Travel to Mombasa – Island City, Old Town & Fort
Mombasa is Kenya’s second largest city and an important centre of modern Kenyan coastal and national culture. Actually an island connected to the mainland by bridges and ferries, the city is a place steeped in history, yet at the same time is a fascinating commercial and cosmopolitan port town.
The town overlooks a wide harbour, where commercial shipping mingles with traditional sailing dhows. The true heart of Mombasa, however, is found in the exotic Mombasa Old Town, among the narrow winding streets and Arab architecture. The air here is always heavy with the scent of spices.
Women wearing the traditional ‘bui bui’ fill the narrow streets and busy markets. At the dhow docks fresh fish and goods from all along the coast arrive daily. The streets are alive with the bright colours of the traditional coastal khanga and kikoy, the all purpose wrap-around cloth worn by both men and women.
Modern Mombasa is a city of great diversity and life. This is a town were all are welcomed and quickly absorbed into this great coastal melting pot. Mosques, Hindu Temples and Christian churches surround streets that thrive with a world of cultures. Mombasa is a place where both history and progress are greatly valued, where a busy harbour existence is lived at its own unique, tropical pace.
At the waters edge is Fort Jesus, an imposing fort that stands watch over the harbour. The high gun turrets, battlements and underground passages of this 16th century Fort were the centre of a historic struggle for control of the Kenya coast between the Portuguese army and the Shirazi Arabs. This war was waged around Mombasa over hundreds of years and countless battles, and the Fort stands as a testament to this tumultuous past.
Mombasa is home to many fine temples and mosques. The oldest mosques in Mombasa are the Mandrhy founded in 1570 and the historic Dawoodi Bohra Mosque, built in 1902, standing near a clifftop with a view of the old harbour. There is also a beautiful Baluchi mosque, founded in 1875.
One of the most impressive buildings in Mombasa is the Shiva Temple near Jamhuri Park. The temple is topped with an impressive gold spire and a fantastic array of animals statuary. One of the best ways to get some impression of Mombasa’s long history and exotic modern culture is to simply walk the winding streets of the Old Town and explore this world of mosques, markets and mystery.
Mombasa Old Town is a fine example of Arab architecture, the winding streets surrounded by attractive Mashrabia Houses with large shuttered balconies. The old dhow harbour is still a busy trading hub, always alive with bustle and activity.
Mombasa has two local beaches, Shelly and Nyali, both accessible from town.
The old town is an ideal place to shop for well priced coastal handicrafts. The markets and bazaars are worth exploring if not for bargains then simply for atmosphere. There is a large central fish market, and several produce market including the large Maembe Tayari (Fresh Mango) market.
Mombasa is home to excellent woodcarvers from all over Kenya, producing many traditional designs. But the coastal speciality is fine woodwork, including furniture, and Swahili boxes, intricately carved and inlaid with brass, copper or marble work. These vary in size from small jewellery boxes to huge chests. Similarly styled candle holders and other wooden objects are often also sold.
Mombasa is a great city for food. There is a diverse range of restaurants, but the real attraction is seafood with excellent fish, crabs, lobster, oysters and more. There is also an abundance of fresh tropical fruits and vegetables. Visitors should also try Swahili Cuisine, a traditional blend of Arabic and African cooking styles. Swahili specialities are mild curries made from a thick coconut sauce, and seafood cooked with cloves and cinnamon.
The city has an interesting music scene, and the clubs and bars are a good place to see live bands. This is also a good place to find Taarab bands and musicians, playing traditional Swahili music.
Mombasa has city buses, matatus and taxis to get around town. The Old Town and the area around Fort Jesus are easily explored on foot.
- Explore the exotic old town with it’s narrow winding streets and Arab architecture.
- Relax on one of Mombasa’s excellent beaches.
- Take in commanding views of the harbour from Fort Jesus.