We know you're there to visit Volcanoes National Park—but be sure to tack on a few days to explore this cultural hub.
Coming face to face with a mountain gorilla in the tangled jungle of Volcanoes National Park may be one of the greatest wildlife encounters on earth, but Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali, casts its own spell. Once a quick one-night stop on the way to the national parks, the hilly green cityscape is now peppered with luxury hotels, contemporary fashion boutiques, and international restaurants that make it a destination in its own right.
While most sustainability conversations in Africa revolve around wildlife conservation, Rwanda is also at the forefront of the urban sustainability movement. The country was one of the first in the world to ban the use of plastic bags, and Kigali has been called "the cleanest city in Africa." Tidy palm tree-lined boulevards and businesses supporting local, sustainable products are commonplace. The city even hosts a community service day once a month, where residents work together to clean streets and improve infrastructure.
From its impactful grassroots sustainability story to its rich creative scene, Kigali is a city teeming with life, and a place worth savoring.
What to do:
At the heart of Kigali’s artistic fervor is Inema Arts Centre, founded by brothers and painters Emmanuel Nkuranga and Innocent Nkurunziza. The gallery functions as the city’s artistic hub, housing a collective of 10 artists in residence, as well as hosting free art and dance classes for community youth. Contemporary sculpture, painting, and mixed media work speak to Rwanda’s past and present social climate. Also worth your time is the new Rwanda Art Museum. Housed in the former Presidential Palace Museum, it gives visitors a look at the history of art in the country, and displays contemporary work.
Navigating the circuitous maze of Kimironko Market can be overwhelming, but the kaleidoscopic fabrics and traditional handicrafts are worth it, as is the bespoke clothing that can be made on-site and delivered to your hotel the same day. Ask for Umudozi Alexander, an up-and-coming designer with a show in Los Angeles later this year. You can find more locally made goods at the Nyamirambo Women’s Center, founded by a group of women in 2007 to address gender inequality in the workforce. The cooperative’s boutique sells scarves and handbags made from colorful kitenge fabric and traditional woven agaseke baskets, and offers walking tours and weaving classes.
Kigali design doesn’t end with the city’s artisans. The fashion scene is big and beautiful, and travelers would be remiss not to shop contemporary designers. A stop by Moshions will fill your suitcase with minimalist dresses, blouses, and sweaters that give a nod to Rwanda’s roots with imigongo accents, a traditional spiral and geometric design.
No visit to Kigali (or Rwanda in general) is complete without a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Give yourself at least an hour to wind your way through the permanent collection, which integrates photography and video with personal accounts of the genocide from survivors. An outdoor garden and burial site acts as the final resting place for more than 250,000 victims of the devastating event that saw more than 800,000 Rwandans killed.
The pool at The Retreat. Courtesy The Retreat by Heaven
Where to eat:
Croissants and eclairs to rival any Parisian boulangerie can be found at Baso Patissier. Born to a Rwandan father and Belgian mother, pastry chef Bruno Basomingera trained in Belgium before moving to Rwanda in 2011. Order a breakfast of pain au chocolat and café au lait on the sun-drenched patio. The patisserie also serves omelets, grilled sandwiches, and a soup du jour throughout the day. If a poolside lunch with a couple of cold Primus—Rwanda’s most popular lager—sounds more your style, head to Pili Pili, a two-story boutique hotel, bar, and restaurant. Dig into grilled, pub-style food while savoring a sprawling, unobstructed view of the city.
For a romantic, balmy dinner, try Fusion Restaurant’s open-air dining room, which has a view of The Retreat hotel’s palm-dotted rock garden and crystalline pool. The menu features both traditional Rwandan dishes, like cassava leaf bruschetta and perch stew, and international influences, like Moroccan kebabs and spicy prawn bok choy wraps. Vegetables are plucked straight from the hotel’s organic garden. Similarly, the appeal at Belgian-French eatery Poivre Noir is as much the lush garden dining terrace as it is the expertly grilled, locally sourced bistro cuisine.
Where to drink:
Question Coffee is a Rwandan outfit from bean to espresso shot, built around a social impact model. One hundred percent of proceeds from coffee and drink sales in the cafe goes back into supporting and training rural, low-income female coffee farmers. The sweet, smooth blends, as well as seasonal drinks like passion fruit and tree tomato-infused cold brew, are served on the airy patio.
Also driven by sustainability is 1000 Hills Distillery, East Africa’s only craft distillery. All of the ingredients in their premium, triple-distilled spirits are sourced locally to support Rwandan farmers, and no by-products are wasted. Residues from the distillation process act as fertilizer for farmers’ crops, and leftover methanol is used to make an affordable mosquito repellent. Perched high on a hilltop, you can sip on smooth spiced rum while contemplating the city’s lively ebb and flow. Imbibe in after-dinner drinks at Repub Lounge, where live jazz swings and swells on Thursday and Saturday nights.
Where to stay:
Set in the heart of the city within a lush, Edenic garden, the aforementioned Retreat is solar-powered and plastic-free. Its 11 rooms are decorated with polished teak furniture built by Rwandan carpenters, as well as local art and textiles, and the bathrooms are stocked with organic amenities made on-site. Each bright space overlooks either a landscaped walkway or a saltwater pool that reflects twinkling string lights and begs for a sunset cocktail. (If it’s booked up, check out the hotel’s sister property: Heaven Rwanda.)
The Kigali Serena has a warm, polished ambience with which guests of other Serena hotels on the continent will be familiar. What it lacks in sex appeal it makes up for with a leafy, sun-dappled breakfast patio overlooking a glassy pool and old-school hospitality where the staff get to know your name. On the same boulevard is the Kigali Marriott, which if you don’t mind cookie-cutter design, is a cushy option in the city. A floor-to-ceiling gallery wall of traditional woven baskets decorates the main lobby and Go Kigali, a boutique representing African clothing and jewelry designers, lend a local touch.