This country in East Africa is becoming an increasingly sought-after travel destination with many curious visitors drawn to its vast expanses of spectacular natural beauty, preserved parks, snow-capped mountains, and incredible – and very photogenic – wildlife.
I honestly think that it’s one of the most underrated travel destinations in the country and after spending many trips here, I discovered some of its most extraordinary spots. Here are my personal favourite most beautiful places to visit in Kenya…
1. Giraffe Manor
Where else in the world can you get this close to a friendly, inquisitive giraffe? In the dining room at Giraffe Manor, the windows are left open at just the right height so the resident giraffes can look in for a treat during breakfast or afternoon tea.
Guests can also join in feeding these charming creatures on the lawns in the morning, or hand them a snack on the balcony from the stock of giraffe nuts kept in each room.
Located in the Langata suburb of Nairobi, the Manor recreates1930s hospitality with manicured gardens, period furnishings in the 12 guest rooms, and The Retreat spa to soothe and relax you.
The Manor has been a pioneer in a giraffe breeding program that has helped stabilize numbers of the once-endangered Rothschilds Giraffe. Combine a visit with your trip to the nearby Maasai Mara Park, for an unforgettable meeting with African wildlife.
Regularly voted the best beach in Africa, Diani is just south of Mombasa and close to the Shimba Hills National Reserve along the shores of the Indian Ocean.
It’s a paradise for water sports, from diving and deep sea fishing to kite and windsurfing, and for other adventures like skydiving and camel rides along the beach. And when you want to dance barefoot on the beach, head for the many lively bars and restaurants lining the shore.
Next to the beach along the shoreline is the unspoiled magical “Home of the Dolphins”, the Kisite Mpunguti Marine Park which also protects coral gardens and islands and the habitat of marine animals and migratory birds. It’s a great location for snorkeling, birdwatching, diving and just lying in the sun.
To round out your trip, combine it with visits to the Shimba Hills National Reserve and Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary nearby.
3. Nairobi National Park
Just a short drive away from the bustling capital with its skyscrapers, Nairobi National Park is a good introduction to the wildlife, with four of the Big Five of African wildlife – rhinos, lions, buffalo, and leopards – all present and living happily in the wide plains. You’ll also find cheetahs, giraffes, antelope, and hundreds of bird species here.
The best way to see the park is by car, whether you drive yourself or join a guided tour. Visitors can follow some walking trails, and if you want to spend more time at the park, there are three campsites as well.
The Sheldrick Trust and Giraffe Manor are both nearby if you want to make a longer trip.
4. Lamu Island
Lamu Island epitomizes the charm of Kenya’s Swahili coast, with a rich history and culture and stunning natural beauty. Shela Beach offers over six miles of white sand and warm waters in shades of blue and green. Visitors are warned against swimming, however, due to rip tides.
Shela has some luxurious accommodations with art, wellness, and fusion food, and then there’s Lamu Old Town to explore. The picturesque stone buildings are perched along the coast and you can spend hours exploring the intricate streets and carved wooden doorways.
Without paved roads, the only way to get around the island is on foot or by donkey cart, or by sailing around the island in a traditional dhow. Lamu Fort houses an excellent library and an art gallery, and the Museum on the waterfront has exhibits on boat building, domestic life, weddings, door carvings, and traditional silver jewelry.
5. Tsavo East National Park
If you’ve always dreamt about going on a safari where you watch elephant herds crossing a wide, lazy river and lion cubs playing in the tall grass, chances are it’s Tsavo East National Park you’ve been dreaming about.
Famous for its elephants and lions, this “Theatre of the Wild” as its official tag describes it, is the largest protected area in Kenya. Besides the Big Five – lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, and buffalo – Tsavo East is home to cheetahs, waterbuck and other antelopes, hippos, and over 300 bird species.
Some of the spectacular landmarks you’ll see at the park are the Tsavo River, the Yatta Plateau which at 180 miles is the longest lava flow in the world, and the enigmatic Mudanda Rock which overlooks a watering hole popular with the elephants, leopards, and other wildlife.
Tsavo lies halfway between Nairobi and Mombasa in the south, and there are a number of luxurious lodges for visitors to stay.
6. Mount Kenya
The second-highest peak in the African continent is located within the Mount Kenya National Park and Biosphere Reserve.
Even though it stands right on the equator, the volcanic mountain has glaciers covering its peaks and alpine meadows on its slopes. Mount Kenya is sacred to the Kikuyu and other ethnic groups that live there, and the area is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The park can be reached by road or air. When planning your trip, be sure to make your reservations early, as the lodges fill up rooms quickly. Visitors must have a certified guide in order to enter the park, whether you’re hiking, climbing, camping or just sightseeing.
The park is a haven of biodiversity, with many endangered bird species and larger mammals like elephants, leopards, antelopes, and more.
7. Ol Pejeta Conservancy
Against the stunning backdrop of snow-capped Mount Kenya and the Aberdares foothills, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy has a typical landscape of open grassland and acacia woodland with evergreens at higher altitudes.
Best known as the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, Ol Pejeta is also home to lions, elephants, leopards, and buffalo, and there’s a chimpanzee sanctuary as well.
A visit to the Conservancy is a once-in-a-lifetime safari experience, with night drives to see lions and leopards, campfire chats with rangers, and quiet cottages where you can soak in the feeling of being in one of true wild places on this earth. Visitors can also choose to volunteer, with programs typically running for a week.
8. Chale Island
The breathtaking beauty of the Indian Ocean shore, with white sands, blue-green waters, mangrove forests, and coral reefs is the setting for the exclusive Sands resort, which sits right on the shore overlooking a tidal lagoon.
The privately-owned Chale Island is actually a headland at the northern end of Msambweni Bay in southeastern Kenya.
You’ll be sharing the beach and surrounding coral reefs with several species of endangered sea turtles, and not very many people. You can go snorkeling or scuba diving at the nearby Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park, kayaking in the mangroves and catamaran sailing.
At the resort, you can relax at the spa, watch the sun go down at a waterside bar, and sample Kenyan and world cuisines at several excellent restaurants.
9. Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
For everyone who has a soft corner for baby elephants and orphaned wildlife, a visit to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is a must.
Founded by the naturalist Daphne Sheldrick who first discovered the right milk formula for feeding infant elephants (coconut oil is used as a substitute for the fat in elephant milk), the Trust now raises and rehabilitates not only baby elephants but also other orphaned wildlife like rhinos, giraffes, and hippos.
You can visit the rescued baby elephants at their Nursery at Nairobi National Park by making an online booking in advance. You’ll spend an hour with the nursery herd as they slurp down their midday milk, play and take mud baths, while knowledgeable keepers share the stories of the orphans and about the need for elephant conservation.
Visitors’ fees help to pay for the cost of upkeep and rehabilitation of the orphans, and you can also “adopt” one or more baby elephants and follow their progress through the nursery and in the wild.
10. Hells Gate National Park
You’ll find some breathtaking scenery, culture, and wildlife at this small park near Lake Naivasha, an easy day trip from Nairobi. Despite the forbidding name and the official tag that invites you to take “A Walk on the Wild Side”, these volcanic cliffs and gorges were the inspiration for the Circle of Life in the animated movie The Lion King.
This part of the Great Rift Valley is famous for its geothermal activity, and you can see volcanos here as well as some spectacular lava rock formations.
Some of the wildlife you’ll see here include wild buffalo, zebra, antelopes, and over 100 species of birds in the park, including vultures, Verreaux’s Eagles, augur buzzards, and swifts.
The park is run by the Masai community, who also offer guided tours. This is one of the few parks where you can hike, bike, climb, and camp within the boundaries. There’s even a spa that makes use of the natural geothermal features of the park, which also provide over half the country’s electricity.
Don’t miss a visit to the Joy Adamson Centre and the Maasai Cultural Center, and if you have time, boating on nearby Lake Naivasha.
11. Masai Mara National Reserve
Along with its neighboring Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, Maasai Mara is one of the great national parks of the world, with the “Big Five” of African wildlife – lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants and rhino – as well as hippos, crocodiles, antelope, wildebeest and almost 500 bird species. Here you’ll also see other well-loved favorite animals like the cute bat-eared foxes and officious secretary birds.
Located in the Rift Valley Province in southwestern Kenya, the spectacular landscapes of plains and escarpments are instantly recognizable through their depiction in films and TV programs.
The park is home to the annual Great Migration from July to mid-September, when over a million wildebeest, antelope, and other grazers move from Serengeti through Maasai Mara in a circular pattern, following the available food and water. The grazers are in turn followed by predators including the big cats, making for an awe-inspiring natural drama.
A hot air balloon safari is one of the best ways to see the park. A Maasai Village Visit will introduce you to the culture of these nomadic herding people, who play a great part in conservation. Visitors can stay at lodges or tents in the park or surrounding conservancies.
12. Lake Nakuru
Lake Nakuru is famous as the flamingo lake, where millions of these funny pink birds make their home due to the abundance of algae and plankton in the warm volcanic waters. Despite a number of ups and downs due to drought, fluctuating water levels, and reduction of algae concentrations, flamingo numbers have rebounded at the lake.
Besides flamingoes, you’ll also find pelicans and cormorants, along with 400 other species of birds, and large animals like lions, leopards, rhinos,s and giraffes. This beautiful wildlife haven has a typical Rift Valley landscape of grassland edged with high cliffs, and the Baboon Cliffs are a favorite lookout spot, though picnickers should be warned that the baboons are not shy about demanding your food.
The best way to see the park is with a guided drive, and there are a number of lodges and campsites where you can stay at the park. A trip to Lake Nakuru can be combined with visits to two other famous Rift Valley destinations, Maasai Mara and Lake Naivasha where you can also make a stop at Elsamere, the home of Joy Adamson, author of the Born Free books.
13. Watamu Beach
Part of the Watamu National Marine Park, Watamu Beach is known as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The hauntingly beautiful Indian Ocean landscape of white beaches, palm trees, sunken mangroves and clear waters looks like a dream of a coastal Eden.
Watamu is home to several species of sea turtles, and friendly dolphins who will keep you company as you kayak or paddle board. You can watch the migratory pods of humpback whales go past from July through September, and go snorkeling with the gentle whale sharks. Nearby trips include the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve and Mida Creek which winds through mangroves.
Water sports lovers will enjoy kitesurfing, paddleboarding, boogie-boarding, snorkeling through the coral reefs and sailing. There’s an intriguing mix of cultures at Watamu with the ruins of a Swahili town at Gedi, and contemporary Italian coffee shops, gelato bars, bars, bakeries and clubs.
14. Gazi Bay
The secluded Indian Ocean beaches at Gazi with white sand, palm trees, and dazzling blue waters are a playground with water sports like swimming, snorkeling, sailing, scuba diving, surfing, windsurfing, kayaking, and diving. Located on the coast between Diani and the border between Kenya and Tanzania, the area is home to landmark mangrove conservation projects.
It’s the perfect ecotourism retreat for a quiet holiday in spectacularly beautiful surroundings. Meet with the local conservationists at the Gazi Women Mangrove Boardwalk along the beach, watch the local fishermen bring in their catch, and spend a night or two in a romantic treehouse or a luxury tent lodge on the beach itself.
Michael Cowley – writer and photographer
Ever since he was knee-high to a grasshopper Michael has always had an affinity for adventure. Growing up he was lucky enough to live in a handful of exotic far flung locations including Hong Kong, Pakistan, Kenya and Tanzania and since then he’s continued seeking out new places and cultures. In his spare time he explores everywhere from the sizzling street markets in Bangkok to random back alleys in Sri Lanka and everything in between! He also has a special fondness for Cohibas, trying all kinds of street food, playing carrom with random strangers, and fine wine – he knows his clarets from his chiantis. He counts Cuba, Amsterdam, Indonesia, Goa, Cambodia and Italy as his favourite destinations. Find Michael on Instagram or Twitter.