There are some places I’ve visited that feel like a distant dream. That cannot fully be described - only experienced, no matter how beautifully captured through writing or photography. Lamu is definitely one of them.
The golden sunsets, palm-fringed beaches, calls to prayer, white plastered Swahili villas and bougainvillea covered terraces…this is one enchanting island to say the least. Rich in history as a former trading post and overflowing with Swahili culture, Lamu is a tiny fishing village island that rests just off the coast of Kenya. Not to mention, it was the highlight of my trip. It’s luckily still a place not heavily marked by tourists (mostly because it’s kind of a hassle to get to), and has solidly secured its spot as one of my top 5 places to visit within Africa.
Lamu is one of those remote places that takes some extra planning, effort, and patience to get to. Especially if you are travelling in from outside of Kenya. You’ll only be able to access it from within Kenya, so you’ll need to plan to at least pass through Nairobi to get there. Once there, it’s pretty easy to catch any one of the many flights that leave from either Jomo Kenyatta Airport (NBO) or Wilson Airport (WIL) daily, usually with a short stop in Malindi – resulting in a flight time of just under two hours. Flights also leave from Mombasa (MBA), landing in Lamu just 45 minutes later. While I cannot personally vouch for it, I believe it’s also possible to get there by bus from Mombasa or Malindi. However, I was told the roads can be very rough, so I would recommend highly flying instead.
SOME GENERAL INFO + TIPS
The Island (particularly Shela & Old Town) is very conservative. It is predominantly Muslim, so ladies should dress to respect the local culture. This can be loose fitting midi/maxi dresses, long pants, loose tops, etc. You can of course dress as you wish when staying on private property.
Alcohol isn’t served everywhere. Again, because this is a very conservative Muslim island, alcohol will only be served at larger properties like Peponi or the Majlis.
There are no cars or motorized transport on the island. The main means of transport is instead by donkey, which makes adds a certain peace and charm to an already idyllic island. It’s a contagious spirit since there’s a slow, easy-going pace to the island.
You’ll take a lot of dhows. Coming out of the airport, you’ll have to take one of these traditional sailing boats for a short ride to get to your destination. You’ll also take them if you go on any sunset cruises, snorkeling, or to get to any other surrounding islands. Don’t worry about finding a captain to take you, because as soon as you step foot onto any one of the beaches, they will come find you.
You’ll need about 3-4 days. This is to scratch the surface and make the most of your experience. I was here for only 2 nights and honestly regret it. I wish I would have been able to stay longer to really take in the culture, visit more of the small boutiques (a few of them were closed when I went), and just talk to more people.
WHAT TO DO
Nothing. Lamu puts the art of doing nothing to practice and what makes it special is the absence of a typical itinerary. YThere are of course things to do - you can visit Lamu Museum, shop for incredible hand carved Swahili furniture at Saba Studio, shop for beautiful (though expensive) kaftans at Aman - but the real highlight will come in simply being there. As the Swahili saying goes: “polé polé“ or take it slow. Sit on a rooftop terrace with a cold hibiscus or passion fruit drink, read a great book, drink some amazing coffee, talk to some locals, or just take a stroll around Lamu or Shela Town during the day. As late afternoon approaches, go out on a dhow for a sundowner or any one of the amazing properties like the Majlis. This place is all about ease.
Explore Lamu Town. There is so much history here, so spend at least one morning or afternoon casually strolling around and taking it all in. It feels like a moment frozen in time (quite similar to Stone Town Zanzibar, though much , much smaller), and is worth it if only to observe daily life in the colorful markets and winding alley streets. I’m personally a huge fan of Swahili design, so the architecture here was a real treat. Stop by for any one of the many wood carving workshops happening around town or just grab a quick bite from any one of the street vendors for a taste of local food.
Relax in Shela Town. Shela is often described as Lamu Town’s prettier, younger sister. Which I think is true, albeit a bit patronizing. It’s where you’ll find more of the high-end properties, where there are more tourists, and where you’ll find some white sand beach. Because the island is so small, it’s just a 45 minute walk along the water to get here from Lamu Town or about a10-minute boat ride.
Visit the Neighboring Islands. Because there’s hardly ever large crowds in this region, the neighboring islands have somewhat of lost in paradise feel.You’ll have endless miles of white sand beaches to yourself (bring your own food, drinks, everything - don’t expect restaurants or bars to there either), and the chance to go snorkeling or sail through the mangroves. Manda Island was definitely my favorite one of these!
WHERE TO STAY + EAT
There are so many incredible private boutique style villas and resort properties that you can stay in during a visit. Some of my favorites include:
A bonus to all of these places is that they also have incredible restaurants and/or settings that make them great to come, relax, and hang out in. Other great places to eat that teleport you to a time of yore include:
Baitil Aman, Ali Samosa , Whispers Café, Abuhakar’s Halva Centre, and Diamond Beach Village
Hand crafted wooden furniture from Saba Studio or Isiah’s Wooden Fish Workshop
Hand woven bags anywhere (I bought one off of a lady wearing one walking down the street, ha!)
Kaftans, leather accessories, or handcrafted Maasai jewelry from Aman
Scarves, bath or beach towels from Aalyshah Design
Handcrafted ceramics from Mohammed Silversmith