Explore Mombasa and the Swahili Coast

Camels on Mombasa Beach, Swahili Coast, Kenya.
On the Swahili Coast of Kenya you'll find a wonderful mix of cultures, fascinating history and endless beaches laced with pristine Indian Ocean coral reefs. It's a tropical paradise and holiday heaven for many visitors from around the world.

See Kenya Coast Hotels and Resorts

The Kenyan coast is known for its dazzling palm-fringed white beaches, secluded coves, fishing, scuba diving and snorkelling. The coral reefs teem with brightly coloured fish and you can see Dolphins and Sea Turtles. The tropical climate and warm Indian Ocean waters are major attractions for tourists. Mombasa is the main centre on the coast with its interesting Old Town and fascinating heritage, but there are also a number of smaller towns and pockets of cultural interest along the coast. The coast stretches for nearly 600km (370 miles) between Tanzania and Somalia.

The Historic Port City of Mombasa

Mombasa City, on the island of Mombasa, is the second largest city in Kenya. It is the major port in East Africa and as such has always had strategic importance. In KiSwahili it is called “Kisiwa Cha Mvita” which means “Island of War” due to its many changes in ownership.

The history of the city is a mixture of African Bantu, Persian, Arab, Portuguese and British, each leaving behind remnants of their culture, which over time have been entwined and enriched to become the Swahili culture as we see it today.

Mombasa has always been a great trading centre dealing in copper, iron, brass, rhino horn and glass. It was originally inhabited by the African Bantu, who in the 6th century were visited by the Jordans,the Persians in the 9th and 10th century and then the Arabs. This was the start of the trade routes, developed by the Persians and Arabs, creating commercial centres that grew and became prosperous as depicted by the glorious architecture of their grand houses and mosques found in Lamu, Malindi and Mombasa.

Over the following centuries Mombasa had many more foreign invaders, with the Portuguese, the Zimba tribe from Ethiopia and the Omanis all having laid claim to this Island city. By the 15th century Mombasa was a thriving, sophisticated city with trade routes with China, Persia and India.

The arrival of Vasco Da Gama in 1498 whose purpose was to spread the christian faith and expand Portugal's trading area by finding a trade route to India, was at cross purposes to the Arabs. His arrival was initially met with hostility from the local population. However, he made a very important ally with the Sheikh of Malindi al - Bauri, who was at war with Mombasa at that time. The Portuguese courted the Sheikh and promoted him to become a Sultan, thus empowering him to persuade the local population to follow his orders, which were being fed to him by the Portuguese.

Mombasa became Portugal’s main trading centre along the East African coast, and to defend this port they built Fort Jesus between 1593 and 1596, by order of King Philip 1 of Portugal. Fort Jesus, the main hub for trade and acting as a holding prison for slaves, as well as protected the Portuguese from the conflicts with the locals and the Arabs. Slavery was the major trade at this time, and local slaves were exchanged for goods from visiting European ships. The trade of spices, cotton, tea and coffee all of which were cultivated and grown in the rich fertile soils of the nearby farms, made Mombasa the best place for seafarers at the time. The captured slaves were forced to work on these farms, in the most inhumane conditions.

The Arabs tried several attempts to regain Mombasa but Portugal, supported with supplies from their Indian colony, Goa, hung onto it for around 100 years. The occupiers were finally defeated after a siege on Fort Jesus which began in March 1696. Soldiers from Portugal and India managed to relieve the fort in 1697, but were unable to break the blockade. By December 1698 the Omani army triumphed by scaling the walls of the fort.

The Omanis were now in control of Mombasa but due to infighting, intrigue and rivalry between competing Omani rulers, Mombasa went into decline. Mombasa then fell under the rule of the Mazuris, who in turn were overcome by the Omani leader, Bey Saidi Sultan Sayyid Said in 1822.

The Mazuris wanting to return to power, called upon the British to assist them and make Mombasa a British protectorate. Captain Owen from the British naval vessel HMS Leven, agreed to place the city under British protection, but this was done so without Westminsters knowledge or permission. Britain at this time had a strong alliance agreement with Oman, and so the protection for the Mazuris against the Omanis was withdrawn.

Mombasa once again flourished under the Sultan's rule, with trade mainly from slavery. Britain by this time was determined to abolish slavery and so put a lot of pressure on the Sultan to stop this trade. In 1845 the Sultan was forced to sign a treaty to this effect.

In 1886, an agreement made between Germany and Britain divided East Africa between the two countries. Britain was to rule Uganda and Kenya, Germany to rule Tanganyika (now Tanzania). The Imperial British East Africa Company set up its headquarters in Mombasa in 1888. This was the springboard to the colonization of Kenya, which lasted up until 1963.

The colonial government saw an opportunity for a better transport system with Uganda and to improve their administration, so they constructed the Kenya - Uganda Railway (1895 - 1902). The port in Mombasa needed to be expanded due to the increase in activities, therefore the Port of Mombasa was relocated to Kilindini Harbour, west of Mombasa Island. The development of the present port commenced in 1896 when the first jetty, used for discharging materials in the construction of the rail network, was built at Kilindini.

Highlights South of Mombasa

Diani Beach - is a sun-worshipper's paradise with a range of accommodation on offer and a vibrant night-life culture. Visitors will find most amenities such as shops, supermarkets, stores selling curios and banks in Diani.

Shimba Hills National Reserve - is situated very close to Diani Beach and Mombasa which is ideal for guests who would like to combine bush and beach highlights in one holiday. Shimba Hills is a beautiful reserve with stunning ocean views. The reserve is made up of open grassy plains and rainforests which provide excellent wildlife habitats for Elephant, Buffalo, Leopard, Giraffe, Suni and many other species plus prolific birdlife. Rarities include Sable antelope (the last in Kenya) and Roan antelope. This is a biodiversity hotspot of global importance with exceptional flora and fauna. The Mwalunganje Elephant Sanctuary is nearby.

Wasini Island - is the access point for Kisite Mpunguti Marine National Park, a pristine marine reserve with plenty of tropical fish and wonderful scuba diving and snorkelling around beautiful coral gardens. Humpback whales visit these waters between July to December each year. Deep sea fishing enthusiasts can enjoy excursions into the Pemba Channel, for some of the finest big game fishing in Kenya.

Highlights North of Mombasa

Kilifi Creek - Is a balmy, beautiful stretch of water joining the Voi River and the Goshi Estuary. It is a narrow neck of placid flowing water about 3 Km long, fringed with lush vegetation. There is a bridge spanning over it that joins the powder white Shauri Moyo and Kilifi beaches. There are various activities for you to do on the water including; sailing, windsurfing, waterskiing & wakeboarding Near Kilifi Town you will also find the Mnarani Ruins, which are at the top of 107 steps, but are worth the climb for the spectacular view overlooking Kilifi Creek. The ruins date back to the 15th century, and are the remains of two mosques and tombs left over from the days of the Arab spice trade.

Arabuko Sokoke National Park - is an ecological wonder and the last great stretch of indigenous coastal forest left in Kenya. It is a sanctuary for a range of animal and bird life including Forest Elephant and a number of endemic species, namely; the Golden - rumped elephant shrew, the Sokoke Bushy tailed Mongoose and Ader’s Duiker. The Kipepeo Butterfly Farm in this area is a great project involving the local community and a worthwhile place to visit.

Gede Ruins - these fascinating ruins in the Arabuko Sokoke Forest are all that is left to show the existence of a lost Swahili city dating back to the 13th Century. Artefacts reveal the wealthy inhabitants lived in high comfort (they even had advanced sanitation, drainage and water supplies) and traded extensively with other countries far and wide.

Watamu Marine National Park - is a haven for scuba divers and snorkelers. This protected area includes a number of islands and Mida Creek plus many miles of gorgeous beaches, stunning hard corals (more than 100 species), plentiful Sea Turtles and reef fish, Dolphins and bigger marine creatures. The best time to visit is between October and March. There is a great stretch of white beach and a number of resorts close to the town. Between January and April Sea Turtles come to nest on the sands at Turtle Bay.

Malindi - is another historic town which is a popular holiday resort with plenty of accommodation and modern amenities - highlights include deep sea fishing, exciting night-life, colourful markets and historic mosques. Hell's Kitchen (the Marafa Depression) is a geological wonder with many colourful sandstone features 30 minutes drive from Malindi.

Lamu Island - is a very historic place that time forgot is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Life moves at a slower pace here and there is no vehicle traffic allowed on the island. Many aspects of Lamu have hardly changed at all for at least a century, which is the big attraction.

The Old Town has seen the coming and going of the Omani Arabs, Turks and Portuguese and is considered to be of prime importance for Swahili culture. It is a delight to walk around and has some interesting museums. The island can only be reached by boat.

Lamu Archipelago - features a number of islands including Manda Island (with historic ruins at Takwa and Manda town) and Kiwayu Island which is the access point for Kiunga Marine National Reserve, another great place for snorkelling.

Old Town Mombasa

Old Town is the part of Mombasa that is still reminiscent of the time of Arab rule, as shown through the architecture. As you walk through the narrow streets you can view the ancient buildings, extravagant art designs, curio shops selling antiques and souvenirs, and get a feel of times past. The town’s inhabitants are mostly of Arab descent, whose forefathers once roamed these very streets. Fort Jesus is located a few steps away from where the Old Town starts, and so can be combined into a day tour.
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