Travel

Top 12 Places to Visit in Kenya

Home to many of the large African mammals that are famous and beloved around the world, Kenya has become a hotspot for safari tourism. Its history is relatively young, and has undergone vast changes in the last 100 years. Its own capital city, Nairobi, only has roots that are just over a century old, making it look like an infant civilization compared to some of the ancient indigenous populations of Kenya. It is also a country with ancient history, however; Mombasa, for instance, sterns back thousands of years.

Despite major setbacks such as extensive poaching and the destruction of habitats, the Kenyan government has prioritised the protection of its native species, using measures as extreme as a shoot-to-kill policy to dissuade poachers from even trying. And these efforts have been successful so far: species of animals such as the black rhino, the Rothschilds giraffe, African elephants and lions have all started to make a comeback, though their populations are a far cry from their former glory.

Due in part to its relative stability (as compared to countries nearby), Kenya is becoming increasingly popular as a tourist destination amongst foreigners. With its diversity of habitats, species and cultures, Kenya is a place that can be visited time and time again without ever having the same experience twice.

01. Masai Mara National Reserve

The Masai Mara National Reserve is well known for being Kenya’s best wildlife reserve and is the main destination for wildlife-loving tourists who are on holiday in Kenya. It covers an area that is far more than just grassland; acacia forests, rugged hills and riparian areas give the reserve its name, which actually means “spotted.” Tourists will be amazed by the diverse populations of animals here – it is home to large predators and prey, as well as hundreds of species of birds of all sizes.

Attractions & Activities
The thing to do in the Masai Mara is a packaged safari from Nairobi, as it’s a great way to get up close to the wildlife without putting yourself in danger. You can either do a fly-in safari or one that drives you in – but make sure you weigh your options carefully, considering time and cost.

Alternatively, you can do a walking safari with a local Maasai guide, which will let you truly experience and appreciate the landscape. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can also do a hot air balloon safari, which will give you a one-of- a-kind glimpse of the early morning animal activities from above.

One of the most memorable experiences you can have in Mara is the annual river crossings of the wildebeest, which involves thousands of these animals crossing the Mara river. Generally, these crossings start sometime in August, so if you are visiting at that time then you will absolutely have to see this chaotic, intense spectacle.

02. Amboseli National Park

Although it’s not a large national park, Amboseli is extremely iconic and generally packed with tourists. You have probably seen the photos with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background and a herd of elephants in the foreground – such photos have most definitely been taken at Amboseli. If you visit during the rainy season then the region won’t look so dry and dusty; then again, its name does mean ‘’Place of Dust,” so visiting in the dry season is also fitting.

Attractions & Activities
You are virtually guaranteed to see a herd of elephants while here, but additionally you might catch a glimpse of a cheetah near the trees, some zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, and if you’re extremely lucky, lions. Like in other national parks, the way to see these animals is by doing an organized safari that will take you into the heart of the park. These safaris most often start from Nairobi (which is 230 kilometers away from Amboseli), and are best enjoyed when a couple days are dedicated to the venture.

The park is not terribly huge and the density of wildlife allows people to see most of it without much extra time or difficulty. Elephants here are accustomed to vehicles, given the fact that they don’t have the same history of being extensively poached like other areas of East Africa do. They are consequently older and have larger tusks, making this place an even more perfect location to view wild elephants.

Be sure you get a chance to see Lake Amboseli, which only fills partially up with water once in a great while, as well as the Ol Okenya Swamp, which is where many of the elephants congregate. If you can manage it, be sure to view Mount Kilimanjaro either at sunrise or sunset in order to have the best view without clouds in the way. 

03. Tsavo National Parks

Tsavo West and Tsavo East National Parks form a massive expanse of protected area, totaling about 20,800 square kilometers. Luckily it’s quite painless to access with a surfaced road all the way from Nairobi. You’ll most likely be visiting West Tsavo National Park, along with most of the other tourists. Although West Tsavo is the park that covers the least area of the two separately run areas, it feels anything but small. You have 1,000 kilometers of the “developed area” to drive around in, with good roads and facilities making things easy.

Attractions & Activities
Tsavo is best visited if you have plenty of time on your hands. Due to past high rates of poaching and the sheer size of the area, finding the wildlife will take a few drive-arounds. It is well worth the extra time, however, so don’t let this keep you from visiting.

The best way to see a rhinoceros is to visit the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary, which is located in Tsavo West and is kept safe from poachers with its huge electric fence. It isn’t necessarily easy to spot the rhinos – this isn’t a zoo, after all – but there is a much higher density of rhino population here than elsewhere in the park. If you drive around the five waterholes and keep your eyes peeled, there is a good chance you will see one.

The most popular place to visit within either Tsavo park is the Mzima Springs, which allows people to get out of their vehicles and observe their surroundings on foot. Here you might spot crocodiles or hippos (so don’t get too close to the water), but other land-based predators rarely come by. 

04. Lake Nakuru National Park

Lake Nakuru National Park is the place to go for bird lovers, with its various birds numbering in excess of 500 different species. White rhinos can also be found here, but perhaps the most stunning experience of all is seeing a huge flock of flamingos, numbering in the millions. Predictably, the park centers around a lake called Lake Nakuru, the banks of which are the best location for seeing many of the animals. This national park is small but rich in animal life.

Attractions & Activities
Like the previous national parks mentioned, Lake Nakuru National Park is perhaps best visited through an organized safari from Nairobi. Even more accessible than Tsavo National Parks, Lake Nakuru can be reached via a surfaced road just 160 kilometers away from Nairobi. If you would prefer to take care of it yourself, driving there would not cause a problem, and day trips are also a realistic option.

Some particularly adventurous tourists prefer to camp right in the national park, but the town of Nakuru itself provides a nice, more user-friendly location to base yourself in for a night or two while visiting the wildlife during the day. Speaking of wildlife, you can expect to see flamingos, lions, leopards, Rothschild’s giraffes, buffaloes, black and white rhinos, zebras, warthogs, buffalo, baboons and hippos – perhaps more importantly, however, are the various bird species.

Climb the Baboon Cliff on a clear day for a 360-degree view of the incredible landscape. The cliff is located along the western side of Lake Nakuru and is best climbed in the late afternoon. 

05. Lamu Island

Lamu Island, the southernmost island of the islands that make up the Lamu Archipelago, is an isolated area that has a completely unique feel to the rest of mainland Kenya. As the main host of tourists of the archipelago, Lamu Island has a town, a beach, and a stately waterfront that grandly displays what the Swahili style of architecture looks like. Sunbathing and watersports are easily pursued here, along with taking a dhow to the other islands for more sightseeing.

Attractions & Activities
Just being in Lamu is enough to enjoy without forming an itinerary of famous sights to see. If you do want to acquaint yourself with the local tourist spots, however, there are a few museums located in the town, one of which is simply called the Lamu Museum and is situated near the water. Its displays educate on the Swahili culture of the area.

Another interesting historical site is the Lamu Fort, which is a castle stemming from the early 1800s and actually served as a prison until within the last forty years. Nowadays it is a library that is accessible to the public.

Shela Beach is a secluded, vast beach that is by far Lamu Island’s best. White sand extends beyond 10 kilometers. It’s just 3 kilometers southeast of the town of Lamu, a distance that can be crossed on foot or via dhow. 

06. Mombasa

Compared to Nairobi, Mombasa is ancient. An important port city, it has received deserving attention for hundreds of years, although today tourists seem to avoid the city itself and opt for the nearby beaches instead (see Diani Beach). With Kenya’s second highest population, Mombasa is a bustling, chaotic place that feels light years away from Nairobi in terms of culture and history. There are layers of intrigue to fascinate visitors, so don’t overlook this city.

Attractions & Activities
Due to its ancient roots in history, Mombasa has a charming Old Town complete with zigzagging alleyways, shops, ancient mosques (especially the 800-year-old Basheikh Mosque) and evidence of Arabic and Zanzibari designs. Fort Jesus, the most consequential historic building in Mombasa, is located here and worth a visit. Be sure to check out its museum as well as the Omani House from 1800 and some of the interesting Portuguese graffiti.

Other sites to see in Mombasa include temples (such as Lord Shiva Temple and the Swaminarayan Temple) and cathedrals (specifically the Holy Ghost Cathedral and Mombasa Memorial Cathedral). You also will want to take a look at the spice market, where the atmosphere is always high energy and exciting. If the weather is nice and you’re in the mood for a stroll, check out the Mama Ngina Drive for a 2-kilometer route, best experienced in the late afternoon. There’s no need to bring refreshments with you, as you will find plenty of food stalls along the way. 

07. Hell’s Gate National Park

Hell’s Gate is beloved not only for its fascinating rock formations, cliffs and dormant volcanoes, but also for giving guests the chance to cycle around the area with large animals roaming freely. Luckily there aren’t many meat-eating predators around, but you will feel nervous enough when you encounter a giraffe or zebra along the way. Walking is an option as well, but cycling at least gives you the impression that you could speed away from an irritated buffalo if need be.

Attractions & Activities
A walk through the park will require a long day and enough supplies for any “just in case” situations. Most people opt to cycle, however, which is easily done from a mountain bike rental place near Elsa Gate. Just be warned: there have been reports of faulty brakes and gear issues, so be sure to test out the bike a fair amount before paying them for it. If you’re entering through Elsa’s Gate, make sure you also take the time to also detour to Hell’s Gate Gorge, which starts at the southern entrance and goes through the middle of the park.

When you get to Fischer’s Tower, you can try your hand at climbing with the instructors who generally are located there. Climbing Fischer’s Tower shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes. Ask before entering the park about the climbing instructors – they should be well known. They provide equipment and instructions, so you only need to come mentally prepared. 

09. Samburu National Reserve

Known for being a peaceful area with a lovely landscape, Samburu National Reserve is characterized by its shady forests and the lazy Ewaso Nyiro River that simply stops flowing most years around January. There is plenty of wildlife here, mostly of the non-migrating type, giving you the best chance to see animals such as lions, giraffes, zebras, ostriches, antelope and various bird species. Pay special attention to seeing some animals that are only located in this area, such as Grevy’s zebra.

Attractions & Activities
Going near the Ewaso Nyiro River should give you a glimpse of elephants and some other big animals, but your best chance of seeing diverse wildlife is at Buffalo Springs, which is actually on the Buffalo Springs National Reserve side of its border with Samburu National Reserve. If you’d rather stay in Samburu itself to see elephants, head to the Elephant Watch Camp to consult with their experts and maybe stay the night. If you’re especially lucky you could have a leopard sighting. They are surprisingly accustomed to people and vehicles, making the reserve one of the best places in Kenya to see these regal animals in the wild.

Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves are well-developed in terms of their tourist industry, meaning they have plenty’ of lodges to choose from. The roads running through the reserves are nicely developed as well, making it fairly user-friendly as far as Kenyan safaris go. Lots of people opt for a Nairobi-based safari, either flying in or driving in with the night before the actual safari spent in one of the local lodges. 

10. Diani Beach

At first glance Diani Beach resembles all beach resorts around the world: expansive white sand, swaying palm trees and hotels by the dozen. Look a little deeper, however, and you will soon find that Diani has some completely unique things to offer, making it a special place for a visit. Whether it’s the Angola colobus monkeys clambering around, the mysterious forest walks or the launching of dhows into the turquoise water, Diani Beach has a plethora of unique gems just waiting to be discovered.

Attractions & Activities
Water sports are the name of the game in Diani Beach. It is particularly good for snorkeling and scuba diving, with numerous open water scuba diving lessons to choose from for the newbies, and reef-exploring opportunities for the more experienced folk. It is also possible to explore underwater wrecks, in which certain fish are rife. Some of the best marine animals you can see are the bottlenose dolphin, the whale shark (which looks scary but means you no harm), the clown triggerfish and the blue ribbon eel (which is known for its harmless-but-painful biting, so take care).

Kitesurfing and windsurfing are also popular pastimes in Diani Beach, especially given the perfect wind conditions for such activities. There are more opportunities to pursue these hobbies every year as it grows in popularity.

For a less beachy experience, head to the Colobus Trust, the place that has strung up the rope ladders that hang across roads that you may have noticed on your way in. They are there to help preserve the Angolan colobus monkey, a vulnerable species that only has a few liveable habitats left. At the Colobus Trust you can see some of these monkeys up close, and if you plan in advance you can even have them schedule a guided forest walk for you. 

11. Mount Kenya

Honored by UNESCO as both a World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve, Mount Kenya is Africa’s second highest mountain. Because Kilimanjaro receives the most mountaineer and hiker attention, it leaves Mount Kenya relatively remote and in some ways a more enjoyable, less crowded hike. It is the subject of veneration from local tribes; the Kikuyu and the Embu people both traditionally build all their houses with the doors facing Mount Kenya. It is recognized by its two jagged summits that are impossible to ascend except for the most experienced of climbers.

Attractions & Activities
Mount Kenya National Park encompasses the enormous mountain, and you will have to pay an entrance fee in order to enter the grounds. The prime attraction here is, of course, climbing the mountain itself. This is more doable than it might appear from far away; casual hikers, as long as they are in decent physical shape, will be able to climb up to near the top. Only experienced climbers with all their own equipment will be able to make it to one of the two peaks, called Batian and Nelion.

Assuming you are a mere casual hiker, you will choose one of four routes: the Burguret trail, Sirimon trail, Naro Moru trail, and Chogoria trail. They vary in length and difficulty, and if you want to take extra precautions against altitude sickness then it’s a good idea to take on an extra day to your journey. While on your climb, be sure to check out the afro-alpine moorland and its strange flora, as well as the mountainside glaciers – before they are gone forever. 

12. Kenya Villages

If you are visiting Kenya, you will almost certainly develop a fascination with the local indigenous communities at some point. Whether it’s the red-cloaked Maasai people or the mountain-­facing Kikuyu, not to mention the dozens of other tribes that dot across the Kenyan landscape, there is much to learn from these people. If you have the time, be sure to visit one of their villages for a glimpse into the daily life of a Kenyan indigenous villager.

Attractions & Activities
When choosing to visit a village in Kenya to experience the local culture, most people opt for a Maasai village stay, which involves tourists in the tribe’s daily tasks, wedding song performances, and traditional jumping competitions. They often allow tourists to wear their characteristic red attire, and actually are able to produce fire using only pieces of wood. These villages can most easily be found in the Masai Mara National Reserve area. It is also possible to find a Maasai guide who will take you on a walk through the national reserve – this is the only opportunity for a walk (rather than a drive) that you can have in the area.

The Ruins of Gedi (also called Gede Ruins) can be found near Malindi. The stone remains of the village aren’t the only thing to see in the area; a lucky visitor might also catch a glimpse of the Giriama dancers, people wearing their colorful traditional attire who historically believe in animism. 

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