As you might expect, wildlife safaris are the lifeblood of Kenyan tourism, and the infrastructure for travellers is impressive. Jeeps, buses and light aircraft fan out daily across the country to safari lodges and tented camps, some simple and rustic, others lavish and opulent. Refreshingly, you can enjoy close encounters with nature even on a budget, with walking safaris run by tribal guides and economic tented camps that scrimp on creature comforts, but not on creatures.
Most people start the journey in Nairobi, but few linger when there are more attractive cities strung out along the sun-kissed Kenyan coast and dotted around the Great Rift Valley. Whether you pick the interior or the coast, with its beach resorts and Islamic ruins, you can be sure to find a national park or reserve close at hand – Nairobi even has a national park within the city limits, with zebras and giraffes just a stone’s throw from the suburbs.
Kenya is also a great place for cultural encounters, with more than 40 different tribal groups, each following its own unique way of life. The semi-nomadic Maasai, with their rainbow-coloured, bead-covered adornments, are perhaps the most obvious group, but visiting any tribal village is a fascinating experience.
On appearances, Kenya would seem like the perfect holiday destination, but tourism has had its ups and downs in recent years, with political upheaval during elections and a string of high-profile militant attacks in Nairobi and along the coast.
These set-backs have made a noticeable dent in Kenya’s tourist industry, yet travellers still flock to the teeming plains of the Maasai Mara and trek the slopes of Mount Kenya, and the biggest decision for most is not whether to go to Kenya, but instead, which wild animal to search for first.
Things to see and do
Amboseli National Park
The 392sq km (151sq mile) Amboseli National Park lies at the base of snow-capped Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak. Wildlife includes lion, cheetah, wildebeest, hippo and gazelle, but it is most famous for the large herds of elephant attracted to perennial swamps fed by subterranean streams that rise on Kilimanjaro. Bird-watching is also popular, and visitors can learn about the local Maasai people through homestead visits.
Climb Mount Kenya
At 4,986m (16,358ft) above sea level, this extinct volcano is the second-highest mountain in Africa. The Mountain Club of Kenya (www.mck.or.ke) runs mountain huts and publishes guides for climbers. Even if you don't climb to the upper slopes, it is worth sending time on the forested lower slopes below the ice-capped peak.
Climb Mount Longonot
This distinctive volcano, which last erupted in the 1860s, rises dramatically above the Rift Valley floor, and its slopes can be ascended in around 90 minutes. Allow another hour for the descent, and 3-4 hours if you want to walk around the rim of the perfect volcanic crater.
Day trip to Nairobi National Park
Nairobi National Park, only 8km (5 miles) from the city centre, is Kenya's oldest national park. Today, it still looks much as it did in the early photographs – wild, undulating pasture – and supports most of East Africa’s best known wildlife, including lion, rhino, giraffe, buffalo and zebra (but not elephant).
Explore Kenya’s coral coast
Visitors can choose between scuba-diving, snorkelling, sailing, waterskiing, swimming or surfing along Kenya's coral coast. The most popular resorts near Mombasa include Bamburi, Kikambala, Kilifi, Malindi, Nyali and the 10km- (6-mile) long, dazzlingly white Diani Beach. Another good base for watersport is the Rift Valley lake of Naivasha, about 1.5 hours drive from Nairobi.
Explore Lamu Town
Set on an offshore island close to the Somali border, Lamu is a charming old Swahili city with many historic mosques and fine old Arab houses with impressive carved wooden doors: highlights include the Lamu Museum, the Swahili House Museum and the Fortress.
Feed the giraffes
At the Langata Giraffe Centre near Nairobi, you can feed the resident Rothschild giraffes from a giraffe-height tower (www.giraffecenter.org), visit a bird sanctuary or follow a nature trail. Listed as endangered by the IUCN, Rothschild's giraffe is a localised race now confined to a few parts of Kenya and Uganda.
Gaze at the Great Rift Valley
Take in the sweeping views from the road between Nairobi and Naivasha. Here the 2,000m- (6,560ft-) high escarpment walls plunge to the flat-bottomed valley floor below, which is dotted by a small string of volcanoes and brackish soda lakes.
Go twitching in Kakamega Forest
This lovely rainforest neat the Ugandan border is arguably the prime birdwatching site in Kenya, thanks to presence of several dozen forest species found nowhere else in the country. For non-birders, the shady forest paths and plentiful monkeys still have plenty of charm.
Go wild at Lake Nakuru National Park
Boasting a dramatic setting in the Rift Valley, this park is dominated by a lake whose edges are frequently home to hundreds of thousands of shimmering pink flamingos. It is also one of Kenya's best rhino sanctuaries, supporting high concentration of both black and white rhino, and you may spot a leopard in the giant yellowwood acacia trees.
Help save the elephants Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage
Watch baby elephants play at the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, an important sanctuary where orphaned elephants are hand reared before being released back into the wild. Bordering Nairobi National Park, the sanctuary is also home to several orphaned rhinos. Visit www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org for more details.
Jump aboard a dhow
Spend an evening afloat on a romantic dhow (traditional Arab sailing boat), feasting on a delicious seafood dinner and watching the moon rise over Mombasa's old harbour (www.tamarind.co.ke).
Marvel at Mombasa
Enjoy the city's Swahili flavour in the Old Town with its narrow, crowded streets, watch the sailing dhows in the Old Harbour and catch the sound and light show at Fort Jesus, which was built by the Portuguese in the 17th century and is now a museum.
Masai Mara National Reserve
Kenya's most popular game park is named after the Maasai, who migrated south from the Nile Valley in the 17th century. A northern extension Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains, it is one of the best places in Africa for seeing lion, cheetah and leopard, but is most famous for the annual wildebeest migration and dramatic crossing of the crocodile-infested Mara River.
Mount Kenya National Park
An extinct volcano straddling the Equator, Africa's second highest mountain, attaining a height of 5199m (17,058ft), is also the home of 'Ngai', the Kikuyu tribe's Supreme Being. The 600 sq km (232 sq mile), park supports a mix of montane forest, bamboo forest and glacial peaks. A wide variety of wildlife includes Sykes monkey, buffalo, elephant, bongo antelopes and giant forest hog.
Pay a visit to Laikipia Plateau
Discover a recent conservation success where former farmland has been opened up as game sanctuaries and stocked with big game including the Big Five: elephant, buffalo, lion, rhino and leopard. The old farmsteads have been converted into delightful, luxurious accommodation (www.laikipia.org).
Quaff high tea at Elsamere
Situated on the shores of Lake Naivasha, the former home of Joy Adamson (of Born Free fame) is now a museum and conservation research centre. Set in grounds teeming with birds – and home to a group of handsome colobus monkeys – Elsamere also serves excellent high tea (www.elsamere.com).
Reel in a deep-sea fish
Try your hand at deep-sea fishing, which is at its best along the Kenyan coast between July and April. Sailfish, marlin, swordfish, kingfish, barracuda and tuna are all abundant. Malindi and Watamu are the main coastal angling centres.
Sample local culture at Bomas of Kenya
At this cultural centre, a short distance outside Nairobi's city centre, you can see displays of traditional dancing and explore mock-ups of traditional village homes (www.bomasofkenya.co.ke).
Shop until you drop in Mombasa
Biashara Street is a great place to buy kikoi and khanga cloths. Makupa Market, off Mwembe Tayari is the main city market. Serious souvenir shoppers should also head for the Bombolulu Workshops and Cultural Village, where disabled men and women produce high-quality leatherwork, jewellery and other crafts.
Stay a night at Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary
Situated a short distance from the main highway between Nairobi and Mombasa, this small private sanctuary bordering the vast Tsavo National Park doubles as a luxury hotel and well-positioned hide, overlooking a salt lick and waterhole that frequently attracts aggregations of a hundred or more elephants.
Take to the skies in a hot air balloon
Float over herds of game in the Masai Mara National Reserve. Hour-long excursions set off at dawn and end with champagne breakfasts. Almost all the lodges in the reserve offer this experience, which gives ballooners the chance to see the wildebeest migration from the air between July and September.
Tour Nairobi's museums
Browse the ethnographic and archaeological exhibits of the National Museum (www.museums.or.ke), which lies within walking distance of the city centre. And do head out to the suburban Karen Blixen Museum (www.blixen.dk) too, which occupies the farmhouse made famous by the nominal author's book, Out of Africa.