Get to KNOW, EXPLORE, PROTECT and CELEBRATE Kenya
Mombasa – City of Beach and History
Kenya’s second biggest city Mombasa forms one of the six coastal Treasures boasting two distinct parts of completely different nature: The famous North Coast with its long chain of alluring beaches, diverse marine life and fine hotels that once ignited its reputation as one of Africa’s tourist havens. And the charming coastal city with its ancient roots that boasts a unique ensemble of historic buildings, a spicy blend of different cultures and – best of all – delightful people …
The lighthouse attraction
Only a few tourists make it into the old town of Mombasa and one could perceive they knowingly avoid it because of frequent traffic jams on Digo Road. But probably thousands of people visiting the beaches at the North coast are not even aware of what they are missing! Both, Fort Jesus – one of Mombasa’s landmarks – and the old town, have been graced as UNESCO heritage sites. It is no wonder that this unique ensemble of historic buildings charged with history and culture forms the lighthouse attraction of the Mombasa Treasure. They are a place to discover and savour the tantalizing history of the East Coast of Africa, a history of trade, slavery, pirates, war and adventure.
The heart of Mombasa is formed by a naturally sheltered island of ancient coral reefs surrounded by the waters of Tudor Creek and Kilindini Harbor, today the biggest port in East Africa. It must have been this location of great strategic value which led to the founding of the first settlement long time ago. In fact, Mombasa might be the oldest inhabited settlement of the whole of Kenya looking back at possibly two thousand years of history. Unless before, the island is connected to the mainland today by the Nyali bridge to the North, Makupa dam towards the West and Likoni ferries to the South.
The Portuguese chose the building site of Fort Jesus on the Eastern side of the island well, just adjacent to the old town. With dozens of massive cannons peeping through the arrow loops, it was easy to guard the entry of Tudor Creek which marked the harbor in historic times. And you bet the weapons were not placed there for mere decoration.
Kisiwa cha mvita, ‘the Island of War’ is one of the by-names of Mombasa since time immemorial indicating a history of constant power struggles and conquests between the locals and intruders from Europe, Arabia and Asia. In the 19th century Mombasa served as the entry point for the first Christian missionaries and British colonialists, too. Is it surprising then that the City is home to a multitude of religious and ethnic communities, a spicy blend of cultures and lifestyles from Africa, Arabia and Asia today?
Apart from the 16th century Fort Jesus and some Ieslamic tombs and mosques from the 15th century, the oldest of Mombasa’s exceptional architecture dates back to the 18th century. Traders from Zanzibar and India brought along traditional designs to build their town houses. Exceptionally fine examples of British colonial architecture can be found at Government Square.
Other intriguing buildings the island has to offer are its historic centres of worship such as the mosques and temples, e.g. the Al Mandry mosque and the Sikh temple as well as Bagamoyo and Frere Town where freed slaves settled.
But Mombasa with its one million inhabitants is not only an exciting cosmopolitan city but also the undisputed economic center of the coastal region. For Kenya and its neighboring countries to the West it serves as the major import and export hub. And it was the starting point of the historic Ugandan Railway which led to the founding of the country we know as Kenya today. Apart from a flourishing fishing sector Mombasa owns notable industries such as an oil refinery and the Bamburi cement factory. As major intercontinental undersea telecom cables reach the shores at Mombasa it also acts as a fast-growing communication hub connecting East Africa with the rest of the world.
Mombasa even offers some attractions for animal lovers! Mombasa Marine National Reserve protecting the shore lines and coral reefs is worth visiting for a snorkeling or diving trip. In the backdrop of North Coast’s white beaches there is the renowned Mamba Village crocodile farm. But Haller Nature Park surely makes up for the biggest attraction. As you marvel its wildlife and butterflies while walking or jogging through thick forest you will find it hard to believe that this place was a desert of coral rock left behind by the quarrying of the Bamburi cement factory merely thirty years ago.
Mombasa’s society is an assorted mosaic of cultures which has brought about a rich heritage. The island is acclaimed for its array of exotic cuisines offering a wide range of specialties from Kenya, Arabia, China, Japan, India, Italy, Germany and other countries. Mombasa’s residents display unique clothing, vibrant textiles and popular practices like the use of henna paintings infused with modern trends.
Music is another outstanding feature of Mombasa’s embracing culture, offering all there is from the classical melodies of Taarab to more contemporary compositions. Many upcoming local bands and popular artists like Them Mushrooms, Ukoo Flani, Nyota Ndogo or Mombasa Roots hail from this sonorous island. See how the locals celebrate and enjoy themselves in exciting festivals!
Markets and curio shops also contribute significantly to the cultural intensity of the coastal city for you, your family and friends. Shopping is a delight in Mombasa, whether it is from vendors for local crafts or from the merchants in the big shops for almost everything from beach wear, traditional kikoi and kanga clothing to assorted wood carvings.
How to get there
Starting from Nairobi, a quite enjoyable though the most time consuming option is taking the overnight train. The first class (around KSH 4400) has 2-person sleeping compartments while the second class (KSH 2300 BB, KSH 3400 Full Board) has 4-person sleeping compartments. If you’re on a very tight budget, you can take a daily or an overnight bus for KSH 1000 – 2000 (depending on bus company and the travel class you book). If you have your own vehicle, then take the Nairobi Mombasa Highway (around 500 km, approx. 8-9 hours). The fastest option however is by plane. Kenya Airways, Fly540 and Air Kenya all serve the Nairobi-Mombasa route on a daily basis. A number of international airlines connect Mombasa’s Moi International Airport with destinations abroad. There is a shuttle bus service to/from the airport or you can take a taxi to central Mombasa for about KSH 800 – 1000.
The two Likoni ferries connect Mombasa Island with the southern mainland, running a 24 hours service at frequent intervals. It’s free to pedestrians and KSH 70 for a car. To get to the jetty from the city centre, take a Likoni matatu from Digo Rd (approx. KSH 50). If you want your private transport you have the choice between a rented car or a three-wheeler tuk-tuk which are much more popular at the coast than upcountry.
Mombasa’s old town
The best starting point for visiting the historic centre of Mombasa is Fort Jesus where you can find walking guides to help you find your way around. National Museums of Kenya have put up roadside maps indicating routes and noteworthy buildings for those who are a bit adventurous and prefer to discover old Mombasa by themselves.
You simply can’t visit Mombasa without taking a tour around the old Fort Jesus. The fort was built in 1593 by the Portuguese, though it changed hands many times over the years. Much of the original structure is still there to enjoy, though the British did quite a bit of reconstruction when they turned the complex into a prison in the late 1800s. The attached museum is filled with artifacts from the fort, as well as from other historic areas around Mombasa. To get a proper impression of the fort you can also surround it outside its walls. The museum is open daily from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. Entry fees: Citizens KSH 100, residents KSH 200, non residents KSH 500.
The Haller Park
Formerly known as the Bamburi Nature Trail, the Haller Park which was named after its founder Rene Haller is at the North Coast, just a short drive away from downtown Mombasa. It is a wonderful hangout for families and nature lovers where you can observe manyfold wildlife, walk through the forest and feed giraffes. The park is open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. Entry fees: Residents KSH 200, non residents KSH 600.
Wild Waters Kenya
Wild Waters Kenya with its slides and pools is the inevitable place for families to go to. Restaurants and a video arcade make it also a hang-out for those who don’t feel like getting wet. Entry fees: Residents KSH 1000, non residents KSH 1500.
The Tamarind Dhows runs two authentic ocean going jahazis (traditional Arab sailing boats) formerly used for cargo trading along the Kenyan coast and to the Arab states. The dhows have been completely refurbished as floating restaurants without losing any of the traditional aspects of the original dhow. They are now moored at the Mombasa Tamarind jetty on the Nyali side of Tudor Creek. The ‘Nawalilkher’ has a capacity to hold a cocktail party for up to 100 people whereas the ‘Babulkher’ has a capacity to hold 55 people for dinner and 70 people for cocktails.
Where to stay
Hotels of all kinds including home-stays are available within the city as well as along the famous beach coastline. Accommodations in the city are usually fairly simple and offer lower room rates. If you are looking for easy beach access and luxury on international standards you better stay at one of the many beach resorts at the North Coast.
For more information please visit:
We trust that this has been informative to you. Take it a step further and spread the message: like it, share it, Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter and stay posted for the next Treasure.
Until the next time its many thanks from the 50 Treasures of Kenya Trust for every contribution in this feature with special mention made to Mr.Harmut Fiebig for the wonderful photography and most of all to you our treasured audience for your company.
You are highly treasured.