A woman cooks a hot meal on the side of the street. A man calls out, selling baskets from his storefront. The cobbler adjusts
a leather sandal strap. Take a walk through Old Town Mombasa and it isn’t hard to imagine what life was like a hundred years ago. This part of the city is definitely worth the visit, especially if you enjoy getting lost in time.
We’ve had the very unique opportunity to visit Old Town Mombasa twice since we’ve been married- once while on our honeymoon, and then again with friends this last July. I love walking along the uneven streets of this historic city. It’s actually an island and is Kenya’s largest port and main tourist hub. You can smell the ocean, the fresh fish, and hear the water lapping up against the harbor. Every time we’ve been, it’s been pretty hot and humid, which adds to the whole “exotic” feel. The streets are busy with people going about their day, selling their wares and catching up with each other.
Old Town feels like two worlds have collided. One minute you’re walking through an ten foot ornate and beautifully hand carved door that’s several hundred years old, and the next you’re standing in what is now a coffee shop boasting free wifi and smoothies. Slightly bizarre. But totally awesome.
These historical buildings date back to the 18th century and are a combination of African, Arabic and European design. The beautifully carved frames and elegant balconies attached to their turn of the century facades make it feel like you’re walking in a time capsule! The streets are auto-free, but the occasional tuk tuk or motorcycle will whiz by, so make sure you aren’t standing in the middle of their path.
Something to keep in mind while in Old Town is how you dress. Yes it’s hot and humid, but it will go a long way if you can be respectful of the largely Muslim population and dress modestly. I felt much more comfortable walking up and down the winding streets in a pair of lightweight pants and a t-shirt on our most recent visit than I did wearing shorts while on our honeymoon.
Ok, so are you ready to experience Old Town? Here’s a breakdown of what I consider to be some of the most endearing parts of this enchanting city.
1. Walking the Streets: You can pick up a copy of The Old Town Mombasa: A Historical Guide from the tourist office or at Fort Jesus. It makes a great reference as you meander through the streets of Old Town. It gives a historical explanation for many of the buildings you’ll walk past (which the nerd in me loves). You can also hire a local guide (but be careful that you don’t get someone pretending to know more than he really does just to make a few bucks!). We haven’t done this personally, but I’ve heard others have had great experiences doing so. Just be prepared to tip them something at the end of the tour to compensate your guide for his time.For the best overall experience, I’d recommend you start your walk and end it at Fort Jesus. Take Sir Mbarak Hinaway Rd. and wind back around to Fort Jesus. The total distance is around 2 kilometers. We’ve walked this quickly in about an hour and half, and then taken our time and finished in a little over 3 hours.
You can follow the guide or you can just stop along the way at whatever interests you! One of the coolest things we stumbled on in Old Town was a wood workshop. The door was cracked open and when the owner saw us peeking in, we were quickly welcomed inside. We got to watch craftsmen hand carving some of the most beautiful furniture I’ve ever seen with the most basic of tools. On our second trip, I was able to purchase a similar piece of wood that used to be an old shutter in Old Town. It now hangs in my house as artwork and I love telling the story behind it.While it’s good to be adventurous, please don’t forget to be smart. There are some very kind and friendly people in this part of the city, but it is in your best interest to not walk alone, and try and stick to the “Old Town Walking Trail”. We learned this the hard way once! As newlyweds, we decided to toss the map and see what was down one of the alleyways. The more turns we took, the more fear I felt welling up inside of me. Not only were we incredibly lost (it truly feels like a maze!), but we found ourselves in a situation where we felt equally vulnerable and at risk. We later found out we had walked into a very unsafe part of the city. Out of nowhere, a local man walked up and whispered for us to follow him. He led us back to Fort Jesus and we walked away feeling pretty stupid. Follow your instincts and be alert!
2. Fort Jesus: Fort Jesus is a Portuguese Fort that was constructed between 1593- 1596. I was orginally built to guard the port and is in the shape of a man, which is why it’s called “Fort Jesus”. One thing that makes this landmark unique is that it was listed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites because of the way it’s been so incredibly maintained and shows what most 16th-century Portuguese military fortifications looked like. And standing next to this relic really does make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time! You can hire a guide to walk you around, and there is also a museum onsite.Fort Jesus is open daily from 8am – 6pm. Non-residents can expect to pay $12 for adults and $6 for kids. For more information you can visit the National Museums of Kenya’s Website.
3. Leven House: A very big part of Old Town’s history is the part it played in the slave trade, and Leven House was right in the middle of it all. It was the headquarters for the British Navy’s anti-slavery campaigns.
Leven House also happens to be at a great stopping point about halfway through your walk of Old Town and offers a restaurant for anyone wanting a tasty bite or cup of tea. East African food often gets a bad rap for being bland and lacking in flavor. Not here on the coast! Leven House serves some very tasty Swahili dishes (think curries and flavor!) and has plenty of fresh seafood options. We enjoyed our lunch on the patio outdoors overlooking the harbor. While the food was delicious, it was really sobering to look out over the water as we ate and picture the slave ships setting out on their journeys.
4. Sail the Harbor: One of the coolest things we’ve ever done? A dinner cruise on the Tamarind Dhow. The Tamarind Dhow is part of the Tamarind Group, a high end restaurant group in Kenya. (I talked about another one of their restaurants in another post.) “Dhow” is swahili for boat. The Tamarind Dhow is a dinner cruise that takes place in an authentic Arab sailing boat, formerly used for spice trading along the Kenyan coast. And guess what? They sail right through Old Town!
You can choose between the lunch or dinner cruise ($40 for lunch, $70 for dinner). The dinner cruise leaves at 6:30 PM and doesn’t finish til 10:30. Prices include a complimentary cocktail which is a fun way to start the night. We enjoyed some of the most delicious, fresh seafood along with great live music and dancing (ok, I’m not really much of a dancer, but it was entertaining to watch all the other people dance!). It was such a relaxing and romantic evening and I was sad when it was time to head back to our hotel. I’ll never forget how pretty Fort Jesus and Old Town looked as the sun went down…
So there you have it! These were the reasons I enjoyed our time in Old Town Mombasa so thoroughly. If we get the opportunity to visit again, I’d love to stop by the spice market! Have you been to Old Town? What did you enjoy most?