You might come to Mombasa expecting to encounter a variety of cultural influences at work; after all, despite the visible signs of age, it’s still one of East Africa’s largest and most important port cities. In fact, since its seizure by the Portuguese in the 16th century, this valuable plot of Kenyan real estate has traded hands multiple times, giving rise to Asian, Arab and British influences as well as those of its original pre-European founders. But though you’ll find a fair share of religious, commercial and architectural diversity here, Mombasa’s cultural appeal is a bit hard to pin down. As with many African coastal getaways, a palpable disparity exists between local living and secluded tourist havens, making it challenging for many visitors to get out and experience the grittier, more honest parts of life in the city. However, if you count yourself among that intrepid minority, allow us to give you a quick glimpse at some of the more interesting cultural goings on around Kenya’s second-largest metropolis.
Luckily for you, Mombasa’s island center is not intimidatingly large, so most of its main draws are within fairly close proximity of one another. And just what are these main draws? Well, in a city without much in the way of fine art or beautiful urban parks, Old Town and Fort Jesus will likely be the most highly touted attractions in your visitor’s guide – and not without reason. The first offers a more or less “authentic” cultural atmosphere amid some uniquely ornate Arab/Asian architecture, while the second is an imposing fortress museum that constitutes one of the world’s best preserved pieces of 16th century Portuguese military design. A short walk away, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover that Mombasa also houses some beautiful religious structures that are absolutely worth your attention. The Lord Shiva, Swaminarayan and Shree Jain temples are three you’ll want to look out for, affording visitors the opportunity to step inside their often elaborately decorated interiors and learn more about each of their respective belief systems.
If you don’t mind expanding your search radius, the area around Mombasa has a few unexpected cultural tricks up its sleeve as well. You could always pay a visit to the Kongowea Market just north of the island, where hundreds of vendors and buyers flock from 5 am to 1 pm daily to engage in commerce (mostly meat and produce) done the old fashioned way. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, hop a ride about 100 km farther north to the small town of Gede. Here you’ll discover the 15th century ruins of an advanced Swahili village, set amid the eerily beautiful overgrowth of the Arabuko Sokoke Forest. Overall, like many developing cities in recently decolonized nations, contemporary Mombasa is much too engaged with plaguing realities like political corruption and worn infrastructure to offer the kinds of passive luxuries (museums, monuments, concert halls) many in the west have linked inextricably with the idea of “culture.” But if you’re willing to leave the comforts and confines of the hotel and really experience the pulse of the city (think November’s annual Mombasa Carnival), you’ll find that there’s no shortage of opportunities to get truly immersed in local living here. And what’s more cultural than that?