Strategically located on the Indian Ocean, Mombasa has a vibrant cultural history that today makes it a melting pot of Arabian, Portuguese, British, Indian and native influences. With world-class beaches, spectacular marine habitats, a long history as a significant world trading post, and ease of access to an abundance of natural wonders, it’s no wonder that Mombasa is one of Kenya’s top tourist destinations. From Fort Jesus and Haller Park to the Mombasa National Marine Reserve and the world-famous Diani Beach, the city has something to appeal to every type of traveler – and spending a couple of days here before or after exploring Kenya’s most renowned national parks (including the Maasai Mara and Amboseli to name but two) should be on every visitor to Kenya’s itinerary.
Mombasa Top Tips
Moi International airport is a mere 6km from downtown Mombasa – meaning that it’s not worth trying to negotiate your way downtown on public transport as taxis are so cheap. Taxis can be picked up directly outside of the arrivals terminal and fares should be negotiated in advance to avoid getting ripped off (I suggest asking your hotel what a reasonable fare is before leaving as the fares can vary considerably depending on whether you’re downtown or further out in Diani, Nyali, Bamburi etc.). If you’re desperate to try and save some pennies, then tuk-tuks are also a possibility – assuming you don’t have cart-loads of luggage with you. If you want to find a tuk-tuk then you’ll have to head out of the airport car park (about 250m) to catch one as they aren’t allowed within the airport grounds. Of course, most hotels in the area will also be happy to arrange transfers if you don’t fancy taking any risks and want to be met upon arrival.
Once you’re in town your options for getting around between sights are (depending on distance): taxi; matatu (which is the closest you’ll get to a public bus system); tuk-tuk (a motorized tricycle with covered cabin); and boda-boda (motorcycles). To my mind the only truly viable options are taxis and tuk-tuks. Matatus are often ridiculous overcrowded with a difficult system to navigate. Boda-boda are, in my opinion, your best bet if you wish to end your life prematurely. Tuk-tuks can be hailed, aren’t shared, and are perfect for short distances during the day or when the traffic is bad (they can weave through small spaces that taxis can’t). Taxis should be your only option at night due to the safety issues of open-sided tuk-tuks (people can reach in and you can’t lock the doors as there aren’t any). There are both registered and unregistered taxis. To make sure you get a registered taxi look for the registration papers on the windscreen; they are otherwise undistinguishable. As with pretty much anywhere else in Africa, just make sure you negotiate your fare in advance (you may also be asked to pay in advance if the driver needs to fill up specifically for your trip – that isn’t unusual, so don’t be worried).
If you follow the news you’re probably aware that Kenya hasn’t had the most stellar of safety records in the recent past (terrorism remains a concern). Whilst I’m never going to sit here and say, “don’t worry, you’ll be 100% safe”, the general travel advice provided by western governments and the media is often blown out of proportion. Yes, there are still areas of Kenya that remain on the Foreign Commonwealth Office’s naughty list – and you shouldn’t travel to those (the coast further north of Mombasa and the border with Somalia, for example). But, in general, the rest of Kenya is largely safe, including Mombasa and surrounding areas. Instead, and as with many cities around the world, the biggest concern is probably petty street crime; which in some areas of Mombasa can be brazen, even during daylight hours. Take simple precautions such as removing flashy jewelry and securing your belongings and you’ll likely be just fine. My hotel and various taxi drivers were also quick to tell me if there was something that I wanted to do that they thought wasn’t advisable (walking around Old Town without a guide, for example). So it pays to ask if you’re in doubt.
If you’re trying to decide when is the best time to visit Mombasa, or Kenya more generally, then there are a few things to consider:
- Mombasa has two rainy seasons. The first is between April and June (although by June it’s starting to wind down). This first window of rain typically brings afternoon rain, but not every day. A second rainy season begins in November and runs through the end of December.
- That means you also have two dry spells. The first is from July until October and the second is from January to April.
- Arguably, the best time to visit for safari purposes is that long dry period from July until October. Clear skies dominate and the greenery subsides making wildlife easier to spot.
- However, if you’re looking to secure a bargain then the beach resorts in Mombasa slash their prices during the rainy seasons and you might just be lucky with the weather!
As one of Kenya’s main tourist destinations, Mombasa is littered with private tour operators that you might want to consider for booking day trips, shuttles, airport transfers or activities. To get you started, two were recommended to me by Kenyan friends. These were TrippyGO and Azman Tours. In no way are these the only two available, so make sure you shop around to find the best deals available! Other options include Wild Kenya Safaris and Dream Kenya Safaris.
In terms of tourist attractions, Mombasa is geographically dispersed. Sights such as Fort Jesus and the Old Town can be found on Mombasa island. Haller Park and the Mombasa Marine Reserve are found a few kilometers north. Diani Beach (about 35km south) and Shimba Hills are to the south. This can create quite the quandary when trying to book somewhere to stay. Although you’ll want to visit Fort Jesus and the Old Town, I’d personally rule out staying on Mombasa Island; it’s far from a relaxing holiday experience and walking around alone in the evenings isn’t advisable. Diani Beach is worth considering if you’re a beach bum or trying to finish a longer Kenyan holiday on the beach – but it’s a fair distance to the south, meaning longer (and more expensive) drives to the other sights and activities I talk about below. I opted for Mombasa’s northern coast; Bamburi to be precise. This gave me direct access to the beaches and snorkeling along the Marine Reserve coast (see below) and short driving distances to get into the city and Haller Park. Day trips to Diani are then possible if you want to sample what’s often labeled as the best beach in Africa.
Fort Jesus: Fort Jesus is probably the most visited cultural ‘attraction’ in Mombasa; in large part because Mombasa is more famed for its natural beach and wildlife attractions. The Portuguese Fort was built in 1596 to guard Mombasa’s Old Town and establish Western influence over Indian Ocean trade. Having changed hands numerous times between the Portuguese, British and Omani Arabs, it was finally converted into a national park in 1958, and conferred UNESCO world heritage status in 2011. These days the fort has shed it’s military and prison past and operates primarily as a museum. If you decide to visit, then be prepared to be accosted by numerous independent guides that operate in the area. They seemed genuinely knowledgeable but are reluctant to take ‘no’ for an answer – which can make the going tough if you’d prefer to meander the fort under your own steam (as I typically do). Be firm and they eventually take the hint once it becomes clear that you won’t be handing over any shillings for their commentary. Entry fees apply, and if you want the photo I took below then head down the path to the left of the fort’s entry gate. Just be aware that you’ll also be accosted by Old Town guides down that path and pick-pockets are known to operate on that beach. So just have your wits about you!
Mombasa Old Town: Dotted with old-world Arabian and Portugeuse charm, Mombasa’s old town is a labyrinth of quaint walking streets lined with historic buildings, cafes and small tourist shops selling antiques, spices and fragrances. Unfortunately, and according to the taxi driver I used to drive into town, it’s also developed an increasingly bad reputation for petty crime – mostly pickpocketing, although there has reportedly been occasional violent escalation. As result I received advice from several people that the only way to explore Old Town without worrying was to hire a local guide. It’s worth it to get a sense of what Mombasa used to be like – and the only way that the tourist-reliant shops inside the area will survive. The Old Town is also home to a small eco-tourism butterfly house (it’s right next door to Fort Jesus) which is worth quickly stopping by if you have the time.
Haller Park: I would argue that Haller Park is the best of Mombasa’s tourist attractions (most would say the beaches are the highlight but, being a ginger, I’m generally loathe to spend the day on the beach – it typically results in days spent slathered in after-sun as I peel a layer of skin from my entire body). Located about 20 minutes north of old town, the park is the site of a former industrial quarry that was converted into a sustainable tourism project which has achieved UN acclaim for its environmental conservation. A wander around the extensive park (which has an entrance fee) provides the opportunity to spot various forms of wildlife (including giraffe, hippo, crocodile, eland, buffalo and oryx) in what amounts to a cross between a small zoo and a nature sanctuary. You’ll also encounter troops of resident monkeys that possess a blatant disregard for humans – and who will be all over you at the slightest hint of food – as well as free-roaming giant tortoises happy to pose for a photo. My advice is to visit the park between 3pm and 5pm, which are the feeding hours for various animals – that includes the chance for you to hand feed the giraffe from a raised platform.
Mombasa Marine National Park: The Kenyan Coast is famous for its 143 miles of coral reef coastline, and the marine park is the best place to experience it if you’re in Mombasa. Located just to the north of old town, and adjacent to the coastal beach resorts of Nyali and Bamburi (I stayed in the latter), the protected national reserve is a haven for snorkelers and divers (or anyone that fancies a ride in a glass-bottom boat quite frankly). In addition to spectacular reef systems you’ll stand a chance of seeing everything from parrot fish and octopus to turtles and sharks. If you’re looking for dive and snorkel operators then check out Buccaneer Diving or Peponi Divers (I didn’t use either myself, so don’t rely on my review, but my hotel recommended them). Those looking for glass bottom boats (or are happy to hire a boat independent of a formal tour operator for a little light snorkeling) will find plenty of boat owners scouring the beaches for customers along the park’s stretch of coastline.
The Mombasa Tusks: I thought long and hard about whether to even include this, but as the tusks are the symbol of Mombasa, and every taxi I set foot in asked me if I wanted to go there (like a proud parent talking about their newborn), I decided to give them an honorable mention. The tusks are located on Moi Avenue at the entrance to downtown and were built in 1956 as a hearty ‘welcome to Mombasa’ for the visiting Princess Margaret (I’m sure she was thrilled). They’re worth stopping at for a quick photo, but I wouldn’t bother letting your taxi leave!
Wildlife and Safari: For those seeking out a safari experience, and assuming you aren’t just in Mombasa for a few days before heading out for safari to any of the country’s major national parks, then there are really two accessible day-trip options. The closest is Shimba Hills National Reserve. Shimba isn’t a traditional safari experience; so, don’t be expecting vast open savannah teeming with wildlife. Instead what you can expect is a scenic forest, glistening waterfalls and a chance of spotting elephant, giraffe, buffalo and sable antelope amongst other smaller species. Alternatively, and if you’re looking for a more traditional Kenyan safari experience then your best bet is Tsavo National Park. The park is divided into two sections (Tsavo East and Tsavo West) and the closest of the two (East) is easily accessible on the Mombasa Highway in around 2.5 hours. On an average day spent on the plains of Tsavo you can expect to see elephant, lion, buffalo, giraffe, kudu, waterbuck, jackal, oryx, impala, gazelle, gerenuk and much more. Unfortunately, to see white rhino you’ll need to head deeper into the park than a day trip will allow; but spending a day here is rewarding enough to make the drive worthwhile! Tours to both Shimba and Tsavo can be arranged from a whole host of local operators. I personally chose to book a private trip to Tsavo through TrippyGO and would recommend them to others.
Beaches: Although you’ll find beaches all along the Mombasa coastline (including those closest to Mombasa such as Nyali, Bamburi and Shanzu; which are only a few kilometers north) there’s only one that has been consistently rated as one of the top beaches in Africa; Diani Beach, which lies about 35km to Mombasa’s south. To be honest, whichever beaches you choose to visit it’s hard to go wrong. They all offer a host of activities including camel rides, snorkeling, scuba diving, jet skiing, fishing, and boat rides. I’d definitely suggest that Diani is more specifically geared for the tourist market in terms of facilities.
Hindu Temples: Being a coastal city on the Indian Ocean, Mombasa has a healthy Indian population. As a result, there are a few Hindu temples (known as Mandirs) that are worth visiting if you have the time (but, in honesty, I wouldn’t go too far out of your way). The biggest of the bunch is New Dwarikadham Temple to the north of Mombasa in Nyali. The oldest of the bunch is Shri Kutch Satsang which was constructed in 1957 and can be found in downtown Mombasa.
Haller Park Website: http://www.owenandmzee.com/omweb/hallerpark.html
Trippygo Website: https://www.trippygotours.com/
Azman Tours Website: http://www.azmantours.com/
Buccaneer Diving Website: http://divescover.com/dive-center/buccaneer-diving/4319
Peponi Divers Website: http://www.peponidivers.ch/