Twenty reasons to visit Nairobi

1. Out of Africa/

"I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." For fans of Danish author Karen Blixen and/or the 1985 movie Out of Africa, a visit to her former home in the suburb of Karen, 10 kilometres from Nairobi's city centre, can feel like a pilgrimage. In keeping with Blixen's love of storytelling, volunteer guides at Karen Blixen Museum tell you about her life and legacy as you wander the garden, before showing you through the house she called home between 1917 and 1931. The movie wasn't shot here (the rooms were too small for crew and cameras) but you'll see many of Blixen's belongings, from the gramophone Denys Finch-Hatton gave her to the Louis Vuitton trunk she brought from Denmark. See museums.or.ke 

2. Coffee with Karen

When too much Karen is barely enough: a few hundred metres up Karen Road from the Karen Blixen Museum, near the Karen Golf and Country Club, is Tamambo Karen Blixen Coffee Garden. Its wide verandah overlooking one of the most beautiful public gardens in Kenya, featuring jacarandas and eucalypt trees, is a delightful spot for a post-museum afternoon tea; it's also open for lunch and dinner. See karenblixencoffeegarden.com 

3. Baby elephants

Every 15 minutes, somewhere in Africa, an elephant is killed for its tusks. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi National Park raises young elephants orphaned by poaching and between 11am and noon you can see more than 20 of them romping around, kicking soccer balls and guzzling milk from giant bottles in a roped-off enclosure. The highlight is being able to touch their warm, hairy hides as they walk past. You can even foster one for $US50, the cost of its upkeep for a year. See sheldrickwildlifetrust.org 

4. Rolf's Place

One of Kenya's more eccentric expats was German chef, weightlifter and big-game hunter Rolf Schmid. He died in 2012, but his former home on the edge of Nairobi National Park is now a cliff-hugging restaurant and hotel accessible by suspension bridge over a rocky gorge. On a clear day you can see Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya from the patio, at night you might hear lions roar. The foyer is a time-capsule of colonial Kenya with ostrich-egg chandeliers and polo mallets, the menu a fusion of German and Kenyan cuisine: think Zanzibari fish followed by Black Forest cake. See rolfsplace.com

5. Antique souvenirs

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Seek out the dusty corners of Birds Paradise (sic) souvenir shop in Karen and behind the mass-produced wooden animals and Masai-beaded trinkets you'll find artefacts that would be more at home in a museum, and probably should be: antique bibles in ancient languages, Kikuyu passbooks from Kenya's years as a British colony, haunting tribal masks and spears. 

6. Giraffes in the city

Get a giraffe's view of the world at Nairobi's Giraffe Centre, where you can also hand-feed the world's tallest land mammals by placing small pellets on their long, black tongues. Or put a pellet between your lips for a sloppy giraffe "kiss". The small information centre has a section on amazing giraffe facts, such as: they have the same number of cervical vertebrae as humans and sleep for only 30 minutes a day. See giraffecenter.org 

7. Breakfast with giraffes

For a little bit of Downton Abbey in urban Kenya, check into this historic 10-room lodge next to the Giraffe Centre (rates from $US525 per person including all meals). There's a good chance you'll share your breakfast with one of the property's endangered Rothschild's giraffes that poke their heads through the french doors and in through the upstairs windows in search of snacks. See thesafaricollection.com/properties/giraffe-manor

8. Kibera slum

Africa's largest slum is a mud-brick and corrugated-iron maze that is home to 1.6 million people and no place for tourists – unless you go with a local. Then, it's fascinating, confronting and inspiring all at once. Three-hour walking tours (2500 Kenyan shillings, about $35, per person) show the positive side of Kibera – by introducing you to people who live, work and volunteer there – and raise money for community projects. See kiberatours.com

9. Mad minibuses

The Kibera slum tour ends with a short ride in a matatu, another Nairobi must-do. These pimped-up minibuses blaring local music and sometimes screening action movies are always, and never, full – even when there are two people to every seat, and perhaps a few chickens, the conductor hanging out the side door always finds room for more. A 10-minute journey costs 10 shillings (about 12¢). 

10. Tree-mail

Before TripAdvisor, facebook and email, travellers would attach messages and letters to the old acacia tree in the courtyard of Nairobi's legendary Thorn Tree Cafe, making it a regular stop on the Cairo to Cape Town overland route. It was also the inspiration for Lonely Planet's online Thorn Tree travel forum. The original tree is long gone, replaced by a succession of acacias since, but the cafe is still a hub for travellers, albeit well-heeled ones: it's now part of the 100-year-old Sarova Stanley hotel. See sarovahotels.com

11. Masai Markets

Nairobi's Masai Market is a great introduction to Kenya's Masai people and a handy souvenir-stop before leaving Kenya. It's held at a different shopping centre every day of the week, the largest and longest-running being the Village Market on Fridays (8am-6pm), where more than 350 colourfully dressed vendors sell jewellery, wood carvings, paintings and fabric. Bring Kenyan shillings in small denominations and someone who speaks Swahili, to help you haggle. 

See villagemarket-kenya.com

12. Gospel on the grass

Although it's right in the city centre, Uhuru Park is something of a local secret. This green space amid the office blocks is where Nairobians go to stroll, picnic and play football (Kenyans are huge fans of Manchester United). You might even catch an open-air church service or a few gospel singers practising hymns under the trees. Best visited in the daytime; like much of Nairobi, it's not safe after dark.

13. The cradle of mankind

Established in 1910, Nairobi National Museum was modernised in 2007 and although parts of it still look a bit neglected, it's worth a visit. Head for the Cycles of Life Hall, where artifacts from Kenya's 42 tribal cultures trace the human journey from birth to death; the Cradle of Humankind exhibit, with its room full of hominid skulls; the History of Kenya exhibit, which opened in 2010 on the museum's centenary; and the Birds of East Africa Gallery, where you can see more than 900 feathered specimens, from the tiniest speckled tinker-birds to enormous saddle-billed storks. See museums.or.ke 

14. Kenyan coffee

To call Nairobi Java House "the Starbucks of Kenya" isn't quite fair. Sure, it has 20 cafes strategically dotted all over the city (including two at Jomo Kenyatta international airport), but the "hand-roasted" Kenyan beans will satisfy even the most discerning coffee-lover, not to mention their freshly made breakfast waffles, pancakes and pastries – and free Wi-Fi. See nairobijavahouse.com 

15. Musical picnics

Time your visit to Nairobi for the first Sunday of the month, and you'll catch the city's monthly open-air music festival, Blankets and Wine, which celebrates its sixth anniversary this year (2015) and features popular and emerging Kenyan artists, writers, DJs and dancers performing in the grounds of The Carnivore restaurant. See blanketsandwine.com 

16. Hairstylin' 

Unless you have thick, wavy hair, there's little point visiting a hairdresser in this city – but that doesn't mean you can't admire their work. Stroll Nairobi's city streets and you'll rarely see the same "do" twice, from weaves and wigs, to cornrows and curls, topknots and dreads. In a country where few women wear make-up, Nairobi's women are all style, from the top down.

17. African stories

Named after the original Hay literary festival in Wales and now one of more than a dozen Hay festivals around the world, Nairobi's four-day Storymoja Hay Festival, an annual event held at Nairobi National Museum every September, is a joyous and cosmopolitan mash-up of ideas, art, storytelling, music, writing and innovation. See storymojahayfestival.com

18. The Carnivore

Vegetarians, look away. Exotic animals such as zebra and kudu might be off the menu now (for conservation reasons), but dinner at The Carnivore, Nairobi's most famous restaurant – and possibly its largest, with seating for 420 – is still a meat lover's dream. Take your seat and zebra-aproned waiters will come to you, bearing steaks of fire-roasted crocodile, ostrich and camel (as well as beef, chicken, pork and lamb) skewered on traditional Masai swords, serving your selection on sizzling iron plates – until you lower the white flag on your table and admit defeat. See tamarind.co.ke/carnivore

19. Colonial Kenya 

There's no shortage of places to revisit British East Africa in Nairobi. High on the list are the Lord Delamere Terrace at The Norfolk Hotel, the starting point for East African safaris in the early 1900s; the pink-and-white Muthaiga Country Club, a members-only club where gents are still expected to wear jackets and ties, and "ladies may not wear jeans or safari suits" after 7.30pm; and the Fairview Hotel, whose four restaurants include one by the pool (you'll need a jacket there too, for Nairobi's chilly, but malaria-free, nights). See fairmont.com, mcc.co.ke, fairviewkenya.com

20. The train to Mombasa

Leaving Nairobi can be part of your city experience too, aboard the Mombasa Deluxe train. The overnight rail journey to Kenya's coast is one of the world's last great rail journeys, and possibly one of the most leisurely: it takes 15 hours to travel 530 kilometres. A mere 4405 shillings (about $62) will get you a first-class cabin, a three-course dinner and a cooked breakfast. Wildlife viewing from the open windows with a cold Tusker beer in hand: priceless. See riftvalleyrail.com

The writer travelled at her own expense.

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