NAIROBI is the capital and largest city of Kenya. The name comes from the Maasai phrase Enkare Nyrobi, which translates to "cool water", a reference to the Nairobi River which flows through the city. The city proper has a population of 3,138,369, while the metropolitan area has a population of 6,547,547. The city is popularly referred to as the Green City in the Sun. In addition to its urban core, the city has Nairobi National Park, a large game reserve known for breeding endangered black rhinos and home to giraffes, zebras and lions. Next to it is a well-regarded elephant orphanage operated by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Nairobi is also often used as a jumping-off point for safari trips elsewhere in Kenya.
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Occupying a plot within Nairobi National Park, this nonprofit trust was established in 1977, shortly after the death of David Sheldrick, who served as the antipoaching warden of Tsavo National Park. Together with his wife, Daphne, David pioneered techniques for raising orphaned black rhinos and elephants and reintroducing them into the wild, and the trust retains close links with Tsavo for these and other projects. The centre is one of Nairobi's most popular attractions, and deservedly so.
Nairobi National Park
Welcome to Kenya’s most accessible yet incongruous safari experience. Set on the city’s southern outskirts, Nairobi National Park (at 117 sq km, one of Africa’s smallest) has abundant wildlife that can, in places, be viewed against a backdrop of city skyscrapers and planes coming in to land – it's one of the only national parks on earth bordering a capital city. Remarkably, the animals seem utterly unperturbed by it all.
Kenya’s wonderful National Museum, housed in an imposing building amid lush, leafy grounds just outside the centre, has a good range of cultural and natural-history exhibits. Aside from the exhibits, check out the life-size fibreglass model of pachyderm celebrity Ahmed, the massive elephant that became a symbol of Kenya at the height of the 1980s poaching crisis. He was placed under 24-hour guard by President Jomo Kenyatta; he’s in the inner courtyard next to the shop.
Karen Blixen's House & Museum
If you loved Out of Africa, you'll love this museum in the farmhouse where author Karen Blixen lived between 1914 and 1931. She left after a series of personal tragedies, but the lovely colonial house has been preserved as a museum. Set in expansive gardens, the museum is an interesting place to wander around, but the movie was actually shot at a nearby location, so don’t be surprised if things don’t look entirely as you expect!
Kazuri Beads & Pottery Centre
An interesting diversion in Karen, this craft centre was started by an English expat in 1975 as a place where single mothers could learn a marketable skill and achieve self-sufficiency. From humble beginnings, the workforce has grown to over 100. A free tour takes you into the various factory buildings, where you can observe the process from the moulding of raw clay to the glazing of the finished products. There's also a gift shop with fixed prices.
Go-Down Arts Centre
The Go-Down Arts Centre, a converted warehouse in Industrial Area, contains 10 separate studios and is a hub for Nairobi's burgeoning arts scene, bringing together visual and performing arts with regular exhibitions, shows, workshops and open cultural nights.
Bomas of Kenya
The talented resident artists at this cultural centre perform traditional dances and songs taken from the country’s various tribal groups, including Arabic-influenced Swahili taarab music, Kalenjin warrior dances, Embu drumming and Kikuyu circumcision ceremonies. It’s touristy, of course, but still a spectacular afternoon out. The complex consists of a number of bomas (villages), each constructed in the architectural style of Kenya's major ethnic groups.
The main collection here is housed in an old railway building and consists of relics from the East African Railway. There are train and ship models, photographs, tableware and oddities from the history of the railway, such as the engine seat that allowed visiting dignitaries like Theodore Roosevelt to take pot shots at unsuspecting wildlife from the front of the train.
Kenyatta International Conference Centre
Nairobi’s signature building was designed as a fusion of modern and traditional African styles, though the distinctive saucer tower looks a little dated next to some of the city’s newer and flashier glass edifices. Take the lift up to the 27th floor, then climb the remaining two floors to the viewing platform and (if it's open) helipad on the roof for marabou-stork's-eye views over Nairobi in all its wonderfully tangled madness.
African Heritage House
Designed by Alan Donovan, an African-heritage expert and gallery owner, this stunning exhibition house overlooking Nairobi National Park can be visited by prior arrangement only. The mud architecture combines a range of traditional styles from across Africa, and the interior is furnished exclusively with tribal artefacts and artworks. For those with a bit of cash to spare, it’s possible to negotiate overnight stays, formal meals and luxurious transfers by steam train or helicopter. The house is off Mombasa Rd.
This is one the most important landmarks in the annals of conservation: it was here that Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi made a dramatic statement to poachers by setting fire to 11 tonnes of seized ivory in 1989. The event improved Kenya’s conservation image at a time when East African wildlife was being decimated by relentless poaching, and it's widely credited as playing a role in turning the tide against poaching in Kenya.
Nairobi Safari Walk
Just outside the main entrance to Nairobi National Park, off Langata Rd, this safari walk is a sort of zoo-meets-nature-boardwalk, with lots of birds as well as other wildlife, including a pygmy hippo, a bongo, an albino zebra and a white rhino, as well as primates and big cats. Children in particular love the chance to get closer to the animals than they're likely to be able to do in a national park.
Circle Art Gallery
One of Nairobi's better exhibition spaces for contemporary art, Circle Art Gallery is, unlike some other Nairobi galleries, more a gallery aimed at serious collectors than a shop aimed at a mass market. Its properly curated exhibitions feature paintings by predominantly local artists alongside works from elsewhere in East Africa.
An expanse of manicured green on the fringe of the central city, this attractive park is a popular respite from the downtown noise and bustle. It owes its existence to Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner. In the late 1980s, she fought to save the park from the bulldozers of the former Moi government. Upon her death in late 2011, her funeral was held in the park and attended by thousands of mourners.
In the grounds of the National Museum, the Snake Park has some impressive snake species, including the puff adder, black mamba, Egyptian cobra, African rock python and Gaboon viper (with 4cm-long fangs, the longest in the world). There are also local fish species, lizards, turtles and some sad-looking crocodiles. Watch for the elephant fossil on the way down from the museum.