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Meet Kenya’s Most Iconic Wildlife

From baboon tracking to visiting an elephant orphanage, Kenya is full of immersive, eco-minded wildlife experiences. The best part? You can discover many of them right outside Nairobi—so you can savor culture and cuisine too.

Meet Kenya’s Most Iconic Wildlife

Amboseli National Park, Kenya

Courtesy of Unsplash/Mariola Grobelska

Though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your current—and future—adventures.

You don’t need to go on a multi-day safari to encounter Kenya’s awe-inspiring wildlife. Nairobi, East Africa’s most populous and cosmopolitan city, happens to lie within easy striking distance of prowling lions, honking hippos, and some of country’s largest, most impressive herds of elephants. A mere seven miles from the city center, Nairobi National Park offers unique access to riveting game drives and serene sanctuaries where you can see beloved species like Rothschild’s giraffe up close. Roam a little deeper into nature and you’ll find some of Kenya’s most notable open spaces, including Hell’s Gate National Park, Lake Naivasha, and Amboseli National Park.

Welcome to Nairobi

The rooftop lounge of Tribe Hotel, Nairobi, a Member of Design Hotels

The rooftop lounge of Tribe Hotel, Nairobi, a Member of Design Hotels

Set up shop in the heart of Nairobi’s posh diplomatic district at the Tribe Hotel. Designed to exude a true sense of place, the property was carefully decorated with Kenyan materials and 900 hand-sculpted artifacts, including gourds, figurines, and artwork. Be sure to hit up the well-stocked library, rooftop bar, heated pool, and Kaya Spa, which was inspired by the country’s sacred forests.

After checking in, ask the hotel concierge to arrange a private driver for the day. It’s more reliable and often less expensive than paying for taxis or ride-share cars individually. Your first destination: the bustling, open-air Maasai Market, the perfect place to stock up on souvenirs. Keen negotiators will walk away with both a glimpse of East African culture and some of the city’s best deals on authentic wooden carvings, handmade jewelry, and beaded Maasai sandals. Note that the market moves to a different area of Nairobi each day of the week.

Stop for a delicious al fresco lunch at The River Cafe located in Karura Forest, a 2,500-acre urban wilderness in the middle of Nairobi. Once you finish your mango smoothie and chicken couscous salad, enjoy a tranquil walk along the reserve’s marked hiking trails and keep an eye out for African crowned eagle and silvery-cheeked hornbill, just two of the more than 200 species of birds that live there.

On your way back to the hotel, have your driver drop you at the Nairobi National Museum. Permanent exhibitions such as the Great Hall of Mammals and the Hall of Kenya will provide greater biological context and understanding of the remarkable animals and plants you’ll see firsthand over the next few days.

Come dinner time, head over to Nairobi’s Westlands neighborhood, an area that’s become known for its cool, vibrant nightlife and restaurants. Nyama Mama, a modern interpretation of the roadside diner, serves nostalgic Kenyan foods like lamb shank and lentil dal.

Come face-to-face with gentle giants

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Kenya

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Kenya

Courtesy of Unsplash/Dennis Groom

Just outside Nairobi’s city center you’ll find some of the most engaging—and distinct—wildlife experiences in all of Kenya. Book a guide and driver and kick off the morning with a visit to the Giraffe Centre, a peaceful sanctuary dedicated to protecting the highly endangered Rothschild’s giraffe. Here, you can observe, feed, and even kiss the long-necked creatures, as well as take an easy stroll to the adjacent Gogo River Bird Sanctuary and watch the resident warthogs play in the mud.

Nearby, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust—an East African conservation organization that’s best known for rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned elephants and rhinos since the 1970s—welcomes visitors to their Nairobi Nursery for the baby animals’ feeding time at 11 a.m. each day. There’s not much cuter in this world than a tiny elephant guzzling a bottle of milk so beware—tickets sell out fast. Break for your own lunch at Utamaduni Restaurant at Bomas of Kenya, a tourist village and cultural center. There, you can also watch the country’s national dance troupe perform alongside live percussion, string, and wind instruments and visit traditional homesteads (bomas) from 23 of Kenya’s ethnic groups.

To cap off the day, set out on a gripping three-hour game drive. While the absence of elephants means Nairobi National Park doesn’t have the “Big Five,” it’s still one of the best places in East Africa to spot endangered black rhino and lion kills due to its predominant open grass plain. Other safari favorites like zebra, leopard, cheetah, hyena, buffalo, and giraffe can be found here as well.

For dinner, indulge at Talisman, an elegant gastropub in the leafy suburb of Karen. Creative dishes with South Asian influences include feta and coriander samosas, beef massaman with pineapple salsa, and pork belly with honey soy glaze.

Walk on the wild side

Lake Naivasha, Kenya

Lake Naivasha, Kenya

Courtesy of Unsplash/Tawanda Kanhema

Before hitting the road with your guide, grab a hearty breakfast at Wasp & Sprout, a cozy cafe that cooks up tasty ricotta pancakes and omelets. The handmade furniture, covered in cheerful East African prints, is for sale in case you’d like to pick up another souvenir. It’s a two-hour ride to Hell’s Gate National Park, one of only two parks in the country that can be explored on foot. Once there, you’ll take a thrilling game walk along the red cliffs and towering basalt columns and through the deep gorge as you learn to track Thomson’s gazelle, baboon, zebra, ostrich, cheetah, and more.

Break for fresh-baked chapati, stew pots, and cold juice at Mother’s Kitchen, a relaxed cafe near Lake Naivasha. After you finish eating, rent a boat from the marina at Karagita Beach on the eastern shore and check out the local hippos—at any given time, there are hundreds of them peeking out at you.

If that time spent on the water earlier in the day made you crave fish, order up a whole one (deep-fried until irresistibly crisp) straight from Lake Nakaru at MaMa Oliech’s Restaurant, one of Nairobi’s hidden gems.

Leave the city far behind

Wake up before sunrise and meet your guide for the adventure of a lifetime. A four-hour drive from Nairobi, Amboseli National Park is one of the most accessible wildlife parks in the country, as well as one of the most spectacular. Here, you can discover five different habitats, ranging from the dried-up bed of Lake Amboseli and sulphur springs to the savannah and lush woodlands. Because Amboseli lies at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, you’ll also be treated to glorious, scenic views of the famous peak on clear days.

Kenya’s second most popular park after the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Amboseli is home to the Big Five (though rhinos and leopard are quite hard to locate here) as well as crocodile, giraffe, cheetah, hyena, and rarer species like wild dogs and bat-eared fox. After your morning game drive, enjoy a picnic lunch on Observation Hill while watching animals ambling past on the golden plains.

During your afternoon game drive, look out for big-tusked elephants. Amboseli is celebrated for having one of the healthiest elephant populations in all of Africa and it’s not unusual to see herds of up to a hundred at a time. Arrive back in Nairobi in time to dine on an eclectic, vegetable-focused menu featuring dishes like sweet corn fritters, pumpkin and amaretti tortellini, and sticky date pudding in About Thyme’s charming garden.

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