Getting to Africa from the United States is a trek, but once there it is a wonderful experience. Even Nairobi, the capital of Kenya with a population of 6.5 million, has a lot to offer. During our travels around Kenya as well as quick jaunt to Rwanda for a gorilla safari, we used Nairobi as a connecting base. As such, we stayed in a few different places and visited a handful of sites, most of which were located in the Nairobi suburb Karen, named for Karen Blixen the renowned Danish author.
Acacia Tree Lodge
After arriving on a connecting flight through London late in the evening, our safari organizer and ground handler in Africa, Kelvin, with Absolute Vantage, picked us up at the Nairobi airport and transported us to the Acacia Tree Lodge in Karen. The 15-room lodge has a mission is to be the best small hotel in Kenya.
The hotel includes are large lobby and dining area with two wings stretching from either side. The rooms include a bed, bedside tables, chairs with a table, a standing fan, a luggage rack and a large walk-in closet with shelves. They are nicely decorated with plenty of outlets and a modern bathroom. The only thing lacking is insulation. It is a little noisy for the jet-lagged who struggle sleeping.
The free breakfast features eggs to order, sausage, French toast, bread, cereals, tea, and coffee. We enjoyed a lovely morning meal before spending a day in Karen and the surrounding Ngong Hills.
The Macushla House is just that, a large house with a tiny office, nice dining room, small bar and two lovely sitting areas. It is surrounded in gardens complete with Vervet monkeys, and it even has a nice patio and pool. The Bed & Breakfast has been open for 27 years and includes six rooms and a cottage.
The rooms are spacious with lots of storage and beds that include mosquito netting. The only drawback is the electrical outlets can only be found on each side of the bed. Neither the vanity nor the bathroom include an outlet. Thus, its setup poses a challenge for those who wish to blow dry their hair with a mirror.
The cozy atmosphere is wonderful, and its friendly staff makes visitors feel at home. Each night, guests may order free breakfast for the next morning by filling out a pre-printed sheet which offers a variety of options including eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, potatoes, pancakes, toast, granola, porridge, juice, tea and coffee.
The Macushla house also serves dinner with a limited menu of starters, a soup, a few entrées and dessert. We ate dinner here two different nights because it was quiet and convenient for a large group.
Where to Eat
The food in Nairobi is quite good. As mentioned above, the bed and breakfasts offer tasty morning fare as well as nice dinners which feature options like butternut squash soup, avocado and grapefruit cocktail, mushroom tarts, chicken kabobs, lamb kabobs, steak, and vegetarian dishes.
For lunch we ventured farther and found a few delicious spots, Bobo Eatery, Matbronze, and Aero Club of East Africa.
Boho Eatery, located in Karen, is very popular and it is best to have a reservation for the weekend. The lunch menu offers many vegan, vegetarian, and gluten free options. Among the six of us, we ordered dishes such as guacamole and plantains, crispy chicken tacos on flour tortillas, a Greek salad, black bean tacos, and some desserts. The portion sizes are generous. Some entrée plates could be split with an added appetizer. The food here is excellent.
Matbronze, also located in Karen, is a nice spot. The food is passable with a variety of sandwich and burger options. I wouldn’t recommend the chicken burger I ordered, but the pate is supposed to be marvelous. The garden provides a nice atmosphere for lunch and while waiting to be served, browse through all the galleries that feature bronzes, photography, paintings and other trinkets which is the best part of the meal.
Aero Club of East Africa
The Aero Club of East Africa is located in Nairobi near the Wilson Airport which is the local airport for safaris to the Masai Mara. It is a convenient stop for lunch when traveling in and out of the Mara. The Aero Club offers a nice atmosphere and outdoor patio along with a large selection of food. The kabob, chicken curry, and fruit with honey and yogurt were all good choices.
Top Things to Do Around Nairobi
Shop at the Market
There are many things to do in Nairobi and its Karen Suburb. For shoppers, the Galleria market is a nice tourist option for African wares. My friend Rootie buys beaded bracelets and beaded dog collars here to resell and raise money for the The Paws Cause, a non-profit organization that promotes dog adoptions.
She has been doing it for a few years now, so in addition to visiting the market on this trip, we visited the ladies to who bead in the Ngong Hills. There are 12 ladies who meet at Unice’s house, a small hut, where they sit outside on stools or in the grass and bead. Amazingly, they don’t even draw a pattern on the belt or collar, they just bead by memory and make very cool designs.
It was such a pleasure to meet the ladies. One extremely friendly lady, Paris, wanted pictures with all of us and even tried to get Rootie to bead. Just threading the needle proved challenging, while Paris, with an injured hand had no problem at all. Rootie Beading Video.
On the way to the Ngong Hills, southwest of Nairobi and Karen, we passed by several local markets. These are the types of markets I like visiting. We didn’t stop at any of these markets, but we made a brief visit to Evelyn’s store in a local area. Evelyn is now Ruth’s contact between the market and beading ladies.
Visit the Giraffe Centre
The Giraffe Centre is a non-profit organization located in Karen whose mission is to provide conservation education to school children and Kenya’s youth. The admission is free for these kids, though the for non-resident adults the entrance fee is a bit pricey at $15.
The centre is likely best for children and giraffe lovers in the afternoon when there are more visitors in the confined space. But arriving in the morning provides nice experience for all.
Entry includes a short walk on a nature trail, short lectures, and a small bag of food to feed the giraffes, who are not shy. They reach their head over the fence and lick the compressed grass pellet right out of visitors’ hands. The staff warned us that one of them would head butt us if we weren’t careful.
The facility features a café, a gift shop, as well as a small lecture and information area with a viewing platform attached that the girafffes can reach too. A few interesting giraffe facts include the following:
- They have four stomachs
- They walk with limbs on the same side of the body
- Their hearts weigh 25 pounds
- They eat 75 pounds of food a day
- They can see in color
- And they live longer in captivity than in the wild, 28 years vs 10 years
I was saddened to find they are an endangered species. Of the three types of giraffes in Kenya, the Masai, Reticulated, and Rothschild (now called Nubian); the Masai population has declined by 50% and the Reticulated population has declined by 70% in the last two decades while the Nubian population is almost extinct due loss of habitat.
The center focuses on a Rothschild breeding program which has increased its population from 120 to over 300 since 1979. Though it has taken a while, it is nice to see their success.
Sponsor an Elephant
The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, located outside Nairobi in Karen, promotes “the conservation, preservation and protection of wildlife and habitats.” It works across Kenya on projects such as anti-poaching, safe-guarding the natural environment, enhancing community awareness, animal welfare and more. It is best known for its work with elephants by operating the most successful orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world.
Sheldrick’s Nairobi Nursery
The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust operates four locations in Kenya, with one being in Karen called the Nairobi Nursery. The organization offers a low-cost visit to the Nairobi Nursery at 11am and a more expensive visit at 5pm that requires fostering a baby elephant for $50. The 11am time attracts nearly 700 visitors while the 5pm session is limited to 75 visitors.
Fortunately, only about 40 people attended the 5pm time slot when we did, as more than that would have felt crowded. Visitors are escorted into the open-air facility composed of stockades and line up near the entrance to Nairobi National Park. After the elephant keeper, dressed in green, provides a short briefing, the baby elephants run from the park that they visit during the day to their stalls so they can be fed.
This was the most special part to me as they return on their own every night. They love their keepers who sleep in the stalls with them and feed them milk bottles upon their return. After receiving their milk bottle, the elephants munch on tree branches in their stalls.
The keepers work 26 days of the month and 22 nights while living in dormitories and eating at the property. The more experienced also go on rescue missions. My friend Rootie has been to the facility many times over the last eight years, including private visits.
As such, she has gotten to know some of the keepers. One of the keepers has actually been in several documentaries and is the face on many billboards around the world. We were fortunate to have him show us around the facility.
I had hoped to see the elephant I sponsored, but I mistakenly selected one at a different facility. Oh well, if it has moved from the Nairobi Nursery, it means it is one step closer to reaching the wild. For the elephant lovers out there that plan to spend a few days at some of the other facilities like Umani Springs and Ithumba, the Nairobi Nursery might not be as exciting. But for those that want to pet an elephant, stop in for a visit.
Visit the Karen Blixen Museum
The Karen Blixen Museum was the African home of the famous Danish author Karen Blixen who wrote Out of Africa which chronicles life at the estate. It is located in the Nairobi suburb Karen which is named after the author.
The house was constructed in 1912 by a Swedish engineer. Karen and her husband Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke purchased the home and surrounding property in 1917 with the intention of operating a coffee plantation. The couple divorced in 1921, though Karen continued living in the home through 1931 when she returned to Denmark.
The Danish government gave her home to the Kenyan government in 1964 as an independence gift. It was open to the public in 1986 following the popularity of the movie Out of Africa which was released in 1985. For the $12 entry price, we got a fantastic tour guide upon arrival who imparted a wealth of knowledge about Karen’s life on the estate.
Pictures inside were not allowed, but house displayed period furniture and many pieces that were hers from years ago. We really enjoyed this hour-long visit.
Kazuri, which means small and beautiful in Swahili, was founded in 1975 by Lady Susan Wood. It started with two African women making handmade beads. Now Kazuri employees many people, mostly single mothers in need of steady work, to shape, to paint, to glaze, to heat and to fire countless pieces of pottery and beads.
A gentleman took us on a free tour past the machines used to make the clay and through the multi-roomed building to see ladies work on their art. Next to the factory, a gift shop displays final products for a reasonable price. While the gift shop is open on the weekends, the factory is not, so it is best to visit on a weekday.
Karen is a very nice suburb of Nairobi, and it is the best place to stay with things to do for anyone in transit on the way to a Kenyan Safari.
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