Whether you are setting out on a safari to some of Kenya's majestic game parks or returning from its idyllic Indian Ocean beaches, a Kenyan holiday invariably begins and ends in Nairobi.
For adventure travellers exploring the region's wild side, Nairobi offers a slice of modernity and a chance to recharge the batteries (literally and metaphorically) before heading back into the bush.
Visitors expecting a sleepy backwater will be surprised by Nairobi's 40-storey glass-lined high-rises and busy highways. The city of four million people is an eclectic melting pot of tribes from all over East Africa as well as large populations of Indians, East Asians, Arabs and Europeans. Nairobi is as diverse as its people. From the pulsating central business district with its theatres and museums to its posh suburbs with chic malls and gourmet restaurants to its sprawling, fascinating slums, the city has something to capture the attention of every traveller.
Some may be put off by the city's outdated nickname, "Nai-robbery". Petty crime still exists, but the government has cracked down in the last decade and most parts of the city are safe for travellers to explore on their own. That said, don't walk alone after dark and avoid dodgy-looking areas for a safe, enjoyable visit.
A comfortable bed
Conveniently located in the heart of downtown, the Stanley (www.sarovahotels.com/stanley; 00 254 20 275 7000) has been a Nairobi institution since 1902, when the city was little more than a railway outpost. Modern amenities such as a heated pool, health club and fine dining ensure guests are ensconced in five-star luxury. Double rooms start at US$400 (Dh1,470), including taxes.
Nairobi's trendiest boutique hotel is the recently opened Tribe (www.tribe-hotel.com; 00 254 20 720 0000). Located in the upscale Gigiri neighbourhood, the hotel's natural rock façade and modern architecture are eye-catching, while the lobby is well appointed in chic African art. Double rooms featuring orthopaedic mattresses and flat-screen TVs cost from $280 (Dh1,028), including breakfast and taxes.
For a unique experience, try Giraffe Manor, an eccentric bed & breakfast in the quiet suburb of Karen (www.giraffemanor.com; 00 254 20 891 078). The Scottish-style mansion is on the grounds of a giraffe preserve and the lanky animals frequently poke their heads into guests' bedrooms or try to steal a piece of toast from the breakfast table. Rooms start from $580 (Dh2,130), including taxes.
Find your feet
Start in the heart of downtown at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, the 30-storey cylindrical landmark. There is not much to see inside Nairobi's second-tallest building, but the views from the roof over the city and the expansive plains are unequalled. From there, head over to the Nairobi National Museum (www.museums.or.ke) on the hill overlooking downtown. It features wonderful wildlife and palaeontology exhibits and is a great primer on the history and culture of Kenya.
Finish the afternoon in Westlands, a leafy neighbourhood of high-end shops and restaurants. Duck into Westgate Mall for a break from the hustle and grit of the city. Browse the bookstores, take in a movie or sip a cappuccino at Art Cafe, a Parisian-style bistro popular with Nairobi expats.
Meet the locals
On a weekend afternoon, Kenyans love to roast and consume copious amounts of meat. Plop down at a table in one of the many tucked-away nyama choma (roasted meat) restaurants in downtown or at Tamasha in Hurlingham and you'll likely be invited to join a communal plate piled high with delicious beef or goat ($5, Dh18 for 1kg of meat) while swaying to the traditional Lingala music. Most of these places also have TVs showing UK Premier League football, a local favourite, and any knowledge of the teams will win lots of friends.
Book a table
Carnivore (00 254 20 600 5933), on Langata Road next to Wilson Airport, offers an unforgettable dining experience. Just about every type of meat imaginable, including crocodile, zebra and giraffe, is roasted over a fire pit and carved right at your table. The meat keeps coming until you wave the white flag - literally, there is a white flag on each table that you tip over to signal you can't eat another bite. Dinner with drinks will set you back $40 (Dh147).
Habesha (00 254 20 386 7035), in the Hurlingham neighbourhood, dishes up arguably the best Ethiopian food in town but is the least expensive at about $10 (Dh37) for a plate shared between two people. Huge plates of flat, spongy injera bread are served with heaps of meat, vegetables and shiro, a spicy dish of mashed chickpeas. The best tables are outside next to the fire pits and the fragrant smell of burning frankincense.
For unique, locally made gifts, check out Junction Mall on Ngong Road, which has branches of Kitengela Glass and Kazuri Beads. Kitengela sells whimsical glass art pieces and kitchenware that is hand-blown in its Nairobi studio. Gifts can be had for $20 up to $200 (Dh73 to Dh735). Kazuri offers a huge selection of colourful ceramic beaded jewellery made by women who are living in slums. Necklaces start at $15 (Dh55).
Try your bargaining skills at the Masai market on Slip Road, near the Central Police Station. The open-air craft market attracts some of Kenya's best artisans. Great deals can be had on masks, ornate wood carvings and colourful jewellery. You can get almost anything at the market for under $20 (Dh73) if you haggle hard enough.
What to avoid
An excursion to Nairobi National Park is not worth the expense of $150 (Dh550) for a half-day trip (includes entry fee and guide), especially if you have planned a safari to some of Kenya's much more stunning game parks such as the Masai Mara, Amboseli or the Aberdares.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (entrance $5, Dh18) in the Langata neighbourhood. This is the world's only orphanage for baby African elephants that have lost their parents due to poaching. Each day the caretakers parade the adorable creatures for cooing visitors and feed them milk from bottles. Also in the same neighbourhood, the Giraffe Centre (entrance $10, Dh37) is home to a dozen Rothschild giraffes, the tallest and rarest giraffe species. Visitors can climb the feeding platform to come nose-to-nose with these graceful animals.
Matt Brown wrote the Nairobi chapter of The Rough Guide to Kenya.