Known for her amazing tourism destinations and producing some of the fastest runners in the world, the Republic of Kenya is one fascinating country. Kenya covers an area of about 224,081 square miles and is bordered by Uganda to the West, South Sudan to the northwest, Somali to the East, Ethiopia to the North, Tanzania to south and the Indian ocean to the southeast. The country gets its name from the second highest mountain in Africa – Mount Kenya. Kenya has a population of about 50 million people and is made up of about 47 counties – each led by an elected governor. The capital is Nairobi but the Mombasa is the oldest city. Other newer cities include Nakuru, Kisumu and Eldoret. Kenya is the second largest country in East Africa. The Great East African Rift Valley divides the country into two creating mountains and other amazing physical features. A large part of the country is semi-arid but the country has hundreds of rivers and lakes including the second largest fresh water lake in the world – Lake Victoria. Other important landmarks include Mount Kenya and of course the Indian Ocean.
Kenya has 42 different tribal groups, each with their own traditions and culture. Swahili is the most wildly spoken language among all the tribes hence a major unifying factor. Of all the tribal groups, the Masai are the most famous and known – thanks to their reputation as great warriors living close to major national parks. Other major ethnic groups in Kenya are the Kikuyu, Kalenjin and the Luo (The tribe of Obama’s Dad).
Kenya has the largest economy in East Africa. Agriculture is the largest economic sector with coffee and tea as the main cash crops. Tourism follows closely after agriculture in terms of importance. The government of Kenya has not only marketed the country as a leading destination for the classic African Safari but also developed the tourism infrastructure to international standards. The responsibility of marketing and managing most aspects of the tourism industry rests with the Kenya Tourism Board. International travelers find Kenya an amazing destination because of the diversity in what it offers. The diversity includes the great wildebeest migration, the majestic flamingos in lake Nakuru, the elephants of Amboseli National Park, the beautiful beaches of Mombasa, ancient mosques, the East African Rift Valley, mountains and amazing cultural encounters with tribes like the Masai, Samburu and Kikuyu. Kenya has over 55 national parks, game reserves and sanctuaries. Many who visit the country fall in love with the incredible beauty and have decided to stay permanently. Although this article focuses on Kenya, you can also read about the things to do in Uganda or the attractions in Mombasa.
Tourist attractions in Kenya
Nairobi: Nairobi is the largest city and capital of Kenya. It is a modern, multicultural and historic town with amazing attractions (wildlife, museums and historical monuments). Nairobi was the headquarters during British colonial rule in East Africa and hence gained from having the largest group of European settlers in the region. Most of the settlers worked as plantation owners while others were administrators and representatives of the Queen in the region. The key tourist attractions in Nairobi are the Nairobi National Park, the Karen Blixen Museum, The Giraffe Center, The Bomas of Kenya and the Nairobi National Museum. The Nairobi National Museum is where you can stop to learn about the history and culture of the people of Kenya. The Karen Blixen Museum was the home of the renowned Danish plantation owner and author Karen Blixen. As we shall find out later, the house was turned into a museum to remember her life and times in Kenya. The Nairobi National Park is the only one in the world that is located so close to a large city. You can spot all of the big five animals without having to drive to the major national parks in the countryside. We will be discussing many of the Nairobi’s attractions separately.
Nightclubs and bars: If you love having fun up to late in the night, then you won’t be disappointed while visiting Kenya’s capital or any of the other larger cities. Most of the cities host concerts every weekend where both local and international artists are hired to perform for revelers. The atmosphere may be slightly different from that in your home country but the music will be familiar though with a mix of songs from the local artists. The best bars and nightclubs in Nairobi are found in the northwestern part of the city, close to the Westland’s neighborhood. This is where you will find the prominent citizens, middle/working class Kenyans, International expatriates, UN staff and tourist partying till the wee hours of the morning. Which club or night spot should I go to? The most popular ones in Nairobi are Klub House for reggae music and Brew Bistro for the best local beer.
Watch Movie from 7D Cinemas: The movie business in Nairobi has been thriving for decades but is now organized to the highest standards. Some of the high-end movie houses and cinemas offer 7D movie experiences. 7D incorporates special effects with the movie in order to allow people see and feel every sound. It’s like listening to a revealing high-end music system where you can hear every song just as the artist intended it to be. For the best 7D cinema experience, you should go to the Thika Road Mall.
The Maasai Mara National Reserve: This is arguably the best tourist attraction in Kenya and one of the best in the world. The Maasai Mara National Reserve is located in Narok County in the south-western part of the country – close to the border with Tanzania. The reserve was named after the Maasai tribesmen and is part of a wider Mara Ecosystem that includes 11 other ranches. The Mara is an extension of the great Serengeti National Park of Tanzania. When combined, the two national parks form a wildlife corridor that is unequaled anywhere word. The Reserve receive over 290,000 visitors each year. The key attraction is the Great Wildlife Migration to and from the Serengeti which occurs in the dry months of July to October. During this migration, over one million wildebeest, Thomson’s gazelle and Zebra move to and from the Serengeti. They have to cross the crocodile infested Mara river and deal with predators like leopard, lions and cheetahs. Our 3 Days Masai Mara Safari package offers travelers a chance to witness the great wildlife migration spectacle as well as the battle between predator and prey. In total, the park is home to 95 species of mammals and 570 of birds. Apart from the wildlife and beautiful landscape, another key attraction is an encounter with the Masai warriors who live in the park. You can also read about the tourist attractions in Tanzania for more about the Serengeti and how it is connected to the Mara.
Religious Buildings: As a free country, Kenya has several religious denominations. Christianity and Islam have the largest official following but traditional religion is still practiced quietly. Hinduism is also very popular especially in urban areas. Tourists will be amazed to find some of the most beautiful mosques, temples and cathedrals in almost every town. Some of the mosques in Mombasa and the other islands have unique architectural designs and date all the way back to the 12th century. The imposing Dawoodi Bohra Mosque was built in 1902 while the Mandhry Mosque in Mombasa was built in 1570. The Basheikh Mosque is even older and was built in early 1300. If you want to visit a more modern mosque, then check out The Memon Mosque.
Samburu National Reserve: This is one of the lesser visited tourism attractions in Kenya but with its own unique offerings. It is a conservation park located in Northern Kenya which is home to the Samburu people. The Samburu are a distinct tribe who love wearing brightly colored clothing and jewelry. Samburu National reserve stands out because of its arid plains, sun-parched hills and jagged mountains. The Uso Nyiro River runs through the park leaving behind forests and lush green vegetation even during the driest of months. Samburu National Reserve receives fewer visitors but those who can get there will be rewarded with amazing sightings of lions, wild dogs, cheetahs, elephants, leopards, buffaloes, hippos, wildebeest, Nile crocodiles and countless antelopes. The Reserve is also home to rare creatures like the Gerenuk, blue-legged Somali ostrich, the Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe and beisa Oryx. Over 450 species of birds call the Reserve home. The fastest and easiest way of getting to the reserve is by catching a flight from Nairobi to the airstrip in Samburu. One can also drive by car from Nairobi in a journey that can take 6 hours.
Amboseli National Park: Amboseli National Park is found close to the border with Tanzania and at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. “Amboseli means “salty dust” in Masai language. This is in reference to the dry conditions on the park. Amboseli is one of Kenya’s most visited national reserves. The key attractions in the park are one of Africa’s largest elephant herds and an opportunity to meet the Masai people for an amazing cultural experience. There is no better place to see wild elephants in large numbers than Amboseli National Park. One can also spot lions, leopards, cheetahs, gazelle, eland, impala, waterbucks and giraffe. Over 600 species of birds can be spotted in the park. One will also be captivated by the greet savanna grasslands/woodlands, mountain views and the opportunity to learn about the Masai culture and customs. Amboseli National Park can be reached by air from Nairobi in only 40 minutes.
Nairobi National Museum: Established in the 1920’s, the Nairobi National Museum is arguably the best place to learn about the history, culture and art of the country. The Museum also displays information about the country’s unique flora and fauna. The museum exhibits artifacts from the different tribal groups and artists in Kenya. It is at the Museum where you will find the works of the famous Leakey family on display. The Leakey’s discovered the first human fossils at the Olduvai Gorge. Their findings are amazing but you will also see stuffed birds, countless art pieces and information about Kenya’s wildlife dating back to the colonial times. After a tour of all the galleries in the main building, you can also take a walk around the beautiful botanical gardens and then crown it all by eating yummy food from the restaurant. The museum is open from 9:30am to 6:00pm.
Karen Blixen Museum and the Ngong Hills: Karen Blixen is the woman whose story is told in the colonial time love story and movie Out of Africa. Her other names were Isak Dinesen and she was from Denmark. During the colonial times in Kenya, many European opened up farms and built houses around the Ngong hills which is very close to Nairobi. Karen left Denmark and did the same. She bought a 4,500-acre farm at the foot of the Ngong hills where she grew coffee and other cash crops. She managed the farm from 1913 to 1931 when she returned to Denmark.
The romantic movie “Out of Africa” describes her life story, struggles with sickness, relationships and adapting to a new land. Her house has now been turned into a museum that is dedicated to her life and times. Tourists who are fascinated with her movie, books and stories visit the same farm to get a sense of what life was back then. While at the Museum, one can buy Karen Blixen postcards, posters and handcrafts. Karen was also a great author and you should read her books and watch the movie “Out of Africa” if you haven’t yet understood what we are talking about here. Tourists can also visit the lone grave of her partner and great hunter Denys Finch Hatton found on the eastern part of the Ngong Hills. The Karen Blixen Museum is open from 9:30am to 6pm every day of the year.
Take a train or visit the Nairobi Railway Museum: The Railway Museum is one of the important attractions in Kenya. It was established to recognize the important role of the railway system to Kenya’s economy even before the country got independence. The system was known as the “Lunatic Express” when it was first launched in 1901. The name came about because it was considered crazy to build a railway right through the African wild at the time. The Museum sits on an old railway building with the oldest wagons and steam engines including rare models like the German MV Liemba. Among the wagons are those that were used to corner man eating lions during the construction of the railway lines at the time. If you want to enjoy the Kenyan countryside, national parks or mingle with the locals, then you should board a train through the newly renovated railway system. The new East African Gauge railway has been modernized with first class facilities. A journey from Nairobi to Mombasa using the Madaraka Express train takes 4.5 hours.
Tsavo National Park: The Tsavo National Park is by far the largest national park in Kenya – 4 percent of Kenya’s total area. Tsavo is considered the best national park in Kenya for exploring the African wilderness in privacy/solitude. It is so large that it is divided into two sections – Tsavo East and Tsavo West. Tsavo National Park is characterized by volcanic hills, rivers, savanna plains, waterfalls and plateaus. Tsavo West receives more rainfall and for that matter has better scenery all year round. The key attractions in Tsavo West are the Mzima Springs and giant craters. Because of the thicker vegetation, the animals are more difficult to see when compared to Tsavo East. Tsavo East is relatively dry and hence with less vegetation cover. It is easier to spot park animals like elephants. Though dry, Tsavo East is served by Galana River which meanders around the sector. The river supports the growth of beautiful palm trees and other vegetation which brings life to an otherwise semi-arid region. Other important attractions in Tsavo East are the Mudanda Rocks, Aruba Dam, Mzima Springs, Lugard Falls and the Yatta Plateau. What are the animals found in the park? Expect to see Leopards, Buffaloes, Lions, Rhinos, Hartebeest, Bush baby, Lesser Kudu, Masai Giraffe, crocodiles and hippos among many others not to mention the birds.
The Great Rift Valley: The Great Rift Valley is one of the most amazing geological wonders of the world. It passes through many countries in Africa and Asia leaving behind amazing features like volcanoes, escarpments, lakes, underground forests and so much more. The Great Rift Valley covers a large part of Kenya and it would take a number of days to explore it fully. If there is little time on your side, you can explore a few of its features like the Ngong Hills, Hell’s Gate National Park or Lake Nakuru. Lake Nakuru sits on the floor of the rift valley and attracts many birders to Kenya each year.
Arabuko-Sokoke National Park: Arabuko-Sokoke Forest is the last remaining coastal forest in East Africa. Part of the vast forest was turned into a National Park in the late 1989’s. The forest is found 110 kilometers north of Mombasa and is managed jointly by four entities – the Kenya Forest Research Institute, Kenya Wildlife Service, National Museums of Kenya and the Kenya Forest Service. Other international organizations work closely with the four government Agencies to protect/conserve the forest. Over 250 species of birds call it home including threatened ones like the Amani Sunbird, Clarke’s Weaver, East Coast Akalat, Sokoke Pipit, Sokoke Scops Owl and the Spotted Ground Thrush. The forest is also home to rare birds, plants and amphibians. Unfortunately, despite the good work of the government Agencies and other international organizations, Arabuko-Sokoke forest is still threatened by encroachment and human related activities.
Chyulu Hills: The Chyulu hills are one of the youngest volcanic mountains in the world – 500 years is the estimation. They are found in the southeastern part of the country and are 1,000 kilometers long (and 7,178 feet above sea level). A key attraction of the Hills is the Leviathan Cave which holds one of the longest lava tubes in the world. While visiting the Chyulu Hills, tourist can also take part in horse riding, rock climbing and hiking. The hills are home to creatures like steenbok, lions, giraffes, elephants, cheetahs, bush pigs and black rhinos among others.
Town of Meru: Meru is a small but beautiful town close to the slopes of Mount Kenya. It is one of the leading coffee producing towns in the country. The rich volcanic soils and excellent weather around the mountain slopes allows the cash crop to do well. Farmers organize themselves into cooperatives and have their coffee processing factories. Apart from coffee, Meru is also known as one of the leading producers of Miraa. Miraa is similar to Marijuana only that it is chewed to give a mild euphoric feeling. It is illegal to chew it in some countries but some allow it because it is mild compared to real weed. Apart from coffee and Miraa, a key attractions of Meru town are the Meru National Museum and the Meru National Park (to be discussed separately). If you visit this museum, you will learn a lot about the history and the cultural practices of the people in Meru – including the wildlife, traditional weapons and dress code.
The Central Highlands: The Central highlands are found on the eastern arm of the Rift Valley which also includes Mount Kenya and the Aberdare National Parks. Areas around the central Highlands of Kenya are the most densely populated and for this reason are considered the heartland of the country. The area has good climate all year round and fertile soils that support agriculture in both large and small scale. The British colonial administrators settled here and set up large farms which still exist to this day.
Aberdare National Park: Aberdare National Park is one of the many protected areas in Kenya. It is located in the central highlands of Kenya – along the eastern arm of the great Rift Valley. The park is found in an area of high altitude (about 10,000 feet) and is characterized by lush mist-covered forests, waterfalls, rivers and deep ravines. Several animals thrive here including black leopards, the elusive bongo, lions, eland, Sykes’ monkey, colobus monkeys, baboons, serval cats and black rhinos. Over 250 species of birds can be spotted in the park including eagles, goshawk, Jackson’s Francolin, plovers, sparrow hawks and sunbirds. It is at the Aberdare National Park that Queen Elizabeth the II first got to know about her father’s death hence becoming Queen of England. She was on safari and staying at Treetops Hotel that has now become very popular with tourists.
Meru National Park: This is one of the lesser known and visited but still impressive attraction in Kenya. Because it receives fewer visitors, the park remains unspoiled. It is a park with remarkable scenery because it receives good rains for much of the year. Much of the park consists of tall grasses, acacia trees, palm trees, tamarind, forests, streams, swamps and about 13 rivers. The rivers and other water bodies are home to crocodiles, hippos and over 300 birds. Which other animals are found in the park? Well, you will see lions, buffaloes, cheetahs, leopards, elephants and countless antelope. The park has one of the highest concentration of buffaloes in the country.
The Giraffe Center: The Giraffe Center was established in the 1970’s by Betty and Jack Lesilie Meliville as the only breeding ground for Rothschild Giraffe in the Eastern part of Africa. The purpose of the Center was to provide environmental education and create awareness about the importance of appreciating the country’s biodiversity. Betty discovered that only about 120 Rothschild Giraffe remained on a certain ranch that was about to be turned into a human settlement. They decided to get two young giraffes and keep it in their own property. It was then that she founded The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Kenya as a non-profit organization. This name still stands although most prefer to call it the Giraffe Center. The Center sits on an area covering 120 acres and at the very heart of Nairobi city. Young giraffe is born and bred in an environment that is protected and free from poachers or predators. The breeding program has been very successful and over 500 individuals have passed through the ranch before being reintroduced back into the wild. Tourists can visit the Center for a comprehensive and educative tour of the facility. The tour involves climbing a raised platform to feed and touch the giraffes. Other activities include birding and identifying the different tree species in the facility. For the ultimate experience, one should spend a night and enjoy breakfast with the giraffes at the nearby Giraffe Manor.
The Crying Stones in Kakamega: If you are traveling along the Kisimu – Kakamega road, this is one place you should stop by. Kakamega is situated in the western part of the country. The stones are actually huge monuments which balance themselves on columns of rock. Water flows from a gap in the middle and resembles tears. The natives in the area consider the tears a sign of upcoming good harvest.
Kakamega Forest Reserve: Kakamega forest was once part of a great rain forest that covered most of East and Central Africa. Climate change and human encroachment reduced the size of the forest living behind remnants (islands of forest) with most of it now in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The part left in Kakamega is home to unique creatures that cannot be found anywhere in Kenya. These creatures were left isolated in Kakamega after the forest stretch leading to Central Africa was cut off. The forest is home to 400 species of birds, cobras, de Brazza’s monkeys, pangolins, pottos, squirrels, vipers, giant hedgehogs and bush pigs. Other spectacular attractions include waterfalls, rocks, rare giant trees that are believed to be over 100-year-old. The Entrance fee to the forest is about $25 for adults.
Bungee Jumping: Because there is so much that Kenya has to offer, most tourists are not aware that they can actually do Bungee jumping while in Kenya. Bungee jumping in Kenya is an adrenaline raising activity in which a rope is tied to the leg or waist before one dives in a free fall towards the flowing Sagana river. Unlike Bungee jumping in Uganda, the one in Kenya is divided into two major jumps.
Lake Nakuru National Park: Lake Nakuru National Park is one of the most popular tourism attractions in Kenya. It is found in the middle of the country, 152 kilometers away from Nairobi. The park was established in the early 1960’s to preserve its rich biodiversity. Most of the park consists of Savannah grasslands, woodlands, rocky cliffs and the largest euphorbia candelabrum forest in the continent. Over 450 species of birds can be spotted here including one million Lesser flamingos, Goliath heron, hammerkops, African fish eagles, Pelicans, cormorants and Verreaux’s eagle. Flamingos and Pelicans thrive on the salt waters of lake Nakuru because of the rich algae and its relative isolation from humans. The greatest spectacle in the park is watching over 1 million flamingos take flight at once. Apart from flamingos, it is also possible to spot lions, warthogs, leopards, white rhinos, pythons and waterbucks.
Kisumu town and its Museum: Apart from the museum in Nairobi, the smaller cities and towns also have their own interesting museums that might interest you if you are planning to travel around the country. Kisumu toen lies close to the shores of Lake Victoria and along a strategic trade route/highway leading to Mombasa through Nairobi. Apart from Lake Victoria, the town has its own collection of natural and historical attractions. One of the attractions is The Kisumu Museum. This museum houses animal exhibits, musical instruments, results of ethnographic studies and important art pieces. You can also see ancient weapons, animal traps, traditional utensils, clothing, agricultural tools and local furniture.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy: This southern White Rhino conservancy is located at the foothills of Mount Kenya. It was established to protect some of the most threatened species and act as a leading Center for wildlife conservation in the country. White Rhinos are one of the most endangered of the large mammals and Ol Pejeta Conservancy became famous for hosting Sudan, the last male northern white rhino. Sudan died in 2018 leaving behind two northern white rhino females. These last two female rhinos are heavily guarded day and night. Their immediate cousins the Southern White Rhino is also highly threatened. Other animals at the conservancy are Gazelles, Zebras, Giraffes and lions. You should visit this facility, if you are enthusiastic about wildlife conservation. Moreover, Ol Pejeta also houses the Sweetwater’s Chimpanzee Sanctuary for rescued chimps. While at the Centre, you will learn about the success and challenges faced by wildlife conservation Agencies in protecting endangered species.
Shimba Hills National Reserve: This small national reserve is found 15 kilometers away from the coast and 33 kilometers away from Mombasa. The reserve consists of mainly coastal rain forest, grasslands and woodlands. Most of the rare plants that are unique to Kenya like orchids and cycad are found in this reserve. The reserve is also a great sanctuary for butterflies and birds. Over 700 elephants and 100 of Kenya’s only Sable Antelope population are found in Shimba Hills National Reserve. The population of elephants had grown so much that they became a threat to the overall ecosystem and particularly the endangered plants. After years of conflicts with humans, the Mwaluganje elephant sanctuary was established at the north side of the reserve to create a safe route for some of the elephants to leave to other national parks. Fencing has helped stop raids on human farms.
Watamu and its beaches: Watamu (“Home of the sweet people”) is small coastal town and fishing village close to Mombasa. The town is known for its lush green tropical forests, lagoons and natural white-sand beaches. Over the years, Watamu has grown into one of the most sought out beaches – thanks to its white sands and crystal clear waters. Apart from the beautiful beaches, the town has got other attractions like the ruins of Gede and the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve. It offers one of the best diving and snorkeling spots within the coastal region of Kenya. Watamu has got one of the best breeding grounds for green and hawksbills turtles. As part of the Malindi Marine reserve, the island offers opportunities to spot giant Manta rays and sharks.
Watamu Marine National Park: Watamu has got incredible attractions and we will just have to discuss some of them in more detail individually. Watamu Marine National Park is one such attraction. Founded in 1968, the Park’s coral gardens have over 580 species of fish, countless molluscs, invertebrates and crustaceans. Because the incredible biodiversity, Watamu Marine National Park was designated as a biosphere reserve in 1979. It is an important breeding ground for two species of Turtles. The coral gardens are popular for snorkeling, kite surfing, fishing, volunteering, scuba diving and other water sports. While snorkeling, one cans sport whale sharks, barracuda, octopuses, and giant manta rays. The park is excellent for children and educational purposes. The most convenient way to reach the Island is by taking a flight from Nairobi or Malindi Airport.
Eldoret: Eldoret is small town situated close to the border with Uganda and at the edge of the rift valley. Bill gates visits the town frequently to follow up on programs funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It possible to sleep in the same hotel and go to all the places visited by the American Billionaire while supervising projects in the area. Bill Gates stays at the Naiberi River Campsite & Resort while in town.
Ice Skating, Gp Karting and Quad Biking: If you are planning to travel with the kids, there are several activities that will make their time in Kenya memorable. While in Nairobi, you can register for Ice Skating at the Panari Sky Centre. This Centre is found along the Mombasa road. The Centre hosts the first and only ice skating rink in Kenya. Families and couples go to the Centre for ice skating lessons at an affordable rate. Skating boots are provided but do not forget to show up with very warm clothing to deal with the cold. Apart from the Ice skating rink, the Centre has a luxury hotel and modern shopping mall. If Ice Skating is not for you, then you can try out two other adrenaline raising activities while in Nairobi – Go Karting and Quad biking. Go Karting is fun for those who love cars and is arranged in Langata. The Quad bikes are excellent for exploring the slums of Nairobi and countryside.
Siawa Swamp National Park: This is the smallest national park in Kenya and is found in Kakamega. The park made up of forest and swamps with several viewing platforms for observation. Siawa Swamp National Park is the best place for spotting the Sitatunga (swamp) antelope and small primates like the white-bearded De Brazza’s monkey. Birders will be impressed with the variety of species on offer including the bright purple Ross’s turaco.
Che Shale Beach: This beach is found in the Mambrui coastline. It was opened in 1978 but has now been turned into Kenya’s only kite surfing center and school. Like most of the top beaches along the Kenyan coast, it has beautiful white sands, crystal clear waters, coconut palms and a tranquil environment. Several entertainment centers are there to ensure that revelers have the time of their lives including modern dance clubs, massage centers, restaurants and booming music. While at the beach, visitor can take part in deep-sea fishing, snorkeling, kite surfing and bush walks. Kite-surfing competitions are held at the beach regularly bringing together participants from all over the world. The easiest way to get to the beach is to take a flight from Nairobi to Malindi airport and then take a car.
The Island of Lamu: Lamu is a small island in northeastern part of Mombasa. It is the oldest and best-preserved settlement of people with the original Swahili heritage in Kenya. Since the 14th century, the island was inhabited by the Arabs, Persians, Indians, Europeans and indigenous Kenyans leaving behind unique and precious architectural buildings and a Swahili culture. The Island was designated UNESCO World Heritage site particularly because of the important architectural remains that date back to the 12th century. Lamu remains relatively untouched and less disturbed by large crowds like it is in other islands in Kenya. Most of the old town buildings have beautiful carvings, wooden doors, hidden courtyards, amazing verandahs and walls made of coral stones. The government has deliberately left the island as it was hundreds of years ago. There are no major roads in Lamu except for footpaths and alleyways. There are no cars in the island. The only means of transport is by using a donkey and dhows. The key attractions in the island are the Lamu Museum, Lamu Fort, a donkey Sanctuary, beautiful sand beaches and amazing water sports. We will discuss some of them in more detail shortly.
Lamu Fort and Museum: During a visit to the island of Lamu, this is one place you must visit. Lamu Fort is located in the main square of the island. The Fort was built by the Sultan of Oman in 1821. It served as the main garrison for soldiers sent to the island by the Sultan. As time went on, merchants felt safe enough to construct buildings and shops leading to widespread development within the island. The Lamu Museum is located in a building that was once a residence of Jack Haggard (the Queen Victoria’s representative in the island). The Museum showcases the Swahili culture through relics from Takwa, ceremonial homes, a typical Swahili house, art collections, photos of the island and the different tribes in Kenya.
Manda Island: Manda Island is part of the Lamu Archipelago. It was first discovered as early as the 9th century by Persian and Arabic traders. Like most of the islands in the Indian ocean, it has secluded white sandy beaches, tropical vegetation and amazing scenery. Tourists find the island waters excellent for snorkeling and swimming. While visiting the island, tourists can also checkout artifacts (glass, ceramics and pottery) dating back to the 9th century. The island can only be reached by air or boat.
Paté Island: Paté Island is the largest in the Lamu Archipelago. It is surrounded on all sides by mangrove swamps and can only be accessed during high tides. The island received its first Arab settlers in the 7th Century and has since become an important Islamic Centre. Because of this long history of foreign settlements, Paté Island is rich in historical sites. The key attractions are the ruined buildings, architectural buildings, mosques, ancient tombs and the main Fort at Siyu which we will be discussing next. To reach the island, one needs to take a ferry from the town of Lamu.
Siyu: Siyu is a town found in Pate Island which is within the Lamu archipelago. Settlements in the island begun as early as the 15th century and was made up on mostly indigenous Kenyans at the time. In fact, there was a time when the Siyu had over 300,000 residents. The residents resisted Omani Arab invasions and remained one of the few prominent islands not to be conquered by foreigners. The key attractions in the island are the fort, Swahili relics, ancient tombs and beautiful beaches.
Mida Creek: This mangrove forest is found close to the island of Matamu and the Malindi Marine National Park. It is one of Kenya’s countless tourist attractions in the coastal regions and the Indian ocean. The warm shallow waters are a favorite breeding ground for rare bird species including the yellow-billed stork, greater flamingo, malachite kingfisher and the great white egret. During winter, the Mida Creek receives migrant birds from Europe like the crab plover, curlew sandpiper, sanderling and whimbrel. If you are a seasoned birder, this is the place you want to be especially between March and May.
Kigio Wildlife Conservancy: This Conservancy is located between Naivasha and Nakuru in Kenya. It lies on 3,500 acres of land containing Leleshwa shrubs, euphorbia and riverine woodlands. The key attractions in Kigio Wildlife Conservancy apart from the amazing scenery are the wildlife including buffalo, impala, hyenas, hippos, gazelles, eland and over 210 species of birds. To prevent poaching and avoid conflicts with humans living outside the facility, management has installed an electric fence to cover parts not protected by the Malewa River.
Lake Naivasha: This freshwater is located about 100 km away from Nairobi (Northwestern part of the country) and close to the town of Naivasha. It gets its name from the Masai word Nai’posha – meaning “rough water” because of the severe storms that often occur in the lake. Lake Naivasha sits in a semi-arid part of the country and at the highest point of the Rift Valley (1884 meters). Despite the dry surrounding, Lake Naivasha is arguably one of the best birding sports in Kenya. Birds find the lake ideal for breeding because of the fringed papyrus plants and swamps. Over 400 species of birds can be found in the area including the African fish Eagle, black crakes, herons, lily-trotters and ospreys. During longer periods of drought, the lake shrinks in size leading to the death of many of the birds that didn’t hatch on time. Other wildlife found grazing on the shores of the lake are hippos, zebra, eland, impala, giraffes and buffalo. The best way to see the birds and other wildlife is by canoeing through the lake.
Ol Donyo Sabuk National Park: Ol Donyo (Mountain of buffalo) Sabuk National Park is also one of the hidden gems of the country. It is made up of the Ol Donyo Sabuk Mountain and the vast savanna surrounding it. A key attractions of the park is the Mountain whose highest peak is 2,148 meters high but visitors will be surprised by the scenery and wildlife. Over 250 buffaloes roam the forested slopes of the mountain. The parks also offer amazing views of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. Other wildlife in the park include impala, duikers, colobus monkeys, baboons, bushbuck and countless birds.
Mamba Village in Nairobi: This is by far the largest crocodile farm in East Africa. It is a key attraction in Nairobi featuring a large pond where most of the crocodiles can be seen cooling in the mid-day sun. Tours are arranged to take visitors around the facility with a stop to watch a video about crocodiles. The tour includes watching the crocodiles fight for food during lunch time, their hatchlings and some that are over 100 years old. Mamba Village also has a beautiful botanical garden which is ideal for relaxation and picnics with the kids. You can also register the kids for horse/camel riding. For those who are interested in game meat, there is a restaurant serving grilled crocodile.
Lake Victoria: If you are visiting the city of Kisumu, you should take time and visit Lake Victoria. Lake Victoria is the largest fresh water lake in Africa and second in the world by surface area. It sits on an area covering 23,146 square miles. Lake Victoria is shared by Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. The Lake is excellent for a variety of water sports including tilapia and giant Nile Perch fishing. The lake is also home to creatures like African clawless otter, African helmeted turtles, bohor reedbuck, giant otter shrew, marsh mongoose, mud turtles, Nile crocodiles, hippos, sitatunga, spotted-necked otter and waterbuck.
Nairobi National Park: The Nairobi National Park is located just 16 minutes’ drive away from Nairobi city. It was the first game reserve in the county and is the only national park that is built so close to a capital. If you love wildlife but are traveling on budget or do not have enough time to visit the popular national parks in the countryside, then this is the place to go. Nairobi National Park will reward you with sightings of all the big five mammals including lions, rhinos, buffaloes, leopards and elephants. Expect to also encounter cheetahs, zebras, wildebeest, hippos and over 400 species of birds. The park also has a special rhino sanctuary where you can lean about efforts being taken to avoid their extinct. Nairobi National Park also stands out because it is one of the few where visitors can spot wildlife on foot.
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust: This is a small charity established in 1977 to remember the great Naturalist David Leslie William Sheldrick – the founder of Tsavo National Park. He served in the park from 1948 until 1976 when he was given a new assignment as head of the planning unit for the newly created Wildlife Authority in the country. When he died, his wife Daphne Sheldrick opened up the Trust in at the main gate of the Nairobi National Park. The trust helps in rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned elephants before returning them back into the wild. The Centre has become a pioneer for wildlife protection, rehabilitation and conservation. Visitors will have close and personal encounters with baby elephants and watch in awe as caretakers feed them with nutritious milk and other supplements.
Climbing Mount Elgon: Mount Elgon is one of the highest mountains in the country and stands out for having the largest volcanic caldera in the world. Mount Elgon is found at the border between Uganda and Kenya. Climbing Mount Elgon is indeed one of the amazing things to do while in Kenya.
Mombasa Island: Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya. It is also the busiest port in Kenya and the entire East African region. Mombasa has a unique culture from mainland Kenya because it was occupied for many centuries by the Arabs, Indians, Portuguese and British settlers. Their influences can be observed in the cuisines, color of inhabitants and architectural works. Intermarriages between the indigenous tribes and settlers gave rise to the Swahili culture and people of mixed heritage. Mombasa is tourism hot spot with amazing beaches, islands, and ancient landmarks. One of the amazing places to visit include the Mombasa Marine National Park, the historic old town and Fort Jesus.
Malindi: It is difficult to mention Mombasa without including the port and island of Malindi. This amazing island is extremely popular with tourists because it is less crowded and with even better beaches. It also has a rich Arab influence and a Swahili culture due to intermarriages. The Key attractions are the Watamu beaches, Watamu Marine National Parks, the Jami Mosque, ancient tombs, the cross of Vasco Da Gama, the Church of St. Francis Xavier, one of East Africa’s oldest churches and may other great monuments dating back to as far as the 12th century. One can also visit the Falconry of Kenya for rehabilitating injured birds and the Marafa Depression (sandstone gorges). Malindi offers a variety of amazing water spots including swimming, surfing, sunbathing, deep-sea fishing and snorkeling.
Diani beach: Diani beach is one of the leading beach resorts along the Kenyan coastline. The beach is found 30 km south of the Island of Mombasa and stretches for about 17 kilometers with a population of about 100,000 people. It is considered the best beach in East Africa. It has been developed to international standards with modern bars, nightclubs, supermarkets, restaurants, world class accommodation facilities and an airstrip along the road leading to Mombasa. Diani beach stands out because of the white sand and calm waters that are protected by coral reefs. The beach is popular for a variety of water sports including jet skiing, snorkeling, skydiving and kitesurfing.
The Gedi Ruins: Gedi Ruins are what is left of the once industrial town of Gedi. The ruins lie close to the town of Malindi. Gedi was built in the 13th century by the first Arab settlers. The town thrived for over 4 centuries through trade with people from every part of the world. Excavations shows that they traded in items like beads from Venice, iron lamp from India, coins and ming vase from China. The town was abandoned in the 17th century for unclear reasons though some historians believe it was because of an attack from Mombasa. The Gedi ruins contain important monuments like Mosques, a Palace, tombs and residential buildings which draw many tourists to the site. A tour of the town takes you back in time when the Arabs ruled the East African coast. Observing the old buildings and monuments leaves you wondering what life must have been then.
Fort Jesus in Mombasa: Fort Jesus is one of the key attractions in Mombasa and is one of the best kept military architecture from Portugal. It was constructed in 1593 by King Philip 1 of Portugal to guard the Port of Mombasa from Arab and other invaders. The chief architect of the Fort was known as Giovanni Battista Cairati. Fort Jesus has been relatively well preserved and visitors can have a memorable tour of the facility including checking out the torture chambers where slaves were kept in captivity before being sold off. A striking feature of the Fort are giant canon guns pointing towards the ocean. These guns where used to defend the island from external invaders and also stop riots from locals. Tourists can also request to see the San Antonio de Tanna – A gunner that sank close to the Fort in the 17th Century. Fort Jesus is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its unique architecture.
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy: This Rhino conservation Centre is located in North central part of Kenya – on the foothills of Mountain Kenya. It started as a cattle ranch before becoming a rhino sanctuary to help eliminate poaching and increase the number of individual rhinos. The Centre started with 15 rhinos in 1984 but now has over 150 black and white rhinos. It operates a private game sanctuary arranged and is run by the Craig family. The rhino conservation and breeding project has been successful in part because of the heavy armed patrols, heavy fencing, modern tracking technology, community sensitization, intelligence and partnerships with the locals.
Mount Kenya National Park: This UNESCO World Heritage Site is Kenya’s highest mountain (over 17,000 feet). Mount Kenya is found in the eastern part of the East African Rift Valley. It was formed as a result of volcanic activity and has three peaks – Lenana, Nelion and Batian. Batian is the highest peaks but the second highest Nelion is the hardest to climb. There are several routes that can be used to reach the top including the Sirimon route in Nanyuki and the Naromoru route. Hikers to the top of the mountain are rewarded with beautiful scenery consisting of lakes, springs, glaciers, alpine forests, bamboo forests and clear views of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. There is also the wildlife to look out for like hyenas, leopards, elephants, buffaloes, colobus monkeys and tree hyrax among others.
Climbing Mount Kenya is considered even more challenging than Kilimanjaro. Hiking up to the top takes 5 days. If you feel that you are not fit enough to take up the challenge of reaching the summit, you can choose the option of hiking up to the first sections or lower slopes. On descending down, hikers can choose to stay in one of the luxury retreats at the foot of the mountain where they can go fishing, golfing, playing tennis, checking out the Mau Mau Cave monument or visiting the local tribes in the area. The best time to hike Mount Kenya is in December to February and also August to September.
Nyama Choma: Nyama Choma in Kenya refers to a specific kind of roasted goat’s meat. It is so common and such a delicacy that you can find it in roadside restaurants all around the country. For the best experience, you need to visit the local goat butcher, order for a kilo or two of meat and then wait for it to be roasted. As you wait, you can take a sip of one of the local beer brands.
Hell’s Gate National Park: The park derives its name from the narrow cliffs found in the area. Scientists believe an ancient lake once flowed along the cliffs and supported all kinds of life including some of the earliest known humans living in the rift valley area. The key attractions of the park are the two extinct volcanoes, gorges, obsidian caves, countless rock formations and volcanic plugs. The park also has hot springs and other geothermal features. The animals in the park includes ostriches, hartebeest, elands, gazelle, leopards, baboons and over 120 species of birds. Talking about birds, Hell’s Gate National Park is a great vulture and eagle breeding ground. Because there are no lions, Hell’s Gate National Park is a perfect destination for hikers and those who love camping. Visitors can explore the park on foot or using a bicycle without a ranger. A visit to the park is incomplete without spending time with the local Maasai warriors at the Oloor Karia Maasai Cultural Centre.
Whitewater rafting in River Tana: White water rafting in River Tana is one of the popular and adventurous activities to do in Kenya. The river has three lower grade rapids which offer an amazing day of adrenaline rush for both seasoned and first-time rafters. Apart from rafting, one can also indulge in other water spots like kayaking, fishing and birding. The rapids are separates by calm and tranquil sections which allows participants rest and enjoy the natural beauty of the lake.
Village of Obama’s Father: The small village of Kogelo has slowly become a tourist destination because it is the birth place of Barack Obama’s father. People in Kogelo depend on agriculture and fishing on a small scale. The sleepy village now welcomes both foreign and local tourists who are interested in tracing the routes of the first black American president. Kogelo village offers a chance for a fascinating encounter with the Luo people of Kenya. One can also choose to explore the unique terrain, lakes, birds and forests in the village.
Haller Park: Haller Park was formerly known as Bamburi Nature Trail until the name changed in 1999. It is found in the Island of Mombasa – along the Makindi Mombasa Road and close to the Bamburi Cement Factory. The Park was founded by Rene Haller in 1971. She noticed that cement manufacturing had destroyed a large chunk of land in the area and decided to rehabilitate part of the land. As part of the rehabilitation, she opened a park where a variety of wildlife species could be seen. Among the animals currently at the Park are buffalos, bushbuck, duiker, elands, giraffes, hippos, Oryx, waterbucks and Zebras. Visitors to the Centre get a chance to get close and personal with the animals under the guidance of knowledgeable Guides. The best time to visit the Park is during feeding time – between 11am and 3pm.
Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park: This park is found in Wasini and Shimoni Island – southern coast of Kenya. The park consists of 4 islands connected by coral reefs. The key attractions in the park are dolphins, humpback whales, Moral eel, Green sea turtles, Snappers, Angelfish and groupers. The best time to see these sea creatures are in the months between August to October. Kisite-Mpunguti is excellent for bird watching snorkeling and a variety of other water spots.
Eat Local and Continental dishes from the local restaurants: Kenyans are great cooks and love their food. The reason for their expertise is attributed to Swahili and Arab influences from the islands. Expect more spices than usual especially in the islands. The most popular local foods are chapatti, ugali and Mukimo which are mixed with beef or chicken stew. If local food is not your thing, you can visit any of the top restaurants for Mexican, Chinese, Brazilian, Italian and Ethiopian dishes.
Important Information while visiting Kenya
As a foreigner, you will be required to have a Visa before entering the country either from the border crossings or through the airport. Visas can be got from the airport and border crossings. If you are planning to visit other East African countries, you might want to consider acquiring the East African Tourist Visa. The East African Tourist Visa allows tourists to visit Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda for a specific period of time. You can check out the information about the East African Tourist Visa or apply for it here.
Apart from the Visa, you might be required to show proof that you have been vaccinated against certain diseases. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is almost mandatory for any traveler who is older than one year. Other important (not compulsory) inoculations are those against, tetanus, hepatitis and polio. To avoid catching malaria while on your vacation, it is advisable that you take anti-malarial drugs.
The national currency in Kenya is the shilling. A credit card is important but you need to move with some of the local currency in cash. Most local purchases, activities and park entrances are paid for in cash. You may also want to move with dollars to pay for some activities and also for any tips. The dollars must be printed from 2009 to avoid rejection. Most ATM’s in the county accept international cards but will only dispense the local currency.
How do I get around the country? There are several ways in which to get your way around Kenya. You can rent a car for the whole duration of your trip, use the public buses for long distance travel or the more convenient motorcycles within the city. Most tourists who go to Kenya hire the sources of a good tour operator with knowledge about all the national parks and reserves. It is more expensive but will save you a lot.
When is the best time to visit Kenya? Kenya can be visited all year round but if you are planning to do a safari, then the best time is between January to March and June to October. The climate is mild around this time and most of the country is dry. It is an excellent period to go for a safari because the animals are easier to spot as they gather around the remaining waterholes. If you have never witnessed the great animal migration in the Masai Mara, then you should visit between September to October.
Is Kenya safe? The answer is yes but you need to exercise caution like you would in almost every country on earth. Ever since Kenya sent its troops to Somalia, it has been a target for a terrorist group known as Al Shabaab. They find Kenya a good target because the country receives a lot of tourists and hence more media attention. Most of the attacks have been aimed at large shopping centers and embassies. Attacks are not common but you can never know when it could occur again. You also need to be wary of pickpockets and avoid traveling in places you don’t know without a local Guide – especially at night.
What do you need to pack? For the best experience while visiting the top tourist attractions in Kenya, do not forget to pack a torch in case of a power outage in the area you would be visiting. An Insect Repellent will help protect you from the malaria causing mosquitoes. Any serious traveler to Kenya must move with a good camera. You don’t want to go back to your family and friends without anything to show as evidence of your travel. Don not forget to travel with your swimming costumes. Other items on your packing list should include a binocular, adapters, batteries, SD cards, Toiletries, anti-malaria pills, your personal medications, a hat/cap, sunscreen, any insurance documents, a driving license, your passport, books to read, hiking boots and socks.