Nairobi is unique among African cities: No other capital has a national park so close to its borders, making safari game drives an easy day trip as part of an otherwise urban vacation.
We reached out to several Africa specialists to see what they recommend doing in Nairobi: Jim Holden, president of African Travel; Elizabeth Gordon of Africa-focused tour operator/agency Extraordinary Journeys; and Sandy Salle of Hills of Africa.
And perhaps somewhat surprisingly, all three were largely in agreement on what to see and do in Nairobi. First on the list is The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, commonly known as either the Daphne or David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. It was founded by Daphne Sheldrick in memory of her husband David, who worked to prevent poaching in Tsavo National Park. In 2006, Queen Elizabeth named Ms. Sheldrick a Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, the first knighthood to be awarded in Kenya since the country became an independent republic in 1963.
Today, black rhinos and many other local species are also protected at the orphanage. Gordon recommends a private visit in the afternoon. “You donate $50 and you get to put the elephants to bed!” Otherwise, visitors should go between 11 a.m. and noon when the animals get their daily exercise and baths. Holden says that the trust is a “wonderful experience” for children, helping them learn about conservation as they observe the animals up close.
All three also recommend a visit to Giraffe Manor. Originally created as a sanctuary for the endangered Rothschild Giraffes, the manor is now a good spot for families to get up-close-and-personal with the animals from the safety of a two-story structure. “The giraffes won’t attack anybody,” Holden says, although Salle points out that they will sometimes poke their heads in the windows while the guests eat breakfast. People who are not staying at the manor can go to the viewing area, where they can feed the animals and learn about them firsthand.
And then there’s Nairobi National Park, just outside of the city limits. “One of the best things about doing a safari in Nairobi is seeing the high-rise buildings in background,” Holden says. “It’s an odd feeling! There you are in the bush—and it’s an authentic savannah! It’s not a zoo! You can take a game drive in the morning and then retire to a shady restaurant for lunch. You get the best of both worlds.”
Most of these attractions are located in a suburb of Nairobi called Karen, named for Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame. The author’s house has been converted into a museum, and the surrounding businesses are popular with locals and visitors alike.
Gordon also recommends a visit to the Natural History Museum, which was recently renovated and, she says, hosts some very good exhibits. “For example, they have the single most important collection of early human fossils in the world—all discovered in Kenya—including the ‘black skull.’ ” Art fans will want to spend time at Kitengela Glass. “Nani is an artist but also does huge glasswork installations,” she says. “Her property is amazing.”
For shopping, Holden recommends visiting the Nairobi City Market in the downtown area. “It’s the original market with lots of different stalls,” he says, noting that it’s a good place to find authentic African art and artifacts—but only with a guide who can help guests find what they need. “Be prepared to haggle,” he adds. Visitors can also go to the Eastern Village Market, East Africa’s largest shopping and recreation complex with more than 150 retail and service outlets.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of places to stay in Nairobi, from high-end, high-rise hotels to intimate bed-and-breakfasts. Holden calls the historic Norfolk Hotel “iconic”: It opened in 1904 and appeared in the film version of Out of Africa.
Today, the Norfolk is operated by Fairmont Hotels, and is known as Fairmont The Norfolk. Situated in the city center, the hotel is a quick drive to all of the area’s major attractions and the airport. Head Concierge Michelle Onginjo ([email protected], 011-254-20-226-5000) can arrange visits to the elephant orphanage, museums and shopping centers as well as a private session at Kitengela Glass or with the founder of the One Off Gallery for a private tour.
The spa at the Norfolk books up quickly, so make reservations at least two months in advance. (The deep tissue massage is the most popular—ask for Elizabeth Gitau when booking.) Agents can make reservations with Health Club Manager David Omaramba ([email protected], 011-254-72-199-1960).
The best rooms at the hotel are the nine Signature Suites, named for notables like Harry Thuku, (Theodore) Roosevelt, Lord Erroll and Blixen. These suites all have separate sitting rooms and dressing rooms. Families will want to book one of the three suites in the Acacia Wing, which connect to twin rooms. Good to know: All suites and Deluxe Rooms face the courtyard.
Agents can reach out to Sales Manager Catherine Chuani ([email protected], 011-254-20-226-5000) with any questions.
The Tribe Hotel is a more contemporary Nairobi option for those who like boutique properties. The hotel’s spa has six treatment rooms (including a couples’ suite) as well as a hair and nail salon and also offers the rasul treatment. The Kenya Gold treatment is reportedly the most popular pick: It combines a Coffee Detox Body Polish and an hour-long Kaya Massage. (Ask for Kellyn when booking.) Contact Emily Gicheru ([email protected], 011-254-20-720-0656) for reservations.
The Penthouse (#300), Presidential Suite (#232) and Ambassadorial Suite (#238) are the top picks, and families should opt for Superior Rooms (which interconnect) or Junior Suites which can fit two adults and a child. For top views, pick Junior Suites #202 or 302, or Deluxe Rooms ending in 08, 10 or 14. (Good to know: The Presidential Suite and the Penthouse have private butler service.)
Head Concierge Cameline Kiragu ([email protected], 011-254-20-720-0301) can arrange just about anything clients need, like sundowners on the escarpment; picnics in the nearby, secure Karura Forest; a private city tour by helicopter; or an excursion into the Nairobi National Park with a champagne breakfast. Of course, the hotel can also arrange for game drives in the park with guides. The travel agent liaison is Moses Mutahi ([email protected], 011-254-20-720-0107).
Upcoming hotels in the city include a Best Western and a Park Inn.