Kenya’s largest coastal city is shrouded in history and mystique. Here are 10 things to do in Mombasa.
Soak in the ambience of Swahili life while roving the narrow alleyways of Mombasa’s Old Town. The best way to experience the Old Town is on foot where a blend of Arab, African and Portuguese culture infuses this neighbourhood with an exotic quality.
East African architecture is peppered with ornately carved timber doors and fretwork balconies that were once used to screen local Muslim women from being seen by people walking by.
Many of the old structures are now antique stores jam-packed with wood carvings and souvenirs.
Mosques, churches and old government buildings dot the quarter and are interesting subjects of a historic walking tour.
The battlements and ruins of Fort Jesus are fascinating to lovers of history. This imposing 16th century fort is the result of Portuguese forays into Africa.
Built in 1593, the fort changed hands at least nine times in bloody sieges between 1631 and 1875, finally falling under the control of the British.
The British government used the fort as a prison until 1958, when it was declared a historical monument.
The structure, which has metre-thick coral walls, dominates the harbour. Inside the fort, there is a museum built over the former barracks.
The museum’s display of ceramic exhibits reflects the diversity of cultures that once traded along the East African coast. There are many unofficial guides who will offer free tours of the fort, but remember that a tip is always expected.
The Akamba Handicraft Industry Cooperative Society is one of the best places in Kenya to purchase wood carvings.
Wander past rows of open-air thatched workshops to watch thousands of artisans hard at work, hammering, chiselling and painting.
The society, which was formed in 1963 by 100 craftsmen, has grown to over 3000 members. The craftsmen work with ebony, rosewood, teak and neem.
The society is involved in a project to establish a nursery of fast-growing neem trees (a tree that belongs to the mahogany family) to supply wood for the carvers.
The showroom has a huge range of timber products including carved animals, masks and figurines. Many of the items are sent to souvenir shops around Africa (and sold at much higher prices) as well as exported overseas.
To experience a touch of local life, hop on the ferry which crosses the channel between Mombasa Island and the southern mainland.
At the end and beginning of each work day, the pedestrian queues are endless. But if you don’t want to be crushed by the crowds, ask your taxi driver to drive onto the vehicle section.
The ferry leaves from Likoni, a creek side suburb of Mombasa, every 20 minutes. Crossings are free for pedestrians and Ksh35 per car.
5-Old McKinnon Market
One venue where you can be guaranteed to see lots of local colour is the sprawling Old McKinnon Market in the city centre.
Listen to the clamour of housewives haggling with vendors and inhale the heady aroma of tropical fruit.
The market is a warren of vegetables, fruit, meat, crafts and clothing. Follow your nose to the spice section where the spices look as exotic as they are fragrant.
6-Sail the harbour
A tranquil way to experience Mombasa is to board a luxury dhow and cruise the harbour while sipping a glass of champagne.
The Tamarind Dhow cruise is run by the up-market Tamarind restaurant chain and starts its voyage from the jetty below the Tamarind restaurant in Nyali. Costs are $US40 for lunch and $70 for dinner.
Watch a Kikuyu farmer tend to his crops or a Miji Kenda blacksmith at work forging metal tools.
At Ngomongo Villages Park, the diversity of Kenyan culture can be experienced in one cultural park.
Across the park are nine mini-villages, each complete with authentic tribal huts, cultivated crops, wild animal traps, as well as implements and instruments used by each tribe.
There are goats, cattle and even a pond stocked with crocodiles. Each village is manned by a genuine tribal representative, many of whom actually live in the display huts.
8-Shimba Hills National Reserve
Rare sable antelope, birds, elephants and leopards roam the lush tropical wilderness of this 320-sqkm reserve. Only three years ago, there were so many elephants that Kenya Wildlife Service mounted an operation to re-locate over 400 elephants inland to Tsavo East National Park.
Although the operation successfully removed the pressure on the reserve’s natural resources, the elephants have begun to trickle back to their home land at Shimba Hills. Abercrombie & Kent have organised wildlife safaris in Africa for over 40 years.
9. Diani Beach
Wash away sweat and dust in the shimmering Indian Ocean or relax to the gentle lapping of waves while sipping cocktails on the beach.
South of Mombasa, Diani Beach has long been a popular spot for European beach-goers and there are many beach resorts to choose from.
A tree house at The Cove Treehouses offers a rustic experience in a secluded area away from the crowds. The tree houses are nestled under the branches of massive baobab trees.
Troops of Colobus monkeys, an endangered species with less than 13,000 left in the world, swing among the forest canopy.
10. Coral and caves
Take a day-trip to Shimoni, a village that is approximately 80km south of Mombasa. Explore the caves where slaves were once held before being shipped to the auctions in Zanzibar.
From the mainland, a dhow trip to Kisite Marine Park and Wasini Island provides opportunities for snorkelling, diving and dolphin-spotting.
Stroll along the boardwalk at Wasini Island’s coral gardens to admire the peculiar landscape of its exposed coral reefs.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Abercrombie & Kent