Kenya’s best bars: From Alchemist to Forty Thieves
Kenya has long been known for the wildlife that gathers around its water holes.
But in recent years the East African nation has also gained a well-earned reputation for the quality of its watering holes — places where people can sip cold ones, cocktails and imported wines.
From suburban Nairobi and the slopes of Mount Kenya to the sands of Mombasa and Lamu Island, Kenya offers a wide variety of drinking establishments, some ensconced in hotels and restaurants and others thoroughly independent.
Their vibe ranges from urban hip and beachfront cool to dive bars and ritzy joints that channel the golden age of safari travel.
Founded by Hollywood heart throb William Holden in 1959, this chic saloon at the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club sits astride the equator on the outskirts of Nanyuki and has hosted more than its fair share of celebrities over the years.
You can quaff a cocktail with one foot planted in each hemisphere or ogle snowcapped Mount Kenya from a table on the terrace.
As the name suggests, the design is all about stripes — faux zebra-print fabrics and African equine-inspired artworks.
The barkeep makes an amazing Safari Cocktail, a frozen margarita-like blend of vodka, pineapple and mint.
Another oldie but goodie, the Tamarind tenders amazing views of the Old Town on the far side of Mombasa Creek, as well as some pretty good grub and libations.
Scottish single malt whisky is the house specialty, a stable that includes 10-year-old Talisker, 12-year-old Cragganmore and 12-year-old Glenkinchie.
Premium liquor also features in menu items like farm-reared Kenya quails sautéed in whisky and the Amarula crème brûlée.
The homegrown cocktails are also exquisite, especially the Mamba Venom, a lethal blend of tequila, Tabasco and sambuca.
Tamarind also offers daily lunch and sundowner cruises on a traditional wooden dhow sailing craf.
The Champagne Bar (Nairobi)
It’s all about the bubbly at this posh place on the seventh floor of the Sankara design hotel in Westlands.
This intimate space with sofa seating around low tables and a few stools along a gorgeous palm wood bar hand-carved by local artist and furniture maestro Marc van Rampelberg.
Order a bottle of Krug or Taittinger and drink your bubbly straight up.
Or ask the resident mixologists for one of his latest takes on the champagne cocktail. The bar hosts a Champagne Ritual every night at six.
Those who want to continue quaffing after the 1 p.m. closing time can step up to the rooftop Sarabi Pool Bar, which stays open another house.
Forty Thieves (Diani)
A coastal institution since the 1970s, this dive bar along the Diani Beach strip is a long-time hangout for both locals and out-of-towners.
A cold Tusker on the terrace is the standard activity by daylight. After dark the action shifts to a dance floor, where celebrity DJs and live bands keep the groove going until well after midnight.
While ice-cold suds is the main attraction, the bar also serves “tiki” cocktails and straight up or on-the-rocks well drinks.
Forty Thieves hosts a number of special events during the year including a waterfront music festival and beach touch rugby tournament.
Sierra Brewery (Nairobi)
East Africa’s first microbrewery takes its name from the fact the founder and owner learned how to make suds in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
While the design vibe might be hipster northern California, the beer itself is utterly German — made with just hops, malt, yeast and water according to the centuries-old Reinheitsgebot tradition of Teutonic brewing.
In addition to seasonal beers, Sierra makes year-round stout, blonde, amber and lager.
The Brasserie gastropub on the third floor serves lunch and dinner, the dishes complemented by their own beers as well as a surprisingly good selection of vodka, tequila, rum, whisky and European aperitif.
The Alchemist (Nairobi)
This Westlands hotspot blends drinks, music, fashion, food and art in an eclectic outdoor space that feels more like an open-air fair than a traditional nightclub.
Launched in January 2016 by a young expat Californian, the venue shares its large outdoor “yard” with other cutting-edge multicultural entities like a music recording studio, Mama Rocks “African style” food truck, and a double-decker London bus converted into an art space.
Special events run a broad gamut from art shows and farmers’ markets to DJ parties and “Game of Thrones” viewing sessions.
Ask the bartender for a Campari Negroni and slide onto one of the blue sofas.
The elegant lounge bar at Hemingways Hotel sports a chummy atmosphere similar to the Muthaiga Country Club and other colonial holdovers. Only here you don’t have to be a member.
One of Nairobi’s best wine cellars boasts a large selection of South African, South American, European and Californian vintages. Cognacs and single malts are other specialties.
And as a tribute to the bar’s namesake, the Mojitos are the best you’re going to sip this side of Havana.
Add in black leather armchairs, a marble fireplace and black-and-white photos of the celebrated author.
Oenophiles can opt for a multi-course chef’s table dinner in the wine cellar.
Long Bar and Star Lounge (Watamu)
Located in the Medina Palms resort, the indoor bar and its open-air rooftop companion bring a little bit of Dubai to the Kenya Coast.
The cocktail menu is long and scrumptious, a blend of global favorites and homegrown concoctions like the Dawa (vodka, honey and lime), the turquoise Aqua Medina vodka martini, Watamu Rum Punch and East Coast Cooler (Wild Turkey, maple syrup and fresh lime).
The dreamy Star Lounge is also equipped with hookahs and a wide selection of North African shisha flavors. And for those who don’t imbibe, the Long Bar also offers virgin cocktails.
You can ignore the upscale champagnes and martinis at this circular bar beside the Seven Seafood & Grill restaurant and go straight to the yummy ice-cream cocktails at this sleek little bar out on the west side.
Made with locally made vanilla bean ice-cream, the choices include the amaretto-infused Strawberry Shortcake, Bacardi-based Rum Don Pedro and a Cookies ‘n’ Cream cocktail that features Baileys and mint liqueur.
As the name suggests, the menu is also spangled with unusual marine-themed drinks like the bright red Piranha and a tequila-beer concoction called Seven’s Tsunami.
Choice’s Pub (Nairobi)
Cool tunes, pool tables, pub grub and cold beer highlight this Kenyan version of a sports bar near the National Stadium in Nairobi.
Live acts from around Kenya take the stage every Thursday, while Mondays are devoted to relaxation and conversation, Wednesdays to soul music, and the weekends to DJ parties.
On the sporting side, the bar shows live broadcasts of English Premier League football games and Formula One motor races.