The first visitors came to the islands by ancient sailing vessels from the Arabian Peninsula, China, Persia and India, expanding trade routes in the Indian Ocean. Today, Lamu has been re-discovered by travellers — modern-day escapists — who value the experience of timeless traditions and un-spoilt nature. Transportation in the archipelago continues in the age-old way using sailing-dhows, and many of the islands, including Lamu, have no cars — only donkeys. In the hyper modern world, Lamu is truly a refuge.

The archipelago contains several archaeological/historical sites of great significance, such as Takwa and Manda Town (both on Manda Island) and Shanga (on Pate Island). Some have been partially excavated in later years, shedding important new light on Swahili history and culture.

Some accounts mention that the Chinese Emperor Zheng his fleet sank near Lamu Island in 1415. Survivors settled on the island and married local women. This connection has been proven by archaeological work done on the island and DNA testing shows that some residents do indeed have Chinese ancestors.