Most people stop in Mombasa as part of a longer trip or safari to Kenya, and many do so as a way to put a relaxing end to their holiday and enjoy a soothing beach break for a day or two. And while Mombasa's beaches are indeed worthy of your time and leisure, there are a few good reasons to linger here a little longer and explore beyond the coast.
Detaching yourself from the relaxed beachfront atmosphere may prove a little hard at first, but if you have more than a couple of days to spend here, my personal recommendation is that you get out and about to discover more of this amazing, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city.
Mombasa is an attractive holiday destination in its own right, and despite most travellers only using it as a beach stop, there are many ways to get under its skin, mingle with the locals, interact with wildlife, immerse in traditional villages' lifestyle, buy authentic souvenirs and have oodles of fun at leisure centres. Tearing yourself away from the alluring beach life in Mombasa will prove incredibly enriching, entertaining and soul-uplifting.
Kenya's most unique city
As Kenya's oldest established city, its foundation dates as far back as the year 900 A.D.!, and second-largest county, Mombasa's ideal situation on the Indian Ocean coast made it a coveted trade base over which many other countries battled to gain control of. Its strategic location on the edge of the Indian Ocean also made it a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural hotpot of mixed languages, religions and ethnicities. In fact, this is Kenya's most different city, with strong Indian and Arabian influences, making for a very colourful, multi-layered experience.
Nowadays, Mombasa is also a regional economic and cultural hub, with a famed colossal port, an international airport and its own tourism centre. It's considered Kenya's second capital and for good reason, not only is it the second-largest and second-most populated part of the country, but its proximity to the sea makes it an important trade centre.
Nairobi may be the buzzing, more modern capital with the more varied and trendy dining scene, but Mombasa is far more interesting in appealing in other ways, and in fact, many travellers prefer its laidback attitude, slower pace and easy smiles. People on the coast also tend to be kinder, chattier and laidback. After all, you're on holiday, what's the need to rush?
Top Unmissable Landmarks in Mombasa
Whatever you do, make sure to check off the following landmarks in your bucket list before heading anywhere else and delving deeper into Mombasa's intricate, multi-coloured cultural, historic and natural fabric.
Probably the number one site that you should visit above all others is the amazing historical marvel of Fort Jesus is, a scenic castle majestically rising from the sea, making for the most stunning photo opportunities.
This monumental Portuguese fort used to guard the Old Port of Mombasa and was built in the late 16th century. Its jaw-dropping location on a hill rising out of the azure waters is nothing short of breathtaking and after stepping inside you'll be able to tour its interiors, hiring an authorised guide helps and makes a tremendous difference to the experience, and see the remnants of its former occupants.
There is a small onsite museum and a number of artefacts to peruse relating to the slave trade, past conquerors, battles and stories of sieges and conquests. You can easily spend 3 to 4 hours here with a knowledgeable guide, you'll find certified guides outside the museum, wearing a special badge.
Atmospheric, full of character, history and charm, the old part of the city is another must-see. In fact, along with Fort Jesus, these are the only two Mombasa landmarks that have been submitted for selection in UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites. This is also the most demographically diverse part of the city, with a good mix of people of Arab, Portuguese, Asian and British descent and this is evident in the eclectic mix of styles, most notably, the predominance of Portuguese and Islamic architecture.
Covering an area of 180 acres, this picturesque part of the city has a lot to enchant travellers with and presents a lot of photo opportunities for keen photographers. You should devote around two hours to see most of it and a knowledgeable guide definitely helps if you want to learn about the city's true essence. Sadly many majestic old buildings are falling apart with no apparent rescue mission in place despite authorities being called out for their neglect. Still, it's an impressive place to absorb and one that will undoubtedly leave its mark on you.
The Arab influence
Because of the hundreds of years that Mombasa was a major trading port for Arab merchants, you will encounter plenty of Arab influence here, more than anywhere else in Kenya. You'll see it in the architecture, the decor and the cuisine. Kenya is a predominantly Christian nation, but on the coast the population is almost evenly split in half between Muslims, around 41 per cent, and Christians, approximately 59 per cent. Regardless of the divide people of both ethnicities and religions cohabitate peacefully in what is deemed to be a very tolerant city in Africa.
If you're interested in exploring Islam culture in Mombasa there are a few mosques worth checking out, both for their attractive exteriors as well as their peaceful, spacious interiors, whether you're a Muslim yourself or interested in traditional Arabic architecture, inspecting the following mosques is sure to add to your Mombasa experience:
Dating back to the 13th century, although its official construction date is unknown, this medieval mosque sits at the heart of Mombasa's Old Town and remains unscathed by the passage of time, with its original whitewashed walls. It remains well-preserved in its original state.
Similarly and almost nearly as old, the Mandhry Mosque is found in the same area and is often wrongly credited with being the oldest of the two, owing to the fact that it actually has written and dated records. Its architecture doesn't differ too much from Basheikh's but differences are evident. Perhaps its most attractive feature is the ornate seat-like shape of the front patio, gently cooled by ocean breezes.
The most eye-catching of all due to the bright green accents on its exterior as well as its large size taking over an entire square and beautiful design, you'll find this at the heart of Mombasa's bustling metropolitan area, far removed from the coast and surrounded by shops and businesses. One of the most imposing to look at, it was at the middle of a scandal some four years ago when police arrested radicalised youth members. It remains Mombasa's most controversial mosque but also one of the most beautiful to look at.
There are many more mosques to admire, varying in design and architecture, with the highest concentration of them located in Mombasa Island. From majestic castle-like edifications like that of Masjid Ibrahim to small, quaint and colourful ones like Shibu Mosque.
A touch of nature
For natural encounters that will linger in your heart and mind long after your visit to Mombasa is over, these are top three places to deviate yourself from the beaches:
Shimba Hills National Reserve
This small but incredibly beautiful park some 15 km off the coast enjoys great biodiversity and is deserving of a visit. Now, don't come here expecting big game viewing or safari-style action, for that you'd be better off heading to Tsavo, which is a couple of hours away.
The charm of this place lies in the wild beauty of its woodland, grassland and coastal rainforest landscapes as well as some of the rare creatures that inhabit it. Most notably, Shimba Hills is home to the highest density of African elephants in Kenya while other endemic species like the Sable Antelope can be spotted roaming freely, as can bushy tailed mongoose, elephant shrews and fruit bats.
It's also a sanctuary for keen birdwatchers and home to species like the croaking cisticola, the red-necked-spur fowl and Zanzibar red bishop. One of its most attractive and photogenic features are the majestic Sheldrick Falls, while the dense Mwaluganje Forest offers some amazing trekking opportunities. There's a campsite and lodge if you want to stay overnight, also highly recommended. Entry to the park is also cheaper than at most other reserves in Kenya, so a real day out treat in more than one way!
This nature reserve is the result of an amazing transformation, from quarry wasteland into an ecological protected park. In a way, it's like a big zoo with some fenced off animals, but the majority of species enjoy enclosures so large that it resembles more a reserve than a park. The biggest attraction for kids and also adults!, is the giraffe feeding while many love the vast expanses, millennial trees and nature trails. Free-roaming monkeys, hippos, eland antelopes, oryx, often found together, walking alongside each other like big chums, friendly giant tortoises, buffaloes, crocodiles, snakes and a variety of birds, this remarkable waste-to-paradise success story is a must-see in Mombasa.
Exploring a "kaya" means immersing in a peculiar coastal tribe's most intricate mysticism and beliefs relating to the power of nature. A kaya is a sacred forest of the Mijikenda people that inhabited the former Coast Province of Kenya, before its name was changed to Mombasa. More than a forest, a kaya is a place of prayer and rituals, a place of metaphysical power whose roots have the origin of cultural identity. For the Mijikenda tribes, the kaya also represents a traditional community. Around 11 of the 30 separate kaya in existence today, have been grouped together as the Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the coastal stretch between the towns of Mombasa and Kilifi you can find 200 km of kayas, most of which do not allow external visitors. The one exception is Kaya Kinondo, a forest off Diani Beach where visitors can gain access through a local guide that asks permission to the Kaya elders. It's an experience not to be missed as you can participate in rituals as well as soak up the beauty of these mysteriously powerful forests.
Exploring Hindu temples
Christianism and Islam may be the two bigger religions in this part of Kenya, but a strong Indian influence is also evident not just in the regional cuisine but also in some of the city's architecture. There are some beautiful Hindu temples to admire, the most colourful and vibrant of which is the Shree Cutch Satsang Swaminarayan Temple.
This rainbow-like sacred place is a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of urban Mombasa, with amazing artwork to gawp at, intricate carpentry, beautiful wall murals, richly ornate doors with detailed reliefs and gorgeous columns. Almost like a fantasy world come to life with deep religious meaning, the images of people being boiled alive in hell for eating meat might scare you a bit though, although a similarly horrendous fate awaits heavy drinkers according to the illustrations. All in all, a lot to take in.
The Shiva Temple, by contrast, is one of the oldest and largest in Mombasa, with a more serene, far less colourful atmosphere that is inviting and soothing. It has a pretty interior courtyard with a pond. A more sober approach to spirituality with peaceful gardens and lotus flowers.
But the most spectacular Hindu temple of all in Mombasa is, without a doubt, the Jain Temple, a regal castle-like structure with floor-to-ceiling sculptures, figurines and murals. It's all-white exterior imitates the ancient Jain temples it is built after, preserving the traditional style in white marble and boasting cool interiors that will instantly put you at ease. There are many little details to take in once inside, so take your time to enjoy this gem.
The fact that I encourage you to explore beyond the beach should not be taken to mean there aren't coastal marvels to discover in Mombasa. Here are my top ones:
Jumba la Mtwana
These beautiful archaeological ruins from the 14th century are an awe-inspiring way to learn more about Swahili culture and the region's earliest Arab settlers. The stone remnants of a former citadel consist of a mosque, four houses and a tomb, all of which are preserved in recognisable condition.
No written or historical records exist of this mysterious settlement, but evidence indicates it was abandoned early in the 15th century. You'll find it some 15 km north of Mombasa in a stunning seaside location that makes it all the more captivating. Often compared to the more famous Gede ruins, Jumba la Mtwana has just as much archaeological value, with an onsite museum and a panoramic restaurant by the sea.
This is where you go to escape the larger crowds of the more popular Diani Beach o Bamburi Beach. With miles of perfectly secluded white sands and easy access to a beautiful coral reef during low tide, there's no reason not to come here and unwind for a few hours or even a full day. Boat rides and other water sports are offered while local artisans and beach peddlers offer their wares, never in an intrusive or pestering way though.
Mama Ngina's Drive, a.k.a "The Lighthouse"
this area is the most amazing place in all of Mombasa for people-watching, buying trinkets and generally taking in the local day-to-day life atmosphere. Officially, it's called Mama Ngina's Drive, but locals refer to it as "The Lighthouse" due to Mama Ngina heritage building, which has one tall lighthouse-like tower painted in white and blue. The area surrounding this building is always in a flurry of activity, the number one hang-out spot for locals and the epicentre of many festivals.
Its location overlooking the Indian Ocean makes it a magnet for locals and visitors alike and this bayside strip is the place to come and unwind and try local bites from the stalls. Basically, four things are offered by vendors: "madafu", coconut drink, "kachiri", freshly-fried cassava crisps, "mahindi", grilled corn and roasted sweet potato.
In the evening it gets busier as locals head here to peruse the food stalls, grab a pre-dinner snack an socialise. You can observe people getting on and off the Likoni Ferry and if you're lucky, catch a trade ship disembarking goods. The soothing sea breeze enhances the experience even further.
Any other tips for going rogue in Mombasa?
Just getting lost in its streets like an average citizen will give you a better sense and better appreciation of the city in all its many facets. It isn't a perfect city and not every sight you encounter will be a pleasant or especially beautiful one, but it's from observing the contrasts that one is able to draw the more accurate conclusions. Seeing just one side, the most aesthetically pleasing or most famous side of a place, is like not having properly seen or understood the place at all, in all its depth and breadth.