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Overview

Set off the remote north coast of Kenya, the sleepy Lamu Archipelago boasts its fair share of stunning beaches and reefs teeming with colorful fish. Its principal attraction, however, is the small town of Lamu, an enclave of Swahili traditional architecture and culture whose sense of historical continuity led to its inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. The town was founded in medieval times, along with other key Swahili ports such as Mombasa, Malindi, Kilwa and Gedi, but unlike most of its antiquated contemporaries – some now abandoned as ruins, others buried beneath more modern structures – it has retained a strongly ...

Set off the remote north coast of Kenya, the sleepy Lamu Archipelago boasts its fair share of stunning beaches and reefs teeming with colorful fish. Its principal attraction, however, is the small town of Lamu, an enclave of Swahili traditional architecture and culture whose sense of historical continuity led to its inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. The town was founded in medieval times, along with other key Swahili ports such as Mombasa, Malindi, Kilwa and Gedi, but unlike most of its antiquated contemporaries – some now abandoned as ruins, others buried beneath more modern structures – it has retained a strongly traditional (some might say time-warped) character. True, the old town boasts few individual historic landmarks dating back more than two centuries, but equally there are very few buildings that don’t conform to the traditional Swahili model of whitewashed multi-story homes built with coral rag and mangrove poles, separated by shady donkey-width alleys. The waterfront Lamu Museum houses a collection of traditional Swahili musical instruments, notably an immense pair of ancient Siwa Horns. A block inland, the double-story Lamu Fort, built by the Sultan of Oman in the early 19th century, is now an environmental museum. Of greater antiquity is the 14th-century pillar tomb that stands behind Riyadha Mosque, and Pwani Mosque, opposite the fort, which dates to 1370, though nothing of the original building remains. Lamu is a lovely place to hang out, wandering randomly through the alleys, chatting with the friendly locals over fresh fruit juices, or sitting on the rooftops after dark below a spectacular night sky. But it is also the springboard for several excellent excursions. A 30-minute walk takes you to Shela, site of an idyllic white beach, while a longer day trip entails taking a traditional dhow to visit the ancient Tankwa Ruins on nearby Manda Island, then go snorkeling off the reefs of Manda Toto.

Philip Briggs
About the Expert

Philip Briggs has written or contributed to 50-plus editions of Bradt, Insight, AA and Berlitz guidebooks to African destinations.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Location: Lamu or Lamu Town is a small town on Lamu Island, which in turn is a part of the Lamu Archipelago in Kenya along coastal East Africa.
  • Language: English, Kiswahili, numerous indigenous languages
  • Currency: Kenyan Shilling
  • Research: Wikipedia | Wikitravel

Climate

  • Best Time to Visit:

    Lamu has a hot and humid climate, and while it can be visited at any time of the year, the hottest and wettest months (February-March) are best avoided. The most pleasant months are May to August, which tend to be relatively cool and dry.