What to do, love, and see in Nairobi

Nairobi isn’t a city people spend too much time in. Generally if you’ve travelled to Kenya’s capital, it’s a jumping-off point for adventurous safaris through the Maasai Mara and Lake Nakuru, or a long tour through East Africa. I headed off on the latter – an East African dream – last December through to January. Before I start any tours anywhere, I always like to arrive in the city at least two days early. This gives me time to adjust to the time zones and get myself out of the transit-induced funk we all fall into after over 24 hours spent in and out of airports and airplanes. I booked my trip on a whim and last minute – I gave myself under six weeks to mentally and physically prepare, but made sure I arrived in Nairobi two days early. The only problem was…I had absolutely no idea what to do in this city.

Where to stay:

The Sarova Stanley 

Now, this hotel seems like it’s going to be a terrifying slap to your bank account but the truth is, for a five star hotel, I paid under $300 (AU) for two nights (including a fantastic breakfast). This hotel hosted classic movie stars and writers, including Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen. When you think of drifting back in time, this is the hotel that resembles that time period, keeping its colonial plush feel well into the 21st century. It’s beautiful, clean, recently renovated, and covered in crimson velvet. If you want a relaxing afternoon, head up to the pool deck, order a drink, and lie in the sun with a good book – preferably something related to why you’re in Africa in the first place. Make sure you eat at The Thorn Tree Cafe/Restaurant inside the hotel, where your incredible buffet breakfast will be served. The food is impeccable, the servings generous, the staff impossibly lovely, and sitting outside under the cover of the large tree in the centre of the courtyard is the perfect way to unwind from a busy day exploring. I’m heading back to Kenya in October and you better believe I’ve already booked my room.

Kicking back with a good book at the Stanley pool

Where to eat:

Open House Indian Restaurant

This is outside the centre of town a little, so be prepared to catch an Uber (yes, Nairobi Uber’s are a thing and they’re a gift). It might seem odd to be eating Indian while in Africa, but many Indians moved to Kenya during the early 1900’s and the city still has a strong Indian population. Prepare your stomach for melt-in-your-mouth dishes, more than enough different types of naan to keep your carb needs in check, and plenty of vegetarian options. Also, you know it’s a good restaurant when local Indians are eating there. If you’re travelling with someone, try a handful of different dishes (all at an exceedingly reasonable price) and dip into everything you can. If you’re by yourself…well just do the same thing but with a table for one. If you're not one for the typical Carnivore experience, choose this.

What to see:

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage

 I hadn’t heard of this until a week before I left when I was suddenly in a googling frenzy searching desperately for activities that weren’t just souvenir shopping. Thankfully I found this gem, located about half an
 hour outside the city. The elephant orphanage is open only from 11am to 12pm each day where the extremely large babies bumble out of their enclosures and into a large, roped off square full of mud and dirt to be fed by their carers – which is what you’re there to witness. The elephants come out in two different groups of about 10 each, rolling around and stealing the bottles of formula from the keepers’ hands. The keepers will talk you through the inception and purpose of the Trust, while telling you about each baby and how they came to be there. Many of the elephants have lost their families due to either drought or human-animal conflict. Note: get there early if you want a nice spot to be able to interact with the animals and head towards the bottom corner under the tree as there’s no other shade to be found next to the area. Be prepared to have these animals bump into you if they want and you may be able to pat them if they’re feeling bold enough.

What to see:

The Giraffe Centre

Ever wanted to feed a giraffe from your mouth? Me neither, but here you can. Only ten minutes from the elephant orphanage, the Giraffe Centre backs onto the ever famous Giraffe Manor hotel. Ideally do this prior to going to the Orphanage to prevent the ever present crushing of crowds and be able to feed the giraffes without the usual hustle and jostle around other tourists. Grab a handful of pellets and, with an open palm, hold them out towards the long-necked creatures. The handlers will be watching and will also warn you if the one you’re about to feed is cranky aka is likely to give you a nip or a shove. Otherwise let their giant tongue lift the pellets from your hand as they stretch up towards you. Fact: you actually can feed them with your mouth if you really want by holding the pellet between your lips. Giraffe saliva is an antiseptic due to the acacia trees they’re always munching on. Don’t forget to go inside the treehouse to listen to a presentation about the animals, the centre itself, and even hold old giraffe bones and skulls.

Getting Around

How do I get to these places?

Because they aren’t near many hotels and are not within walking distance, you’re going to need transport. Obviously an Uber or a taxi is a good choice if you’re with other people. However if you’re like me and flying solo, book a driving tour for the day. Check out Trip Advisor to find one that works for your timing and whatever else you plan on seeing. My driver Nani picked me up early from my hotel and showed me to a fantastically cluttered and intriguing souvenir shop near the Mamba Village before heading to the Giraffe Centre and Orphanage. It’s also great because he volunteered to be my personal photographer while hanging out with the animals. Nani also took me through Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, to see how the people less fortunate live. It was an extremely eye-opening sight. I had expected and witnessed poverty before, but what struck me was the happiness and joy of the locals despite their situations. Children shared a warm Sprite with several straws and waved excitedly, cheering at the car as we drove past. Parents looked on with smiles on their faces and waved the same. This is something you’ll see all over the country, and honestly, it’s this ever-present happiness and positivity that makes Kenya such a special place.

What to do:

Walk around the city

 This is a pretty obvious thing to do while in a new city, but Nairobi – or Nairobbery as described by some jaded tourists or ex-pats – is worth a wander. The same as in every city, keep your bag where you can see it and keep the majority of your cash locked away in your hotel. I actually had a bag with a detachable bottom so if necessary, I hid cash underneath the magnetic bottom which stopped anyone from being able to stick a hand in. But none of this should stop you just heading out into the streets and looking around. Ignore the hawkers at the hotel entrances and in the tourist district trying to sell you cheap safaris or day trips out of the city. I headed to the City Markets out near the Supreme Court and spent my afternoon haggling for wood carvings and soap stone hippos. Note: bargaining down a price is unfortunately essential in every souvenir shop and stall. The rule of thumb is to start at half the price they gave you and work your way back up to a price you’re willing to pay. Remember however that while you may be getting a sweet deal, you also need to think of what’s fair for the seller. I found one stall owner who refused to negotiate – and set his prices very low so it wasn’t necessary. While I can appreciate the art of a good, friendly hustle, sometimes you just want to buy something for what it’s worth. Set a price and if they don’t want to take it, don’t buy it. Look out for stall owners following you around the market after your leave if you refused to buy something – they’ll try and undercut everyone else you visit. Tell them to leave – they’ll back off. As a tourist you’re likely to stick out like a sore thumb, but the locals won’t take any notice of you as you meander around the streets.
Enjoy your travels in one of my favourite cities in the world!

Andie Wilson

Lawyer and traveller with a passion for sharing my favourite experiences – be it global or local