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Things to do in Mombasa – Understand
I have done travel guides for a host of cities in nearly every continent, but I hate to say this – Mombasa isn’t a city you should add to your itinerary. This is the first time I’m adding such a disclaimer to any city in the world.
Mombasa is acceptable if all you do is go from the airport to your beach resort and only leave with armored guards, but hey, those are probably not your trips or you would not be reading this guide. Exploring the city on your own needs guts and luck to get away with it.
Things to do in Mombasa – Safety
Mombasa is dangerous – more than I initially thought. There is a travel warning for Mombasa’s city center but the entire city just has no real police presence. Even when there is, it’s not much help.
The US Department of State has a good list of safety recommendations. Get a good hotel and leave everything but absolutely necessary in that safe. Get a trusted guide and/or a guard to explore the city. It’s not a city you want to stand out in and it’s downright dangerous at night.
Given the lack of safe havens in the city, I felt less safe than in Johannesburg. Johannesburg has some seriously troubled neighborhoods but also has a very safe first-world infrastructure just a few blocks away. In Mombasa the only retreats are the beach resorts and commercial centers like banks or malls.
Things to do in Mombasa – Traffic
While taxis are rare and expensive, there are many tuk tuk drivers in the city and tourist areas. Most are trustworthy, but try to get one driver called for you. Walking isn’t a good idea at day or night as you will stand out and get a lot of attention – more than you think!
Things to do in Mombasa – Sightseeing
This UNESCO World Heritage Site was originally built by the Portuguese in the 17th century. It has changed hands many times in its history, with Omanis, the British, the Dutch and seemingly everyone giving it a go in order to control Mombasa Island.
The entrance fee is a steep KES 1,100 and a guide is an extra KES 400. The fort has a prime location (as you would expect), overlooking the waterways. It’s very picturesque with lots of old cannons and there are some basic displays as well. It’s a good site but 30 minutes will do the trick. For that, it’s expensive.
Adjacent to Fort Jesus is the old town of Mombasa. Old, tree-lined streets give way to even older, decaying houses. It would make for a great stroll, but you would be making yourself a target. Don’t bring any cash, valuables or credit/debit cards and fight off that paranoia!
Nyali is the ritzier district of Mombasa, but public safety isn’t a given here either. The City Mall is a major landmark and because tenants all share the cost of security you will feel safe and cool inside.
This area features a fantastic white sand beach with clear water. It’s part of the Marine Park, but an entrance fee only applies if you take a boat trip or bring snorkel equipment. Beaches are generally public in Kenya, so swimming is free.
There are two rusting shipwrecks on this beach, making for a fantastic photo opportunity.
Alas, the beach is not safe. Don’t leave anything when you swim – take everything into the water. Keep your eyes open and stay in sight of the armed guards and/or the police if they are present. This really degrades the beach experience. Get here, take pictures and keep moving!
Both beaches have fine white sand and somewhat clear water. The views are fantastic and on a busy Sunday it is fun to see the crowds enjoy the weekend. The Voyager Resort is a great place to grab a drink while staring towards the Indian Ocean.
The mosque in the old town of Mombasa easily stands out for its architecture and clean space. When I was there, the Imam came out and explained to me that he’s the artist of many of the ornaments you can see there.
Just a few blocks away is the Holy Ghost Cathedral – a great piece of architecture for an African church. There are no pictures allowed inside or out though. The guards are serious about it!
Things to do in Mombasa – Food and Drink
Mombasa Old Town has two eateries right next to each other, which make the trip downtown worth it. Both serve a mix of meats and have incredibly delicious chicken biryani. It’s also just KES 280 at Tarboush and easily one of the best I have had; it was better than my ventures into biryani in Stone Town earlier this year.
Mombasa downtown also has a number of good chain coffee shops. Many hide out inside buildings and you will need to do some searching. Be paranoid about dark alleys or opening your wallet or showing your phone on the street.
Similar to in Kampala, Cafesserie runs THE coffee shop in town with a French theme. It feels a bit less classy but more relaxed than the Kampala sister shop, but the coffee and pastries are still excellent quality. The prices are low too and the WiFi is somewhat fast.
Just outside the mall is an Italian restaurant called La Veranda. It serves traditional Italian food and has even invested in a good pizza oven. The quality of the food is good, though it’s somewhat bland.
Sheba Lounge runs a rooftop lounge at the City Mall. There isn’t much of a view, but it’s nice enough without it. The menu used to have lots of Ethiopian food (which you would expect with its name) but apparently the Ethiopian chef is on a prolonged leave. Should he come back, give this place a try.
Another place inside City Mall – this time started by a UAE food entrepreneur. It has some great dishes like the hummus and some not so good dishes like the salad. It’s a great, clean spot and worthwhile for a tasty portion of hummus.
There are 3 Cafe Arabikas in the city and apparently the marina location is rated the best.
Things to do in Mombasa – Where to Stay
Mombasa does not have any chain hotels (if you exclude the Best Western). There aren’t enough business travelers for business hotels and the seaside resorts are filled with European package tourists (who usually hate chain hotels) and guests coming from Nairobi for a long weekend.
I selected an apartment in Nyali which was an odd beast. I’m not sure what happened, but while it was seemingly safe with lots of guards and electric fences, there just was never another guest. There were four villas with lots of apartments but every place was broken in a different way (no water, no AC, no shower etc).
I eventually settled into the Voyager Resort, which looks great but it’s just a typical package tourist haven with all those pro and cons. It’s great value, however, at about $70 per night.
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About the author: Torsten is a serial entrepreneur who started almost a dozen ventures on four continents. Torsten's love for travel has brought him to 130+ countries and travel with most of the world's airlines. You can reach Torsten at [email protected]
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