Nairobi is a multifaceted African city undergoing dizzying development. It’s full of skyscrapers, crowded markets and congested roads, but is also dotted with lush forests, hills and a national park crawling with iconic wildlife. Yet, there is a remarkable amount that can be experienced in just a couple of days.
The cityscape of Nairobi under the African sky at sunset © Jude Gichumbi / 500px
Start with what sets Nairobi apart from all other capital cities, its wildlife-laden national park. Arrive by 6.30am to have the best chance of viewing classic safari species – many of the biggest players are most active in the hours around dawn. Travelling to the park at this time of day should also limit your exposure to to the infamous morning rush hour traffic. Watch giraffes and zebras graze against a backdrop of skyscrapers, and keep your eyes peeled for both rhinos and lions. After your wildlife drive, grab a quick bite at the charming Tin Roof Cafe on the Langata South Rd; breakfast is served until 11am, with a mouth-watering selection of pancakes and omelettes. Carry on to the elephant orphanage at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (arrive by 10am) to watch mischievous baby elephants guzzle down milk and frolic in the mud.
Getting eye to eye with the world's tallest animal at the Giraffe Centre © Andrew Geimar / Lonely Planet
For a hearty lunch it has to be Talisman, one of the city’s top eateries. Enjoy the shade of the garden while you tuck into the Talisman Burger or fish and chips. Vegetarian options include ginger teriyaki tofu and a creamy mushroom risotto. For a playful afternoon, head to the nearby Giraffe Centre, where you can even feed these majestic creatures. If you fancy a spot of artisanal shopping on your way back to the hotel, Ngong Rd is hard to beat – you'll find everything from paintings to sculptures. Dive into WorkShop Nairobi for colourful cushions and lampshades, but make sure to leave by 4pm to skip rush hour traffic.
Come to Nyama Mama in Westlands for Afro-fusion cuisine © Clementine Logan / Lonely Planet
Once you’ve freshened up, it’s time to sample Nairobi’s nightlife. Westlands boasts a string of popular restaurants, and for fresh Afro-fusion cuisine, funky decor and a young crowd, try Nyama Mama. If you’re craving authentic Indian food (a favourite in Nairobi), Open House is a top pick among locals, and the crispy ginger prawns are very moreish. Wind down over a night cap and enjoy some of the city’s best live music (every Thursday) at J’s Fresh Bar and Kitchen. This is one of the Westlands' busiest bars, and draws a cosmopolitan crowd.
The River Cafe in the Karura Forest allows you to mix brunch with wildlife spotting © Clementine Logan / Lonely Planet
Start your day with breakfast at River Cafe in the serene Karura Forest. Sip on strong Kenyan coffee or sweet, milky chai and watch the monkeys jump deftly between the swaying trees. Afterwards, take a stroll through the shade of the forest, exploring the caves once used as hideouts during the late days of colonialism by the Mau Mau freedom fighters. Take a rest by the nearby waterfall and gaze up at the forest canopy. You can also rent bicycles, if you want to zip around a little faster, for around KSh500 (US$5) for two hours.
Looking down over central Nairobi and its greenery from the top of the Kenyatta International Conference Centre © Clementine Logan / Lonely Planet
Head west and make a pit stop at Wasp & Sprout, one of Nairobi’s trendiest little cafes, with a great gift shop full of stylish souvenirs. Lunch is served from midday and there’s a host of generous salads, sourdough sandwiches and fresh juices (try the cloudy apple) to pick from. Next make your way into the heart of the city, Nairobi’s central business district. Step back in time with a visit to the National Archives, where you can leaf through a collection of materials called the Memory of the Nation. For a different glimpse into a bygone era, Nairobi's Railway Museum has an impressive collection of well-preserved steam engines, carriages and artifacts on display. If you’re in need of some retail therapy, stop at City Market to browse the curio stalls and barter with vendors. End the afternoon with unbeatable views of the city – head to the top of the Kenyatta International Conference Centre for KSh500 and gaze down on the hustle and bustle of Nairobi life.
When its service window opens, Mama Rocks at the Alchemist Bar greets hungry crowds looking for some of Nairobi's best truck fare © Clementine Logan / Lonely Planet
After a busy day, it’s time to relax over sundowners at the rooftop bar of the upmarket Sankara hotel. If you don’t feel like moving far for dinner, simply take the lift down to the sophisticated Graze steakhouse and tuck into a flame grilled steak (vegetarian options are available). Or, for a taste of one of Nairobi’s other favourite cuisines, head to Abyssinia, a well loved Ethiopian restaurant. Let the aroma of coffee and frankincense waft over you as you sample its generous platters, while trying shiro tegamino (made of dried legumes), shekla tibs (pan-fried goat meat with rosemary) and for the more adventurous, kitfo (raw minced meat with spiced butter). If you’re after something more low-key, try the trendy food truck Mama Rocks at the Alchemist Bar and follow it with a drink at the bar.
Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.