I arrived in Nairobi exhausted after a multi-day bus journey from Ethiopia. Originally, I only intended to stay for a few days before heading to the coast to relax. My plans quickly changed as I ended up absolutely falling in love with the city. This article is designed to be part travel guide and part explanation of why I believe Nairobi is the best African city.
For more info on the city, check out my list of the 21 best things to do in Nairobi.
It’s hard to describe exactly why I like the Nairobi so much. On paper, the city isn’t very noteworthy. There aren’t any major tourist attractions. It’s not on the beach. It isn’t even a particularly historic city.
To add to that, Nairobi is also quite expensive for what it is. Particularly for accommodation. For the price of a run-down room in a Nairobi hotel that hasn’t been updated since the 60s, I could stay in a newly renovated hotel with a pool and WiFi in Asia or Latin America. The value you get is low for what you pay.
The truth is, Nairobi is a crowded and polluted city with a pretty high crime rate. Full of extreme poverty, Nairobi is home to Kibera, one of the largest slums in all of Africa. To top it all off, Kenyan food isn’t that great, in my opinion.
So with all of that being said, you may ask why even bother visiting Nairobi? I’ll try to answer the best I can.
Nairobi is Conveniently Located in the African Continent
For tourists, Nairobi has a convenient location within both Kenya and Africa as a whole. For example, from Nairobi you can:
- Travel to the beautiful Kenyan coast in half a day- The line from Nairobi to Mombasa opened in 2017 with help from the Chinese. For info on taking the train, check out this great guide from Seat61.com.
- Travel to Arusha, Tanzania- The bus ride takes only about bout 6 hours. Buses leave frequently.
- Go on a safari in Nairobi National Park- Nairobi is the only African city with a safari park within the city limits. For more info, check out this great safari guide from The World Pursuit.
- Visit some Rift Valley lakes- Take a short bus ride to Lake Naivasha or Lake Nakuru.
- Travel to Maasai Mara for a safari- From Nairobi, the journey takes about half a day by bus and shared taxi. For a step-by-step guide, check out my article: How to Safari in Kenya for less than $200: Maasai Mara on a Budget.
- Travel to Kampala, Uganda- The bus ride takes about 12 hours. Multiple buses operate this route each day. For more info, check out my full guide: Nairobi to Kampala by Bus.
- Travel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia- The bus ride takes around 2-3 days. For more info, check out my full guide: Nairobi to Addis Abab by Bus.
- Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) is one of the busiest airports in Africa- Here, you’ll find direct flights to Asia, Europe, and North America as well as all over Africa. This is Kenya Airways hub airport.
All of these transportation options make Nairobi an extremely convenient location to base yourself while traveling in East Africa.
Nairobi is Modern and Livable
The most important factor for me in judging whether or not I like a city is livability. Nairobi’s layout makes it quite easy to get around. For example, the CBD is compact and easily walkable. If you stay near the city center and don’t mind a bit of walking, there is no need to take a cab or matatu. Personally, I am much more likely to go out and explore a city if I don’t need to spend money on transportation every time I leave the hotel.
Nairobi also feels more modern and metropolitan than most African capitals. It is a major financial center of the African continent, after all. Nairobi also has a quickly growing tech hub. Because of this, you encounter people from all over Africa living in Nairobi. The city has a fairly large expat population as well.
Nairobi CBD is filled with skyscrapers, boutique shops, and trendy restaurants and bars. It feels like a real downtown. This makes walking around the city feel more familiar than other African capitals. Clearly, there is a lot of investment and wealth.
Having some of the comforts of home available is also nice. For example, most African cities don’t have any of my favorite American fast-food chains. Don’t get me wrong, I love eating the local cuisine everywhere I go but stuffing my face with a large Domino’s pizza after a long bus journey made me feel right at home in Nairobi. Kenyan food is decent but my American palate needs some greasy pizza from time to time. Some travelers will disagree with this, but I was honestly disappointed to find out that there aren’t any McDonald’s in Nairobi. I was seriously craving a Big Mac after a night out.
You Can Get By on Almost Any Budget
As far as African Capital cites go, Nairobi is one of the more expensive. Although the cost of living is higher than in many African cities, it is possible to get by in Nairobi on almost any budget.
If you want to survive on just a few dollars per day and live without any modern comforts, you can. Budget hotel rooms in less desireable neighborhoods go for $10-$15 per night. Less if you’re willing to rough it a bit and stay on far from downtown. You can buy a decent local meal for just a couple of dollars.
If you have money to burn and you want to live it up, that is also easy to do in Nairobi. There are high-end international hotels, fine restaurants, and clubs.
For more info on pricing, check out my guide: Traveling Africa on a Budget.
Wandering Around the CBD and Relaxing in Uhuru Park and Karura Forest
While traveling, one of my favorite things to do is to just take a stroll, relax on a bench, or just people watch. Many African cities aren’t suitable for this. While walking around, people stare, taxi drivers honk, and groups of people crowd around trying to sell useless trinkets. Begging also makes it near impossible to simply relax in many places. Nairobi is different.
Because of the large expat population, seeing a foreigner isn’t really anything special in Nairobi. Sure people will approach to try to run a scam or beg but it isn’t anywhere near as common as it is in more rural areas. Nairobi is a decent city to just walk around and explore. Some areas are dangerous but, during the day it’s safe enough to just wander around.
I also enjoy taking a walk in the park. Adjacent to the city center lies a big, city park called Uhuru where you can sit down on an old broken bench and get a breath of slightly less polluted air. This ain’t central park but it’s decent.
Uhuru contains is a big man-made lake, a skate park, and lots of vendors selling ice cream and other treats. It’s also overgrown, in disrepair, and full of begging street children. Not ideal but it’s a pleasant enough place to take a stroll and enjoy the outdoors for a few hours.
If you can’t tell, I have a love/hate feeling toward this park. For some reason, I have found that many people in Nairobi don’t like the park. Some even give me a funny look when I tell them that I like to go for walks in Uhuru.
A nicer area to go for a walk within city limits is Karura Forest. Here, you’ll find hiking and biking trails, waterfalls, wildlife, and picnic areas. The park lies just north of the city. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon wandering around and relaxing.
Nairobi Feels Authentic
I like that Nairobi is a bit rough around the edges. Many cities have been gentrified beyond recognition. They feel like a Disneyland version of their former selves. When everything is new and clean and works, a city just feels boring to me.
That is not the case in Nairobi. It feels a bit sketchy and grimy. Certain areas are seedy and rough. It’s the kind of place that you can find anything you want. Any vice can be made available if you ask the right person. I like that.
The city also hasn’t been overrun with tourists yet. Occasionally you will spot another independent tourist but it’s not too common. Most travelers either head to the Kenyan coast or Maasai Mara for a safari. Not too many hang out in Nairobi as there isn’t much to do there for tourists. Most of the expat population consists of people from other parts of Africa though you do see quite a few westerners around town.
The Kenyan People
A great city is nothing without great people. My absolute favorite thing about spending time in Nairobi was the people. Kenyans love to joke around and have a good time. For some reason, I found Nairobi to be a particularly friendly place. Even street vendors who were obviously trying to rip me off could take a joke.
Some of my friends have had the opposite experience. Robberies and pickpocketings do happen so be cautious where you walk. The worst experience I had in Africa was when my phone was pickpocketed in Tanzania but luckily I got it back.
One thing that really struck me when I took my first walk around Nairobi was that the city has the most beautiful women I have ever seen in all of my travels. Everywhere I looked I saw a jaw-droppingly beautiful woman strutting by.
I have traveled to many cities that are known for their beautiful women. Medellin, Miami, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Bangkok for example. Nairobi tops all of them. This really surprised me. Kenyans are good looking people.
Final Thoughts- Why Nairobi is the Best African City
Africa is, by far, my favorite continent to travel. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Nairobi is my favorite city in the world. The areas where the city is lacking. Transportation infrastructure and cuisine are my biggest complaints. Nairobi can’t stack up against great world cities like New York, London, or Tokyo but I will definitely be returning. Hopefully within the next year.
I have traveled to many beautiful, historic, or just interesting cities but Nairobi really surprised me. There is nothing particularly great about the city but overall, I found it to be a nice place to spend time. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that Nairobi is the best African city.
What do you think is the best African city? Share your thoughts and experience in the comments below!
For more Nairobi recommendations, check out my list: The 21 Best Things to Do in Nairobi.
More Africa Guides from Where The Road Forks
- How to Plan a Cairo to Cape Town Trip
- The Ultimate African Bus Guide
- How to Safari in Kenya for Less Than $200: Massai Mara on a Budget
- The Travelers Guide to Malaria Prevention, Treatment, and Tablets in Africa
- How to Visit Kibera Slum Independently and Without a Tour
- Why I’ll Never Return to Tanzania