6 Ways to Experience Nairobi Culture

Not-to-be-missed sights and activities in Kenya’s vibrant city

By Google Arts & Culture

River Road by Tom MboyaGoDown Arts Centre

Nairobi is the capital of Kenya and is the largest city in the country. In Swahili (or Kiswahili, as it’s referred to locally), the city name means “place of cool waters,” referring to the Nairobi River that runs through the city. Whether you want to experience a major, modern city of over three million people or be whisked back to the ancient past of Africa by standing on the plains of the Serengeti or the edge of the Great Rift Valley (both of which are close by), the diverse and vibrant city of Nairobi has it all.

Explore these six ways to experience Nairobi culture...

Mama Plastic by Patrick MukabiGoDown Arts Centre

Maasai Market at Village Market Mall

The longest-running and perhaps most traditional Maasai Market in Nairobi is the one held on Fridays at the Village Market Mall in the northern part of Nairobi. Kenyan brothers Hamed and Mehraz Ehsani created the Village Market Mall with the objective of giving locals, tourists, and ex-pats a recreational area for gathering.

The market hall has expanded to 15 times the originally planned size and scope, now hosting initiatives such as the Maasai Market, which features over 400 artisans who specialize in ethnic relics such as iron sculptures, batik textile prints, and paintings. This lively center also hosts performances from local musicians and weekly art exhibitions to showcase up and coming talent.

Toile making by Manuella NumforOriginal Source: Mcensal School of Fashion and Design

Mcensal School of Fashion and Design

If you have an interest in fashion, you might want to see the latest fashion designs that have come out of the Mcensal School of Fashion and Design. It’s one of the most prestigious colleges in Kenya, known for producing alumnae ready to revolutionize runways. Mcensal’s mission is to nurture talent beyond the fundamental art of tailoring and get their students to think about design, branding, and more.

African Heritage publicity photoAfrican Heritage House

African Heritage House

Overlooking Nairobi National Park is the African Heritage House. Founded in the early 1970s by former U.S. State Department relief officer Alan Donovan, the house is home to over 6,000 distinct pieces of traditional art and crafts from all over Africa.

Here visitors can find items of African handiwork such as Kamba beadwork (made by the Kamba tribe of Kenya), elaborate masks (from the Ibo, in Nigeria), ceremonial daggers carved by the Bakuba people of the Congo, Ase Oke (hand-woven cloths by the Yoruba men), and plenty more heritage pieces.

LivelyhoodsThe Index Project

Nairobi Street Food

A natural and logical extension of artistic culture in Nairobi is the exciting and colorful food scene to be found there. The most well-known cuisine in Kenya is Nyama Choma, which means, quite simply, “barbecued or roasted meats.” While Nyama Choma is the regional cuisine for which Nairobi — and Kenya more broadly — is best known, the expansion of Nairobi as a truly global city has led to an infusion of flavors from around the world. This has resulted in a hybrid fusion of European, Pan-Asian, and African cuisines that are sure to delight the palate of any hungry traveler to the Kenyan Capital.

The tradition of eating this barbecued meat is one that has survived for generations, as Kenyans relied heavily on hunting. Typically, you will find the men of Nairobi cooking the meat directly over an open flame, but the process is not your ordinary barbecue.

Kenyans have a special technique of cooking the meat where the fat creates a layer of insulation, rendering the inside moist, tender, and cooked to smoked perfection. Nyama Choma is now often seen as a “street food” but the skill involved in preparation was once only reserved for special occasions and communal celebrations.

The GoDown Main Space by The GoDown Arts CentreGoDown Arts Centre

GoDown Arts Center

For a more modern take on the thriving arts scene in Nairobi, you don't need to look further than the GoDown Arts Center, founded in 2003 in what was formerly warehouse for car repairs. Intended to showcase the wide range of creativity and artistic expression of Kenyan and East African artists across many different mediums, GoDown boasts over 10,000 meters of space dedicated to supporting contemporary art in this region of Africa.

Inner Africa Laid Open (1852/1852) by William Densborough CooleyKenya National Archives

Kenya National Archive

Another museum of vital importance to the history of Africa is the Kenya National Archives, located in Nairobi and founded in 1965 around the time of Kenyan Independence. With over 40,000 archival records and documents stretching back to the colonial period in Kenya, the National Archives are an incredible repository of artifacts essential to preserving the history of Kenya and Africa.

Bokolo (1975/1975) by Bruce OnobrakpeyaKenya National Archives

Acclaimed by many as one of Africa's greatest living artists, Bruce Onobrakpeya’s work is on display at the museum. He is known as an innovator of unique artistic techniques, including plastograph – a technique invented by Onobrakpeya by accident when he dropped glue on zinc plates, which had an interesting reaction to the elements of the metal, forming a unique textural effect which he has since used as a hallmark style.

Shanty Town by Charles NgatiaGoDown Arts Centre

Today, Nairobi boasts a thriving and diverse contemporary cultural scene, with markets, fashion schools, street food, and more that show what the vibrant Kenyan city has to offer.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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