This blog was originally published on January 30, 2015. It was updated on July 17, 2023.

When you think of a Kenya safari, what scenes spring to mind? Herds of wildlife on vast open plains, a pride of lions on the hunt, the sun setting behind an acacia tree, red-robed Maasai under a clear blue sky.

The birthplace of the safariKenya is still considered one of the best places to see Africa’s wondrous wildlife, savor the great outdoors, and revel in the continent’s many magical cultures.

About 8% of Kenya’s land area is dedicated to protecting its wildlife, and there are more than 50 national parks and reserves throughout the country. In short, picking just five is no easy feat. We had to leave off the forested mountains of Aberdares, the nearby Ol Pejeta Conservancy – known for its consistently good rhino sightings, and, further south, the vast and wild Tsavo National Park.

Read on to discover our travel experts’ top picks for national parks and reserves in Kenya that offer something unique.


Masai Mara: Plenty of Predators & the Wildebeest Migration

The Masai Mara is Kenya’s best-known reserve, and for good reason too. Home to an abundance of big game, the Mara is excellent for predator sightings – cheetah, lion and leopard – with the open grasslands and far-reaching views making these big cats easier to spot. Game viewing reaches its peak in July with the arrival of the thousands-strong wildebeest herds of the annual migration.

The popularity of the Mara does have its downside as the national park can get busy, especially during the migration. For this reason, I highly recommend the neighbouring private conservancies. You’ll pay a bit more but not only will you be rewarded with a more exclusive safari experience, you’ll also be able to enjoy activities such as off-road driving (for up-close sightings), Maasai-led walking safaris and bush breakfasts – none of which are allowed in the national park.

Where to stay: Elewana Sand River Maasai Mara has a prime location along the banks of the Sand River, forming part of the Great Migration route. The lodge is reminiscent of the permanent tented camps from the late 1920s and comprises 16 luxury safari tents, divided into two separate but adjoining campsites.

Top tour: Iconic Africa: Kenya, Vic Falls & Hwange

Highlights include:

  • Game drives in the Maasai Mara
  • Guided tour of Victoria Falls
  • Sunset cruise on the Zambezi River
  • The famous elephant herds of Hwange

Samburu: Dramatic Scenery & Unusual Wildlife

A starkly beautiful reserve, Samburu is a good choice for a classic big game viewing – lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo (no rhino in the reserve) – along with some more unusual sightings. Unique to Kenya’s arid north are the Samburu Special Five: the rare Grevy’s zebra, beisa oryx, long-necked gerenuk, Somali ostrich and the reticulated giraffe with its striking checkered pattern.

Accommodation is generally set along the coffee-coloured waters of the Ewaso Niyo River. And, along with game drives, most lodges offer guided walks and visits to local villages where you can learn more about the fascinating culture of the Samburu people.

Where to stay: Overlooking the Ewaso Nyiro River in the heart of Samburu land, Sasaab is a spectacular lodge that blends wildlife, adventure, relaxation and culture for the ultimate safari experience in northern Kenya. Attention to detail is evident throughout, from the personal service and incredible menus to the elegant interiors styled with a contemporary North African design.

Top tour: The Circle of Life: Lion King Safari

Highlights include:

  • Setting out on safari in Samburu to see Samburu Special Five and many characters that inspired The Lion King film
  • Waking up at Giraffe Manor to find a giraffe right outside your window
  • The Serengeti’s savannah plains, large herds, and orange sunsets
  • Game drives in Ngorongoro, one of the best places to see Africa’s Big 5

READ RELATED CONTENT: A first-timer’s guide to planning an African safari for the family

Amboseli: Game Viewing Against the Backdrop of Kilimanjaro

Amboseli National Park, nicknamed ‘Home of the African Elephant’ is a relatively small park that covers a diverse range of landscapes, from dry savannah to delta-type swamps. But the most dramatic scenery of all is the view of snow-capped Kilimanjaro, which (while situated in Tanzania) can clearly be seen towering high over the sunbaked plains.

True to its nickname, the park protects over a thousand elephants, including some of Africa’s largest tuskers, as well as plenty of lions, giraffes, buffalos, zebras, and several antelope species. But for many Amboseli safari-goers, the real highlight is capturing and appreciating that iconic image of long-tusked elephants (or a journey of giraffe) on dry savannah plains with Africa’s highest mountain as a backdrop.

Where to stay: Angama Amboseli opens its doors to guests in November 2023 and is located in the Kimana Sanctuary in Amboseli National Park, right in the shadow of the towering Mount Kilimanjaro. The 10 tented suites (including two sets of interleading family units) make it a top choice for a private and peaceful escape.

READ RELATED CONTENT: Safari Planning Essentials: Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Kenya and Tanzania

Meru: the Unspoilt Wilderness of Elsa the Lioness

Meru National Park is a beautiful, slightly lesser-known national park. And while the game viewing here is not as good as the Mara, it stands out as bucket list-worthy because you won’t be competing with any crowds for the best view. Rest assured, there’s plenty of wildlife about, with the reserve being particularly good for rhino sightings as it contains an enormous, fenced rhino sanctuary (which was recently extended). Other big game you’re likely to see include elephants, lions, buffalos, and some of those rare northern species you’d see in the Samburu.

Where to stay: Elewana Elsa’s Kopje is a charming little haven inside Meru National Park, and an ultra-romantic honeymoon hotspot. The lodge is literally sculpted into Mughwango Hill, offering 11 spacious cottages, each with its own veranda. This award-winning luxury lodge is built near the remains of the original camp where George and Joy Adamson raised Elsa the lioness (as documented in the book and film Born Free) and is a fantastic place to stay with remarkable views over the untamed wilderness.

Lake Nakuru: Great Lake Tinged Pink by Flamingos

Lake Nakuru National Park lies an easy drive from Nairobi and is a good starting point for a Kenya safari. While this small national park does not have the same wilderness feel as many of the larger reserves, it’s still well worth visiting. Lake Nakuru was established as Kenya’s first rhino sanctuary, and along with white rhino, you’re likely to spot Rothchild’s giraffe, buffalo, waterbuck, and possibly even leopard.

But the reason this park made it onto our list is because of its greater and lesser flamingos. For a while, the lake water became too deep, and the flamingos went elsewhere. Over the past few years, they’ve started returning and (if the conditions are right) you’ll be treated to the shimmering pink of over a million birds lining the lake shore – a truly magnificent sight and known as one of the greatest birding spectacles on earth.

Where to stay: The Cliff is a stunning tented camp surrounded by nature and offers 10 beautifully appointed tented suites. A fusion of the elegance of Europe and the wild of Africa, each suite has a viewing deck to gaze at sensational 180-degree views of Lake Nakuru.

READ RELATED CONTENT: Wings Over Africa: Exploring the Spectacular Bird Migration Routes of Southern and East Africa

Top Kenya Safaris 

Read about our top Kenya tours here.

For more ideas on where to stay, read our popular blog posts, East Africa: Stella’s travels to Kenya, Tanzania & Zanzibar and Wildlife & Warriors: On Safari in Northern Kenya