The 6 Best Day Trips From Kigali, Rwanda

Road winding through green Rwandan countryside

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Rwanda is one of the smallest countries in mainland Africa, and Kigali is located roughly in the center. This makes the capital the ideal base for exploring the cultural highlights within its city limits and many of those beyond them. The best day trips from Kigali include everything from a visceral tour into recent Rwandan history with a visit to the genocide memorials of Ntarama and Nyamata, or discovering the stunning scenery and exotic wildlife of the country’s best national parks. Many destinations require a very early start to get there and back in one day, and you should leave space in your budget for hiring a car (and perhaps a driver as well). Due to the lack of reliable public transport in Rwanda, this is undoubtedly the best and most convenient way to get around. 

01 of 06

Ntarama and Nyamata Churches

Human skulls on display in Nyamata Church genocide memorial, Rwanda

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In April 1994, long-standing tensions between Rwanda’s Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups were ignited when the plane of the Hutu president was shot down above Kigali. His death sparked the Rwandan genocide, a slaughter of the Tutsi that lasted for approximately 100 days and resulted in the murder of nearly a million people. Tutsi villagers sought sanctuary in their churches in the rural areas, but their attackers forced entry and killed them regardless. Now, two of these churches have become national genocide memorials. Five thousand people were killed at Ntarama Church, and more than 45,300 are buried in mass graves outside Nyamata Church. The buildings themselves still show bullet holes and machete marks, and the victims’ bones, clothing, and other personal effects are kept on display as a stark reminder of the atrocities. Both are open daily to those that wish to come and pay their respects. 

Getting There: Both churches are located on the RN15 road leading south of Kigali. It takes roughly 45 minutes to reach Nyamata Church and another 15 minutes to get to Nyamata Church. 

Travel Tip: If you only have the time (or stomach) to visit one church, Nyamata’s mass graves give a more accurate insight into the sheer scale of the tragedy. 

02 of 06

Ethnographic Museum

Exterior of the Ethnographic Museum in Huye, Rwanda

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The Ethnographic Museum is located in Huye, a colonial-era town once known as Butare and notable for its educational institutions, abundant religious buildings, and Belgian-style architecture. Housed in a building gifted by the Belgian King Badouin to celebrate 25 years of Rwandan independence, it is one of the eight museums of the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda and renowned for the excellent quality of its collection. With seven unique galleries, it houses countless artifacts relating to different aspects of traditional Rwandan culture, from hunting and agriculture to poetry, weaving, and woodwork. The museum is open every day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., except for April 7 (the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide). Don’t miss the on-site craft center, where you can purchase authentic souvenirs made by local artisans. The center even hosts regular displays of traditional Intore dancing and drumming. 

Getting There: Head southwest out of Kigali on the RN1. Just after Nyamabuye, the road heads due south to Huye—stay on it for just under three hours to reach the museum. 

Travel Tip: On the last Saturday of every month, the museum closes early at 11 a.m. for Umuganda, a day when Rwandans give up their time to carry out community work. 

03 of 06

King’s Palace Museum

Royal cattle feeding outside the King's Palace Museum, Rwanda

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In the mid-20th century, Nyanza served as the capital of the Rwandan monarchy. Today, the king’s traditional royal residence has been impeccably restored to its former glory, using authentic materials and techniques to build the thatched, beehive-shaped structures for which it is famous. Visitors can tour the palace, watch Intore dancers perform in their elaborate headdresses, and meet a small number of royal Inyambo cattle. These animals are descendants of the king’s herd and, like their ancestors, stand out for their muscled appearance and exceptionally long, large horns. In times gone by, the cattle were trained to “dance” in time with special songs, which they performed at royal ceremonies while heavily adorned with rich jewelry. Their descendants have been trained to do the same, and watching the Inyambo parade is a highlight for visitors to the King’s Palace Museum

Getting There: Follow the RN1 southwest and then south out of Kigali. When you reach Nyanza, turn right onto the Nyanza Road to the museum. The journey takes around 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Travel Tip: The King’s Palace Museum is situated on the same road as the Ethnographic Museum, making it easy (and very rewarding) to visit both in one day. 

04 of 06

Volcanoes National Park

Female gorilla feeding infant, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

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Although most travelers who wish to meet the world-famous gorillas of Volcanoes National Park will choose to spend at least a night in the park's vicinity, it is possible to visit on a day trip from Kigali. You'll have to get up early—park headquarters are roughly 2 1/2 hours from the capital by car, and you will need to be there by 7 a.m. in time for your trek briefing. Once you are assigned a habituated gorilla troop, you will set out with an expert guide to track them through the misty cloud forest. The hike can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours, depending on where the gorillas are on the day, but once you find them, you'll have up to an hour to spend admiring them in their natural habitat. Not particularly fussed about meeting the gorillas? There are plenty of other ways to spend the day, from tracking endangered golden monkeys to visiting the grave of renowned primatologist Dian Fossey.

Getting There: Drive northwest out of Kigali on the RN4 until you reach Musanze, and 20 minutes later, the park headquarters at Kinigi. 

Travel Tip: Gorilla trekking requires a permit, which must be booked months in advance. Organizing your day trip through a licensed tour operator is the easiest way to do this. 

Continue to 5 of 6 below.
05 of 06

Lakes Ruhondo and Burera

View of hilltop village with Lake Ruhondo in the background, Rwanda

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Before you reach Volcanoes National Park, there lies another, much less well-known option for adventurous day-trippers. Often called the Twin Lakes for their side-by-side location at the base of Mount Muhabura volcano, Lakes Ruhondo and Burera encapsulates the very essence of Rwanda’s considerable natural beauty. With deep sapphire waters, a hilly emerald shoreline, and a breathtaking backdrop that comprises the full Virunga Mountains range, it’s easy to see why landscape photographers in the know favor this spot. The lakes also offer water-based activities, including guided boat and canoe trips and fishing for tilapia alongside the local residents. In particular, the lakes have a reputation as a top spot for birdwatching. Bring your binoculars and watch for an impressive variety of different waterbirds, ranging from kingfishers and cormorants to herons and storks. 

Getting There: Head north from Kigali on the RN4, then look for a right turn to Ruhondo Lake just before you reach Musanze. The journey takes 2.5 hours. 

Travel Tip: Rather than traveling independently, look for a guided tour like this one that includes transport to and from Kigali and all activities at the lakes. 

06 of 06

Akagera National Park

Close-up of lioness in Akagera National Park, Rwanda

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Another enriching day trip destination for those willing to get up before dawn, Akagera National Park is the only Big Five game reserve in Rwanda. This means that you can embark on a traditional, Jeep-style safari and stand a chance of seeing some of Africa’s most iconic animals – elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhino – all in one day. Akagera’s rhinos are a particular conservation success story, having been successfully reintroduced to the park from other African nature areas and even some European zoos. Boat-based game viewing on Lake Ihema is another option (keep an eye out for hippos and crocodiles), as are dedicated birdwatching safaris. In total, almost 500 different species have been recorded at Akagera. Of particular interest is the shoebill stork, a rare and very sought-after species that thrives in this, Central Africa’s largest protected wetland. 

Getting There: Drive east out of the city on the RN3, as far as Kabarondo. Then, turn left onto Akagera Road to reach the park entrance. The total drive time is around 2 hours, 40 minutes. 

Travel Tip: For the best game viewing, try to time your visit for the long dry season (June to September). However, the short wet season (October and November) is prime time for birding.