Most visitors to Kenya have Safari on their minds and undoubtedly will have an experience of a lifetime doing this. However, the city of Mombasa is one of Kenya’s best kept secrets for any history lover or leisure seeker. We traveled to Kenya as a family last summer and after five days spent between the bustling city of Nairobi and a safari in Masai Mara, we boarded a 45minute plane ride to Mombasa in search of some well needed rest and relaxation.
The coastal town of Mombasa is an island along the Indian Ocean connected to the mainland by causeway. It is Kenya’s oldest and second largest city with over 1.2million people according to the 2019 census. Its location on the Ocean made it a significant historical trading center and it is home to the oldest fort built by the Portuguese on the East coast of Africa in attempts to establish influence over the Indian Ocean trade.
Traveling with the kids from Nairobi to Mombasa was facilitated by our travel agent and was a very smooth process. We left from the regional airport, Wilson Airport in Nairobi. The check-in process was very smooth; we used the mobile app, “Jitenge”, for Covid-19 screening and luggage check in was a breeze with short security lines. The airport has a comfortable coffee shop in the building where passengers can relax until they embark the plane. Most of the airplanes are propeller jets which our kids had never experienced before and walking out across the open jetway to board the jet was a first as well. Initially it was a little noisy due to the sound of the propellers which quietened down once we boarded and in less than 45mintues we arrived the airport in Mombasa.
Our driver expeditiously picked us up once we got our luggage from the baggage claim area and drove us to the historic downtown of Mombasa. Like most African cities we have visited we were intrigued by the construction of roads and buildings, busy streets with pedestrians and passersby. Small- and large-scale commerce was observed on almost every street corner. Several vehicles of public transportation shared the roads with private ones and we noticed more roundabouts compared to traffic lights. As we went down Moi Avenue the symbol of Mombasa stood straight ahead, The Tusks. Two sets of elephant tusks composed as arches over each traffic way, were erected in 1952. These were initially made of wood and painted white in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the city. Four years later the municipality of Mombasa decided to replace them with more weather resistant, larger aluminum tusks. Not an unusual symbol considering the wildlife and lush savannah which is home to a wide variety of animals only 100km away from the coastal city.
Once in downtown Mombasa (island) we were happy to get out of the van, stretch and get some exercise during a scheduled walking tour with a local historian, Mr. Ahmed. Downtown Mombasa is rich in history and home to one of the oldest trade forts in the East Africa, Fort Jesus. A stroll through the narrow stone streets lends a feeling of blended influence of African, Arab, Turkish and European cultures especially in its preserved architecture from centuries ago. Our tour started in the town center where the roundabout displayed an iconic coffee pot and a remnant of the original track of the street trolley. The details of which are inscribed on a plaque pictured below.
Before we could get started on our tour, it was no surprise Mark and the kids found some refreshments from a local coconut vendor. It became apparent to me fresh coconut water is a thing across the continent from the streets of Accra, Ghana to those here in Mombasa, Kenya and I was certainly would not dare get in the way of their enjoyment!
From the town center, we walked down toward the coastline which was lined with beautiful coconut and palm trees. We were surprised to find a baobab tree with hanging fruit which unfortunately was not ripe for picking 😊. One of the first historical buildings we came across was The Africa Hotel. This was the first hotel built in Kenya in 1901 as Mombasa was naturally the accessway to the interior. It was made up of 12 hotel rooms with balconies facing the ocean. At present date, the building offers tours daily where one can see the architecture and style from the 1900s.
Close by is the Mandhry Mosque which was constructed in 1570 and displays Swahili architecture, African and Arabic style, and design. As the 3rd mosque recorded in Mombasa’s history, this rectangular structure has a rounded minaret. It has been well maintained by the Muslim community and is not open to the public.
From here we strolled over to Government Square which is located adjacent to the Old Port of Mombasa. Government Square contained government buildings and businesses set up by the British when they arrived in 1890. This focal point next to the port meant a lot of goods were brought here for trading and distribution through the town. The Old Port is now home to a fish market which had freshly caught fish and seafood.
We went down a couple more streets only narrow enough for pedestrians, bicycles, or motorcycles and of course, “Tuk Tuk” taxis. The last stop on the walking tour was Ali’s Curio Market. Built in 1898 as the first police station in Mombasa it has been used since for different purposes and later became a curio shop. Also built during British rule, the walls were made of coral stones and the rails which were used in construction of the railway were also used in the pillars of the building and as ceiling joist making it a very resilient structure.
This fort without a doubt is the main attraction in Mombasa. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, we were ready to explore and learn the history of this monumental fort which was key to trade and the gateway to India. It was built over a spur of coral by the Portuguese at the end of the 16th century (1593-1596), by order of King Felipe of Castille who also reigned as King Felipe I of Portugal and the Algarves. Fort Jesus was designed by the Italian Giovanni Batista Cairiati with the purpose of guarding the Old Port of Mombasa. The building material and labor was solely done by the Swahili people, the original inhabitants of Mombasa.
Aerial views of the fort illustrate it is shaped like a man with open arms. Its location allows great visibility across the Indian Ocean, and its dungeons and prison cells were used during the East African slave period during which millions of slaves were traded to Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and other regions for the purposes of labor, guards, soldiers or concubines. As one tours the dungeons, it is easy to imagine the conditions faced by slaves at that time, many who would eventually die from torture, starvation, and disease.
Given the critical nature of trade routes on the Indian Ocean, it comes as no surprise that this fort came under attack several times. In a little over two and a half centuries, the Fort had changed hands of control 9 times with the Arab Omanis finally taking control in 1698. In 1895, the British transformed it to a government prison and placed cannons for further protection. Much later in 1960, the museum was built. The museum gives only a glimpse into centuries of history through preserved pieces and artifacts from archaeologists and the deep diving Mombasa excavation project. The story of the Omanis shipbuilding skill and models of trading ships over the years from Mtepe to Dhow as well as the various traded items ranging from Chinese porcelain plates to spices and dried fruits are all on full display in the museum.
We completed out tour of Fort Jesus across the courtyard from the museum where the remains of a humpback whale washed up on shore are displayed as well as the replica of a human skeleton excavated from archaeologist at the site where it was buried believed to have been a grave in situ.
At the end of our tour we were caught in a light July rain shower which was an on time cue to head over to our accommodations at Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort, the ideal family resort for well needed rest and relaxation.
For more scenes from our walking tour check out video below: