While Kenya may not be a typical travel destination for many people, African culture and safaris draw many visitors to this country every year. In this Nairobi travel guide, Emily helps you save money, stay safe, and connect with the capital city of Kenya. Check out more Budget Travel Guides for destinations around the world.
Nairobi, known both as “the Green City in the Sun,” and “Nai-robbery,” is a city of contrasts. Slum areas nestle next to fancy apartment buildings. Rich tourists stay in 5-star hotels before taking expensive safaris in the countryside, while poor Kenyans sell peanuts on the side of the road to support their family. Lions roam the national park, which is located less than 5 miles from downtown.
Because Nairobi is not a safe city and tourism is a major industry, travelers often spend a lot of money here. Visitors pay a premium for safety, convenience, and quality entertainment.
A Nairobi travel guide for budget travelers
Exploring the city on a budget is possible, but it takes more research and planning. This Nairobi travel guide shares some tips to get you started.
Transportation in Nairobi
Buses and Matatus- Buses and matatus are the most affordable option for transportation in Nairobi. Prices are never posted, but generally range from 20 Ksh (Kenyan shillings) to 70 Ksh depending on your route, the time of day, and the weather. Either ask other people at the bus stop or ask the tout (the person who is shouting for passengers from the door of the vehicle) the price before you get on.
Generally, buses and matutus are numbered, and each number follows a prescribed route. Almost all routes begin or end in the Central Business District (CBD) in downtown Nairobi, so you’ll often have to take one bus or matatu to the CBD before transferring to a second one. Be aware that there are more than a half dozen bus stations in the CBD, so you might also need to walk from one bus station to another.
NAIROBI TRAVEL TIPS:
- Buses and matatus are not always safe and you should avoid riding them at night.
- Carry change to pay for your ride in a pocket, so that you don’t have to unzip your bag or take out your wallet.
Boda Boda/Piki Piki- In some neighborhoods, you’ll find a half dozen men sitting around on motorcycles. These motorcycle taxis, called either boda bodas or piki pikis, are for hire, and generally run shorter distances than a taxi. They are generally cheaper than a taxi for a short ride, but can be a bit more scary, as the traffic in Nairobi is notorious and you probably won’t be offered a helmet for the ride.
Taxis- There are tons of taxi companies and independent taxi drivers in Nairobi, and you will never have trouble getting a taxi if you want one. As with buses and matatus, prices are not posted and taxis are unmetered. You’ll need to negotiate with a driver and settle on a price before you go. Ask fellow travelers, or hostel or hotel employees for the going rate before you try to negotiate.
NAIROBI TRAVEL TIP:
- If you are traveling at night, you should always use a taxi, walking and taking buses and matatus is not safe after dark.
Lodging in Nairobi
If you want to stay in Nairobi, then your best option for budget accommodation is one of the many “Backpackers” or hostels located in town. You can get a dorm bed starting at around 750 Ksh (about $10 US) per night. Many of these hostels have bars or restaurants on site. They also coordinate safaris and day trips for travelers.
Here are a few recommendations:
Camping, either in your own tent or in a rented tent, is also an option in outskirts of Nairobi. Keep in mind that you’ll usually spend more money getting into and out of the city if you go this route.
Be sure to book with a legitimate camp site or backpacking lodge. Pitching your own tent on a random piece of land is not a safe idea, both because of the wildlife and the threat of personal violence.
NAIROBI TRAVEL TIP:
- Before booking, be sure to read a few reviews. And if a price seems too good to be true, it probably is– you may be staying in a glorified brothel.
Nairobi Food and cuisine
Lucky for you, it’s easy to eat on the cheap in Nairobi. For classic Kenyan food, visit any hoteli (a Kiswahili word for restaurant, NOT a hotel). Typically, you’ll find some variety of the following dishes for between 40- 200 Ksh: lentils (ndengu), red kidney beans (maharagwe), chapati (Indian flatbread), stew, ugali (a firm maize dough eaten with other dishes), matoke (steamed green bananas/plantains), matundo (intestines), and sukuma wiki (a kale-like plant that is chopped and boiled).
A good Nairobi travel tip is to check with the hostels as many will offer meal plans or inexpensive a la cart menus.
Vendors also sell food from road side stalls. Usually you can find fresh fruit, peanuts, roasted corn, sausages, fried dough (mandazi), and hard-boiled eggs for sale in every neighborhood.
In some places, street food is often delicious; that’s not really the case in Kenya. If you want to enjoy truly delicious food for reasonable prices, try an Ethiopian restaurant. Your best bet is to go out with several other people and order multiple dishes to share, but prices are usually less than 800 Ksh per person for the meal. Try Habesha or Abyssinia.
If you’re craving Western food, or want to enjoy your meal in a comfortable and relaxing environment, try one of Nairobi’s many coffee shops. The chains Art Caffe and Java House have outposts throughout the city and offer a full menu at reasonable prices. It’s perfectly acceptable to sit for hours in one of these restaurants even if you’ve just ordered a coffee, so feel free to people-watch, read, or relax.
NAIROBI TRAVEL TIP:
- The one expense you should splurge on is bottled beverages, including water. Nairobi’s water supply isn’t always safe, and if you’re only visiting for a short while, it’s not worth getting sick.
Activities in Nairobi
The Nairobi National Park is not a budget option, but it’s conveniently located in the city, and is cheaper than some of the game parks that are further afield. Park entry fees are $40 US for non-residents, and you’ll have to hire a vehicle and driver to take you through the park.
Visiting the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, the AFEW Giraffe Center, or the Mamba village (which, oddly, features crocodiles and ostrichs) is slightly more affordable, with non-resident rates around 1,000 Ksh per person.
This may not seem like a “budget” attraction, but the Kenyan government is well-aware of how popular game-viewing is for tourists. Wildlife safaris are much more expensive; these three sites are probably your cheapest option for seeing animals.
Nairobi is also home to several affordable museums, including the Nairobi National Museum, the Railway Museum, the National Archives, and the August 7th Memorial Park and Museum. The Nairobi National Museum is the most expensive, at 1200 Ksh for non-residents, but it’s also the largest and most well-done.
In Nairobi, as anywhere, you get what you pay for. The National Archives and August 7th Memorial Park and Museum are inexpensive and interesting, but small and not the most well-curated museums you’ll visit.
If you like live music, then head out on a Thursday night to either Choices or Brew Bistro & Lounge. Choices usually features Kenyan musicians performing in a variety of genres, while Brew Bistro has live jazz (and beer from its own brewery).
Both places can get crowded and noisy, but you’ll find a fun mix of Kenyans and expats. If you prefer a more relaxed music experience, Brew Bistro also has live jazz on Sunday afternoons, and it’s much less crowded then.
NAIROBI TRAVEL TIPS:
- To get the scoop on the latest art and culture events in Nairobi, check out the Nairobi Now blog.
- The club scene in Nairobi can get wild, and many clubs are overrun with prostitutes. Before going out, get advice from people at your hotel or hostel, since clubs that are safe, popular, and open for business, change frequently. Even large groups of people going out together have been robbed, so be mindful of your belongings and your level of intoxication.
Connect with Locals in Nairobi
Kenyans are very friendly, so if you speak English (or Kiswahili) and are outgoing, you can easily connect with locals. Other than your hotel or hostel, there are few places that cater exclusively to tourists and expats, so you’ll see Kenyans at the restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and attractions you visit.
Kenyans are generally very in tune with the national news, especially political and sports news. Read the paper or study up on Kenyan politics and ask Kenyans about what they think.
Many Kenyans are also religious, so attending church services can also be a great way to connect with locals.
NAIROBI TRAVEL TIP:
- Be aware that in Kenya, whoever offers an invitation (to dinner or a bar) is expected to pay. It’s not like in many western countries, where you invite friends to go out for dinner and you all expect to split the bill.
While many people may think traveling in Kenya is dangerous, this Nairobi travel guide shows you that you can explore its biggest city, enjoy the wildlife, and connect with the culture and locals safely and on a budget.
Emily E. McGee has lived in Africa, the South Pacific, and three states in four years. She pays the bills by writing for various educational companies, but she’s happiest when writing about travel. Emily and her husband live life on the go, and they are currently living in Nairobi, Kenya. Emily writes about travel, and life as a trailing spouse at One Trailing Spouse. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.