Developing as one of Africa’s most important and embattled port cities has certainly left Mombasa with more than its fair share of stories to tell. From its founding somewhere around the turn of the 2nd millennium, through centuries of Portuguese invasions, Arab invasions, slave trading and British colonialism to its current standing as Kenya’s aging, politically questionable capital of tourism, there’s little that this city of around 1.3 million residents hasn’t been put through over the last thousand years or so. But be that as it may, you’ll never get a sense for any of it if you content yourself (as many visitors are prone to do) with experiencing only the sun and sand at its plentiful resorts and ocean-side hotels. Yes the streets may be slightly unkempt, the buildings a little worse for wear, the urban aromas somewhat foreign to your olfactory senses; still, there is a beautifully gritty, multicultural realism here that merits at least an honest traveler’s investigation. So let’s get the ball rolling.
We’ll start with the basics: easy destinations like the 16th century Fort Jesus and nearby Old Town. These are truly unique cultural mainstays that will get you off of the beach and onto the main island. Should your architectural interest not be satisfied, take the short walk to some surprisingly beautiful religious structures like the Shree Jain and Lord Shiva Temples, furnished with ornate interiors to match their distinctive exterior beauty. From here, why not meander down Moi Ave, paying a visit to the famous Mombasa Tusks before grabbing a roadside drink at any of the available restaurant/bars? After all, a cold Tusker might be just the thing to loosen up your inhibitions enough to hop a taxi 15 km north to Mtwapa – billed as one of the oldest towns in Kenya. Here you could check out some ancient Swahili ruins (Jumba la Mtwana and the Mtwapa Heritage Site), or just spend the night blissfully reveling in one of Kenya’s fastest growing after-hours hotspots. Doesn’t sound like a bad way to spend a day away from the hotel, right?
But let’s say you’re in mourning over all those adventures left unexplored back in Nairobi, what then? Well, don’t bemoan your station too quickly, traveler. While Mombasa can’t provide Mt. Longonot’s or Mt. Kenya’s towering vistas above sea level, it comes well equipped with plenty of coral reefs and marine life to experience beneath it. And though its safari options may not be as plentiful as those found farther west, we somehow doubt you’ll be left disappointed by the diverse landscapes of the Shimba Hills National Reserve or the wild, untouched beauty of Tsavo National Park. Because you see, while the beaches and nightlife and high-end hotel restaurants might get all the fanfare, there’s way more to see and do around Kenya’s second city than just tanning tourists and leisure activities. Give in to that urge to explore and you’ll likely experience something way more worthwhile than what your vacation brochure prepped you for.