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Nairobi History

Founded by the British as a dusty railway depot in 1890, the once marshy area was turned into a hub for the Uganda Railway, which connected Mombasa in the East with the rubber tappers of Kampala. What the early planners didn't realise was how popular Nairobi's elevated position and abundant water supplies would prove to be with settlers, who flocked there to establish properties where they could.

Nairobi's reputation for safari tourism began then too as the city established itself as a holiday resort for big-game hunters, with British authorities moving to cordon off and protect vast stretches of wilderness all over the country. It proved so popular that even Ernest Hemingway visited in a quest to bag some game.

Behind the scenes however, all was not as well. Black locals, already struggling under the burden of heavy taxes, became incensed when laws were passed in 1915 that restricted land ownership to whites only. Grievances continued to fester and when WWII ended, these flared into unrest, eventually leading to Kenyan independence in 1963. Nairobi was duly installed as the capital.

Post-independence, Nairobi continued to grow and remained enormously popular with tourists. Problems, however, arose as the city's rapid expansion overwhelmed its infrastructure, leading to the development of the vast Kibera slum. The situation was worsened by rampant government corruption and a heavy-handed response dealt out by former President Daniel Arap Moi to any sign of resistance to his rule. As a result the city began to suffer a spate of thefts and muggings, giving rise to Nairobi's nickname, Nairobbery.

Today, the Nairobbery stereotype still holds true, although things have improved for the residents of Kibera since the removal of Moi in 2002.

Problems still remain, not least in the threat posed by Islamic terrorists, but with tightened security staving off some of the danger, Nairobi remains one of Africa's most popular – and intriguing – capitals.

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Featured Hotels


Sarova Stanley

One of the most historic hotels in Nairobi, the Sarova Stanley first opened its doors in 1902, and boasts a rich history of famous former guests, among them Ernest Hemingway. Rooms are well appointed and soundproof, and there's a gym, sauna, rooftop pool and bar. Don't miss out on the legendary Thorn Tree Cafe either, a travellers' haunt since British times.

Nairobi Serena Hotel

One of the more elegant options in Nairobi, this sophisticated place draws on influences from across Africa, and the interiors are full of tribal sculptures, textiles and wooden furniture. The spotless rooms have marble bathrooms and views over the grounds and lush gardens. There is also a swimming pool, health club and shops. Although the hotel itself is very secure, adjacent Central Park and Uhuru Park are not safe to walk around at night.

Central YMCA

This is a well-appointed, central hostel in Nairobi. Good-value rooms, reasonable food, swimming pool, tennis courts and an aerobics studio make this feel more like a small hotel, and you don't have to be male or Christian to stay here.

Sentrim 680 Hotel

This reasonably priced mid-range hotel in Nairobi is in a decent location. It is a bit shabby and not much to look at, but is safe, has clean rooms with en-suite bathrooms, useful facilities, a restaurant and its own bar. Rooms facing the main road can cop a bit of noise, so ask for one at the back.

Upper Hill Campsite

Part campsite for overland groups, part backpacker hostel, this expansive place is a hike from the centre of Nairobi, but it makes up for this with excellent facilities. Staff can organise all sorts of safaris and excursions, and the spacious, secure compound has its own bar, restaurant and games room.

Terminal Hotel

A good-value alternative to the backpacker crash pads, the Terminal Hotel in Nairobi is simple but well located. You get what you pay for in terms of luxuries, but the rooms have bathrooms and you can walk to everything in the centre. Ask for a room at the back, away from the street noise.