My 5 favorite things to do in Nairobi, Kenya are not your typical tourist attractions. Very few tourists spend much more than a night in Nairobi. Most just stop for a night of rest after a long flight and then head out on a guided safari the next day. Some don’t even stop at all.
I was fortunate to be house sitting in Nairobi for a month and got to know the city and it’s people well. Nairobi is not going to win any awards for its beauty. In fact, it’s quite an ugly city. I definitely wouldn’t call it a clean city. It’s noisy and polluted from the horrendous traffic. The sidewalks have almost as many ankle-breaking holes as they do people. Although there are some safety issues, most of the people you meet will be so happy to see you. And the people is what will keep you coming back to this city time and time again.
Nairobi definitely has a few regular tourist attractions. Probably the most famous is the Nairobi National Park where you can do a safari just minutes from the city. Also nearby is the famous giraffe sanctuary where you can get up close and personal for an Instagram pic. There are also plenty of museums to keep you busy, including the famous Karen Blixen Museum and the Nairobi National Museum. You can admire this ugly city from above if you wish from the tower at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre.
Now with the exception of the Nairobi National Museum, I did’t make it to any of these attraction in the total of six weeks that I spent in Nairobi. The National Museum was walking distance from my house so I really had no excuse not to go there. I’d seen plenty of big animals on other safari trips and didn’t feel the need to pay to see more. And I’m just not really a museum kind of guy, so I skipped most of those too.
So what did I do with my time in Nairobi? I spent most of my days just exploring on foot and meeting people who were keen to show me their city from a locals perspective. So put on your walking shoes and find out what were my 5 favorite things to do in Nairobi, Kenya!!
1. Visit the slums
For me, a visit to the slums is must do while in Nairobi. While I was fortunate enough to be staying in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Nairobi, I would spend many of my days visiting the sprawling slums of the city. The wealthy areas of Nairobi maybe a little prettier, but they get boring fast. Now I wouldn’t recommend venturing into the slums alone, find yourself a local guide. It’s not that I think it would be dangerous, I’m just certain that you will get lost among the labyrinths of shacks and informal businesses.
During my first few days exploring downtown, I was lucky enough to meet such a local guide. I first met Grace when she tried to sell me a sim card for my phone. She would be working in the same spot every day, in front of the National Archives. After a few days, she finally realized I was not going to buy one, so she invited herself to lunch with me. And again the next day! After a few wonderful local lunches in places I would never find by myself, I asked her if she would like to show me a little more of the city. Of course she agreed, and I could see the dollar signs flashing in her eyes!
We would go out a few afternoons a week and spend hours just walking and walking. There are so many slums in Nairobi, it’s hard to visit them all, but Grace seemed to know her way around all of them. She was born and raised in the slums and seemed to know people everywhere we went. We visited the slums of Eastleigh, Mathare, Kawangware, and the famous Kibera slum to name but a few.
Why would anybody want to spend so much time in the slums you might ask? It’s really hard to explain, but like most places in Africa, it’s the people that make it. In the wealthy neighborhood of Westlands where I was staying, I knew nobody. Nobody talks to each other. Everyone is locked behind their gates and electric fences, with security guards keeping watch. In the slums, you have friends wherever you go. The people are so poor and have nothing, but they are some of the happiest and friendliest people you will ever meet.
The business areas of the slums have just about any kind of business you can imagine. They are full of colorfully painted small shops, and many poor street vendors. The streets are not paved, most are just dirt and mud, and a lot of trash. I definitely don’t recommend visiting wearing flip flops!
There are plenty of places to eat as long as you are not a picky eater and have a strong stomach. We ate lunch in the slums every time we visited, and although the food isn’t gourmet by any means, we for sure had some memorable meals. And don’t worry, there are plenty of public toilets around as most residents of the slums don’t have their own. I must admit, I did my very best to avoid using them, but most were surprisingly clean and cheap to use.
There are so many different sights, sounds and smells in the slums, but the people are what you will remember the most. They are very happy and excited to see you, especially the kids. For many, I really believe that it was their first time seeing a white person. They would love to say hello and have their pictures taken. For whatever reason, many kids were fascinated by the hair on my arms and would often run up and touch my arms and quickly run away again.
There are very few mzungus (white people) that venture into these parts of the city. On all my trips into the slums, I never saw another white person. I think most people are afraid. With just a 24-year-old girl as my guide and bodyguard, I never once felt in any danger. Everyone we met really appreciated us visiting, and even more so, the money we spent in their neighborhoods.
2. The Railway Museum
I guess most people don’t consider the Railway Museum a must-do while in Nairobi. On both of the occasions that I visited I was the only person there, local or tourist. It is just a short walk from downtown Nairobi, yet a world away from all the hustle and bustle of the city streets. It has a $6 entry fee for tourists and is practically free for locals.
The first time I visited was really by accident and I didn’t have my camera with me that day. I knew that I would have to return another day with my camera and the manager kindly told me I could just use the same ticket. The next time I visited I invited my friend Margaret along. She was much prettier than me and would make for much better photos! It’s hard to believe that this place was not full of wanna be Instagramers and selfie-takers, but once again, I was the only tourist in sight.
The museum itself is full of old train stuff inside and the usual array of steam engine type stuff outside. But that’s not the reason I came back a second time. As you pass through the security gate at the entrance to the museum you are greeted by some of the finest street art you will see in all of Africa. You will probably spend longer on the entrance to the museum than in the museum itself.
Of course you should probably check out the old trains and stuff while you are here, but a lot more awaits you behind the museum itself.
Many of the old carriages have been given over to local artists to do their thing with. You really can spend hours here checking out all of the wonderful artwork, and usually meet some of the artists themselves. They even have some of their artwork for sale at very reaonable prices inside one of the old train carriages.
Venturing even further behind the artist’s section you will come across hundreds of abandoned trains and carriages. Here you are no longer on museum property but on the actual Nairobi Railways property and are likely to get chased out by security guards. We managed to explore and photograph some of these amazing old relics for about an hour before we were spotted and not so politely asked to leave.
After leaving the museum, make sure to cross the nearby pedestrian bridge for an ariel view of all the old trains sitting on the rusted tracks. As there is a college nearby, this also makes a great area for a good inexpensive lunch after your visit.
3. Explore the local markets.
No trip to Nairobi would be complete without getting a little lost in a local marketplace. There are so many markets in Nairobi that you could spend a week doing nothing else. They range from arts and crafts at The Massai Market to huge second-hand clothing markets like Toi Market. There really is so much to explore that I highly recommend going with a local who knows their way around. You really could get lost for days in some of these places.
If you are looking for some souvenirs of your trip to Kenya then the weekend Massai Market in downtown is a great place to start. Lots of colorful bargains await you but be prepared for the local hustlers who try to help you find a “bargain”. If you want to save some money and shop at the source, then head to Kariokor Market, where most of the stuff is actually made. Here you will find equally beautiful crafts but at half the price. Of course a little bargaining is required for mzungus!
Nairobi has to the worlds capital for second hand clothing. Many of the clothes that you may donate to “charities” in the US or Europe actually end up in Africa. They are sold by the exporters in large bundles to market vendors, and then resold at the local markets or on the streets. Most Kenyans can’t afford to buy new clothes all the time and are quite happy to shop for used clothing. There really are some bargains to be had on everything from used shoe to used underwear!
One of my favorite markets to explore was Toi Market. This is located a little outside of downtown, on the outskirts of Kibera slums. Once again, just to find your way into the market, and back out again, I recommend going with a local.
Toi Market has just about anything you could imagine for sale. It has hundreds of used clothing stalls, as well as food and drink. It feels like a small town at times.
I even managed to get myself a haircut there. This is a bigger achievement than it sounds. Finding someone who knows how to cut white people’s hair in Africa can be difficult. I got a great haircut in a friendly little barber shack for only a dollar. I was very happy with that but found out later that I had paid the mzungu price and it should have only been 50 cents!
You could even take a prayer break if you needed
And even get a room for the night, or by the hour!
4. Visit Downtown.
Downtown Nairobi is not a pretty place but a visit is a must to see the way of life of the Kenyan people. The streets are somewhat clean but can be difficult to negotiate. Many of the central streets are full of noisy, exhaust belching matatus which don’t believe pedestrians have any right of way. The sidewalks are are not only busy with pedestrians, but can also be full of informal street vendors. This is especially true in the evening when hundreds of vendors lay out their goods on a small tarp or blanket in the sidewalk. Walking just a few blocks can take a lot longer than you think.
The National Archives of Kenya is generally thought of as the center of town. If ever you are meeting up with someone, this is probably where it will be. From here, just about anything of interest is within easy walking distance. And that’s exactly what I recommend you do, just walk.
Apart from all the usual downtown activities, there are quite a few sights worth seeing. Probably the most memorable would be the August 7th Memorial Park. This is set on the site of the former US Embassy grounds which was bombed by terrorists in 1998. It has a small but informative museum describing the events of that awful day where over 200 people lost their lives.
A short walk from here are many of the important government buildings, and also the convention center. Here you can get a birds eye view of the city from atop of the tower. Don’t forget your passport, you will need it if you want to go up.
After crossing a busy highway, you will find the popular Uhuru Park. Like most of Nairobi, it isn’t that pretty, but it’s a great people watching place. Many Kenyans come here to escape the noise of the city and spend time with family. It’s especially busy on weekends with many vendors selling sugary snacks and drinks. There is also rather unsafe looking amusement park for the kids, and a small lake with paddle boats for hire.
Downtown Nairobi has no shortage of places to eat. Check out some of the local restaurants where a good lunch can be had for 2 or 3 dollars. There are also a few more upmarket cafes with outdoor balconies to relax and watch the craziness of the city below. Most restaurants don’t seem to serve alcohol, and I found very few places that I would actually want to spend anytime in for a cold beer.
To get the most out of downtown, you really just need to walk and see what you find. Don’t be afraid to stop and talk to people. Many vendors will try to sell you something you don’t need, but are quite happy to just sit and chat with you.
Overall I found downtown Nairobi a very safe place to be, even after dark. The streets stay very busy at night until around 10pm when many stores close. It is a wise idea to take Uber home after dark if you are not staying downtown. I always found that calling Uber from the entrance to the Hilton Hotel was the easiest, as they all knew where it was and it was easy for them to pull in. There is also plenty of security there if you are out late at night.
5. Ride a Matatu
Riding in a matatu is one of the things many tourists seem afraid to do. Matatus are the local buses/minibusses that most locals use to get around the city. I rode in them almost every day of my stay in Kenya and found them to be perfectly safe. Not once during my stay did I ever ride in a matatu with another white person on board! They may not be the most comfortable way to get around the city, but it gives you a nice glimpse into local life. The drivers, conductors, and other passengers are all happy to see you riding as they do. They will all help you find your way and tell you where you need to get off.
Matatus are a very cheap way to get to and from the city. Prices do vary depending on the time of day but are always affordable. From where I was staying prices to and from the city would vary between 20 cents and up to 70 cents during rush hour.
They are usually loud, with fun local music playing at full blast. The driving can be a little crazy at times and it is a great way to experience the notorious Nairobi traffic. Rarely do they come to a complete stop to let passengers on and off, time is money! It is much easier to take a matatu into the city than leaving the city. All matatus terminate downtown making it easy to find your destination, but taking a matatu home can be a little trickier. You will need to know where it leaves from and where to get off later.