Jackson Biko relishes any opportunity to invite visitors to spend time getting to know Kenya’s capital. Here are his pointers.
airobi’, in Maa, the language of the Maasai, means ’cool water’. The water referred to is the Nairobi River, which meanders through the city like a pre-colonial train. The ‘cool’? Well, that comes from many things: the culture, the history, the National Park that is a stone’s throw from the CBD, the eclectic cuisine, the happy people, the warm summer weather, the artwork on our matatus (public minibus transport), the sheng (our unique urban lingo), and all things authentically Nairobian.
But to see Nairobi you have to understand that Nairobi can’t be seen through a tourist guide book. Or through Trip Advisor. Not entirely. First, it’s not that big – only 696 square kilometres, which is half the size of London or Rome.
To see the heart of this city in the sun you have to be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, to come with no conceptions or prejudices, to be willing to give Nairobi a chance to reveal itself and yourself time to be seduced, because Nairobi is a stealthy seducer.
Many cynical men and women have come here doubtful and then continued coming back, lured by their memories of the place. The biggest misconception is that Nairobi is unsafe, which is of course true of every vibrant metropolis if you wander off into the wrong side of town. So slap on some sunscreen and walk (not cab) this lovely city, because there is so much to do in the way of culture, food, drink, art and entertainment.
Feel the attraction
Karen Blixen Museum This is the farmhouse that gained fame through Out Of Africa, the film based on the novel by Danish-born writer Karen Blixen. Come here to enjoy the rustic beauty of the museum and to chat with the attendants – they will offer you more stories than you would guess from the exhibits. Sometimes the background is even more intriguing.
Nairobi National Park It’s literally a fifteen-minute drive from the city centre, the only National Park so close to a city anywhere in the world. Head out with a picnic basket, drive around, and you might see up to three of the Big Five. Make sure you don’t miss the sunset. You have to catch the sunset.
Giraffe Centre Ever been kissed by a giraffe? For some, this has been the highlight of their visit. The centre has a breeding programme for Rothschild giraffes that reintroduces orphans and others back into the wild. You will get to feed these graceful creatures. Stroke them. Pat them. Then have tea under an umbrella in the grounds of Giraffe Manor, modelled on a Scottish hunting lodge by Sir David Duncan, with regal gardens that look almost surreal in the sunlight.
David Sheldrick Wildlife Sanctuary At some point they all come out to feed: little elephants, adorable little things, fumbling and playfully shoving each other. They will suckle milk from huge feeding bottles and monkey around in the sun. The elephants of David Sheldrick Wildlife Sanctuary are mostly always orphaned or abandoned by their herd by some reason. The good folk from DSWT nurture them to a point where they can survive in the wild again. Observe the camaraderie that these lovely animals share with each other. Hold a bottle to a mouth of an elephant and feel part of their rehabilitation. Above all, support the cause.
Have a drink somewhere special
Aksum Bar Serena Hotel Is it the last Thursday of the month? Do you feel like some African jazz? Better still, can you afford to stay until 2am? Because in the end you will.
Bacchus Lounge Nobody plays House better than these fellas. Order their mojitos. The crowd is mostly expats. Try not to shake the deejay’s hand; he isn’t hot about that.
Slims Bar and Restaurant OK, maybe you are here only for a Tuesday? Try this bar; all the hungry and creative bands come here to get discovered. The nights are electric.
Drew Bistro & Lounge Go for their award-winning draft beer. For their party nights on Fridays and Saturdays. And for their burgers. You will be glad you wore dancing shoes.
Have you had our Tusker lager? You have to have a cold Tusker. It’s a proud Kenyan brand. Have it cold on a hot day and cold on a warm night. Have it in a long beer glass or swig it from the can if you are on a safari. You will be drinking a heritage. The taste of Tusker will stay with you for a long, long time.
Best places to eat
Kosewe Ranalo It’s in the middle of the CBD: a home-grown place of traditional fare. It gets full because the food is excellent and the environment is ultra-clean. If you are around on a Friday evening, there will be a band playing while you enjoy a beer.
Mama Oliech’s fish place Whole fish, not fillet. Complete with bones. They deep fry it then they stew it. It’s served with a side plate of traditional vegetables. Wash it down with a cold beer.
Diamond Plaza, Parklands A food court popular with the Asian community, offering rich Indian and Chinese dishes, from uthappam to masala dosa and Punjabi samosas. Their shawarmas are unbeatable. Go in the evening, order food from one of the stalls and eat in the relaxed bustle of the evening diners.
The Carnivore We call it nyama choma. That’s grilled meat to you. There isn’t anywhere in the region that grills all types of meat (game or otherwise) as authentically as the Carnivore. The ambience is magical.
Java House It’s the home to Kenya’s finest coffee — freshly brewed, of course. In selected outlets you can also buy paintings.
Artcaffe Upscale cafe with a great ambience. Try their Oval branch in Westlands; sit on the balcony and enjoy an unbeatable view at sundown.
The African Heritage House
Sitting at the edge of the city is one of the most photographed houses in Africa, The African Heritage House. It’s a unique building that holds an impressive collection of original works of art and tribal sculptures from all parts of Africa. The collection features authentic artefacts from the diverse peoples of Kenya. You will learn more about African art here than you will anywhere else in the country.
Get something nice to remember Nairobi by
Marula Studios, Karen From recycled flip flops washed up on the beaches of Kenya they make beautiful works of art. No easy feat. You need never leave their shop without something unique and elegant.
Blue Rhino, ABC Place A design-led gift shop that will evoke memories of Africa. They work with the underprivileged (but naturally gifted) to make an eclectic range of cards using Joy Adamson watercolours.
Kitengela Glass You would not believe the kind of things these guys can do with recycled glass. It will blow you away. Visit the studio or one of the several outlets across the city.
Banana Box, Sarit Centre You can check out these people too for more souvenirs. Established in 1991, Banana Box’s Kenyan artists and craftsmen and craftswomen produce a fantastic array of striking household products.
The Maasai Market Nothing says you have been to Kenya more memorably than something beaded. The places to get it – as well as paintings, curios, bags, clothing and more – are the popular open-air Maasai markets that operate around town on different days: Capital Centre on Wednesday, The Junction Mall on Thursday, Village Market on Friday, High Court parking lot on Saturday and Yaya Centre on Sunday. Take a local to help you to secure a good bargain.
First published in Travel Africa edition 69