My friend Leah is a Rwanda-lover with a lot of experience hosting all sorts of guests here. Take a bit of her advice below and you should be able to construct an itinerary that meets everyone’s expectations!
You post pictures on Facebook and Instagram of Lake Kivu, freshly grown and brewed coffee, and colorful fabrics from the market near your house. You get a lot of likes, but rarely a visit. Until one day in May, rainy season is finally coming to a close, and your mother/brother/college roommate shows up on your dusty little doorstep!
When it rains it pours, and one visit is quickly followed by two more. You: a) love this visitor b) don’t really know this visitor c) this visitor is your mom. Where to take them! What to do! They want to see Everything! Different kinds of visitors require a different kind of itinerary, and you’re panicking a little. But don’t worry! Here at Living in Kigali, we got you. You’re thinking – but Mom wants to do fancy stuff, and your friend from college wants to take buses and eat “local food,” and the person you don’t know… wants to see lions? Maybe a volcano or two? Don’t panic – Rwanda can do all of that. We’re here to make this process as easy (and fun) for you as possible.
While Rwanda is a thriving and gorgeous country, some tourists will stop by for a short three-day visit to hike with the mountain gorillas and go to the Kigali genocide memorial to pay their respects. However, as you know, there is much much more to this incredible place! While we could write a really long article detailing many months wandering through the tea farms and swimming in volcanic lakes, I present to you instead, a short article for how to spend a week to ten beautiful days in Rwanda with a bevy of different types of visitors.
Kigali (1 or 2 Days)
Kigali is a beautiful city that’s often rushed through in favour of gorillas and other out-of-town attractions. The city is very safe, very green, very clean, and has more to offer than a visitor might expect. If you have a day to spare and want a great overview of life in Kigali, book yourself onto an amazing city tour with Go Kigali where they’ll show you how amazing Kigali really is!
The Kigali Genocide Memorial
Visiting this memorial in the Gisozi neighborhood and learning about the 1994 Genocide is a really important part of understanding Rwanda. This really well-organized museum and memorial is deeply moving, as well as informative. Though it is often a quick stop through on the way to Musanze for gorilla tracking, spend an afternoon here to really delve into the exhibits and history. All your visitors should definitely be brought here.
Market and Souvenir Shopping
After spending the morning at the memorial, head to Kimironko to experience the bustle and colorful scene that is the market. Walk through the fruit and vegetables area to bargain for some tasty mangoes and avocados before wandering through the stalls to find the rows and rows of gorgeous African fabric. All sorts of different patterns, colors, and countries are represented in these aisles, and your visitors will, as you know, be hard pressed to not walk away with their arms full. If you have time, ask the seamstresses to make your guests some custom clothing.
After the market, head to nearby Remera for lunch at Chez Lando or New Fiesta. However, this spot, and nearby Remera, isn’t always suitable for Grandma or Mom and Dad. If you don’t think Great Uncle Bob wants to haggle over a pound of potatoes or selection of baskets, take him (and similar relatives) to Caplaki Craft Market in Kiyovu. While it is more expensive, it is definitely a calmer scene than Kimironko. For further market visits and shopping, check out this article on Rwandan souvenir shopping.
Spend your afternoon wandering around Kacyriu, a neighborhood that holds many of Kigali’s great art galleries. Ivuka and Inema Arts are two of the best, and play host to many talented artists from all over the country. Inema Arts even has a cafe on location that offers delicious soup, sandwiches, and salads. Enjoy looking through the paintings, or perhaps even take one home with you! This activity could definitely be enjoyed by Mom, Dad, and your college roommate, but definitely make sure to arrange transport on things other than motorcycles – those dusty roads can be treacherous!
Big Fish or Republika
One of my favorite meals in Rwanda, except for perhaps brochettes is the giant fish, grilled in savory spices, served with onions and grilled potatoes. I can’t explain how good this tastes. The best place to get big fish is in the Nyamirambo neighborhood, a lively and packed area always filled with music, roasting brochettes, and endlessly flowing beer (always go for a Skol or Primus – Mutzig is a guaranteed hangover). The best restaurants for big fish are within a few blocks of each other, and called Panorama Ten to Two and Green Corner. Anyone in the area can direct you to them or check the maps at the end of each review.
While in town, you also have to try brochettes. Made most often of goat, but also chicken, fish, and beef, they are skewers grilled and brushed with great sauces and spices. The Nyamirambo neighborhood also has the best brochettes in the city. For parental figures not super interested in eating food with their hands and waiting for three hours, check out Repub Lounge. Recently relocated to the Kimihurura area, the chic setting and Rwandan food done in an upscale way will please Mom, Uncle Bob, that friend you worked with that summer, and really anyone!
Musanze Area (2 to 4 Days)
A lot of visitors will head to Musanze for gorilla trekking, which is famous for a reason! After procuring a very expensive and slightly difficult to obtain tracking permit, you will engage on a very early morning expedition. You could hike for 1 hour or six, depending on the gorilla family. After your brilliant trackers locate the family, you get to spend an hour watching these magnificent animals. While expensive, it is absolutely worth it.
However, if funds are an issue and your college roommate is still looking for some Musanze related activities, there are plenty of fun hikes and lakes in the area to take up the day and a half / or two days that gorilla tracking would otherwise have claimed in the schedule. If your buds still want to go on a big hike, and possibly see a gorilla, hike the much less expensive Bisoke Volcano. After emerging at the top, and possibly seeing a gorilla on your way, you’ll find yourself overlooking a stunning crater lake. Bisoke shares a border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, as you look over the crater lake from Rwanda, on a good clear day you’ll see into Congo as well. Hiking Bisoke and going gorilla tracking are incredible experiences.
If you have time and money for either or both, all the better for you! Further activities in the Musanze area include the Twin Lakes. If you drive or take a bus a little outside of Musanze town, you’ll find the twin lakes. Lake Burera and Lake Ruhondo, separated by just a few small hills, are two of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen. First stay at Foyer de Charitie, a relaxing and beautiful retreat in the mountains overlooking the volcanoes and sparkling Lake Ruhondo. Enjoy the big portions of food at every meal, before spending the next day hiking around the area and taking a boat ride across Ruhondo. Head to Lake Burera to picnic on the shores, before heading back to Musanze town.
If you want to see the most spectacular view of both lakes at the same time, head to the Virunga Lodge for a luxurious fruit juice or beer. While friends might be down to motorcycle around and hire boats on the fly, a family stop at Virunga lodge for the beautiful views (and maybe even an overnight stay) is always a good alternative.
Gisenyi(2 or 3 Days)
After spending a few days enjoying the twin lakes and getting some good hiking in, head to the biggest lake in the country – Lake Kivu! From the twin lakes or Musanze town, you can catch an easy bus to the town of Gisenyi. A great beach town, the casual vibe is delightful. Spend your day hanging out on the beach before enjoying lunch at Le Tam Tam – my favorite restaurant in the area. For those looking for activities in the area, definitely consider going on a motorcycle tour of a tea farm. The tea fields are stunning pretty much all times of the year, and speeding through on a motorcycle is the epitome of fun. Spend the night at Inzu Lodge, an inexpensive hotel with a gorgeous view, or Waterfront Resort or Paradise Malahide if you’d prefer to be right on the water. Or if your parents prefer a more fancy (and crazy expensive) experience, head to the Serena Hotel.
Kibuye (2 or 3 Days)
From Gisenyi, venture down south along the lake to Kibuye, another popular lake-side town. Either take the bumpy six hour bus from the Gisenyi bus station to Kibuye, or spend a few days slowly hiking the Congo – Nile trail between the two towns. This hike, a popular one in the area, leads you through tea fields and keeps you in view of the gorgeous Lake Kivu. If you are short on time, you can also take public buses intermittently. Alternatively, with Great Uncle Bob, hire a private car – the views are still incredible.
Once in Kibuye, spend some time walking around the area and lounging on the beach. Those looking for something odd and interesting in the area can pay a local fisherman to take you to Bat Island – an island that lives up to its name and plays host to thousands of bats in the area. In terms of lodging, the Cormoran Lodge and Rwiza Village are a little more upmarket for those looking for fancy lodgings, but the Bethanie Guesthouse is also very clean and comfortable and Home St. Jean is super cheap while still managing to be nice and probably has the best view.
Nyungwe Forest National Park (3 Days)
Located in southwestern Rwanda, Nyungwe Forest National Park is incredibly different from the scenery you will have so far experienced. A beautiful rain forest, it is home to thirteen species of primates. Hiking tours leave at all points of the year to find the illusive chimpanzee or the more common colobus money. If you have more than a day, take some time to go on a tea factory tour, walk to the Isumu Waterfall, or go on a bird watching walk. Definitely try and have a meal at the gorgeous and upmarket Nyungwe Forest Lodge if you have the cash, but save some money and stay at Gisakura Guest House with that visiting fellow cash-strapped traveler.
From here, your trip could come to an end as you head back to Kigali from Nyungwe via the sleepy university town of Butare. While in Butare on your car ride up, make sure to stop for some famed ice cream at Nzozi Nziza.
While the activities listed above are definitely more than enough to fill a visit, there are still more things on offer! If you still have time left in Rwanda, head to Akagera National Park to see the newly imported lions and other interesting wildlife. Camp among giraffe, elephants, and various antelope, while enjoying some of the most expansive and stunning scenery in the region. You can either do self-contained camping, or stay at the Ruzizi Tented Lodge with the family. Regardless, you’ll have a fantastic stay, and maybe even spot one of the newly imported lions!
No matter which itinerary you plan (and please give us comments on ours!), your guests – parental or otherwise – will have a fantastic stay. Enjoy one of the best, and definitely one the most beautiful, countries in the world! Please pour out some Skol for us!