Explore Kenya, the most powerful economy of East Africa and is also a middle income country with a fast growing middle class, however, it is still a developing country, and so certain aspects of the country’s society and infrastructure may come as a shock to some visitors from developed countries who are unfamiliar with the quality of life experienced by many Kenyans. Socio – economic inequalities are also observable, with many middle to upper class Kenyans living moderately affluent lifestyles while many other lower income Kenyans live in squalor.
Although made up of many diverse ethnic groups and tribes, Kenyans have strong sense of national pride which may be due in part to unity in the struggle for Uhuru (Kiswahili: “freedom”) – independence from British colonial rule, achieved in 1963. Most Kenyans seem optimistic about the country’s future. Kenyans understandably pursue the business opportunities offered by tourism with a zeal that may be off putting to some visitors, but are usually open, talkative and friendly once business matters have been settled.
Kenya has a tropical climate moderated by altitude. It’s hot and humid at the coast, temperate inland and very dry in the north and northeast parts.
Kenya receives a great deal of sunshine all the year round and summer clothes are worn throughout the year. However, it is usually cool at night and early in the morning. Also, because Nairobi and many highland towns are at a high altitude, it can be quite cold even during the day between June and August with temperatures sometimes dropping into single digit territory.
The annual animal migration – especially migration of the wildebeest – occurs between June and September with millions of animals taking part and has been a popular event for film makers to capture.
- Nairobi — The capital city and economic centre of Kenya
- Garissa — A predominantly Muslim town in the east close to Somalia
- Kabarnet — Gateway town for Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria
- Kisumu — The major town of the west, on the shore of Lake Victoria
- Lamu — Main town of the Lamu Archipelago
- Lodwar — In the north on the main route to South Sudan with access to Lake Turkana
- Malindi — The landing point of Vasco Da Gama in Kenya
- Mombasa — Historic port on the Indian Ocean seafront and probably Africa’s longest continuously settled town
- Nakuru — Lake Nakuru National Park and an active volcano
- Aberdare National Park — cool and cloudy Rift Valley park with lots of large game, and over 250 species of bird recorded
- Amboseli National Park — a swampy lowland Masai park that is one of the best places anywhere in Africa to view large mammals
- Hell’s Gate National Park – a small National Park close to Nairobi, which allows you to get out of the car and offers some nice opportunities for rock climbing and some game
- Lake Nakuru National Park — a stunning 400 species of bird have been recorded here including the largest flocks of Flamingos anywhere on earth
- Lake Elementaita — One of the smaller lakes in the Great Rift Valley recently declared a UNESCO world heritage site. Scenic and rich in bird life.
- Masai Mara National Park — probably the most popular reserve in Kenya due to the high concentration of large cats
- Nairobi National Park — virtually in Nairobi and a great option to see large game for those on a tight schedule
- Tsavo East National Park — major game park on the main road from Nairobi to Mombasa
- Meru National Park – a wide range of wild beasts like elephant, hippopotamus, lion, leopard, cheetah, black rhinoceros and some rare antelopes.
- Sibiloi National Park – listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a part of Lake Turkana National Parks.
- Mount Elgon National Park
Kenya has four International airports:
- Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) in Nairobi. Approximately twenty minutes from the main business district.
- Moi International Airport in Mombasa.
- Kisumu International Airport Kisumu the main airport connecting western Kenya with the world.
- Eldoret International Airport (local flights and cargo only).
- Jomo Kenyatta is the primary arrival point for visitors flying into Kenya. There are excellent flight connections provided by KQ to major tourist destinations such as Mombasa, Kisumu and Malindi.
Roads are mostly in good condition accessible and paved in all but the most remote regions of the country, especially in the North Eastern Region. All neighboring countries can be accessed including Ethiopia via the border town of Moyale, Uganda via Busia or Malaba, and Tanzania via Namanga.
You can hire a jeep and drive through Kenya, although you need to be careful, since there are few signs along the roads and you can easily get lost. Also, bandits may stop your travel and take your belongings.
Most worldwide rental agencies have offices in Nairobi and Mombasa, and these offer expensive but reliable cars with a full back-up network. One can also rent cheaper cars from local distributors who are mostly reliable.
Getting around in Kenya, especially for roads out of the city, is difficult. Though Kenya does have a lovely countryside, the roads are often in a dilapidated state due to neglect. Rent a heavy duty car/jeep to get you there. A good map is essential, and if you are self-driving to game parks and the like a GPS would be very useful – sign posts are rare and you are never quite sure if you are on the correct road, leading to many wrong turnings and backtracking.
What to see. Best top attractions in Kenya
Kenya has some of the world’s best game reserves where you can see some of the finest African flora and fauna. The parks are famous for lions, giraffes, elephants and huge herds of zebras, wildebeests and buffaloes. It’s wise to shop around for tour operators before picking one, to see what’s currently on offer, who you vibe with, and to get a competitive price.
The annual wildebeest migration (from Maasai Mara to the Serengeti) is an awesome sight and best experienced in a balloon safari. Bookings to watch the migration are best done months in advance due to the high demand and limited lodging available in the Mara. Migration is during August and September.
Kenya also is a great destination for beach holidays, with several located along the coastal regions and the city of Mombasa.
Kenya is also becoming a golf holiday destination, with an abundance of beautiful courses around the major urban areas.
The Northern parts of Kenya are home to some spectacular tribes living very traditional lifestyles – you can start to encounter these remarkable societies near to and around the main road North into Ethiopia (the A2 which runs through Marsabit and into Moyale at the Ethopian border), as well as West of this in places such as Wamba, Maralal, Baragoi, Korr, Kargi, South Horr, etc.
What to do in Kenya
Watch a wildlife migration. Go for a game drive in many parks and reserves found in the country. If you are on a tight schedule take a game drive in the Nairobi National Park found less than 20 minutes’ drive from the Central Business District. Major attractions, big cats including lions and leopards, buffaloes, a variety of antelope species, baboons, monkeys amongst others.
English and Swahili are the two official languages. Generally, you can get by with English in the larger cities and when dealing with those connected to the tourism industry as well as middle to upper class Kenyans, but, outside of that, Swahili is nearly indispensable as most Kenyans have a nearly fluent comprehension of the language.
What to buy
Most establishments do accept VISA, Mastercard and Amex. Most retailers, both large and small, accept mobile payments via M-Pesa. In fact it is not uncommon for people to pay for goods and services from clothes to curios and even hospital bills using their phones. To get registered, visit any Safaricom store countrywide
Kenya is famous for many handicrafts, which are often the signature of a particular tribe or region. Look for Kisii stone (soap stone) carvings, Maasai jewellery, Mkonde wood carvings, Lamu chairs and batiks. The largest selection of handicrafts can probably be found at the Maasai Market which rotates and can be found at different locations within Nairobi, which include Masai items such as beaded jewellery, decorated gourds and the distinctive red-checked blankets worn by all Masai men make good souvenirs. For example, on Sundays, they are at Yaya Centre near hurlingham, and, on Saturdays, they can be found at the Central business district near the law courts parking space.
Buying souvenirs without overpaying
Almost all the prices in the roadside curio shops are inflated. While negotiating is expected, even the negotiated price is normally significantly higher than the prices quoted for similar souvenirs in the duty free section of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. As a rule of thumb, start your offer at 20-25% of the quoted price and never pay more than 50% of the originally quoted price at any roadside curio shop.
Khanga, kitenge and kikoi cloths are ideal to use as sarongs (common in East Africa for both men and women)
Kenyan baskets made from sisal and leather are also popular.
The city and town centers usually have markets that sell curios such as African drums, old brass and copper, batiks, soapstone knick-knacks, carved chess sets, and large wooden carvings of animals or salad bowls carved from a single piece of teak, mninga or ebony.
On Fridays, they are at the Village Market in Gigiri, near the UN headquarters. Gigiri, just like Yaya Centre, is a plush suburb, so vendors price their goods accordingly. There is also a fine selection of stores selling craft goods in Mombasa, where the atmosphere is somewhat more relaxed. However, the best prices can be found by buying direct from the artisans in their villages in the countryside.
Apart from the typical souvenirs such as wood carvings, it may be a good idea to buy one of the large books with photos of wildlife, nature, or culture.
Exporting souvenirs made from wildlife skins (this includes reptiles) and shells is forbidden.
For a more traditional shopping experience, there are many shopping malls in the country, many being in the capital Nairobi. These include Westgate Shopping Mall, Galleria Mall, The Junction, The Hub, Two Rivers, Garden City Mall, Yaya Centre, Village Market, Thika Road Mall, Prestige Plaza, Buffalo mall and more.
There are also local and international supermarket brands that stock many international and local goods; these include Shoprite, Choppies, Tuskys, Naivas, GAME part of wallmart, Chandarana and Carrefour. Most malls will have a nearly even mix of international (mostly South African) and local brands such as Mr Price (a clothing line comparable to H&M), Woolworths, Nike, Rado, MAC cosmetics, Converse, Sandstorm, KikoRomeo and Swarovski as well as a handful of authorised Apple and Samsung retailers.
What to eat
Kenya has some of the finest eating establishments in Africa. Many different cuisines and types of restaurants are available, from Thai to Chinese to Traditional Kenyan. Most people will find something to their liking. Most reputable restaurants, however, are in major cities like Nairobi and Mombasa, with the majority being in Nairobi. There are many high end restaurants such as Caramel in Nairobi, some of them attached to Five star hotels, which are expensive but worth it unless you are looking to experience true Kenyan cuisine. Street food is also definitely worth a try and usually safe to eat, however, do avoid most boiled food unless you are sure of the water source. Mandazi are sweet bread-like treats that are often sold on the street, maize grilled with a side of chili to add on is a wonderful snack and very cheap, samosas are awesome and don’t be hesitant to try all the other yummy stuff they’re selling! Also, fruit stand are everywhere-the mangoes and avocados are to die for. Many restaurants can be found downtown and in the areas of Westlands and Hurlingham but these areas are filled with tourists. Among the many cuisines available are Indian, Brazilian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, German and French restaurants.
Fast food restaurants range from traditional American style restaurants like KFC, Dominos,Subway and Cold Stone Creamery to South African establishments such as Steers and Debonairs.There are also well established Kenyan food chains such as Big Square, McFrys and Kenchic. Most fast food outlets do deliver within Nairobi and Mombasa
Coffee culture is alive and well; with many local establishments available, the most prevalent being Java House, which operates 29 branches in Nairobi and more in major towns and cities across the country. Other establishments include Artcaffe, Vida e Caffe and Dormans. These places are great for a daily fix of coffee, however, they do tend to be on the pricier side, so be prepared.
What to drink
Kenyan beer is decent. There is one major brewer whose flagship brand is Tusker Lager. Also try the Tusker Malt Lager. Another good lager beer is White Cap Lager. Imported beers are available in supermarkets and better hotels, but the prices are usually high. But imported Tanzanian beer like Kilimanjaro and Safari tend to be cheaper than even Tusker.
Imported and local wines and spirits are widely available, and it is advisable to avoid local brews such as “changaa” and “busaa,” which are illegal, un-hygenically brewed and whose consumption has led to deaths on many occasions. It may be helpful to remember that “changaa” literally means “kill me quick” before deciding whether or not to drink a proffered glass of the beverage.
There is an excellent selection of non-alcoholic drinks. Fresh fruit juices are ubiquitous, and generally “juice” means whole fruit blended with water and perhaps a little sugar. Pineapple, mango, watermelon, and passion fruit are commonly available. Sugarcane and ginger juice is a local specialty, as is Swahili tea, which is black tea with ginger. Ginger is popular in sodas as well, with local ginger ale brands Stoney and Tangawizi. Finally, Krest bitter lemon sodas are refreshing and delicious.
All water should be treated, either by boiling or through purifying tablets or filters. This includes Nairobi as well as rural areas. All fruits and vegetables should be thoroughly washed. While eating from the roadside kiosks is part of the cultural experience that one should not miss, note that such places do not always have the highest sanitary conditions and stomach illnesses can result.
Kenya is one of the best countries with good internet coverage in Sub-Saharan Africa and is considered to have the world’s 14th-fastest mobile internet speed.
Safaricom or Airtel: after purchasing a starter SIM card you may access the net instantly if you have an Internet-capable handset or a modem.