A land-locked nation cradled by the Great Rift Valley, Rwanda is one of the smallest and most densely populated countries in mainland Africa. It has a subtropical, equatorial climate and is divided between the mist-shrouded mountains of the west and the savanna plains of the east. For most visitors, the country’s mountain gorillas are the main attraction—Rwanda is one of only two places in the world that you can see them in the wild without risking your safety—but there is much more to Rwanda than its endangered primates. Discover little-known national parks; cities brimming with artistic talent; and memorials that relate the tragedy of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial
Rwanda’s population can be roughly divided into three subgroups; the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Twa. Tensions between Hutu and Tutsi have historically been high and in April 1994, Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was killed when his plane was shot down by Tutsi rebels. In retaliation, as many as one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were slaughtered in the following months. Exhibitions at the Kigali Genocide Memorial explain the causes, events, and after effects of this horrifying period of Rwandan history. Open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, the center is also a mass grave for more than 250,000 genocide victims.
Listen to Genocide Stories at Nyamata Church
For a particularly hard-hitting insight into the events of the genocide, travel 20 miles south of the capital to Nyamata Church. Here, as at other Rwandan churches, 10,000 Tutsi sought shelter from their Hutu attackers but were ultimately massacred when the church doors were forced open using grenades. Many more genocide victims (approximately 50,000 in total) are now buried at the Nyamata memorial, while the skulls, bones, and bloodstained clothing of those that died there are kept on display so that the events of the genocide can never be downplayed or denied. The church is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Have Dinner at the Real-Life Hotel Rwanda
Those who watched the 2004 film "Hotel Rwanda" will remember the story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who used his position to hide more than 1,200 refugees during the Rwandan genocide, ultimately saving their lives. The hotel where they lived was the luxury Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali. While it's somewhat less glamorous today than it was in its heyday, the hotel remains a sophisticated place for dinner or drinks overlooking the pool – which was once the only source of water for the hidden refugees. Before you go, read "Inside the Hotel Rwanda," by Edouard Kayihura, which gives an alternate version of events to the one portrayed by Hollywood.
Tour Kigali with Nyamirambo Women’s Centre
In 2007, 18 Rwandan women living in Kigali’s Nyamirambo neighborhood launched the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre. Aiming to allow victims of gender-based violence and gender discrimination to learn artisan skills and therefore earn an income, the center now houses an impressive array of accessories, home decor, and children’s clothing. You can also take a memorable cultural tour, including a walking tour of Nyamirambo, which includes a brief Kinyarwanda lesson and a visit to a local salon. Alternatively, join a sisal basket weaving workshop or take part in a traditional cooking class. Tours cost 15,000 Rwandan francs (around $16), with an additional charge of 3,000 francs (around $3) for lunch.
Embrace the Atmosphere at Kimironko Market
For an introduction to Kigali's life at its most colorful and chaotic, make your way to Kimironko Market in the neighborhood of the same name. As the capital’s busiest marketplace, it welcomes vendors from all over East Africa. Stalls laden with fruit, vegetables, clothing, and other necessities vie for space with others selling traditional arts and crafts. For a truly unique souvenir, select a swathe of brightly patterned kitenge fabric and commission a statement piece from one of the market’s talented seamstresses. Haggling is expected when enquiring about prices and can be part of the fun. The market is open daily, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Explore Kigali’s Art Galleries
At the heart of post-genocide Kigali is a flourishing contemporary art scene, led by a series of noteworthy studios and galleries. Amongst these are Inema Arts Center, Ivuka Arts Centre, and Niyo Art Gallery. Inema provides studio space for 10 artists in residence, working across a broad spectrum of different media. It also hosts workshops, training, and exhibitions in its gallery space. You can talk to the artists responsible for the pieces on display at the Ivuka Arts Centre, which offers dance and music classes for children as well, while Niyo Art Gallery is another excellent example of a gallery that moonlights as a studio and cultural center.
Track Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park
Mountain gorillas are highly endangered, with roughly 1,000 individuals left in the wild. They can only be found in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Volcanoes National Park, in the northwest part of the country, is the base for gorilla trekking expeditions in Rwanda. You will venture on foot through the tropical montane cloud forest in search of habituated troops. Once you locate the gorillas, marvel at the similarities between the behavior of these majestic primates and your own friends and family members—hardly surprising since they share 98 percent of our DNA. Trekking permits are both expensive and limited, but it truly is a once in a lifetime experience.
Learn About Gorilla Conservation at Karisoke Research Center
Volcanoes National Park is also home to Karisoke Research Center, founded by renowned primatologist and conservationist Dian Fossey in 1967. It was here that Fossey conducted the scientific studies that would later be recounted in her groundbreaking book, "Gorillas in the Mist," and where she was murdered, probably by poachers, in 1985. Fossey is buried at Karisoke alongside many of her beloved gorillas, including her famous favorite, Digit. Visitors to the center can learn about the history of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and its continued conservation work via an interactive exhibition that is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Venture Underground into Musanze Cave
If you’re headed to Volcanoes National Park, make time for a visit to Musanze Cave. Extending for just over a mile into the basaltic lava rock of the park’s volcanoes, the cave can be explored via a system of stairs and walkways. Tours take roughly 2.5 hours, during which time your guide will explain the cave’s fascinating history as a place of shelter for local people during times of persecution. In places, the roof of the cave has collapsed, allowing shafts of colored light to illuminate the interior. One of the main attractions is Musanze’s impressive population of roosting bats. Tickets can be purchased from the tourism information center in Musanze.
Look for Primates in Nyungwe Forest National Park
Mountain gorillas are not the only primates to look for in Rwanda. Nyungwe Forest National Park in the southwest of the country is a sanctuary for no fewer than 13 different primate species, including the Ruwenzori colobus, the endemic L’Hoest’s monkey, and the endangered golden monkey. For many, the park’s highlight is its small population of endangered chimpanzees. You can track our closest living relative on one of 15 winding forest trails, keeping an eye out along the way for mammals that range from serval cats to clawless otters. Nyungwe is also a rewarding choice for birders, with 322 species, including 30 that are endemic to the Albertine Rift.
Go on a Game Drive in Akagera National Park
In the far east of the country lies Akagera National Park, a majestic ecosystem that has recovered from near-destruction in the wake of the genocide to become Rwanda’s only Big Five game reserve and Central Africa’s largest protected wetland. This is the place to embark on a traditional safari, with more than 12,000 large mammals, including rhinos, lions, elephants, giraffes, and more. Akagera is also renowned as Rwanda’s top birding destination with 482 recorded species. These include the sought-after shoebill stork, the specialist papyrus gonolek, and the endemic red-faced barbet. Magashi Camp provides luxury accommodation and game drives.
Discover Traditional Culture at the Ethnographic Museum
Located in Huye (formerly known as Butare) in southeast Rwanda, the Ethnographic Museum of Rwanda is one of six national museums of Rwanda. Gifted by the Belgian king in the late 1980s to celebrate 25 years of independence, it comprises seven well-lit and clearly labeled exhibition halls filled with all kinds of artifacts relating to the country’s traditional culture. Admire beautifully made clothing, authentic hunting and agricultural tools, and a traditional kagondo hut that illustrates how native Rwandans lived before the advent of the colonial era. The museum also includes a craft center and hosts regular Intore dancing and drumming displays. Entry costs 6,000 Rwandan francs (around $6) per adult.
Meet the Royal Cows at the King’s Palace Museum
The King’s Palace Museum is located at Nyanza, the former royal capital of Rwanda. It is a reconstruction of the traditional royal residence, and an excellent example of the meticulously thatched, beehive-shaped dwellings that would once have been seen across the region. Tourists can tour the compound and meet the long-horned Inyambo cattle that are direct descendants of the king’s original herd. Their ancestors were taught to respond to their trainer’s songs and move in time with him during ritual ceremonies in celebration of the king. Today’s Inyambo are tended, sung to, and trained with equal devotion, and can be viewed from 8 a.m to 6 p.m. daily.
Relax on the Beach at Lake Kivu
With a surface area of approximately 1,040 square miles, Lake Kivu (located on the border with the DRC) is the largest lake in Rwanda and the sixth-largest in Africa. With its deep, emerald green waters and fringing mountains, it’s an undeniably beautiful place to spend a few days relaxing in between adventures. Most visitors head to Rubavu, a laid-back, colonial-era resort town on the lake’s northern shore with plenty of waterfront bars, restaurants, and hotels to choose from. Make your base at Lake Kivu Serena Hotel and explore the lake on a sundowner cruise or guided island tour. Kingfisher Journeys also offers sunset and multi-day kayaking adventures.
Hike or Bike Along the Congo Nile Trail
Those that are feeling particularly adventurous can also explore the lake with an extended hiking or biking trip along the Congo Nile Trail. This 141-mile route is made up of local roads and unpaved trails and starts in Rubavu. From there, it follows the lakeshore for several miles before ascending upwards into the region’s tea plantations, winding its way through the tangled forest and scenic farmland before eventually ending south of the lake in Cyangugu. Along the way, you’ll meet friendly Rwandans in tiny rural villages, and be treated to some spectacular views. You can complete the trail independently or join a guided tour with an operator like Rwandan Adventures.