Blog Post

Visits to Kenya

Things to visit in Kenya for the Western travelers.

Visits to Kenya - Things to visit in Kenya for the Western travelers.
Kenyan savannah, October 2020

Intro

During my recent trip to Kenya I was fortunate enough to visit some very nice places. So I wanted to write this blog post to share my experience with you. I understand that for most people living in Kenya this will not be a big revelation. I'm making this blog post primarily for Western tourists that are intending to visit Kenya.

Although I have to preface it by saying that during my visit, my girlfriend and I stayed mostly in the Nairobi area, which is the capital of Kenya and also its largest city. We later made a brief trip to the outskirts to see the Maasai country. That was my only encounter with the Kenyan countryside. So please keep this in mind when reading my review.

Payments

Before we begin with anything else, you obviously need to pay for goods and services in Kenya. So let's cover that first:

Credit Cards - Visa, Mastercard

visa

Some people may be OK with using these, but I had a hard time with my US credit card (Visa). I tried to use it at the hotel we stayed in, and it declined as "insufficient funds" in despite of me telling my bank that I will be travelling to Nairobi Kenya.

So my advice is not to rely solely on your Western credit (or debit) card. There may be places where you could get some cash from your plastic card (I'm talking about a local Kenyan bank or some designated location) but I haven't tried it. Also keep in mind, that any such transaction will incur additional charges. In my case, my Visa was imposing a 1% surcharge on purchases I made in Germany during a layover.

Instead of relying on plastic cards I chose to bring cash. I knew my budget, so I brought US Dollars with me.

I know this sounds very silly, but make sure to bring new & crisp US Dollar bills. Also it's better to bring larger denominations (like $100 bills), as some exchanges in Kenya may penalize you for smaller or worn-out bills by lowering the exchange rates. So keep this in mind.

Money Exchange

USD

To feel comfortable in Kenya you will need to exchange your currency into the Kenyan Shillings, or KSh. The exchange rate is the best if you don't do it right away at the airport. As soon as I landed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport I was surrounded by the street hustlers. So keep your distance and do your exchange in the city instead.

I exchanged USD to KSh at the Westlands Forex Bureau in Westgate Shopping Mall, but any other shopping mall would have similar exchange places. (By the way, they are called "Forex" in Kenya.) So make sure to check their rates first to find the one for you.

Local Cellphone Number

Safaricom

The second thing you need to do is to get yourself a local cellphone number. This basically involves getting a SIM card for your smartphone. Both iPhone and Android phones are supported.

There are two cellphone operators that are well known in Kenya:

  • Safaricom Kenya - I would definitely recommend this one because of the connection to M-Pesa.
  • Airtel - is another competitor in the cellphone market in Kenya.

Having a cellphone in Kenya is important not only for the sake of having Internet, GPS, or calling for services, but also for payments and just getting around a city. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a working smartphone with a data plan in Kenya.

Unfortunately for this blog though, I didn't have to get a SIM card when I landed in Nairobi. My girlfriend is from Kenya, so she shared hers with me.

But if you need to get yours, here's the location where you can find it:

Keep in mind though, that they may require to see your passport or some other documents to get you a working phone number. Make sure to check with the cellphone operator in Kenya before you travel. Also keep in mind that most cellphone plans in Kenya are prepaid. So expect to pay for the service upfront and put enough money in it to make it last.

Payments With M-Pesa

M-Pesa

Most payments in Kenya are made with some very unique system, called M-Pesa. It will be very unusual to anyone coming from another country.

M-Pesa account works as a sort of a prepaid debit card, when all transactions are done via text messages (or SMS.) To pay for most services, say, at a grocery store, at a restaurant, or even for an Uber, or at a health clinic, you will need to ask for their phone number and for their M-Pesa ID. After that you would use a special M-Pesa app on your smartphone to send them the payment, which will be conducted via a text message.

It is a unique and interesting system, especially by the way how widely it was adapted in Kenya. During my visit, I could hardly find any store or service that did not accept it. Even some distant countryside villages had M-Pesa signs on the shop windows. So that was very convenient.

Another benefit of using M-Pesa is that it is entirely electronic. You will have a receipt (in the form of a text message) on your smartphone for all transactions you make. Plus your M-Pesa account will be protected by a PIN.

I'm also assuming that you will set a passcode to open your smartphone. Quite a few phones these days support fingerprint or FaceID authentication that will make it very easy to log in. So don't forget about this step, as phone theft is common in Kenya. So you don't want to have your smartphone stolen with all your logins and passwords exposed in it without the lock screen password. Don't be that person that thinks in past regrets!

Additionally, the benefit of carrying your money in electronic form is that you can't lose it, or someone can't pick-pocket it from you.

But also keep in mind that having just a few KSh in your pocket in cash would be a good idea (for tipping and such.) But don't carry too much cash with you either. Maybe $20 to $30 worth in KSh is enough. Make sure to break it up into smaller bills too. Again, you will mostly need it to tip for services.

Pretty much the rest can be done through M-Pesa. It is literally accepted almost everywhere.

I have to make another confession here. I didn't have to sign up for the M-Pesa account myself. We used my girlfriend's account. So I don't know the exact procedure of obtaining it.

Keep in mind that most Kenyans are required to present their national ID card to receive an M-Pesa number. As a foreigner you may be required to go through a different identification procedure. Make sure to check with Safaricom first before your arrival to Kenya.

After you created your M-Pesa account, make sure to put some money into it. Remember, it's a prepaid account. It's not a credit card! You can do so with cash in KSh currency. I would suggest doing it right away after exchanging your own currency to KSh at these locations:

Cash

Kenyan Shilling

You obviously can carry cash with you. Kenya uses Kenyan Shilling for all internal transactions. Carrying US Dollars, or any other foreign currency is not recommended. It may be accepted. I tried it once upon my arrival at the hotel, but you'll have to do some mental gymnastics to do the correct conversion (so you may lose money with that.) Plus some merchants may not accept it.

Overall, I would not recommend using cash for most of your payments. For once, you will have to carry a lot of physical bills with you. For instance, when we exchanged $1,000 USD, it literally turned into a stack of bills several inches thick. And you obviously don't want to carry that wad in your purse.

So my honest advice to you. Use M-Pesa instead and keep just a little bit of cash in small bills in case you need to tip, or if some rare merchant doesn't accept electronic payments.

Transportation

Lastly, you obviously need to get around the city or to go to the countryside. Right? Here's how you can do that.

Uber

Uber

First and foremost, this is Uber. I know that in certain parts of the world it may not be as popular, but in Nairobi, Uber is king. Especially if you're a Westerner, Uber is the best option. It is the safest and the most reliable way of getting around the city. It is also pretty cheap by the Western standards. Most rides within the city center ranged from $3 to $5 USD, but may be more expensive depending on your itinerary.

Wait-wise, it was also very quick, if you're in the city. The most we had to wait was maybe 10 minutes, max. And that happened only once. Usually an Uber driver would arrive within minutes.

So unless you go to some outskirts of Nairobi (which I would not recommend due to safety concerns) you will be surprised with how efficient Uber works in Nairobi.

So make sure to download the Uber app (for iOS or for Android) and set up your new Kenyan number into it. And then use it.

I tried to use my American Uber account and it didn't work. So to avoid any possible international confusion I would suggest creating a Kenyan account using your local cellphone number.

Note that Uber may be also the way to get to another city. Although you should obviously expect to pay more for that service.

Payment for Uber

Payments for the Uber rides are very straightforward:

With M-Pesa

The easiest and safest way to pay for your Uber ride is with M-Pesa.

  • When your ride is over, ask your driver for their phone number. Most drivers are prepared to give you that. Then start your own M-Pesa app on your phone and type in the driver's phone number. Make sure to ask again, if you missed the number. (Alternatively, you can give the driver your smartphone and have them type in their number into it.)
  • Then ask how much you owe. The amount will be in KSh. Type it into the M-Pesa app as well.
  • At a final stage, before sending your payment, the M-Pesa app will show you the name of the driver. Make sure to confirm it with him or her.
  • If all is right, send the payment and ask if he/she received it.
  • You are now done and can go on your merry way.

In despite of the apparent complexity, the process I described above works really well. We used it many times while in Nairobi. Most drivers were very understanding and friendly. And the whole process was very easy and safe.

With Cash

Obviously cash is king, so everyone will accept it. So no problems there.

What is not accepted though are your plastic ways of payments! So keep this in mind. The driver will not have any means of running your credit or debit card. Also none of the Western electronic ways of payments (PayPal, Venmo, etc.) seem to be popular. So don't expect to use them either.

Matatu

Matatu

Matatu is basically a small shuttle bus that takes you from point A to point B. It is run by private companies. But don't be deceived by the similarity in words with the Western shuttle ride. It is anything but your shuttle bus that you might have taken at the airport to get you to a terminal from a parking garage.

I can't really explain it in this blog. So if you are interested, search for Matatu Kenya on YouTube and see it for yourself. I'm just gonna tell you, that drivers of these things are the craziest mofos that I've ever seen. 😊 Also keep in mind that seats in these matatus are very small and you might be needing to negotiate some elbow-room with an equally-frustrated rider next to you. So keep this in mind.

On the upside, a Matatu ride is supposedly very cheap. But I admit, I was not brave enough to take one.

I haven't seen any subway (underground, or Metro) trains as a public transportation in Nairobi itself.

Boda Boda

Boda boda

OK, since I started giving you all possible means of transportation, you need to know about another crazy way to get around. I've never tried it myself, but I could see these motorcycles and mopeds, called boda boda, everywhere. In the city and in the countryside.

The ride would be fairly cheap, but apart from that I can't tell you more.

One obvious advantage of taking a boda boda though is that by doing so you can avoid a gridlock, or a traffic jam that we sometimes witnessed in the city. That may be a huge advantage actually, if you're in a hurry to get to your destination.

Domestic Flights & Trains

Mombasa-Nairobi SGR

I haven't tried it myself. This comes from my girlfriend. But there is also the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR train system that can be used to get from and to Mombasa. (That is a coastal city in Kenya along the Indian Ocean.)

Additionally there are also domestic flights that could be used to get between larger cities in Kenya, which are quite affordable as well.

Recommendations

Lastly, without any further adieu, let me list all the places that we would recommend; that we stayed at, or dined at, and enjoyed. In no particular order:

Radisson Blu Hotel & Residence, Nairobi Arboretum

Radisson Blu Hotel & Residence, Nairobi Arboretum
Image source Google Maps.
Our Rating: 4 out of 5

We stayed at this hotel for about 6 nights. It was quite comfortable, secure and not very expensive by the Western standards.

Pros:

  • Clean and comfortable rooms.

    Probably because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were running low on guests. So we even got a free upgrade to what they call an apartment.

    Here's an example of the bedroom we stayed in:

    Radisson Blu Hotel & Residence, Nairobi Arboretum - bedroom
    Image source Google Maps.

    And the main living room, was also quite spacious for two people:

    Radisson Blu Hotel & Residence, Nairobi Arboretum - living room
    Image source Google Maps.
  • Our room was very quiet.
  • The room service was available promptly upon a phone call.
  • The hotel overall looked very clean and well maintained.
  • There was even a live band playing in the courtyard during one evening. (I think it was on the weekend, on Saturday.)
  • Our stay was very safe for the Westerners.
  • And everyone at the hotel was very friendly to us.

Cons:

  • Room service was at times lacking. We had to call them on several occasions to bring in towels or a bathrobe that they missed. Once they messed up an order for my girlfriend. And in my particular case, they didn't replace the shampoo bottle so I was running low at the end of the stay.
  • We once tried to order food and wine in the room and it was both very expensive (I paid $100 USD) and food wasn't that great either. I should admit that we ordered it quite late, at around midnight, so I would expect that kinda price. But still, the food could've been better.
  • Their security checks at the front were somewhat overwhelming.
    For many Westerners coming to Kenya it will be quite unusual to see pretty much any reasonable business in the city to be sheltered behind a private gate with a guard standing by it. So there was no exception at this hotel.

    When you pull up in your Uber, they will have to first open the gate to let you in. Then, if you have any luggage, they will have to screen you through a metal detector, and your luggage through a conveyor belt, very similar to the one you would have to go through at an airport. The process is very quick and efficient. But still takes time and ruins your first-time experience.

  • And also my minor gripes about the design of the room that we stayed in. They had a sink in the kitchen area, but then there was no towel next to it. Or the kitchen area itself did not have any paper towels. Or there was a fridge in the room, but it was originally off. So when we put our food into it, we realized later that it wasn't working. 😊

Peppertree Kenya

Peppertree Kenya
Image source Google Maps.
Our Rating: 4.8 out of 5

This is a very neat restaurant with its own unique décor and a view onto the city. We ate there once on the first day of my visit.

Pros:

  • Food was very good and relatively inexpensive by the Western standards.
  • The service was good as well. The waitress came in several times to check on us.
  • The place was clean and friendly. They also let us go up to their loft to make some pictures.
  • That place has a very warm and inviting design, with plants hanging from the ceiling.
  • I liked the view to the city while we ate our meals. This was quite unique:
    Peppertree Kenya - view
    Image source Google Maps.

Cons:

  • Their location is somewhat difficult to find. They are located on the second floor above the Nyama Mama restaurant. Additionally we had an issue getting our Uber close to them - some security guard of the business near them stopped our car and was very rude and didn't let us go through to get closer to our destination. (It wasn't their fault, but it kinda soured the mood a little bit for me.)

Nairobi National Museum

Nairobi National Museum - front
Our Rating: 4.5 out of 5

This is a national science museum dedicated to life, technology and history of Kenya and of the Great Rift Valley. This is definitely a boon for anyone who is into history and science, like myself.

Pros:

  • It had quite a lot of exhibits that are well presented with sufficient descriptions. Most information presented is quite accurate too.
  • One can spend hours studying these exhibits, that range from evolution of mankind, to recent developments in Kenya, to economy, touches on the Kenyan colonial past, and shows modern tribal life and the life in the cities.
  • All exhibits looked well kept and well maintained. The hallways looked quite spacious too:
    Nairobi National Museum - inside
  • The place looked well organized and quite orderly. People inside were quite polite too.

Cons:

  • For some reason some exhibits were closed when we were there.
  • At the end, girlfriend and I got somewhat lost following their please-stay-6-feet-apart COVID-19 signs. We were supposed to follow these arrows throughout the museum.
  • I took half a star off my rating because this place, like others in Kenya, for some reason wanted to charge me more in admission fee because I was a foreigner.

Mawimbi Seafood Restaurant

Mawimbi Seafood Restaurant
Image source Google Maps.
Our Rating: 4.2 out of 5

This is another restaurant that we visited during my stay in Nairobi. It specializes mostly in seafood and has a nice outdoorsy arrangement.

Pros:

  • The food was really good and relatively inexpensive by the Western standards.
  • The place was very clean and well maintained. It also felt quite safe and secure.
  • I liked the outdoor look and feel of this place. We had this private awning all to ourselves, which was nice:
    Mawimbi Seafood Restaurant - private seating
    Image source Google Maps.

Cons:

  • The only minor complaint that we had was the service, that was somewhat slow at the end.
  • I also had to move around a few times because I somehow was ending up on the sunny side which was making it too hot.

African Plateau Expedition

African Plateau Expedition
Our Rating: 4.6 out of 5

We found this company by accident. When my girlfriend was waiting for me at the airport, she started talking to a guy that was waiting next to her. And it turns out that he was associated with this company, that provides Safari tours to the Great Rift Valley for tourists. So long story short, we hired them to give us one such tour. And it was truly amazing!

They picked us up from the hotel in their Safari truck and drove all the way to the actual location. That took about 6 hours, and was quite an experience for someone who hadn't seen the actual Kenya before. Highly recommended.

There are bathroom stops along the way to the nature preserve during a long 6-hour ride, but those bathrooms may not be very clean, so it's best to avoid them in general. My advice though is not to drink or eat to much before or during this ride.

After that we arrived at the lodge where we stayed overnight. I need to point out that most tours are recommended for at least 3 or 4 days. I had to cut mine short because of my schedule. That was unfortunate.

Then they gave us some time to rest, and after that they took us to these amazing wildlife preserves where they drove us on special Safari trucks (with a roof that pops up) and had us observe African wildlife, just like it is. We saw all kinds of animals up-close: antelopes, zebras, wildebeests, hippos, lions, cheetahs, all kinds of monkeys, giraffes, elephants, wild pigs, etc.

Lions - Kenyan Safari
Wild lionesses as we saw them from our Safari tour vehicle. No zoom was used on the camera.

I can't even name them all. At first, you start making pictures of a gazelle you see at a distance. But soon after, you see something more exotic, and then even more and more. By the end though, even a journey of giraffes strolling right next to us was not a big deal anymore.

Then we slept overnight at the lodge. And after that they took us on a second-day Safari tour. And when we were done, they drove us back to our hotel in Nairobi.

I need to point out that the Safari package that we got from this company also provided some free buffet-style meals, which were quite nice. It had a breakfast, lunch and dinner all included for each day of our stay. (All except last half-day, I think.)

The cost of this entire excursion was also quite reasonable. I think we paid around $480 USD + tip for the two of us.

Pros:

  • Really friendly and knowledgeable driver Andrew was a delight to spend time with. He would usually give us ample descriptions of what we saw outside and answered our questions. Be it about animals, or some sights along the way. He was also quite a good and careful driver.
  • The first guy that organized this trip was very easy to deal with and would answer all of our questions before we decided to sign up for this tour.
  • At the end he also called my girlfriend to thank her and to offer us a small parting gift. We had to decline because of our busy schedule, but still it was very thoughtful of him to have done that. Not many companies care about their clients this way. So thank you for that!

Cons:

  • My only gripe would probably be about driving in Kenya in general. For a Western tourist it will look very rough and disorganized. Also expect some bumpy rides while taking this safari tour, as roads aren't paved. 😊 But you'll get used to it very quickly.
  • It wasn't an issue for me, but before going on a wildlife safari tour though don't drink too much water because there is no bathrooms there in the preserve itself. (Unless you want to do it along with the wildlife.)
  • For some unknown reason foreigners have to pay extra surcharge, which they charged me here as well.

Jambo Mara Safari Lodge

Jambo Mara Safari Lodge - walkway outside
Image source Google Maps.
Our Rating: 4.3 out of 5

This is the lodge where we stayed during our Safari tour. The accommodations themselves were in a separate house, which made it quite nice and cozy.

Pros:

  • Very friendly staff and everyone else who greeted us there.
  • The lodge was very comfortable. The room had pretty much most amenities for a quick stay. It was safe & clean. It had two warm beds, electricity, a sink, shower and a toilet in the bathroom area. But honestly, you wouldn't be spending too much time in this room anyway.

    Here's how it looked in our case:

    Jambo Mara Safari Lodge - room
    Image source Google Maps.
  • The room in the lodge had sufficient protection against any possible wildlife and mosquitos. (The site itself had a fence around it and all windows in the room could be sealed tightly.)
  • The room had a small observation deck, which we didn't use because of the lack of time.
  • They provided three buffet-style meals that were included in the Safari package. The food was quite good for a self-service buffet. This is the place we ate at:
    Jambo Mara Safari Lodge - dining area
    Image source Google Maps.
  • The ride to and from the lodge was also provided in the same Safari package, which was very convenient.

Cons:

  • For some reason the power in the room went out at night. I heard a mosquito in the room and decided to turn on the lights to kill it, but none of the lights were working. This would've been somewhat concerning had we needed to use the bathroom, or even go outside through the main entrance, since the lock on the door was electronic. I didn't check it then, so I don't know if the door would even work, or did it automatically unlock when it lost power.
  • No WiFi or any kind of the internet in the room. The WiFi was available in the dining hall, but the connection was quite slow and unreliable. (Which is probably understandable for such a remote area.)
  • We had some technical issues with the door lock. It didn't open at first, so we had to go back and ask for help. It turns out I wasn't rough-housing it enough to get it to open. My bad 😊
  • The bathroom area in our lodge was designed in a weird way. It had a semi-transparent glass wall that you could kinda see through. It was not a big issue for us for taking showers and stuff, but using the bathroom was. That didn't provide too much privacy and would've been uncomfortable with someone else in the room.
  • Some Maasai street vendors at the entrance into the safari preserve itself were quite annoying. So here's a good tip to any Western visitors - do not open a window in your car if you get approached by those street vendors!

Maasai Village

Maasai Village
Traditional Maasai dance.

During our Safari trip, on the way back, the driver offered to swing us by one of the Maasai villages. These are nomadic people of Kenya.

The visit itself cost around $40 USD, plus expect to buy small gifts/souvenirs from them afterwards. So bring a few extra banknotes. Also keep in mind that Maasai obviously don't accept M-Pesa. So carry cash. Small bills would be fine.

Pros:

  • Very friendly Maasai tour guide showed us pretty much every aspect of their life. Everything from herding their cows, to a makeshift brush fencing around their village to protect against lions, to the way their houses are built (from a mixture of clay, straw and cow manure), to the insides of one of the houses, to how they make fire using elephant dung and the hand drill method:
    Maasai Village - hand drill method of starting a fire
    Maasai villagers demonstrating for us their method of starting a fire. It took them less than a minute to get the flames going.

    By the way, they let me purchase that exact same fire starting kit for a small donation of $20 USD.

Cons:

  • When you're done with the tour of their village their souvenir merchants, that are waiting outside, will be quite insistent on you purchasing their craft. There's no other way than to politely say no and to quickly get back into your Safari vehicle.

    If you decide to buy something from them though, be very careful as they will literally be all over you when they see your cash.

  • Bring some hand sanitizer because there is no bathrooms there to wash your hands.
  • Sanitary conditions in the village are quite poor. Watch out for cow patties on the ground as they are everywhere.

Nyama Mama - The Village Market Shopping Mall

The Village Market Shopping Mall - Nyama Mama
Image source Google Maps.
Our Rating: 4.6 out of 5

The Village Market Shopping Mall itself is a place to see in Nairobi. We didn't have much time at our disposal though, so we just swung by to get some food.

We chose to eat at Nyama Mama Xpress, which was a food court. I personally am not a big fan of food courts in American shopping malls because of the subpar junk food that they serve there. But that was definitely not the case in Kenya in this food court.

Pros:

  • Plenty of good food for a very reasonable price.
  • Very short waiting time.
  • Clean and spacious seating area.

Cons:

  • Obviously it's a food court, so expect a minimum service.
  • Minor gripe. They didn't give us enough napkins and I didn't see any place where I could get more.

Yue Hai Chinese Restaurant

Yue Hai Chinese Restaurant
Image source Google Maps.
Our Rating: 4.3 out of 5

We showed up at this place quite late. So our apologizes to the waitress that had to serve us.

Pros:

  • The food was fresh and plentiful. I liked it. My beef dish was very fresh and was prepared just right.
  • They have a nice décor with a large fish tank up front.
  • It was a quiet place, good for us to talk.

Cons:

  • We had to rush to finish our food, and the waitress showed it. (Partially our fault because of the late visit.)
  • My girlfriend was not impressed with their dumplings.

Conclusion

There are way more awesome places that one can find in Kenya than I can fit into one blog post. So if you don't find your favorite place here, please leave a comment and I will make sure to visit it and to write my review for it later.

Thanks for reading, safe traveling!

Related Articles