So you’re going on a safari in Kenya. You’re going to have an amazing time! But chances are, before you head into the bush, you’ll end up spending at least one day in Nairobi.
Many travelers fear Nairobi. It has a reputation for being dangerous (some expats even call it “Nairobbery”). It has some of the worst traffic on the continent. The city center lacks any attractive architecture, and it’s crazy crowded.
But if you dig a little deeper, Nairobi, Kenya is actually a great city. It has East Africa’s best dining scene and incredible nightlife. And you can have world-class wildlife encounters just a few minutes from your hotel.
In this post, I’ll share the perfect Nairobi itinerary for a short stay. You’ll get to kiss giraffes, see baby elephants, shop at Masaai markets, and even go on safari on this one action-packed day. Sound good? Let’s get started!
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- 1 Start your one day in Nairobi early: Safari in Nairobi National Park
- 2 Breakfast: The Thorn Tree Cafe at the Stanley Hotel
- 3 11 am: Watch the elephant feeding at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
- 4 Visit the Masaai Market at Galeria Mall
- 5 Lunch: Tin Roof Cafe
- 6 Nairobi Giraffe Center
- 7 Bomas of Kenya
- 8 Watch the sunset from the Kenyatta Conference Center
- 9 Dinner options: Somali food, Carnivore, or eat at your hotel
- 10 Where to stay during your Nairobi itinerary
- 11 How to get around on your 1 day in Nairobi
- 12 Finally: A few random tips to make the most of your Nairobi trip
Start your one day in Nairobi early: Safari in Nairobi National Park
Set your alarm for the crack of dawn — with only one day in Nairobi, Kenya, you’ve got to start your sightseeing early.
First thing on the agenda today is one of the world’s most unique wildlife experiences — going on safari right on the doorstep of a capital city. That’s right: you can see Big 5 wildlife without spending 8 hours in a hot, uncomfortable car bumping down dirt roads at breakneck speeds.
Grab a coffee from your hotel (if it’s open) and meet your driver by 5:30 am. Get your camera ready on the short drive to the park gates. At this hour of the morning, it’ll only take you 15 minutes to get there.
Once you’re in the park, keep your eyes peeled for zebras, elands, ostriches, buffalo, or even one of the elusive lions or leopards. You have a decent chance of spotting rhinos and giraffes as well. From some angles, you can even see the planes at Wilson Airport land almost immediately overhead while you watch a herd of antelope graze.
You’ll wrap up your game drive by about 9:30 am. After this time, the animals are much less active, so there isn’t much point in hanging around. Remember to tip your driver!
Breakfast: The Thorn Tree Cafe at the Stanley Hotel
By the time you finish your game drive, you’ll be starving. This is the perfect time to visit one of Nairobi’s most iconic restaurants: The Thorn Tree Cafe, inside the Stanley Hotel.
Years ago, before the days of the Internet, overlanders in Africa had few options for sharing information. So they created an old-fashioned message board in the Thorn Tree Cafe — and tacked it up on the acacia tree in the middle of the restaurant.
Today, researching a trip to Africa isn’t nearly as complicated. But the bulletin board still exists, and you can still tack up a message with advice for travelers heading the other way.
The atmosphere is the draw to the Thorn Tree Cafe, but that’s not the only reason to visit. Service is friendly and efficient. The coffee is outstanding, and while I didn’t eat there, the food looked delicious as well.
The only downside is it’s a little pricey. Budget $15 per person to eat here. But honestly, Nairobi isn’t the cheapest city to eat in, and you’d likely spend the same elsewhere for subpar food.
Make sure you finish eating by 10:30 am so you have time to get ready for the highlight of your one day in Nairobi.
11 am: Watch the elephant feeding at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Okay, this is absolutely my favorite activity in Nairobi. It’s worth planning your entire itinerary around. For one hour each day, you have the opportunity to watch the world’s most adorable orphaned baby elephants have breakfast and play in the mud.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was established to help rehabilitate Kenya’s elephant population after decades of poaching, game hunting and habitat loss. Its mission is to rescue orphaned elephants who couldn’t survive on their own in the wild, help them recover and bond with wild elephants in Nairobi National Park, and eventually reintroduce them into parks around Kenya.
The Trust was established more than 40 years ago. Over that time, it has a 100% success rate reintroducing its orphaned elephants to the wild and reintegrating them in wild herds. In short, this is one of the world’s most heartwarming conservation success stories.
The center only opens at 11 am each day — you must be in line by 10:45 to get in and get a good seat. You pay 500 shillings for admission and pick your spot around a mud pit. After a short introduction by a guide, a group of baby elephants comes sauntering down the hill from the national park and into the pit.
The first ten minutes are a feeding frenzy as each baby elephant devours an entire (massive) bottle of formula. Then, they get to playing — rolling in the mud, chasing each other around, or picking up brush and throwing it. Sometimes they even visit some of the tourists (nothing is done to encourage human/elephant interaction). The whole time, the guide explains the story behind each elephant and talks about the plights they face in the wild.
After half an hour, the first set of baby elephants goes back to their lives roaming the national park, and a second set comes in. The process repeats.
Don’t miss the elephant orphanage when you visit Nairobi. You’ll leave with an enormous smile that won’t fade for the rest of your visit to Nairobi, I promise.
Visit the Masaai Market at Galeria Mall
The next stop in your Nairobi itinerary is for a bit of shopping. I could send you to one of the city’s big, touristic Masaai markets — but instead I’m going to send you to a hidden gem where you can browse without hassle.
Galeria Mall, in the suburb of Langata, looks like any U.S. shopping mall from the outside. (Side note: It’s also a great place to pick up a Kenyan SIM card. Go to the Safarilink store inside and they’ll sort you out within minutes. Bring your passport.)
But outside the mall, down a short hallway, there’s a hidden Masaai market. This is the ideal place to pick up your Kenyan souvenirs — from wood carvings to masks to woven bowls to textiles.
The market is small. You can browse the whole thing in about half an hour. But because it doesn’t get many crowds, you can also chat with the shopkeepers and learn more about their products without facing pressure to buy.
If you do decide to buy anything, a little bit of friendly bargaining is expected. Kenya does not have the aggressive bargaining culture of countries like China or Vietnam, though. Your best bet is to buy more than one item from the same shopkeeper and ask for a discount.
If you need a coffee while you shop, the Java House in the main mall has good brews and lovely outdoor seating.
Lunch: Tin Roof Cafe
While Nairobi has one of the best fine dining scenes on the continent, its cafe culture is where it really shines. If you’ve been traveling in Africa for awhile and are desperately craving a healthy meal, this city has you covered!
One of the long-time favorites of the local cafe scene is Tin Roof Cafe. It has two locations — one in the heart of Karen, where it’s next-door to the high-end shopping gallery Souq, and the other in Langata, which shares a space with some local craft shops. Since you need to minimize travel time due to having only one day in Nairobi, go to the Langata location.
The cafe operates out of a food-truck-style setup in a leafy garden. Order at the counter and take your seat at one of the sun-drenched tables. Your lunch will come within a few minutes. In addition to whatever you ordered, you can also pile your plate high with unlimited helpings from the salad bar. The day I visited, it had a few green salads and a few grain salads. Everything was vegetarian and all ingredients were sourced locally. The salad bar ended up being my favorite part of the meal!
Tin Roof Cafe also has amazing juices and smoothies, and a good selection of desserts. Prices are very reasonable for Nairobi. Just make sure you save some room for dinner!
Nairobi Giraffe Center
You’ve probably seen the Instagram photos of travelers to Kenya kissing giraffes. Well, at the next stop on this Nairobi itinerary, you have a chance to do it too!
Like the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the Nairobi Giraffe Center is a conservation project. Its aim is to breed and reintroduce highly endangered Rothschild’s Giraffes to national parks throughout Kenya — which are some of their last viable habitats on Earth.
At the Giraffe Center, you can support these conservation efforts by paying the slightly outrageous price of $15 for one bag of giraffe food. Then, head to the viewing platforms, where these lovely creatures will come straight up to you to eat out of your hand. Ask one of the guides who mills about to show you how to do the good poses, or simply enjoy the utterly joyful experience of bonding with these doe-eyed, long-necked beauties. (Can you tell giraffes are my favorite African animal?) Just be careful — it turns out they can headbutt pretty darn hard!
Don’t leave the center without wandering into the small museum dedicated to giraffe conservation. You can learn more about this unique subspecies of giraffe and why it’s so endangered.
Also, keep your eye out for the resident warthogs who play in the dirt. And if you walk around the back of the viewing platform by the restrooms, you can even see the newborn baby giraffes, who are very shy and unlikely to approach the viewing platform.
Even though it’s a bit pricey, the giraffe center is one of the most fun things to do in Nairobi in one day.
Bomas of Kenya
After spending most of the day getting up close and personal with Nairobi’s wildlife, it’s time to get your culture on. One of the best places to get a taste of the enormous cultural diversity of Kenya is at Bomas, an open-air museum and performance venue in Langata.
Bomas of Kenya’s main attraction is its daily traditional dance performances. These start at 2:30 pm on weekdays and 3:30 pm on weekends — perfect timing to stop by during your one day in Nairobi. The performances last about 90 minutes and showcase music, costumes, and dance from all across Kenya — from the Masaai to the Swahili coast to the Ethiopian border to the foothills of Mount Kenya.
If you have some extra time before or after the performance, it’s also worth wandering around the village museum. Bomas showcases tribal culture with models of more than 20 different villages. Each one has a description of how the village’s architecture lines up with its culture. You’ll see the differences between matriarchal and patriarchal societies, how different tribes have adapted to the diverse climates they live in, and the role of elderly people and children in each society.
Bomas of Kenya is very much a designed-for-tourists experience, but it’s never contrived. It exudes respect for the unique cultures and ways of life in the country. It’s an especially worthwhile stop if you’re traveling with kids — they’ll love playing in the village layouts and participating in the dances.
Watch the sunset from the Kenyatta Conference Center
The last sightseeing stop on this one day Nairobi itinerary is in the heart of the Central Business District. The Kenyatta Conference Center’s rooftop helicopter pad is the perfect place to take in the scale and bustle of downtown Nairobi and the beauty of the Rift Valley beyond.
When you arrive at the conference center, you’ll go through security. Then, you have to register at the entrance and hand over your passport (you get it back on your way out). Pay your 500 shillings admission at a desk on the ground floor. Finally, the staff will direct you to an elevator up to the helicopter pad, after which you have to climb one flight of stairs to get outside.
Nairobi may not be the most attractive city, but the views from up here are still seriously impressive. Off to the left of the door you can see the endless savanna expanding out from the downtown area. You can get a glimpse of the national park to the right. In between, you can see the throngs of people and cars commuting from the CBD to Kibera and other densely populated districts.
Plus, the sunsets in Africa are simply epic, no matter where you are. It’s always worth taking a few minutes to watch them.
Dinner options: Somali food, Carnivore, or eat at your hotel
I’m going to give you a few options for dinner during your Nairobi visit — a cheap option, a convenient option, and one of the classics of the city’s dining scene.
If you’re on a budget but want to stay downtown for dinner, head to Al Yusra. This Somali restaurant has delicious curry plates, grilled meats, and biryani for just 5-7,000 shillings. The passionfruit juice is also amazing, and the traditional Swahili desserts are mouth-watering. The atmosphere is very casual and you’re likely to be the only tourist there. Even though it’s only a couple blocks from the Kenyatta Conference Center, you should still take a taxi — it’s not safe to walk anywhere in the CBD after dark.
If money is no object, don’t miss out on Nairobi’s most iconic restaurant, Carnivore. While it became famous for game meat that it (luckily) can no longer legally serve, it’s still a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to devour all the meat you can stomach for a flat price of $40. Vegetarians should steer clear. You need a reservation for Carnivore, and you should definitely take a taxi after dark.
Finally, if you’re staying at Wildebeest Eco Camp (more on that in a moment), you could opt to have dinner at your hotel. Their dinner buffets are amazing and relatively affordable, at 1200 shillings for all you can eat. If you take into account the fact that a taxi to and from any other restaurant in the city would cost you at least that much, this is the best budget option.
Where to stay during your Nairobi itinerary
Hotels in Nairobi run the full spectrum of prices and experiences. You could go for an all-out luxury stay in the wealthy suburb of Karen. At the other extreme, the downtown area has its share of beat-up, grubby cheapies.
Overall, accommodation in Nairobi is dramatically more expensive than elsewhere in Kenya. You can’t really get your own room with a bathroom inside for less than $40 here. So your best bet on a budget is to go for one of the hostels or camps in Langata.
My top choice for a hostel in Nairobi is Wildebeest Eco Camp. It’s modeled after bush camps, but located right in the heart of Langata, on a quiet side street. It has a pool, gardens, a high-quality curio shop, and a thatch-roof restaurant. WiFi is good and there are plenty of charging stations for your gear.
Prices start at just $12 a night for a dorm or camping in your own tent. But the camp also has “lazy-camping” options (where you rent a tent) as well as more luxurious permanent tents with beds. Some even have bathrooms inside.
All accommodation — even camping — includes a delicious breakfast that you order off the menu. Other meals cost extra, but they’re quite affordable — think 500 shillings for a veggie burger with fries. The meals are communal, making this a great place to connect with other backpackers.
Wildebeest Eco Camp may be out in the ‘burbs, but it’s easy to reach the CBD and the other attractions in this Nairobi itinerary. Simply walk 10 minutes up the (very safe even at night) road to Langata Road. Here, you can pick up a frequent matatu to anywhere in Karen, Langata, or downtown.
Alternatively, if you prefer a more traditional hostel set-up, try Milimani Backpackers. It’s friendlier and more low-key than Wildebeest Eco Camp, and in a slightly better location, but the facilities and especially the food aren’t as good.
How to get around on your 1 day in Nairobi
If you’re backpacking Kenya on a budget, I have good news for you. Despite what all the travel blogs and online forums tell you, you do not need to hire a private driver to explore Nairobi. Save the $80 and take public transport instead.
Nairobi has an excellent, efficient system of public buses and matatus covering all major transit routes in the city. For just 1,000 shillings, you can quickly and safely travel around and between Karen, Langata, the CBD, Kibera (although you should be very careful here), Westlands, and many other neighborhoods.
Big buses have clearly posted route numbers. The most convenient route is the 25 bus from outside the National Archives. It runs past Wilson Airport and the turnoff to Carnivore, to Bomas/Galeria Mall, along Langata Road, and then toward South Langata Road near the Giraffe Center before ending in Karen.
The matatus have fixed routes, but they’re not posted anywhere. So your best bet is to go to a common stop and tell the drivers where you’re going. They’ll point you in the right direction — I found all the drivers quite trustworthy.
If you’re going to destinations on quieter roads, like the Giraffe Center, you will usually have to walk up to 1 km from the nearest stop. This is where it pays to know your neighborhoods. In Karen, Langata, and Westlands, you are totally safe to walk. In the CBD you’re generally safe during weekday daylight hours. Elsewhere, take a cab for trips of any length.
Nairobi has Uber, and it’s a lot cheaper and less hassle than the cabs. The only problem? If drivers don’t like your destination, they’ll accept the ride and then cancel it at the last minute. They get paid a small fee for this, but you don’t get your ride. This can be frustrating if you’re on a tight schedule. I often had to try 4-5 times to get a driver to pick me up.
The one dodgy area of Nairobi that travelers are likely to find themselves in is the River Road section of downtown. This is where all the long-distance buses and matatus depart from. If you can avoid it by hopping on your bus at a suburban stop (like in Westlands), that’s your best option.
If you can’t hop on or off in Westlands, plan to take an Uber to/from the bus terminal. There aren’t many taxis hanging around, so you’re better off waiting inside for an Uber driver to pick you up.
As a last resort, choose a bus company that’s closer to the CBD. Mash Bus and Modern Coast have offices in an area where you can walk if you have to (it’s still a very dodgy eight blocks), while Easy Coach is in an extremely sketchy area a long walk from the CBD. You’re generally fine to walk from the CBD to the long-distance matatus, provided you keep your guard up and know which intersection your matatu will be parked at. Don’t even think about walking in this area after dark.
Finally, if you want to do a safari in Nairobi National Park, you will have to hire a private driver for this. Prices start at around $40 for a morning game drive. Your best bet is to book through your hostel or ask in the Backpacking Africa Facebook group for recommendations.
Finally: A few random tips to make the most of your Nairobi trip
- The weather in Nairobi is a-ma-zing. 80 degrees and sunny during the day, 60’s at night, and even during rainy season it’s not too humid.
- Even though it’s a capital city, Nairobi is quite friendly. Lots of folks will stop to chat with you in the streets. A small portion of these people have an ulterior motive, such as selling you a safari — but for the most part it’s genuine friendliness.
- Nairobi is easily the most cosmopolitan city in East Africa. While there is extreme poverty in places like Kibera and Eastleigh, the city also has a solid middle class.
- Don’t assume the people wearing traditional Masaai dress or other tribal outfits are dressing up for tourists. Many Kenyans in the big cities maintain their cultural traditions. And don’t even think about taking photos of them without permission.
- If you’re flying into Kenyatta International Airport, allow at least two hours to get there and take a taxi/Uber. There is a public bus, but robberies are very common on it.
- Nairobi is in a malaria zone, even though it’s in a capital city. Bring mosquito repellent and take your antimalarials. I got bit 5+ times in my room at Milimani Backpackers!
- While Nairobi has experienced terrorism in recent years, it’s extremely unlikely that you as a visitor would be caught up in it. Attacks are much more likely to target Kenyan government officials or locals and expats.
- Java House is like Kenyan Starbucks, but actually good. It sources beans from East Africa and serves delicious light meals. It’s a great meal option for vegetarians, who may have a hard time finding food they can eat at restaurants.
- If you can time your one day in Nairobi on a Sunday, you’ll face much less traffic and crowds. Most shops and restaurants, and all the attractions in this post, are still open.
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