The Beginner’s Guide to Mombasa, Kenya

I’m not a lover of salty waters, I guess neither of us is. But that didn’t make any less of a pleasure perfecting my swimming skills in the Indian ocean.

I had always fantasized coastal life from recommendations, movies and magazines promoting intimate travel. Little did I know, that the winds of fantasy would lead me to a purely unique experience at the Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa – rather known as the ‘white and blue city’.

Justifiable! You’ll find out.

I haven’t visited many places outside my home country Uganda. Yet I’m proud that many people have blindly trusted me to navigate places that I would be visiting for the first time. No surprise that a couple trusted me to get their way through a week of love at the coast. But let me write this post as if I went alone. Huh.

For most of the trip, I relied on the recommendations of a friend. But beyond just them, I did a lot of research to get familiar with the citizens and their environment.

The idea of this post is to share with you relevant basic information to help you settle in smoothly into Mombasa, because I understand how hard it can be to visit anywhere for the first time.

General Information – Mombasa is the oldest and second biggest city in Kenya. Being a coastal city, it has an elevation of 50 meters above sea level. This means it’s quite warm most of the year – remember that geography class phenomenon? So care for what cloth colour and fabric to carry. I  highly recommend light coloured clothes, and super thin fabric. They will never show you really sweated… that much. But also, never count on it not raining or getting cold. So carry necessary clothes.

For the mere fact it is the oldest city in the country, you should expect that there are a ton of touristic attractions around the city, which is certainly so. Your walking shoes are a must carry.

People of Mombasa As you’d expect with most big towns, Mombasa has a fine mixture of all tribes and races. You should never worry fitting in or finding a conversation partner.

Typically so, I found many locals living here to have unusually stained teeth. A resident friend told me that the frequent consumption of salty water has left many people with dirty brown stains on their incisors. So be kind and not frown on the realization of them every few engagements.

The biggest percentage of Kenyans have a fair grasp of the English language. But mostly, people prefer to speak their native language Kiswahili. It will be fair, or rather of added advantage for one to know a few words here and there. If you fail to communicate with one, try another. If you fail too, the third one is as sure as the calendar changing after 24 hours.

Getting to Mombasa It really depends on many things; your start point, your budget, your preferences.

I could at the time only afford to get to Mombasa by the fastest land means possible.   For your own sake, unless otherwise (say you have a bed in there), never board a direct ride from Kampala to the coast. I divided my journey into two. Taking a bus from Kampala to Nairobi, then a train from Nairobi to Mombasa.

Along Dewinton street in Kampala, you’ll find a host of bus companies trading the Nairobi Mombasa routes. You can find branch offices at Namayiba bus terminal.

My bus of choice was ‘Mash Cool’. It’s the executive version of the Mash buses. The other is ‘Mash Poa’. The Mash Cool departs thrice daily – at 4:30pm, 5pm, and 7pm. The prices are cheapest for the 7pm bus. I paid 100,000 shillings ($28) for first class. But once in there, I found economy seats for 80,000 shillings ($22) to be just as comfortable. The whole difference was in leg room and seat width, but not the comfort.

At the border in Busia, I and other passengers checked into immigration. I had a passport. Those without one required a valid national ID and 10,000 shillings ($3) for issuance of an interstate pass. Yellow fever vaccination books were strictly demanded, yet I somehow managed to convince the medical officer that I’d forgotten mine at home. Luckily, I had in my passport closely prior stamps from immigration at Entebbe Airport, which is more rigid with this policy.

For non East African nationals, make sure to do your research and have relevant entry documents.

I exchanged Ugandan cash for Kenyan money. But stayed with some home currency just in case. I leave the exchange rate research to you.. keeps changing.

After about 15 hours, we arrived in Nairobi in the 10 o’clock hour.

At 2pm, I boarded a matatu to the SGR (train) stage. There, Boda Boda took advantage of my ignorance and overcharged me for a distance sort of a kilometer. I paid 100 Kenyan shillings ($1).

After airport-style security check, I bought a ticket from the ticketing counter at the station. It cost me 1000 Kenyan shillings ($10). I’m not mentioning Kenyan again. Didn’t use Ugandan shilling until back at home.

The train departed from the Nairobi terminus at exactly 2:35pm. On board there are crew vendors selling food to passenger. You may carry yours from outside. First class passengers who pay 3000 shillings ($30) are entitled to food. By 7:20pm, a little over 4 hours, we were already in Mombasa, a journey that takes……… [aaaahh I will tell you later]……. hours by bus.

The Mombasa Terminus is about 13 kilometers from the city center. There were many private but shared taxis at the terminus taking people to different destinations. You need to know what distance you have to go to make a good bargain on this. The cheaper alternative is a public bus, but these are few and may take about less than 5% of all people who depart the terminus.

Welcome to Mombasa…

Accommodation and Prices – In my modest East African experience, Mombasa is comparatively expensive. I could be wrong, because I chose to stay in an otherwise flashy neighbourhood, Nyali. I booked my accommodation over Airbnb. I recommend you’ll get very nice deals from their site. Prices for an apartment room in this area started from $30 going up. The wallet is the limit. When I explored cheaper hotels in the area off the radar, the cheapest for a night was 2000 shillings ($20) – without meals, just a bottle of water. Just make sure there is either air conditioner or a fan in your room. Otherwise, you may live to curse the money makers.

There is a host of hotels and apartments in other towns like Bamburi and Mtwapa. Even cheaper ones in the city centre if you’re fine with the endless hoot hoot.

Staying on Grid – We all know roaming on our home phone network can make a big dent on our finances. To ease on this, service providers in Kenya provide a local sim card. Unlike locals, foreigners can only register for a sim at a service centre. For 100 shillings ($10) and presentation of my passport, I got myself a Airtel sim card and also bought enough data and airtime to last my stay. Hustle-free. The alternative is the more popular Safaricom.

Sanitation – What would you expect in a typical African setting?! A little bit of everything I guess. And in relatively uniform proportions. Mombasa is mostly averagely clean. They are trying hard. By they need to up their game, considering they are a big tourist destination.

Moving Around Mombasa – ‘Tuk tuk’. If there’s a signature mode of transport in Mombasa, tuk tuk it is. The three wheelers are in every corner of town. Saves money for when you’re a perfect group of three passengers. I got a tuk tuk driver friend who took me around for the whole of my stay. Couldn’t go without tips for such commitment. I would highly recommend these. Taxis are cheaper but won’t get you to spots. Boda bodas are a bit expensive and unreliable.

Food in Mombasa – Like the rest of Kenya, I wasn’t surprised to find ugali (posho) at every local restaurant. I did not like to try out local foods and instead opted for the more continental fries and snacks. There is KFC, Naivas supermarkets, and a lot more fast-food outlets. If you want to experience local cuisine, there are loads of restaurants in every corner offering them on their menus. The surprising thing though is that every single item on any meal is priced alone. Which in my opinion is quite limiting. Also, I found food there as relatively expensive.

Things to do – So with all information above we can assume you’ll comfortably settle into Mombasa. Right

There’s so much to do here.  At least I have helped you safe land. You can’t do everything here on a fixed budget and time. So here are a few of the things I explored in Mombasa.

Visit the Mombasa Beach – Pure white sands fade into clear blue waters. I guess that is why Mombasa is called the white and blue city. I guess… Three out of seven days I was at the beach. Splitting my hours there between sunbathing and floating on the denser salty waters. A trip to Mombasa without the beach isn’t a trip – for travel freaks to say. It never got old. I’d go back here every day of the week just to swim. There are many many beaches along the coast but Mombasa beach was my favourite by far. Try Nyali beach. Or you can travel about 34 kilometres south of the city to the world popular Diani beach.

Take a Tuk Tuk Ride – Never miss a spot. To be fair, matatus are cheap. But the special thing about the tuk tuks is that they are flexible and will take you wherever you want to visit. My advice is to look out for which kind of fuel it uses. I found the diesel ones to be so shaky from engine vibrations and  thus tiring. So if you haven’t hired a private car, tuk tuks come in handy.

Visit Fort Jesus – History is preserved. If you’ve googled about Mombasa, Fort Jesus should have appeared in each of your search results. This iconic structure with rich architecture and thrilling history is worth a visit. Entrance for East Africans was 400 shillings ($4). If you haven’t or not willing to pay that, you can make a trip around the exterior at no charge. There are also tour guides to take you around for a fee. Be woke and bargain well.

Explore the Old Town – Where tradition is preserved. Old Arabic houses serving small feeder streets, the old town is a place best explored on foot. But a tuk tuk could work too. Everything on the scene is as old as the name suggests. Old electric wiring hanging off of old poles, old art painted on walls, dilapidated land blocks now housing cemeteries for the then elites, the very old fishing market by the ocean. It isn’t as bad as it sounds. All the sceneries in the old town couldn’t look more touristy than they do. You may find a guide to take you around, or google maps may be your companion.

Walk the Haller Park – A mini safari. So to say. School kids and game enthusiasts walk into this urban nature park to watch different animal species. Entrance into the park is 500 shillings ($5) for East Africans. For that amount you get to feed giraffes, watch crocodiles play, visit the snake park, rhino sanctuary, but also enjoy beautiful photo backgrounds. It is a zoo of sorts, only bigger than it.

Overall Impressions – Mombasa is a hot spot for honey moons and history. I did not get any impression that it was an insecure place to visit, or that the people were uninviting to tourists. When your bank balance is fine and your mood wanting, do not hesitate to pack for that trip to the coast.

Happy stay in Mombasa…

A moment please… I had to tell you about the train travel from Nairobi to Mombasa. It took us about 4 hours 15 minutes. It was sweet in every sense. But… I missed the return train. It was a weekend and I was bounced at the counter with the train fully booked. I took the bus back to Nairobi and hell…. It was one s**t of a ride. 12 hours on the road, a SUPER bumpy Modern Coast bus – perhaps a DMC. Just make sure to book your return train ticket at same time with your first.

Wanna ask me anything? Write to me in the comments section and I’ll get back to you.


Dan Around is travel enthusiast and video content creator. He has for over one year produced short video content for his online channel, companies and organizations. His videos cover a wide range of topics from travel to humanities. His mission is to show off his country Uganda to the rest of the world through publishing advisory travel blogs and videos.

This Post Has 21,461 Comments

  1. So great Dan, this can be really useful to future travellers and that includes myself.

    1. For sure Ian. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the next trip

  2. Hi Dan around. This is a good piece and i would one day after corona pandemic visit Mombasa with your guidance

    1. Amanya Alex it’s a real pleasure. Will be around to do my part best 😀

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