Nairobi is the capital of Kenya, a chaotic dust and cow filled city perched atop the Great Rift Valley, that scar across the earth so deep and long that it can be seen from space. In a country that sits upon the equator and ranges from arid desert to tropical jungle, Nairobi and the highlands are a cool breeze.
Located approximately 2000 metres above sea level, in Nairobi palm trees are replaced by wild olive and humidity turns to cool nights but still the animals remain.
Nairobi may be the third-largest economy in Africa, a booming city in terms of infrastructure and economy, but in my mind, it is still primarily notable for the animals.
Nairobi National Park is the only safari destination within a city bounds in the entire world. 100 + acres of unspoilt habitat occupied by 4/5 of the safari big 5. In the city streets warthogs and baboons roam, monkeys steal fruit out of apartment windows and cows cause traffic jams at every turn. In my neighborhood giraffes pop their head over high fences and the hyena can be heard at night. Eagle-eyed runners may spot leopard spoor on our muddied roads and be wary of lions in the woods at night.
Nairobi doesn’t have the glitzy malls of the west, the expansive gardens of the east or even the azure blue seas of the Indian Ocean but it does have a wealth of things to do. Here are my top 11 free things to do in Nairobi
Karura Forest is one of the largest inner-city forests in the world. You drive through a maze of high rises and traffic jams before reaching a towering expanse of green, in the centre of the city. Karura Forest is 1000 hectares of indigenous forest, a haven of enormous trees, waterfalls, rivers, and over 50 km of hiking trails. The forest is alive with animals: bushbaby, bushbuck, bush pig, porcupine, duiker, genet, dik-dik, civet and bats as well as Nairobi’s usual suspects, the warthogs and ever-present monkeys. In recent year the impossibly grand Colobus monkey with his glamorous swag of black and white tail has been reintroduced. The gorgeous River Café restaurant is located at the entrance to the forest and serves amazing cocktails and yummy food. There is also an obstacle course for the kids if bike riding and river jumping hasn’t tired them out.
Visit the Village Market
The Village Market is an ever-expanding shopping mall that has some of the best restaurants and shops in Nairobi. We aren’t talking endless designer chains here, rather local artisans, a few international stores and some great places to eat. As malls go it’s a beautiful place to spend time, there are waterfalls, rivers and over 2000 exotic plants and gardens. There is also a soft play, trampoline park, cinema so plenty for the kids to do., My favourite shops are the little hidden treasures tucked away in the old part of the building, there are some amazing antique and craft shops. The food hall is a must-do.
Hike the Ngong Hills
The Ngong Hills are located to the very south of Nairobi, made famous in the classic film ‘Out of Africa’ these are the hills that real-life frontier woman Karen Blixen gazed at from her farm, and I look at them every day. Stunning from a distance, they are even more incredible up close and offer a perfect spot for a tough days hike or a leisurely picnic. From the top of the hills, you look northwards to Nairobi city skyline, or southward into the great expanse of rift and across to Tanzania. The drop from the top of the Ngong Hills into the Rift Valley is over 1000 metres and the views are unbeatable. The hike is approximately an 8-hour walk from one end of the sinuous line of hills to the other. In the beginning, the distinctive ridges are grassed Tellytubby style but as you progress to the higher peaks, forest covers the land filled with exotic trees such as sandalwood, croton and acacia The Ngong Hills are home to many species of animals: buffalo, bushpig and antelope are here and frequent rumours of leopard and lion abound.
The Giraffe Centre is a charitable trust that was set up in the late 1970s by two Nairobi residents who wanted to personally help to halt the decline of the endangered Rothschild Giraffe.
Today the Giraffe Centre is part of a sanctuary where the giraffe are able to roam in their natural habitat, whilst being protected from predators. An information centre lets you met the giraffe who come daily for the pellets that tourists feed them. The centre has a platform that raises you to giraffe head height. It is possible you will never get closer to a giraffe. You can hand feed, stroke and even kiss the giraffe (a tourist rarely leaves the centre without this eponymous Instagram shot). The giraffe are used to humans but still wild, so be careful when feeding as a giraffe headbutt is not something you are likely to forget
Rollerblade at the Hub
The Hub is one of the largest and newest shopping centre’s in Nairobi. Created around a courtyard the central space is alive with kids zooming around on small cards and bikes or whizzing through pedestrians on their roller skates.
Rollerblading at the Hub is a favourite after school or Saturday thing to do. If you aren’t comfortable on the blades then spent the afternoon browsing the shops and sipping coffee at one of the restaurants that line the square
Boat Trip on Lake Naivasha
Naivasha is just outside of Nairobi, a 90-minute drive down into the Rift. Okay so it’s 90 minutes you will never get back but the descent into the rift is breathtaking and makes the drive worth it alone. Naivasha is situated next to a huge freshwater lake packed to the brim with hippos and birdlife. Take an easy day trip down to the lake, hire a boat to look at hippos up close and then lunch at Carnellys or the Ranch House. The lake is open to much of Kenya’s native animal life; you may be here to see hippos but you will invariably see giraffe, zebra, buck and maybe even a honey badger (I did!) Words can’t describe the serenity of Naivasha compared to close by Nairobi. Fish eagles call, hippos snort and your cares seem to float into the ether.
Shop at Spinners Web
Browsing is free and there is no better place to seek out African crafts than Spinners Web. A huge greenhouse-style building packed to the rafters with unusual finds from across Africa. From beaded jewellery to woven baskets, clothing from upcoming designers and tribal masks you can easily spend a day in here just marvelling over lost antiquities and stunning local design. Spinners Web has a great café in the centre which is the perfect lunch stop.
Kitengela Hot Glass
40 minutes out of Nairobi is the Dali-esque and frankly gobsmacking Kitengela Glass. Kitengela glass products are now sold all over the world, shipments heading to Harrods in the UK and international hotels in Asia. Hand blown glass coloured with reds, blues green and yellows make a rainbow of delight for visitors to Kitengela. You can buy enormous vases, delicate wine glasses, beads and bowls each one completely unique. Watch the glassblowers at work and then wander around the estate which is a model on the bizarre. Surreal works of art are everywhere, glass animals hang from trees and ribbons of glass sparkle in the air. It’s a totally random and completely wonderful way to spend a day
The Maasai Markets are a national institution, a moving market that appears at a different venue each day of the week. It is a coming together of Maasai craftspeople displaying traditional products and pieces of art for you to buy. Some 300 stalls glitter with beads, brass decorative coins. Paintings, clothing, soapstone ornaments, local materials: kikoy, kanga and the infamous Maasai Shuka. My recommended items to buy are Maasai beaded belts and sandals, be prepared to bargain hard.
Baby elephant at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Not strictly free but for a nominal fee of 5 USD you can visit the world-famous David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. One of my favourite things to do in Nairobi, the David Sheldrick animal orphanage is a charitable organization that rescues elephants from across Kenya and Tanzania. The orphanage takes in mainly baby and juvenile elephants and works to rehabilitate them before they are released back into the wild. The lengths of care that the trust goes to are awe-inspiring. Each elephant has its own keeper, a surrogate parent of sorts. This person sleeps in the stable with the elephant, feed him/her from giant baby bottles, takes them on walks and even applies sun cream. A visit to the orphanage allows you to meet the adorable babies and their teenage cousins and learn more about the great work that the orphanage undertakes. I strongly suggest adopting an elephant which, as well as being a worthy form of donation, enables you to visit in a smaller intimate group and personally meet, feed and watch the babies being put to bed.
Kazuri Bead Factory
Kazuri Bead Factory sells a delightful array of handmade beads in all colours, shapes and sizes. Visit their shop and buy bracelets, earrings and necklaces or packets of beads and make your own. What makes the beads so special is that the ladies who make them are located on site, you can tour the workshop and see each bead being made. Kazuri beads is another local initiative which provides work to women who need employment. A visit is educational and gives you further opportunity to purchase a unique Kenyan craft.