Mombasa is a coastal city on the shores of the Indian Ocean in Kenya. Mombasa’s white sandy beaches and rich culture have made the city a major tourist destination. After the government made a decision in 2018 to paint the town’s buildings white with a blue accent and the old town’s buildings yellow, Mombasa gained a moniker as the white and blue city.
Mombasa was founded in 900 A.D. and its oldest structure dates back to 1300 A.D. It was originally inhabited by the pre-Islamic Bantu-speaking Swahili Twelve Nations (Thenashara Taifa) families. In the sixteenth century, its strategic location made it a target for competing colonial powers who all wanted control over the area. They included the Arabs, Turks, Portuguese, and Persians. Portugal maintained dominant rule over Mombasa on and off from 1430 to 1730, until Omani sultans established independence in 1746, and then the sultan of Zanzibar in 1840.
The name Mombasa comes from the Arabic name Manbasa, given to the city after the sultanate first became independent in 1502.
For two years from 1824 to 1826, the city fell under a British protectorate, but was returned to Omani control. In 1837, Mombasa was annexed by Muscat and Oman, and returned to British rule in 1887 as a capital of the British East Africa Association. At this time, it was also established as the capital of the Protectorate of Kenya until the title was given to Nairobi. In 1928, Mombasa finally became an official municipality and would later have full council status in 1959.
Today, Mombasa is known as a bustling cosmopolitan port that boasts a signature blend of African, Indian, and Arabic cultures while embracing its ancient Swahili roots.
The First Inhabitants of Mombasa
Much of the history of the first inhabitants of Mombasa comes from local Swahili legend and oral history passed down over generations. Mombasa’s first two rulers were Mwana Mkisi and Shehe Mvita. These two rulers are commonly associated with the origins of the city and have been credited with creating its metropolitan foundations.
Mwana Mkisi, a pre-Islamic queen and the original Twelve Nations ancestor, founded an urban settlement known as Kongowea, which would later evolve into Mombasa. This original settlement was located on Mombasa Island, where the city’s historical market is still located today.
Shehe Mvita took over after the dynasty of Mwana Mkisi, which subsequently began a new era for the city. At this time, the island’s first stone mosque, Mnara, was built. Shehe Mvita was known as a Muslim who was highly engaged in learning and cultural development, and played a prominent role in establishing what would become an important trading epicentre for Kenya and East Africa in general.
The ancient Swahili traditions of Mombasa are still held in high regard today, particularly by the ancestors of the Twelve Nations lineage, and considered to be an integral component of the city’s history.
Urbanization of Mombasa
As early as 900 A.D., when settlements began to form in Mombasa, the initial construction of buildings and dwellings began. By the twelfth century, Mombasa had become a trading hub and a thriving metropolis. The people of Mombasa traded spices, gold, and ivory with merchants as far as India and China thanks to the city’s strategic location on the coast. As a result of the continuous conflict over control of Mombasa, many of Mombasa’s buildings today are known for their eclectic blend of different architectural styles.
The first buildings in Mombasa are located within Old Town, and were mostly mosques and places of worship made from stone and wood. Mnara, the oldest stone mosque in the city, was built in 1300 A.D. Mombasa’s original wood mosques captured the attention of foreign travelers who visited the area. In his book, The Travels of Ibn Battuta, Moroccan traveler Ibn Buattuta recalls his visit to Mombasa in the early fourteenth century. He states that Mombasa’s mosques were “made of wood, expertly built.” Mhandry Mosque, one of the first mosques built in Kenya, was constructed in 1507.
During colonization from other countries, forts were built to protect the city’s valuable ports from attack. Fort Jesus, a Portuguese fort built in 1593, is one of the oldest buildings in the city that is still intact. The ruins of Fort St. Joseph, an Arab fort built in 1498, also remains in Mombasa but is not as intact as Fort Jesus.
The first hotel built in Mombasa was also the first hotel built in Kenya. Founded in 1901, the Africa Hotel was a meeting place for 20th century businesspeople, travellers, expats, and more. Today, the main floor is open as a museum where guests can view old complaint logs, photographs, and see the original architecture.
As it has always been a central hub in Kenya for trade and urbanization, Mombasa’s transport systems were developed cohesively early on in the city’s history. They remain prominent today, as Mombasa is one of the most notable tourist destinations in the country.
By air: Mombasa’s airport, Moi International Airport, features both domestic and international flights. It was originally built during World War II as a base for the British Eastern Fleet, the Royal Air Force, and the South African Air Force. Since 1979, it has been operating as an international commercial airport.
By sea: The Port of Mombasa is a key seaport in Kenya. Its main port is Kilindini Harbour, which is the only international port in the country and the largest port in east Africa. The Likoni Ferry has been transporting passengers and cargo across the Kilindini Harbour between Mombasa Island and the suburb of Likoni since 1937. It is free for foot passengers, but vehicles are required to pay a fee.
By land: A recent addition to Mombasa’s bustling urban centre, the Mombasa–Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) was constructed in 2017 and was Kenya’s most expensive infrastructure project since its independence 54 years prior. Both commercial and passenger trains run along this railway between Mombasa and Nairobi daily.
Old Town was the first estate built in Mombasa. The original rulers, Mwana Mkisi and Shehe Mvita, established urban settlements circa 900 A.D. that grew and prospered in the surrounding area of the port city. Many of the current residents in Old Town, particularly in Makadara, are descendants of Arabic Baluchi soldiers who had arrived to settle in the area before it was established as a town.
Likoni is currently home to a population of Digos, native tribes with both Swahili and non-Swahili heritage. Most of the houses in Likoni in this area are made from stone and mortar and it is known as one of the least expensive locations to live in Mombasa. Located south of Mombasa Island, Likoni can be accessed directly by the Likoni ferry.
Bamburi is known as one of the fastest growing estates in Mombasa, as it has experienced rapid growth and development. It is home to many middle class earners and higher end real estate buildings, as well as the Bamburi Cement Factory and many of its employees. Bamburi is north of Nyali on the mainland.
Nyali estate is located on the mainland, north of Mombasa Island. It is a prime area home to many of Mombasa’s more posh residents, with its own gated residential communities and an up-and-coming higher end real estate market. It’s known as one of the safest areas in the city, as it is frequently patrolled by police to protect its wealthy residents. Rental houses in Nyali mainly comprise luxury condos as well as beachfront mansions.
Gradually, as the bordering plantations gave way to new developments and settling populations, more estates began to form outside of Old Town and Nyali. Beginning in the 19th century, new estates rose that became home to some of Mombasa’s more wealthy and elite residents, as well as new slums as the divide between the rich and poor became larger.
One of the more posh estates, Kizingo is located on the Island’s coast south of Old Town. Kizingo today is known as a well-secured residential area that has undergone significant growth and development. This is another area where many state and government officials live as the Mombasa Statehouse is located here.
Diani Beach is one of Mombasa’s most well-known beaches, with white powdery sand that attracts tourists year after year. Located at the southernmost point of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean, this estate is home to many luxury beachfront resorts, shops and commercial real estate, as well as vacation homes. It also has its own airport primarily to transport tourists to and from their vacation destinations.
The rise of the slums in Mombasa has contributed to ongoing political and social tension among residents of the city. Often, multiple families live in one communal space with little to no amenities or running water. Magongo is an example of one of these slum estates, known for its lack of proper infrastructure, inadequate sanitization, and unclean water. Shanzu, Kisauni, Majengo, Mishomoroni, and Barsheba are also estates that have notable slum populations and have become synonymous with crime, drug abuse, and low employment rates.
Challenges facing Mombasa
Mombasa has faced many challenges throughout its tumultuous history. During conquest, Mombasa was the target for expansion from the Portuguese, Arabic, Turkish, and British empires, with conflicts and warring between the nations fighting for control.
While the sprawling beaches and hubs of culture make Mombasa a supreme tourist destination, there are other challenges that face local populations. In recent decades, urban poverty has been an ongoing issue with the city’s working class residents. Approximately one quarter of Mombasa’s population live in informal settlements, with limited access to clean water and sanitation processes. Saba Saba and Majengo are two notable areas where residents live in makeshift houses with no amenities.
Mombasa has also had its fair share of internal political conflicts, based on dissatisfaction with the local and central governments as well as class and ethnic struggles between members of the local population. During the 2007–2008 Kenyan Crisis, Mombasa was a targeted region for riots and protests.
Mombasa boasts a range of amenities for its population, and as with many of the other offerings in Mombasa, these amenities are rooted in heritage.
International schools are prominent in Mombasa, with approximately 10 institutions located within the city. Mombasa County has approximately 540 schools, 462 of which are primary schools and 78 of which are secondary schools.
Mombasa’s major university is the Technical University of Mombasa (TUM). Located on the north side of the island, TUM is one of the oldest educational institutions in Kenya. The city is also home to many other university campuses, including Mount Kenya University-Mombasa campus, Mombasa Technical College, Kenyatta University, University of Nairobi-Mombasa campus, JKUAT-Mombasa, Utalii college, Bandari college, and ICS college Mombasa.
There are approximately 20 private and general hospitals, women’s hospitals, specialists, and medical centres in Mombasa, providing a variety of care options for residents and visitors. The Mombasa Hospital is the oldest private healthcare facility in Kenya, established in 1891 and located near Fort Jesus. Aga Khan Hospital is a large general hospital founded in 1944 on the southern part of the island and operates within the Aga Khan international hospital system. Other general hospitals include Nyali Bridge Mombasa Hospital, Pandya Memorial Hospital, MEWA Hospital, and Coast General Hospital.
Due to Mombasa’s very rich heritage, there are a variety of places of worship within the city catering to a variety of religious practices. There are many mosques, churches, and temples featuring stunning architecture and intricate designs.
Key Attractions and Landmarks
One of the most notable landmarks and a key tourist attraction in Mombasa is Fort Jesus. Built by the Portuguese in 1593-1596, Fort Jesus was designed by Giovanni Battista Cairati and based on Renaissance architectural ideals. Used as a Portuguese military base to defend and protect Mombasa’s coveted port, the fort spans approximately 2.36 hectares, complete with the original moat, tunnel systems, and gun turrets. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011 and features a museum. Next door to the fort is a butterfly house where visitors can see a variety of species in various stages of life.
Fort St. Joseph
While not as completely intact as Fort Jesus, Fort St. Joseph is older and was constructed by the Arabs before Vasco Da Gama arrived in Mombasa in 1498. The ruins of a Portuguese chapel are located on the same grounds, and the fortification offers an attractive viewpoint near a golf course.
Old Town is a characteristic cultural hub popular with history buffs and explorers alike. A historic area encompassing the districts of Makadara and Mzizima. Here, original buildings featuring traditional Swahili architecture line the streets, and there are many shops, restaurants, and merchants to explore. One of the most notable areas in Old Town is the Mombasa Spice Market, which offers a range of street foods and aromatic spices.
The Tusks of Moi Avenue
While the tusks don’t have a rich, deep history like many of Mombasa’s other landmarks, the Tusks of Moi Avenue have become some of the more characteristic and unique landmarks of the city. Built in 1956 to welcome Princess Margaret on a visit to the town, the tusks are made of steel and resemble real elephant tusks.
The Mahandry Mosque
While it’s closed to the public, the Mandhry Mosque remains one of the more notable landmarks in Mombasa. Built in 1570, Mandhry Mosque is the oldest mosque in the city, and the building’s blend of Arabic and African style with its ogee arch makes it a more stand-out feature.
Holy Ghost Cathedral
This large Roman Catholic cathedral was constructed in 1898 by missionaries, and is currently the seat of the Bishop of the Archdiocese of Mombasa.
Founded in 1971, Haller Park is a wildlife reserve and nature park nestled within an abandoned limestone quarry. Visitors can see animals such as giraffes, hippopotamuses, zebras, tortoises, and over 160 species of birds. It also features hiking trails, cycling paths, and a crocodile park.
Nguuni Wildlife Sanctuary
Another popular destination to get a close up look at Africa’s wildlife, Nguuni Wildlife Sanctuary is home to many types of animals such as giraffes, ostriches, hippopotamuses, and native birds. This space is well known for its stunning views of the sunset, making it a hit for weddings and family gatherings alike.
Mamba Village Centre
Known predominantly as a crocodile farm, Mamba Village Centre is a popular tourist destination with family-friendly activities to enjoy. Visitors can learn about crocodiles and watch them at feeding time, walk through the beautiful gardens, dine on exotic offerings at the restaurant, and hang out at the lunar park.
North and South Coast Beaches
Mombasa is home to many beautiful beaches that boast white sun-touched sand, turquoise waves, and tropical palm trees. These beaches are hubs of activity, from shopping and dining to snorkeling, surfing, picnics, and more. North coast beaches include Nyali Beach, Bamburi Beach, and Shanzu Beach. South coast beaches include Shelly Beach, Tiwi Beach, and Diani Beach.
When it comes to eating, Mombasa has no shortage of classy restaurants. Kenya’s traditional dish is called nyoma choma, roasted meat with a smoky flavour. However, the blended history and cultures within Mombasa have produced a diverse variety of options for dining, whether you’re sampling a roadside snack or dining at a high end restaurant.
Mombasa’s famous kibandas, small roadside market shops offering local street food, are popular with both tourists and locals alike. Popular snack choices include nyoma choma, achari (dried mango), seafood, bhajias (fried vegetable nuggets), and grilled sweet potato.
While the kibandas are not to be missed, Mombasa also has a bustling restaurant industry with a variety of dishes, from Italian and Chinese to Indian, Swahili, and more. Some of the more popular and noteworthy restaurants in Mombasa within the low to middle price range include (but are definitely not limited to):
- Island Dishes & Barbecue: A popular Swahili restaurant in Old Town serving traditional dishes such as mishikaki (grilled kebabs), mkate mayai (Swahili pizza), fruit juices, chicken tikka, fish, and more.
- La Marina Seafood Restaurant: Nestled along the Mtwapa Creek, La Marina is a local favourite for seafood, combined with a waterfront atmosphere ideal for catching the sunset.
- The Moorings: One of Mombasa’s oldest restaurants, this unique dining experience floats atop the Mtwapa Creek and serves fresh seafood as well as steak, pasta, and other favourites.
- Shehnai Restaurant: A cozy, casual space near the famous tusks in Mombasa’s business district, Shehnai is a local favourite that has been serving Indian dishes for over 36 years.
- Jahazi Coffee House: Another Old Town staple, Jahazi is located near Fort Jesus and offers a cultural atmosphere with traditional Kenyan snacks, as well as lunch, dinner, and beverages such as smoothies, coffee, and tea.
High end cuisine is also a specialty in Mombasa. This city is an ideal destination for many professional chefs and culinary experts thanks to its rising high-end neighbourhoods and luxury tourist destinations. Additionally, Mombasa’s strategic location along the Indian Ocean provides local restaurants with access to fresh seafood and ingredients from the trading ports.
Some high-end Mombasa restaurants of note include (but are not limited to):
- Ali Barbour Cave Restaurant: This fine-dining restaurant is located in Diani, built in a 180,000 year old underground cave that opens up to the sky.
- Tamarind Mombasa: Best known for its seafood and blend of French, Asian and African cuisines, Tamarind overlooks Mombasa Island from Nyali with an exceptional view in an Arab-style building.
- Imani Dhow Restaurant: Located in the Severin Sea Lodge hotel, along the Bamburi beachfront, Imani Dhow offers a unique fine dining experience where guests enjoy their meal in an anchored dhow (sailboat).
The Mombasa Housing market
Mombasa continues to undergo significant urbanization and development. Since 2018, real estate reports have pointed to Mombasa’s upward growth trajectory in both the residential and commercial sectors, especially in regard to hospitality and tourism.
While Mombasa is commonly divided into two sections, Mombasa Island and the mainland, there are actually six constituencies in Mombasa: Jomvu, Changamwe, Likoni, Nyali, Kisauni, and Mvita. Within these constituencies are notable neighbourhoods with ample development opportunity.
There are many up-and-coming neighbourhoods including Utange and Port Reitz. Utange is a sought-after suburb, and has undergone significant development in recent years, with gated compounds and new builds transforming the area with opportunity. Port Reitz has seen a growth in land purchasing as the area has been expanding thanks to ongoing road and rail projects.
The most expensive areas to buy and rent a house are Nyali, on the mainland, and Kizingo, on the island. These fast-developing areas feature high-end luxury houses. Nyali Estate features secure neighbourhoods in close proximity to diplomatic establishments as well. Coastal areas, such as Diani Beach, feature exclusive vacation homes and beach homes in thriving tourist areas.
A portion of these beachfront properties are owned by buyers from all over the world, including Europe and the Middle East, as many from around the world are attracted to the stunning sunsets, sandy beaches, and historic heritage Mombasa has to offer.