Top 10 things to do in and around Mombasa
Kenya’s second-largest city and most important port, historic Mombasa is also the main focal point of the country’s thriving Indian Ocean beach tourism industry. It is one of the oldest ports along the East African coast, and although nobody knows exactly when it was founded, Mombasa was namechecked by the Arab geographer Al Idrisi as early as the 12th century AD. Historic highlights include the atmospheric Old Town and Portuguese-built Fort Jesus (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), but the island-bound city center is also a useful springboard for many other attractions. Here we describe our favorite 10 things to do in and around the characterful port town of Mombasa.
Explore Old Mombasa’s and historic Fort Jesus
Reminiscent of Zanzibar’s Stone Town, Mombasa’s Old Town comprises a compact maze of alleys lined with two- and three-story homesteads whose façades incorporate fretwork balconies, carved window frames, studded wooden doors, and other oriental flourishes. The oldest continuously settled part of Mombasa, it is home to several notable buildings, including the 16th-century Mandhry Mosque, the Old Customs House, and the former home of the wealthy merchant Allidina Visram. Extensively rejuvenated in recent years, the old town boasts several boutiques, galleries, craft shops, Swahili eateries, and juice shops, most of which are family-run and reflect its strong sense of community.
Facing the old town, Fort Jesus, built by the Portuguese in 1593, was the most strategic building on the East African Coast for the first three centuries of its existence, when it was the focal point of several extended naval bombardments. With 8ft thick seaward walls that rise a full 50ft from its coral base to the fortified turrets, the fort still cuts an imposing figure above Mombasa’s old harbor today. The site museum houses an impressive collection of artifacts unearthed during excavations, ranging from Chinese porcelain and Arabic earthenware to a panel of wall paintings executed by an anonymous Portuguese sailor in the early 17th century.
Find out more: https://museums.or.ke/fort-jesus-museum/
Chill out on idyllic Diani Beach
Kenya’s most popular seaside holiday destination is Diani Beach, an idyllic expanse of palm-fringed white sand set some 30km south of central Mombasa. Lined with some excellent midrange and upmarket resort hotels, Diani is also equipped with amenities such as ATMs, car rental agencies, supermarkets, launderettes, restaurants, art galleries, and craft markets. Relict patches of coastal forest support quite a bit of wildlife, including Sykes, vervet, and Angola colobus monkey, along with forest birds such as trumpeter hornbill and Schalow’s turaco. At the north end of the beach, the 16th-century Kongo Mosque is tucked away in a stand of baobabs close to the mouth of the Tiwi River.
Find out more: https://ownbrand.me/diani-home
Take a game drive in Shimba Hills National Reserve
Established in 1968, Shimba Hills is a 96-square-mile national park whose elevated forest and grassland provide an excellent opportunity for safari action within easy driving distance of Diana Beach. This is the last Kenyan stronghold of the handsome sable antelope, which is seen on most game drives. It also hosts healthy populations of giraffe, zebra, warthog, elephant, and buffalo, as well as a few elusive leopards. The forest here supports rare cycads and orchids, smaller mammals such as Angola colobus, Sykes’ monkey, red-bellied coast squirrel, blue duiker, and suni, and a host of forest-dwelling birds including the very localized green-headed oriole). On the eastern escarpment, Elephant Lookout offers fabulous views back to Diani, and it’s the starting point for a two-hour guided walk to the 21m high Sheldrick Falls.
Find out more: https://kws.go.ke/content/shimba-hills-national-reserve
Snorkel and dive the reefs of Mombasa Marine National Park and Reserve
Protecting around 80 square miles of offshore waters and coral reefs, Mombasa Marine National Park and Reserve is home to a fantastic diversity of oceanic creatures. The crystal clear shallows are ideal for snorkeling, while deeper reefs can be explored by divers. More than 250 species of reef fish might be seen in the coral gardens, among them the dazzling butterfly fish, angel fish, and scorpion fish. Other marine wildlife includes green and hawksbill turtles, spinner, humpback, and bottle-nosed dolphins, as well as whale sharks, reef sharks, rays, starfish, and sea cucumbers.
Visit ancient Swahili ruins at Jumba la Mtwana
Arguably the most mysterious and impressive of several ruined medieval ports on Kenya’s south coast, Jumba la Mtwana lies close to the mouth of Mtwapa Creek some 45 minutes’ drive north of Mombasa. Blessed with a breezy beachfront setting and an ample supply of fresh water, it must have been a very substantial settlement in its prime. Despite this, no written records of its existence remain and its contemporary name is long forgotten, though excavations carried out in 1972 unearthed Chinese porcelain indicating it was established sometime before AD 1350. Today, gigantic fig and baobab trees erupt from the old coral rag walls of the four surviving houses and a well-preserved mosque with arched doorways and an intact mihrab.
Find out more: https://museums.or.ke/jumba-la-mtwana/
Look for giant tuskers in Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary
This unfenced northern extension of Shimba Hills is a community-run sanctuary comprising land donated by 200 Mijikenda families who all get a share of proceeds raised by tourism. Studded with cycads and hills, the rolling hills of Mwaluganje are home to a similar range of wildlife as Shimba Hills, but elephants are usually much easier to see here, and there are some impressive old bulls around. A traditional kaya (sacred forest) can be visited on foot by prior arrangement.
Find out more: http://www.elesanctuary.org
Explore the brooding Shimoni Caves
Shimoni, which translates to ‘Place of the Hole,’ is a quiet fishing village that thrived briefly in the late 19th century as the base of the British East Africa Company. Most structures from that era are now in ruins, but there is still an abandoned District Commissioner’s residence and a small military cemetery. The main point of interest today is the Shimoni Caves, a place where slaves captured in the interior were held captive before being transported to Zanzibar to be sold. The walls of these grim caves still bear chains and hooks from the slaving era, and there is also a slightly saline well from which the captives were forced to drink.
Shop for handicrafts at Bombolulu Workshops & Cultural Centre
Our favorite place to shop around Mombasa is Bombolulu Workshops & Cultural Centre, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing vocational training to people with disabilities. It is fascinating to visit the center’s workshops, which specialize in jewelry-making, basketwork, woodcarving, tailoring, and leatherwork, and create employment for more than 150 local artisans. These products are sold through a variety of domestic and international outlets, or you can cut out the middlemen by browsing and buying at the on-site shop.
Find out more: https://bomboluluworkshop.co.ke
Take a nature stroll through Bamburi Haller Park
Owned by the Bamburi Cement Factory, this reclaimed limestone quarry is the result of a remarkable environmental rehabilitation project initiated in the 1970s by the Swiss environmentalist Dr. René Haller. Once a sterile eyesore scarred by decades of limestone extraction, the area was transformed into an award-winning oasis of greenery inhabited by giraffes, hippos, buffalo, antelope, and other introduced wildlife (dangerous mammals are kept in large enclosures). Four marked trails run through the park, making it a great spot for jogging, walking, cycling, and birdwatching. Other family-friendly attractions include a reptile park and butterfly pavilion.
Find out more: https://www.lafarge.co.ke/environmental-conservation
Join a boat excursion to Kisite-Mpunguti Marine Park and Reserve
One of Kenya’s most rewarding marine reserves, Kisite-Mpunguti is situated offshore of Shimoni near the border with Tanzania. It’s a popular goal for full-day excursions from Mombasa and Diani and is known for its dense population of dolphins, which often swim close to boats. There are also some superb coral reefs for snorkeling. The focal point of most day trips is Wasini Island, which is named for the Chinese (‘WaCini’ in Swahili), whose ancient trade links are confirmed by the presence of a Ming porcelain inset in a medieval pillar tomb. It is well worth visiting Wasini’s famous ‘Coral Garden’, which protects a landscape of exposed coral outcrops, sand flats, and mangroves and can be explored along a boardwalk managed as part of a community. By day, you can expect to see mudskippers, hermit crabs, and a variety of seabirds, while a dusk visit might be rewarded with an encounter with a coconut crab, the world’s largest terrestrial crustacean. Wonderful seafood lunches and dinners can be enjoyed at Charlie Claws Restaurant, the island’s main tourist hub.