Although it's not widely marketed as a tourist destination, Nairobi sees an inordinate number of foreign visitors and definitely doesn't lack for engaging attractions. While there are museums and other references to the nation's history, you'll almost inevitably want to devote the lion's share of your time here to one or two of Nairobi's dedicated animal sanctuaries, and perhaps even head out on a brief but rewarding safari through the city's very own national park. In some ways, a cultural safari through the city center is even more of an adventure, even if you just spend an hour or two getting a feel for the contrasts and paradoxes and try out a local restaurant or coffee shop where you'll be surrounded by local people rather than by tourists. There's no order or singular purpose in visiting here, but it's a chance to see how modern developments have impacted an ambitious Third World capital. Many people are surprised by the sheer volume of soulless modern edifices -- gleaming mirror-glass office towers that seem utterly incongruous with the bushlands that lie right on the city's doorstep. This is largely the result of a wide-reaching post-independence building spree that saw the majority of colonial-era buildings replaced. At the same time, you're likely to be as surprised by the number of open spaces and parks in the center of the city, including Central and Uhuru parks, which are hardly spaces you'd want to spend any time in. One small park you may be interested in visiting is the American Embassy Memorial Garden, a leafy wall-protected space on the site of the embassy that was bombed in 1998. At the other end of Moi Avenue, Jeevanjee Gardens is considered Nairobi's equivalent of Speaker's Corner -- visit here, and you'll likely hear all kinds of weird and wonderful sermonizing by self-styled preachers-in-the-park.

While you may find that sipping a cold Tusker in one of the city's open-air bars or on the Norfolk Hotel's terrace is a sufficient sampling of Nairobi's day-to-day life, if you're interested, you will discover that, between the brutal business blocks, there are a few fascinating stops -- the city market (which looks like some bizarre latter-day temple, on Mbingu St.), for one, is a whirlwind of salesmanship, worrying odors, and eye-catching crafts, while the city's over-abundant churches are breathtaking for the sheer quantity of concrete used in their construction. At one busy traffic roundabout, the number of bland modern church buildings (and one synagogue) has earned the moniker "God's Corner"; ironically, in a mirror-glass high-rise nearby, the city's first male strip club has long drawn bevies of hard-partying, liberated women. Monuments and memorial statues dot the city's public spaces, and you can gawk at Kenya's parliament, go train-spotting at the Railway Museum, or bribe your way to the top floor of the Kenyatta International Conference Centre for the most fulfilling bird's-eye view of the entire city. None of this is likely to over-fascinate you unless you have a genuine interest in the city's dynamics, and even then you might find better rewards by going on a Sunday outing to the Ngong Hills Racecourse, where the mix of heavy-betting punters and horse enthusiasts ensures that there's never a dull moment -- and you might even win some money if you're willing to fill out a race card.

But for the average short visit to Nairobi, you'll probably want to limit your exploration to one or two picks from the attractions below, and then cap off your day with a top-class meal at the Talisman or Blanco's; then, if you have the energy (and a long-suffering taxi driver), join the party set and boogie the night away at Mercury Lounge.

advertisement

Nairobi's Architectural Diva

It's said to be the most photographed house in Africa, rising from the parched plains of Nairobi's outskirts like an architectural mirage. Overlooking Nairobi National Park, and with views of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, African Heritage House (www.africanheritagebook.com) was actually designed by an American, Alan Donovan, a former bureaucrat from Colorado whose love of the continent started at an early age. He made wildlife scrapbooks as a child and designed jewelry based on tribal ornaments that he encountered on his travels through Africa after he ditched his job as a bureaucrat sent to Nigeria during the Biafran War. His African Heritage House is similarly inspired by the monumental mud architecture he'd seen 20 years before in Nigeria and Mali. Naturally, the mud mosque tradition strongly influences the nine-room African mansion, but so do the architecture of coastal Kenya and the sculptural house styles of northern Nigeria and southern Morocco. And, inside, Donovan's African handicrafts make up one of the finest private collections of this kind in the world. The house, with its hand-painted ceilings and walls, and extensive African art, artifacts, and ornamentation, certainly lives up to its name; it's a look that's lavish and original enough to have graced the cover of Marie Claire and has long been a popular choice for fashion shoots, architecture spreads, and all kinds of television programs. It never pretends to be a traditional African house or structure, but is a fabulous (if somewhat ostentatious) homage to the building traditions and creative diversity of Africa.

If you have any desire to see how "African luxe" should look, then this is an essential stop during your time in Nairobi. The house is available for tours, meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the rooftop or by the refreshing pool), as well as overnight stays in its luxurious rooms (with modern appointments). Accommodations cost $265 double (with breakfast and a tour of the house). Otherwise, tours must be prearranged and cost a minimum of Ksh2,500 for up to five people, including tea and coffee. You can also organize a house tour combined with rooftop lunch or sundowner dinner for Ksh2,500 per person; the chance to see the sun disappear behind the famed Ngong Hills is worth planning for. If you want to arrange this yourself, you can call Alan at tel. 072/151-8389, also useful if your taxi driver doesn't know the route (which has changed recently).

advertisement

For some, the mélange of African textiles, masonry, wood, weaponry, pottery, art, and furnishings may prove too much, but the eclectic willfulness of what's been assembled and the dutiful manner in which the collector has paid homage to Africa is definitely worth seeing. In a way, the house is a grown-up rendition of those early scrapbooks, testament to an enduring love affair with the continent's endlessly fascinating colors, textures, patterns, and designs, synthesized and blended in a refreshing way. It'll more than likely change the way you see Africa and hopefully inspire in you a better understanding "of the irreducible modernity of African crafts."

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.