Mountain gorillas are Rwanda’s wealth. But if you don’t have a few thousand dollars to spare — yes, that’s how expensive it is to see gorillas — or don’t have the time to hit the verdant volcanic mountains, Rwanda’s capital city is a destination in itself. Since the end of the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, Kigali has become a cornerstone of African development. Despite its relatively small size, with just 800,000 residents, Kigali is tremendously influential.
Where only a generation ago atrocious cruelties were committed, you can now walk safely to almost any destination and enjoy a remarkably clean urban environment. In fact, on the last Saturday morning of every month, all Rwandans come together to clean up and improve their neighborhoods, nurturing a culture of order and respect. Kigali has something to teach us. Here’s how to enjoy this dynamic city.
Learn about healing and reconciliation.
While Rwanda has made great strides to move beyond its past, remembrance is part of that process. Every year, from April 7 and for 100 days, the country pays tribute to the victims and survivors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. Whether you are visiting Kigali during the mourning period of kwibuka, meaning “to remember,” or outside of it, the genocide memorial sites are open to anyone who wants to learn about Rwanda’s history and understand how it informs its present and future.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial in Gisozi is the largest memorial site in Rwanda and is the final resting place for more than 250,000 victims. Before visiting, please bear in mind that this isn’t a tourist sight, but a place of grief, remembrance, and learning. The Kigali Genocide Memorial consists of a library, an amphitheater, an education center, and the gardens — a site of reflection and contemplation.
The memorial hosts three permanent exhibitions, including the Children’s Room, dedicated to the memory of children with educational workshops and performance art events. The self-guided audio tour is available in six languages, or visitors can be guided by staff members, many of whom are survivors of the genocide.
Understand Rwanda through art and fashion.
Kigali’s focus on development activities and innovation is also reflected in the creative sphere. The contemporary art scene in Kigali reflects Rwandan cultural heritage and highlights local talent. From visual arts, theater, and music to photography and fashion, Kigali is expressing itself.
Visit the Niyo Cultural Centre and discover the work of Rwandan painters, empowered to earn a living through their art. By buying art from Niyo, you automatically donate to the Niyo Foundation, which takes impoverished kids off the streets of Rwanda through participatory art education. Check out the Ishyo Arts Centre for events and festivals, as the nonprofit organization supports artists in all fields of performing arts, from dance and comedy to poetry and theater. Ishiyo even features installations.
The rooftop of Kigali Public Library in Kacyiru is home to Innovation Village, a multimedia firm which inspires communities and individuals to tell their stories through film, music, photography, and literature. Apart from organizing pop-up events and curating exhibitions, Innovation Village is also a co-working space with stunning views of the city, good coffee, and many book titles to skim through.
If you want to explore Rwandan fashion and upgrade your wardrobe, Kigali has several luxury boutiques and designers worth noting. House of Tayo, Inzuki Designs, Sonia Mugabo, and Moshions are stealing the show with their unique fabrics, colors, and designs. The brands may be inspired by their country of origin but are meant for global, broad-minded audiences.
Savor the simple and balanced Rwandan diet.
Rwandan cuisine isn’t celebrated globally, like Ethiopian is, for example, because it’s not quite as colorful and aromatic. But the dishes are just as delicious. Rwandan meals are made with local, easy-to-grow ingredients such as sweet potatoes, beans, peas, and cassava; meat or fish is rarely on the table. Cattle, a status symbol, were not commonly used for meat. However, nowadays international influences are making dishes with chicken, beef, and tilapia fish more common.
For an elevated experience, head to the restaurant in the Amata n’Ubuki Hotel. If you want to delve into the Rwandan culture, have lunch at Mini Tamu Tamu in Nyamirambo; all moto drivers know this place. Rwandans love buffets, so to squeeze all local dishes in one meal, opt for a buffet lunch at The Fork. Some of the dishes to keep an eye out for are ugali (a thick, dough-like starch to dip in sauces and other dishes), igitoki (cooked banana), and sombe (boiled greens).
Bear in mind that street food doesn’t exist in Rwanda, perhaps one of the reasons the city is impeccably clean. But brochettes, roasted corn, and sambusas (which are like samosas) can be found at rest points outside the city, or boutiques (kiosks). If you want to taste the local drink, brace yourself for urwagwa, a brew made from fermented banana juice, based on an ancient recipe and handed down from father to son.
Kigali also brims with restaurants that serve cuisine from every corner of the world — whether it’s Spanish tapas at CasaKeza, authentic Indian at Khana Khazana, Korean at Dae Jang Geum, or Japanese at Sakae in the Nyarutarama neighborhood. Whatever you’re hungry for, there’s a good chance you’ll find it in Kigali.
Taste delightful arabica coffee.
The same volcanic soils that are excellent for Rwanda’s potatoes are also ideal for other foods. The soils, in combination with the high altitude and the mild yet misty climate, create ideal conditions for growing coffee. But the coffee culture in Rwanda is relatively new. Even though Belgian colonialists introduced cultivation in the 1930s, it’s only recently that Rwanda has started investing in high-quality arabica beans, and in the industry as a whole. If you are a coffee lover, you will immediately appreciate the creamy body and citrusy aromas of Rwandan coffee.
Some of the finest organic crops may be in Rulindo District and Lake Kivu, but many cafes in Kigali serve this exceptional Rwandan coffee. If you’re looking for a place to unwind or check your emails while sipping the rich goodness of a cup of coffee and enjoying the views of the city, try Pure Africa Coffee Bar in Kimihurura, INZORA, or the newly renovated coffee shop on the terrace of the Kigali Public Library. If you want to learn more about coffee, you can attend Question Coffee’s specialty master class, which takes you through the production, roasting, and brewing processes.
Don’t underestimate the nightlife.
Kigali may be quieter and more reserved than many African cities when it comes to nightlife and partying, but the city still offers many options for a dazzling night out. You can kick off the evening at Flute, a wine bar, and from there make your way toward Repub Lounge, where every Thursday a live instrumental jazz band sets the mood.
Somehow, Kigalians love their pre-weekend party. Also on Thursdays, the garden of Inema Arts Center turns into an open-air extravaganza of dance and music. Also, during your stay in Kigali keep an eye on the Impact Hub co-working space, where different cultural events, workshops, and roundtable discussions are organized frequently.
If you want to explore Kigali like a local, head to the city’s most colorful and diverse neighborhood of Nyamirambo, also known as the Muslim community. What used to feel like a small village back then is now a city within the city. Here, you will find anything from grocery stores, tailor shops, and barbers to local bars and restaurants open until late.
The best thing about Nyamirambo is that no night is similar to the one before it, and the party scene is very spontaneous. Explore Nyamirambo on foot, and don’t hesitate to ask passersby for recommendations. They’ll be happy to suggest some good spots.
Contribute to the local community.
Rwanda is an independent country, and charity isn’t taken lightheartedly. However, local initiatives are always looking for ways to welcome external support and immerse themselves in tourism activities. Kigali offers many opportunities for travelers who wish to engage in community-based tourism while getting a unique insight into the local culture and daily life.
Nyamirambo Women’s Center (NWC) is a Rwandan NGO, which started with 18 women from the Nyamirambo neighborhood standing up against gender-based violence and discrimination. For the past 12 years, NWC has been providing education to underprivileged women and helping them gain better employment opportunities. To support NWC’s work, you can attend a sisal basket weaving workshop or purchase an umutima handmade product; umutima means “heart’’ in Kinyarwanda. You could also take a traditional cooking class, which starts at the local market, continues in the cook’s courtyard, and ends with a shared feast.
See wildlife up close.
While Kigali has much to offer in terms of art and culture, it would be a shame not to explore the nature that surrounds it. Located in the center of Rwanda, the city is an excellent point from where you can hit all corners of the country in a few hours. Nyungwe Forest National Park, the largest protected mountain rainforest in Africa, is believed to have survived the Ice Age without losing its dense greenery. In spite of being slippery and moist, the terrain is accommodating to hikers of all levels. Besides tracking chimpanzees and spotting endemic birds, you should brace yourself for the 650-foot-long canopy walk, 200 feet above the forest ground.
A two-hour drive east of Kigali on the border with Tanzania is Akagera National Park, a stunning ecosystem open to safari trips. You can opt for the conventional game drive to see buffalos, antelopes, giraffes, monkeys, leopards, and hyenas, or you can book the nocturnal experience with the possibility of catching the predators in action hunting for dinner. The boat safari on Lake Ihema takes you to the habitat of the largest hippo community in East Africa and brings you eye to eye with crocodiles.
Appreciate its mountains and gorillas.
If you do have the chance to get up into the mountains, you should consider ascending to Mount Bisoke, an active volcano in the Virunga Mountains, forming a spectacular crater lake. The hike to the 2,000-mile-high peak is steep and takes about four hours, whereas the descent takes less than two hours. If you prefer an outdoor experience that’s easier on the knees, head to Lake Kivu, near the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
And, if you do indeed have $1,500 to spend on a one-day gorilla permit, look no further than Volcanoes National Park, where the endangered mountain gorilla lives. Now and then, Rwanda is criticized for the expensive wildlife permit — but the high cost regulates the number of visitors to the park, and the impact of human presence on the apes and their natural surroundings. These majestic creatures deserve no less.