Nairobi (or Africa at all really) but all the wildlife you saw there looks amazing! Also think it’s awesome you decided not to go to Kibera – I agree about not wanting to go on ‘slum tours.’

  2. Comment by LeNai

    LeNai Reply December 15, 2019 at 1:46 am

    Looks awesome. Added on my bucket list but still not sure when. Thanks for the detailed info.

  3. Comment by Elsa

    Elsa Reply December 14, 2019 at 7:26 pm

    Thanks for sharing it all…the giraffes and safari! Keep it up!

  4. Comment by Emma

    Emma Reply December 14, 2019 at 11:46 am

    The giraffes, spending time with them or getting that close is the dream for me. This would be the main reason I would want to visit Africa, although more and and more reasons keep coming up for me so maybe I’ll get there soon

  5. Comment by Meghan Emcee

    Meghan Emcee Reply December 14, 2019 at 11:12 am

    This is a great guide to Nairobi, there’s so much to do there! thanks for sharing!

  6. Comment by sarah

    sarah Reply December 14, 2019 at 10:21 am

    I would love to visit more of Africa. I only did Morocco and South Africa. Nairobi sounds quite mysterieus to me. I don’t know much about it. But your post really wants to make me go there.

  7. Comment by Patti

    Patti Reply December 14, 2019 at 9:29 am

    Wow. Africa has always been on my list to visit. But it looks pretty cool. Might change my mind now. I love the wildlife

  8. Comment by Emma

    Emma Reply December 14, 2019 at 9:13 am

    Sounds awesome. I’d love to visit Nairobi – there are obviously a lot of animal attractions, but the markets look incredible as well! I’m also one to enjoy a good bargain, although you’re right that it’s important to not be insulting (and to accept that as foreigners, it’s okay for us to pay a little more as long as we’re also happy with the amount).

  9. Comment by Jeff & Crystal Bryant

    Jeff & Crystal Bryant Reply December 6, 2019 at 8:56 am

    What an amazing journey. It looks like you had quite an experience in Nairobi. We know from our past that those giraffe kisses are extremely sloppy.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply December 8, 2019 at 7:18 pm

      We had a lot of fun — especially the sloppy kisses!

  10. Comment by Tam Warner Minton

    Tam Warner Minton Reply December 4, 2019 at 1:13 pm

    I am so jealous about the giraffe, I love them. Is Nairobi still super polluted? the last time I was there I couldn’t even breathe!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply December 8, 2019 at 7:19 pm

      No, it wasn’t so bad, but I think that might be subjective — compared to India, which was really bad.

  11. Comment by Tom

    Tom Reply December 2, 2019 at 2:18 pm

    Thanks so much for the detail and breadth of your account of visiting Nairobi. It’s always been on and off our list, but after reading this, it’s more on than off. Thanks for mentioning Karin Blixen, btw. Out of Africa is one of my all time favorite books.

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