10 Do’s and Don’ts When Travelling to Nairobi

Ah, the age of superconnections. So, when I published the last piece on emerging market innovation through a Nairobi lens, it led to Ulrike Reinhard, the publisher putting me in contact with Serge Lescouarnec who runs Serge the Concierge. I had the chance to write my own 10 do’s and don’ts for the city I love and call home. Would love to know what you think.

10 Do’s and Don’ts in Nairobi

Affectionately known as the Green City in the Sun, Nairobi’s typically bathed in the sun’s warm gaze with minimal humidity and a calm breeze at a high of 26°.

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DO’s

1. Do Take A Safari

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Sometimes it’s easy for a Nairobian to forget that we’re one of the only cities in the world to have a National Park in the city limits. The Nairobi National Park is an amazing sight to see. Fresh off your business meeting with 2 hours to kill before you need to be at the airport? Why not head to the National Park and see some lions on the prowl or watch a herd of buffalo by sunset. There’s several types of safaris to take, whether wildlife, cultural, adventure, sport, scenic and specialist. Nairobi’s known as Africa’s safari capital for good reason.

2. Do Visit a “Maasai Market”

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On any given day of the week, somewhere in Nairobi, there’s an open air market of hand-crafted crafts commonly referred to as a “Maasai Market”. It’s recommended you visit with a local to do the bargaining for you, but you can be sure to find some good finds here, whether it’s jewellery, clothing, carvings, statuettes or beadwork, you’ll find a little piece of Nairobi to take back home with you.

3. Do Prepare for The Traffic

Rush-hour in Nairobi can be manic and the ride from the airport will most likely give you a baptism-by-fire as a passenger immersed in Nairobi’s traffic. It’s best to travel between rush-hour times, avoiding 7-9AM, 1-2PM and 5-7PM. You can be stuck in traffic quite a while if you hit it, from 30 minutes to a grim 2-3 hours. Local radio alerts on which roads tend to be helpful.

4. Do Try Nyama Choma!

Nyama Choma is the typical Kenyan barbeque. Usually consisting of goat meat served with other delicious treats such as ugali (maizemeal) and kachumbari (salsa) this is a must-try. There’s also Do try the various meat products of the barbeque as well as authentic Kenyan dishes. Immerse yourself! Do consult locally for a great place to have nyama-choma and visit with a local for best experience.

5. Got Your Game Face On? Try The Carnivore

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One of Nairobi’s attractions is The Carnivore Restaurant, where you can try an array of wild game meat in a buffet-style where the meats keep coming until you say it stop. Delicacies include zebra, gazelle, wildebeeste, crocodile, camel among other seasonal treats.

6. Do Ask About The Need-To-Know Laws

Recently there’s been some changes to the municipal laws e.g. don’t cross the road while speaking on your cellphone (unless on handsfree), no leaning or sitting on ledges and no serving drinks after 11 PM (this one’s currently being debated) get yourself a refresher by asking anyone from your cab driver or any local what bunch of city-centre related rules that you need to know.

7. Do Keep Your Valuables With You

It’s common to visit coffee shops, where there’s free Wi-Fi and take a bathroom break leaving your valuables in plain sight. For this, in Nairobi it’s better safe than sorry.

8. Do Get On Top of The Kenya International Conference Centre

One of the best place to view get a 360 degree view of the city of Nairobi in all its sun-bathed spleandour. It’s one smart way to watch the sun set and if the fog’s not too heavy you can see all across the outskirts of the city, from the slums to the National Park; entry can cost Ksh. 400/200 ($5/$2.50)

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By Kenyan photographer Mutua Matheka. See his full photography series atop KICC here.

9. Do Have Kenyan Tea (and Coffee)

Take my word for it, Kenyans have some great tea, ask for a cup to be prepared in typical Kenyan fashion with milk (or without, if that’s your preference) and relish the great flavour and aroma of one of nature’s most beautiful gifts. You won’t regret it! And while you’re at it, sample some of the world’s best cofee. Some noteworthy coffee houses include the Nairobi Java House, Dormans Coffee and Pete’s Coffee.

10. Do Kiss A Giraffe!

The Giraffe Centre breeds the endangered Rothschild Giraffe and has education and conservation programmes for children as well as as plenty of information on giraffes. Part of their program involves feeding the giraffes and you have the option to kiss a giraffe in the process. With the way our planet’s going, this may be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

DON’Ts

1. Don’t Forget To Ask The Price of the Taxi/Cab Before You Depart

When it comes to driving and commuting across the city you’ve got options, and if you choose the most stable of these options – the taxi cab, it’s good to keep a few things in mind. Always agree a price upfront and proceed to pay after. Cabs here don’t typically operate meters and set prices as per distance to be travelled, the earlier you can hear the price stated (and in some cases bargain) the better. They’re not cheap, but can make life easier and safer. If possible ask a local for a referral or at your hotel.

2. Don’t Expect Perfect Timing

“Fast food” has a different meaning here, add a few minutes. If you’ve got an casual appointment ask if they mean Kenyan time which can typically mean a small delay of 5-15 minutes to longer. Also expect people to give you their projected place e.g.

3. Don’t Go To The Malls

You came all this way to stick to the malls? Really? Sure you can do better than that. There’s plenty of places to explore in good old Nairobi. If you must, however, The Westgate Mall, Sarit Center, Yaya Centre and Nakumatt Junction are good malls to shop and relax at.

4. Don’t Forget To Carry Change, It Helps Drive a Bargain!

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Try and break down your money at the Forex into smaller denominations. The largest being the Ksh. 1,000 note. If you’re going shopping and negotiating it usually pays to have change. Bargaining tactic: “I only have Ksh. 500, so the maximum I can pay for it is Ksh. 300.”

5. Don’t Forget to Ride a Matatu (at least once)

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This is debatable, but it’s hard to argue that matatus (minivan taxis) aren’t part of the lifeblood of the city. Loved and loathed, they are a reflection of popular culture and the Kenyan experience. I’d recommend that if looking for a rush, you take a ride on a matatu (there’s routes that are more lively than others) in the company of a local companion. I insist you have a local companion if you’d like to check this off your bucket list. Take care of your pockets and personal items on the trip.

6. Don’t Carry Large Amounts of Cash. Join The Mobile Money Revolution!

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With the mobile money revolution going on in Kenya, you may as well experience it. Instead of carrying cash everywhere you go, you could opt to balance cash, credit and mobile money. If you’re in town for more than a week, try register a SIM card and see how convenient and useful it will prove to be for goods at local supermarkets, stores, cab fare and other informal payments. You could start with Safaricom’s M-Pesa for example, the most popular mobile platform which transacted over $7 Billion in 2010 and generates more in a month than PayPal Mobile does in a year and more than Western Union’s global equivalent.

7. Don’t Forget You Might Need to Pay for a Visa Upon Arrival

Some visitors have to pay for a visa upon entry at the airport or border crossing. A single entry visa costs $50 and is valid for 3 months. A transit visa is $20. You can also pay in Euros and English Pounds. If travelling through Kenya on a connecting flight and don’t leave the airport, you don’t need a visa. A single entry visa is useful though because you’re good for the whole East African region: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda.

8. Don’t Expect Amazing Internet Speeds

…unless you really need them, in which case you ought to get yourself a portable 3G modem (currently only from Safaricom), where 300MB will set you back Ksh. 1,000 (approx $12.50). Overall, there’s fibre and there are hundreds of cyber cafes across the city but it can pay to have a backup dongle in case. The 3G signal has proven to be reliable in the city limits and in major towns in Kenya. If you would like to opt for a cyber cafe, you’ll find some of the fastest cyber cafe’s in the city centre at Norwich Union House, opposite the Hilton Hotel. Expensive ones tend to be in the big shopping malls and in the Westlands area though they’re more exclusive and less crowded (but not necessarily faster).

9. Don’t Smoke on the Streets

A friend of mine recently faced some trouble for this one and it’s certainly not obvious. Smoking on the streets of Nairobi’s city centre is against the law, except in designated smoking zones. If anything, take your cue from other smokers.

10. Don’t Forget To Ask About Roadworks

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It’s useful if planning extensive road travel that you ask about roadworks if you’re up and about the city and its environs. There’s been some great construction but it can affect your timing by as little as a few minutes to as much as several hours or make you miss your engagement altogether.

As Nairobi blogger, M.I.L.O.N.A.R.E puts it: “Me I Love Nairobi Regardless” (Kenyans have a penchant for starting sentences by saying “me, I”) not to mention a habit of replying to the greeting “hello” by saying “fine.” Those are just some of the peculiarities that make Kenyans who they are.

It’s a beautiful city with its quirks but a fantastic and memorable place to visit, and lucky for me, I call it home.

Special thanks to Serge. Original Article appears here.

What are your do’s and don’ts in Nairobi? Think I missed one? Agree or disagree? Let me know what you think in the comments.

  • http://twitter.com/delirioustash Davis Tashobya

    I agree with my heart,body and soul.I have been here 8months now and there isnt a thing I haven’t tried on this list.I must say it is a well compiled list and it summarises the sights and sounds of Nairobi.I am hard pressedfind somethin to add to it.

    • http://www.mark.co.ke/ Mark Kaigwa

      Glad to hear that it’s accurate, David. Always the thought if you’re too close to the mirror you might not see everything. :)

  • http://twitter.com/nina_lush Nina Ndichu

     Um the donts r not that accurate and i think you are giving a negative approach to visiting our country. the time thing is annoying even for me as a Kenyan so dont promote us saying dont expect perfect time!!! Mpesa is always down and one can end up being stranded with this mobile banking rubbish!. Always have ur Visa card…you dont need to carry money and most places you can swipe…and your guaranteed that ur money is available at all times unlike mpesa! What do you mean dont go to the malls???? that is a DO and not a DON’T!!!! Nakumatt is a must go….if your doing shopping the supermarkets are in the mall…your saying you must taste kenyan tea and coffee and your saying not to go to malls…last time I checked Java, Dormans and Art cafe have very good tea and coffee and are located at the malls.!!! Another do is visit village market and of course NATIONAL MUSEUM!!!! Some things are stereotypes in this article…lets be open minded!!!

    • http://www.mark.co.ke/ Mark Kaigwa

      Thanks for the comment, Nina. 
      Regarding time, this is something that every European embassy and American embassy typically shares in way more explicit detail than me. Consider that people like the Germans and others get offended at people who are late, I’m just asking them to give a little benefit of the doubt here.  

      You’re right about mobile money and I’m sure that they’ll keep their Visas within reach. Just think it might be a nice experience to take back with them since Kenya’s the best in the world at Mobile money.

      Regarding malls I mean it’s so easy for tourists to look for things that remind them of home. All I’m saying is there’s more merit in exploring all of Nairobi than doing what some diplomats and tourists do (stick to the malls and not go anywhere near the rest of Nairobi)

      Good tips on the Museum and Village Market. I appreciate you pointing this out, this was my take but I can’t see and say everything without you. Thanks for sharing, Nina!

    • http://africatech.wordpress.com Marialangat+junk

      I think Mark was right on point. Hanging out in our malls  (Westgate etc) shows a stunning lack of imagination for someone who has traveled all the way to an amazing and beautiful country. 

      MPesa is occasionally down, but there you cant compare the number of MPesa outlets in this country to the number of places you can swipe a Visa (or even the total number of ATMS). Mobile money is THE most convenient portable form of currency in this country bar none. 

      “Mobile banking rubbish”? Are you serious. Kenya is a world pioneer in this, as Mark pointed out.Please try to appreciate and promote the great unique things about Kenya, instead of  telling visitors about Visa cards and malls. They have all that, they came to Kenya to experience something new and beautiful. 

  • Gish

     KTB owe you one. Great post.

    • http://www.mark.co.ke/ Mark Kaigwa

      Thanks for this, hopefully it gets their attention someday.

  • henry

    you’ve really made my day on the bargaining issue,yes! carrying small monetary values can be of help.I believe this is of enlightening to many tourist owing to the fact that there is no much bargaining in their countries.I have experienced it here in Europe.they pay for the fixed priced of the merchandise. on the other note,TIME factor it was a good approach.everything here is time,and when they happen to visit our motherland they should be prepared to face the inconveniences that comes with it.
    Its a great post

  • TheBigBoss

    Could have been better !!!

    DON’T go to “Maasai Market”  – I call it “Ripoff market”, they ‘ll sell you stuff at crazy prices (x7). I hate this place. Kenyans jua kali need to stop that stupid mentality of “I rip you off today because I may have not market tomorrow”… They should do their price calculation; put their markup and come up with fixed price and label their products; they don’t realize that most tourists are running away from them because they are just tired of this mentality…

    DON’T go to Carnivore – Better go to Gaucho for real roasted meat… Not average fried meat, beurk !!

    DO go and buy second hand clothes (mitumba) !

    • http://www.mark.co.ke/ Mark Kaigwa

      @226095713090a758c592fc6d9df5bb4b:disqus @Peperuka thanks, you’re one of the most respected French bloggers around .ke and I appreciate you stopping by to share.
      You definitely have a point about Maasai Market, what would you recommend as an alternative? Are there some controlled spaces in Nairobi to buy curios? Would love to know what you think.

      I love Fogo Gaucho. I go at least once a month with a group of friends and in my opinion, it’s better than the Carnivore, so can’t disagree with you there, but for a Kenyan experience would you think that there’s a better place than Carnivore? Given Fogo is Brazilian? Maybe Amaica in Milimani? I loved the food there.

      I agree with second hand clothes, a good friend of mine twitter.com/seblindstrom gets awesome retro t shirts from there for 15 bob!

      • TheBigBoss

         Man, I hate Disqus !! Luckily, I don’t use it often !

        Well, unless you go with a local or experienced person (like said above), I would personally avoid Maasai Market. Sadly, no alternative; the zebra market near Sarit is not bad. The best option is to try some shops managed by locals in malls or visit shops in town (Biashara) because prices are fixed and fair – no hassle !

        I went to Maasai Market with 5 different persons in the last two months. Two persons left empty handed because they didn’t like that “hey brother blah blah” (harassed :) Two other persons knew what they wanted but they were tired of loosing time bargaining because they were given crazy prices.

        About Fogo vs Carnivore, you are right… Fogo is not typically Kenyan :) but I hate fried meat (it’s like eating a shoe sole). Better place than Carnivore ?? Well, local nyama choma are not bad (Njuguna) but the best of to-do thing is to organise a choma at Baridi corner.

        I always bring my tourist friends at Toi market (outside and inside part) because it’s something wazungu don’t know – “You see all your fashionable clothes that you buy at expensive if not crazy prices arrive here in containers, what a waste ?” I usually get the answer “Oh can you buy stuff from here ?” and reply “well look at me, I am 100% mitumba”

        • http://www.mark.co.ke/ Mark Kaigwa

          Sorry about the whole Disqus thing :)

          I hear you on Maasai Market and Njugunas, that’s a good place for a nice bit of Nyama Choma in Nairobi. Any other suggestions maybe someone else can comment. 

          And like you I say Mitumba FTW (for the win!) 

      • Amit

        The shop at Hilton is a great place for curios and great prices.

        • http://www.mark.co.ke/ Mark Kaigwa

          Agreed. Thanks for sharing, Amit.

  • TheBigBoss

    I am back !!

    This one was funny – http://thingsseenandheard.wordpress.com/2010/01/04/things-i-do-in-nairobi-that-i-cant-do-in-london/ – stuff you can do in Nairobi that you can’t in London !!

    Then, a DON’T for our tourists – Don’t ask if it’s still far nor ask if there is a shortcut… and never oh never jump over the white barrier at State House Rd thinking it’s a shortcut to Arboretum. :)

    • http://www.mark.co.ke/ Mark Kaigwa

      Thanks for sharing! 

  • BettiB

    DONT go to Bomas of Kenya. Its like a circus show!
    DONT walk around after dark or in very lonely places. Better safe than sorry!
    DONT act and look too much like a tourist. The more self-confident you are the less people will try to cheat on you. In the matatu, check how much the locals pay!
    DONT go to one of the many fast food restaurants (Wimpy, Pizza Inn, Mc Frys, etc.). They are just like McDonalds and only serve fat and unhealthy food.

    DO ONLY go to Masai Market short before it closes, then it’s less crowded and they will offer closing prices. Nevertheless, go with a local or an experienced mzungu and pay piece by piece.
    DO visit Karura Forest for a nice walk/ hiking – nice fresh air and beautiful waterfalls.
    DO visit Uhuru Park and chill in the sun.
    DO visit the Sheldricks Elephant Orphanage.
    DO visit a rugby match.
    DO watch football in a small sports bar. Kenyans go crazy!!!
    DO visit the National Museum.
    DO try the Hotdogs in Westlands (only at night, corner Mpaka Road/ Woodvale Grove Lane opposite of Changes)
    DO visit Changes and Black Diamond once, but try to find more local clubs in town
    DO visit City Market (esp. the butchery part) if you can stand blood and smell… 😉
    DO buy fruits (mango, papaya, passion fruit, pineapple, etc.) at small fruit stands and support local farmers (and get it cheaper than in the super market).
    DO try Kenya Cane and/ or Kenya King if you like to have a bad hangover! 😉 Or chose a cold Tusker beer (Tusker baridi!!!).
    DO try Indian food here… it’s almost like in India.
    DO find a few “personal” taxi drivers which offer fair prices and are trustworthy. Ask them for their mobile number and call them to pick you up.
    DO try to get into one of the big mosques. DO visit a church service.
    DO eat Samosas (pastry filled with minced meat or veggie) as a snack.
    DO listen to the radio and enjoy funny discussions and songs from the 70s-90s on Classic105. 😉

    • http://www.mark.co.ke/ Mark Kaigwa

      Brilliant list, BettiB some nice additions especially night life and local brews to taste (now that Chang’aa has been legalised, think it’s fair to recommend it?) 😛

    • TheBigBoss

      Gonna say “DO visit the Sheldricks Elephant Orphanage because everybody does it… but don’t forget that saving baby elephants is an hair-splitting and useless cause – yes Kenya is overpopulated by elephants and they killing about 200 persons per year – and the center is only here to attract/fool/bullshit tourists, specially when you know if was free and it is not anymore” :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/Njengar King Richard

    Do remember that ive been tried tested n proven to be the best cab driver in n out of town.
    Do remember i beat traffic always.
    Do remember that i can set u up in a nice hotel or furnished apartment near all the action.
    Do remember ave never missed the cats at the park even in rainy conditions.
    Dont go back without havin done the Hells Gate nature hike with me,am king at the park.
    Dont forget to ride with me,am the best there is and will be always unbeaten.

    • Prithviraj

       hi richard,let me have your email and contact as i may need your help for cabs at nairobi.

    • KPS 23

      Hi Richanrd

      We would be visiting soon, you details may come handy,

      Pl share

      Thanks
      K Shah

  • redZola

    Great article Mark, small correction on Don’t #8 … it’s 1.5GB for Ksh 1000 on Safaricom not 300MB

  • Ute

    Thanks for all those do’s and don’ts, Mark. Especially the last ones will be of great help. Cultural misunderstandings can be very embarrassing.
    I’m looking forward to spend a couple of months in that exciting city in summer. See you there in June :-)

  • http://www.shipping2canada.com/ Shipping Canada

    This blog is really interesting as through this we came to know that what thing we do or not to do while traveling to Nairobi. I really enjoy the blog and hope you keep updating us like that only.

  • littledutchboy

    Hi there
    Really useful list but as a humble business tourist but have to pull you up on one thing….
    I would recommend avoiding the Maasia Markets at all costs.
    It grieves me to say so, as I believe strongly in supporting local craftspeople and local business, but this is just silly. Let me give you an example from today. A dish in my hotel gift shop is priced at 450Ksh. Opening price at the Maasia Market? 6,500Ksh! I mean, seriously, what’s my opening counter-offer supposed to be to actually achieve a fair price? Minus 5,000Ksh? It was a similar story across all stalls. Eventually I gave up and left. It just wasn’t possible to get to a price that wasn’t exhorbitant, let alone fair.
    I travel a lot, all over the world, and to be sure this isn’t an issue that’s unique to Nairobi or Kenya, but this is by far the most ridiculous example I’ve ever come across. And it’s a serious problem. I don’t want these markets to fail, I want them to succeed. But they’re not going to succeed by blatantly trying to cheat tourists – today they not only lost any sales to me, but also to the fifty or so internationals I’ll meet tomorrow who I’ll be telling in no uncertain terms to stay away.
    I truly hope these guys wise up and figure out a way to find the right balance between an enjoyable negotiation and a fair and profitable price.

    • Chris

      I totally disagree. Yes, especially if you’re white or clearly a foreigner they’re going to start at an absurd price. But it is totally appropriate to just laugh in the case of them asking for 6500 shillings and say “I saw this same bowl in the hotel for 450 shillings, I’ll give you 400.” Also, I would recommend avoiding purchasing mass produced items in the maasai markets. You can order it from China just as they have for that. Try to find hand crafted things and really come in there guns blazing. I had a great time bargaining.

      A friend of mine picked up a bunch of stuff at the market and the original price they gave her was 750 USD, in the end she paid 150USd.

    • http://www.jovago.com Lolomfirst

      Hi,
      About the Masai Market, in order to know the real price before to buy, I go to Spinner Web in westland to check the official price and after i go to the Masai Market knowing exactly what is the maximum price to pay. Same for hotels, before to book hotels in Nairobi, I always check the prices on Jovago in order to have the best prices.
      http://www.jovago.com/en-gb/hotels/kenya/nairobi/2523
      Nairobi Hotel
      Best,
      laurence

  • sam

    i have been in Nairobi last week, ppl are nice and if you wanna buy handy craft cheap you can buy a local market just near by sarit center buy the way always pay less than 1/8 of the first price.
    also try hashemi restaurant in westland the food are so testy.

  • Yvonne Hilton

    My friend told me how price haggling before taking a cab was always a tough experience. She also told me that hiring a car and driving by oneself wasn’t a good option either since Kenyans drive madly on the road.
    I did some research on the web before my family trip to Nairobi and I came across this website: http://servantrip.com/personal-driver-service/ where my family and I reserved for a private driver throughout our trip. Their prices and services were pretty good. I highly recommend them as a better option to regular cabs since they’ve fixed prices. No haggling and you can pay the drivers in USD.

  • A M

    How does one find a trustworthy ‘local’ to accompany her to, say, the market you mentioned?

  • http://www.geomarahomes.com/ Geomara Homes

    Hey! Nice Post these points are really genuine and you have presented it in an interesting way. I would like to add one more important tip that:-Don’t Forget to book a holiday home or vacation rental before you leave! Nairobi is an attractive but crowded place so sometimes it becomes difficult to get cheap accommodations with luxurious facilities.
    #Vacation Rentals In Kenya
    http://www.geomarahomes.com/

  • Karen Bartleson

    Uber is now in Nairobi. No need to settle on prices or have local cash. It’s all built in.