Warm days and wildlife on your doorstep make Kenya’s capital an appealing place in which to escape winter, says Richard Trillo
Why go now?
January, especially the quieter second half of the month, is always a good time to be in Kenya: it is usually dry and a good period for wildlife-viewing. In the capital, the weather should be fine — it's as hot as it ever gets on the equator at 1,700m altitude with maximum temperatures in the high 20°Cs.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Kenya Airways (020-8283 1800; kenya-airways.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) fly from Heathrow to Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta airport, 15km southeast of the centre.
There's no public transport into town. The simplest transfer is a pre-arranged pick-up with your hotel or safari company. Otherwise, contact the reputable Kenatco Taxis (00 254 721 830 061; kenatco.com) which charges Ksh1,900 (£13.50) to the centre. Journey times vary from 20 minutes to more than two hours depending on the time of day — gridlock can occur from 6.30-10.30am and 4-9pm.
Get your bearings
Nairobi is a sprawling city close to the eastern rim of the Great Rift Valley. Poor suburbs fill many parts of the southern and eastern outskirts. The central business district (CBD) covers less than a square kilometre and is divided into north and south by Kenyatta Avenue. The railway station is on its southern flank. It is safer than it used to be, and askaris (security guards) are everywhere, but be wary of thieves.
Some 3km north of the CBD is the fast-expanding satellite business district of Westlands. North of Westlands, expensive suburbs fill the tree-lined valleys. Stretching southwest from the CBD, a succession of neighbourhoods cloaks what were once plains towards Nairobi National Park and the Ngong Hills.
Private bus companies, shared minibus taxis (matatus) and cabs keep Nairobi moving. Most visitors use taxis — the fare is about Ksh100 (0.70p) per kilometre with a minimum charge of Ksh200 (£1.40) — or you can hire a cab for the day which, depending on your itinerary, should work out at about Ksh5,000-7,000 (£35-50). Always confirm the price in advance.
Nairobi has no tourist office, but the online listings magazine Kenyabuzz (kenyabuzz.com) is a useful resource. The Kenya Tourist Board can also provide information (00 254 20 2711 262; magicalkenya.com).
Efficiently managed and central is the very comfortable Sankara on Woodvale Grove in Westlands (00 254 20 420 8000; sankara.com), which has the amenities of a large establishment — rooftop pool, Thai spa, first-class food — with the feel of a boutique hotel. Doubles start at US$210 (£140), room only.
About 15km from the city centre, Nairobi Tented Camp is the only place to stay inside Nairobi National Park (00 254 20 260 3337; nairobitentedcamp.com). Overnight stays, including meals, drinks, park fees and a game drive, are US$335 (£223) per person based on two sharing.
If you're on a budget, Wildebeest Camp off Ngong Road near the city centre (00 254 20 2103 505; wildebeestcamp. com) offers the option of rooms, dorm beds, basic tents, more palatial safari tents, or camping with your own equipment. Doubles from Ksh2,500 (£19), including breakfast.
Take a view
The 30-floor Kenyatta International Conference Centre is Nairobi's iconic structure (00 254 20 224 7247; kicc.co.ke; daily, 6am-6pm; Ksh400/£2.80). A fast lift takes you to the viewing deck, from where there are unobstructed views across the city — and on clear days, north to Mount Kenya and south to Mount Kilimanjaro.
Take a hike
Leaving the ground floor of the KICC cross City Square, passing fountains, a statue of the country's first president Jomo Kenyatta and the handsome Law Courts building, you emerge on to City-Hall Way. Turn right and then turn left on Simba Street, around the back of the Hilton. Here, at the bottom of Kimathi Street, stands a statue of the freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi — a rare memorial to Kenya's bloody Mau Mau era at the end of the colonial period.
Facing the Hilton, on the east side of Moi Avenue, stands the imposing Bank of India building. This is now the home of the National Archives, a frequently overlooked museum and art gallery with a fine collection of crafts, plus oddball paintings and interesting black-and-white photos (00 254 722 599 212).
Outside the archives, the monument to Tom Mboya unveiled in October commemorates the trade unionist and politician who was assassinated in this spot in 1969.
Three blocks south along Moi Avenue, you come to the August 7 Memorial Park, a restful garden and memorial centre created in memory of the victims of the 1998 US Embassy bombing (memorialparkkenya.org).
Retracing your steps north past the National Archives, you reach Kenyatta Avenue. One block west, on Banda Street, stands the imposing McMillan Memorial Library (13), dating from 1930, and its neighbour, the Jamia Mosque. Another block west, on Muindi Mbingu Street, is City Market, an odoriferous muddle of butchers' slabs, mountains of fruit and overpriced crafts and souvenirs.
Walk north from here a couple of blocks and you come to the pretty Jeevanjee Gardens, where the benches are the lunchtime escape for office workers and the lawns the occasional venue for noisy preachers and political meetings.
Lunch on the run
The fusion restaurant Seven at ABC Place in Westlands (00 254 737 776 677; experienceseven.com) is a fresh and friendly new seafood and grill venue. Tuck into a big salade niçoise for Ksh900 (£6.40) or an Ultimate burger and fries for Ksh725 (£5.15).
New malls seem to open almost every month. Village Market, Westgate and Junction are probably the best, with familiar
brands as well as local retailers. To bargain for crafts, head for one of the rotating Maasai markets, usually found one day a week at each mall, currently on Saturdays at Galleria and Capital Centre.
The Thorn Tree Café, at the Sarova Stanley Hotel (00 254 20 275 7000; sarovahotels.com), is a good, central location for a secluded drink — but is also a shrine to pre-internet backpacking in Africa, when the noticeboard on the thorn tree carried messages from travellers heading hither and thither.
So renowned was it that Lonely Planet christened its online travellers' forum The Thorn Tree, but the tree here is not the original. A cold Tusker beer costs Ksh330 (£2.30) or try a dawa — Kenya's cocktail of vodka, honey and lime — for Ksh650 (£4.60).
Dining with the locals
Haandi in The Mall, Westlands (00 254 20 444 8294; haandi-restaurants.com), provides a broad spectrum of Nairobi dinnertime life. North Indian food is prepared in the on-show kitchen. Dishes include a diwani haandi, featuring peas, beans and cauliflower cooked in ginger and garlic, at Ksh545 (£3.90) and a meaty haandi saag of mutton and spinach at Ksh685 (£4.80).
Sunday morning: go to church
Nairobi's main church is All Saints Cathedral (00 254 733 597 260; allsaintsnairobi.org), the focus of many pro-democracy rallies over the years. Services on Sundays include Holy Communion at 7am, and modern services at 8am and 9.30am.
Out to brunch
Book a table well in advance at the outdoor River Café in the verdant suburb of Rosslyn (00 254 725 969 891; 7.30-6pm daily). There's a garden centre and space for the kids to play. The brunch menu tops out at eggs royale with smoked salmon for Ksh950 (£6.70).
A walk in the park
Also in the northern suburbs, the recently opened Karura Forest is a secure and delightful sanctuary of indigenous rainforest and blue gum plantation (00 254 722 891 654; karurafriends.org; daily 6am-6.30pm; Ksh600/£4.20). Wildlife includes bushbuck and monkeys. Popular with joggers and dog walkers, it has marked trails to waterfalls.
At the National Museum (museums.or.ke; daily 9am-5.30pm; Ksh800/£5.60), try to hook up with one of the keen and informative guides on arrival (no extra charge). Highlights include the fossils of human ancestors, specimens of most of Kenya's birds and mammals and a good variety of tribal crafts and artefacts.
Take a ride
Try at least one matatu ride, complete with thumping hip-hop and yelling ticket-sellers. Numbers 111 and 125 start at the railway station and run out along Langata Road to the Nairobi National Park gates. Fares vary wildly, but average about Ksh10 (7p) per kilometre.
Icing on the cake
Nairobi National Park is the city's crowning glory, nearly 120 square kilometres of rolling savannah starting in the southern suburbs (daily 6.30am-6.30pm; kws.org; admission valid 24 hours Ksh3,600/£25.50).
Unfenced along its southern boundary, the park is home to nearly all the plains wildlife. You have as good a chance of seeing a lion kill here as anywhere — and perhaps a better chance of seeing rare black rhinos.
For rewarding close-up encounters with baby pachyderms, call in at the elephant and rhino orphanage on the west side of the park (daily 11am-noon; sheldrick wildlifetrust.org). Visits cost Ksh500 (£3.50).