Kenya – the name is almost synonymous with the word “safari.” Perhaps no other place on the planet conjures such a spirit of adventure and romance. The diversity of things to do dazzles all who visit, and viewing the country’s abundant wildlife tops the list. See throngs of wildebeest thundering across the savanna during the Great Migration in the Maasai Mara; come eye-to-eye with an elephant in Amboseli; or marvel at Lake Nakuru, flecked with thousands of flamingos. In these sun-soaked lands, ancient tribes, such as the Maasai, Kikuyu, and Samburu, retain their traditional customs, living in relative harmony with the natural world.
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own, and you know what you know. And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
Beyond the world-famous safari parks lies a trove of coastal treasures. You can snorkel and dive fish-rich coral reefs, relax on pearly beaches, experience the melting pot of cultures and cuisines in Mombasa and Malindi, and explore tropical islands steeped in Swahili history.
Topographically, Kenya is stunning. Surrounded by calderas and mountain ranges, the Great Rift Valley divides the country. To the east of this sweeping valley, you can climb the snow-cloaked equatorial peaks of Mount Kenya and fish for trout in crystal-clear streams. Hell’s Gate National Park harbors obsidian caves and hisses with natural geysers and hot springs. To experience the romance of Kenya’s colorful colonial history captured in the film Out of Africa, head to Nairobi. This bustling capital is the gateway to one of the world’s most evocative and exciting travel destinations
1. Maasai Mara National Reserve
Maasai Mara National Reserve (also “Masai Mara”) is one of the world’s most magnificent game reserves. Bordering Tanzania, the Mara is the northern extension of the Serengeti and forms a wildlife corridor between the two countries. It’s named after the statuesque, red-cloaked Maasai people who live in the park and graze their animals here as they have done for centuries. In their language, Mara means “mottled,” perhaps a reference to the play of light and shadow from the acacia trees and cloud-studded skies on the vast grasslands.
The park is famous for the Great Migration, when thousands of wildebeest, zebra, and Thomson’s gazelle travel to and from the Serengeti, from July through October. In the Mara River, throngs of hippos and crocodiles lurk. The park is also known for providing excellent predator sightings, thanks to its relatively large populations of lion, cheetah, and leopard – especially in the dry months from December through February. Thanks to the park’s altitude, the weather here is mild and gentle year-round.
2. Amboseli National Reserve
Crowned by Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, Amboseli National Reserve is one of Kenya’s most popular tourist parks. The name “Amboseli” comes from a Maasai word meaning “salty dust,” an apt description for the park’s parched conditions. The reserve is one of the best places in Africa to view large herds of elephants up close. Other wildlife commonly spotted in the park includes big cats, such as lion and cheetah, as well as giraffe, impala, eland, waterbuck, gazelle, and more than 600 species of birds. Nature lovers can explore five different habitats here, ranging from the dried-up bed of Lake Amboseli, wetlands with sulfur springs, savannah, and woodlands. Look for the local Maasai people who live in the area around the park.
3. Tsavo National Park
Kenya’s largest park, Tsavo, is sliced in two: Tsavo West and Tsavo East. Together these parks comprise four percent of the country’s total area and encompass rivers, waterfalls, savannah, volcanic hills, a massive lava-rock plateau, and an impressive diversity of wildlife. Midway between Nairobi and Mombasa, Tsavo East is famous for photo-worthy sightings of large elephant herds rolling and bathing in red dust. The palm-fringed Galana River twists through the park providing excellent game viewing and a lush counterpoint to the arid plains. Other highlights here include the Yatta Plateau, the world’s longest lava flow; Mudanda Rock; and the Lugard Falls, which spill into rapids and crocodile-filled pools.
Tsavo West is wetter and topographically more varied, with some of the most beautiful scenery in the northern reaches of the park. Highlights here are Mzima Springs, a series of natural springs with large populations of hippos and crocodiles; Chaimu Crater, a great spot for seeing birds of prey; and Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary. Wildlife is not as easy to see in Tsavo West because of the denser vegetation, but the beautiful scenery more than compensates.
4. Samburu, Buffalo Springs, and Shaba National Reserves
On the banks of the palm-lined Ewaso Nyiro River, Samburu, Buffalo Springs, and Shaba Reserves lie in an arid region in the remote north of Kenya. Shaba National Reserve is one of two areas where George and Joy Adamson raised Elsa the lioness, made famous in the film Born Free. The wildlife in all three reserves depends on the waters of the river to survive, and many species are specially adapted to the parched conditions, such as Grevy’s zebras; Somali ostriches; and gerenuks, the long-necked antelope that stand on two rear legs to reach the fresh shoots on upper tree limbs.
A top attraction in Samburu National Reserve are the Sarara Singing Wells, local watering holes where Samburu warriors sing traditional songs while hauling water for their cattle to drink. You might also be rewarded with sightings of big cats and wild dogs.
5. Lake Nakuru National Park
Lake Nakuru National Park, in Central Kenya, is famous for its huge flocks of pink flamingos. The birds throng on Lake Nakuru itself, one of the Rift Valley soda lakes that comprises almost a third of the park’s area. The park was established in 1961, and more than 450 species of birds have been recorded here, as well as a rich diversity of other wildlife. Lions, leopards, warthogs, waterbucks, pythons, and white rhinos are just some of the animals you might see, and the landscapes range from sweeping grasslands bordering the lake to rocky cliffs and woodland.
The park also protects the largest euphorbia candelabrum forest in Africa. These tall, branching succulents are endemic to the region and provide an interesting textural element to the arid landscapes.
6. Lamu Island
The small island of Lamu, northeast of Mombasa, oozes old-world charm. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lamu Old Town is Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited settlement with origins dating back to the 12th century. Strolling the labyrinthine streets, you can see the island’s rich trading history reflected in the buildings. Architectural features from the Arab world, Europe, and India are evident, yet with a discernible Swahili technique. Intricately carved wooden doors, coral stone buildings, hidden courtyards, verandas, and rooftop patios are common features. Visiting here is like stepping back in time. Dhows plow the harbor, few if any motorized vehicles exist here, and donkeys still rule the streets as they have done for centuries.
Most of Lamu’s population is Muslim, and both men and women dress in traditional attire. Top attractions on the island include Lamu Museum, with displays on Swahili culture and the region’s nautical history; Lamu Fort; and the Donkey Sanctuary. If all the history is a little too much, you can bask on one of the island’s white-sand beaches or sip Arabic coffee in a local café.
7. Lake Naivasha
A haven for birders, Lake Naivasha lies at the highest point of the Great Rift Valley and has been known to shrink considerably in times of extreme drought. A flourishing floriculture industry in the area is also impacting water levels and quality. One of the best ways to view the wildlife is by boat. More than 400 species of birds have been spotted here, including African fish eagles. Hippos slosh in the water, and giraffes, zebra, buffalo, and eland graze around the edges of the lake. Keep a lookout for colobus monkeys in the canopies, too.
Near Lake Naivasha, the Crater Lake Game Sanctuary features a wildlife-rich nature trail. Just south of Lake Naivasha, the relatively affordable Hell’s Gate National Park protects a wide variety of wildlife and offers excellent climbing opportunities with two extinct volcanoes and the red cliffs of Hell’s Gate Gorge. On the southern shore of Lake Naivasha, you can pop in for a cup of tea at the Elsamere Conservation Centre, the former home of the late Joy Adamson, author of Born Free and her husband George.
Kenya’s capital and largest city, Nairobi is legendary for its colorful colonial history. It was once the capital of British East Africa, luring settlers who came here to stake their fortune in the coffee and tea industries. Today, you can explore the city’s famous historic sites, as well as some excellent wildlife-related attractions.
The Nairobi National Museum is a great one-stop spot to see exhibits on Kenya’s history, nature, culture, and contemporary art. Green thumbs will also enjoy the botanic gardens on the grounds. Another popular tourist attraction is the Karen Blixen Museum, the restored residence of the famous Danish author of the book Out of Africa, also known by her pen name, Isak Dinesen. To see wildlife without venturing far from the city center, visit Nairobi National Park, now a black rhino sanctuary and also home to a diversity of other African wildlife.
9. Nairobi National Park and The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
A mere 15-minute drive from the clamor of Kenya’s capital, you can gaze at a snoozing pride of lions or a graceful giraffe strutting through the golden grass at Nairobi National Park. Visiting this wildlife-rich park is one of the top things to do if you’re staying in Nairobi, and it makes a rewarding day trip – especially if you can’t make it to one of the larger game reserves. All the classic safari stars here, including buffalo, leopards, zebras, wildebeest, hippos, elephants, and cheetah, and you can also see some of the planet’s most endangered species at the park’s rhino sanctuary. The Nairobi Safari Walk provides a rewarding opportunity to spot wildlife on foot, and birders will be happy to know that more than 400 species of birds also inhabit the park, including the beautiful grey crowned crane.
While you’re here, be sure to stop by The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust at the park’s main gates. This famous wildlife sanctuary rescues and rehabilitates orphaned elephants and offers close-up encounters with these adorable animals. And no visit to the park would be complete without popping into the Giraffe Centre, near the famous Giraffe Manor, where these long-necked beauties eat right out of your hands.
Kenya’s second largest city and biggest port, Mombasa is a multicultural tourist magnet. British, Portuguese, Arab, Indian, and Asian immigrants add to the rich cultural mix, and their influence is evident in the architecture, as well as the many different types of cuisine. Mombasa is actually an island connected to its mushrooming development on the mainland by a causeway, bridges, and ferries. Coral reefs fringe the coast for 480 kilometers providing fantastic snorkeling and diving opportunities, especially at Mombasa Marine National Park and around Wasini Island. Dolphin watching and deep-sea fishing are also popular.
History buffs will enjoy exploring the 16th-century Fort Jesus and Old Town with its narrow streets, ancient Swahili dwellings, markets, and souvenir shops. The north shore of Mombasa is crammed with attractions including Mombasa Go-Kart, cinemas, sports, and a cornucopia of restaurants. This being a coastal hub, beach lovers will find some worthy strands nearby. North of the city, Nyali and Bamburi Beaches are favorites, while the white strands of Shelly, Tiwi, and Diani Beaches are popular spots south of Mombasa.