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Travel

Lasting charm of Mombasa Old Town

You can learn to use a tuk tuk like a local. Photo | Wendy Watta | NMG
You can learn to use a tuk tuk like a local. Photo | Wendy Watta | NMG 

We got off the Likoni Ferry and after about 10 minutes of strolling along the scenic Mama Ngina Drive, got to Old Town Mombasa.

With its narrow main street, colourful walls and old buildings with distinctly 18th century-style architecture, this may well be a street in a charming little European city like Cinque Terre or even Lisbon, with the addition of antique curved Moorish doors.

From these influences, it is evident that this town was once a hub for Portuguese and Arabic traders who were drawn by the Old Port that is still operational today (it for instance still brings in spices from Zanzibar).

As we strolled along the road, occasionally stepping aside to let tuk tuks (motor rickshaws) pass, we stopped by the numerous curio, jewellery, art and antique shops lined along the streets.

After a lot of bargaining, I purchased a large blue chest of drawers with intricate carvings because I have always had a soft spot for Swahili decor. I also got fridge magnets for a quarter of the initially quoted price and so bargaining is always a must at the stores.

Our short walk led us to Forodhani Restaurant at the end of the street. The best part about this spot is its prime seafront location.

We sat on the lower outdoor deck overlooking Tudor Creek and from where we could see the Old Port.

The menu here is decently priced. For our table, we got an excellent samaki wa kupaka with butter naan, mchicha and pilau, with prices averaging Sh900 per person for lunch.

Fort Jesus

This Unesco World Heritage Site is one of the most popular attractions in Mombasa. As Kenyan citizens, we paid Sh200 entry fee and got an unofficial guide for about the same amount.

It has been a while since I last visited this site and so learning about its history was exciting all over again.

It is a great example of the military architecture of the Portuguese in the 16th century. We started off by walking inside one of the rooms, which had an impressive collection of ceramics (mostly porcelain) and pottery.

This was followed by exploring the rest of the fort to see Omani culture (clothes, housing and jewellery).

It is also quite interesting that while the Portuguese set up the fort to solidify their presence in this part of the Indian Ocean, it actually marked the start of their downfall in Mombasa.

Our guide explained that from the Portuguese, the fort actually changed hands about nine times before finally being controlled by the British who first used it as a jail before it became a museum.

There was also an exhibition by an upcoming crop of the city’s photographers displaying a myriad of pictures from around Mombasa, which gave further insight into life in this coastal tourist hotspot.

Given all the options along Kenya’s coastline, Mombasa is not exactly my favourite spot, for I am always drawn to remote and largely unspoilt locations.

Perhaps this is why I loved the Old Town so much so that it is now my favourite stop in Kenya’s second largest city, and if you love history and culture, you will certainly enjoy exploring it too.

Having worked up quite an appetite two hours later, we headed off to Jahazi Coffee House. If Kenya produces some of the best Arabic coffee in the world, Jahazi is where you should go drink it in Mombasa.

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