A trip to Kenya is synonymous with safari, and rightfully so. Its national parks teem with wildlife, with the most famous being the Masai Mara Game Reserve, famous for the Big Five – lion, leopard, black rhino, elephant and buffalo – and the Nilotic Maasai tribe with their distinct red traditional shuka (checkered cloth).
But Kenya has much more to offer than national parks. There are forested mountains begging to be clambered up and sprawling cities teeming with vibrant social and cultural scenes. You can relax on pristine beaches, dive into underwater wonderlands in the Indian Ocean, or go on a thrilling off-road adventure.
No matter what type of trip you seek, Kenya will provide it. Here are the best places to add to your itinerary.
Best place for culture and nightlife
A city at the center of it all, Kenya’s capital is a great stopover if you’re looking to head off on safari, hit the beach or visit incredible restaurants.
Unpack your bags and spend a couple of days eating and drinking your way across the array of bars and restaurants in Nairobi – buzzy spots such as Cultiva, where the chef’s South American roots can be tasted in each farm-to-table dish, or Unseen Nairobi, an independent art house and rooftop bar, where signature sandwiches serve as the perfect side to indie films.
With art galleries, open-air cinemas showcasing African films, shopping, stand-up comedy shows and museums, Nairobi is rich in cultural experiences.
Planning tip: Even in the capital, you can get up close with wildlife. Options include seeing orphaned baby elephants at Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, feeding Rothschild giraffes at the Giraffe Centre and spotting four of the Big Five (not elephants) at Nairobi National Park against an unlikely backdrop of billboards, traffic and skyscrapers.
Best place for rugged exploration
Remote, inhospitable and historically drought-stricken, Turkana looks like a vast empty area on a map of Kenya, but it’s a big draw for adventurers who thrive on challenge. Although the region has an airport, the thrill is in driving, which requires a reliable 4x4 to navigate the craggy roads.
Given how hot and arid the region is, jade-blue Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world, is a wonderful surprise. Visit Eliye Springs with its sandy beaches and towering green palm trees, and you'll think you’re on Diani Beach on the Kenyan coast, or rent a speedboat and zip to Central Island, where a short hike leads up to a volcanic crater lake. Don’t forget your swimming trunks, and be wary of Nile crocodiles camouflaged on the rocks.
Fast-developing Lodwar town bursts with lively nightlife and also features its own replica of Brazil’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue. For a real glimpse into the past, drive 129km (80 miles) west to see a replica of the archeological fossil remains of Turkana Boy, which is how this region came to be known as the “cradle of mankind.”
Planning tip: Time your visit with the annual Lake Turkana Cultural Festival in June for better insight into northern tribes such as the Borana, Rendille, Turkana and Samburu. Drive east of Lake Turkana, and you’ll get to the Chalbi Desert, which has salt pans that spread to the Ethiopian border. You can sandboard the dunes and meet villagers at North Horr to gain an insight into their culture.
3. Masai Mara
Best place for safari
One of Africa’s great bucket-list safari destinations, Masai Mara lies in Kenya’s southwestern region and stretches for 1510 sq km (583 sq miles) into Tanzania’s Serengeti. Spot all the Big Five and other wildlife here, as well as more than 450 species of birds.
Choose your own adventure and observe wildlife from a safari vehicle, aboard a hot air balloon with a champagne breakfast, on horseback or on a guided walking safari.
You can also visit Maasai villages for a first-hand insight into this legendary tribe’s way of life and their historical and spiritual bond with the land.
Planning tip: The best time to visit is between July and October when millions of wildebeest migrate across the Serengeti–Mara ecosystem in search of verdant pasture and to calve, an action-packed scene that often involves them being hunted down by crocodiles and big cats.
Best place for birdwatching
Boat rides and bird-watching are the big draws here. Head to Le Pearl or Dunga Hill Camp to try tilapia, either deep-fried or slathered in a thick and delicious fried tomato and onion base, served with ugali (a local staple similar to a thick porridge).
The sunsets over the water in Kisumu are worth the trip, but you can also dance until morning to popular ohangla music at various spots in town, explore the Impala Sanctuary or visit out-of-town caves and rock formations, such as Kit-Mikayi and the lesser-known Abindu Caves.
Zip down to the lake’s most popular islands: Mbita, Rusinga and Takawiri, where the beaches are powder white and the sunsets glow. As the sun sets, you'll see the “ghost cities” formed by hundreds of lanterns hoisted on wooden canoes by fishermen heading off to fish by night.
Planning tip: Getting here from Nairobi requires either a 45-minute flight or at least six hours on the road, but your best bet is the passenger train service.
5. Lamu Island
Best place for relaxing beach breaks
If you’re looking for a laid-back destination with gorgeous beaches in Kenya, the Lamu archipelago is the place.
History buffs should head to ancient Lamu Town – as the oldest Swahili settlement along East Africa’s coastline, everything from the architecture to the food is storied. The streets are so narrow that it’s inaccessible by car; donkeys or walking were once the only mode of transport, but in recent years, motorbike taxis called boda-boda have changed the vibe of the town, whizzing through the corridors blasting the latest hits.
Hop on a speedboat and explore other spots across the archipelago, such as Kiwayu Island. Sitting in Kiunga Marine National Reserve, it’s ideal for diving or sport fishing. In Shela village, holiday homes with infinity pools that gaze out to the sea are the norm. The annual Lamu Yoga Festival in October draws students from across the world.
An evening sunset cruise aboard a traditional Mozambican-style dhow (wooden boat) is a must. The island has lots of great restaurants, such as those at Peponi Hotel and Kijani Hotel, or have a drink at the Floating Bar.
Planning tip: Clothing that covers shoulders and chests is expected; Lamu is a largely Muslim town.
6. Amboseli National Park
Best place to see elephants up close
With miles of dusty semi-arid grassland unexpectedly dotted with acacia trees and green marsh fed by underground water sources, Amboseli National Park features large herds of elephants wallowing in the shallows, dust-bathing or coming so close to your vehicle that you can see their eyelashes.
Africa’s tallest mountain might be in Tanzania, but the best views of Mt Kilimanjaro are undoubtedly from Kenya. On a clear day, you can see its snowcapped peak jutting out into the sky, making an incredible shot for photographers. Come evening, kick back with a sundowner and enjoy the views, which are even better at sunrise from the vantage point of a hot air balloon.
Wildlife use the neighboring Kimana Sanctuary as a corridor to move from the park to the Chyulu Hills and Tsavo, and your visit supports a community-owned conservancy – Kenya’s first, set up in 1996. To champion the shift from hunting to conservation in a community where killing lions was once a rite of passage, they also host a fun biennial Maasai Olympics, in which young men compete in club- and spear-throwing, high jumping and sprinting races.
7. Matthews Range
Best place for hiking
Getting to the far-flung Matthews Range in Samburu is no easy feat. Hikers can choose from various scenic routes, each just as serene as the next, but for the best experience, pick a trail that leads through a canopy of trees with emerald undergrowth so thick you'll need a machete to clear the pathway, emerging at an icy cold rock pool on River Ngeng.
The highest peak in these mountains is 2688m (8819ft), and temperatures get as low as 10ºC (50ºF). You can camp or stay at remote lodges, like Kitich Forest Camp, where you'll be paired up with a Samburu guide who will help you navigate the area and point out wildlife by their tracks and sounds.
On your way down from the peak, try to spot Hartlaub's turaco, a bird that may as well be the Kenyan mascot because it has the same colors as the flag, and De Brazza’s monkey, a master at camouflage.
Best place for marine life
Watamu is a great hub for exploring the north coast, and the culture has such a distinct Italian influence that several locals speak the language; improbably, Italians first came here in the 1960s to work at the nearby Luigi Broglio Space Center. Many restaurants offer pasta, pizza and gelato, and even some street signs are in Italian.
Go diving or snorkeling in the marine park, join the Saturday evening parties at Papa Remo Beach, visit the striking canyons at Marafa Hell’s Kitchen (just not in the middle of the day because you might pass out from the heat), sign up for boozy sunset cruises down Mida Creek or kite surf at Che Shale.
Planning tip: If you’re here in October, watch huge humpback whales launch themselves into the air before landing back in the sea a few feet away from your boat.