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Discover These Hidden Treasures in Nairobi

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It is a city also known as the Safari capital of the world, owing to the fact that you can immerse yourself in a full-blown wild safari right in the confines of the city. While this, for the most part, defines Nairobi, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are other attractions within the largest city in East Africa that will blow your mind, so why don’t we just focus on them for now?

Nairobi Gallery

This one is right within the C.B.D. It is located at the intersection of Kenyatta Avenue and Uhuru Highway in the heart of the city. The old, antique-like building it is housed in was an old Provincial Commissioner’s office. It came to being in 1913 and was referred to then as  ‘Hatches, Matches and Dispatches’ because of the births, marriages, and deaths that were recorded here.

In 1939, a memorial monument (Point Zero) was erected in honour of Douglas Galton-Fenzi, the first man to drive between Nairobi and Mombasa. This monument was located a few meters away since it could not fit in the atrium of this building.

“Point Zero,” an octagonal atrium in the centre of the building, is graced with a display of a Clay Vessel by Lady Magdalene Odundo, the only Kenyan to have received the distinction of OBE from the Queen of England for her works. The surrounding rooms house the Murumbi African Heritage Collection from all over Africa. Two of the rooms also have two old safes installed in the building for storing the documents recorded here during colonial times.

The Murumbi African Heritage collection was moved from the Kenya National Archives in June 2013, becoming the major attraction of the works exhibited here.  This collection showcases ancient sculptures, paintings, and artifacts of daily use from diverse African cultures, highlighting the organization and creativity of these cultures, and how they evolved as they came into contact with other civilizations over the course of history. Artifacts from Joseph & Sheila Murumbi’s personal life are also on display in one of the rooms in the Nairobi Gallery. As the second Vice President of Post-Independent Kenya, Joseph Murumbi was a key player in the shaping of Kenya’s history.

Temporary exhibitions include Dreaming in Pictures by painter Jak Katarikawe and the Hazina Traditions, Trade and Transitions in Eastern Africa exhibition with the British Museum.

Nairobi Snake Park

This is for Herpetologists and anybody else interested in snakes and reptiles from East Africa. Nairobi Snake Park is located adjacent to the more popular Nairobi National Museum. It was started with the aim of creating a unique attraction while simultaneously providing a research facility focusing on reptiles and breeding of snakes.

The park does contain some impressive snake species. These include the puff adder, the black mamba, Egyptian Cobra, African rock python and Gaboon viper (with 4-cm long fangs, the longest in the world). There are also some local fish species, lizards, turtles, and some crocodiles. Other programmes here include an octopus exhibition, interactive sessions with harmless reptiles and amphibians, as well as an exhibition of the birds of the snake park.

Ngong Hills

Here, you go for a hike that is simply out of this world. The hills are to be found 22 kilometers southwest of Nairobi in the Ngong Forest Reserve. The whole mountain range is a gazetted forest reserve covering an area of over 21,000 sq km. The highest peak on the knuckle-shaped hills stands at 2460 meters above sea level. Sure, it is not the world famous behemoth Kilimanjaro or steep Kenya, but it will still take your breath away, literally.

The hiking trail on the Ngong Hills starts from Ngong Town at the northern foot of the hills which is 1961 meters above sea level while traversing the top edge of the range to the southern end at Kona Baridi. This takes about 4 to 5 hours to complete, depending on fitness levels. The first 2 kilometers from Ngong Police Station are a gradual ascent through human settlements until you get to a Kenya Forest Service barrier indicating the start of the Ngong Hills Forest Reserve. From here, you go past a wind farm before climbing the first steep hill leading to an area populated with radio repeater station masts. The trail thins out and descents into a trough before you climb the next steep hill. Just when you think the worst is over, the rolling hills seem to keep popping up, with each taking its toll on you.

Thankfully, the views all round are magnificent making the effort worthwhile. On a lucky day, you are likely to encounter buffalos around the fourth hill, on account of the abundant bushes at these higher altitudes on the range. To your right is a fantastic view of the Great Rift Valley, while on the far left is a view of the City of Nairobi.

Oloolua Nature Trail

This little gem is situated in the up-market Karen suburb. It is 250 hectares of indigenous tropical dry Oloolua forest. which doubles as the home to Institute of Primate Research. The 5-km long trail was established by the National Museums of Kenya, which runs the biomedical research facility. The trail and the forest are perfect for one looking for a quick getaway from the hustle and the bustle of the city.

The trail meanders through the thick forest vines and undergrowth below giant indigenous trees and bushes, following the course of Mbagathi River in some places. This is the river that cuts through the forest. Giant riverside bamboo stands keep calling you to descend some rickety stairs to the river and rest on the benches built under the bamboo, all while watching the crystal clear waters flow. This is even made more spectacular by the nearby resting and fluttering of chirping birds.

A 33-meter long cave lies further along the trail close to to the river. Inside is a dark subterranean world which takes you through numerous underground caverns that are said to have once been home to Mau Mau freedom fighters during Kenya’s colonial period.  A thick pile of guano underfoot and the occasional disturbance of bats flitting past you bring to your attention the existence of a bat colony within.

There is a papyrus swamp further down the river that offers a glimpse into the rich biodiversity of this indigenous forest. Hereon, the trail climbs out of the river valley, bursting upon glades bathed in bright sunlight occasionally before clawing back under the canopy of the cool forest cover.

A standout attraction here is the spectacular 20-foot waterfall near the forest entrance.  As you pick your way along the trail to the waterfall, you’ll go past a wooden tower that was constructed some years back for viewing a Crowned Eagle’s nest that was situated nearby.  Scientists used this tower to study the Crowned Eagle’s behavior in its natural habitat. Sadly, human activities and settlements close to the forest have resulted in the birds migrating from this haven.

The trail is a perfect as a picnic site and it can also double as a secure campsite, right within the confines of the city.

Nairobi Railway Museum

This one is smack in the middle of the city and packs a punch when it comes to fascinating history. The museum is situated in the north-west end of the Nairobi Railway Station (the old one, not the new standard gauge one situated in the city outskirts). Situated in the north-west end of the station, it can be seen from the Uhuru Highway where it crosses the main line. The museum was established in 1971 by the then East African Railways and Harbours Corporation to preserve and display relics and records of the railways of East Africa from their inception to the present day. In addition to the collection of steam locomotives and rolling stock, there is a large display of smaller exhibits and models.

The museum was founded by its first curator, Mr. Fred Jordan, who had been working with railways in East Africa since 1927. His main motivation for the museum was the need to preserve as many links with the past as possible after realising the speed at which changes were taking place on the railway system. He began to gather items that were to from the core of the present-day museum’s fascinating and ever-growing collection.

The museum is a resource-ready center for questions on the early history of the rail and Kenya’s development. It consists of the main gallery, the resource center, the auditorium, and an outdoor collection of locomotives, wagons, and coaches.

The Museum is still rail-connected, allowing restored locomotives access to the main line for working steam excursions.

With the privatisation of Kenya Railways, the museum and exhibits have been transferred to the guardianship of the National Museum of Kenya. The curator of the museum is now Maurice Barasa, an anthropologist by training, and someone who brings expertise in museum management. His father was a stationmaster on Kenya Railways, so he has a family connection with his new duty. He is keen to see more steam tourist trains and will have meetings with Rift Valley Railways in due course regarding making formal arrangements for steam operation and promotion.

Toi Market

When it comes to shopping in Nairobi, their is the popular roving Maasai Market and the sprawling malls, and then there is Toi Market. The market is situated behind Adam’s Arcade and it is a perfect place for bargains and even some chic retro pieces.

Here, you get the latest in fashion without breaking the bank.  Groceries, shoes, clothes, bags, furniture, or jewelry – they have it all.

Toi Market is one of the largest informal markets in Nairobi with over 5,000 traders.  It is Nairobi’s most famous market for second-hand clothes aside from Gikomba. Initially, Toi Market used to be an exclusive baby clothing market, but it has now turned out to have a balance between both sexes and all age groups.

Just show up with your best bargaining face, move from vendor to vendor sampling the products, and before long you will find a gem.

GoDown Arts Centre

In otherwise chaotic Nairobi’s industrial area stands an artsy building. It is the GoDown Arts Centre, a former car repair warehouse. In 2003, it was converted into what is now an exemplary art center housing  over a dozen nonprofit art organizations, offering subsidized rent on artists’ studios and office space, as well as access to rehearsal studios, a black- box theater, exhibition gallery, and even a small cafe.

The brightly painted studios and public spaces behind GoDown’s entrance gates are full of life and it is where you will find all manner of artistes. Acrobats practise on a corner whilst painters lay their canvases on another part. It is a buzz of activities, and visitor here will be amazed by the home of Nairobi’s emerging art scene.

Nyama Choma

Feasting on nyama choma, grilled meat, is the pride and joy and easily one of the best things to do in Nairobi. Chunks of roasted goat sliced on a cutting board before you and accompanied by a pile of salt, some pili pili (chili) and kachumbari (tomatoes and onions) is simply amazing.

Now, finding good nyama choma is tricky. It is so popular that every hotel claims to cook the best. There are a few standouts, though, and for the purpose of time, we will highlight two. The first one is Nyama Mama, a fun, modern-day African roadside diner, as they describe themselves. They are great in Kenyan food with ingenious twists and their nyama is fingerlicking good.

The second outlet for nyama choma is The Carnivore (the name seems to be a dead giveaway). It is located on the edge of Nairobi National Park in the Langata suburb. It does serve exotica such as crocodile, ostrich, and camel, but their nyama choma is to die for. The meat is grilled over coals on a sword and carved directly onto your plate. Unbeatable.

Nairobi Arboretum

It is not as famous or large as its well-known cousin, Karura Forest, but it sure is breathtaking. The Nairobi Arboretum is an area of Nairobi set aside as a forest reserve. It is filled with beautiful plant life and scenery. It was founded in 1907 by Mr. Battiscombe in a bid to try out new forestry trees and it was later gazetted as a national reserve in 1932 by the colonial government.

Today, it is a protected 30-hectare forest reserve holding over 350 species of indigenous and exotic plants, most of them labeled for educational purposes. It’s also home to over 100 species of birds, and a significant population of Sykes and Vervet monkeys.

It has paved walkways and park benches, making famed tree walk tours a breeze. To cap it off, it is a walking distance from the city centre.

McMillan Memorial Library

The oldest library in Nairobi deserves a mention. It was established in 1931 in memory of Lord William Northrup McMillan by his widow. Lord MacMillan was an American big game hunter in Kenya who owned Ol Donyo Sabuk and the areas surrounding the mountain during the colonial era. It was initially reserved for use by the European community only, until it was taken over by the Nairobi City Council in 1962, and is now the headquarters of the Nairobi City Library Services.

The library houses an Africana section with some rare books, as well as a periodicals section with newspapers and journals dating back as far as 1906.

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