The small island of Lamu, northeast of Mombasa, oozes old-world charm. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lamu Old Town is Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited settlement, with origins dating back to the 12th century.
Strolling the labyrinthine streets is one of the top things to do here. You can see the island’s rich trading history reflected in the buildings. Architectural features from the Arab world, Europe, and India are evident, yet with a discernible Swahili technique. Intricately carved wooden doors, coral stone buildings, hidden courtyards, verandas, and rooftop patios are common features.
Sightseeing in Lamu is like stepping back in time. Dhows plow the harbor, few if any motorized vehicles exist here, and donkeys still rule the streets as they have done for centuries. Most of Lamu’s population is Muslim, and both men and women dress in traditional attire.
Top attractions on the island include Lamu Museum, with displays on Swahili culture and the region’s nautical history; Lamu Fort; and the Donkey Sanctuary.
If all the history is a little too much, you can bask on one of the island’s white-sand beaches or sip Arabic coffee in a local café.
Walk on the beach
The best spots for a beach stroll is a couple of kilometers south of Lamu Town, on the eastern tip of the island where the channel opens to the ocean, around the Shela village.
Not much more than a pretty waterfront and a jumble of narrow sandy pathways, in Shela you are never far from sand dunes and the deserted beach.
Dating back to the 12th century, Lamu Town is the oldest inhabited Swahili town in Kenya, comparable only to Tanzania’s Zanzibar.
With its ancient fort, its wood carved doors, bustling markets and the ubiquitous donkeys the town is charming and authentic—no wonder UNESCO recognized it as a World Heritage Site.
While in Shela, you will no doubt have to navigate the sand-lined maze of pathways of this tiny settlement.
It’s a tangle of donkey-wide alleys, winding among tall stone townhouses, small thatched huts, few mosques and ruins and a spacious square ringed with some market stalls.
The Shela village is popular with Western expats and even an occasional celebrity, who come here to unwind — or to live: many own properties in the village.
Visit Manda Island
Just across the channel from Shela, the mostly uninhabited Manda Island provides the best spots for watching the wonderful African sun setting behind Lamu island.
Looking towards the village and the Fort of Shela, the palm-fringed, vast, empty and unspoiled beaches of the Ras Kitau are the gem of the Lamu area.
The Manda Island once held one of the Kenya coast’s largest settlements, but this once-thriving community abandoned the town in the 17th century.
The cause is debated, but the most probable reason was the depletion of fresh water on the island. Today the coral stone ruins are a popular destination for a day trip from Lamu or Shela.
The international trade with Oman, Zanzibar, India and beyond brought goods and influenced building style, but it also altered the cuisine of Lamu. It created a unique and sophisticated blend of the African and the Eastern, more nuanced than the austere nomadic diet of mainland Africa.
Biryanis and curries, couscous and pasta, coconut rice with mango chutney, and most of all the varied seafood: it’s a rich palette of flavors enhanced by cinnamon, clove, cumin seed, and fresh coconut milk.
Roam the streets
The Lamu Town’s narrow streets haven’t changed for hundreds of years—life moves at the same pace as it always has in its markets and squares.
Lamu’s Muslim population carries on the way of life of their ancestors, with the important distinction: today the island’s economy revolves around tourism. But, the traditional markets still cater mainly to the locals. These are the most authentic places on the island.