The streets of this shambling city have seen their share of suffering. With political corruption and violence monopolizing headlines, the promising drumbeat of a nascent arts scene and the return of a renewed tourism sector have gone all but unnoticed. But listen closely. “Nairobi is more buzzing than ever,” says Nairobian film producer Mia Collis. With a new constitution, the hallmarks of a democracy and the promise of more on the horizon, Nairobi’s streets, once fields of fire, are blossoming with arts spaces, new hotels, chic restaurants and country-proud designers.
Modern Nairobi Hotels
Since opening in 2009, the 137-room Tribe Hotel (rooms, from $245; Limuru Rd., The Village Market, Gigiri; 524-20/720-0000; tribehotel.com) has been one of the most popular spots among locals and visitors alike. Owned by two well-connected Kenyan families, the hotel is unexpectedly sleek and modern, with loft-like rooms that feature bamboo-wood floors, chrome chandeliers and sandstone brick walls. It’s also connected to The Village Market (owned by one of the hoteliers), East Africa’s largest shopping complex, with more than 150 stores and 20-plus restaurants. And the Tribe is still growing: A new spa opened last year, and Jiko, a restaurant with a focus on organic meat, game, fruit and vegetables from Nairobi’s top farms, opens in September. The menu includes tiger shrimp with wild leeks and local lamb marinated in fresh rosemary and served with a red wine sauce.
Farther afield, on the outskirts of the city, the “barefoot luxury” boutique hotel Ngong House (rooms, from $280; 60 Ndovu Rd.; 254-20/891-856; ngonghouse.com), an elegant compound of tree houses and cabins on a lush ten acres, has been joined by a new one, Hogmead (rooms, from $300; Kikenni Rd.; 254-71/257-9999; hogmead.com), which opened in June. Neighboring what was once photographer Peter Beard’s property, the beautiful six-room manor has been restored to its mahogany-and-white-plaster glory. Guests are hosted by old Africa hand Jay Macleod in elegant sitting rooms and patios with sweeping views of the abutting giraffe sanctuary and the warthog families that scurry about the grounds.
The 29,000-acre Nairobi National Park is home to giraffes, rhinos, lions and crocs. For the truly obsessed, the newly refurbished Giraffe Manor, on the nearby Giraffe Centre property, has six en-suite bedrooms, and the charm here has always been the free-roaming giraffes (and warthogs) that are part of the landscape. Rooms start at $440; Koitobos Rd.; 254-731/914-732; giraffemanor.com.
Blue Helmets, Cotton Sarongs
The northern suburb of Gigiri is known for being home to Nairobi’s U.N. headquarters and the U.S. embassy, but it’s also home to the city’s most fashionable shopping. At Adèle Dejak (adeledejak.com), a boutique in The Village Market, Dejak offers colorful jewelry, bags and sandals made with local materials like bakuba (cloth produced from raffia palm leaves), leather and horn.
The real finds, however, show up every Friday at the brimming Masai Market. Endless stalls of handcrafted goods brought by elegant tribesmen present traditional East African kikois (cotton sarongs), woven bags and masks carved from jacaranda trees. After a day of shopping, follow the expat trail to Sophie Kinyua’s all-day brunch spot River Café (Limuru Rd.; 254-722/706-272) or the ever-buzzy Café des Arts (U.N. Ave.; 254-20/712-3000; cafedesarts.co.ke), which serves Nairobi’s best organic cuisine, like mushroom fricassee and grilled tuna steak.
Though you can find Kitengela glass stores in Nairobi, it’s worth the bumpy drive to the suburban gallery and workshop of Kitengela artist Nani Croze (Magadi Rd.; kitengela-glass.com). You’ll find tree house studios and buildings, walkways and a swimming pool covered entirely in her Gaudi-esque glass mosaics. Croze and her team of workers craft colorful stained-glass doors, Dalle de Verre windows and sculptures, all from recycled glass. Next door, her son, Anselm, has his own glassblowing dome, where he makes pieces in whimsical colors. The Kitengela compound also offers four bungalows (rooms, from $55; kitengela-glass.com), whose guests have included the king and queen of Sweden and Kofi Annan’s wife, Nane Lagergren.
New African Art Now
African art is often filed under the “primitive art” curatorial catchall. Nairobi’s art scene is anything but. At the Kuona Trust (Likoni Close, Likoni Ln.; kuonatrust.org), a collective run by Danda Jaroljmek, local artists share rent-subsidized studios and show their work at the newly opened exhibition space. Nearby, prominent dealer Carol Lees reopened the One Off Gallery (16 Rosslyn Lone Tree; 254-722/521-870) last year on a gorgeous five-acre property. You’ll find work by Kenya’s more established artists like Patrick Mukabi and Timothy Brooke. “The art here,” says Lees, “is far more sophisticated than the tourist artifacts that are usually the expectation from this region.”
Westlands, an upscale area ten minutes north of the city center, is home to Nairobi’s burgeoning restaurant row. Kenyan cuisine is heavily influenced by South Asian, Arab and European cooking, and all are given due space in Westlands’ kitchens. At Westgate Mall (Mwanzi Rd.)—mall culture in Kenya is popular and lacks the American stigma—the newly opened Onami (254-713/328-688; onami.co.ke), a high-end Japanese-Thai fusion hot spot, is decorated in black stone and glass and serves the city’s best sushi, like the tuna and snapper caught daily in the Indian Ocean. ArtCaffe (254-713/328-688), with its white-tiled bar and high stools, dimly lit wooden tables and rustic wine carafes, wouldn’t look out of place in New York’s NoLIta, though its patrons—bobo Nairobi hipsters—are decidedly more international. Owned by local Israelis, ArtCaffe’s food edges toward Mediterranean (thin-crust pizzas, hummus).
A few blocks away, at Muhibbah (Woodvale Grove; 254-204/208-000; sankara.com), in the newly opened design hotel Sankara, chef Gaetano Sgroi serves Vietnamese-style roast duck and cocktails like the Siam Mule (vodka, lemongrass, basil, ginger beer and locally grown passion fruit). Sgroi uses only produce and meats grown by Kenyan farmers.
For the diehard expat or the homesick, the off-the-beaten-path gem Le Rustique (General Mathenge Dr.; 254-20/375-3081; lerustique.co.ke), an Italian food restaurant meets bakery meets wine shop, offers alfresco dinners and a bit of Tuscany in the bush.
In Nairobi, one of the fastest growing African cities, recycling isn’t just necessary—it’s fashionable, too. Irish-born Penny Winter, formerly a costume maker at the Royal Shakespeare Company, turns castoff materials from local markets (brass buttons, antique lace) into hand-loomed clothing worn by, among others, Princess Caroline of Monaco. In 2001, Winter opened her first boutique in Ngong House, the tree house lodge she owns with her husband, Paul Verleysen (Ngong Rd., Langata; 254-73/361-1565; pennywinter.com). Meanwhile, local designers Julie Johnstone and Tahreni Bwanaali have founded UniquEco, a company that turns used flip-flops—which wash up in frighteningly high quantities on Kenya’s shores—into clever art, bright toys and stylish jewelry and bags. The items are sold at Marula Studios (Marula Ln., Karen; marulastudios.com) in the bohemian neighborhood named after Karen Blixon, author of Out of Africa.
Happy Valley Haunts
Revisit the life of the British colonists, so brilliantly depicted in James Fox’s 1987 novel White Mischief, at Lord Delamere Terrace in Fairmont The Norfolk Hotel (Harry Thuku Rd.; 888-451-7070; fairmont.com), which has all the nostalgia of those days when Delamere himself was dining there. There’s also Sarova Stanley Hotel’s Exchange Bar (254-20/276-7000; sarovahotels.com), located at the original site of the Nairobi Stock Exchange (1954–1991). Famous patrons included Ernest Hemingway and Clark Gable.
Anna Trzebinski Concept Store
Long a Kenyan design superstar, Trzebinski just expanded her boutique in Nairobi’s Karen neighborhood into a full-on concept store. Here you’ll find her feather-and-bead pashminas ($1,150), interpretations of traditional Masai jewelry ($300), unique bags ($650) and homewares ($145). Visitors can peek into the studio, where her team busily beads and sews, and view the monumental paintings (from $9,500) by her late husband, artist Tonio Trzebinski. At 94 Kikeni Ln.; annatrzebinski.biz.
Godown Arts Centre
A Q&A with Joy Mboya, executive director
Located in a former auto body shop, GoDown houses more than a dozen nonprofit arts organizations and offers subsidized rent on artist and rehearsal studios, a black-box theater, a gallery and a restaurant. This has become Nairobi’s hub for experimental theater, music and TV (it’s also home to the political satire puppet performance The XYZ Show). The Wasanii restaurant is where all the Kenyan thespians hang out after a performance or a reading.
Why Nairobi now?
The expansion of democratic space in Kenya in recent years has spurred creative expression, which has been further catalyzed by funding support from various Western foundations and by growing local demand for homegrown talent.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
I love the work coming out of the Ketebul Music studios, which is based at the GoDown, like Suzanna Owiyo, Makadem and Winyo. Eric Wainaina, a massively gifted musician, is another favorite. There is a raw, experimental energy in the contemporary dance world that keeps you guessing about the potential of this relatively young art form in Kenya.
How should a visitor approach GoDown?
Pop in for an hour or so. There are several artists based here. They’re friendly and open to chatting with visitors. Usually you’ll be able to look in on a rehearsal. This September, there’s a ten-week pan-African dance lab. At Industrial Area; thegodownartscentre.com.