A weekend guide to Nairobi Founded a century ago, Nairobi is the commercial and social hub of East Africa.
Nairobi: savannah and the city
Nairobi is the commercial and social hub for East Africa. It was founded a century ago as a supply depot for Indian labourers working on the Mombasa-Kampala railway and is still a surprisingly compact city. The glass-fronted skyscrapers and shanties of the city centre soon give way to leafy country highways lined with rambling bungalows with tiled roofs. It could almost be England were it not for the exotic trees and flowers. Nairobi is also a convenient base for day trips by car down into the Rift Valley and the flamingos of Lake Nakuru and Amboseli, and the Masai Mara game parks can be reached by light aircraft. The city lies 1,800m above sea level which gives it a surprisingly refreshing climate for its equatorial location. June and July evenings can even be described as chilly. There's no malaria here because of the altitude.
Nairobi National Park is within sight of the city centre's skyscrapers. Yet it contains many large mammals and over 400 species of birds. The park gates open at 6am and early morning is the best time for game viewing. There are over 50 black rhino so you're almost certain to see at least one. Lion, buffalo and hippo are also fairly easy to spot but cheetah and leopard are elusive in the daytime. In July and August, wildebeest and zebra migrate into the park in large numbers. A four-hour tour in an open-top minibus costs around US$70 (Dh260) per person; most depart at around 10am. It's better to hire a private vehicle and driver to enter the park at dawn. The Ultimate Travel Company (www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk; 00 44 207 386 4646) can arrange hotels, scenic flights and private game drives through its Nairobi agent, Bush Homes of East Africa. There are no elephants in the Park but between 11am and noon visitors can visit and touch baby elephants at the orphanage attached to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust off the Magadi Road. The story of the Trust's work rehabilitating orphan elephants into the wild is heart-rending. The Karen Blixen Museum (Karen Road; open daily from 9.30am to 6pm) in the Ngong Forest occupies the author's house and garden and gives a good idea of how wealthy European settlers lived in the 1920s. There's not a lot to entice visitors into the city centre but anyone interested in Africa's prehistory and the origins of man will want to visit the recently renovated National Museum (Museum Hill; open daily from 9.30am to 6pm). Plant and bird lovers should also pay a visit to the Arboretum (off State House Road; open 8am-5pm daily), founded in 1910, which has 350 species of indigenous and exotic plants. The centre offers guided walks on the second Saturday and last Monday of the month. Nairobi is a treasure trove for handicrafts, beadwork, jewellery and antique carvings from all over Africa. The best Maasai market is held on Friday in Gigiri. For sisal and baobab baskets visit Kariokor Market. Towards Langata and Karen there are a variety of attractive stores including Kazuri Beads, which sells hand-painted ceramic jewellery made by local women; Matt Bronze, which sells bronze gifts; and The Silk Road which sells Sally Dudmesh's beautiful gold and silver jewellery using stones sourced worldwide.
Budget The Aero Club at Wilson Airport opened in 1928 and is a Nairobi institution. Pilots from all over the world meet here before flying tourists out on safari and aid into some of Africa's most dangerous places. The cavernous sitting room and veranda look out over a small garden with a pool. There are 12 bedrooms including four singles open to non-members; they're fairly basic but clean and meals are served in the dining room. A double room costs from $50 (Dh187). Aero Club of East Africa, Wilson Airport (www.aeroclubea.net, 00 254 20 600 482). Mid-range A retreat in the heart of the city, the Fairview has 100 modern rooms and suites set on two hectares of well-tended gardens full of bird life. It's family-owned and run, nothing is too much trouble for the front desk to organise, and the staff love young children. Bedrooms are spotless with crisp, white linen and there's a decent pool and a gym. A double room costs from $150 (Dh543). Fairview Hotel, Bishops Road, Nairobi (www.fairviewkenya.com, 00 254 20 288 1419). Luxury There are several contenders including the city's oldest five-star hotel, the Norfolk, and boutique House of Waine but if your budget allows, Giraffe Manor is a must. Built in the 1930s to resemble a Scottish hunting lodge it stands in a forest just outside the city centre. On a good day there are views of Mt Kilimanjaro but the big draw are the tame Rothschild giraffe. At breakfast time the giraffe stick their heads through the dining room windows and literally breathe down your neck. Rooms are baronial and dinner is a sociable affair served at one long table. Guest house profits help run the attached Giraffe Centre where Kenyan children learn about conservation and feed the giraffe. A double room costs from $720 (Dh 2,664) per person including all meals, drinks and guided Nairobi sightseeing. Giraffe Manor, Langata (www.giraffemanor.com; 00 254 20 891 078).
Breakfast The Stanley Hotel's famous Thorn Tree pavement cafe is a popular downtown meeting place but it's not a peaceful start to the day. Instead, rub shoulders with politicians and celebrities on the Lord Delamere Terrace (www.fairmont.com/norfolkhotel; 00 254 20 221 6940) at the Norfolk Hotel on Harry Thuku Road. An international breakfast buffet is served 6.30-10am on this wide shaded veranda looking out over a leafy street. The pastries are very good and there are traditional cooked-to-order dishes such as eggs Benedict. Lunch Utamaduni (www.utamaduni.com, 00 254 980 464) on Bogoni East Road, Langata, near the Giraffe Centre, is a one-stop shop for East African arts and crafts with 18 different outlets selling high quality gifts, some run by Nairobi-based charities. At its heart is the Veranda Restaurant, a cool retreat from the heat of the day, where you can try Zanzibari fish soup, delicious salads and cakes. Dinner It's worth the half-hour taxi ride out to Karen to dine at the Talisman (320 Ngong Road, 00 254 20 883 213). It occupies a former colonial bungalow set in a blowsy mature garden. Wood fires, inside and out, keep off the evening chill. Candlelit tables create an intimate romantic atmosphere and the walls are hung with artwork that's discreetly for sale. The menu reveals Indian, Thai and Swahili influences with dishes often flavoured with coconut, chilli and ginger. The Talisman's feta and coriander samosas are famous but it's the well hung steak and flown-in seafood that the locals come for.
Air Arabia (www.airarabia.com) flies three times per week from Sharjah; return fares cost from $510 (Dh 1,875). Emirates (www.emirates.com) and Kenya Airways (www.-kenya-airways.com) fly daily from Dubai; return fares cost from $531 (Dh 1,950).
Out of Africa by Karen Blixen, is a moving account of colonial life in Nairobi in the 1920s.