Lamu slowly grows on you like good wine, it grows so much that you fall in love and very few places have that power over me. I mean if it is good enough for the Prince of Monaco, I’m a fairly easy guy to please. This island has so much to offer from the heaps of trash and poverty stricken Lamu town or “Amu” to very exclusive resorts or Shela. It really is a tale of two cities.
In the three days that I spent here I went from ‘where have I landed’ to ‘I don’t ever want to leave this place’. Lamu is special!
Lamu Travel VLOG
Check out my Kenya guide to go best prepared for this trip.
Where is Lamu?
Lamu is an island on the northern coast of Kenya and this beautiful island has 4 villages on it; Amu (also called Lamu Town), Shela and the other two much less know and visited, Matondoni and Kipungani.
Getting to Lamu
Lamu is an island and the best way to get here is by flight. It is too far for bus ride or travelling by car. The airport is located on the island opposite Lamu called Manda. It is a really small and cute airport which has only 2 rooms and looks like a house.
From the airport walk towards the jetty and take a boat across to Lamu town or Shela depending on where you’re staying. The journey from airport to Lamu town takes 10 minutes or less on the boat and day or night, there are plenty of boats especially when a flight lands.
Getting Around in Lamu/Public Transport in Lamu
Lamu is the perfect island; no roads and no cars! You can easily walk around in the old town and when the tide is low you can even walk to Shela from Lamu town, it’s a 3 km walk.
Fun Fact: Lamu has only 2 cars; one for the governed and the second one is a donkey ambulance. The locals have acquired motor bikes now but for a long time they have used donkeys as a means of transport.
The other thing is to take boats everywhere, it is very handy and a single boat ride will cost you 500 as a private taxi or 100 if you share it with others. There are two jetties, one for boats to and from Manda airport and the other one for Shela. Both are right next to each other. After dark, it is a 1000 per ride though.
Fun Fact: The entire island has only 2 roads, both are in Lamu Old Town and the biggest one faces the sea front.
Food in Lamu
The food here is the best you can get on the coast with such flavour and variety, I honestly loved it and kept trying different places especially the local places. There are a few things you must try:
1- Tamarind Juice
This drink is perfect for summers to cool you down. The juice is slightly tangy and very refreshing.
Biriani is made of rice and a meat or vegetable sauce. The rice are simple but colourful and sauce very flavoursome.
Chapati is flatbread which is perfect for eating with those savoury Swahili curries.
4- Swahili Tea
Kenyan tea is world famous for its quality, it gets even better in Lamu. They prepare it with cinnamon and a hint of spice. It is amazing in the evenings. Please ditch milk and sugar for full flavour profile.
5- Swahili Pizza
These little square pieces are chapati with filling. Very good as a snack.
Here are some of my favourite restaurants in Lamu:
Restaurants in Lamu
Located on the main road, it is a simple local restaurant. They have a set menu everyday but the food is tasty and very sumptuous. I ordered beef Biriani which was really good. It is also quite cheap and most locals eat here.
The second local restaurant which offers great food at very reasonable prices. The Pilau I have had here was amazing. Head to the top floor for a nice ocean view with food. It is also popular with locals and if you’re too late they usually run out of food quickly.
This is the restaurant of Lamu House Hotel, they offer a variety of local and international food. I tried the Swahili fish with coconut rice, finishing with a bowl of fruit salad. The food was great and the staff was very kind and friendly.
Restaurants in Shela
Most places in Shela are associated with hotels and a few of them don’t allow walk ins. I tried the following 2 restaurants in Shela.
Peponi is the chilled place next to the sea with a mixed menu with some Swahili and some international food. They are relatively much more expensive compared to the Lamu Town places, even more than Lamu House Hotel.
I ordered a Swahili prawn curry with coconut rice with some passion fruit juice and a fruit salad bowl. The food was good and service was great.
Probably the cheapest place to eat good food in Shela. It is located at the sea front and with a simple setting, they offer good, simple food with that signature Swahili flavour. I ate here twice and loved it both times.
Where To Stay in Lamu?
You have two options; if you want to explore the actual Lamu, stay in Lamu old town but it won’t be a clean cut experience. The streets have donkeys running around, lots of garbage and donkey poo. If you don’t care and want to experience the actual culture of Lamu, there are a few really good reasonable options.
Located in the narrow streets of old town, it is a beautiful place and I wish I had done some more research, I would definitely have stayed here. It is beautifully restored with very friendly staff.
I stayed here, the owner was very friendly and helped me with everything from calling taxi boats to directing me to banks etc. It is a typical Swahili house which has been well restored. There are plenty of balconies for that perfect sea breeze.
There are a few other places to stay here as well but I loved these two places.
The other option is to stay in Shela which in my opinion will be an atrocity because it doesn’t help the locals. The accommodations on this side are quite expensive and can cost up to $800 a night but if that’s your thing, book Shela. If you want to splash some more and feel special you can also hire a room in the house of Prince of Monaco.
Is Lamu Safe?
Lamu is probably the safest I felt in entire Kenya. The locals are not only friendly, they are super helpful and kind. From helping you with directions to a kind Jambo (hello in Swahili), every one is out to make you feel at home on this magical island. The people of Lamu make it paradise island, as they call it. Lamu is very safe!
When To Visit Lamu?
Lamu is good all year round and life doesn’t stop even during low season/rainy season. The best time to visit is from October to April which si the dry season. Christmas is the busiest period. There are multiple festivals every year and if you align your visit, you can have extra fun. I would love to return for the yoga festival which usually happens around March.
How Many Days For Lamu?
You can spend an eternity in Lamu and not get bored but sadly I only had 3 days, which were surprisingly not enough. For a good stay, book at least 4 days but a week wouldn’t be bad either without getting bored at all.
Gay Lamu/Lamu Gay Travel
It is no surprise that Lamu doesn’t have any gay life at all. I didn’t find a single person on the island on Grindr so the nearest person was in Malindi. The locals are mainly a Muslim population and while they are super friendly, I don’t think they will tolerate PDA of any sort. Even between straight couples!
Stay cautious and avoid approaching the locals with any propositions if you fancy them, the men here are very gorgeous with a mix of Arabesque features and African spotless skins with curly hair.
Sorry got a bit carried away there!
There are no gays bars or LGBT venues in Lamu either.
Other Things Lamu
What’s makes Lamu unique is its culture, the difference between other coastal destinations like Diani, Watamu and Lamu is the unique traditions and norms it has developed. From the Indian food to Arabic influence over clothes, the way of life has become very charming. Throw in a lot of Swahili as well and you get the charming Lamu.
Pole Pole Life
Polay Polay means slowly slowly in Swahili and the life here is all about Polay Polay philosophy. Things work here at an easy pace. Every place here is built around with a chilled vibe, be it the dhow sailing around sunset or eating and drinking, services or watching the day pass by. Just remember this and you will have a great time.
Donkey Rides In Lamu
A few locals offer donkey rides as a novel thing and as much as it looks like a novel experience, it is very cruel to the donkeys. I saw some of the poor animals with open wounds on their backs. Please avoid the donkey rides and be kind to the underfed and overworked animals.
Buy Local, Help Locals
A big part of coming to Lamu was to see the locals culture and it was a shock to see the level of poverty of locals. I made a conscious effort to help and buy from locals instead of booking experiences and things through hotels. Here are a few things you can do:
1- Around the jetty, someone will approach you to be your guide and show you the old town, take them as they know the place very well and sometimes they also arrange to show you local houses since they know the people.
2- Take the number of local fishermen and use their boats for dhow cruise and travelling around. I met Jawad who is a young, friendly local who is super cool (he does yoga!). He took me around and didn’t try to trick or overcharge in any way. He also sorted the dhow cruise for me.
3- Eat at local restaurants and buy from local shops, you can check the list of restaurants above.
Clothes for Lamu
While the locals are used to Mzungus (foreigners especially white people) wearing whatever, it is respectful to wear clothes that cover you to a good extent. On the side of Shela and beaches feel free to dress however you like but when you come to Lamu Town wear appropriate clothes. Ideal would be loose fitted cotton or linen which is also weather appropriate.
Top Things to do in Lamu
There is plenty to see and do in Lamu. Here are my top favourite things to do in Lamu. Check out my detailed article here to find out more details.
1- Get Lost in the Old Town of Lamu
2- Explore a Swahili House
3- Wander Around in Shela Village
4- Beach it All Day
5- Conquer a Sand Dune or Two
6- Take a Dhow Cruise for Sunset
7- Crossover to Manda Island
8- Chill Out at the Floating Bar
9- Relax at a Spa
10 – Take a Yoga Class
I hope this helps you enjoy your stay in this truly unique island. If you have anymore questions don’t be shy and reach out.