Peaceful, tropical, quasi-bohemian—and quite unspoiled by mass tourism: Lamu is a place like no other. It’s not a surprise that the best things to do on Lamu include long beach strolls, dhow sailing, and exploration of the old Swahili settlements—with their unique coral-stone townhouses.
So what’s to see here? From overgrown ruins of old forts to medieval villages you can discover how trade between Africa, the Middle East, and Europe made this place. Contributing to the charm of the island is its natural beauty: coral atolls, mangrove forests, remote archipelagos, and secluded lagoons. But it’s the white sandy beaches that we found the most breathtaking — and this is the item on our best things to do on Lamu list.
1 Walk along deserted beaches
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.
2 Explore the narrow streets of Lamu Town
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.
3 Sail the traditional dhow
Dhow and donkey remain the only forms of transport around Lamu (there are only two cars on the entire island: one belonging to the governor, for official occasions, and one is an ambulance, for the donkeys). Hiring a dhow for a leisurely cruise around the archipelago is a must-do. We sailed on a beautiful boat with the crew from the Red Pepper House.
4 Rent a beautiful Swahili townhouse
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.
In fact, the majority of townhouses are owned by Westerners. They turn them into guesthouses: beautifully restored, full of character and authenticity—they are in many ways what makes Lamu unique. Particularly stunning is the Jaha House, which we were lucky to have stayed at.
5 Get lost in Shela village
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.
6 Sunset gaze on 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 the 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. Plus, you can actually have a sundowner, for example in a lovely setting at The Majlis, where we stayed.
7 Visit the ruined city of Takwa
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.
8 Feast on the Swahili food
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.
9 Pop in to the vegetable market for people watching
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.
10 Most of all: “Pole-pole”
This phrase—Kiswahili for “take it slowly”—permeates all aspects of life in Lamu. You cook pole-pole, you sail pole-pole, you adopt the laid-back pace of life, the pole-pole life. The time slows down here—indeed it’s a bit like a trip back in time, to the heyday of Lamu, a thriving port town of medieval ages.
Connect with us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. See you there, and meanwhile, happy Kenya planning!
Photos by Laskowski & Zadros, © TravelPlusStyle.com