Mombasa is an Island on the Indian Ocean and the capital of the wider Mombasa County that consists of several others nearby smaller islands. Mombasa is Kenya’s second largest metropolitan area after Nairobi and is located along the eastern coast of Kenya. Mombasa was at first referred to as “Manbasa” – meaning an Island of war. This was because the island was the center stage for countless wars of occupation by the early settlers (Arabs, Portuguese, Locals and the British).
The native people in the island are the Mijikenda and the Swahili. The Mijikenda are black while the Swahili are brown – a result of intermarriages between the early settlers (Portuguese, Arabs, Omanis, Indian and Chinese) in the island and natives. The intermarriages left behind a unique blend of culture and a legacy which also includes unique architecture (temples, mosques), towns and cuisines. Because of her natural beauty, cultural diversity and rich history as a center of trade Mombasa has grown into one of East Africa’s economic hubs with an international airport and one of the busiest ports in Africa.
Are you planning to go on Kenya self drive? Here are the top destinations to visit in Kenya.
Tourist Attractions in Mombasa
Fort Jesus: Fort Jesus is without doubt one of the top tourist attractions in Mombasa. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was built by the Portuguese between 1593 and 1596. The Fort is a well-preserved military fortification – A reminder of the great battles of the 16th Century involving the Portuguese, Arabs, British and the local population. An Italian architect known as Cairati designed it in the shape of a man. Some parts are now ruined but much of it remains intact. Museum is built in the main barracks of the garrison. If you visit this facility, prepare to see weapons (Cannons) that were used by the Portuguese to defend the Island during the 16th century as you catch beautiful views of the Indian Ocean, the blue waters and surrounding areas. You will also see some of the items that were traded by the Portuguese, Arabs and British. Fort Jesus is an excellent spot for taking photos.
Visit the Old Town: If you want to understand more about the kind of life lived by the Portuguese traders at the time, you should pay a visit to the Old town of Mombasa. This town will give you an idea of how things were when the Portuguese ruled the Island. You will be amazed by the old building and their architectural designs with cool balconies and doors of rare designs. It is not only Portuguese architecture that is prevalent in the old. Arabs, Europeans and Asians also occupied the town at different points leaving behind houses and mosques. You should crown your day at the old town by visiting one of the souvenir shops to buy antiques or fragrant oils for friends and other loved ones.
Mombasa Tusks: This is one of the most visited and famous monumental structures in Mombasa. It was built to remember a special visit by Queen Elizabeth in 1952. The structure is locally referred to as “PembeMbili” – meaning two tusks in the Swahili language. The tusks are built at the entrance of the main city center to form the letter M (standing for Mombasa). It is one place you can’t leave without taking some photos for your collections. The area after the Tusks is noticeably busy with several banks and large shopping centers.
Check out the Ship traffic at Mama Ngina Drive: If you free in one of the evenings and wondering where to go for relaxation as you watch the sun go down, then Mama Ngina Drive is one place to consider. The park is scenic and allows you to watch all the different types of ship that dock in Mombasa. Many of the residents go to Mama Ngina to pass time and as they count the number of ships entering and leaving the country. If you go during the right time of the year, the ship traffic can be overwhelming. The place gets crowds during sometimes but there is security. If you get hungry while at the park, you can visit one of the restaurants in the area for soft drinks and tasty sea food.
Swimming with dolphins and in the different beaches: The north coast beaches are easy to recommend because they are located close to the airport and the city itself. The beaches include Shanzu, Bamburi and Nyali. These beautiful beaches are characterized by clear waters and beautiful green palm trees. You can do several water sports in the area including diving and deep see fishing. If you are not into swimming or any of the water sports, you can simply go for a walk along the beaches to enjoy the cool breeze, blue waters and white sand.
After exploring all the beaches at the north coast, you can also check out those at the South Coast like Diani and Tiwi. The beaches in the south are characterized by beautiful coastline too but with rainforest, wild animals, colorful coral reefs and larger swimming areas. You can take part in kite surfing, sailing, diving, water-skiing, snorkeling and windsurfing. Diani Beach is a favorite with tourists because it is relatively well developed and considered one of the best in the world. If you love sun bathing and snorking, then you might find Tiwi beach more interesting. All these beaches have very good hotels, bars and restaurants that serve amazing sea food.
Those who want to do something even more adventurous can visit the island of Wasini. Here tourists have an opportunity to swim with dolphins. To reach there, you need to use a ship or large boat. You can read more about beaches in our article about visiting Dar es Salaam.
Walk along the beautiful nature trails: The different islands that make up Mombasa are blessed with amazing flora and fauna. Apart the beautiful scenery and natural vegetation along the beaches, tourists can also spot creatures like monkeys, reptiles and birds. The nature trails close to the Malindi – Mombasa highway is excellent for those who want to experience the beautiful landscape and scenery in the island.
Cruise on a dhow or Ride on a Ferry: These uniquely designed boats are common in the Indian ocean and Red seas. In Mombasa you will find them furnished with luxuries. You can hire one to explore the ocean as you watch the sun set as you wait to eat and dine under the moonlight. Hiring the boats doesn’t cost so much giving the competition among dhow providers. You can sail in a group if you want to reduce on costs. Depending on the kind of boat you hire, you might have extra space and even carry some of your supplies. If you are interested in ferries, then the one to use is that which takes residents from the island of Mombasa to the southern coast. It’s had crowds of people because the fares are low but you will have an opportunity to mingle with the locals and other tourists while enjoying free entertainment. Don’t forget to move with snacks and drinks regardless of whether you choose to use a ferry or a dhow.
Ride on a Tuk-Tuk ride: Similar to those in most Asian countries, but offering something different. The ride will take you through the busiest streets of the islands and then to the ocean itself if you choose. They are not the most comfortable but you will have fun.
Mamba Village Centre: If you are fascinated about Africa’s famous reptiles or just want to see how they look like, then you should visit the Mamba Village Centre. Mamba Village Centre is one of the largest crocodile farms in Africa. It also hosts ostriches and turtles. The Guides will share with you detailed information about the reptiles, feeding habits and their behavior. The best time to visit is when the crocodiles are being fed on pieces of meat. You will love watching them struggle to get the largest pieces. Crown the day by visiting the nearby restaurant for tasty game meat (zebra, crocodile and ostrich). Other activities organized at the Centre include horseback riding and visiting the botanical gardens to spot aquatic plants, orchids and monkeys.
Mombasa Marine National Park: This had to be a separate attraction of its own considering the number of visitors it receives. The vast park protects coral reefs, sandy beaches, mangroves and sea grasses. The park allows visitors to watch sea creatures moving in the ocean through a large glass boat if they can’t dive or get themselves wet. Those who choose to dive under the water will encounter see eels, stingrays, sea horses and underwater vegetation at a closer distance. Divers should check out some of the ship wreaks like MV Dania.
Shimba Hills National Reserve: This reserve is not found in Mombasa but still worth visiting especially if you want to see some of Africa’s famous animals without going too far away from the magical ocean shores. The Reserve is found 33 kilometers away from Mombasa town and consists of savanna, woodlands, ponds, waterfalls and tropical rain forest. This park has one of the highest populations of elephants in the country but visitors can also spot antelopes and leopards. It is possible to register for guided nature walks in the forest to see rare and endangered species of plants like orchids and cycads. After seeing enough of the reserve, you can cool off by either swimming or having a picnic close to the Machenmwana River and the Sheldrick Falls.
Mombasa Go-Kart: This is one of the best places to take children for entertainment and fun. The facility offers several engaging activities for children including computer games and speeding in go-karts along a track made of concrete. They also offer learning and sporting activities like jumping on boggles. Adults can stay engaged by cheering their children from the different playgrounds or watch matches on a giant screen. If the kids get hungry, you can visit the main restaurant for snacks and soft drinks.
Bombolulu Cultural Centre and Workshop: This cultural Centre begun as a project to take care of the physically disabled. The facility cultural Centre and 4 workshops. Now the Centre helps showcase the cultural heritage of the different tribes in Kenya through great artworks – wood carvings, necklaces and wristbands. While there, you will also get an idea about how the tribes in Kenya lived in the olden days, their dress code and the tools they used for hunting. You can go and attend cultural performance or check out the handicrafts, jewelry, leather crafts, wood carving and clothing at the workshop. Since this is a charity organization, visiting is one way of showing support and helping community. You can also support the project by buying one of the products on sale or eat from their restaurant.
Ngomongo Village Park: If you are not satisfied with the cultural exhibitions at the Bombolulu Cultural Center, you should check out the Ngomongo Villages Park. This park consists of several tribal homesteads showing a typical homestead of the different tribes (in the past). Each homestead is led by a tribal representative who actually stays in the hut. Each homestead has a hut, a cultivated garden, domestic (cattle, goats, and sheep) and wild animals (crocodiles in a pond). You will find all the different domestic and hunting tools that were used by the particular tribe. A local witch-doctor is also on site with all the fetishes and charms. All in all, the Centre attempts to depict the kind of life that the local tribes lived before western ideas penetrated the communities. The Centre is arguably one of the best places to go to for a true cultural experience in Kenya. If you are not satisfied with this cultural tour, then I don’t know what else to recommend.
Arabuko-Sokoke National Forest: As the largest remaining coastal forest in East Africa, Arabuko-Sokoke is blessed with incredible biodiversity – including amphibians, butterflies and birds. Over 260 species of birds have been recorded in the forest among which include the threatened Clarke’s weaver and the spotted ground thrush. The forest also hosts rare mammals like the bushy-tailed mongoose, Ader’s duiker and golden-rumped elephant shrew. Arabuko-Sokoke National Forest is an excellent place to go for birding, picnics and nature walks. Birders should take note.
Nguuni Nature Sanctuary: This is a wildlife sanctuary located next to Nguuni Tatu Hills. Tourists who are interested in nature, wildlife and birding will find visiting this sanctuary very rewarding. Expect to see ostriches, giraffes, Oryx, elands and other antelope species. The best time to visit is in the evening. It is before sunset that you can truly appreciate the serenity and beauty of the place. In hope Birders are taking note once again.
Haller Park: Haller Park is one of the many amazing tourist attractions in Mombasa that will impress any nature lover. The park was named after Dr. Haller Rene who turned abandoned limestone quarries into a natural reserve in 1971. The mineral content of the soil was increased, trees planted and a fish farm established in the beginning. Now the park is home to hippos, turtles, waterbucks, zebras, giraffes and buffaloes. Over 160 bird species can be spotted at the Park including weaver birds, pelicans, storks and cranes. The park is a favorite for tourists who love animals but they can also take nature walks through the palm gardens or the nature trails leading to a butterfly haven. Giraffe feeding is also a popular activity. Haller Park is a true birders paradise.
Check out the ruins of Gede: Gede is an ancient town built during the time when Arabs ruled the coast – around the fifteenth and sixteenth century. The town is now in ruins but provides an opportunity to learn about the kind of life lived by the Arabs centuries ago. During your tour of the ruins, you will see a great mosque, a palace, tombs and several houses made of coral stones. There are also Swahili style houses with old drawings on the walls. Visitors to Gede can also see Chinese and Persian architectural works which indicate they had a taste for high-end things. More of the artifacts are displayed in a museum on the island.
Kipepeo Butterfly Project: Kipepeo actually means butterfly. This facility in found in a forest near the entrance to the Gede Ruins. The communities living in the area were offered an opportunity to breed unique species of butterflies at the Arabuko Sokoke Forest. The project gives farmers caterpillars which are then fed on leaves from the forest. Once they change into pupae, they are sold back to the project. Once they reach maturity, the butterflies are sent to centers of display across the globe. The Kipepeo Butterfly Project has helped raise the incomes of members of the community living in the area.
Go shopping or visiting the top markets: As a port that serves five countries of East Africa, Mombasa is an excellent place to do your shopping. Regardless of whether you are looking for souvenir, artifacts, household items, clothes, electronics or food, Mombasa has it all.
The Akamba Wood Carvers is one place you should start with if you are interested in artifacts. They are found near the airport in Mombasa and have some of the most talented local artists in the Mombasa. Go there if you are looking for home decorations, gifts or to see amazing wood carvings of animals and humans. City Mall Nyali on the other hand is an excellent place to check out the latest trending clothing within and around the world. The mall also has some of the finest Chinese and Indian restaurants. For home shopping, there is no better place to go than A1 Supermarket. What separates it from all the other malls in the area is that you will find a lot of locally produced foodstuffs and fruits. Other known shopping centers include Marikiti Market for local souvenirs and artworks. Nakumatt Nyali is arguably one of the top supermarkets in the island but if you are looking for the latest Khangas and Kikoys (Colorful Kenyan dresses) than you should just visit the industry at Biashara Street.
If you mingle more with the everyday people and away from the high end shopping malls, you should go to the Old McKinnon Market. It is here that you will understand why Mombasa is considered a true multicultural town. Watch as the local people go about with business and try out some of the fresh local fruits. If you listen carefully or engage in some small talk, you might even be included in some of the latest gossip.
Visit the Theatre or Casinos: For the best local movies or current international blockbusters, you should visit a cinema theatre or one of the movie houses. Do not forget to take a family member or one of your local friends along. The most modern movie theatres are at City Mall and Nyali Cinemax. Golden Key Casino is the best place for gaming in Mombasa. The Casino overlooks the Indian ocean offering 3 card pokers, blackjack, bonus card poker, Pontoon and roulette just to mention a few. After trying out your favorite games, you can visit the restaurant for tasty local and international cuisines.
Take Coffee: For the best Kenyan coffee, you need to check out Cafesserie. The coffee outlet is located in a large shopping mall in Nyali. The atmosphere is relaxed and you can also order for food or freshly baked bread.
Sample the local Cuisines: The Sheer variety of local food will leave you spoilt for choice. The food can be bought from any of the local restaurants or hotels. The best time to buy local food is in the evening along the streets on Makadara road. Some of the favorite cuisines on offer include Nyama Choma, chapatti, minced meat, pilau and meatballs. You can wash them down with maize porridge, coconut water, fruits or milkshake. The price is very affordable and is an excellent choice for those who are traveling on a budget. If you want to eat something different that you wouldn’t on a normal day, then try out the coastal/sea foods. An Octopus may not be the first thing you want on your menu but just try it and you might find it very tasty.
Visit the local Night Clubs: The audiophile will say music makes one younger and escape the realities of a busy life. In Mombasa, you won’t have your high-end system with you but you can go and shake your legs to some of the top local hits in the country. The clubs are modern, play international hits and will make you feel at home. The best place to go is Le Club at Continental Resort. Music goes on till the wee hours of the morning and you don’t have to worry about food. All you need to do is visit the restaurant section. Other popular nights clubs in the area worth mentioning are Casablanca Club, Sheba, Bella Vista, Bobs, Bliss Lounge and The Lounge.
Attend the different festivals and events within the islands: The Mombasa Carnival is one of the most eagerly awaited festivals in the country. It takes place in November every year and features colorful local costumes, dance performances and eye-catching decorations. It is the perfect time to witness a combination of Arabian and African cultural performances. The Mombasa Triathlon also occurs annually between September and November. The sports gala brings together participants from all around the world to compete swimming 1.5 kilometers into the ocean or go biking for 40 kilometers along the street of Mombasa. If you are visiting around Christmas time, you can stay a little longer and attend the New Year’s Celebrations. New year celebrations are done everywhere on earth but it is different experience in Mombasa. The whole city of Mombasa comes to life as you witness fireworks, people partying and in a celebration mood..
Visit Kilifi: This is an isolated resort on the shores of Kilifi Creek. It was once only reachable by ferry but a bridge was constructed hence exposing it to the main islands. The key attractions here are the Mnarani Ruins. This was an old local settlement of Swahili speakers right from the early fourteenth century. A large baobab tree can be found in the island and is said to be the largest in the entire coast of Kenya. Kalifi resort also has a known golf club which hosts some of the best know local tournaments.
Visit the Religious sights: After enjoying your time in this vast coastal town, you might want to spend time with your creator for meditation and reflection. As a city of great cultural diversity, Mombasa has religious sites for all religious denominations. Christians will find Jesus Healing Sanctuary a great place to go. The sanctuary organizes community work and bible teachings for visitors and volunteers. The best time to go for prayers is on Sunday. The Holy Ghost Roman Catholic Cathedral is located at the center of the city but visitors can also go to the Anglican Mombasa Memorial Cathedral.
You might also be interested in the old Hindu temple close to the railway station especially if you are interested in learning more about the island’s history. The temple houses rare stone carvings and idols that are hundreds of old. The ancient (1570) Mandhry Mosque is also a favorite for Muslims or visitors who are interested in the islands historical buildings. The Lord Shiva Hindu temple is one religious establishment you should visit if you practice Hinduism or are interested in religious architecture and sculptural works. The Swaminarayan Temple is even better because of its amazing paintings and depictions of characters from Hindu Mythology (Ramayana and Mahabharata).