Many people often associate Kenya with wild nature, safaris and the hot summer sun. But the capital city of Nairobi is a gem in itself, a truly cosmopolitan city that combines modernity and tradition. From luxury five-star hotels like the Azure hotel to bustling street markets, Nairobi is both a city of contrasts and a harmonious melting pot of various cultures.
Not all of Kenya is just nature
Look up your average travel guide to Kenya, and a large portion of them will focus almost exclusively on the beautiful nature to be found in the country. The Masai Mara nature reserve, the mighty Kilimanjaro, spotting The Big Five in the various reserves in the country, the prevailing image people get from Kenya is through this nature lens. And that’s a shame, because it gives the impression that this is all the country has to offer, as if it’s just an uninhabited wilderness rather than one of the fastest growing economies in the world. And if there is one city that exemplifies Kenya’s cosmopolitan flair, it’s Nairobi.
We’ll start at the Nairobi National Museum, Kenya’s largest museum. The museum engages in a variety of activities, from exhibitions to research and setting up educational programs. It offers a brilliant view of how history, nature and culture mix together to give Kenya its distinctive image. Galleries you don’t want to miss include The Hall of Kenya and The Cycles of Life displays in the Cultural Anthropology wing, and The Cradle of Mankind in the Earth Sciences wing.
Kenya has many more museums and art galleries, such as the Polka Dot Art Gallery, the Nairobi Gallery or the National Archives. In Nairobi, you are quite literally surrounded by history, art and culture, and it would be a great waste not to explore this side of Kenya.
The city also has a thriving dining scene. Of course, you want to sample Kenya’s local cuisine, such as nyama choma (roasted goat with chilli, tomatoes and onions) or ugali (maize flour porridge) with sukuma wiki (collard greens with onions and spices). But Kenya also has a variety of high-quality restaurants that focus on foreign cuisine, such as The Smart Village (Ethiopian/Eritrean food), INTI (Japanese, Peruvian) or the Mercado (Mexican). Nairobi isn’t afraid to mix things up, and its reputation as a melting pot of cultures is well deserved.
For those that really want to mix with the local population, the markets are the places you want to go. And Nairobi has several of them. The Kenyatta Market, The City Market, The Gikomba Market, The Maasai Market, take your pick!
Antiques shopping in Nairobi
In recent years, the antiques industry in Kenya experienced a boom. In Nairobi you can find not only Kenyan antiques, but also antiques from other African countries. This is because Nairobi is one of the biggest trading hubs on the continent. The White Elephant Trading Company is the biggest and most well-known purveyor of antiques, but there are also many smaller stores where you can have a look around, such as Niche Decór. Of course, as with all antiques trading, finding the quality stuff can be challenging, but that’s half the fun!
Visiting Kenya: Travel time, flights and visa
Nairobi is one of those cities that you simply have to see at least once in your life. There are a few things to keep in mind though before planning your trip. You’ll want to avoid the months of April and May, as these fall right in the middle of the rainy season. Plan your trip early in the year, or in late summer/early autumn. Temperatures are nice and warm (but not too hot) with cool nights.
There are direct flights from London Heathrow to the Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi. Bring some reading material, because the average flight time is more than 8 hours.
Finally, you’ll need a visa to enter Kenya. While the Kenya visa can be applied for entirely online (so no need to visit the embassy), you need to provide a number of documents to get a visa: a passport photo and passport scan, a booking confirmation of the return flight and a booking confirmation of a hotel or resort. Once you have all that, the visa can be applied for online and takes about 8 days to be processed and approved. The Kenya visa allows you to stay in Kenya for up to 90 days.