"Make this your gateway to East Africa!" Top 5 Page for this destination Nairobi by CatherineReichardt

Nairobi Travel Guide: 656 reviews and 1,499 photos

Nairobi is the biggest city between Cairo and Johannesburg, and, as a result, experiences the myriad social challenges that go with being a huge and rapidly expanding urban area in the developing world.

Nairobi's greatest claim to fame is its excellent transport links, which have played a major factor in establishing Nairobi as the regional headquarters of many businessess and international organisations (hence the large expat community). I can't claim to know Nairobi well, but in my couple of visits, I have yet to see anything - with the possible exception of Nairobi National Park (more on that below) - that I would consider makes it a 'must visit' destination in its own right. However, it's certainly the most obvious point of entry to East Africa, so given that most international travellers will probably be passing through here anyway, I would recommend that you consider spending a few hours (or a night here) to recover from your journey.

Making the most of the airlinks

In recent years, Kenya Airways has been making a concerted effort to establish itself as one of the pre eminent carriers on the continent. It may not be Africa's most luxurious airlines (South African Airways or Emirates are still in a league of their own) but it's perfectly acceptable, and certainly offers one of the more extensive and predictable networks for East and Central Africa in a region that is woefully short of reliable airlines. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is well run and fairly efficient, with staff who speak excellent English, and is unthreatening even to those who have not previously travelled in the developing world ... something that you can't say for many other airports in the region!

So, how can you make this transport hub work to your advantage? Well, those who have read my other pages will already know that I am a great advocate of turning the potential negative of having to change planes into a positive opportunity to briefly explore somewhere that might otherwise never make it to the top of your 'To Do' list. Where possible, I plan trips to capitalise on the transit point as part of the travel experience, thereby effectively getting a 'free holiday', since most airlines won't charge you for a stopover provided that you flag your intention at the time of booking.

Nairobi itself may not be the world's premier tourist destination, but Nairobi National Park (which is on the fringes of the city and literally abuts Jomo Kenyatta International Airport) is arguably the most accessible game reserve you'll ever encounter, and is easily explored on a half day trip. So, if you're planning to visit Africa on business or pleasure, and won't necessarily have the chance to do any game viewing elsewhere, why not consider flying Kenya Airways, stopping off for a day in transit, and then catching your onward flight? For the price of a night's accommodation and a visa (depending on which passport you hold, and generally available on arrival), you'll have the opportunity to recuperate from your long haul flight and enjoy a taste of that iconic African wildlife experience that you might not otherwise get around to: my only warning is that once you're hooked, you'll want to return time and time again!

Warnings and dangers

Nairobi is often referred to as 'Nairobbery' and the city has a reputation for crime (most of it seemingly theft-related rather than violent). I haven't spent enough time in Nairobi to state categorically whether this reputation is deserved or not, but living in a city that also struggles with a reputation for being 'violent', all I can say is that often such perceptions are often exaggerated and become overhyped in touristic folklore. My advice would be to take the same sensible precautions that you would take in any other big city: don't flaunt your wealth by wearing expensive jewellery or watches, don't walk after dark and just exercise sensible caution in your choice of accommodation and transport.

To my mind, an aspect of Nairobi that is likely to be far more injurious to your physical and mental wellbeing is its atrocious traffic congestion. The number of vehicles on the road have long since exceeded the design specifications of the colonial traffic system (which relied on passive traffic calming devices such as roundabouts) and the centre of town is now gridlocked to a greater or lesser degree for most of the day. As a result, traffic jams can tail back almost to the airport, especially in peak hour, which can play havoc with your planning if you're not anticipating this (especially if you're in a rush to make a connection). You might therefore want to take this into consideration when choosing your accommodation - for instance, if you're just staying overnight in transit, I would strongly recommend staying at the Serena hotel near the airport, which although a little more expensive, will save you the trauma of braving the traffic, and is also very well located for a quick visit to the National Park!

Another unexpected impact of the congestion is that vehicle emissions have compromised the air quality along the major roads, and if you're stuck in traffic on a hot afternoon, you might as well be inhaling directly from the exhaust of the truck in front!

Finally, it has to be said that the standard of Kenyan driving also leaves a great deal to be desired: usually you can identify certain groups (such as taxi drivers) who are particularly bad, but in Kenya, the standard of driving seems to be universally awful. In a nutshell, driving in Kenya - and particularly in Nairobi - isn't for cissies, and you might want to bear this in mind if you're considering a 'self drive' option. We did this (and would do it again as it lends a wonderful, cost effective flexibility to your travel), but if you're not used to driving in the developing world, this may not be for you. In order to help inform your decision, I have written a series of tips on 'How to survive driving in Kenya' under the transportation section of this page.

Follow these links to other places which are within easy striking distance of Nairobi and suitable for short breaks:

My Lake Naivasha Page page
My Crescent Island page
My Crater Lake page
My Lake Bogoria page

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:By far the most practical point of entry to East and Central Africa
  • Cons:Abysmal traffic congestion and a reputation for crime
  • In a nutshell:What other city can offer you a stunning national park within the city limits?
  • Last visit to Nairobi: Jul 2011
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Reviews (21)

Comments (3)

  • lmkluque's Profile Photo
    May 19, 2012 at 7:48 AM

    Cathy, thanks for the well written and really humourous tour of Nairobi! What a coincidence, just the other night on program about Dr. Leakey, I saw the ivory bonfire of 1989!

  • SLLiew's Profile Photo
    Jul 26, 2011 at 11:21 AM

    Wow..amazing tips of Nairobi. Enjoyed a virutal tour of Nairobi National Park. Thanks. SL :)

  • canuck68's Profile Photo
    Jul 7, 2011 at 10:47 PM

    Very interesting Cathy. I am interested in what you will say about the Kenyan runners as they are so incredible in my opinion.


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