NAIROBI is one of Africa's major cities: the UN's fourth "World Centre", East Africa's commercial and aid hub, and a significant capital in its own right, with a population of between a million and a half and three million, depending on how big an area you include. As a traveller, your first impressions are likely to depend on how – and where – you arrive. If you've come here overland, some time resting up among the fleshpots can seem a pleasant proposition. Newly arrived by air from Europe, though, you may wonder – amid the rash of signs for Nandos, Wimpy and Oriental Massage – just how far you've travelled. Nairobi, just over a century old, has real claims to Western-style sophistication but, as you'll soon find, it lacks a convincing heart. Apart from some lively musical attractions – some of East Africa's busiest clubs and best bands – there's little here of magnetic appeal, and most travellers stay long enough only to take stock, make some travel arrangements and maybe visit the National Museum, before moving on.
If you're interested in getting to know the real Kenya, though, Nairobi is as compelling a place as any and displays enormous vitality and buzz. The controlling ethos is commerce rather than community, and there's an almost wilful superficiality in the free-for-all of commuters, shoppers, police, hustlers and tourists. It's hard to imagine a city with a more fascinating variety of people, mostly immigrants from rural areas, drawn to the presence and opportunities of money. Nairobi, on the surface at least, seems to accept everyone with complete tolerance. On any downtown pavement you can see a complete cross section of Kenyans, plus every variety of tourist and refugees from many African countries.
Nairobi's rapid growth inevitably has a downside however (read any newspaper or talk to any resident and you'll hear some jaw-dropping stories of crime and police shootings), and, although the city has become safer over the past few years, you should certainly be aware of its reputation for bag-snatching and robbery, frequently directed at new tourist arrivals. If you plan to stay for any length of time, learn the art of survival; with the right attitude, you're unlikely to have problems. For the few days that most people spend in Nairobi – if initial misgivings can be overcome – it's a stimulating city.