Rwanda Guide: Planning Your Trip

Rwandan village against a volcanic mountain backdrop

Edwin Remsberg / Getty Images

Rwanda may be the fourth-smallest country in mainland Africa (with a size comparative to the U.S. state of Maryland!), but it nevertheless packs a significant punch. With lush grasslands, rolling hills, and mist-shrouded mountains, its scenic beauty is something to write home about. At the same time, a bevy of remote national parks provides a sanctuary for rare primates, including the endangered mountain gorilla. Kigali, the Rwandan capital, is a cosmopolitan city with a flourishing art and restaurant scene and several emotional reminders of the genocide that devastated the country in 1994. Despite its turbulent past, Rwanda is now considered one of the safest destinations in Africa. In this article, we provide all the information needed for your visit, from tips on when to visit and how to get around to an introduction to the country’s top attractions. 

Planning Your Trip 

Best Time to Visit: During the long dry season (June to September), when the terrain is easier for gorilla trekking, game is easier to spot in the lowland national parks, and there are fewer mosquitoes. 

Language: There are three official languages in Rwanda: Kinyarwanda, English, and French. Of these, Kinyarwanda is spoken by 93 percent of the population. 

Currency: Rwandan franc (RWF). Check xe.com for the latest exchange rates.

Getting Around: Rwanda’s roads are well-maintained by East African standards and getting around is easy thanks to a network of reliable and scheduled private buses and minibuses. In Kigali, taxis and moto-taxis (motorcycles) abound. The latter is the cheaper option. Many visitors choose to hire a vehicle and driver for their time in Rwanda, especially if they plan on doing a significant amount of traveling. 

Travel Tip: Malaria is prevalent throughout the country and taking prophylactics is recommended. Remember to specify to your doctor that you are traveling to Rwanda, since chloroquine is not effective in this region. Proof of yellow fever vaccination is an entry requirement for anyone traveling from a country with a risk of yellow fever infection. 

Things to Do 

For most travelers, the primary reason to visit Rwanda is to search for its majestic mountain gorillas. After all, there are just over 1,000 of these primates—with whom we share more than 98% of our genetic code—left in the wild, and Rwanda is one of only three countries in the world where they can be seen. Rwanda has plenty of other wildlife, including the chimpanzees and golden monkeys of Nyungwe Forest National Park and the Big Five animals of Akagera National Park. In between trekking expeditions and safaris, unwind for a night or two at Lake Kivu or soak up the cultural attractions of Kigali. Kigali and its surrounds are also full of historic landmarks for those that wish to learn more about the Rwandan Genocide, including the Kigali Genocide Memorial and real-life Hotel Rwanda, Hôtel des Mille Collines

  • Go gorilla trekking: If meeting Rwanda’s gorillas is at the top of your bucket list, plan a trekking expedition through Volcanoes National Park. Here, you will walk through the montane cloud forest in search of troops that have been habituated to allow close encounters with humans. Be aware that trekking permits are limited and must be booked well in advance. 
  • Visit genocide memorials: To learn more about the Rwandan genocide and pay respect to those who died, visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Smaller monuments also exist at Nyamata Church and Ntarama Church, where hundreds of men, women, and children sought refuge only to be killed during the months of slaughter. 
  • Explore Kigali’s rich culture: Reborn as a vibrant cultural center, Kigali now boasts an impressive restaurant scene and many contemporary art galleries including Inema Arts Center and Niyo Art Gallery. For an insight into local life, pay a visit to Kimironko Market or join one of the walking tours offered by the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre. 

For a complete list of the country’s top attractions, read our guide to the top things to do in Rwanda

What to Eat and Drink

In Kigali, you can find almost any cuisine you like, from French and Belgian (a legacy of Rwanda’s colonial period) to Indian and Thai. However, if you wish to sample authentic Rwandan fare, you’ll find plenty of opportunities in the capital—and little else outside it. Staples include roasted goat, fried or grilled tilapia, stews of beef or chicken, and sambaza, a type of small, fried fish indigenous to Lake Kivu. In terms of starch, rice, chapatti, and ugali (a stiff maize porridge) are standard, while matoke is a classic Rwandan side made from stewed bananas or plantains. Tap water is often dubious, so it’s best to stick to the bottled stuff or go alcoholic—with a local beer like Virunga, Skol, Mutzig, or Turbo King—or imported French and South African wine. Rwanda also has its own honey and banana wine, known as urwagwa. 

Where to Stay 

If you plan on spending some time in Kigali, two of the most popular neighborhoods for visitors include affluent, expat-friendly Nyarutarama and upscale, vibrant Kimihurura. Both have plenty of options for restaurants, cafés, and nightlife, and both have an excellent reputation for safety. Elsewhere in Rwanda, travelers tend to stay in or around the main tourist attractions. These include Volcanoes National Park in the northwest, Nyungwe Forest National Park in the southwest, Akagera National Park in the far east, and Lake Kivu in the west. These natural wonders have a selection of accommodation options ranging from affordable self-catering chalets to luxury lodges.

Getting There

Kigali International Airport (KGL) is the main port of entry for most overseas visitors to Rwanda. It is located approximately six miles east of the city center and welcomes numerous airlines, including Rwanda’s national carrier, RwandAir, Egypt Air, Ethiopian Airlines, KLM, and Qatar Airways. Most visitors require a visa to enter Rwanda; however, visas are issued on arrival at Kigali International Airport and all land borders. U.S. citizens must pay $50 for a single entry visa or $70 for a multiple entry visa, both of which are valid for 30 days. Members of the African Union, La Francophonie, and the Commonwealth are waived visa fees for stays of up to 30 days. 

Culture and Customs

Rwandans are typically conservative, and as such, it’s recommended that visitors dress modestly and avoid public confrontations and displays of affection not to offend. Interestingly, it’s widespread to see friends of the same sex holding hands in the street (including men). However, while homosexuality is not illegal in Rwanda as it is in other areas of East Africa, it is generally considered taboo. Therefore, same-sex PDA should especially be avoided to prevent unwanted attention. 

Rwandans shake hands with their right hand and use their chins to indicate direction since pointing is considered impolite. It is customary for the young to greet the elderly first and for women to greet men first. Above all, the genocide is still a recent memory for many Rwandans, so it’s best not to instigate conversations about politics or ask people you meet about their ethnic origins. Tipping is not expected but appreciated as a reward for good service. This is especially true for waitstaff, drivers, tour guides, rangers, and porters. 

Money Saving Tips

  • International restaurants in Kigali can be as expensive as their northern hemisphere counterparts. Eating in local restaurants is undoubtedly the cheaper option and a great insight into Rwandan culinary culture. 
  • Local beer is much cheaper than imported wine when it comes to alcohol, which is often exorbitantly overpriced. 
  • In Kigali, moto-taxis are much less expensive than regular taxis. 
  • When exploring the rest of the country, do not be afraid to use the local bus network, which is efficient and safe. 
  • Camping is permitted in several national parks, offering a way to save big bucks on expensive lodge accommodation. 
  • Given Rwanda’s small size and reputation for safety, it is much easier to travel independently here than in many other African countries. Consider doing so to avoid high tour prices. 
  • Many hotels, restaurants, and attractions offer rainy season specials. The rainy season is also best for chimpanzee trekking, while gorilla trekking is possible all year round. 
  • If traveling around East Africa, save your gorilla trekking for Uganda, where permits cost $700 per day rather than $1,500. 
Article Sources
TripSavvy uses only high-quality, trusted sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
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  2. CIA World Factbook. "Rwanda." 2021

  3. CDC "Yellow Fever Vaccine & Malaria Prophylaxis Information, by Country." 2020

  4. WWF "Mountain Gorilla." 2021

  5. U.S. Department of State "Rwanda International Travel Information." 2021

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