The Green City In The Sun
If you want to experience city life in Africa, Nairobi is the place not to miss! “The green city in the sun” has all the characteristics of a hard drug: it can drive you crazy, and it’s highly addictive! This is not a place for the faint-hearted, but if you’re adventurous, Nairobi is the thrill of a lifetime!
Arriving in Nairobi: JKIA, matatus, traffic chaos
Most likely, you’ll arrive through Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). To most Europeans and Americans, it’s a small, yet surprisingly modern and efficient airport, for Africa. Foreigners who are not clearly familiar with the place are likely to receive a lot of attention from taxi drivers. A taxi to central Nairobi is about €20-25 (€10-15 if you can bargain in Swahili). If you’ve tried driving in Rome or Paris, you still ain’t seen nothing yet. Traffic rules in Nairobi are: 1) Anything goes. 2) If you’re drunk, it goes even better!
A characteristic feature of African towns and cities are the mini-buses. Referred to as “matatu” (by coincidence similar to “matata”, which means trouble in Swahili), these are the most common means of transportation in Kenya. In the good old days, they used to be packed with people, both inside and outside (I’ve had the experience myself of hanging thru open side doors of matatus many times). These days, things are a bit more regulated, so matatus can only carry as many passengers as they have seats. It is, however, a common belief among matatu drivers that all roads are their personal possessions, and that they are required to assert their rights as often as possible.
Things to see and do
Nairobi is in itself unique by the fact that it’s a truly African, international city. Tourist guides and travel agents are likely to tell you that it is unsafe to go out unaccompanied. You can safely ignore that advice!
The city offers many delights and interesting experiences, for residents as well as for those passing though. Do keep in mind though, that the city isn’t referred to as “Nairobbery” for nothing. Non-violent muggings are frequent. They hardly ever happen in crowded streets, so as long as there are people, you can feel safe. Should someone nevertheless snatch a camera, purse, wallet or anything else, the crowds are solidly on your side. Resentment against thugs is harsh, and if you yell “thief”, the perpetrator will instantly be in big trouble. What happens next is not a pretty sight though..
The Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) is the ultimate landmark building in Nairobi. This tower is a hallmark of the city as well as of the whole country. It is surrounded by the Parliament building, the City Hall and the High Court. Behind the high court, there’s a curio market on Saturdays, where you can get all sorts of souvenirs and artefacts. The curio market rotates between various locations according to the week day. On Tuesdays, it is next to the University, and there is a permanent market in the Westlands, opposite the Sarit Centre.
30 min outside of Nairobi, you’ll find one of Africa’s most famous farms, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The whole district is actually named Karen, after the Danish lady who brought Kenya into the world literature. After the Karen Blixen farm, a trip to the top of the Ngong Hills a great idea. The view from there is simply spectacular!
Karen also features a Giraffe Centre, where visitors can see, feed and even touch giraffes. These animals are used to people, so there is noting to be afraid of.
Not too far from the Giraffe Centre, is the Elephant Orphanage. This is where where Kenya Wildlife Service brings orphaned elephant babies found in the national parks. During the visiting hours, KWS rangers give you a tour, and a chance to see the elephants being fed.
The leafy Karen suburb also features a huge number of very nice restaurants with huge gardens. No need to go hungry, or to contend with fast food!
A unique feature of Nairobi is that it’s a city with its own national park. There are less animals than in Maasai Mara, but it is a nice diversion from the fast pace of Nairobi. The most frequently used entrance is from Langata Road, by the Kenya Wildlife Service HQ. This place also features a lion orphanage, and also a quite nice restaurant called Rangers, where visitors can enjoy a meal just next to the Nairobi National Park.
If you want to catch a movie, you have a couple of good choices in Nairobi. 20th on Mama Ngina Street is located in the CBD, and you can walk over there safely, even after dark. The Sarit Centre in Westlands and the Village Market also have some very nice movie theatres.
Shopping in Nairobi can be quite fun, as prices generally are way below European levels. Due to the strong economic growth, the number of large, modern malls keeps growing. The Village Market is, without a doubt the most fun place to go. Constructed like a giant village, it a has a really cool architecture, with an artificial river running through the place. In addition to a bunch of clothes shops with all the major designer labels (at prices way below European level), a supermarket and a travel agency, it has a cinema, a night club, about 15 small food places with various international cuisines surrounding an open-air food court, some nice outdoor cafés and an Italian ice bar. There’s even a small amusement park, so it is basically a place where it’s easy to spend quite some time. Alternative good upmarket places to shop are Yaya Centre and Sarit Centre.
Places to eat
(Updated info on this subject in my more recent post Wining and Dining in Nairobi) The no. 1 international restaurant in Nairobi is called the Tamarind. This place is not cheap, but offers an exquisite culinary experience. The waiters here are probably the most professional ones you’re ever likely to meet in Kenya. Seafood is particularly excellent here, and warmly recommended. The Tamarind is a must-visit when you go to Nairobi.
The restaurant at the Carnivore is an unmissable experience for non-vegetarians. The price is KSh 1600 (€16) per person. Waiters will continue to supply fresh roasted game meat from ostrich, antelope, zebra, camel, crocodile and other specialties until you lower the flag on the table. The “dawa” – a mixture of Kenya Cane, honey and lemon juice is surprisingly delicious, and worth a try.
During one of my visits to Nairobi in 2007, I discovered something of a novelty: Blancos Lounge offers both traditional Swahili dishes, as well their own inventions based on old local staple food. This place is still firmly within the global fusion cuisine. When trying out their version of mbuzi choma with irio, I couldn’t believe it when I got my irio as giant pommes noisettes on a bed of a sukuma wiki based salad (don’t even try to understand what I’m talking about if you’re not familiar with Kenyan food!). Needless to say, I recommend this place!
There’s quite a number of sushi restaurants in Nairobi these days, but my favorite one is called Chez l’Ami/Shinjuku, located in Hurlingham. This odd combination of a French and a Japanese restaurant that are co-located has really nice garden section. Service here is decently quick, and the sushi is surprisingly good.
The Cellar is not mentioned in any tourist guide. Located in Lavington, this is a place where mainly affluent locals and well-informed expatriates go. Their specialty is steaks, and the place is totally worth many visits.
Like elsewhere in the world, Chinese restaurants are everywhere in Nairobi. The number one Chinese restaurant without any doubt though is a place in Lavinton called For You. This place is run by a Chinese lady who lives in Nairobi. In addition to excellent food, it also has an atmosphere that makes you want to come back over and over again. In addition to a cosy indoor section, they also have a huge garden with enough space for guests to enjoy some privacy along with an excellent meal. You won’t find this place mentioned in any tourist guides, so just tell your taxi driver it’s at the junction of Gitanga Road and Ole Odume Road. There are Chinese lanterns on the outside, so you can’t miss it once you’re there!
If you like Lebanese food, it would be a crime not to visit the Cedar, on Lenana Road. This place is owned by a Norwegian businessman who does not compromise when it comes to style and quality in his restaurant. Their Mezze are absolutely mouth-watering! Hang around in the bar after dinner, and you’re likely to bump into quite a few members of Kenya’s political and business elite. Ethiopian restaurants are booming in popularity in Nairobi. Ethiopian food usually consists of various spicy meat sauces, served with the traditional injera. If you haven’t tried it, I can warmly recommend it, but be aware that it’s highly addictive! Habesha in Hurlingham is my favorite Ethiopian restaurant in Nairobi. Due to its reputation for excellence, it tends to be crowded though. The Motherland along Ngong Road, and Red Sea on Lenana Road are also definitely worth trying.
Nyama choma, or roasted goat meat is the ultimate Nairobi experience. Preferably, it is consumed in a ‘choma’ place along with a Tusker beer. Choma places can be found in all qualities and price classes. The Buffet Park in Hurlingham and Visa place on Upper Hill are only two out of many good alternatives to choose between. These are popular places for young professional Nairobians, and always have a good atmosphere. ‘Choma’ evenings are an integral part of the Nairobi lifestyle, and if you’re inviting many guests over for a party, it might even be an idea to buy a whole goat. Nyama choma is usually served with lots of salt (to dip the meat), kachumbari (chopped onions and tomatoes) and a choice of either ugali, irio or chapati (all traditional side meals).
All the major hotels also feature cafés and restaurants that in many cases may be worth a visit. At the New Stanley Hotel you’ll find the outdoor Thorntree restaurant. Besides being a very pleasant place to sit and sip on a beer or coffee, this place also has nice fruit juices. They do serve food as well, but none of it is extraordinary. Well worth visiting nevertheless.
The 680 Hotel has a Mezzanine bar with wall-sized windows on Kenyatta avenue. Good place for a few drinks. Food not worth mentioning.
The Flamtree Restaurant at the Panafric Hotel has a nice, mainly European cuisine. The place also has good ice coffee, latte, and the best melon juice in town. The green surroundings of the outdoor part of the restaurant give the visitor the feeling of sitting in a garden, despite the fact that it’s adjacent one of the major roads in Nairobi.
The lunch buffet at the Serena Hotel is without any doubt the best one in town, and none of the other hotels offer anything that compares. Never, ever eat there without having a taste of the smoked sailfish!
The Java House chain has been a tremendous success throughout Nairobi, with new branches opening in every part of town. The restaurants offer the best of Kenyan coffee (of course in all the varieties you would expect from a quality coffee bar), along with nice, tasty breakfasts, lunches and snacks.
The vibrant night life is actually one of the main characteristics of Nairobi. If there’s any city made for partying in Africa, Nairobi is that place. Partying is simply an integral part of the Nairobi lifestyle, which you can’t fail to notice whether you’re there for 24 hours or 10 years.
The Carnivore is much more than a restaurant. It is also a gigantic night club. The place has 5 bars and is usually open until 6am. Each night has its own theme, and rock night on Wednesday is the main attraction of the week. Being born party people, Nairobians are not deterred by the idea of going out in the middle of the week! Casablanca, on Lenana Road, is a North African style night club, with some of the best cocktails in Nairobi. They also have sheeshas, and a great atmosphere. The Pavement in Westlands is a popular place for expatriates, but not among my favorites. This place is usually really overcrowded.
Along Koinange Street in the CBD, there’s a place called the Florida, usually referred to as the “Madhouse”. This place is among the hot spots in Nairobi, and is very popular among expatriates and tourists. It is also notorious for the many women in the world’s oldest profession. K1 in Parklands is one of the local upmarket night clubs. You’ll hardly find any tourists, and just some very few expatriates here, so the atmosphere is truly Nairobian.
If you’re in for karaoke on a Friday nite, then Café Cream at the Yaya Centre is a nice place to go. For something as simple as drinks in a nice and relaxed atmosphere, you can try the bars at the major hotels, especially the Hilton, the Grand Regency and the Intercontinental. The Safari Bar at the Intercontinental is probably the most recommendable of the hotel bars.
If you care to take a taxi for about 15 minutes, the Mercury Lounge in Westlands is also a recommendable place, especially if you’re a fan of house music. They also have nice cocktails by the way! If you go for an all-nighter in Nairobi, you’re likely to end up at the Madhouse or the Florida 2000 on Moi Avenue. However, even these places will eventually close some time between 6 and 9 am. If you have a lot of guts, and you’re not carrying any big amount of cash or any visible valuables, you might want to try some of the places that no tourist guide will ever tell you about – just for the kick of it.
On the “wrong” side of Moi Avenue, there are plenty of places that stay open as long as there’s people there, such as Thiba, Fameland, and Good Hope. Just a few minutes away by taxi, in Ngara, a place called Rabi offers traditional Kikuyu ‘mugithi’ music throughout the night. It is important that you’re accompanied by one or several trustworthy locals when going to any of these places.
Crime and corruption
Nairobi isn’t referred to as “Nairobbery” for nothing. Fortunately, most muggings are non-violent, so if (or when, if you stay there for a while) you get mugged, you’re most likely to lose your belongings, but remain unharmed. To reduce your chances of becoming a crime victim, stick to the crowded places. Crowds tend to treat thugs a bit harshly before handing whatever remains of them over to the police. Thugs know that, so they ususally pick alleys and dark, empty streets for committing their crimes. When parking in town, keep in mind that parking lots are safe during daytime, because they’re crowded, but are ruled by two-legged garbage in the evenings. Therefore: Avoid parking lots if you need to pick your car after dark. Try to find a parking spot along one of the main streets, as crowd justice is a very effective deterrent for thieves.
Despite government efforts to fight corruption, the vice is still rife everywhere in Kenya. The country has managed to get itself off the list of the ten most corrupt countries in the world, and is now “only” number 15. If you stay in Kenya for a while, you are very likely to encounter requests of demands for “kitu kidogo”, or “chai” by the police or by other officials with the authority to make your day a bit harder unless you pay them. Flatly refusing, preferably loudly so, using the words “bribe” and “corruption” several times is usually a very effective way of silencing such demands, and making the demanders very cooperative. If the person in front of you is a policeman, and you’ve actually broken the law, you might still be in trouble, though. Kenyan police cells are probably one thing you would not want on your been-there-done-that list.
High-level corruption is a different story altogether, and usually takes place around the dining tables of expensive restaurants. It is worth noting that several people under investigation for scams amounting to billions of euros are still in the Kibaki cabinet. The Anglo Leasing Scandal is only one out of many that have come to haunt his entire presidency (which he won on an anti-corruption platform). A big difference from many other African countries nevertheless, is the fact that even top-level officials and ministers do get investigated, and that some even have been fired for being too tainted with corruption.
The business hub of Africa
Nairobi is undoubtedly the business hub of Eastern Africa. Economically, it is one of the most important cities on the continent. An increasing number of multinational companies choose to locate their African headquarters in Nairobi, and basically all the major regional companies are based in the city. Nairobi also hosts the headquarters of UN Habitat and UNEP, making the United Nations one of the major employers in Kenya, and an important source of business for thousands of people and companies.
The strong economic growth in Kenya is further boosted by a high influx for foreign investment. Despite some very apparent flaws, the Kibaki government has managed to remove barriers and create a healthy environment for foreign investments in Kenya. The Kenya Investment Authority, where I’ve previously worked myself, has also been restructured into a very potent agency for marketing Kenya as an investment destination, and for bypassing bureaucracy to facilitate foreign investment.
Living in Nairobi
For a westerner, Nairobi is a ridiculously cheap place to live. With its broad selection of restaurants, night clubs, coffee bars, plus some good movie theatres and big, modern malls, you can easily afford a quite extravagant lifestyle for considerably less than in any European country. Nairobians tend to be party animals. With a good selection of good night clubs, there is always somewhere to go, any day of the week. Few Nairobians will ever say no to catching a few drinks. In general, people are overwhelmingly friendly and helpful, and you will always feel that you’re welcome as a foreigner. Having seen the attitude with which too many Africans are met in Europe, one can get ashamed. Almost everybody speaks English, and no one expects foreigners to learn Swahili or any of the other local languages. If you do, however, you will be met with outright admiration!