No other place on Earth conjures up such strong images of adventure, wildlife and the great outdoors as Kenya, a name almost synonymous with the word ‘safari’. But Kenya is more than just ‘safari’; the sheer diversity of exciting things to do in the country dazzles first-time visitors.
Though viewing wildlife in its natural habitat is probably on top of the list of things to do while in Kenya, even in this the variety of offering is overwhelming. You could witness the Great Maasai Mara Migration as throngs of wildebeest thunder across the savanna; marvel at Lake Nakuru flecked with thousands of flamingoes, or come eye-to-eye with elephants at the Amboseli National Reserve.
But you can also go beyond the world-famous safari parks to visit a trove of coastal treasures. Visitors can snorkel and dive fish-rich coral reefs, relax on pearly beaches, experience the melting pot of cultures and cuisines in Mombasa and Malindi, and explore tropical islands steeped in Swahili history.
Kenya's capital and largest city, Nairobi, is legendary for its colorful colonial history. It was once the capital of British East Africa, luring settlers who came here to stake their fortune in the coffee and tea industries. Today, tourists can explore the city's famous historic sites as well as some excellent wildlife-related attractions.
Kenya's second largest city and biggest port, Mombasa is a multicultural tourist magnet. British, Portuguese, Arab, Indian, and Asian immigrants add to the rich cultural mix and their influence is evident in the architecture, as well as the many different types of cuisine. Mombasa is actually an island connected to its mushrooming development on the mainland by a causeway, bridges, and ferries. Coral reefs fringe the coast for 480 km providing fantastic snorkeling and diving opportunities. Dolphin watching and deep-sea fishing are also popular.
North of Mombasa on the Kenyan coast, Malindi is a beach resort popular with visitors. Part historic old town, part modern tourist hub, Malindi is where travelers come to sun on the white sands of Watamu Beach, dive the coral reefs of the Malindi and Watamu Marine National Parks, and soak up a dose of Swahili history in the historic town, dating from the 12th century. Here tourists can visit the Jami Mosque, two pillar tombs from the 14th century, and the Church of St Francis Xavier, one of East Africa's oldest churches. On the promontory, the Vasco De Gama Cross is one of the oldest standing monuments in Africa.
The small island of Lamu, northeast of Mombasa, oozes old world charm. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lamu Old Town is Kenya's oldest continually inhabited settlement with origins dating back to the 12th century. Strolling along the labyrinthine streets, visitors will see the island's rich trading history reflected in the buildings. Architectural features from the Arab world, Europe, and India are evident, yet with a discernible Swahili technique. Visiting here is like stepping back in time. Dhows plow the harbor, few if any motorized vehicles exist here, and donkeys still rule the streets as they have done for centuries.
Amboseli National Reserve:
Crowned by Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak, Amboseli National Reserve is one of Kenya's most popular tourist parks. The name "Amboseli" comes from a Maasai word meaning "salty dust", an apt description for the park's parched conditions. The reserve is one of the best places in Africa to view large herds of elephants up close. Other wildlife commonly spotted in the park includes big cats such as lion and cheetah as well as giraffe, impala, eland, waterbuck, gazelle, and more than 600 species of birds.
Mount Kenya National Park:
In the Central Highlands, east of the Great Rift Valley, Mount Kenya National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Park encompasses Mount Kenya, the country’s highest mountain at 5,199 m, which provides the rare sight of equatorial snow. Formed by a series of volcanic eruptions, Mount Kenya is actually comprised of three glacier-cloaked peaks. The highest is Batian, although Nelion, the next highest, is a tougher climb. The lowest peak, Lenana, is considered the easiest climb, although unpredictable weather can pose challenges.
Lake Nakuru National Park:
Well known for its huge flocks of pink flamingoes, this park also hosts more than 450 species of birds along lions, leopards, warthogs, waterbucks, pythons, and white rhinos. The landscape here ranges from sweeping grasslands bordering the lake to rocky cliffs and woodland. The park also protects the largest euphorbia candelabrum forest in Africa. These tall branching succulents are endemic to the region and provide an interesting textural element to the arid landscapes.
Tsavo National Park:
Kenya's largest park, Tsavo, is sliced in two; Tsavo West and Tsavo East. Together these parks encompass rivers, waterfalls, savannah, volcanic hills, a massive lava-rock plateau, and an impressive diversity of wildlife. Tsavo East is famous for sightings of large elephant herds rolling and bathing in red dust. Other highlights here include the Yatta Plateau, the world's longest lava flow, Mudanda Rock, and the Lugard Falls, which spill into rapids and crocodile-filled pools.
Tsavo West is wetter and topographically more varied with some of the most beautiful scenery in the northern reaches of the park. Highlights here are Mzima Springs, a series of natural springs with large populations of hippos and crocodiles, Chaimu Crater, a great spot for spotting birds of prey and Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary.
Maasai Mara National Reserve:
Maasai Mara is one of the world's most magnificent game reserves. Bordering Tanzania, the Mara is the northern extension of the Serengeti and forms a wildlife corridor between the two countries. The park is famous for the Great Migration when thousands of wildebeest, zebra, and Thomson's gazelle travel to and from the Serengeti, from July through October. It is also known for providing excellent predator sightings thanks to its relatively large populations of lion, cheetah, and leopard. Due to the parks altitude, the weather here is mild and gentle year round.
A haven for birders, Lake Naivasha lies at the highest point of the Great Rift Valley and has been known to shrink considerably in times of extreme drought. One of the best ways to view the wildlife is by boat. More than 400 species of birds have been spotted here, including African fish eagles. Hippos slosh in the water, and giraffes, zebra, buffalo and eland graze around the edges of the lake.