Nairobi is a creation of the early 20th century. Its name comes from a Maasai phrase "Engore Nyarobe" meaning "place of cold water". It was this water, and the wealth of game animals it supported, which convinced European settlers that this was somewhere they might want to stay. As the decades went on, the little town grew from a collection of timber and corrugated-iron shacks to the modern city that it is today. Game animals still survive in the Nairobi national park, which is perhaps one of the only places in the world where it is possible to see free-roaming giraffe against a backdrop of skyscrapers.
Today's visitors can still stay, or just take tea, in the famous Norfolk hotel. This is the place from where once many of the early pioneers set off for the Kenyan highlands or the Ngong Hills that are now forever Out of Africa. The Nairobi national museum, open every day of the year, is an excellent place to learn more about Kenya's heritage, including the colonial era. Of course, Nairobi has considerably more to offer than its colonial past. The museum reflects this with extensive anthropological and natural history displays. It is also home to the annual East African Art Festival, which celebrates regional contemporary art, crafts and architecture.
Things to do
Although often used as a launch point for safaris into the Maasai Mara and other wildlife reserves, Nairobi is a fascinating destination in its own right.
For those visitors for whom Kenya means wildlife, Nairobi national park is not to be missed. Just 10 km from the city centre, it boasts four of the Big Five (lion, buffalo, leopard and rhino); only elephants are missing. However, there is an emotive monument at the site dedicated to the burning of thousands of tons of confiscated ivory. There is also the David Sheldrick elephant sanctuary, which looks after elephants that have been orphaned elsewhere in the country. Finally, there are game drives to enjoy, walking trails, picnic sites and even a campsite for overnight stays.
The tallest babies in the world
The giraffe orphanage in the suburb of Lang'ata is a popular draw. Established almost forty years ago, the centre's mission is the conservation and re-introduction to the wild of the endangered Rothschild giraffe. Visitors have the chance to watch, photograph and feed some of the centre's giraffes from a raised platform. The orphanage is easily accessible from the city centre by matatu (public minibuses that operate along prescribed routes) or taxi.
"Out of Africa"
There can be few visitors to Nairobi who have not heard of Karen Blixen. She recorded her life on a coffee plantation in her book Out of Africa. The book, in turn, was later immortalised in the film of the same name. Her one-time home is now a museum, offering the chance to step back in time almost 100 years. Much of the interior is as it would have been when the author herself lived there, while the grounds are still immaculate and afford beautiful views of her beloved Ngong Hills. The museum is also home to many of her intricate paintings of some of the local tribespeople. An adjoining gift shop offers visitors the chance to purchase local crafts and artwork, as well as book and film memorabilia.
Carnivore is a restaurant quite unlike any other in Nairobi. Located in Lang'ata, near Wilson airport, its signature dishes are joints of meat roasted on traditional Maasai swords over an enormous charcoal fire pit. Diners can enjoy pork, lamb, beef or chicken as well as the more exotic options of ostrich and crocodile. Despite the name, vegetarians are not forgotten; the restaurant has a good selection of breads, salads and vegetable dishes.
Lovers of fine dining may want to try Tamarind in the suburb of Karen, which is famous for its seafood. It also boasts live bands and local Rift Valley red wines.
For those wanting to try authentic African cooking, K'Osewe Ranalo Foods, close to Kenyatta Avenue in the centre of the city, is a great choice. Beef, goat and tilapia (a freshwater fish) all feature on the menu alongside ugali (maize meal), chappatis and vegetables.
Steam trains and man-eaters
Nairobi is inextricably associated with steam trains. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, labourers battled heat and night-time assaults by man-eating lions to build the Uganda Railway (also known as the Lunatic Line) that would connect Mombasa with the growing town of Nairobi. The city's Railway Museum documents much of the history and preserves many fascinating artefacts, including steam locomotives, a silver service set used on one of the earliest trains to run on the line and the carriage from which Major Charles Ryall attempted to shoot the man-eating lions. Unfortunately for Major Ryall, he fell asleep and was himself taken by one of the lions.
Calendar of events
Nairobi is a city that likes to celebrate, and there is always something going on. Music and the arts are particularly well-represented, with several festivals devoted to them. Gourmands are not neglected; as well as Restaurant Week, there is also an annual cake festival. And, while Nairobi may be some distance from one of Kenya's famous camel racing fairs, its rugby tournament ensures sport has a firm place on its annual to-do list.
- Nairobi Restaurant Week. Held every January or February, this is a chance for visitors and resident foodies alike to get out and about, sampling dishes at some of the city's best restaurants. Participating restaurants offer discounted prices and often free cocktails or other drinks.
- StoryMoja Festival. This annual event, held in September at the Nairobi Arboretum, showcases some of the best Kenyan writers and musicians alongside a host of international talent. The days are packed with readings, performances, workshops, book signings and film screenings as well as a selection of activities specifically aimed at children. Described as East Africa's biggest book party, it is vibrant, educational and immense fun.
- The Safari Sevens. This annual rugby tournament has progressed through a series of increasingly large stadia. It is now held at the huge Moi International Stadium in the suburb of Kasarani. Every year, Kenya's own seven-a-side team joins several foreign national and club teams in pursuit of the tournament's trophy: a bronze of two elephants.
- East African Art Festival. Hosted by the Nairobi National Museum, this three-day annual festival brings together works by some of the best contemporary artists of East Africa. The work on display is varied and includes paintings, architectural designs and traditional crafts.