A Guide for Navigating the Mombasa’s Rich History and Culture
Mombasa, Kenya is a city rich in history and culture, and a visit to its Old Town and Fort Jesus is a must for anyone looking to explore the area’s hidden gems. Nestled on the picturesque island of Mombasa, the Old Town and Fort Jesus offer visitors a glimpse into the past, including the thriving Swahili civilization of the 13th to 15th centuries, as well as the town’s history as an important Islamic trading port and under various rulers such as the Portuguese, Arab, and British.
This guide map is your ultimate companion for exploring the historic Old Town of Mombasa and it aims to help visitors navigate the winding streets and uncover the hidden gems of the town’s rich history and culture.
- Fort Jesus: A 16th-century Portuguese fort that is now a national museum. Open daily. One of the first hotels in Mombasa, it originally had a fine sea view from the balcony. In 1904, it was owned by Goans, Junior, and Diaz, who ran a grocery and tailoring business on the ground floor and acted as the Portuguese Consul.
- Mombasa Club: Built in 1897, it is the oldest club in Kenya and was at one time exclusively for Europeans.
- African Hotel: One of the first hotels in Mombasa, it originally had a fine sea view from the balcony. In 1904, it was owned by Goans, Junior, and Diaz, who ran a grocery and tailoring business on the ground floor and acted as the Portuguese Consul.
- Mandhry Mosque: One of the oldest mosques in use in Mombasa, founded in 1570. The present building probably dates from 1830. The apse-like qibla in the north wall indicates the direction of Mecca. The well for the Mandhry mosque is just across the road and the elaborate frontage to the well is dated 1901.
- The Old Post Office: This used to be the main post office, which was opened in 1899, initially to enable the Indians who built the railway to send money home to their families.
- Old Port/Government Square: For over a thousand years, one of the major ports of the triangular dhow trade of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf, Mombasa nowadays is lucky to see a dozen of these craft during the season.
- Sanaa Gallery: Once the office of Allidina Visram, a successful Ismaili merchant who came to Mombasa in 1898 and did much to build up the commercial life of Kenya. He was also a generous philanthropist and the Allidina Visram school was built further up the harbour by his son Abdul Rasul as a monument to him.
- Bohra Mosque: The Bohras are another prominent Muslim community in Old Town Mombasa, originating from the Indian subcontinent. The original mosque, constructed by A.M. Jeevanjee in 1901, was replaced by the present mosque built in 1982.
- Leven House and Steps: named after HMS Leven, a British naval survey ship that visited Mombasa in 1824. Officers from this ship came ashore and were permitted to conduct their anti-slaving operations from there. Later occupants included Dr. Krapf, the missionary, the first British Vice-Consul, and a German shipping company, Oswald & Co.
- Reitz House: formerly a warehouse of the Portuguese. It is known for its association with Lieutenant Reitz, a British naval officer who was involved in the anti-slavery efforts and lived in the house until his death in 1824. The house is rumored to be haunted by the spirits of its former Portuguese and British inhabitants.
- Probable site of Old Portuguese Church: Thought to be the site of the Portuguese Church of the Misericordia, which was seen by Richard Burton in 1857 when it was being used as a cattle shed.
- Mombasa House: Built by a former customs master to the Sultan of Zanzibar around 1880, this is a good example of an old townhouse.
- The White House: Built in the late 19th century, this building was rented to the Church Missionary Society as a “Ladies House” for unmarried lady missionaries. Later, it became the first American Consulate in Mombasa.
- Lookmanji Curio Shop: “This house has a particularly fine balcony and door. The balcony brackets are carved with birds, and the balcony is screened for privacy following the strict Muslim custom of shielding women from the eyes of strangers.”
- Ali’s Curio Market: This was built in 1898 as the first police station in Mombasa.
- Jubilee Hall: Built in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Until the 1950s, it was used as a baraza for town meetings. The original building was open-sided.
- Mazrul Graveyard: This graveyard belongs to the Mazrui family, which ruled Mombasa in the 18th century.
- Old Law Courts: Opened in 1902 by the British Governor, Sir Charles Eliot, the new law courts were built in 1983. This building now houses offices, a library, and archaeological collections of the National Museums of Kenya. There is an exhibition gallery on the ground floor.
- Datoo’s Sale Rooms: Built in 1920, furniture and household equipment are still auctioned here every week.
- Pigott Place: Formerly a busy marketplace, named after an acting administrator of the Imperial British East Africa Company.
- Basheikh Mosque: An ancient Swahili mosque.
- Treasury Square: Opened in 1901, originally a statue of Sir William Mackinnon (l823-l893) stood here. The square is surrounded by several fine colonial-style buildings, all dating to around 1900.
- Swahili Cultural Centre: Housed in two restored colonial buildings, this is a craft training canter, which specializes in reviving Swahili traditional handicrafts. Visitors are welcome.
- Alien Registration Building: A fine example of early colonial architecture, it is thought to have housed the chief administrators of the Imperial British East Africa Company, who ruled Mombasa from 1888-95.
Fort Jesus has an admission fee, whereas the Old Town is free for visitors.
Price: Entry fee USD$ 10.00 for non-residents and residents KSH 200 for adults KSH 100 for children.
Where to eat around The Old Town and Fort Jesus
When it comes to food and drinks, the Old Town offers a variety of options for visitors. You can find traditional restaurants where you can try local dishes such as biryani, samosas, and mandazi. Street food vendors are also a great option for a quick and delicious meal on the go. For those looking for a refreshing drink, there are several cafes and juice bars available in the area. Some popular places to stop for food and drinks include the Jahazi Cafe, the Forodhani Restaurant, and the Camel’s Joint. Each of these places has its unique charm and offers a different type of experience, be sure to try them all.
When visiting the Old Town and Fort Jesus, it is important to keep the following things in mind:
- Dress modestly, as the area is predominantly Muslim.
- Consider hiring a guide to help you understand the area and its history.
- Be aware of your surroundings and do not flaunt expensive items.
- Show respect to the local community and always ask for permission before taking photos of people.
- Be environmentally conscious and carry your trash with you and dispose of it properly.
- Look out for the white plates with more information about the area of interest on the walls.
- Most importantly, enjoy your visit and take in all the rich history and culture that the Old Town has to offer.
The Fort Jesus and Mombasa Old Town tour typically lasts around three hours. However, for those with a full day to spare, we highly recommend combining this tour with visits to the Spice Market and Mombasa Tusks. The Spice Market is a lively and colourful place, where visitors can purchase exotic spices, fruits, and other local delights while, the iconic Mombasa Tusks serve as the gateway to the city and hold a significant historical value, as they were erected to mark Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the city in 1952. Guests can easily walk to the Spice Market from the Old Town and then hop on a tuk-tuk for a quick ride to the Mombasa Tusks. Together, these three attractions provide an immersive and enriching experience into Mombasa’s vibrant culture and history.
Accommodation Options around the old town and fort Jesus
Finding accommodations near the Old Town and Fort Jesus can be a challenge, but there are a few options that offer convenient access to these historical landmarks. We recommend Pride Inn Mombasa, which is located just a few minutes away from the Old Town and Fort Jesus. This 3-star hotel offers comfortable rooms, an outdoor pool, and a restaurant serving a variety of local and international dishes. Other options include Lotus Hotel and Sentrim Castle Hotel which boast stunning views of the Indian Ocean and are just a short drive away from the Old Town and Fort Jesus.