Most people know Kenya as one of Africa’s best safari destinations, but the East African nation has much more to offer than just wildlife. From beaches on the Pacific Ocean to mountain treks to a fascinating culture. There are dozens of places in Kenya worth visiting, but on a 2-week holiday, most visitors have time to only check out a handful of destinations. So what are the best places to visit in Kenya?
1 See the Big Five in the Masai Mara
The Masai Mara is the one place that cannot be skipped on a visit to Kenya: a large game reserve that is known to be the very best place in Kenya to see wildlife. In fact, the Masai Mara, with its wide open savannah plains, is one of the best places to go on safari in all of Africa. If you are lucky, you will see all of the Big Five here, ie. the lion, leopard, rhinoceros elephant and Cape buffalo. In addition to the Big Five, you’re likely to see jackals, hippos, baboons, crocodiles, hyenas, cheetahs, gazelles, zebras and impalas.
If you plan your trip right, you can experience the annual wildebeest’s migration which sees over 1.5 million antelopes and zebras arriving in July from the neighboring Serengeti Plains and departing in November. Seeing the Great Migration is something you’ll never forget, and you can witness it by air or hot air balloon, or on game drives in the park.
2 Take in as much wildlife as possible
Yes, there is more to Kenya than just the wildlife, but observing giraffes, rhinos, lions, crocodiles and other animals in their natural habitat is without a doubt one of Kenya’s main draws. Did you know that Kenya is one of the best places in the world to see big cats in the wild?
In addition to the Masai Mara, there are plenty of other places to get up, close and personal with wildlife. In total, there are over 40 national parks and reserves in Kenya, so which ones are the best?
Depending on which animals you’re keen on seeing, here are some of the best:
Lake Nakuru for rhinos, flamingos and birds
Lake Nakuru is a paradise for birdwatchers, and a popular gathering spot for flamingos, which you’ll see tens of thousands of. The Baboon Cliffs are a well-known lookout that offers stunning views over the lake, and you should be able to see Eastern Black Rhinos from there. As the name suggests, there are baboons right there, as well (who can get a bit cheeky and may try to steal your lunch). If you’re a birdwatcher or wildlife photographer, you should spend the night here to be near the lake around sunrise. There are several lodges right by the lake.
AFEW Giraffe Center for giraffe licks
The AFEW Giraffe Center on the outskirts of Nairobi offers an incredible experience for giraffe lovers: you can feed the endangered Rothschild’s giraffes here and they are known to thank visitors by licking their faces!
Amboseli National Park
Amboseli National Park is known for two things: huge elephant herds roaming around the plains and savannahs, and superb views of Mount Kilimanjaro. In addition to elephants, you can see cheetahs, giraffes, antilopes, zebra and other animals here. This is one of the best national parks in Kenya and wildlife lovers shouldn’t skip it.
Tsavo East National Park
Tsavo East National Park is one of the lesser known National Parks in Kenya, and that’s what makes it so special. Game drives here feel more intimate because the park sees less visitors than the more famous parks. Elephant lovers need to add this park to their itinerary, since Tsavo East is famous for its large elephant herds. But you will see plenty of other wildlife here, as well: lions, buffalos, antelopes, hippos, crocodiles, rhinos, leopards and over 500 species of birds! If you love elephants, the best time to visit Tsavo East National Park is between June and September, during dry season, since there’s less vegetation, which means animals are easier to spot, and they also tend to gather around the waterholes.
Hells Gate National Park
Hells Gate is a beautiful National Park with a stunning slot canyon that you can hike through. The park is located in the Great Rift Valley, which offers some of the most spectacular scenery in Kenya: unique rock formations, canyons and vast savannah. Because there aren’t a lot of dangerous animals here, you can go on a bicycle safari and get really close to the animals.
Samburu National Reserve
Samburu National Reserve is, compared to some of the other reserves, quite small. Despite its compact size, it offers vast open bushland and savannah and a number of famous rare species that you can’t find in any other national parks. These rare species include the Reticulated Giraffe, Grevy Zebras, giraffe gazelles, Somali ostrich, and East African oryx (antilope), as well as hundreds of elephants and abundant birdlife. If you’re an elephant lover, treat yourself to a night at the famous Elephant Bedroom Camp, where you can observe elephants from your bedroom window (rates start at around $650 per night). The reserve is located on the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro River, around 200 miles (300 kilometers) north of Nairobi.
3 Relax at the beach in Diani
Diani Beach, which stretches 11 miles (17 kilometers) along the southern coast, is often named the most pristine beach in all of East Africa: white, powdery sand, fringed by palm trees, azure waters and a colorful coral reef. It’s the perfect place to relax for a few days after a safari or after exploring nearby Mombasa. If swinging in hammock isn’t exciting enough for you, you can enjoy watersports such as kitesurfing or jet skiing, or you can snorkel or scuba dive. Accommodation in Diani Beach ranges from backpacker hostels (Diani Backpackers has double rooms for US$31 per night) to spa resorts and five-star hotels (the Baobab Beach Resort & Spa is US$260 per night).
4 Ride the new Nairobi-Mombasa train
The Nairobi–Mombasa trainline is actually not new, but has been around since 1901, when a trainline right through the African bush seemed like a crazy idea. What’s new is Express Route, which was introduced in 2017 and cut the travel time between the two cities in half: from 10 hours to 5 hours. The Madaraka Express covers 293 miles (472 kilometers) and allows you to take in the beauty of Kenya from the window seat. You will see wild animals on the train ride, and it is a much more comfortable way of traveling than taking a car (which also takes longer). At KES3,000 (around US$27) for first class passengers, the train is also cheaper than a flight between Nairobi and Mombasa. There are two daily trains: the first one leaves Nairobi around 8am (arriving in Mombasa around 2pm), the afternoon train leaves around 2pm (arriving in Mombasa around 7pm). The departure times for the Mombasa-Nairobi trains are similar.
5 Hike Mount Kenya
Hiking Mount Kenya is a must-do for any adventure travelers: not only is Mount Kenya the second highest mountain in all of Africa at 17,057 feet / 5,199 meters (only Mount Kilimanjaro is higher), but it is also one of Kenya’s seven UNESCO World Heritage sites. While the trek to the summit is very strenuous, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views from the top, and along the way, you will see wildlife and stunning wilderness including glaciers, lakes, lush forest and alpine vegetation. The highest peaks of the mountain are Batian, Nelion and Point Lenana, which can be reached on guided 5-day summit expeditions. Point Lenana at 16,355 feet (4,985 meters) is the summit that is usually climbed. A support crew is necessary, since this is quite a challenging trek, but there are several tour operators in Nairobi that offer the trek for around US$1,000 (5-day expeditions including guides, food and accommodation).
The best time to climb Mount Kenya is during dry season: January and February, or August and September. Be aware that this climb is something you should only attempt if you are a seasoned mountain climber with several other peaks under your belt.
Traveling to Kenya: Practical Information
Do you need a visa to visit Kenya?
Visitors from Europe, the U.S., Australia, Canada and Asia (basically most of the world, outside Africa) need a visa for Kenya. Visas are easy to obtain, and for a short processing time for Kenya visa, I recommend applying for it online.
How to get to Kenya
Kenya Airways has direct flights to Nairobi from London, Amsterdam and Paris. There are no direct flights from the U.S. to Kenya, but connections are available on all major airlines.
How to stay safe in Kenya
Kenya is relatively safe for independent travelers, but take the usual precautions: don’t flash expensive jewelry, store your credit cards in a safe place, carry only as much cash as you’re planning to spend. Use a taxi app (for example EasyTaxi) instead of hailing a taxi.
Make sure to have a yellow fever vaccination and consider taking Malaria prophylactics during your trip, especially if you are planning to go on safari and stay in camps. Note that Malaria medication is cheap in Kenya, but you want to buy travel insurance for your trip anyway.
Homosexuality is not to be discussed or publicly displayed, as it is illegal in Kenya, and same-sex acts will be prosecuted (up to 14 years in prison).
Photo Credit: All images used via Flickr’s Creative Commons Licensing. (1) Kenya by Erik Charlton; (2) Lion by Diana Robinson; (3) Kenyan Giraffe by Diana Robinson; (4) Kenya safari by mister_jack; (5) Diani Beach by The Sands Kenya; (6) Kenyan Elephants by Maggie.Mahan; (7) Sunrise at Mount Kenya by Glenn Lewis; (8) Kenya by Mister_jack