Discovering Nairobi from a Local’s Perspective

Exploring Nairobi with a local by your side is the best way to get around and soak in the culture.

Although they have seen me travel to many countries as a solo traveler, my family was a little worried about my plan to visit Nairobi, the bustling capital of Kenya. After all, it is not a country that receives a great deal of positive press coverage.

To be honest, even I felt a little bit nervous about the prospect of visiting the city.

One thing that made us all feel a lot better about the idea of visiting bustling Nairobi was that I would be meeting a good friend there. I’d met Mary while studying at university, and it was her passion for her home city that had inspired me to visit Nairobi and Kenya. She’d been delighted to hear about my plans to tour the city, and had promised to give me the ultimate guided tour.

Having a meal with my local host Mary and her friend

Having a Kenyan meal with my local host Mary and her friend

She’d assured me that Nairobi was a vibrant, exciting and safe city that had much to delight and fascinate travelers. I wondered what I would see as my flight began to descend down to the airport. I looked out the window and was amazed to see millions of lights stretching out in every direction. Nairobi was enormous!

I was so grateful to see Mary’s smiling face when I arrived. Although I was tired from the trip, I immediately felt energized when she gave me a big hug and welcomed me to her bustling home of Nairobi.

After a delicious meal prepared by Mary’s mother, I decided to make it an early night so that we could get up early and start exploring Nairobi the following day.

The next morning I awoke to the smell of delicious pancakes, which I ate quickly so that we could get to Nairobi as soon as possible! I asked Mary if we would be driving to the city, but with a smile she confirmed that we would be travelling ‘local style’ in a brightly coloured matatu.

The busy streets and traffic of Nairobi

The busy streets and traffic of Nairobi

On the way back from the airport I’d seen a couple of matatu mini buses which are brightly decorated vans that form the city’s public transport system. I was so confused how they worked – there seemed to be no official bus stops or timetables. Mary confirmed this was the case, and that you simply flagged them down if they seemed to be heading in the right direction, and tell them where to stop.

Sure enough, Mary expertly flagged down a minivan and before long we were bundled into the van, hurtling towards downtown Nairobi. I was so grateful for Mary’s insider knowledge on how to get us a ride in the matatu, as I am not sure I would have figured out how to do it on my own.

After a fun ride in the matatu – which features a bright interior with a disco ball – we were dropped off in downtown Nairobi. Coming from a small town in Australia, I was amazed and a little bit overwhelmed by all the sights and sounds of bustling Nairobi. I’d never seen so many people in my life!

The skyline of downtown Nairobi

The skyline of downtown Nairobi

Mary grinned as she grabbed me by the arm and took me through the street. Once we got through the crowd, we arrived at the main Convention Centre of Nairobi. After paying a small fee, we got in the lift and made our way up to the Helipad where foreign dignitaries arrive in their helicopters! From the helipad, we had an amazing view of Nairobi, which spread out as far as the eye could see in every direction.

All around me, people were taking photos and one group was even enjoying a picnic. Mary told me that it was a favourite spot for locals, including young people on dates. However, she explained that not many foreign visitors know about the place – so I felt very lucky to discover it!

After the helipad, we went on to have a traditional nyama choma fried meat dinner. Not only was the food delicious, but I was also so glad to have Mary there to show me the proper way to eat it (with your hands). The restaurant staff really seemed to appreciate my attempts to fit in, and I ended up having a great chat with the waiter. It seemed like being there with a local caused people to open up more about what life is really like in Nairobi.

A tiger sleeping at a suburban national park in Nairobi

A tiger sleeping at a suburban national park in Nairobi

As the great day drew to an end, Mary promised me that the following day we would get our first sight of Africa’s famous Big 5 where I could see animals including giraffes, lions and cheetahs. We spent an amazing few hours there, and I took lots of photographs of the animals.

Finally, we finished the short break to Nairobi with a stop by several of the city’s colourful and lively markets. I fell in love with a beautiful pair of Maasai-inspired earrings which Mary helped me to buy. Again, I was very grateful for her local knowledge and language skills.

In the end, the earrings became a symbol of the amazing two days I had spent exploring Nairobi with Mary. During my time in the city, it had ceased to seem like a far away, intimidating place, but had truly come to life as a real place filled with amazing people and experiences.

I was so grateful to see the city through the eyes of a local, and came away with a totally different view on the city. So often we get the wrong idea about what a city is really like, and it certainly helps to have a local there to show you all of the amazing gems a place has to offer.

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