When thinking of Kenya, the first thing that comes to the mind of many travelers are safaris and maybe the colorful Maasai tribe, but that’s about it. While living here now for a couple of years I can tell you Kenya offers so much more! From the stunning coast with its white sandy beaches, turquoise sea, Arabic towns like Lamu to Africa’s second-highest mountain, Mount Kenya, its abundance of wildlife and national parks to the tropical west part of Kenya. In my opinion Kenya is one of the countries in Africa that’s the ultimate holiday destination that offers all at once and just an 8-hour flight from Europe and soon even a direct flight from New York. In this Lamu travel guide I want to highlight a beautiful island in front of Kenya’s northern coast, Lamu. It is unique in its kind as no cars are allowed and you can still see a lot of Arabic influences.
What to do on Lamu
Lamu Island is part of the Lamu Archipelago and is located in the northern part of Kenya. Lamu town is one of the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlements in East Africa and a UNESCO world heritage site.
Stroll old Lamu town
A visit to Lamu island isn’t complete without a visit to Lamu town. The town is one of the best-preserved Swahili settlements of East Africa. Lamu’s narrow streets remain unchanged since long time and the main form of transportation are the donkeys that roam the streets.
Especially the old part is worth a visit. If you want to know more about its history and even see some of the old houses from inside then local guide Chui can take you for a walk showing you the hidden places while telling his story. We found it very useful and interesting. You can book Chui via https://www.i-likelocal.com/activities/kenya/trek-and-tour/explore-lamu-with-chui/.
Visit lovely Shela and relax at Shela beach
Shela is a small village that is more modern and quiet than Lamu Town. In half an hour you can walk through it. The main attraction of the village is the tiny boulevard with a few restaurants and shops. When you walk past Peponi hotel you will reach Shela beach, a 14-km long beach perfect for a stroll or a swim. The good thing is that it is pretty quiet and you will not be harassed by beach boys trying to sell their goods.
Shop beautiful Swahili items
When going to Lamu I had expected plenty of little shops with traditional Swahili items, but that was not the case. There are just a hand-full of shops that are very nice. On Shela you will find the beautiful boutique shop Aman where you can find kaftans, leather accessories and handmade Maasai jewelry.
In the maze of small streets on Shela you also find African Corner that consist of a couple of small handicraft shops selling a variety of items.
In Lamu old town on the main street you will find the recycled wood shop of Isiah. He makes some beautiful pieces like mirrors, photo frames, fishes and many more. All made from old wood most of them come from old boats.
Go for a sunset Dhow cruise
A nice afternoon activity is a sunset cruise on a traditional Dhow boat. A dhow is a traditional Arab sailing vessel with one or more lateen sails. Bring some snacks, drinks and friends and quietly move through the backwaters of Manda island. Almost every hotel can arrange a Dhow cruise or ask Chui, whom I mentioned before. His wife makes one of the best fish samosas!
Go for whale or turtle watching
Dolphins and wales are often seen off the coast between June and September. Later in the year chances of seeing whale sharks are becoming more frequent. Check with the owner of Peponi hotel who is also participating in turtle conservation and can probably tell you a bit more about it. Turtle nestling season is from March till August.
Get a henna painting
Henna is broadly used in Africa, Southern Asia and the Middle East. It is an art form of which the paint is made of crushed the leaves, water and essential oils that is painted on the hands and feet. The Bridal Henna is undoubtedly one of the most widespread traditions in Islamic and Arabic countries. It is a women’s party that usually takes place the night before the wedding. Also, on Lamu there a plenty of options to get your hands and or feet painted in this traditional way.
Where to sleep on Lamu
Beach Front Manda Island
This laid-back place run by Rachael is the perfect hideaway if you are looking for a cheaper option and quietness with stunning views. Traditional style banda accommodation, singles, doubles, family room and Treehouse and a library for relaxing.
They have a restaurant serving delicious food and yoga classes twice a week. Price from 45 USD per night.
Baobab Cottage is a super cozy cottage is located in a very quiet corner of the village of Shela, on Lamu island, just next to the dunes and surrounded by trees, plants and flowers. Here you can for sure find time for yourself and destress. It is only 5mins walk to the beach.
The house has a beautiful big garden and the house is furnished with Italian and Swahili furniture. It In the nearby compound the owners have a little studio where guests can do yoga or meditate. The price is 46 USD per night.
Andavelo House is an old beautifully restored six-suite house in the old town of Lamu. The house is beautifully decorated with custom-made furniture. Breakfast and meal cooking services are provided at a fee upon request. Price is 100 USD per night.\
Forodhani house is a family run house and all of their family members are involved in providing you a wonderful stay. The house is located at Shella beach with stunning 270° sea-views.
The house is built according to the Swahili architecture and furnished with authentic and antique furniture from Mombasa, Nairobi and Lamu. You can relax in the garden with its palm trees, ilangs ylang, frangipani and bougainvillea listening to sound of the waves or take a swim in the pool.
You can learn Swahili cooking, go on a Dhow trip, or go on a tour through the Old Town.
Banana House is a boutique hotel in Shela village. It has 16 rooms spread over three houses situated in a magnificent tropical garden. The garden consists of bougainvillea, frangipani, hibiscus and palm trees. Monika, the owner, offers Yoga, massage, spa and retreats. She is the organizer of the yearly yoga festival (http://www.lamuyoga.org/). This annual event is a celebrating of yoga and happiness. The fifth edition of this festival was in March 2018, it had 400 participants. The Lamu Yoga Festival was voted: “the number 1 Worldwide worth traveling for yoga festival!”The price ranges from a budget single room costing 60 USD a night to a standard double room for 120 USD to the penthouse costing 160 USD a night.
The moon houses are a couple of beautiful houses and rooms located in the little village of Shela. They are beautifully decorated and some have their own private infinity pool.
Lamu Manda Bungalow
Lamu Manda Bungalow is located on Manda and is off the grid running on solar and lanterns and is right opposite Shella Island. It has 4 bedrooms and sleeps 4 people. The house is absolutely wonderful in all senses of the word – tastefully decorated with mostly local items, perfectly located with its own stretch of beach, amazing view and sunsets, and great staff catering to your needs and preparing delicious food. From 270 USD a night.
In the village of Shela you will find Kijani Hotel located directly at the sea front with two fresh water swimming pools and a beautiful tropical garden. It offers 10 rooms in traditional Swahili buildings which formerly were private homes.
A double room costs 185 USD per night.
Where to eat on Lamu
If you would like to taste the best Swahili food on Lamu then this is the place to be. Not even is the food delicious, you also get a peek into local life as you will have dinner with Ali in his home. Ali’s wife makes one of the best samosa’s and Makaki’s (Swahili pizza they also call it which is basically a chapatti sandwich with egg). He has many interesting stories to tell that are a delight to listening to. You can book your dinner on https://www.i-likelocal.com/activities/kenya/food/home-dinner-with-ali/
Peponi hotel is a well-known hotel on Shela and the place to be for a sunset drink. We had dinner here and the food was excellent. For a 3-course meal, water and a glass of wine we paid 7.000 KES. It is not typical the local food, but delicious.
Restaurant without a name
When in Lamu town have a traditional Swahili meal at this local restaurant overlooking the water and a nice atmosphere. The owner Ali also makes lovely paintings and bags.
Walk a little further than the national museum and you will see a white painted building on your left with some tables outside. For a few hundred KES you can have a nice filling meal.
If you are looking for a more western style place to grab a coffee or a lunch then take a seat at Whispers café. Their coffee is good even as the local tamarind juice which you can enjoy in their cozy patio. The menu is pretty simple and I was not very impressed by it.
Abuhakar’s Halva shop
If you want to try a traditional sweet then visit Abuhakar’s halva shop opposite whispers café on Kenyatta street. Halva is slightly gelatinous and made from grain flour, clarified butter (ghee), honey, cardamom and rose water. If you are lucky you can even see Abuhakar making the halva at the back of the shop.
Also, if you like sweet food then try a Swahili breakfast which consist of bhajia’s (different than the Indian version), kaimati’s (fried dough balls with sugar), vitumbua (a deep-fried snack made from rice flour, coconut, yeast and cardamom), Viazi vya Karai (These are boiled potatoes coated in a yellow-colored flour batter and then deep fried) and samosa’s.
How to get to Lamu
You can best reach Lamu island by air. From Nairobi you can use Fly 540, Safari link, Air Kenya fly or Fly-sax) and from Mombasa or Malindi to the south operators include Mombasa Safari Air from Mombasa, and Fly 540 from Malindi. The airport is located on Manda island so if you are staying in Shela or Lamy town you need to take a short boat ride (20 minutes or less), which in our case cost us 1500 KES pp to Shela.