10 Best Places to Visit on Kenya’s Swahili Coast
By Philip Briggs | Updated July 29, 2021
Kenya’s Indian Ocean coastline conforms to every travel brochure archetype of a tropical beach nirvana. A perfect post-safari retreat, its sandy swimming beaches are protected by offshore coral reefs, overhung by swaying coconut palms, and ventilated by a butterfly light sea breeze. But while the beaches are ideal for chilling with a towel and suntan lotion, there is more to Kenya’s coast than a stock tropical seaside holiday. Snorkelers and divers will be dazzled by the kaleidoscopic swirls of tropical fish that inhabit the offshore reefs and coral gardens. On dry land, a succession of coastal forests protect a rich assemblage of endemic birds and other localised wildlife. Above all, perhaps, the Kenya coast is afforded a unique human dimension by its Swahili inhabitants, whose unique cultural blend of African, Arabian and Asian influences has been forged over a millennium of maritime trade.
The main tourist gateway to the Kenyan coast, Mombasa was name-checked by the Arab geographer Al Idrisi in the 12th century and visited by the Moroccan adventurer Ibn Buttata in 1331. Despite being Kenya’s second largest city, it still boasts an old residential quarter of narrow alleys lined with filigreed 19th century houses. Here you will also find Fort Jesus, which was built by the Portuguese in the 1590s and changed hands more than a dozen times over the subsequent three centuries. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the fort still cuts an imposing figure above the old harbour, its thick seaward walls rising more then 50ft from a coral base to the fortified turrets.
Only 20 miles from Mombasa, Diani is an idyllic expanse of palm-fringed white sand lined with resort hotels and other tourist amenities, from ATMs and car rental agencies to craft markets and seafood restaurants. Historical perspective is provided by the presence of the 16th century Kongo Mosque. And while wildlife enthusiasts are unlikely to encounter the elephants that occasionally visited Diani into the 1930s, relict forest patches do still support Syke’s, vervet and Angola colobus monkey, along with forest birds such as trumpeter hornbill and Schalow’s turaco.
A popular goal for day trips out of Diani and Mombasa, this inhabited island is named for the Chinese (‘Wa-Cini’ in Swahili) whose ancient trade link with Kenya is underlined by the presence of a mediaeval pillar tomb inset with Ming porcelain. Visits usually combine a dive or snorkel in the vibrant coral reefs of Kisite Marine Park with a sumptuous seafood buffet at the famed Charlie Claws Restaurant. An ecological highlight is a partly exposed ‘coral garden’ of partly exposed reefs, sand flats and mangroves that can be explored from a boardwalk built by a local women’s group established in 1978. Seabirds, hermit crabs and mudskippers are plentiful, and a dusk visit might be rewarded with a glimpse of the world’s largest terrestrial crustacean, the bizarre coconut crab.
Shimba Hills National Reserve
Whether you’re hankering for safari action or breezy relief from the coastal stickiness, Shimba Hills, only 30 minutes’ inland of the Mombasa-Diani road, is thoroughly worth a visit. This 96-square-mile reserve protects a scenic patchwork of grassland and slopes inhabited by Kenya’s only population of the handsome sable antelope, as well as elephant, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, warthog, Angola colobus, blue duiker and leopard. It also protects Kenya’s second-largest coastal forest and associated birds such as brown-breasted barbet, Mombasa woodpecker and green-headed oriole. If you’re ready for a leg stretch, Elephant Lookout, on the eastern escarpment, is the starting point for a guided two-hour walk to the 68ft-high Sheldrick Falls.
There’s no better introduction to East Africa’s submarine marvels than Turtle Bay, which stands alongside the resort village of Watamu. This idyllic stretch of fine white sand and clear turquoise water hosts a mini-archipelago of mushroom-like formations that protrude above a snorkel-friendly coral garden noted for its calm water, good visibility and kaleidoscopic reef fishes. Further out to sea, more than 300 species of fish have been recorded on the main reef, where divers frequently encounter whale sharks and marine turtles.
Arabuko-Sokoke National Park
Pedestrian-friendly Arabuko-Sokoke protects a vast coastal forest that ranks among Kenya’s most important protected areas in terms of global biodiversity. As a stronghold for six globally threatened bird species including Clarke’s weaver and Sokoke scops owl, it forms an essential stop on any ornithological itinerary through Kenya. Other wildlife includes elephant, a variety of monkeys, and a trio of near-endemic forest mammals, namely Ader’s duiker, Sokoke dog mongoose and the delightful yellow-rumped elephant shrew.
Gedi National Monument
Enclosed by a tangled forest alive with monkey chatter, Gedi is the archetypal lost city. Mysteriously, these haunted ruins are neither named nor otherwise documented in any known written source, but archaeological evidence suggests the city was founded before the 13th century and served as an important mediaeval trade emporium prior to being abandoned circa 1530. The crumbling old town centre is dominated by a 15th century Sultan’s Palace, but there are also eight mosques and several pillar tombs, one inscribed with its date of erection (the Islamic equivalent to AD 1399). A site museum containing artefacts from India, Egypt, Arabia and Spain reflects Gedi’s position in the mediaeval trade network.
An ancient Swahili trading port that fell under Portuguese influence in the 16th century, resorty Malindi stands on a good swimming beach lined with midrange lodges and restaurants catering to the European market. Although it lacks the cultural cohesion that infuses the old towns of Mombasa or Lamu, Malindi houses several historical monuments: most notably a pair of 15th-century Swahili pillar tombs, a thatched 16th-century Portuguese chapel, and a limestone cross erected by the Portuguese navigator Vasco Da Gama in 1499. Malindi is also conveniently close to Turtle Bay, Gedi and Arabuko-Sokoke.
East Africa’s most engaging town, Lamu – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – incorporates several historic buildings whose architectural integrity hark back to its earliest incarnation as a mediaeval trade port. And yet, where other such coastal settlements have either been abandoned as ruins or incorporated into a modern town, Lamu’s compact labyrinth of cobbled alleyways and whitewashed two- and three-storey buildings persists in time-warped isolation on the remote Lamu Archipelago.
Lamu has an irresistibly easy-going vibe. Long lazy days have a way of filling themselves: strolling casually through the narrow alleys that slope towards the mile-long waterfront, stopping for the occasional fruit juice or beer, chatting to locals and other travellers, catching a traditional dhow to snorkel at Manda Toto, tanning on nearby Shela Beach, or spending relaxed evenings on breezy rooftops beneath swaying palm fronds and a pristine night sky.
Tana River Primate National Reserve
This most remote of reserves was created to protect the Tana red colobus and Tana mangabey, a pair of Critically Endangered monkeys whose range is restricted to the riparian forest flanking the Tana River upriver of its delta. Also present is a small population of hirola, a Critically Endangered hartebeest-like antelope endemic to the Kenya/Somali border area.