The Extraordinary Kigali City Guide

Many think of Kigali as just a place to stop over on their way to do a gorilla trek in Volcanoes National Park, but overlooking this incredible, unique city could be the greatest mistake you make on your trip to Rwanda—so we’re here to ensure that doesn’t happen. Kigali is vibrant. It’s full of life. It’s brimming with entrepreneurs, delicious food, luxury hotels, culture, art, fashion, and even wildlife. It’s a destination in itself and worth spending at least a few days exploring.

Kigali is known as Africa’s greenest and cleanest capital with good reason—the streets are spotless thanks to dedicated clean-up crews as well as a monthly community service day called Umuganda. On the last Saturday of every month residents come together, businesses close, and traffic halts as citizens across the country take to their neighborhoods to try to make them a little bit better than they were the month before. Kigali is also one of the first cities in the world to ban the use of plastic bags.

Kigali feels incredibly safe—possibly thanks to the high security throughout—but walking around, or taking taxis by day, and by night is safe. The world economic forum ranked Rwanda the world’s ninth safest country, and the country was ranked the second safest country in Africa by the 2018 Gallup Global Law and Order report.

Of course, Rwanda also has a brutal yet important history of colonization and civil war involving the genocide and it’s important to take the time to learn about it while you’re there—and even before. The most incredible thing though is how 27-years post-civil war they’ve made an unprecedented comeback, a 360-degree turnaround, and have become a future-thinking city that’s brimming with talent.

There’s something about Kigali that grips you, pulls you in, and makes you feel at home. What’s impossible to miss in Kigali is the incredible resilience and kindness of the people who call it home. If it’s not the art and fashion you come to Kigali for or the incredible food, it’s the bright, smiling faces of the vibrant people who welcome you to their city with their arms wide open. Zip around town on the back of a boda boda (aka motorbike), wander the lush streets, explore the vibrant fabrics and crafts in Nymirambo Market, make friends with some locals, sip some of the freshest cocktails, and take in all that is Kigali. Here’s the guide to one of our favorite cities in Africa…

City of Kigali from above
Rwanda is known as the ‘Land of 1000 Hills’ with good reason—here’s Kigali from above. Image courtesy of Extraordinary Journeys.

Where to Sleep

After the long trek from North America to East Africa, it’s safe to assume you’re going to want a place to relax, get some rest, stretch your legs, and unwind. We can’t imagine a more perfect place to do so in Kigali than The Retreat—the hotel is a destination in itself. The property is in the quiet Kiyovu neighborhood surrounded by lush gardens. It’s solar-powered, plastic-free, and stocked with organic products and food grown in their on-site gardens or sourced from partner farmers. The 20 rooms have incredible indoor and outdoor rain showers with local toiletrie and artwork, patios where you can curl up and listen to the endless sound of singing birds and watch the sunrise, or curl up and read a copy of co-owner (one half of American husband and wife duo) Josh Ruxin’s novel—A Thousand Hills to Heaven. It’s about moving from New York City to Kigali to start a business and subsequently raise a family in Rwanda, just after the genocide (read part of their story here)

For the ultimate relaxation space, book one of the brand new luxury pool villas, complete with private gated entries, individual saltwater solar-heated plunge pools, and front and back patios with lush gardens. If the rooms at the Retreat are booked up, check out the hotel’s sister property, Heaven Rwanda. There are two on-site restaurants Heaven and Fusion (we’ll tell you more below, they are incredible), two saltwater pools, a gym, a yoga studio, and a fitness area where you can join in on a Zumba or yoga class taught by local instructors (we highly recommend Elvis’ class—he’s an incredible dancer from Burundi and will immediately have you laughing while you sweat doing salsa, hip hop, and who knows what they call those moves. They also have an on-site tailor, Maiga Aboubakar, who will take your measurements to craft custom-made kitenge fashions (the staff are dressed head to toe in his creations). Short on time and can’t leave the city? The hotel has cultural activities including cocktail-making, cooking classes,  banana-beer demonstrations, as well as their own tour company with day trips to hike mount Kigali, or join in on one many cultural, fashion, and art tours around the city. Or if you have a day to spare they can take you even further afield to Akagera National Park on safari, or to visit a women’s collective outside the city for a full cultural day of immersion.

The Retreat by Heaven Hotel in Kigali
The Retreat by Heaven is the top choice in Kigali, with incredible rooms, service, amenities and restaurants. Images by Alicia-Rae Light.

This classic Kigali hotel is the perfect spot for a short stay in the city—and was the first five-star hotel. It has a blend of a classic hotel feel, Rwandan heritage and hospitality, and old-school charm. The Kigali Serena has high security (all cars are checked by the hotel’s security team at the main entrance gate, and you have to pass through metal detectors every time you enter the lobby). There’s a pool, gym, and delicious food at its two popular restaurants—Milema and The Sokoni Cafe and Bar. The pool and jacuzzi area are the perfect spot to unwind after a day of exploring, surrounded by a tropical garden, and sun decks. There’s also the Maisha Mind Body & Spirit Spa. The beds are comfy, the rooms are spacious, and the service is unparalleled. It’s on a busy boulevard right in the center of Kigali, making it easily accessible for all your activities, or as a starting/finishing spot before your travels throughout Rwanda (Bonus: there’s a Covid-19 testing site right next door—important stuff these days!). It’s also a quick stroll to plenty of shops and restaurants. 

Serena Hotel Kigali
The Serena was Kigali’s first-ever five star hotel, and still maintains its old-school hospitality, charm, and design. Images by Serena Kigali.

Located right next to the convention center, if you’re in Kigali on business or simply want to stay at a higher-end, modern hotel with all the amenities, the Radisson Blu is a bright, airy, well-situated choice. It has 292 beautiful rooms, multiple restaurants, and a beautiful pool that’s the perfect place to stretch your legs after a long journey. The building is a fun, colorful piece of architecture with stripes of color wrapped vertically around the outside of the building—a nod to Rwanda’s traditional basket weaving. The breakfast is notably delicious, with specialty dishes like shakshuka, and Rwandan classics at the buffet. The next-door conference center is in the shape of a dome, reminiscent of the former tribal king’s palace (which you can also visit outside the city—more on that later!). There’s high security, airport style with baggage and body scanners. It’s an elevated take on your regular Radisson, and a perfect place to unwind after your busy, culture-filled days here.

radisson kigali
New Year celebrations at the Radisson Blu Hotel and Convention Center Kigali. Image by Reagen M.

Where to Get Grounded in Rwanda’s History

Though these will likely be the most difficult hours of your time spent in Kigali—it’s truly hard to fathom the atrocities that occurred here such a short time ago—no visit to Kigali is complete without visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It’s an essential part of grounding yourself in the place you’re experiencing as a traveler and understanding how far the nation has come since. The memorial has multiple sections, rooms, and experiences, including a mass grave outside the building, marked daily with white roses but visitors, and large wreaths. It’s a cemetery and educational experience at once. There’s a permanent collection of photos, videos, informational rooms to walk through, personal accounts from survivors, and physical remnants of the genocide. You’ll learn what Rwanda was like before being colonized, what led to the first genocide, and the brutal reality of what went on during the 1994 civil war, and where and how people fled. It’s not an easy place to visit, there are videos, photos of an extremely graphic nature, as well as human remains, murder weapons, and a room dedicated to the children who lost their lives that will break your heart. A unique thing to experience here is to chat with one of the employees/volunteers who tell you their personal experiences of making amends with people who were once their friends and neighbors, turned enemies. The outdoor garden is the final resting place of over 250,000 victims of the 1994 civil war in which over 800,000 Rwandans were killed.

Kigali Genocide Memorial
The Genocide Memorial is a must-visit while in town, and having a guide take you through is recommended. Images by Alicia-Rae Light.

Travelers’ first stop in Kigali should definitely be the Genocide Memorial, to ground yourself in Rwanda’s very recent history. But if you want to dig a little deeper into how the genocide not only started and why, specifically how the four-year liberation was finally ended by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) on July 4, 1994, and what solutions have been put in place to prevent something like this from ever happening again, the Campaign Against Genocide Museum is a must. The museum narrates the story of brave men and women of the RPF who launched the campaign to stop the last genocide of the 20th century—the genocide against Tutsi in 1994.

A guide will walk you through a series of rooms, videos, and interactive depictions of Rwanda’s civil war. It’s located in the Parliamentary Building— the building that hosted the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) politicians plus the 600 man protection force (3BN). You can go up to the rooftop to see the remnant of artillery from where the aircraft carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira, both Hutu, was shot down with surface-to-air missiles as it prepared to land in Kigali, Rwanda on the evening of 6 April 1994, marking the start of the genocide.

Where to Eat + Drink

As soon as you pull up to Choose Kigali in Kigali’s Kiyovu district you know you’re somewhere special. Small colorful pots dot the wall lining the driveway, filled with plants, leading you to the entryway of the creative space, restaurant and gallery. Founded by local artist Emmanuel Nkuranga, it has multiple floors of open gallery space and tiered gardens that are filled with his artwork, sculptures, installations, as well as the work of his brother Innocent and a rotating cast of Rwandan emerging contemporary artists. Upon arrival, Emmanuel will offer you something to drink, take you through a tour of the gallery at your leisure. The art is focused on sustainability—using things that would have otherwise gone to waste, like Emmanuel’s old and rover, or computer parts turned into a depiction of how Kigali was re-built and regenerated after the genocide. The art work is bright, textural, and every piece has a story which he’ll be delighted to share with you.

The outdoor dining areas at Choose Kigali has views over the city (left). Owner Emmanuel Nkuranga with his piece titled ‘the return of joy’ (right). Images by Alicia-Rae Light

It’s also a great space for a private event. And, while an art gallery might not be the first place that comes to mind when you’re thinking of fine dining, it has one of the best restaurants in the city. Overlooking Kigali, the terrace has arguably the best views of the city. The tasting menu is a seven-course menu of exciting dishes. Chef Billy McCormick—originally from Philadelphia who married an Ethiopian woman and settled in Rwanda—has created somewhat of a fusion type of cuisine, with traditional American classics, authentic African and Ethiopian dishes, and of course the Rwandan staples. Armed with 28 years of experience in several styles of cuisine and expertise as a mentor and teacher, the chef alongside Emmanuel aims to transform the grounds of Choose Kigali into an immersive, artistic, creative experience for all the senses. After dinner, relax by the fire with a cocktail in hand—this place also boasts some of the most unique cocktails in town and a wonderful wine list.

Chef Billy McCormick hard at work in the kitchen. Lamb shank special. Images by Choose Kigali.

The owners of The Retreat and Heaven hotels, Alissa and Josh Ruxin started their entrepreneurial journey in Kigali first with a restaurant called Heaven which opened in 2008. Their ethos was to provide training in tourism and hospitality to Rwandans, create jobs, and a high level of service training in the city that they say didn’t exist before they came (they’ve trained over 1,500 Rwandans in hospitality, customer service, and culinary skills since opening). Service differs all over the world and the Ruxin’s mission was to bring sustainable tourism to the city before it was even a thing. 

Heaven focuses on authentic, modern African and Rwandan cuisine, with an open-air terrace overlooking Kigali. Menu staples include sambaza, tiny local fish (similar to sardines) caught in Lake Kivu, marinated in lemongrass and ginger, then deep fried with tamarind sauce. Another must-try on the menu is the Kuku Paka, a very traditional coconut curry dish that’s hearty, delicious, and served with fresh chapati and dahl. Fusion has a much more elevated space and menu—it feels more like fine dining (although the food in both restaurants is top-notch) with an upscale atmosphere. You’ll find many locals eating at both restaurants. 

Of note: The bartender at Heaven, Stewart Nkuliye, has mixology experience in both Dubai and Kigali and crafted a noteworthy cocktail menu for both restaurants. The concoctions are made with local ingredients, many from the on-site garden like fresh herbs, chillies, ginger, citrus, lemongrass, and passionfruit, featuring Rwandan and Ugandan gins and spirits from around the world. All of the cocktails are unique, but park up at the bar, and ask try his Burning Passion, made with tequila and fresh passionfruit pulp, fresh-pressed green chili, and freshly-squeezed citrus juice—just about everything but the tequila comes from their backyard. You won’t regret it.

From left: Traditional sambaza from Lake Kivu. Mixologist Stewart Nkuliye. Kuku Paka, an African curry. Images by Alicia-Rae Light

A must-do in Rwanda is to find yourself a small shop or roadside stand making fresh sugar cane juice. The health benefits are huge, and it’s a refreshing, pick-me-up to take along your road trip. Ubuzima cane juice bar—situated in Nyamirambo—was the first company to make and sell fresh sugarcane juice in Rwanda, which opened in 2017 intending to make people healthy. It’s said to have plenty of health benefits and to be full of antioxidants that are essential to building and maintaining a healthy immune system, as well as combatting free radicals that can worsen several medical problems like diabetes, malaria, myocardial infarction, and skin cancer.

Be sure to try the delicious pure sugar cane juice mixed with some fresh ginger while in Rwanda.

Where to Caffeinate

In a very unassuming place, you’ll find Adam Roasters, on the ground level of Caplaki craft market. Need a little pick me up while shopping? Adam Roasters uses KURA coffee, part of a collective of farmers and growers throughout Rwanda. Kura aims to facilitate the growth of African agricultural products such as coffee. With Kura, we want to create impact and growth economically, socially, and ecologically. Sit back and relax as Adam grinds the coffee, boils the water, and slowly pours it over the grinds with the precision of a scientist. 10 minutes later you’ll have, in my humble opinion, the best cup of coffee in Kigali.

Somewhat of an institution in Kigali, Question Coffee is an aficionado’s dream spot to caffeinate—the coffee here is seriously good (and if you head to Volcanos National Park they’ll serve you a free cup before you set out on your gorilla trek).

Rwanda is a world-class destination for coffee growing—rich volcanic soils, lush rain forests, and temperate climate make it an ideal place for the crop to be cultivated. Question prides themselves on being the essential Rwandan coffee experience, and their coffee is produced by professionals at every step of the supply chain, supporting the livelihood of everyone involved.

You can also take a coffee tasting and pairing class—a masterclass that’s an immersive experience where guests can learn about the coffee supply chain without even leaving the café (although if you do have time to do a coffee tour in Rwanda—we highly recommend doing so and they offer day-trips out to coffee cooperatives). You’ll learn about the production, where it comes from, how to de-pulp the cherries, how to roast the beans. The Question team will show you the perfect roast curve for each coffee they source. Finally, the brewing of coffee is an art, and their baristas will talk about the technicalities of brewing coffee and the different methods for the perfect cup.

If you can’t take a trip to a coffee plantation in Rwanda, Question Coffee’s Masterclass is a great alternative option. Images by Alicia-Rae Light.

Where to shop

One of the most unique, beautiful creators in all of Kigali, Abraham Konga (who has a shop that’s his namesake), takes things that otherwise would be discarded and gives them a new life. He believes in second chances, by recycling and use elements that would otherwise be wasted and makes something beautiful out of them. He takes old padlocks and other brass scraps melts them down into some of the most beautiful jewelry you’ve ever seen with casting, glazing, and soldering. He works with local villages to take the leftovers after they’ve eaten the meat from cows and uses the remaining bones and horns paired with the brass for exquisite pieces that you’ve probably never seen anything else quite like (nothing goes to waste!). There’s also a section of the shop with handmade baskets and other handmade crafts.

Abraham Konga creates stunning jewelry out of recycled brass, cow horn and bone. Images by Alicia-Rae Light.

Rwandans have some of the best street style on the planet. You can wander through the tiniest village in the middle of the mountains, a local market, past a church on a Sunday and almost everyone is dressed head to toe in perfectly tailored, bright, fun kitenge fashions. Rwanda clothing co is a modern, high-fashion take on that traditional Kigali street style designed by Joselyne Umutoniwase. Joselyn is a fashion Designer, film director and editor who has worked in the Rwandan film industry for five years until 2011—at that time there were no possibilities in Rwanda of making a living with designing fashion. Now, she works as one of the most successful fashion designers in Kigali. She specializes in colorful print designs and combining African fabrics with international styles. Don’t miss out on popping in to try on some pieces from her latest collection while you’re in town.

After seeing all those beautiful handicrafts throughout Kigali and Rwanda, think you might want to try your hand at basket-making yourself? Azizi Life offers short craft-making classes in their small shop/studio in Kigali from traditional basket weaving to imigongo art—Rwandan graphic and geometric panels created from cow dung putty pressed onto wood. Want an even more in-depth, authentic experience? Azizi life offers immersive day trips to local villages, women’s collectives, and more.

Take a fun traditional basket-making workshop inside of Azizi Life in Kigali. Images by Azizi Life

Every once in a while you meet someone who is so in love and passionate about what they do that you can’t help but get equally excited about what they’re creating. Inside the incredible Nymirambo Market, amongst the swirl of brightly-colored fabrics hung high up to the ceiling, dizzying patterns, local craftsmen touting their fun creations, and row upon row of seamstresses creating beautiful clothing from patterns they’ve come up with themselves using old, foot-pedal singer machines. There’s one guy who stands out, with his bold designs, unique personality, dreads, and palpable passion for his country and its rich tradition of kitenge fabrics and creations is 25-year-old Alexander Umudozi. He creates everything from paneled leather and jean jackets, to fabric lines sneakers, and t-shirts with simple and some of the coolest jumpsuits you’ve ever seen, to elegant dresses. Stop in, tell him about your style (or choose one of his designs, his instagram account is full of inspiration), let him take your measurements, and in a couple of days you’ll have a custom Rwandan piece, tailor made for you!

From left: Alexander Umudozi at his workshop in Nyamirambo market. Locals wandering in a village outside Kigali. Umudozi and Lola Mendez outside Nyamirambo Market in Kigali City. Images by Alicia-Rae Light.

There’s no shortage of places to shop in Kigali, but if you want to find it all in one place, and inside with multiple shops, stalls, and sellers—Caplaki Craft Market is where it’s at. Here you’ll find everything from Kitenge designs, fabric animals, baskets, carvings, imigongo artwork, and more. Don’t forget to grab a coffee at Adam Roasters before you leave.

There are so many unique concepts in Kigali, but one of our absolute favorites has to be Umu Tima, in the Nyamirambo Women’s Center In 2007 18 Rwandan women living in the neighbourhood were creating beautiful clothing and accessories and they decided to come together. Through their designs and art, they aimed to address gender-based violence, gender inequality and discrimination. Through the foundation they offer free classes in literacy, English, basic computer skills, handicrafts and sewing, empowerment trainings on gender based violence and trainings on responsible community based tourism. In time, they were able to build a permanent home and space to sell their craft.

Inside, you can watch the women working hard creating with great detail and intricacy masks, handwoven bags lined and detailed with fabric, children’s clothing, backpacks, wallets, headbands, and more. If you’re looking for pre-made gifts for the littles in your life, or something small for yourself, be sure to stop in. Every single item sold in the shop has the name of the woman who designed and created it, making it a really special gift to bring home

Across the street, you’ll see a small library which was built in 2014 to encourage reading among the youth in Rwanda and to promote the idea of “one child, one book” in a country where many children do not have the opportunity to read and discover the world through books. Part of the proceeds from Umu Tima goes towards this project.

The women of Uma Tima working hard inside of Nyamirambo Women’s Center. Image courtesy of Uma TIma.

Want to explore Kigali and Rwanda for yourself? 

At the minimum we would recommend spending two nights in Kigali followed by three nights at Volcanoes National Park to go gorilla trekking. We do however also recommend spending time in Akagera National Park, Nyungwe Forest and even spending some time at lake Kivu. 

Can I combine Rwanda with other destinations? 

Yes, Rwanda can be combined with additional safari in Tanzania or Kenya with daily flights. Or, head South to Cape Town for some city time and bookend your trip with a final safari in South Africa, Botswana, or perhaps a walking safari in Zambia’s South Luangwa. 

How do I get to Kigali

Qatar has just added a new route from Doha to Kigali. Take advantage of the Qsuites! There are also flights on Emirates, KLM, and Brussels Air. Within Africa there are noteworthy direct flights from Kigali to Entebbe, Nairobi, Addis, Harare, Lusaka, and Johannesburg. 

Check out these itineraries that cover Kigali, gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park, and more:

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Gorillas, Safari, and Beach: Across East Africa

Travel across East Africa from Uganda to Kenya, Tanzania, ending on the beach

13 Days | $13,600 per person