The oldest and second largest city in Kenya – and the busiest port in East Africa -, Mombasa has its own distinctive style. Hot and humid, and with a distinct Arab feel to it, Mombasa has a colorful history stretching back a thousand years. Invasions, sieges, and trade have all made their mark on the culture of this coastal island city. Known in Swahili as Kisiwa Cha Mvita, Island of War, the town was an important trading center during the 11th century between East Africa and the Indian Ocean trade routes.
Kenyan historians place the founding of Mombasa as around 900 A.D. The town was prosperous enough to be described by the Arab geographer Al Idrisi, who mentioned it in his writings in 1151, and by the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta, who visited it in 1331. During this period Mombasa emerged as an important trade center with links to Yemen, India, Persia, and China with spices, gold, and ivory as its chief exports.
In 1498 Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama became the first known European to reach Mombasa. His visit awakened Portuguese interest in the city. Two years later the Portuguese returned to sack the city. The Portuguese finally captured Mombasa in 1593, building Fort Jesus to ensure their rule. Mombasa became Portugal’s main trading center on the East African coast.
The city came under the rule of the Sultan of Oman in 1698. In 1837 Mombasa was annexed by Sayyid Said, the Sultan of Zanzibar (Tanzania). Zanzibari rule continued until 1898 when the British assumed control of the city. Mombasa became the capital of British East Africa and the sea terminal for the Uganda Railway which was started in 1896. The British introduced Indian laborers who constructed the railroad. After its completion in 1900, they stayed and became a part of this increasingly multicultural, multiracial city. Mombasa under the British sent cotton, cloves, and coffee to Europe and the Americas.
Within the city itself, there are numerous opportunities for exploration and discovery. Fort Jesus is perhaps Mombasa’s biggest attraction as it dominates the harbor entrance. This Portuguese stronghold was built in 1593 to fend off local enemies and Turkish warships. The remains of the fort provide an interesting tour back through history and a small museum features a variety of relics.
The Omani House, located in the north-western corner of the fort has fascinating displays of Swahili life and breathtaking views over the old town. Mombasa Old Town features a smattering of styles and traditions common to coastal Swahili villages and late 19th century Indian and British colonial architecture. Although its history goes back centuries, most of the houses in Old Town are generally no more than 100 years old. Nevertheless, many of these buildings were modeled on ancient Swahili designs and feature intricately carved doors and door frames.
Visit to Fort Jesus (now a National Museum) and the Old Harbor where you may see the traditional Arabic lifestyle, or cruise around the island on a traditional dhow. Explore Haller Park, a rehabilitated quarry now a rich coastal tropical ecosystem bursting with life. Dive and snorkel at Mombasa Marine Park. MV Dania, a wreck, is favourite diving spot (generally good all year round except July – August due to silting and high seas), where you’ll be sure to encounter a great abundance of aquatic life, from the smallest damselfish to dolphins or even sharks! For a truly cultural experience, visit Jumba la Mtwana – mansion of the slaves, where no evidence that has been found so far to suggest that this 13th century Swahili settlement was a slave trade centre. Malindi and Watamu offer alternatively unique experiences.
Go wreck diving at Diani Beach for a spectacular experience, or visit Wasini Island on a traditional dhow for snorkeling or dolphin (and Humpbacked whales) spotting (July – November) or Whale sharks (February – March). Explore Shimoni Caves, limestone ancient kayas (shrines) made famous in the late 19th Century as holding cells for African slaves and learn more about their history. For serious anglers, fishing season starts in late July, early August when yellow fin tuna, dorado, some sail fish and wahoo are plentiful. Marlin season starts late November and extends until mid-February. Other activities include jet skiing, para-sailing, kite surfing/ wind surfing, and kayaking.
Hike at the Arabuko Sokoke Forest, the largest strip of coastal forest in East Africa, containing an ecosystem of great diversity, supporting many rare species of biodiversity including the threatened Sokoke Scops Owl, Sokoke Pipit, Clarke’s weaver, and the endangered Golden-rumped shrew (sengi). Visit Gedi Ruins within the forest, a once thriving 13th Century Swahili town, now abandoned, with a unique global history. Experience the diversity of sea life with deep sea fishing or snorkeling at the Watamu Marine Park and Reserve for a chance to catch barracuda or view Whale sharks, manta rays, octopuses and others amidst breathtaking coral gardens. Explore Mida Creek mangrove forest’s resident and migrant birds including crab plovers, curlew sandpipers, whimbrels and sanderlings; tour the Arab ruins at Kirepwe Island; or hike at Marafa Hell’s Kitchen (Nyari), a series of sandstone gorges and sheer gullies.