The sun rose and cold air whooshed past while R&B music by Nigerian artist Skales rang from the car speakers. The driver lowered the volume as we crawled to a stop near two rhinos. They were our fourth spot of the Big Five that morning as Nairobi’s skyline shimmered in the distance.
“You’re lucky, you can spend a whole day out here and not see what we’ve seen already,” said Wathanga Gatimu, my guide to Nairobi National Park and co-founder of Turnup.Travel.
We watched a lion and lioness who’d flopped on the grass. The male turned towards us.
Nairobi National Park, with 45 square miles of wildlife reserve, is a unique asset for a city break. It looked like a vast plain. Then the road from the entrance gave way to a lake where buffaloes gathered. Egrets stood alongside.
There was one thing, however, missing from the game drive: elephants. We drove for 10 minutes to reach the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and complete the picture. The organisation runs an orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation programme.
Men stood holding bottles of formula. When the clock struck 11, elephants of no more than three years old trotted out from among trees in the distance.
The elephant calves were introduced by their caretakers. There was Kamili, who loves long walks, and Mageno, who wallowed with enthusiasm. The animals guzzled at the bottles then threw dirt over themselves.
Public visits are permitted between 11am and noon each day; visitors are separated from the animals by a rope.
My next stop was the Maasai Market. At a stall crammed with local artwork I was asked the question that came up almost twice a day during my visit: “You’re not going to the Maasai Mara?”
As a city that serves as a jumping off point for tourists heading on safari, Nairobi is sold short. It dates to 1899 when a railway depot was built, but in 2023 – the year in which Kenya is celebrating 60 years of independence – the country’s capital is home to hip hotels, a blossoming food scene (with plenty of South American and African fusion), and a growing craft drinks industry.
Traffic is chaotic around the prominent business district, but I was oblivious on my perch 12 floors above in Unseen Nairobi, an independent cinema, rooftop bar and restaurant that opened in 2020. Shortly after my arrival, I got chatting to a teacher from French Guiana.
Later, a poet read from his new collection as a crowd gathered in the bar for tamarind margaritas and bao buns. Among the punters, ages range from mid-twenties to early seventies.
The venue was set up as an art-house film club by Naomi O’Callaghan, originally from Norwich. “When I moved here over seven years ago, I didn’t know anyone and thought how could I make friends? Well, I’ll just join a local indie film club,” said O’Callaghan. There wasn’t one and so she and her co-founder Anne Sliepenbeek started their own.
Unseen Nairobi is just one example of the city’s cultural offering. There is also a thriving creative scene that includes Liminal Spaces, which organises talks and exhibitions and sends out a weekly calendar of events.
The next day, I met young artist Achieng Owira at Kuona Artists Collective. She was just moving into her new studio. Her paintings lay stacked against the wall, waiting to be unpacked. “I don’t want to make sad art,” she said. Instead, she wants her work to show the vibrancy of her culture and the strength of its women.
Another hub for Nairobi’s creatives is The Social House hotel. The 83-bedroom property opened in 2020 in the suburb of Lavington. Reached by the Nairobi Expressway (a toll road to the affluent Westlands area), it’s just 25 minutes from the airport. The hotel’s security measures – sniffer dog included – were tight, but I became used to such checks during my time in Nairobi.
I quickly settled into the hotel, which has coffee roasted on site and four restaurants that focus on locally sourced food. Among them is Inca, which serves Peruvian dishes. On Saturday nights, dinner is accompanied by a DJ playing Afrobeats, and a drummer. With its views over Lavington, I could understand why Inca was the setting for the Kenyan launch of Fenty, Rihanna’s cosmetic brand.
A newly acquired plot of land a few miles away from the hotel will go towards enhancing its mostly farm-to-table offering, but otherwise Peruvian head chef Anibal Torres sources ingredients from the weekly organic farmer’s market in Karen.
I visited this area that was transformed into something akin to a food festival with people taking shelter from the heat under marquees. They sat on benches and bales of hay eating dumplings, nyama choma and gelato.
Torres’s awareness of his restaurant’s social and environmental impact was echoed at Cultiva, a farm-to-fork restaurant in the suburb of Karen. Its Ecuadorian chef Ariel Moscardi trains local staff from scratch.
“That’s the idea behind the name, it’s about cultivating community health as well as wealth,” Moscardi told me. He will also be opening a chef’s table offshoot called Aya later this year.
On my final hours in the city, I realised, despite the wonders of the national park, what had struck me the most was its entrepreneurial spirit. It was well worth a longer look.
British Airways and Kenya Airways offer direct flights from Heathrow to Nairobi.
The Social House has doubles from £180 per night, including breakfast.
What to do
Turnup.Travel offers tours of Nairobi National Park from $160pp (£130).