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Lamu at Last
Kenya wasn’t exactly the easiest place to travel in. We stuck out like sore thumbs, transportation and driving was a nightmare, and affordable, off-the-beaten path places were hard to find.
It was tiring.
But on the last leg of our trip, we arrived at a place that was quite the opposite: Lamu. From exploring Lamu’s old town, to glamming it up in Shela to its south, to snorkeling or fishing around the neighboring islands on a local dhow, to getting to know a cast of colorful characters, we found so many things to do in Lamu that will make you forget you’re in crazy, chaotic, and costly Kenya.We met so many colorful characters and found so many awesome, affordable, and unconventional things to do in Lamu that it was easily the highlight of our trip.
Hopefully these tips will make it the highlight of your Kenya trip too.
Intro to Lamu
If somehow you have no idea what Lamu is, here’s an intro:
Lamu is an island that’s a 10-minute boat ride from the mainland and about 360km up the coast from Mombasa. The majority of the population lives in Lamu Town, one of the oldest living Swahili towns in East Africa. Streets are narrow, buildings are made of coral, doors are intricately designed, and there are only three cars. Some motorcycles are starting to make an unwelcome appearance, but donkeys mostly still run the show.
Here are our recommendations for things to do in Lamu over three days.
Most of the highlights I mention can be found on this map. Yes, they’ll be harder to find with such a basic map, but on that’s part of the fun.
Day 1: Out and About in Lamu Town
If you fly into Lamu like we did, take the ferry across to Lamu Island and head to your hotel.
Chris and I stayed at Jambo House and highly recommend it for its location, breakfast, hospitality, and price. The quirky German owner Arnold went out of his way to make sure our stay was comfortable as possible. He’ll also give you a the above map which will help you find many of the places I’ll mention here.
Head Out and Pig Out
Wherever you choose to stay, once you’re settled head out to explore the Old Town. You’ll probably be hungry, so make your way to Island Dishes for a cheap, local meal (#38 on the map). They serve mainly Swahili dishes and if you’re there on a Friday, they make a great biriyani.
After some food, head along Kenyatta road, the town’s main drag / alleyway (the black vertical line in the map). Pop into Isiah’s Wooden Fish Workshop where wall hangings are made out of pieces of old Arabic sailing boats, dhows. A couple blocks down the same street is Mohammed’s Silversmith shop, where you can find some great sterling silver jewelry for very reasonable prices. He made me some dainty stacking rings within a day for 600 KSh ($6 US) each. [Update: Almost 1 year later and the rings are still as good as new! Mohammed’s work is legit.]
Once you’ve worked up a sweat from all that shopping, head towards the cool breezes of the main jetty for a refreshing fruit shake. We recommend Mangrove Center (map #18), the super busy restaurant right by the main jetty, where you can get a delicious and cheap mango-avocado shake. Sit upstairs if you can, to take in the seafront bustle without being in the middle of it.
After a little pick-me-up, continue along the seafront towards towards Lamu House Hotel (just north of the donkey sanctuary, #23 on the map), a beautifully designed and restored hotel. Take a few minutes to enjoy the architecture, the pool and lobby. If you’re interested, they offer 1-hour massages for 2,500 KSh. I was tempted but ended up getting one back at Jambo House for 2,000 another day through a contact of Arnold’s.
Beyond Lamu House Hotel, there’s not much to see, so turn around and walk back along the seafront until you see a guy selling Swahili coffee in front of Equity Bank (#18). Swahili coffee is bitter, strong coffee with tons of ginger. If that sounds too intense for your sensitive Western palate, order a delicious little cookie or two to go with it.
Chris and I came on our first day and loved it so much it became our daily ritual. The master barista will find you a seat on a stoop—he told us it’s rude to eat and drink while standing—where you can soak up the culture (and your cookie and coffee) before paying the 10-30 cents you owe.
Work off you caffeine buzz by continuing to walk along the seafront (towards Shela) and watching the local fisherman bring in their daily catch.
You’ll inevitably be hassled by captains and touts trying to sell you tours. As a rule of thumb in Lamu Town (but not Shela)—actually a rule of thumb for traveling in general—the better their English and the more poorly shaven their faces, the more likely they are to be scam artists. And we heard more than our fair share of stories from people who’d been ripped off, so be careful. We’ve got Lamu’s best captain for you coming up anyways, so just say, “jambo,” smile, and politely decline. After a while they’ll recognize your face and stop bugging you.
Swahili + Pizza = Olympic Gold
Towards the far end of the seafront (#2 on the map), put in your dinner order at Olympic Restaurant. Olympic used to have a seafront location, but they had to close down for a new development. Now they cook out of their home around the corner. Don’t judge this book by its cover; their food is delicious, in particular their seafood pizza. It was so good we had it twice during our five day stay in Lamu.
The pizza is loaded with cheese, onion, spices and chunks of fresh tuna or snapper filet. Make sure you ask for the homemade tamarind and hot sauces to accompany and complete the meal.
All of Olympic’s food is made to order, so expect to wait 40 minutes to an hour for it to be ready. Kill the time by enjoying some 250 KSh ($2.50 US) beer at New Palace Hotel, which is on the waterfront just around the corner. If you don’t want to wait, you can pre-order by calling the owner, Areef, at 07 17 296 441.
When the food’s ready, you can eat in take it back to place like we did, to enjoy some Kenyan wine we bought from the AP canteen (which we’ll cover below).
Day 2: Manda Toto Snorkeling Tour
Meet Your Captain (and Friends)
One of the best things to do in Lamu is to escape the heat by exploring the surrounding islands by boat. The trick, as we alluded to previously, is finding a good captain who won’t screw you over.
Lucky for you, we have the perfect guy: Jawad.
Jawad is a 20-something-year-old local who loves his job so much he lives on his boat. He smells of the 250 ml of coconut oil he douses himself with daily and is one of the most laid back guys you’ll meet. Trust us: Hire Jawad as your captain and you won’t regret it.
Jawad’s number is 07 97 937 411. And here’s his Instagram (though don’t rely on it because his phones have a tendency to get salt-logged and break). If you let him know a day or two in advance I’m sure he’ll be able to take you out. Tell him, “Chrim” sent you.
Leave Your Worries Behind
The day we went out, we were accompanied by his friends Haitham (a huge stoner who smiled a lot but only said about five words all day) and Awham (an outgoing yoga instructor, @shela_yogi on Instagram. Consider a yoga class plus sunset sail with him and Jawad for an ultimate relaxing experience). We took it “pole-pole,” a Swahili saying meaning slowly slowly through the mangroves and ended up at our snorkeling spot about an hour and a half later.
The snorkeling was okay (we preferred it in Watamu) but the real highlight was simply hanging out with the guys on what was essentially a day off for them too. The water was super clear and the beach at Manda Toto, where we went to after snorkeling, was also very clean and quiet. Jawad showed off his incredible flexibility and handstand skills, then Chris and the guys had a butterfly swimming contest while I cheered.
Devour Amazing Fresh Food
Awham, whose Dad owns the Msafani Hotel in Shela, had their cooks prepare lunch for us. They marinated some fatty fresh-caught fish which we grilled on the boat (burning a small hole into the bottom – whoops!), served with a delicious avocado and mango salad and fresh chapati. My mouth waters just thinking about that meal. It was maybe the best food we had all trip!
All in, we paid 6000 KSh ($60 US) for the both of us. That included snorkeling masks and lunch. Bring plenty of water, a hat and sunscreen as the sun is super strong.
Freshen Up, then Go to the Cops
After a long day in the sun, you’ll want a cold shower, to apply some aloe on your burns, and probably a siesta.
In the evening, head to AP Canteen, which is south of the Old Town, past the cemetery (south of #39 on the map). Ask around and people will point you in the right direction. The AP Canteen is the only place to purchase take-home alcohol in town and it also happens to be the Police Station. In addition to the small shop where you can purchase alcohol to drink at home (or on a boat), there’s a bar that serves the cheapest beer in town and has an interesting setup and clientele worth checking out.
Street Food, Straight From the Sea
For dinner, get some fresh seafood from the man who is supposedly the best fisherman in Lamu, and who’s no slouch on the grill either. You can find him on the south edge of town about 3 minutes north of AP Canteen, around #39 on Arnold’s map. We had fresh lobster ($1.50 for a whole, small lobster!), snapper ($1-2.50 for a fish), octopus ($1 a tentacle), and plenty of fresh fish samosas ($0.25 each). They’ll even bring out a plastic table and chairs for you if you want to eat there. Combine this seafood with another seafood pizza from Olympic Restaurant and you’re in heaven.
Day 3: Shela
Shela is Lamu Town’s prettier, younger sister. There you can find the higher-end hotels and restaurants, way more tourists, and a beautiful white sand beach that stretches for miles. Everyone recommended Chris and I stay there, but were happy with our choice to stay in Lamu Town and make day trips to Shela. It’s not far, only a 45 minute walk along the water or a 10-minute, 100 KSh boat ride, and overall we felt the experience was more authentic and there were more things to do in Lamu Town than in Shela. It’s definitely worth spending a day in Shela though.
Build Your Beach Body on the Beach
If you’re feeling like you want some exercise, like we did, go early (before 7 a.m.) and do sprints up the sand dunes at Shela Beach.
Alternatively, check with Jawad and Awham to see if they may be organizing an early morning swim between Lamu and Manda Islands.
Or, if yoga is your jam, talk to Awham (@shela_yogi or 07 01 303 430) about doing a vinyasa class with him or check out Banana House, whose Dutch owner, Monica, founded the annual Lamu Yoga Festival so you know you’re in good hands.
You’re Not in Lamu Town Anymore…
After dipping in the ocean to cool off from your workout, spend some time walking around the town. There are lots of beautifully restored guesthouses and hotels, some nice shops (Aman was my favorite. It’snot cheap though!), and good restaurants.
A Dune With a View
For a view of Shela town from above, head to the sand dunes which sit directly behind the town. Start at Msafini Hotel and just walk towards the nearest dunes. There isn’t an exact route we took but it wasn’t very difficult to reach through a couple of small paths. Just wear shoes as the sand is HOT.
Dinner, then Back to Lamu (or Vice Versa)
Be sure to take a boat back to Lamu town before dark as the prices for the boats go up considerably. Otherwise, if you want to stay for dinner, make sure you ask the staff to help arrange transport back to not risk getting ripped off. We didn’t stay in Shela for dinner so we don’t have any recommendations, sorry. But, the octopus salad I had for lunch at Peponi was worth its considerable price.
Tips / Other Things to Do in Lamu Town
- Ladies – Bring a couple pairs of thin, long pants and loose tops. Lamu Town is Muslim so be respectful and dress appropriately (even though it is 30+ degrees celsius and 90% humidity)
- Visit the local public market in Lamu Town anytime between 8 and 10 a.m.
- Try a Swahili pizza, which is a roti filled with egg and meat. You can get them fresh at Mangrove Center.
- If you’re in Lamu before late-2018, head up-island to check out the construction of the Flipflopi dhow, a boat being made of recycled sandals that will be sailing down to South Africa to promote clean oceans.
- Come around the middle of November for the Lamu Cultural Festival. It’s three-day celebration of music, donkey, dhow, and swimming races, and other events. We wish we could give you more detail, but when we went to the cultural festival in 2017 the final schedule wasn’t released until the day of.
- Just go! Lamu was a highlight of our trip to Kenya and will hopefully be yours too!
For more adventures in Kenya outside Lamu, don’t miss:
- Our favorite experiences we had while backpacking in Kenya for nearly a month
- Good news and bad news you might want to aware of before coming to Kenya for a backpacking trip
- An action-packed 24-hour itinerary of non-tourist-trap things to do in Nairobi.