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Part bustling African metropolis, part colonnaded colonial capital and a little explorers’ camp, Kenya’s capital Nairobi is an intoxicating blend of cosmopolitan culture, gritty urban slums and thoroughly modern city.
The gateway to some of the most beautiful stretches of wilderness in the world, Nairobi is never short of tourists, even if most are simply passing through to the Masai Mara in the west or the beaches of Lamu and Malindi in the east.
Founded by the British in 1899, the city began as a dusty railway depot beside the Enkare Nyrobi (the chilly river that gave the city its name). Today it’s the largest city in East Africa and home to scores of international companies and organisations, among them the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Commercial success has transformed what was once a colonial backwater into a place of bustling central thoroughfares, 1970s tower blocks, gorgeous public parks and cosmopolitan shopping areas crammed with chic boutiques and street traders from all over Kenya.
While there’s plenty to see in the city centre, not least the imposing parliament building and the city’s many galleries, the real excitement is found just outside the city limits.
Just 10km (6 miles) from the city centre is the Nairobi National Park where you can get close to lions, impala, wildebeest and elephant, the latter due to the presence of the David Sheridan Wildlife Trust’s Elephant Orphanage within the park.
Mount Kenya is also within striking distance of the capital and day trips, although lengthy, are possible. Back in the city, slum tours have become an increasingly popular way to get a glimpse of Nairobi’s grittier side, although many aren’t as safe as tourists imagine.
Thanks to the activities of militant groups like Al-Shabaab, safety has become an increasingly pertinent issue when planning a trip to the Kenyan capital, although attacks are few and tourist hubs are heavily protected.
Nevertheless, provided you take precautions when travelling at night and in poorer suburbs, a visit to Nairobi can be an exhilarating experience and well worth spending a few days exploring before heading out on safari.