Kenya is an East African country with a complex history and diverse geography. Independence from Britain in 1963 allowed its distinct tribal identities to thrive, knit together by a common use of English. It’s a country that recognizes the economic worth of its exotic wildlife, and lets visitors get (almost) up close and (sometimes) personal with the animals. Although it’s located right on the equator, most of Kenya isn’t tropical because of its altitude. The capital, and largest city, Nairobi, is 5,890 feet above sea level—higher than Denver, Colorado, in the United States. There’s a glacier atop Mount Kenya, the continent’s second highest mountain, and the east coast lies along the Indian Ocean.
Day 1: Colonial past and colorful present
Nairobi is an accidental city, an urban center that grew around a work camp at Mile 237 of the Mombasa to Kampala railroad a bit more than a century ago. Start the day at the National Railway Museum to see where the contemporary history of this region began, then head into town for some retail therapy. Don’t expect to find the latest fashions from Paris here, but among the necessities of a bustling commercial downtown (banks, dry cleaners and coffee cafes) there are shops with African carvings, Maasai textiles and intricately beaded necklaces. Ask at your hotel for the location of the nearest artisan marketplace that day. Stop for a meal at the atmospheric Sarova Stanley Hotel (founded in 1902) and finish the day among the exhibits of the Nairobi National Museum.
Day 2: Wildlife safaris
What would Kenya be without wildlife? Within a half-dozen miles of downtown is the Nairobi National Park, a 44-square-mile preserve with lions, cape buffalo, rhino, ostrich, egret and more. Start off early so you’re there when the gates open at 6:30 a.m. (the best time to see the animals). Then head to the elephant orphanage at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and watch the staff bottle-feed the “toddlers,” most of whom were orphaned by ivory poachers. At the Giraffe Center, a breeding facility for the endangered Rothschild giraffe, visitors can climb a tower and hand-feed these gentle animals from a perch at giraffe-head-height. Warthogs scurry to scoop up any of the food pellets that fall to the ground.
Day 3: Get out of town
Consider a day trip to the heavily wooded and mountainous Aberdare National Park, Hell’s Gate National Park (marked by a distinctive volcanic column) or Mukuruene, the ancestral home of the Kikuyu tribe. A day trip to Mombasa on the Kenyan coast—just a one hour flight from Nairobi—lets you visit Fort Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.