Navigating Nairobi in 36 Hours

The city cherishes its tribal roots as much as its modern-day restaurants and skyscrapers.  
Nairobi
Photo by: Robert Muckley//Moment Open/Getty Images

Day 1

Feed Rothschild Giraffes

9 a.m. Go anywhere in East Africa and animal-spotting invariably creeps into your itinerary. In Nairobi, The Giraffe Centre offers this thrill. The origin of this conservation centre is as fascinating as the Rothschild species of giraffes it nestles and nurtures. It all started in 1979 when Jock Leslie-Melville, a Kenyan citizen of British descent, along with his wife Betty, founded The Africa Fund for Endangered Wildlife. The empathetic couple was moved by the sorry state of the Rothschild Giraffe (a sub-species found only in the grasslands of East Africa), of which only 130 were left on the 18,000-acre Soy Ranch. Since the ranch was being subdivided to resettle squatters, they brought two young giraffes, Daisy and Marlon, to their home in Lang’ata, a suburb 25 kilometres from the city centre. The couple then started a breeding programme and resettled some more giraffes. Thanks to their efforts, there are now over 300 Rothschild giraffes across various Kenyan national parks. But The Giraffe Centre is where you can get up-close with them, even feed them corn and molasses pellets, as they stick out their grey, speckled tongues to lick the treats off your palm. To look right into the gorgeous hazelnut eyes of these long-necked beauties, climb up to the feeding platform. A good way to end your trip here is inside the Daisy Zoovenir Shop. My family ended up buying fridge magnets and story books on Kenya, and browsing through decorated pencils, salad spoons, wooden letter openers, and beaded jewellery (giraffecentre.org).

 

Pet Baby Elephants

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Photo by: Barcroft/Contributor/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

11 a.m. Since it’s in the vicinity of The Giraffe Centre and Lang’ata is on the city’s outskirts, your next stop should be The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT). Part of the Nairobi National Park, the precinct is amongst the world’s most successfully run rescue and rehabilitation programmes for orphaned elephants. It opens to public for an hour a day, between 11 a.m. and noon, but get in early to avoid snaking queues. The centre allows access to baby elephants during their midday bath and feeding routine. As you watch the pachyderms—some of them adorably naughty, refusing to fall in line, rolling in the mud, and sucking milk from tall feeding bottles—the guides take you through the trust’s various rehabilitation efforts. Petting is allowed, and caressing these little ones who have lost their parents to poachers or other factors feels oddly parental, almost like soothing a human baby. They are pretty gentle but their skin is bristly, and kids love the experience. For a minimum of $50/Rs3,200 you can also become a foster parent, and on prior booking you can revisit to watch the little ones ready for bed!
Pro tip: It’s an open enclosure, so carry hats, sunscreen and water bottles (sheldrickwildlifetrust.org).

 

Relish Farm-Fresh Produce

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Photo by: Dennis Prescott

1 p.m. You will fall in love with Talisman even before sampling its delectable fare. Located in the tony Karen district, 15 kilo-metres from the city centre, the indoor section of this elegant gastrolounge exudes a rustic charm with carved wooden pillars and Afghan rugs. The al fresco seating, on the other hand, has a very boho feel, with wooden benches and dhurries. With European, pan-Asian and African cuisines, Talisman’s multi-cuisine menu features seasonal dishes, a special afternoon selection, and classics such as the Moroccan Spiced Beef and 5 Spice Yellow Fin Tuna. I tried the Moroccan Lamb Tagine, a slow-cooked aromatic stew that I embarrassingly polished off by myself. Similar to an Indian lamb curry, it had only onions and tomatoes, but got its heady flavour from a tantalising mix of cayenne, turmeric, cumin, cardamom, and ginger. Unlike an Indian curry though, it wasn’t heavy and didn’t sit on me for hours. My kids opted for a Fettuccine Alfredo with mushrooms and loved the dish—the sauce was light and the dish fragrant. Most of the produce is sourced from Talisman’s own organic farm. The freshness of the mushrooms lent credence to the farm-to-table movement. I’d definitely go back (thetalismanrestaurant.com).

 

Dine to a Stellar View

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Photo by: Photolibrary/Getty Images

7.30 p.m. Just the drive to Zen Garden, a 2.5-acre restaurant complex inspired by the gardens of Asia, makes your trip worthwhile. Its located in Nairobi’s Spring Valley, a luxurious residential area with manicured gardens. The road leading up to it offers a peek into the city’s most uppity abodes, many of them embassies. Zen Garden has two restaurants and we choose to eat at Bamboo, the pan-Asian restaurant. Try the Crispy Duck Roll with hoisin sauce, Sizzling Ginger Beef with black bean and Asian greens, and the Baby Squid, tossed in chilli, garlic and Asian herbs. All three are flavourful, and the servers happily oblige when asked to adjust spice levels for children. The cocktails here are great too—I loved my Summer Crush (seasonal berries muddled with tomato juice, vodka, bitter lemon and crushed ice), while my kids enjoyed their lychee and lemongrass iced tea (zengarden.co.ke).

 

Day 2

Shop Kenyan Crafts

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Photo by: Zen Garden

11 a.m. No trip to Nairobi can be complete without a stop at the Maasai Market, which pops up at a new location every day, usually adjoining a mall or an area concentrated with shopping and food outlets, such as the Village Market or the Yaya Centre. Craftspeople from across Nairobi come to sell their wares at this well-organised market, which, contrary to popular perception, is neither overwhelming as open markets in unfamiliar cities tend to be, nor difficult to navigate. You may be approached by an enthusiastic seller but politely move on and they’ll leave you alone. There is lots to buy and browse through: animal knick-knacks; coasters and platters handcrafted from African stone, usually soapstone, and painted in vibrant colours; cloth totes and purses in Ankara fabric; kiondos (bags woven from sisal, with leather trimmings, a specialty of the Kikuyu and Kamba tribes); a huge range of beaded and metal baubles; and carved wooden figurines (busts of Maasai warriors are popular). But my personal favourite turn out to be the Maasai-beaded slippers in gorgeous blues, yellows, oranges, with motifs ranging from peacocks and flowers to the map of Africa. The best part? It’s a haven for bargainers.

 

Unleash Your Inner Carnivore

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Photo by: Geetika Sasan Bhandari

1.30 p.m. All that shopping whets the appetite and readies you for the meal, nay, the indulgence you are about to experience. If you are a meat eater, you cannot exit Kenya without ticking Carnivore off the list. A local spin on a typical Brazilian steakhouse, Carnivore has a casual rustic setting but its charcoal roasted all-you-can-eat-meats are world class. The restaurant, which opened in 1980, and has hosted pop icons such as Sean Paul and Shaggy, offers fixed price meals that include game and exotic meats, roasted in a giant pit at the centre of the restaurant, and carved up at the table. The day we went, rump and strip loin steak, turkey, leg of lamb, lamb chops, leg of pork, pork and beef sausages, pork spare ribs, and chicken prepared four ways, were on the menu, each paired with a different sauce. The exotic meats include crocodile, ostrich meat balls, roast rabbit, and ox balls (the only thing I didn’t sample). I washed them down with Dawa, a Brazilian drink brought to Kenya by Carnivore—a vodka, lime juice and honey concoction. Its key ingredient is the dawa stick—a short bamboo stick used to muddle the ingredients and release the flavour of the honey. Meaning magic potion in Swahili, Dawa is served rather dramatically at the table by a ‘medicine man’ called Dr. Dawa, and is believed to help cure ailments! If nothing else, it definitely helped to alleviate the heat and complemented the meats. Once you’re through, take the drama a step further by finally dropping the white paper flag at your table to indicate you’re done. The restaurant isn’t though—they still have desserts on offer, eight, no less. I’d recommend the Italian ice cream and the passion fruit cheesecake. Do end with a Kenyan coffee. It’s on the house (Tamarind.co.ke).

 

Go Bead Watching

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Photo by: Keith Levit/Getty Images

4 p.m. Housed in the Karen Blixen Estate, the Kazuri Beads and Pottery Centre was started in 1975 by Lady Susan Wood as an experiment with two single mothers in the garden of her home in Karen, now a tony neighbourhood with chic restaurants and boutiques. Wood was an inspiring figure who worked towards empowering women in East Africa. Soon after she started Kazuri, she realised there were hundreds of women in and around the villages of Nairobi who needed sustained livelihood. Over the years, the humble experiment scaled to a profit-making cooperative, employing more than 300 women. Today, Kazuri makes over five million ceramic beads a year and exports them to 20 countries. Now, while you might find it difficult to tear yourself away from the shop with its tantalising array of necklaces, earrings and bracelets on display, the factory is what is worth spending time in. Here you get to see how meticulously each piece is handmade and hand-painted, from the initial shaping, polishing and kiln-firing, to painting and firing the beads again before they are strung and displayed (kazuri.com).

 

Raise a Toast to Nairobi

7.30 p.m. Ideal to enjoy a sundowner—especially when you may not have much of an appetite post the beast of a feast at Carnivore—Makuti, Inter Continental’s poolside bar, comes with comfortable, low cane seating. What further adds to its charm are the red check blankets (shuka), adorned by the Maasai tribe, available as throws. Catch a game on the large screen or listen to the live band (usually on Sundays). Under the shadow of large white canopies, the cosy bar, made even more intimate with its shamiana setting, offers a wide variety of cocktails and liquor. Their chilled Tusker beer is just what you need to kick off the evening. A pale lager first brewed in 1929, with the elephant as its symbol, Tusker is a hugely popular ale and goes well with pork ribs, grilled prawns, or a barbecue platter. After two days filled with food, wildlife and shopping, Makuti is perhaps one of the best spots to soak in the vibe of this beautiful city, one last time.

  • Geetika Sasan Bhandari has been a lifestyle journalist and editor for two decades. She's currently on a sabbatical from full-time work and spends her time binge-watching TV shows, baking, perpetually making travel plans, and occasionally, writing. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

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