Kenya's second city can come as a revelation. There's a depth of history here, and a sense of community Nairobi lacks. And, whereas Nairobi has very clear boundaries between rich and poor districts, things are less clearly defined in Mombasa. Sleazy, hot – you're always thirsty – and physically tropical in a way that could hardly be more different from the capital, MOMBASA is the slightly indolent hub of the coast – a faded, flaking, occasionally charming city that still feels, despite its gentle sprawl, like a small town that was once great.
Mombasa is actually an island, connected to the mainland by two causeways to the west, and by a bridge to the north, but still linked only by ferry to the south. The city is intricate and its streets wriggle deceptively. At its appealing heart is the Old Town, a lattice of lanes, mosques and cramped, old houses sloping gently down to the once-busy dhow harbour. Fort Jesus, an impressive reminder of Mombasa's complicated, bloody past, still overlooks the Old Town from where it once guarded the harbour entrance. It's now a national monument and museum.
Clustered all around you, within easy walking distance, is the whole expanse of downtown, modern Mombasa, with its wide streets and refreshing lack of high-rise buildings (though their number is steadily growing). While you won't doubt it's a chaotic city, the atmosphere, even in the commercial centre of one of Africa's busiest ports, is invariably relaxed and congenial. Rush hours, urgency and paranoia seem to be Nairobi's problems (as everyone here will tell you), not Mombasa's. And the gaping, marginal slums that one expects to find outside African cities hardly exist here. True, Likoni and especially Changamwe, on the mainland, are burgeoning suburbs that the municipality has more or less abandoned, but the brutalizing conditions of the Mathare Valley, Kibera and Korogocho shantytowns in Nairobi are absent.
Despite the palms, the sunshine and the happy languor, all is not bliss and perfection. Street crime, though it hardly approaches Nairobi's level, is still a problem, and you should be wary of displaying your valuables or accepting invitations to walk down dark alleys. The Likoni ferry and the area around the junction of Jomo Kenyatta Avenue with Mwembe Tayeri Road are two hotspots for pickpocketing and bag snatching, and it is not unknown for gangs of pickpockets to stalk tourists along Moi Avenue and around Fort Jesus. But, as a general rule, Mombasa is a far less neurotic city than Nairobi and, in stark contrast to the capital, there's nowhere in the centre that could be considered a no-go area. One indication of this is that the city stays awake much later. Climatic considerations may partly explain it but, at an hour when central Nairobi is empty but for taxis and askaris, Mombasans are to be seen strolling in the warm night, old men conversing on the benches in Digo Road, and many shops are still open. The small-town freedoms remain healthy here and it all adds up to a city that is richly satisfying and rewarding to stay in.
Ethnically, Mombasa is perhaps even more diverse than Nairobi. Asian and Arab influence is particularly pervasive, with fifty mosques and dozens of Hindu and Sikh temples lending a strongly Oriental flavour. Still, the largest contingent speaks Swahili as a first language and it is the Swahili civilization that, more than any other, accounts for Mombasa's distinctive character. You'll see women wearing head-to-foot buibuis or brilliant kanga outfits, men decked out in kanzu gowns and hip-slung kikoi wraps. The smaller community of white settlers and expatriates figures less prominently here than in Nairobi, but it continues to wield disproportionate economic and social clout.
As a tourist town, Mombasa doesn't go out of its way to please. Indeed, one of its best qualities is its utter lack of pretension. It is principally a port: Kilindini harbour takes up most of the western side of the island. Increasingly, too, Mombasa is an industrial city, boasting one of East Africa's major oil refineries (on your right as you arrive by train). In short, Mombasa is not a resort. Visiting sailors are as important to its tourist economy as bona fide tourists, and (a grievous shortcoming) the island has no real beaches. The vast majority of the obvious tourists that you'll see around the place are here only for the purpose of a shopping trip from their North or South coast beach hotels. You may not be able to resist the lure of the beaches for too long, but Mombasa deserves a little of your time unless you are in a big hurry; there are few places in the country with such a strong sense of identity.