Lamu Kenya Guide

The Arab flavour of Lamu Kenya is not nearly as old as the Lamu town itself. It derives from the later nineteenth century when the Omanis, and to some extent the Hadhramis from what is now Yemen, held political and cultural way in the town. The first British representatives found themselves among pale-skinned slave-owning Arab rulers. The cultural and racial stereotypes which were subsequently propagated have never completely disappeared.

Lamu Town Climate

The weather in Lamu Kenya is generally hot and humid throughout the year. The long rains come from April to July and the short rains from October to November. The mean daily temperature is around 22 degrees Celsius minimum and 30 degrees Celsius maximum.

Economic Activities in Lamu Town

Fish farming in Kenya and tourism has been the most important economic activity for Lamu. Mangrove export, commerce, traditional maritime activities, traditional woodcarving have provided a stable economic base for the growth of the town. Other economic activities include handicrafts such as making of kofias (traditional embroidery swahili hat), agriculture and carpentry.

History of Lamu Kenya

Lamu was established on its present site in the fourteenth century but there have been people living on the Island for even much longer than that. The fresh water supplies beneath Shela made Lamu Island very attractive to refugees from the mainland and people have been escaping here for 2000 years or more – most recently in the 1960s when Somali secessionists and cattle raiders caused havoc.

It was also one of the earliest places on the coast to attract settlers from the Persian Gulf. There were probably people from Arabia and southwest Asia living and intermarrying here even before the foundation of Islam.

Lamu Kenya is something of a myth factory – classical as well as popular. Conventionally labeled “an old Arab trading town”, it is actually one of the last viable remnants of the Swahili civilization that was the dominant cultural force all along the coast until the arrival of the British. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lamu’s unique blend of beaches, gently Islamic ambience, funky old town, and population well used to strangers, was a recipe which took over where Marrakesh left off. It acquired a reputation as Kenya’s Kathmandu: the end of the (African) Hippie trail and a stop-over on the way to India.

Lamu town itself is unendingly fascinating to stroll through. with few monuments but hundreds of ancient houses, arresting street scenes and cool comers to sit and rest. And the museum is exceptional, outshining all Kenya’s others but the National Museum in Nairobi.

Initially confusing, Lamu is not the random clutter of houses and alleys it appears. Very few towns in Africa have kept their original town plan so intact (Timbuctoo in West Africa is another) and Lamu‘s history is sufficiently documented, and its architecture well enough preserved, to give you a good idea of how the town developed.

The division is between the waterfront buildings and the town behind, separated by Usita wa Mui, now Harambee Avenue. Until around I830, this was the waterfront, but thepile of accumulated rubbish in the harbour had become large enough by the time the fort was finished to consider reclaimingit; gradually, those who could afford to built on it. The fort lost its pre-eminent position and Lamu, from the sea, took on a different aspect, which included Indian styles such as arches, verandas and shuttered windows.

Behind the waterfront, the old town retained a second division between Mkomani district, to the north of the fort, and Langoni to the south. These locations are important as they distinguish the town’s long-established quarter (Mkomani) from the still-expanding district (Langoni)where traditionally newcomers have built their houses, often of mud and thatch rather than stone or modern materials. This north/south division is found in most Swahili towns and reflects the importance of Mecca, due north.

Lamu Town Museum

The museum has restored an eighteeth century house (the House Museum) to approximately its original appearance. Lamu‘s stone houses are unique, perfect examples of architecture appropriate to its setting. The basic design is of an open, topless box enclosing a large courtyard, around which are set inward-facing rooms on two or three floors. These rooms are thus long and narrow, their ceilings supported by close-set timbers or mangrove poles (boriti). Most had exquisite carved doors at one time, though in all but a few dozen homes these have been sold off to pay for upkeep. Manyalso had zidaka, plaster-work niches in the walls to give an illusion of extended space, which are now just as rare. Toilet arrangements are ingenious, with fish in the large water cristems to eat the mosquito larvae. On the top floor, a makuti roof shades one side. In parts of Lamu these old houses are built so close together you could step across the street from one roof to another.

The private space inside Lamu‘s houses is inseparable and barely distinguishable from the public space outside: the noises of the town – donkeys, mosques, cats – percolate into the interiors, encouraged by the constant flow of air created by the narrow coolness of the dark streets and the heat which accumulates on upper surfaces exposed to the sun. There’s an excellent display of Lamu‘s architecture at the museum in Nairobi.

The one place everyone goes on Lamu is, of course, the beach; Lamu‘s beach is the real thing. Unprotected by a reef, the sea here has some motion to it for once: it is one of the few places on the coast where, at certain times of the year, you can bodysurf. You can either walk down to Shela beach (about an hour) or you can take a motorboat or dhow.

The Magic of Lamu

Lamu confounds. The most hardened of travel writers, the most extensively travelled of tourists, the most hedonistic of the glitterati are all rendered speechless by Lamu. Or cliché- bound. Because Lamu is exactly as described on the label. It’s enchanting, unbelievable, spellbinding and addictive. From the moment of landing at its tiny toy-town airport, you know you’re in trouble.

The breeze caresses, the sea is wrap-around, the sky is lapis lazuli blue; and the people walking out across the tarmac to board the little plane you’ve just left are clearly enchanted. They’re golden, white-clad, barefoot and beaming. Some have hibiscus blossoms in their hair. And they don’t want to leave. Nor will you.

The Lamu archipelago is an Alice Through the Looking Glass world where everything is magically muddled. There aren’t any streets, just a maze of winding alleys. There aren’t any cars, just barrel-bellied donkeys ridden by bow-legged men in white dishdashas and pork pie hats.

There aren’t any sleek hotels, just blindingly-white Swahili mansions festooned in fuchsia-pink bougainvillea. There are no plush foyers, just huge carved doors swinging open to reveal cool, green Persian gardens. There are no supermarkets, just cavernous emporiums displaying hessian sacks of spices, cones of sugar and glass cabinets stuffed with an eclectic collection of 1920s hairnets, henna, and hookah pipes.

The Mystique of Lamu

The ladies are veiled; the men wear wrap-around kikois rather than trousers. The children patter on bare feet through the alleys, and the old men gather to play dominoes in the crumbling medieval squares. Egyptian cats with huge ears and fathomless eyes prowl the streets: it’s said they are descended directly from the tomb cats of the pharaohs.

In the evening, you can hire a camel and set off for cocktails in the sand dunes. In the morning you can run on a deserted beach. At night, the sky is a spangle of stars. By day, you can swim in pellucid waters, board a dhow for a distant island, take a slow boat through the mangrove swamps, or mine the treasure-trove of dark, dusty emporiums.

Facts About Lamu

The Lamu Archipelago is a cluster of hot low-lying desert islands running for some 60 km parallel to Kenya’s northern coastline. It comprises Lamu Island, Manda Island, Pate Island and Kiwayu Island.

Established in 1370, Lamu Town is Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited town. Through history it has been influenced by the Arabs, the Portuguese, the Omanis, the Germans, the Sultan of Zanzibar and the British.

And a dash of all of these influences have remained: the result is an exotic mélange that is both unique and entrancing. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Lamu is both a living museum and a flourishing community.

Profoundly Muslim, the town echoes to the wail of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, while the bustle of the markets, the squares, the waterfront and the alleyways reflect a way of life virtually unchanged for centuries.

What to see in Lamu Kenya

Lamu Museum

Housed in a grand Swahili warehouse on the waterfront this dusty old museum provides an excellent insight into Swahili culture.

Lamu Fort

Built by the Sultan of Pate in the 1800s, this squat castle holds the island’s library and Swahili poetry collection.

Lamu Market

Atmospheric and chaotic this is the place to buy fresh fish, fruit, vegetables and spices.

Swahili House

Visit this perfectly preserved mansion for the full-on flavour of Swahili life.

Lamu Donkey Sanctuary

A man without a donkey IS a donkey or so says the Swahili proverb and this sanctuary is devoted to giving sanctuary for some 3,000 donkeys that can no longer work.


An enchanted fishing village with 12 km of pristine beach.

The German Post Office Museum

Built by the German East Africa Company in the late 1800s, this is now a photographic museum covering the brief period of German rule.

Kipungani in Lamu

A place of dreamy beaches and the centre for dhow building and palm-mat weaving.

Manda Island Lamu

A short boat hop from Lamu, this is a place of dunes and mangroves, and also the fabulous Takwa Ruins, all that remains of a glorious 15th century city.

Pate Island Lamu

A forgotten Swahili world, also the site of Shanga the world’s most complete example of a medieval Swahili town.

Kiwayu Island Lamu

Remote, pristine and romantic, Kiwayu lies at the far northeast of the archipelago and has a reputation for causing all its visitors to fall hopelessly in love.

The Kiunga Marine National Reserve

A pristine string of 51 rugged coral isles, ringed by rainbow coral reefs, Kiunga promises wheeling seabirds, rare turtles, magical dugongs and an underwater world of unbelievable colour, discovery and vibrancy.

Lamu Culture Shop

Unique buys include carved furniture, Arabian antiques, copper lanterns, handmade jewellery and exotic fashions.

What to do in Lamu

A place of clear blue perennially warm waters, Lamu is a water lover’s paradise: choose from snorkelling, diving, numerous watersports and dhow trips to deserted sand spits. It’s also a great place for walking the dunes and beaches or camel riding.

Lamu Festivals

Lamu excels in festivals; the most famous is Maulidi, which features dhow races, donkey races, poetry, theatre, and an extravaganza of food. There is also a Cultural Festival, an Art Festival and a Yoga Festival.

Lamu Cuisine

An extravagant fusion of Arabic and African, Swahili cuisine is a sublime blend of impossibly fresh fish, coconut, lime, spices and rice with plenty of fabulous fruit juices and spiced Arabic coffee.

Accommodation and Hotels in Lamu Kenya

1. Garden House

Category: Hotels in Lamu Kenya

Garden House is situated on the edge of Shela Village, near the sand dunes that fringe the village. At the corner of a walled garden, this graceful house is shaded by neem trees that attract plentiful birdlife. The house is furnished with traditional Lamu furniture and adorned with local artefaets.There are 2 en-suite double rooms and 1 en~suite twin. The ground floor has a dining room and seating area, and the rooftop has comfortable baraza seats and sunbeds.

2. Palm House Hotel

Category: Hotels in Lamu Kenya

A striking Swahili style house, Palm House centres on an open courte yard, with a side garden. The house is whitewashed, with a thatched roof, furnished with traditional Lamu furniture and adorned with local artefacts.There are 3 en-suite doubles and 1 en—suite twin. The dining and living areas, on the ground floor, open onto the terrace.

3. Shella Island Hotel

Category: Hotels in Lamu Kenya

Shella Island Hotel is on the fringe of Shela Village, with views over the sand dunes. The hotel is a whitewashed building, decorated in traditional Swahili style with Lamu furniture. Pot plants are placed throughout the house.
There are 6 en-suite rooms, rnade up of 1 single, 3 doubles and 2 triples. The triples contain 2 small double beds and a single.

4. Sultan’s Palace Hotel

Category: Hotels in Lamu Kenya

Sultan’s Palace is a traditional Lamu house, estimated to be 100 years old. The building was renovated and converted to a hotel, and opened in 2004. It is affiliated to Petleys and Lamu Palace Hotel, both of which are on Lamu seafront.
There are 4 en~suite rooms and 2 pehthouses. The rooms are furnished with Lamu 4-poster beds, table and chair. The hotel serves breakfast; room service can be ordered from Lamu Palace Hotel.

5. Peponi Hotel

Category: Hotels in Lamu Kenya

With a name that means heaven in Swahili, Peponi Hotel is a beachfront paradise. The hotel opened in 1967 and has remained in the hands of the same family ever since.
There are 24 en-suite rooms, made up of 14 standard and 10 superior. Each room is individually designed and adorned with traditional artefacts.

6. Msafini Hotel

Category: Hotels in Lamu Kenya

In a sea of whitewashed buildings, Msafini Hotel’s bright yellow facade stands out. The hotel opened in 2009, and combines traditional style with modern architecture.

There are 14 en-suite rooms, made up of  doubles, twins and triples.

Each room has a private balcony. The  hotel can be booked for private functions, either as a whole, or part. Mango Restaurant, on the rooftop, has panoramic views of the sea, Manda Island and the sand dunes. The chef specializes in seafood, and the menu includes snapper, barracuda, grouper, calamari, prawns, oysters and lobster. Traditional Swahili food is also available. Buffets can be arranged on request. Guests are welcome to use the internet in the manager’s office. There is also a swimming pool, shaded by vivid bougainvillea.

7. Kitendentini Bahari Hotel

Category: Hotels in Lamu Kenya

Behind Lamu County Council, Kitendentini Bahari Hotel is in a convenient location for the shops and buildings of the Main Street, and for Lamu Museum and donkey sanctuary. The hotel offers budget accommodation, around a central courtyard with pot plants and coral walls.
There are 21 en—suite rooms. The rooms are furnished with double and single beds, fridge, fan, table and chair.

8. Lamu Palace Hotel

Category: Hotels in Lamu Kenya

Lamu Palace Hotel is a whitewashed building with thatched roof, located directly on the seafront in Lamu Old Town.
There are 22 en-suite rooms and 1 suite. The rooms are all furnished with laniu 4—poster beds. They are on the 1st and 2nd floors, both floors have communal sea facing balconies. The suite has minibar, satellite TV, kettle and 24~hour room service. There is WiFi throughout the hotel. The ground floor restaurant serves a wide variety 0fAfrican and international cuisine, as well as japanese tepanyaki arid Italian pizza. Dishes include tuna sashirrii, ealaniari allegro, grilled lobster, chateaubriand and crispy soya chicken. The bar is fully stocked with soft drinks, beers, wines and spirits, furnished with comfortable.

9. Bahati House Hotel

Category: Hotels in Lamu Kenya

Bahati House is a traditional Lamu house, buitt on 3 floors around an open courtyard. The house is fully staffed and is taken on a self-catering basis.

There are 5 en-suite bedrooms, all furnished with king size bed. Each floor has a sitting area. The rooftop terrace overlooks the sea and the dunes, it provides plenty of lounging space and has a Moroccan corner and a swing bed. The chef uses fresh, local ingredients; guests are welcome to discuss their food preferences with him.
Both Lamu Old Town and Shela Village provide a wealth of activities.

For further information please visit: Bahati House Hotel

10. Petleys Hotel

Category: Hotels in Lamu Kenya

Directly opposite the jetty, Petleys is a landmark on the Lamu seafront.The tall whitewashed building has attractive rooms, a swimming pool with terrace and a glass—fronted rooftop bar with views across the sea.

Getting into and around Lamu Town

The best means of getting into the town is by air. There are different flights from different cities like a direct one from Nairobi, Mombasa and Malindi. The region’s airstrip is located in Manda Airstrip, a short boat ride from Lamu Island. It can also be reached from Mombasa by road which takes about 6-7 hours. It is a bit expensive but it is faster hiring a car from Malindi and Mombasa. Donkeys are the only mode of transport in the town.


Lamu Ornithology

Ornithologists will be transported by the mesmeric flights of seabirds:roseate tern, sooty gull, white-cheeked tern, bridled tern, brown node and crab plovers.


Lamu Town – Photos

Lamu Kenya - Lamu Town

Lamu Town – Videos