Nairobi is the capital of Kenya, the largest and most important city in East Africa. Its relatively small city center is lively and modern, replete with luxury hotels, dance clubs, giant shopping malls, excellent art galleries and curio boutiques, and many fabulous restaurants. Traffic is horrendous, making travel in and out of the center especially during rush hours, very tedious.
The city and its nearby suburban attractions are many, including excellent historic institutions like the Karen Blixen colonial homestead, contemporary art galleries and world-famous self-help projects like the Kazuri Beads Women’s Cooperative, as well as wildlife attractions for which the area is famous. The Nairobi National Park is a true big game wildlife sanctuary that defies common sense by surviving adjacent this mega metropolis. At the main entry to the park is a fantastic walkway and interpretative display by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Nearby is Dame Daphne Sheldrick’s world-famous elephant orphanage. But the city’s most important attraction is the National Museum. No longer just famous for the world’s largest collection of early hominid fossils (which remain off-limits to the public), the new institution has a public face that absolutely rivals developed world national museums.
Nairobi is served by a congested and overworked international airport (Jomo Kenyatta) scheduled for a major makeover in the next decade. Safari travelers will likely fly several times through the city’s old, now domestic airport, Wilson, which in many regards works more smoothly than Jomo Kenyatta.
The immediate outskirts of Nairobi are less appealing, including massive slums that were the cauldron of the December, 2007, civil disobedience. Those troubles have been largely put behind Kenyans in a reconciliation program that is gaining world attention as a model for political resolution.
Historically, Nairobi was a distasteful after-thought to British colonialists who were building the East African railway from the port of Mombasa to what was considered the jewel in the crown, Uganda. It marked the half-way point, and a place of water. Caravans, trains, and later commerce, had to stop and refresh in Nairobi, but it was by necessity not by choice. The mezzanine of the Stanley Hotel in the city center has a beautiful recreation of what a colonial bar was like in those days.
Today, Nairobi is the center of all East Africa and much of Africa. Eighty-five percent of all imports and exports in a five-country region of East Africa flow through Nairobi. While there are parts of the city — especially near the old city market — where the few remaining narrow streets with open storefronts selling grain, tea, seed and fabric give you a flavor of the old days, you’ll be seriously disappointed if you expect to see a Maasai in a shuka in Nairobi. The Maasai here are more likely in an Armani suit, CEOs of several major corporations located across from the Hilton in Citibank’s towering new, silent skyscraper.
Like all big cities worldwide Nairobi is not kind to the unsuspecting tourist trying to find a restaurant after dark, but during the day with prudent cautions it is a lively and colorful place to explore. To the safari traveler getting those last few gifts it’s a treasure chest. To the connoisseur of fine gems it is a bonanza of value, and for people watching it’s fantastic: This is truly Africa rocketting into the modern age.