10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Mombasa
Mombasa, Kenya's second largest city after Nairobi, offers travelers an exotic taste of the African tropics steeped in centuries of seafaring history. This cosmopolitan tourist hub is actually an island connected by bridges and ferries to the Kenyan coast. Stretching for miles along the mainland to the north and south, Mombasa's beach resorts preside over palm-studded strands fringed by shimmering coral reefs. Tourists from Europe and beyond flock here to enjoy the many watersports - from dolphin spotting trips on traditional dhows and deep-sea fishing, to diving and snorkeling the wrecks and reefs, and basking on the sun-splashed shores. But in the city itself, on the bustling island, a world of history and culture awaits.
Thanks to its legacy as the largest port in East Africa, Mombasa is a cultural melting pot. British, Asian, Arabic, Omanis, Indian, and Chinese immigrants have enriched the city's architecture and cuisine, and many mosques and temples grace the city streets. In the Old Town, where fragrant spices waft from local markets, visitors can step back in time and explore the ancient buildings. On the busy harborfront here, the World Heritage-listed Fort Jesus, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, is an architectural jewel. Beyond the city, wildlife parks, villages, and ancient ruins round out the wealth of water-based fun.
See also: Where to Stay in Mombasa
1 Fort Jesus
Built in 1593-1596 by the Portuguese, Fort Jesus is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Mombasa's top tourist attractions. Italian architect, Cairati, designed the structure, which is one of the world's finest examples of 16th century Portuguese military architecture. Built in the shape of a man, the fort was given the name of Jesus as a clear religious reference. The fort changed hands nine times between 1631 and 1875 before finally resting with the British. Although partially ruined, Fort Jesus houses a museum built over the former barracks for the garrison. Exhibits include a vast collection of ceramics and pottery reflecting the various cultures that traded along the coast. Fort Jesus has many battlements and ruined buildings within the compound, including Omani house, built in the late 18th century, which houses Omani jewelry and displays on Swahili life. The Passage of Arches was cut through the coral to give access to the sea.
Hours: Open daily 8am-6pm
Address: Ndia Kuu, Mombasa
2 Haller Park
Haller Park is a hit with animal lovers. Formerly called Bamburi Nature Trail, this inspirational project began in 1971 when Dr René Haller transformed the abandoned limestone quarries here into a thriving nature reserve. Dr Haller increased the mineral content of the soil, planted trees, added a fish farm, and created a wildlife park where each animal has a function within the flourishing ecosystem. Wildlife found here includes giraffes, Cape buffalo, zebras, waterbucks, and hippos. The park was also home to a famous interspecies couple that became an Internet sensation after the 130-year-old tortoise, Mzee, adopted Owen, an orphaned hippo.
Birds are also abundant in the park. More than 160 species have been introduced to the area including weaver birds, cranes, pelicans, and storks. Walking and cycling paths wind through the groves of casuarina, and a reptile park, palm garden, and crocodile pens are other attractions. A highlight is the giraffe feeding; but be sure to check the times before visiting. Nature trails lead to a butterfly pavilion and the Nguuni Wildlife Sanctuary where herds of ostrich, eland, and oryx are farmed.
Location: Mombasa Malindi Road, Mombasa
3 Mombasa Marine National Park
One of the busiest of Kenya's offshore reserves, Mombasa Marine National Park protects mangroves, seagrass beds, sandy beaches, and coral reef. Diving and snorkeling are popular activities - especially north of Mombasa, from Mtwapa Creek south to the entrance of Likoni. Seahorses, stingrays, and eels are among the marine creatures inhabiting the reserve, and the MV Dania is a popular wreck dive here. Those wishing to remain dry can view the diverse marine life from a glass-bottom boat. The popular beaches of Nyali, Bamburi, and Shanzu all provide access to the marine park.
4 North Coast Beaches
The coastline north of Mombasa is a little livelier than the south coast and the resorts are closer to the airport and Mombasa City. Palm-lined beaches, crystal clear waters, coral reefs, and a profusion of water sports, resorts, and entertainment venues provide plenty of tourist action. Mombasa Marine National Park fringes the coast here with multi-hued coral gardens, drop offs, and Kenya's best wreck diving on the MV Dania. Traveling north from Mombasa, Nyali Beach is the first stop. Shops and hotels line the beach here, including Mombasa's first mainland beach resort - Nyali Beach Hotel. Further north, Bamburi Beach and Shanzu Beach are also tourist hubs with a wide range of accommodation from luxury resorts to beach bungalows.
5 Old Town
On the southeast side of Mombasa Island, the "Old Town" is reminiscent of the days when the Portuguese ruled this important port. The town's inhabitants are mostly of Arab, Asian, and European origin, and the architecture reflects their cultures. Ornately carved doors and balconies adorn the old buildings that jostle cheek to jowl along the narrow streets. History buffs can easily spend a couple of hours here strolling along the atmospheric alleys; snacking at one of the many cafés; and shopping for antiques, fragrant oils, spices, and souvenirs. The Portuguese-built Fort Jesus, one of Mombasa's top tourist attractions, overlooks the harbor here.
6 South Coast Beaches
The coastline south of Mombasa is a world of natural beauty. Turquoise seas lap the sun-bleached beaches where tourists sprawl under rustling palms. Rainforests with abundant wildlife and birds skirt this idyllic stretch of coast, and coral reefs protect the swimming areas from offshore swells. Shelly Beach, just south of the Likoni Ferry, is the closest beach to Mombasa along the south coast. Tiwi Beach, 17 km south of the Likoni Ferry, is a popular spot for sunbathers and snorkelers. Diani Beach is the most developed area along this stretch, but still offers beautiful beachscapes. European package tourists flock here to enjoy the busy lineup of water sports - from windsurfing, sailing, snorkeling, and diving to water-skiing and parasailing.
7 Mombasa Tusks
A famous landmark in the city, the Mombasa Tusks were built to commemorate Queen Elizabeth's visit to Mombasa in 1952. Constructed of aluminum, the tusks mark the entrance to the heart of town where visitors will find most of the banks, shops, and markets. The intersecting tusks also form the letter "M" for Mombasa.
Location: Moi Avenue, Mombasa
8 Mamba Village Centre
Mamba Village Centre in Nyali is East Africa's largest crocodile farm. Visitors can learn about the life cycle and behavior of these fascinating amphibians, and the center also offers horseback riding and a botanical garden with an aquarium. Orchids and aquatic plants are the specialty, but the gardens also display carnivorous species. A highlight for many visitors is watching the crocodiles fight for tasty morsels during feeding time. Carnivores will love the restaurant, which specializes in game meat such as crocodile, ostrich, and zebra.
Location: Links Road, Nyali
9 Bombolulu Workshops and Cultural Centre
Bombolulu Workshops is a project of the Association for the Physically Disabled in Kenya with four sheltered workshops, a cultural center, and restaurant. At the cultural center, visitors can enjoy tribal dance performances and explore traditional homesteads found throughout Kenya. Guests can also visit the workshops and purchase the handcrafted souvenirs, which include jewelry, textiles, wood carving, and leather crafts. Proceeds help sustain the center's work. After touring the grounds, guests can stop by the restaurant to sample Kenyan-inspired cuisine.
Location: Workshop Road, Bombolulu, Kenya
10 Mombasa Go-Kart
Mombasa Go-Kart is a hit with speedsters and kids of all ages. Zoom around the smooth concrete track in go-karts, bounce around on the off-road buggies, or learn to dig in a Bobcat excavator. After all the excitement, visitors can enjoy a snack at the family-friendly restaurant with computer games, a large playground, and a big screen showing sporting events. The Go-Kart track is floodlit at night.
Hours: Open daily 4-10pm, closed Mondays
Address: Bamburi Beach, Mombasa
Where to Stay in Mombasa for Sightseeing
For first-time visitors to Mombasa, the best area to stay is along the northern beaches: Nyali, Mombasa, Bamburi, and Shanzu. From here, visitors can snorkel the coral reefs of Mombasa Marine National Park, which fringes this stretch of coast. The Haller Park nature reserve is nearby, and Mombasa's Old Town, with Fort Jesus, is a short drive away. Here are some highly-rated hotels in these areas:
- Luxury Hotels: On beautiful Bamburi Beach, Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort & Spa, with four swimming pools, tennis courts, and a PADI dive center, is a popular luxury option. For a peaceful beachfront escape further north on Shanzu Beach, the whitewashed Serena Beach Resort & Spa fits the bill, with special family rooms and a free breakfast. Offering great value on Mombasa Beach, north of Nyali Beach, Voyager Beach Resort features multiple pools, water sports, and a kids club. All-inclusive packages are available.
- Mid-Range Hotels: On Bamburi Beach, Severin Sea Lodge offers excellent value. Its thatched bungalows and two lovely swimming pools peek out from palm-studded gardens. Also value-packed is the nearby Travellers Beach Hotel & Club, with warm and friendly service. Built into coral cliffs along Nyali Beach, the rooms of Bahari Beach Hotel treat guests to gorgeous views with wide glass doors that slide open to balconies or terraces.
- Budget Hotels: Overlooking Tudor Creek, BEST WESTERN PLUS Creekside Hotel, with Swahili accents, sits almost equidistant from Nyali Beach and Fort Jesus, a convenient location for those who want access to both attractions. Boasting a sweeping Bamburi beachfront location, Kenya Bay Beach Hotel offers excellent value, and the nearby Kahama Hotel has bright spacious rooms a few minutes' walk from the white-sand shores.
Generally reached by dhow, Wasini Island is a popular day trip from Mombasa. Dolphins regularly cruise these waters and passengers can stop to snorkel and dive the coral reefs along the way. The island itself is tiny - only 5 sq km. Sightseeing opportunities include visiting Wasini Village, strolling around the coastal scrub where ancient Swahili ruins lie, exploring the exposed coral gardens, and dining on fresh seafood at the small restaurant. The village of Shimoni is the launching point for Wasini Island tours and was once the headquarters of the Imperial British East Africa Company. Here, visitors can explore the Shimoni Caves, thought to hold slaves before their shipment to Arabia.
Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park
South of Wasini Island, Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park is a popular spot for snorkeling, diving, and dolphin spotting - usually from the decks of a traditional dhow. The park encompasses four small islands surrounded by fish-rich coral reef. Dolphins frolic in the Shimoni Channel, and humpback whales swim these waters between August and October. Other marine life includes moray eels, angelfish, grouper, snappers, and green sea turtles. Deep-sea fishing is fantastic south to the Pemba channel.
Shimba Hills National Reserve
Shimba Hills National Reserve, about 33 km south of Mombasa, offers a peaceful getaway from the hubbub of the busy beach resorts. Woodlands, waterfalls, lily-topped ponds, savanna, and rainforest provide a home for a rich diversity of plants and animals. Among the rare plants are endangered species of cycads and orchids. The park also protects one of the highest concentrations of elephants in Kenya, along with leopards, sable antelope, and abundant birdlife.
Guided forest walks are available, and visitors can cool off in the swimming hole and picnic area at the scenic Sheldrick Falls on the Machenmwana River. Shimba Rainforest Lodge in the reserve is a popular treetop-style lodge with a walkway through the rainforest, viewing platform, and a water hole that lures plenty of wildlife.
Nestled in lush rainforest, Gedi was one of the ancient Arab towns along the East African Coast, which was probably rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries. Today, visitors can tour the ruins where the Great Mosque, the Palace, coral-stone houses, and pillar tombs have been unearthed. The houses in Gedi display a traditional Swahili style, and some have ancient drawings on their plaster walls. Ming Chinese porcelain and glass as well as glazed earthenware from Persia indicate trade links and a taste for luxury by those who prospered here. These items as well as Spanish scissors and Swahili cultural artifacts are on display in the on-site museum.
Arabuko-Sokoke National Forest
The Arabuko-Sokoke Forest is East Africa's largest remaining indigenous coastal forest. The forest plays host to plenty of rare species including birds, butterflies, amphibians, and plants. More than 260 species of birds are found here, including several threatened species such as the spotted ground thrush and Clarke's weaver. Rare mammals that call the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest home are the golden-rumped elephant shrew, bushy-tailed mongoose, and Ader's duiker. The forest is a favorite picnic spot for residents and visitors.
About 112 km from Mombasa, Watamu is a Swahili fishing village that has blossomed into a small beach resort and offers superb snorkeling and diving. The coast is broken into three coves divided by rocky headlands. Offshore from Watamu is the southern part of the Malindi Marine National Reserve. The forests of the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve and the Swahili ruins of Gede are also close by. More than 600 species of fish are found within the marine reserve, and whale sharks and manta rays are seasonal visitors to the reef.
Watamu is also a vital turtle breeding area with green and hawksbill turtles as the primary species. Glass-bottomed boats transport visitors to the reefs and provide a window to the kaleidoscopic world of coral and fish. For travelers looking for something other than snorkeling and diving, Watamu offers windsurfing, relaxing on the beach, dolphin-watching trips, and thriving rock pools.
Kilifi is a small beach resort on the banks of Kilifi Creek where yachts bob about in the breeze. One of the top tourist attractions here are the Mnarani Ruins, an ancient Swahili coastal settlement dating back to the early 14th century. A huge baobab tree amongst the ruins is rumored to be the largest on the Kenyan coast. Kalifi is also home to a top notch golf club. At one time, Kilifi could only be reached by ferry but in recent years a bridge was constructed to make it more accessible.