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krisek Mombasa - A travel report by Krys
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Mombasa,  Kenya - flag Kenya -  Coast
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krisek's travel reports

Wandering in the old town of Mombasa.

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Mombasa is famous for its giant elephant tusks, beaches, old town and a great fort embedded in a cliff right by the ocean. The old town is easy to navigate and has a great feel, almost as if alleys and crumbling buildings were telling an ancient story.

Mombasa travelogue picture
Second largest city of Kenya with its hectic and highly unpredictable traffic made rather terrible impression on me, i.e. on someone who has just landed from cars-free island of Lamu. I was in Mombasa only for a day. It was a stop-over en route from Lamu to Zanzibar. I did not expect much from Mombasa. It featured in the lyrics of one of Poland's few pop songs about nudist beaches. The song was about nudists in Poland, and not in Kenya! Yet the beaches in Mombasa were used as a comparison. I took it easy then. I skimmed a few guidebooks and noticed that the city should occupy me for a day, if I was going to skip the beaches and focus on the old town and the surroundings.

The city's main feature, which made it famous (and not its beaches, by the way) were huge elephant tusks erected above one of the central alleys in the new town. Obviously, they were not authentic, unless a couple of freakishly enormous alien creatures landed in Kenya. Anyway, the tusks looked great from a distance. Up close, the workmanship did not impress me in the same measure.

Favourite spots:
Fort Jesus
Fort Jesus
The old town and the Fort Jesus were picturesque. I strolled down to the fort just after 7 o’clock in the morning and the fort was still closed. And since it was closed, local boys used the opportunity to play football at the fort's oceanfront yard. They were definitely early birds! I watched them play for a little while and it looked like a picture from an historical film about African way of street life.

On the fort's walls I found a placket carved to the memory of the Poles who fought for Mombasa in the World War II. That was highly unexpected because I could not remember that I ever heard about any significant Polish involvement in any operation in Kenya. I did hear about their operation in Tobruk, Libya, but not as far as Kenya. A guy passing by told me that there was a strong Polish community in Mombasa, which came as a surprise to me as well! You learn everyday, huh?

What's really great:
Old Town in Mombasa
Old Town in Mombasa
There were a few interesting old buildings in the old town, which mixed the Swahili and various Indian and Arabic architectural styles. I was not sure where to go so I just cautiously looked into a few narrow streets. Had my hotel's concierge not told me to be careful with my camera, I would have felt more comfortable letting myself loose in Mombasa and explore it more thoroughly. Instead, I felt like I was trespassing a Texan property playing with the risk of being shot.

Yet, a local 'guide' promptly found me near the historic dhow harbour, and eventually I saw a little more that I would have on my own and without a map. Sometimes, these 'guides' annoy me and if I have to take them, I just take small kids, who I know enjoy it and will not spend the money on booze.

He did not necessarily take me to any significant sights or places, but I felt more comfortable and he showed me a short-cut to my hotel, which was located near Mombasa’s most famous sight - the giant tusks.

Old Town in Mombasa
Old Town in Mombasa
In the old town, there were a few very old and interesting mosques. On my way from the fort, I spotted the Mandhry Mosque (the oldest one, dating back to 1570s), the Bohra Mosque (near the fish market) and the Basheikh Mosque (just across the old harbour) with its whitewashed walls and minaret. I did not dare enter any one of them, so just admired their external architectural features, which contrasted nicely with the mixed buildings in their vicinity.

For Christians, there were two significant churches to be visited. One was the Holy Ghost Cathedral and the main Anglican Cathedral, so different in their styles, as well.

Interestingly, Mombasa also featured a Hindu temple. It was located along the Mwembe Tayari Road running from the 1932 railway station towards the old town.

The colonial architecture was featured in the buildings of law courts, and the town hall.

New town of Mombasa across the canal
New town of Mombasa across the canal
I knew I should have not been doing this, yet I landed in Mombasa without having made a reservation in a hotel. I was expecting difficulties but when I arrived at the reception and they told me the hotel was full, I was strangely disappointed. Maybe this was because the night fell a few hours before, and I was not in the mood for wandering in the town looking for a room to stay. The receptionist recommended a few alternative hotels in the vicinity but stressed that I should not even attempt to walk there, for my own safety.

Fortunately, the taxi driver who brought me from the airport waited a little while by the hotel and took me to a different one - the Manson Hotel. It was less picturesque or atmospheric than the first one but of a slightly higher standard and very comfortable, and close to the business district. The taxi driver did not charge me extra for this additional ride and therefore I told him that he could take me to the airport on the day I was leaving Mombasa.

Old town alley near the dhow harbour
Old town alley near the dhow harbour
Mombasa was not poor on nightlife. Amongst the more popular discos was the central Toyz, which did not have any cover charge. An expensive alternative was Casablanca Nightclub, which was modern, but attracted too many 'working girls' too focused on their job. Other than that, one would need a night guide to try some of the local bars, given the poor safety reputation of the city.

There were also a few casinos, which often dubbed as hotels and restaurants, whose bars were not too bad. The best was the Tamarind, just across the old harbour on the other side of the canal. Its seafood restaurant was legendary, as well. Another was New Florida Casino, passed the golf club at the southern tip of the Mombasa Island, but its nightclub charged entry fee, which was not worth the haggle with the prostitutes.

Local footballers
Local footballers
I was fortunate that I stayed near Mombasa's arguably best cafe - the Reconda, on the Moi Avenue - so close to the tusks. It was a pavement cafe offering incredible Arabic dishes, Swahili snacks, and fruit drinks. It was perfect for people watching as well.

Yet, one of the best places to sit down and kill time were the surroundings of the fort. If it was watching the kids playing football or just wandering along the shore and watching the ramparts from below. This is what I remember the most from my short stay in Mombasa.

Mombasa's colonial heritage
Mombasa's colonial heritage
Minutes after I checked in and dropped my bag in the room of the Manson Hotel, I was on the top floor restaurant ordering red snapper for dinner. It was delicious! The service was efficient and very friendly. It was a popular restaurant and I saw many people had come for dinner there although they were not staying at the hotel. The chef was good enough to wander between the tables checking with the diners, if everything was alright.

I wish I had stayed in Mombasa a bit longer to try some other restaurants in town, but I was just passing through really and it was so hot, too hot for eating...

Other recommendations:
Old door
Old door
Mombasa is better known for its beaches than for its old town. Surely, if there was more to see in the city, it might have been known also for something else. Many travel agents across the world offer beach holidays in Mombasa. However, all the nice beaches are out of town, and once in the resort, one would have it rather inconvenient to reach the city centre for anything.

True or not entirely true, Mombasa might not be entirely safe. Lone travellers should not attempt wandering around anywhere at night! Some hoteliers, like mine, would warn against venturing anywhere alone at any time of day either, which is a bit of exaggeration. However, crime in Kenya should not be underestimated, particularly its violent side. On the other hand, bandits rarely attack couples or larger groups in daylight. So, however daunting it might sound, hiring a 'guide' for a few hours works in two different ways: minimises crime attacks and acts as a deterrent to 'souvenir sellers'.

Published on Saturday December 19th, 2009

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Tue, Dec 29 2009 - 11:11 PM rating by gloriajames

the elephants tusks pic is hilarious! very good report as always.

Mon, Dec 21 2009 - 03:05 AM rating by bineba

Very good report, as always. Difficult to tell from the pics that this is Africa - apart from the elephant tusks!

Sun, Dec 20 2009 - 07:16 AM rating by basia

Krys, very intresting report. Probably never will not go there, however, Kenya has always intrigued me.

Sat, Dec 19 2009 - 08:44 PM rating by pesu

A very atmospheric description again - good helpful info.

Sat, Dec 19 2009 - 04:17 PM rating by porto

Another super report Krys and those tusks look impressive. Great info and sound advice.

Sat, Dec 19 2009 - 04:15 PM rating by mistybleu

Another great report. Very interesting.

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