Established as the capital after Rwanda gained independence from Belgium in 1962, Kigali is located roughly at the country’s geographical center. It’s a natural gateway for visitors and an excellent base for exploring Rwanda’s best attractions.
If you have time, plan to spend at least a few days in the city itself rather than simply passing through. In the quarter-century since Kigali was devastated by the Rwandan Genocide, it has been reborn as one of the cleanest and safest capitals in Africa. Skyscrapers and start-up companies provide a surprising contrast to the lush scenery of the surrounding hills while contemporary art galleries, coffeehouses, and restaurants add to its cosmopolitan charm.
Pay Your Respects at the Kigali Genocide Memorial
In April 1994, members of the Hutu majority government of Rwanda initiated a genocide against the Tutsi people after decades of conflict between the two ethnic groups. By mid-July of the same year, approximately one million people had been slaughtered, and 259,000 of them are buried in mass graves at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
The Memorial also hosts three permanent exhibitions, the largest of which is dedicated to commemorating the events and victims of the Rwandan Genocide. After gaining an emotional insight into the horrors that shaped Rwanda’s recent history, take a moment to reflect on what you have learned in the Memorial’s tranquil gardens. The Memorial is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.
Bear Witness to the Tragedies at Nyamata Church
For a more visceral education about the events of the Rwandan Genocide, travel 30 kilometers south of the city to the memorial at Nyamata Church. Here, approximately 10,000 Tutsi sought refuge within the church compound but were massacred when Hutu extremists used grenades to blast open the church’s locked doors. Today, the remains of more than 50,000 victims are buried at Nyamata.
The church itself still bears the original bullet holes in the ceiling and walls, and the bloodstained clothing of the victims (as well as their personal items and some of their bones) are displayed inside as a heartbreaking reminder of why the events of 1994 can never be allowed to happen again. The church is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Take a Cultural Tour at Nyamirambo Women's Center
Located in Kigali’s multicultural Nyamirambo district, the Nyamirambo Women’s Center is a non-profit initiative intended to provide Rwandan women with the education and training needed to find employment. The ladies that work here use their skills to create high-quality children’s clothing, accessories, and home decor products out of traditional kitenge fabrics—all of which make stunning souvenirs while funding the center’s community programs.
Make sure to sign up for one of their popular walking tours, too. After a traditional snack and a lesson in Kinyarwanda, you’ll follow a local guide on a tour of Nyamirambo’s houses, independent businesses, and mosques. Afterward, enjoy a traditional lunch at one of the ladies’ homes. Sisal basket weaving workshops and traditional cooking classes can also be booked online.
Experience Kigali's Café Culture at Inzora Rooftop Café
Nestled at the back of Ikirezi book shop, Inzora Rooftop Café offers a fine example of Kigali’s flourishing café culture. Spectacular views of the city and the surrounding hills make the rooftop terrace special, while the house coffee comes from a cooperative that benefits over 2,000 farmers. The menu would do justice to any Western hipster hangout—think macadamia and chia seed granola followed by gluten-free brownies.
Even better, everything from the ingredients to the furniture is locally sourced. There's even a playhouse and kitchen for the kids. The café is open from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekends, making it the ideal spot for a leisurely brunch or evening drinks with a view. On Fridays, don't miss the café's weekly cocktail and tasting board event.
Shop for Rwandan Art at Inema Art Center
Founded in 2012 by two brothers with a passion for supporting and showcasing emerging Rwandan artists, Inema Art Center is now one of the best contemporary galleries in the city. It features the work of emerging and established artists from around the world and also serves as a studio for 10 artists-in-residence, who typically work across a broad spectrum of different mediums.
It hosts workshops and training programs for the next generation of Rwandan creatives, including weekly workshops for orphans with artistic abilities, traditional dance programs for children, and a crafts program for women. Visitors can peruse the artworks in the gallery, or shop for jewelry, linens, and leatherwork created by the center’s students at the gift shop. Keep an eye out for regular music and dance performances too.
Fine-tune Your Haggling Skills at Kimironko Market
For a truly immersive shopping experience, head to the vast warehouse complex known as Kimironko Market. This is the busiest and most popular market in town with vendors selling wares from all over Rwanda as well as East, Central, and West Africa. You’ll find souvenirs and crafts for rock-bottom prices and swathes of kitenge fabric that can be transformed into unique clothing by the market’s on-site seamstresses.
Kimironko is also a market place for local Rwandans with different sections selling colorful fruit and vegetables, clothing, home supplies, and pungent meat and seafood. It’s chaotic, loud and often overwhelming, but the kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, and smells serve as an authentic insight into everyday life in Kigali. Prices are negotiable. The market is open from around 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
Sample Rwandan Food and Drink at Repub Lounge
Known amongst expats and locals alike as the place to unwind after a busy day, Repub Lounge has a loyal following in Kigali. Its African interiors use kitenge fabrics and hand-crafted furniture to create a convivial atmosphere while the outside deck impresses with mesmerizing views of the city lights. The menu features Rwandan and East African cuisine with a focus on grilled meats (although there are options for vegetarians).
The curry coconut fish is a particular highlight while African-style sharing dishes are perfect for larger groups. Order a glass of wine or a local beer from the extensive drinks list, then sit back and relax whilst listening to Afro-inspired live music. Repub Lounge opens from midday to midnight on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays; and from 6 p.m. to midnight Thursdays through Saturdays. It is closed on Sundays.
Discover the Story Behind the Real-Life Hotel Rwanda
Once the grandest hotel in the capital, Hôtel des Mille Collines was immortalized by the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda. The film followed the story of Hutu manager Paul Rusesabagina, who sheltered hundreds of Tutsi refugees here during the Rwandan Genocide. Although Rusesabagina’s role is the subject of controversy, the hotel itself is a fascinating piece of Rwandan history.
Its pre-1994 glory has faded over time, but it remains a glamorous place to come for afternoon drinks at the poolside bar or to enjoy fine local and international cuisine at the fourth-floor restaurant. While sipping your cocktail amidst the garden greenery, consider that the pool was once the only source of water for the refugees trapped inside the hotel.