Far too many travellers are quick to call Kenya's much vilified capital by its unfortunate nickname: 'Nai-robbery.' But dismiss the stereotype to uncover rich colonial history, a fine dining scene and notable wildlife conservation projects.
A brief history
Unlike the ancient port of Mombasa, Nairobi is a completely modern creation that owes its existence to the East Africa railway. Originally established as a depot en route to Kampala in modern-day Uganda, Nairobi benefited from ample water supplies and a high elevation, which prevented malaria from taking hold.
In 1907, Nairobi became the capital of British East Africa, and subsequently attracted waves of white settlers, including Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame. After independence, Nairobi underwent massive urbanization, resulting in the infamous slums depicted in The Constant Gardener. Today the city is seeking to reinvent itself as the economic hub of not only Kenya, but also the East Africa Community (EAC).
High tea and crystal stemware
Although the British have long since come and gone, many of their social institutions continue to thrive. Fronting the Stanley Hotel in the Central Business District (CBD) is the Thorn Tree Cafe (Kimathi St), a century-old meeting spot centred on an acacia tree. Before the rise of e-mail and text messaging, travellers in Kenya would stop by to pin messages to the branches. Today you can admire this bit of nostalgia while sipping a classic cup of Earl Grey with fresh cream.
For a proper cocktail, head to the CBD's other colonial institution, namely the Lord Delamere Terrace & Bar (Harry Thuku Rd) at the Norfolk Hotel. Since its inception in 1904, this spot has served as the unofficial starting and ending point for East African safaris. It's also named after the 3rd Lord Delamere (1870-1931), a highly controversial British settler who famously rode his horse into the restaurant, and astonished socialites by jumping over dining tables.
From oysters to crocodile
While Nairobi isn't considered to be a foodie's paradise, that doesn't mean that there aren't good eats hiding out. Located in the historic National Bank Building in the CBD, Tamarind Nairobi (Aga Khan Walk) serves up seafood flown in daily from the coast. Start off with raw oysters on a half-shell, and then move on to tikka masala prawns and lobster sautéed in coconut milk. Dessert is no less exotic, especially if you opt for the tree tomato compote with white chocolate mousse.
If the fruits of the sea aren't floating your boat, head to Nairobi's legendary all-you-can-eat meat buffet, Carnivore (off Langata Rd). Inspired by the Kenyan national dish of nyama choma (roast meat), Carnivore specializes in never-ending skewers of beef, pork, lamb and chicken. Thankfully, the days of dining on rare game meats have passed, though you can still enjoy the guilt-free indulgence of farm-raised ostrich steaks and crocodile filets.
Giraffes, elephants and more
In the leafy suburb of Langata you'll find the Langata Giraffe Centre (Koitobos Rd), which raises endangered Rothschild giraffes with the purpose of introducing them into the wild. It also plays a vital role as a hands-on environmental education centre, allowing local Kenyans and tourists alike to quite literally rub noses with these surprisingly affectionate creatures.
Nearby is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which raises orphaned elephants and black rhinos, also with the purpose of introducing them back into the wild. Between eleven and noon, visitors are invited to watch the parade of baby elephants, who emerge from their living quarters and revel in their daily mud bath. Quick hint: leave your safari linens back in the hotel as baby elephants have a wicked side, and are not afraid to spray unsuspecting tourists!
Finally, there is Nairobi National Park, the only place in the world where you can go on a real safari with a backdrop of towering skyscrapers. Just seven kilometres from the CBD, this is a thriving savannah ecosystem complete with its own wildebeest and zebra migrations, antelope and buffalo herds, and lions and hyenas on the prowl. Before heading out to Masai Mara National Reserve, stop by here and practice your wildlife watching skills.
International flights land at Jomo Kenyatta Airport, located 15km beyond the CBD on the road to Mombasa. In the city lies Wilson Airport, which offers domestic services and charter flights. While the CBD is surprisingly walkable, Nairobi's mad hordes of buses and matatus (minivans) provide access to the suburbs. Taxis are also cheap and plentiful, and can be hired by the hour or even the day.