Earth : Africa : East Africa : Kenya : Southern Rift Valley : Nairobi
Nairobi is the capital of Kenya and the largest city in the country.
Nairobi has a population of between three and four million. Situated on the Nairobi River, the city is not only the largest and fastest growing city in Kenya, but one of the largest in Africa.
The word Nairobi derives from a water hole known in Maasai (an Eastern Nilotic language) as Enkare Nyirobi, which means "cool waters." Nairobi, which was a swamp area, was founded in 1899 and was first a railway camp for the Uganda Railway. The city became Kenya’s capital, which was Mombasa initially, and it also became the capital of the British East Africa Protectorate in 1905. With the spread of plagues in the early 1900s, the town was burnt down and had to be rebuilt. Having a railroad system in the system helped it to have drastic growth, becoming the second largest city in Kenya behind Mombasa.
The city of Nairobi also grew due to administration and tourism businesses (mostly big game hunting). The British, who were one of Kenya’s colonizers, set up shop in Nairobi, leading to the creation of big hotels primarily for the British hunters. Also, Nairobi has an East Indian community from those who are the descendents of original colonial railway laborers and merchants.
Citizens from most countries will have to obtain a visa upon arrival. Currently, this costs US$50 for a single-entry visa and $100 for a multiple-entry visa (Euros, British Pounds and Swiss Francs are accepted as well). However, some countries require a visa before arrival, and some don't require one at all.
For more information, see the Kenya article. If you are only traveling through the country via a connecting flight and will not leave the secure area of the airport you will not need a visa.
The yellow fever vaccination is no longer required if you're coming from EU, Asia or North America. However, a vaccination certificate might be required if you're coming from a country where yellow flu is endemic.
Regular flights to Nairobi are operated by Air France, Air Kenya, British Airways, Egypt Air, Fly Emirates, Kenya Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, Swiss International Airlines, Turkish Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic. Kenya Airways is the national airline and travels throughout Europe, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region. Nairobi’s main airport is JKIA Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (IATA: NBO), 15 kilometers (9 mi) southeast from the center of the city.
If taking a taxi from JKIA, use a reputable taxi; many are waiting outside to give you conveyance, and the cost should be very near 1,500KSh to the city center; Westlands or such places more west or north will be more. When taking a taxi to your accommodation, avoid being talked into taking their recommendation for accommodation, although this is very at your own risk. There is also Wilson Airport, 11 km (7 mi) south from the city's center, for domestic flights. Lighter, Cessna-type aircrafts can be seen there. The military/government airport is in Eastleigh district (pron: "East-Lee"), a very large residential area of housing in the east/north-east of Nairobi, but the government airport is fenced around and does not handle civilian traffic. From the center, you can take Bus #34 for 50KSH, to the international airport, from the front of the Ambassador Hotel.
The city is also accessible by train, with daily arrivals and departures at the Nairobi Railway station. The trains go east to Mombasa and west to Kisumu. There are 3 classes: First, Second and General. First and Second are sleepers. First have 2 seats in a cabin, Second have 4. In Second Class genders are separated unless you purchase the entire compartment of 4 seats. First-class includes bedding, breakfast, and dinner all-inclusive for around $50; Second is $35 all-inclusive. Both can be purchased without bedding or food. Tickets have to be booked through the office on Station Road in south-central Nairobi, or online.
Kenya’s bus system is mostly reliable. There are many bus companies that have routes going to and from the country’s different cities, including Nairobi, the center of the bus network.
Matatus (14-18 seater minibuses) and shuttles (6-seater cars) are convenient, inexpensive (and often the only) modes of public transport connecting Nairobi to towns and tourist destinations in the Rift Valley and Central Highlands such as Naivasha, Nyeri, Nanyuki, Isiolo, and Thika. Matatus can be obtained from the River Road area.
Exercise extreme caution in this area: petty theft is a major concern, and valuables such as mobile phones and wallets should not be prominently displayed here, particularly after dark and even while in the matatu (see safety section below). The best method of connecting to a matatu is to arrange for a taxi to drop you off and pick you up directly at the location of the matatu that you are boarding or alighting from. If you're boarding a matatu from Nairobi, tell the taxi driver your destination and they will drop you off at the correct location. If you are being picked up, then tell the taxi driver the location you're coming from as well as the matatu company that you are using (your ticket should have the operator's name). It is best to arrange for a taxi from the hotel you're staying at. Matatu prices can cost anything from 200 KSh (matatu to Naivasha) to 450 Ksh (shuttle to Nanyuki). The price is dependent on the distance of travel.
Entry into Nairobi by boat is of course not possible, however, one could certainly arrive in Kenya by boat via Mombasa or Lamu, and proceeding by road, air, or rail to Nairobi. Immigration should be processed at the port facility.
Be careful getting around Nairobi. Traffic is very bad like any other major city, but if you use common sense and a local or guide, you should be able to get where you want.
Car Hire And Rental
Car hire and rental options are available. You can hire cars with a driver(chauffeur-driven) or on self-drive basis. Nairobi car hire companies offer salons, 4x4, and safari cars.
Carefully read the rental contract to check for rules on insurance liabilities in case of accident or theft of the vehicle.
Nairobi Car Hire  offers good services for 4x4 and other categories of cars.
Central car hire  is a reliable, trustworthy, and helpful rental company based in Nairobi. Two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicles are available and are well-maintained.
Taxis are not very cheap, but will make city life easier and safer, at least at night. Always set and agree on prices before the trip, and pay afterwards. You can find taxis parked around hotels and tourist areas. The taxis tend to be marked with a yellow line on each side. Your best bet is to ask a local or at your hotel.
By bus (matatu)
A matatu (public minibuses/commuter buses) is typically used for traveling between downtown Nairobi and the suburbs. Matatus vary in size, between the van sized 14 seat Matatus and the larger 50-seat buses. While generally safe, you should be aware that matatus are involved in a high number of accidents every year. Matatus are often overcrowded, with more people than seatbelts and therefore can be dangerous if involved in accidents. Because there are no licensing requirements, matatus are often poorly driven, with drivers passing on curbs, speeding, or passing in oncoming lanes while cars are oncoming.
On each bus is a conductor who will hang out of the matatu and call out a price (usually between 10ksh and 40ksh) and location the matatu is driving. Recently, the government has decided to ban the 14-seat matatus inside Nairobi, effective January 2011 in hopes of reducing traffic and accidents in town. The best choice is probably the City Hoppa bus service and of late, the revived Kenya Bus Service. Beware of traffic jams on the large motorways, not only in the rush hours.
Walking around Nairobi is fairly easy since the city is small and places are easy to get to. However, there are some areas within the city where tourists should not go; minimise walking around at night. Thugs are rampant in many areas.
Car hire from the airport is possible, and fairly painless with prices in line with other African countries. In the recent past, Nairobi had a severe car-jacking problem, but because of increased police check-points, it has become marginally safer. Traveling during the day reduces your chances of getting car-jacked, as most car-jackings occur after dark.
Nairobi is known as the safari capital of Africa, however the city has still managed to keep up with modernization. Unlike other cities, Nairobi is surrounded by 113 km² (70 mi²) of plains, cliffs and forest that makes up the city’s Nairobi National Park. The city is filled with many things to do during the day and the night. Tourists can have their pick from numerous safaris (wildlife, cultural, sport, adventure, scenic and specialist), ecotourism tours, restaurants, culture, shopping and entertainment. While in Nairobi, tourists can also engage in numerous sports from golf, rugby, athletics, polo, horse-racing, cricket and football (soccer).
There are quite a number of networked banking machines in major shopping areas of Nairobi as well as the arrivals area of the airport. A Barlays ATM can be found near Gate 9 within the security area, easily accessible when arriving, and another one on the left side immediately after leaving the security area. Most transactions are cash only, so it is best to have enough cash on hand to pay for purchases and transport. Major banks such as Barclays, Kenya Commercial Bank, and Standard Bank give better exchange rates than any of the FOREX bureaus. Independent machines such as Pesa-point have lower cash limits and may have a higher fee. For example, in 2007, Barclays did not charge any additional fee for a cash withdrawal but gave a lower exchange rate than Kenya Commercial Bank. KCB charges a CDN$5 fee for a withdrawal with a maximum of 40,000/= per day.
Cash is dispensed in units of 1000/=. Note: Many smaller businesses do not have much change, so be sure to have a good selection of smaller notes before going shopping for curios.
Forex Bureaus are located in many parts of the city where tourists are common. They will exchange cash of different currencies, and may also accept a personal cheque for Kenyan cash. They will want a photocopy of your passport before they exchange money. Rates are not bad, but will be worse than a banking machine will offer. Be aware that many exchange bureaus and hotels will NOT accept or exchange American currency printed before 2000. When the exchange bureaus do accept pre-2000 notes, they typically offer substantially lower exchange rates than for curreny printed after 2000. Exchange rates are also typically lower for small denomination currency than for $100 and $50 bills.
Credit Cards Many specialty stores accept international credit cards, however they normally tell you up front that they will charge you bank fees, typically 5% of the purchase. The Nakumat and Uchumi supermarket chains would accept credit cards without a surcharge.
This may also be a good place to repeat the warning about safety: Pickpockets are rampant in Nairobi and have been known to keep an eye on people getting cash from a machine. It is best to carry cash in a hidden pouch rather than a wallet. Men: do not carry your wallet in your back pocket, and women: do not carry your purse to your side or behind you, particularly in busy locations.
The four primary supermarkets in Nairobi are Tusky's, Uchumi, Naivas and Nakumatt. For goods beyond supermarket fare, try Yaya Centre on Argwings Kodhek Road in the Kilimani area, The Junction on Ngong Road, or the Sarit Centre and Nakumatt Westgate which are both located in the Westlands suburb.
The Sarit Centre will be recognizable to any Western traveller as a shopping mall, with an Uchumi supermarket inside. Clothing, shipping, and Internet are all available here. In addition, there is a small movie theater. Other malls in Nairobi include Yaya Centre near Hurlingham and The Mall in Westlands.
Nakumatt Westgate is a just finished competitor to Sarit Centre. It is a large building with many spaces for stores to move in to (they have yet to move in at the time of this writing, however the building is still unfinished). Currently, the primary occupant is the Nakumatt itself, which has modeled itself to emulate a Super Wal-Mart type experience.
Any taxi driver will know these two shopping centers by name, so getting there is not a problem.
An additional smaller supermarket, catering more to expatriates, is in ABC Plaza, along Waiyaki Way. Chandarana supermarket carries a wide variety of imported goods, Zucchini greengrocer is a highly dependable spot for clean and varied veggies, and Gilani's is a well stocked western style butchery.
For local curios and souvenirs, the most easily accessible and tourist-friendly is the Maasai Market, held on Fridays at the Village Market, an upscale, open concept shopping center near the United Nations and American Embassy complexes. Bargaining is necessary, and one should probably not spend more than 1000KSh on one item, except in extraordinary circumstances.
For slightly better prices, visit the Tuesday market in town, just down from the Norfolk hotel. This market is less secure, but is larger and offers more variety and opportunity for bargaining.
Another Nakumatt is located at Nakumatt Junction, past Lavington towards the Ngong Racecourse (Horse Flat-Racing takes place 3 Sundays a month, and is a great way to spend an afternoon). The Nakumatt Junction shopping complex features a few more boutiques - one of note being Zebu, a store highlighting local Designer Annabelle Thom's leather bags and more, where you will find higher quality and higher prices for beautiful designs.
Biashara Street, located downtown, is the spot for textiles. Make sure you pick up at least one kikoi or kikoy (a traditional wrap for Swahili men, predominantly at the coast). Haria's Stamp Shop (been around for more than 70 years!) (www.hariastamp.com) has one of the best selections of kikoy as well as other african fabrics and souvenirs.
Roast House in the city centre facing the matatu station on Tom Mboya Rd. Regular local prices with more selection, excellent food, friendly service. Very busy at lunchtime.
Habesha near Ya Ya center- great Ethipian food for around 5-6 USD
Nairobi has a fantastic array of mid-range eateries.
Mesob is an authentic Ethiopian restaurant located at the China Centre on Ngong Road near the Chinese embassy. Meals cost around Ksh 500 and the food is excellent.
Java House, with quite a few locations, including The Junction, ABC Place, and close to the United Nations, features a western coffee house menu, from bagels to burritos, with excellent coffees and milkshakes, and a full breakfast menu. 500KSh-750 for a complete meal. Another popular coffeehouse is Dormans
Trattoria is an Italian restaurant. Do not expect anything decent when it comes to the mains (all around 700KSh). However, there is a fabulous and extensive dessert menu, including crepes, tiramisu, souffle, and a coffee granita with fresh cream (250KSh-500).
Motherland, is an authentic Ethiopian restaurant with great and affordable food (typical of Ethiopian restaurants in Nairobi!).
Havana Bar, Woodvale Grove, Westlands. Popular bar and restaurant with a laid-back Latin theme. Renowned for their sizzling Fajitas, steaks and seafood dishes. Reasonably priced. The kitchen is open daily from noon til late.  Tel: 020-4450653
Village Market Food Court, Has an array of different ethnic cuisines, including Thai, Italian, Chinese and German, as well as a Mongolian Barbeque. Good prices as well. Venture further into Village Market to find a good Japanese restaurant as well, though with slightly steeper prices. There are also food courts at other malls in the city.
Nairobi has a wide range of Indian restaurants that speaks to the significant South Asian community in Kenya. The city also offers other restaurants specializing in different European and Asian cuisine.
Common fast food restaurants include Steers, Debonairs, Wimpy, Galito's, local favourite, Kenchic among others.
In addition, there are several local restaurants that cater to local cuisine like sukuma wiki (green spinach-like vegetable, 'Kale' in English), ugali (corn bread, ground maize flour and made to a tasty white bread/porridge form), nyama choma (lit: meat roast), chapati, and other specialties.
The Carnivore, located just outside the city, close to the Uhuru Gardens, is a luxury restaurant famous for its meats. In 2006, the restaurant was listed as one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. Once seated, different masai grilled meats will be carried around on sticks and carved to your plate at request. Very expensive by Kenyan standards, beware of additional taxes and catering levys. Reservations might be a good idea, ask at your hotel.
Furusato, located in Westlands, has fantastic Japanese food. For a price.
The Rusty Nail, in Karen, has been super in the past, but mediocre of late. No reason not to give it another chance.
The Lord Errol, past Village Market and into Runda, is said to have very good food, and is popular with the expat crowd.
"Moonflower," on State House hill at the Palacina hotel, is a very upscale bistro / fusion / grill restaurant in a lovely outdoor setting. Fantastic food.
"Pango Brasserie" at the Fairview Hotel features upscale french and continental dishes. Dinner begins in an underground stone wine cellar where the chef will send out complimentary tasters while you sip a bottle of wine of your choice.
"Alan Bobbe's Bistro" is a venerable, legendary restaurant now located on Rhapta Road (near St. Marys School). Founded in 1962, the restaurant features French haute cuisine at about a third of what you would pay in Paris!
The area around the main bus station has a ton of budget hotels and you can save on a taxi.
Nairobi has a reputation for thievery. Beware of snatch and grab, con artists, or groups of people following you. Scams are elaborate and can involve up to 10 or more people working together. The best advice for a tourist is to stay in the city centre, know where you are at all times, and pretend you know where you're going (even if you don't). If you find yourself in an unfamiliar area your best bet is to find a taxi (although you will probably pay dearly if the driver suspects a panicked westerner!). Don't carry large quantities of money or passports on the street, and assume that anyone trying to engage you is up to no good or trying to sell you something. In recent years, crime has significantly reduced, though one should still be wary. If one stays smart and plays safe, without going around much after dark, Nairobi is a safe place to stay. Most locals are honest people who will happily help you if you approach them.
Kenyans are proud people and there is not a lot of begging like you find in some other countries. Some opportunistic people will hang around shopping centres and beg, but they will generally accept a simple 'sorry' and leave you alone if you do not give. Many of these 'beggars' are middle class kids or adults who have realised they can profit from exploiting white guilt, and should not be encouraged. If you are ever lucky enough to visit a slum as a local (not on some perverse tourist safari) you will discover the poorest of the poor do not even beg.
Outside of tourist and expat communities, young children will become excited at the sight of a white person and may come running towards you to try to shake your hand while yelling out 'mzungu' (white person) or 'how are you?'. Older kids are more reserved, and you should be wary of kids who are older than 9 or 10 who are trying to distract or get close to you.
Slums should be avoided by tourists as you will attract a lot of attention which can quickly turn into a dangerous situation.
Apart from the inner city centre, Nairobi dies out at night. Streets are mostly empty. Do not walk alone after nightfall. Always use taxis. The areas north and east of River Road should be avoided, especially if you're not a local!
Biashara Street is a safe shopping street due to the presence of 10-15 Maasai guards. A place to avoid as a tourist is the City Market; you could end up paying a much higher price than on Biashara Street.
If you are in a matatu and moving slowly through traffic, particularly after dark, you should keep your window closed if your valuables are in reach to prevent people snatching them from the outside (there are thieves who walk through traffic looking for such opportunities). Mobile phones and wallets should be securely kept and not displayed prominently during calls or cash transactions in the River Road area, particularly after dark.
Eastleigh (known as 'little Mogadishu') is an area near the city centre that is decaying due to years of neglect by the government (including the police). It is predominantly populated by Somalian migrants and refugees, and most Kenyans will not go there for fear of their safety. Tourists would be wise to avoid it day and night.
There have been several grenade attacks in the city for which Al-Shabaab have claimed responsibility. These are likely to be ongoing while the Kenyan army has a presence in Somalia. They are random and often fatal, and one should be weary and report any suspicious behaviour.
It is recommended that before tourists come to Nairobi, that they should be vaccinated well in advance (6 weeks) of their trip. The most common recommended vaccines for people traveling to Africa are Tetanus, Diphtheria, Polio, Typhoid, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Yellow Fever, Rabies and Meningitis.
Food and beverages
Be careful with the food that you eat outside the more upscale establishments. Before eating, make sure that the food is freshly and thoroughly cooked and served hot. Also avoid seafood,apart from the upmarket restaurants and hotels, and make sure that your fruits and vegetables have been properly sterilized in clean water. The safest fruits to eat are bananas and papayas. Do not drink tap water or brush your teeth with it. Only use bottled or canned drinks (especially popular brands). Also, do not use ice as it may also be contaminated water, and remember that alcohol does not sterilize a drink. The general rule of thumb is, the more high end an establishment is, the greater the safety of the food and drink within.
In Africa you are going to be exposed to yellow fever, dengue fever, other viral diseases, sleeping sickness, filariasis and malaria, although none of these diseases are a concern in Nairobi itself. When insects are biting you should cover up and wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers, socks and pyjamas especially when night falls. It is best to use an insect repellent that contains DEET on your exposed skin and clothing. As for mosquito nets, it is best to use a permethrin-impregnated net along with an insecticide such a pyrethrum coils or an electric mosquito killer during the night. And remember to spray your hotel room every evening.
Heat & Sun
Make sure to drink plenty of fluids (not coffee, alcohol or strong tea) to avoid dehydration. The average temperature is around 25 C (maximum might reach 30 C) throughout the year. Try to avoid plenty of physical exertion and try to stay in the shade and keep cool as much as possible. Increase the amount of salt intake in your food and water. Also, apply a lot of high factor sunscreen, avoid direct sunlight, and try to wear a hat and shady clothing.
There are very many internet cafés around Nairobi, but connection speeds and computers are not always super fast, but still you will manage to open your email, probably even use a webcam or watch YouTube. Prices are usually at ranges from 0.5KSh/minute to 1KSh/minute, usually with a minimum fee of 5-20KSh. The more expensive internet cafés are rarely better and the best ones charge 1KSh/minute with discounts for using the internet for longer. Most of the good cafés are found in Norwich Union which has quite a number just opposite Hilton Hotel next to Nandos while the expensive ones are found in malls in Westlands. Although it may be more appropriate for tourists to use the ones in Westlands since they are usually less crowded and are more exclusive but not necessarily faster or better in terms of equipment.
Free wireless internet is available at Java House restaurants and Doorman's coffee shops in the city and malls. Some bars like Havana in Westlands also offer free wifi. The internet cafe in Sarit Centre also has wireless internet available at a good speed and a reasonable price.
Mobile Phones are ubiquitous in Kenya with fairly good coverage from all providers (Safaricom, Orange and Airtel) that extends to most populated parts of the country. Safaricom has the best national coverage especially if you are using 3G data. The phone system is GSM 900 and 3G 2100 (Asian and European standard). Phones and SIM cards are available at many locations throughout Nairobi and the country including at the airport. Phone prices are very competitive and priced for average income Kenyans. A basic phone may be obtained new from an independent dealer for ~2000/=. A vast majority of people use pre-paid phones with scratch-card top-ups available at a huge number of merchants across the country. All phones are sold "unlocked" for use on any network. Much business is conducted via mobile phone, so possession of one for even a relatively short stay in the country can be beneficial. Rates are extremely affordable with in-country calls at around 3/= per minute. Overseas calls cost around 5/= per minute to the United States (~USD$0.06/minute) and 3/= per minute to India (~INR 1.80, USD 0.04) on the Airtel network.
3G data service is available in most coverage areas on Safaricom and is of a fairly high standard. The other networks have 3G in major population areas and EDGE/GPRS everywhere else. If you have a smart phone you should buy a data pack (200mb, 500mb or 1.5gb) or your credit will go down very fast!
Smoking is against the law out on the streets in the city center (the downtown grid area with numerous skyscrapers). There are certain smoking zones, and outside of the city center it becomes much easier to find locations where it is acceptable. However, a general rule would be to not smoke along the side of any roads or streets with pedestrians and/or vehicles. Be observant and take your cues from other smokers - if there are no smokers or cigarette butts on the ground, it is likely a non-smoking location.
Lake Naivasha is worth at least a day's visit and has enough to keep you occupied for two or three days. Lakeshore country clubs are a good place for lunch. You can take a boat ride on the lake to see hippos, go for a walk among zebra and giraffes on Crescent Island, ride thoroughbred horses among zebra, giraffes and wildebeest at the Sanctuary Farm, and ride bicycles among wildlife and dramatic scenery at Hell's Gate National Park.
Further afield, Nakuru National Park deservedly warrants a 1-night stay for a late-afternoon and early-morning game drive.