Kenya has long been known as “big-game” country, synonymous with safaris and home to the must-see Masai Mara wildebeest migration, Kenya delivers top-notch game viewing as well as enticing tropical beach holidays.
With over 40 parks and game reserves, Kenya has long been known as “big-game” country. Kenya has always viewed its wildlife as a national treasure. And the movie “Out of Africa” did much to cement the romance of Kenya in our minds. A diverse country, Kenya offers many rewards for the first-time, as well as the seasoned, safari traveller. Magnificent wildlife, excellent accommodations, palm-fringed beaches and a warm and friendly population await you. An infinite landscape of varying climates, Kenya is punctuated by two distinct rainy seasons from April to May and late November to December. Discover the dramatic Rift Valley and its soda lakes, snow-capped mountains on the Equator, the gigantic Lake Victoria and the beach-lined coast with its magical islands. Encounter the greatest concentration of free-ranging wildlife on earth and explore the customs of the proud Masai people. It is in this intoxicating region that the notion of the Swahili word “safari”, meaning “to journey”, was born.
Independence from Britain in 1963 may have been the beginning of a new chapter for Kenya but this East African country has a human history that stretches back to prehistoric times.
Lying at the heart of a region from which modern humans emerged some 150 000 years ago, Kenya’s history has been shaped not only by indigenous and migrating African ethnic groups but by European and Arabian traders, missionaries and colonisers as well. Jomo Kenyatta was the first leader of independent, post-colonial Kenya and his conciliatory rallying cry harambee – all pull together – became the national motto.
Today, Kenya boasts the largest and most advanced economy in East Africa. Agriculture accounts for 75% of the work force but it is the service industry, dominated by tourism, which contributes nearly two thirds of Kenya’s GDP.
People & Culture
Kenya’s predominantly young population (nearly 75% of Kenyans are under 30) is made up of many ethnic groups that include the famous Maasai. English and Swahili are the official languages (any attempts to speak Swahili will be warmly received by locals!) and the vast majority of Kenyans consider themselves Christian. About 10% of the population are Muslim, the majority living on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast.
Landscape & Wildlife
Straddling the equator, Kenya is dominated by the Rift Valley, a raised region of lakes, hills and mountains that is the result of a 6 000km crack in the earth’s crust. Dividing the flat coastal plains from the fertile shores of Lake Victoria, the rolling temperate grasslands of the central Rift Valley are home to huge numbers of animals and consequently Kenya’s most famous parks and reserves.
Northern Kenya’s hot and arid scrublands are home to wilder, more remote parks and a different set of animals while the Indian Ocean coast is a place of long sandy beaches, coral reefs and tropical islands.
Most famous for the wildebeest migration that moves through the Masai Mara and Serengeti ecosystem, Kenya’s ban on hunting plus private and local community conservation initiatives have helped to safeguard one of Africa’s most important populations of large animals. There are healthy numbers of the Big 5, abundant predators and plains game, and a long list of bird species. No wonder then that several Kenyan parks deliver the easiest game viewing in Africa!
Massed herds of migrating wildebeest, red-robed tribesmen and flamingo-carpeted lakes: you can’t get much more of a classic East African experience than when on a Kenya safari.
Home to the iconic Masai Mara and a wide range of other safari and beach holiday destinations, Kenya’s ‘Out of Africa’ scenic beauty, diverse cultures and abundant wildlife means it is an ideal destination for both first-time and seasoned safari travellers.
There is also a wide range of Kenya family holidays that offer special activities and services for children, while Kenya’s exclusive hideaways will delight romantics and make for an unforgettable Kenya honeymoon. And it’s not just about a safari: Kenya has miles of dazzling beaches and a scattering of remote Indian Ocean islands to complete the broad appeal.
You’ll be in good hands when on safari in Kenya: one of the originators of the traditional African luxury safari, Kenya has long offered high standards of accommodation and service, and there is a great mix of lavish, colonial-style lodges, funky boutique hotels and amenity-packed resorts to choose from.
Equally diverse is the range of Kenya safari tours: keep things simple with a scheduled package or create your own dream itinerary with the help of our Kenya safari experts. And don’t forget that with Nairobi as the logistics hub of the region, it’s easy to combine Kenya with other East African safari and beach destinations as well – gorilla trekking, Zanzibar and the Serengeti can all be easily added onto a Kenya safari or take your pick from a selection of Kenya and Tanzania safari combinations.
Our top places to visit in Kenya:
- Masai Mara – wildebeest migration & year-round game viewing
- Tsavo National Park – game viewing close to Kenya’s beaches
- Lamu Island – classic barefoot luxury beach experience
– family resorts & luxury lodges
- Amboseli National Park – the best views of Mount Kilimanjaro
- Samburu National Reserve – particularly good for leopard sightings
- Aberdare National Park – spectacular mountain and rainforest landscapes
The Masai Mara is where to go in Kenya for the dramatic wildebeest migration but there’s a great deal more to this East African country. Other classic big game destinations such as Amboseli and Tsavo are easily accessible as is the recently opened-up Laikipia Plateau region. And after the drama of a Kenya safari, what could be better than a few lazy days on a white-sand beach? Kenya’s tropical coast offers everything from buzzing resorts to exclusive island hideaways making the country ideal for safari and beach vacations.
Nairobi: East Africa’s logistics hub.
With the majority of our Kenya safaris starting or ending in Nairobi, a stopover in this city is almost inevitable. International visitors will fly into Jomo Kenyatta Airport but it’s Wilson Airport, some 90 minutes away, that provides regional and charter flights Kenya’s safari destinations such as the Masai Mara.
The name Nairobi comes from the Masai words enkarenyarobe meaning sweet water, as this area was a watering hole for the Masai and their cattle. Nairobi is an extremely lively city – the largest between Johannesburg and Cairo – and is one in which you can experience the authentic ‘everyday Africa’. Downtown Nairobi is best avoided however, especially as most of the city’s main places of interest – the Karen Blixen Museum, the Giraffe Centre and the Daphne Sheldrick others places include; Kenya National Museum, Snake Farm, Nairobi National Park, Railway Museum, National Archives, McMillian Memorial Library, Parliament House, Kenyatta Conference Centre, Kiambethu Farm & Bird Sanctuary. There are also many colourful markets to explore as well as the famed Carnivore Restaurant.
The Nairobi National Park, despite a startling backdrop of city skyscrapers, is a haven for lion, rhino, zebra and various species of antelope and serves as a great introduction to East Africa’s wildlife.
Masai Mara: wildebeest migration & year-round game-viewing.
Kenya’s flagship conservation area is not the country’s largest but as part of the Masai Mara-Serengeti ecosystem and home to the famous wildebeest migration, it offers the most dramatic game viewing and widest range of safari experiences. From the Rift Valley escarpment, to the rolling plains and the groves of woodlands, the Masai Mara is a vast and varied landscape. The Mara River bisects this great reserve and provides a rich habitat along its banks. It’s where to go in Kenya for hot air balloon flights, action-packed game drives, cultural interactions and guided nature walks in private conservancies – no wonder it’s one of the world’s greatest travel destinations.
Amboseli National Park: The best views of Mt Kilimanjaro.
A short distance from Nairobi, Amboseli is where to go in Kenya to get classic views of the sparkling, majestic snowcap of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak seated at 19,340 feet – ironically situated across the border in Tanzania. This park is one of the best places in Kenya to view large herds of elephant and buffalo as well as lion, cheetah, giraffe and plains game. Within Amboseli National Park, you will find the Cynthia Moss Elephant Research Centre which has been instrumental in our ability to understand and, ultimately, to help save these magnificent beasts. A wild region where the pastoral Masai and their cattle can be seen living in harmony with nature, Amboseli is a rich introduction to Kenya.
Tsavo National Park:
Game viewing close to Kenya’s beaches Kenya’s largest national park offers visitors the chance to spot wildlife in a far wilder and less visited environment than the more famous Masai Mara or Amboseli. The alternately hilly, rocky and flat landscape is dotted with giant baobab trees and the desert rose. Along the riverbanks you find a thriving animal population in and around the acacias and raffia palms. This area is famous as the home of the ‘red’ elephants – colored by the park’s red dust. Game here is quite varied including ostrich, gazelle, giraffe and zebra accompanied by the predatory cats, as well as 500 species of birds. The variety of habitats means a great diversity of birds and mammals and it’s only a couple of hours drive from Kenya’s coast, making for easy safari and beach holidays.
Shaba and Samburu National Reserves:
Shaba and Samburu National Reserves lie to the north of the region where Kenya’s savannah gives way to desert scrub and mountains. The scenery is dramatic, and besides a familiar cast of classic African animals you’ll find species here that don’t occur in Kenya’s more popular parks, making it one of Kenya’s most appealing places of interest. The rugged splendour of this region is accented by the colourful dress and beauty of the Samburu tribe. These nomadic people allow a glimpse into their way of life and how they have adapted to this mysterious and adventurous region.
The Aberdares is a range of mountains to the west of Mount Kenya in the central highlands region and is one of Kenya’s only virgin forests. The Kikuyu call these mountains Nyandarua (drying hide) and they were the home to guerrilla fighters during the struggle for independence. Today the mountains are home to leopard, bongo, buffalo and elephant and the lower lying areas are the territory of the lion, servile cat and even bushbucks. Aberdare National Park is known for its tree hotels and the thrill of night game viewing. Deep ravines cut through forested slopes and animals venture down at night to waterholes situated next to these hotels.
Lake Nakuru: flamingos & game viewing.
Home to a shallow soda lake, Nakuru is the place to go for the best chance to see Kenya’s famous flocks of flamingos but there’s game viewing too around the lake shores. Rhino and hippo are among the heavyweights though bird watchers will be more interested in the 400 species of birds recorded here.
Mombasa & Kenya Beaches: family resorts & luxury lodges.
With all the attention on Kenya’s safari destinations, it’s easy to forget that the country has a dazzling tropical coastline. Mainland Mombasa is a popular family choice forgot-it-all beach resorts but ask us about Kenya’s more exclusive mainland beach lodges where the accent is on exclusivity, luxury and indulgence.Lamu Archipelago: classic barefoot luxury beach experience.
Scuba diving and snorkelling on pristine reefs, sunset dhow cruises and swimming with dolphins – the unspoilt Lamu Archipelago combines all the elements of a fantastic beach holiday and is a perfect add-on to a Kenya safari or as a sensational honeymoon destination. Lamu offers an excellent opportunity to experience an ancient and fascinating town, inhabited by friendly and colorful people as well as the sea, beaches, antiquities, marine life and nearby islands. Plunge into crystalline waters to scuba or snorkel. Superb luxury accommodation is available both on Lamu Island and nearby Manda Island.
Laikipia Plateau: private reserves & outstanding accommodation.
Kenya’s newest safari destination lies north of Nairobi on the rim of the Great Rift Valley. An area of thriving private reserves, luxurious family-friendly accommodation and huge honeymoon views, Laikipia is a must-do for those who want an air of exclusivity and a diverse Kenya safari experience away from the crowds. Safaris are conducted on a private ranch of 50,000 acres of wilderness, on the edge of an escarpment overlooking plains, valleys and acacia and wild olive forests. Game drives, bush walks and horseback rides offer views of herds of zebra, eland, elephant, hartebeest, reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, Grant’s gazelle, and of course the predators such as leopard, lion, cheetah and the rare caracal.
Mount Kenya & Central Highlands: Game viewing away from the crowds
While there’s no doubting the allure of the Masai Mara, visitors to Kenya who want less crowded safari destinations should head for the rugged Central Highlands. Africa’s second highest peak, the 5200m Mount Kenya looms over much of the region which includes great wildlife destinations such as family-friendly and multi-activity Meru National Park, the private Lewa Downs Conservancy in the foothills of Mt Kenya, the Mount Kenya National Park and the amazing forests of Aberdares National Park. If you’re looking for a relaxed Mount Kenya safari, then any one of these parks fits the bill. Recently UNESCO has announced that the Mount Kenya-Lewa Wildlife Conservancy will be added as an extension to Mount Kenya National Park, enhancing the protection of the property as a World Heritage Site.
The Great Rift Valley and the Lakes
The Great Rift Valley is one of the most dramatic features of the planet, stretching some 3600 miles from the Dead Sea in Jordan to Mozambique in the south. In Kenya, the Rift Valley starts at Lake Turkana in the north and crosses the centre of the country to Lake Natron just across the southern border into Tanzania. It is up to 60 miles wide in places and features cliffs, escarpments, rivers and arid plains, which support an amazing diversity of fauna and flora. The Rift Valley’s system of deep freshwater lakes includes Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivasha and Lake Baringo. Lake Nakuru is known for its stunning pink vision as millions of flamingos congregate to feed in the alkaline waters.
Visitors to this area will be taken with the beauty of the fever trees and the richness of the wildlife, which includes a rhino sanctuary. Lake Naivasha is home to over 400 species of birds, which are drawn to the papyrus reeds that line its shores. Lake Baringo, to the north, is also rich in bird life and other aquatic animals, such as hippo and crocodile.
Lewa Downs is a 40,000 acre ranch, home to the Craig Family since 1924, hosting a diverse array of wildlife in some of Kenya’s most spectacular scenery. The snowcapped peaks of Mount Kenya dominate the views to the south, where the southern boundary rises to an altitude of some 6,500 ft above sea level. To the north, the terrain drops away rapidly with breathtaking views of Samburu, Ololokwe and the Mathews Range beyond. The Lewa Downs Conservancy supports a myriad of plains game species, all perfectly adapted for the semi-desert environment. The thinly striped and endangered Grevy’s zebra and the chocolate brown reticulated giraffe are common. The lance-like horned Beisaoryx and the rare greater kudu are seasonal visitors. Gunther’s dikdik, with its huge nasal swellings, the giraffe-necked gerenuk and the beautiful blue-legged Somali ostrich are resident all year. The swamp has become a sanctuary for the fascinating semi-aquatic sitatunga antelope and its primary predator, the leopard. Birdlife is equally rich with numerous species of Bustards, Plovers, Coursers and birds of prey. At night, leopard are frequently encountered along with bush babies, aardvarks, bat-eared foxes, caracal and various mongooses, genets & civets – a few days at Lewa Downs is a unique combination of hospitality, spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife.
A diverse geography means a variable climate across the country but Kenya is considered a year-round destination for both safaris and beach holidays.
Most Kenya safari destinations are at their best between January and the end of March; the climate is mild, mostly dry and game viewing is at its peak. Naturally, this time is considered the best time to go to Kenya on safari but a rainy season visit – between mid-March to June and again between October and December – is well worth considering in order to avoid the peak-season crowds and to take advantage of cheaper, off-season rates on accommodation and tours.
If however it’s a case of choosing when to go to Kenya for the Masai Mara wildebeest migration, then go between mid-August and late October when the herds have returned from their months in Tanzania’s Serengeti.
The best time to visit Kenya beach destinations is a moot point: Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast is hot and humid all year round and rain can fall at any time. We would however recommend avoiding the coast during the mid-March to late May season when temperatures and rainfall are at their highest.
Planning on combining a visit to Kenya with other East Africa destinations? Read our advice on the:
- Best time for a Wildebeest Migration safari
- Best time to visit Uganda
- Best time to visit Zanzibar
- Best time to visit Tanzania
- Best time to visit Rwanda
For more information on when to go to Kenya, use our detailed climate guide below or simply enquire with one of our Safari Experts.
There’s nothing like up-to-date, relevant travel information direct from the experts – get Sun Africa’s essential Kenya travel advice before you go.
Money & Spending
Kenya’s national currency is the Kenyan Shilling and although foreign currencies such as US Dollars are widely accepted (and indeed the currency required for activities like hot air balloon flights) we’d recommend using local currency to pay for bar bills, souvenirs and meals. Please note that due to the number of fake notes in circulation, no US Dollar bills printed before 2003 are accepted in Kenya and in fact your safest bet is to carry notes printed after 2006.
Banking facilities and ATMs are found throughout Kenya’s major travel destinations and all major credit cards are widely accepted, in particular MasterCard, Visa and American Express.
Banking hours: 9am to 3pm Monday to Friday and 9am to 11am on the first and last Saturday of the month for most banks.
Tipping for good service is customary in Kenya although it is of course at your discretion – bear in mind that some of the larger hotels will add a service charge onto your bill. A 10% tip is customary in city restaurants and bars when a service charge is not included.
For in-depth tipping guidelines, enquire with one of our Africa Safari Experts – they’d be happy to share their knowledge with you.
Average summer temperatures: 20°C to 34°C
Average winter temperatures: 18°C to 29°C
Rainy season: mid-March to June (“long rains”) and October to December (“short rains”)
Refer to “best time to visit Kenya” for climate charts, details on the best wildlife-viewing times and when to witness the Masai Mara migration.
What to Pack
For your Kenya safari, pack light casual wear in neutral colours (try to avoid white) and a warm jacket for evening game drives. For more on what to pack for a safari, refer to our Africa Safari Guide travel advice section. In Kenya’s major cities the dress code is conservative but not overly formal – jeans and decent tops for women are fine. Swimsuits are acceptable on the beach but you’ll need to cover up in public places.
Kenya is a fairly conservative society, especially where Islam holds sway, and much emphasis is placed on courtesy and manners. Care needs to be taken when photographing local people – always ask permission and prepare to be asked for reward in Kenya’s most popular destinations – but by and large the people of Kenya are easy-going, amiable, humorous and helpful, making travelling and interacting with them a real pleasure.
Flights & Getting Around
Jomo Kenyatta International Airport: East Africa’s major flight hub is located 13km outside Nairobi and is the gateway to the Masai Mara, Amboseli, Mombasa and Kenya’s beaches as well as Zanzibar and Tanzania. There are also good connections from here to Uganda, Rwanda and the Seychelles.
Wilson Airport: a regional airport about 90 minutes by road from Jomo Kenyatta, Wilson is the hub for almost all of Kenya’s internal flights and serves its fly-in safari locations. Ensure you have time between your international flight and domestic flight to make the transfer between the two airports.
Moi Mombasa International Airport: located about 10km northwest of the town itself, Mombasa’s airport is the gateway to the Kenyan coast.
Charter flights are a great way to get around Kenya and avoid the country’s notoriously bad roads; transfers from bush airstrips to lodges are conducted in 4X4 vehicles.
Road transfers from airports and between major destinations tend to use mini buses as do scheduled safaris to popular destinations such as the Masai Mara. Sliding windows and a pop-up roof provide passengers on mini buses with ample viewing opportunities on game drives whereas safaris to more remote destinations and private conservancies use open-sided 4X4s.
Visa & Passport Requirements
Visas are required by most visitors to Kenya including British, American, Canadian, European, Australian and New Zealand passport holders. Citizens from some smaller Commonwealth countries are exempt.
Visas are valid for three months from the date of entry and can be purchased upon arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Visitors can pay for their visas in local currency and they must possess a passport that is valid until six months after the initial date of travel.
If you plan on travelling onwards from Kenya, you can optionally get an East African Tourist visa on arrival at $100 that will let you travel to Uganda & Rwanda. Visas for other East African countries can generally be obtained in Nairobi.