Top 8 places to visit in Kenya
A city at the center of it all, Kenya’s capital is a great stopover if you’re looking to head off on safari, the beach or everything in between. Unpack your bags and spend a couple of days eating your way across the array of bars and restaurants in Nairobi, with new buzzy spots such as Cultiva, where the chef’s South American roots are distinct in each farm-to-table dish, or Unseen Nairobi, an independent art-house movie theater and rooftop bar where indie films serve as the perfect side to the signature sandwiches. With art galleries, open-air cinemas showcasing African films, shopping, stand-up comedy shows and museums, Nairobi offers it all.
Even in the capital, you can get up close with wildlife. Your options range from orphaned baby elephants at Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, feeding Rothschild giraffes at Giraffe Center or spotting four of the Big Five (excluding elephants) at Nairobi National Park against the backdrop of billboards, traffic and skyscrapers.
Remote, inhospitable and historically drought-stricken, Turkana looks like a vast empty area on Kenya’s map, but it’s a big draw for adventurers who thrive on challenge. Although the region has an airport, the thrill is in driving, which requires a reliable 4x4 to maneuver craggy roads – or the lack of any.
For how hot and arid the region is, jade-blue Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world, seems out of place. Visit Eliye Springs with its sandy beaches and towering green palm trees and you’d think you’re on Diani Beach on the Kenyan coast. Rent a speedboat to Central Island where a short hike leads up to a volcanic crater lake. Don’t forget your swim trunks, but be wary of Nile crocodiles that camouflage so seamlessly on the shore you’d mistake them for rocks.
Fast-developing Lodwar town has lively nightlife, as well as its own replica of Brazil’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue. For a real glimpse into the past, drive 129km (80 miles) west to the site with the replica of the archeological fossil remains of Turkana Boy, which has earned this region the name “cradle of mankind,” a title seemingly claimed across Africa.
Time your visit with the annual Lake Turkana Cultural Festival in June for better insight into northern tribes such as the Borana, Rendille, Turkana and Samburu. Drive farther east of Lake Turkana and you’ll get to the Chalbi Desert, which has salt pans that spread to the Ethiopian border. You can sandboard the dunes and meet the villagers at North Horr for insight into their culture.
One of Africa’s bucket-list safari destinations, Maasai Mara lies in Kenya’s southwestern region and stretches on for 1510 sq km (583 sq miles) into Tanzania’s Serengeti. Spot all the Big Five and other wildlife, as well as more than 450 species of birds. Encounter wildlife from a safari vehicle, hot air balloon with a champagne breakfast, on horseback or on a guided walking safari. The best time to visit is in October when millions of wildebeest migrate across the Serengeti–Mara ecosystem in search of verdant pasture and to calve, an action-packed scene that often involves them being hunted down by crocodiles and big cats.
You can also visit Maasai villages for first-hand insight into this famous tribe’s way of life, from women building houses plastered with cow dung to their reliance on cattle for their livelihood.
Kisumu is the gateway into western Kenya and is idyllic for its proximity to one of the African Great Lakes, Lake Victoria. Getting here from Nairobi is a 45-minute flight or at least six hours by road, and a passenger train service launched in December 2021.
Boat rides and bird-watching is the name of the game here. Head to Le Pearl or Dunga Hill Camp to try local-style tilapia, either deep-fried or slathered in a thick and delicious fried tomato and onion base, served with local staple, ugali (similar to a thick porridge) and no cutlery. The sunsets over the water in Kisumu are worth the trip, but you can also dance until morning to popular ohangla music at various spots in town, walk around Impala Sanctuary or explore out-of-town caves and rock formations such as Kit-Mikayi and the lesser-known Abindu Caves.
Zip down to the lake’s most popular islands: Mbita, Rusinga or Takawiri where the beaches are powder white and the sunsets storybook. Stay up late to witness the “ghost cities” formed by hundreds of lanterns hoisted on wooden canoes by fishermen heading off to work in the night.
If you’re looking for a laid-back destination with gorgeous beaches in Kenya, the Lamu archipelago is it. The pace of life slows down, and days blend into obscurity. If you’re a history buff, head to Lamu Town, which dates back centuries. As the oldest Swahili settlement along East Africa’s coastline, everything from the architecture to food is storied. The streets are so narrow that it’s inaccessible by car because when the town was being planned, the inhabitants couldn’t even fathom a thing called cars. Donkeys or walking were the mode of transport, but in recent years, motorbike taxis, called boda boda, have changed the vibe of the town as they whizz down the corridors blasting the latest Justin Bieber song.
Hop on a speedboat and explore other places across the archipelago, such as Kiwayu Island. Sitting in Kiunga Marine National Reserve, it’s ideal for diving or sportfishing. In Shela village, holiday homes with infinity pools that look out onto the sea are the norm. The annual Lamu Yoga Festival in October draws students from across the world.
An evening sunset cruise aboard a traditional Mozambican-style dhow (wooden boat) is a must. Bring a Bluetooth speaker and your favorite playlist. The island has lots of great restaurants, such as Peponi Hotel, Kijani, Diamond Beach Village (don’t miss the full moon parties!) or the Floating Bar.
Modest clothing is expected, covering shoulders and chests, and although locals may be too polite to confront you, Lamu is a largely Muslim town.
Amboseli National Park
With miles of dusty semi-arid grassland unexpectedly dotted with acacia trees and green marsh fed by underground water sources, Amboseli National Park has large herds of elephants wallowing in the shallows, dust-bathing or coming so close to your vehicle that you can see their eyelashes.
Africa’s tallest mountain might be in Tanzania, but the best views of Mt Kilimanjaro are undoubtedly from Kenya. On a clear day, you can see its snow-capped peak jutting out into the sky, an incredible shot for photographers. Come evening, kick back with a sundowner and enjoy the views, which get even better at sunrise from a hot air balloon.
Wildlife use neighboring Kimana Sanctuary as a corridor to move from the park to the Chyulu Hills and Tsavo, and by visiting, you’re supporting a community-owned conservancy, Kenya’s first, which was set up in 1996. They also host a fun biennial Maasai Olympics in which young men compete in club- and spear-throwing, high jumping and sprinting races in a bid to champion the shift to conservation from hunting among this community where killing lions was once a rite of passage for men.
Getting to the far-flung Matthews Range in Samburu is no easy feat. Hikers can choose from various scenic routes, each just as serene as the next, but for the best experience, pick a trail that leads through a canopy of trees with emerald undergrowth so thick you will need a machete to clear the pathway, emerging at an icy cold rock pool on River Ngeng. A sturdy rope is tied to a tree, and if you can brave the icy water, dare to Tarzan your way in.
The highest peak in these mountains is 2688m (8819ft), and temperatures get as low as 10ºC (50ºF). You can camp or stay at lodges like Kitich Camp, where they can pair you up with a Samburu guide who will not only help you navigate the area but also point out wildlife by their tracks and sound. On your way down from the peak, try to spot Hartlaub's turaco, a bird that may as well be the Kenyan mascot because it has the same colors as the flag, and De Brazza’s monkey, a master at camouflage.
Watamu is a great hub for exploring the north coast, and the culture has such a distinct Italian influence that several locals speak the language. Many restaurants offer pasta, pizza, and gelato on the menu, and even some street signs are in Italian.
Go diving or snorkeling in the marine parks, join the Saturday evening parties at Papa Remo Beach Restaurant, visit the striking canyons at Marafa Hell’s Kitchen (just not in the middle of the day because you might pass out from the heat!), sign up for boozy sunset cruises down Mida Creek, kite surf at Che Shale, or in October, watch humpback whales weighing up to 30 tons launch themselves into the air before landing back into the sea a few feet away from your boat.