Kenya lies at the very heart of the East African Rift Valley. A place of world-class wildlife viewing and legendary game reserves, it’s surely amongst the most-visited of countries in the region.
Just check out the bucket-list-busting migrations that take place in the vast Mara, or look to the soaring heights of Mount Kenya, surrounded by flamingos and rare rhinos and wildebeest and more! However, Kenya’s isn’t just about 4X4s across the savannahs to spot elephants and lions.
It’s also got mile upon mile of beautiful coastline along the Indian Ocean.
And that means beaches! Yep, travelers flock to the shorelines around Malindi and Mombasa to taste all the exoticism of Zanzibar, all mixed up with the smells of Keralan curries and Arabic tagines thanks to the multi-layered history.
And then there are the cities, topping out with the heady and energetic mass that is Nairobi – one of the largest metropolises in all of East Africa!
Lets explore the best places to visit in Kenya:
1. Maasai Mara
Home to perhaps the single most famous safari park in the world (sorry Kruger), this relatively small national reserve magnesites thousands of travelers to the reaches of East Africa every year.
It’s bordered to the south (and immediately contiguous with) Tanzania’s acclaimed Serengeti National Park, and displays the quintessential backcountry of the East African Rift: undulating savannah plains peppered with galloping zebra herds; swaying grasslands punctuated with the lanky stalks of giraffes; meadows of topi and waterholes dotted with cape buffalo.
Safari is – of course – the biggest pull, with countless people heading in for The Great Migration and to see the fabled Big Five of African mammals.
2. Lamu Island
Ringed by sandbanks, bobbing dhows, mangrove swamps and the lapping waters of the Indian Ocean on the eastern edge of Kenya, little Lamu Island still plays host to one of the most historically rich towns in the nation.
Named – appropriately – Lamu Old Town, this historic port of whitewashed facades and tropical timber wood houses is tagged by UNESCO for its exposition of traditional Swahili building methods.
But that’s not it, because the villages of Shela and Matondoni further along the coast of Lamu also boast a series of fascinating ports and mosques from centuries gone by, while the age-old celebrations of Mawlid are a must for any culture vultures!
3. Amboseli National Park
Amboseli lives up to its reputation as one of the crème de la crème of East African safari parks, and not least of all with that fine location below the colossal outline of none other than Mount Kilimanjaro! In the shadow of that snow-topped massif – the highest on the continent – this protected reserve spreads out in a patchwork of dusty plains and savannahs, fields of curious sulphur spouts and riparian wetlands all trodden by some of the largest elephant herds in the country.
Today, wildlife lovers flock here to safari and see the great galumphing beasts next to cheetahs, wildebeest, giraffes, zebra and more!
Sprawling, steel-clad Nairobi isn’t the prettiest of African cities at first glance, granted.
But there’s real charm and energy to be found in this nigh on four-million-strong capital in the southern heart of Kenya for sure.
For starters, the town is famed as the only great metropolis with a bona fide safari park smack bang within city limits – just check out the Nairobi National Park, where giraffes meet cheetahs against the meanders of the Mbagathi River.
Add to that a series of great central markets that bubble with East African hotpots and foods, along with one of Kenya’s best nightlife scenes, and bingo: you’ve got yourself a town that’s really worth the stopover!
5. Hell’s Gate National Park
Sat midway between the city of Nairobi and the backcountry town of Nakuru, Hell’s Gate covers a humble 68 square kilometers in the midst of southern Kenya.
A place of real natural beauty, it’s defined by startling and unforgettable rock formations that rise like splinters from the scrub-dressed ground.
Considered by many to have been the inspiration for the Disney film The Lion King, the area has high escarpments and deep valleys carved through its terrain, each bearing curious monikers like Fischer’s Tower and the great Embarta.
Between the gorges and canyons, you can expect to see wildebeest and vultures, African buffalo and Thomson’s gazelle, not to mention packs of lions to boot!
6. Tsavo East National Park
One of the oldest and largest national parks in all of East Africa, the great stretches of Tsavo East rarely fail to top charts of the finest safari destinations on the planet.
They can be found cascading down from the sun-baked highlands of the Chyulu Hills that straddle the border with Tanzania to the south; a mosaic of swaying savannah grasses and red-hued rocks that rise like escarpments from the dusty, arid grounds.
The eastern edge of the park is delineated by the flow of the Athi River, which gives way to the great stones of Yatta – one of the largest lava channels in the world.
And then there are the animals: everything from white-tailed mongooses to cape buffalo, ground pangolins to cheetahs!
With overtones as exotic as nearby Zanzibar and a history as deep as any of East Africa’s cities, Mombasa is an enigmatic and wonderful place to visit.
Swahili roots and traditions die hard, even after the influence of the erstwhile Portuguese and Arabic rulers raised colonial edifices and grand mosques between the streets.
Take some time to wander the European-flavoured Old Town, sample the spicy Indian-influenced curries and take in the energy of Mombasa port.
But don’t linger too long, because the beaches await, going from the shimmering white stretches along Bamburi to the palm tree groves of Shanzu!
Ah Malindi: a town of tin-shack homes and old mosque towers from centuries gone by, where the sea has never been so warm and the sand has never been so white! Yep, this humble little trading town on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast has risen and risen in recent decades to become the favourite choice of European and American visitors looking to taste the sun and salt water of East Africa.
Monuments to the great Portuguese explore Vasco da Gama Pillar still mark the center of the place – a testimony to its long past – while strips of palm-backed beaches and resorts, pretty piazzas and even pizza restaurants bring in the biggest crowds.
9. Samburu National Reserve
The Samburu National Reserve marks the very heart of Kenya as a whole.
Hundreds of miles from the coast, and just edging up to the rising highlands that define East Africa, the area gets its lifeblood from the meanders of the trickling Ewaso Ng’iro, which drops down this way from the ice-caked top of Mount Kenya itself.
The terrain is defined by flat-topped acacia trees and the occasional riparian oases of palms, while the wildlife includes lions and gazelles, Tanzanian cheetahs, waterbucks, crocodiles and olive baboons.
10. Lake Nakuru
Lake Nakuru now sits at the heart of its very own national park.
Just a small speck of blue on the Kenyan map, this curious body of water rises above the Great Rift Valley from between the acacia groves and meadows that surround it.
It’s famed primarily for its truly kaleidoscopic array of birdlife, which is defined by the pinkish glow of flamingos for most of the year.
Head up to the high-perched lookout points of Baboon Cliff for some dramatic views of the area, before hitting the winding dirt tracks that ring the water’s edge to spot Eastern black rhinos, baboons and countless migrating birds alike.
The rise and rise of the Laikipia District as one of Kenya’s prime ecotourist hotspots has defied all expectations.
Without any totemic national parks or game reserves, the region entered the scene with just the pulls of its natural backcountry.
And as soon as the tour companies caught on to the unspoilt beauties of the sweeping green highlands and hills that rise and fall here, the rest was history.
Today, oodles of safari folk flock come to enjoy off-the-beaten-track wildlife spotting, with destinations like the Sosian Game Ranch, the Ol Ari Nyiro Conservancy and others boasting the likes of Grevy’s zebras, wild dogs and uber-rare black rhinos.
12. Lake Naivasha
Like Nakuru, Lake Naivasha’s little brother, located just to the north-west, this mirror-like body of water is one of the real jewels of the Kenyan Rift.
Shining in hues of sky-blue beneath the red rock ridges of the aforementioned Hell’s Gate park, the spot is widely famed for its thriving birdlife.
For example, there are uber-rare bearded vultures to see, along with ospreys, hawks and eagles.
Add to that the geothermal power plants and geological phenomenon that occur in the nearby mountains, and it’s easy to see why Naivasha is now considered such a fascinating place to visit!
With one foot in Lake Victoria and the other on the great highways that lead east to Nairobi, Mombasa and the port towns of the Indian Ocean, it’s hardly surprising that Kisumu cut its teeth in the mercantile trade.
However, things have ebbed and flowed a lot in the last couple of decades, with the steam boats and transports dropping off for some time.
Revival is now in the works, but Kisumu has a regained respect for its historical traditions and natural attractions too.
So, forget the great freights and oil pipes, and look instead to the biodiversity of Dunga Beach, or the curious architecture of the Kisumu Town Clock in the center of the city.
Nyeri is very much the self-proclaimed gateway to the Central Highlands of Kenya.
At heart, it’s a dusty transport hub of a town, with purring scooters and rickshaws moving through the square-cut blocks and between the low-rise marketplaces.
However, its enviable location on the very edge of the Aberdare Mountains, within reach of the Aberdare National Park (home to leopards, African wild dogs, giant forest hogs, cape buffalos, rhinos and more), Mount Suswa and the South-western Mau Reserve makes it a real magnet for outdoorsy types!
Rising in a medley of ramshackle tin homes and lean-to timber shacks from the midst of the great Kenyan deserts in the north, this largely untrodden town is one for the conservation buffs and ethical tourists.
It’s currently the focus of a number of humanitarian missions, which are attempting to provide schooling, clean water and the like to the local tribal communities.
More than 422 kilometers from Nairobi, the town is far-flung to say the least, but that means an authentic view of Kenyan life, and a chance to see the wilder (if that’s possible!), more arid and unexplored section of this popular East African country.