Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city after Nairobi, offers travelers an exotic taste of the African tropics steeped in centuries of seafaring history. This cosmopolitan tourist hub is actually an island connected by bridges and ferries to the Kenyan coast. Stretching for miles along the mainland to the north and south, Mombasa’s beach resorts preside over palm-studded strands fringed by shimmering coral reefs. Tourists from Europe and beyond flock here to enjoy the many things to do – from dolphin spotting trips on traditional dhows and deep-sea fishing to diving and snorkeling the wrecks and reefs and basking on the sun-splashed shores. But in the city itself, on the bustling island, a world of history and culture awaits.
Thanks to its legacy as the largest port in East Africa, Mombasa is a cultural melting pot. British, Asian, Arabic, Omanis, Indian, and Chinese immigrants have enriched the city’s architecture and cuisine, and many mosques and temples grace the city streets. In the Old Town, where fragrant spices waft from local markets, you can step back in time and explore the ancient buildings. Beyond the city, wildlife parks, villages, and ancient ruins round out the wealth of water-based fun.
Built in 1593 to 1596 by the Portuguese, Fort Jesus is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Mombasa’s top tourist attractions. Italian architect Cairati designed the structure, which is one of the world’s finest examples of 16th-century Portuguese military architecture. Built in the shape of a man, the fort was given the name of Jesus as a clear religious reference. The fort changed hands nine times between 1631 and 1875 before finally resting with the British. Although partially ruined, Fort Jesus houses a museum built over the former barracks for the garrison. Exhibits include a vast collection of ceramics and pottery reflecting the various cultures that traded along the coast. Fort Jesus has many battlements and ruined buildings within the compound, including Omani house, built in the late 18th century, which houses Omani jewelry and displays on Swahili life. The Passage of Arches was cut through the coral to give access to the sea.
Location: Ndia Kuu, Mombasa
Haller Park is a hit with animal lovers. Formerly called Bamburi Nature Trail, this inspirational project began in 1971, when Dr. René Haller transformed the abandoned limestone quarries here into a thriving nature reserve. Dr. Haller increased the mineral content of the soil, planted trees, added a fish farm, and created a wildlife park where each animal has a function within the flourishing ecosystem. Wildlife found here includes giraffes, Cape buffalo, zebras, waterbucks, and hippos. The park was also home to a famous interspecies couple that became an Internet sensation after the 130-year-old tortoise, Mzee, adopted Owen, an orphaned hippo.
Birds are also abundant in the park. More than 160 species have been introduced to the area including weaver birds, cranes, pelicans, and storks. Walking and cycling paths wind through the groves of casuarina, and a reptile park, palm garden, and crocodile pens are other attractions. A highlight is the giraffe feeding, but be sure to check the times before visiting. Nature trails lead to a butterfly pavilion.
About a 15-minute drive from Haller Park, Nguuni Wildlife Sanctuary, with giraffes, ostriches, eland, oryx, and many species of birds, offers more wildlife-viewing opportunities. It’s also one of the most popular picnic sites in Mombasa.
Address: Mombasa Malindi Road, Mombasa
Mombasa Marine National Park
One of the busiest of Kenya’s offshore reserves, Mombasa Marine National Park protects mangroves, seagrass beds, sandy beaches, and coral reef. Diving and snorkeling are popular activities – especially north of Mombasa, from Mtwapa Creek south to the entrance of Likoni. Seahorses, stingrays, and eels are among the marine creatures inhabiting the reserve, and the MV Dania is a popular wreck dive here. Those wishing to remain dry can view the diverse marine life from a glass-bottom boat. The popular beaches of Nyali, Bamburi, and Shanzu all provide access to the marine park.
North Coast Beaches
The coastline north of Mombasa is a little livelier than the south coast, and the resorts are closer to the airport and Mombasa City. Palm-lined beaches, crystal clear waters, coral reefs, and a profusion of water sports, resorts, and entertainment venues provide plenty of tourist action. Mombasa Marine National Park fringes the coast here, with multi-hued coral gardens, drop offs, and Kenya’s best wreck diving on the MV Dania. Traveling north from Mombasa, Nyali Beach is the first stop. Shops and hotels line the beach here. Farther north, Bamburi Beach and Shanzu Beach are also tourist hubs with a wide range of accommodation, from luxury resorts to beach bungalows.
On the southeast side of Mombasa Island, the Old Town is reminiscent of the days when the Portuguese ruled this important port. The town’s inhabitants are mostly of Arab, Asian, and European origin, and the architecture reflects their cultures. Ornately carved doors and balconies adorn the old buildings that jostle cheek to jowl along the narrow streets. History buffs can easily spend a couple of hours here, strolling along the atmospheric alleys; snacking at one of the many cafés; and shopping for antiques, fragrant oils, spices, and souvenirs. The Portuguese-built Fort Jesus, one of Mombasa’s top tourist attractions, overlooks the harbor here.
South Coast Beaches
The coastline south of Mombasa is a world of natural beauty. Turquoise seas lap the sun-bleached beaches, where tourists sprawl under rustling palms. Rainforests with abundant wildlife and birds skirt this idyllic stretch of coast, and coral reefs protect the swimming areas from offshore swells. Shelly Beach, just south of the Likoni Ferry, is the closest beach to Mombasa along the south coast. Tiwi Beach, 17 kilometers south of the Likoni Ferry, is a popular spot for sunbathers and snorkelers. Diani Beach is the most developed area along this stretch, but still offers beautiful beachscapes. European package tourists flock here to enjoy the busy lineup of water sports – from windsurfing, sailing, snorkeling, and diving to water-skiing and parasailing.
A famous landmark in the city, the Mombasa Tusks were built to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Mombasa in 1952. Constructed of aluminum, the tusks mark the entrance to the heart of town where visitors will find most of the banks, shops, and markets. The intersecting tusks also form the letter “M” for Mombasa.
Address: Moi Avenue, Mombasa
Mamba Village Centre
Mamba Village Centre in Nyali is East Africa’s largest crocodile farm. Visitors can learn about the life cycle and behavior of these fascinating amphibians, and the center also offers horseback riding and a botanical garden with an aquarium. Orchids and aquatic plants are the specialty, but the gardens also display carnivorous species. A highlight for many visitors is watching the crocodiles fight for tasty morsels during feeding time. Carnivores will love the restaurant, which specializes in game meat such as crocodile, ostrich, and zebra.
Address: Links Road, Nyali
Bombolulu Workshops and Cultural Centre
Bombolulu Workshops is a project of the Association for the Physically Disabled in Kenya with four sheltered workshops, a cultural center, and restaurant. At the cultural center, visitors can enjoy tribal dance performances and explore traditional homesteads found throughout Kenya. Guests can also visit the workshops and purchase the handcrafted souvenirs, which include jewelry, textiles, wood carving, and leather crafts. Proceeds help sustain the center’s work. After touring the grounds, guests can stop by the restaurant to sample Kenyan-inspired cuisine.
Address: Workshop Road, Bombolulu
Mombasa Go-Kart is a hit with speedsters and kids of all ages. Zoom around the smooth concrete track in go-karts, bounce around on the off-road buggies, or learn to dig in a Bobcat excavator. After all the excitement, visitors can enjoy a snack at the family-friendly restaurant with computer games, a large playground, and a big screen showing sporting events. The Go-Kart track is floodlit at night.
Location: Bamburi Beach, Mombasa