Rwanda’s Innovative Capital Is Becoming the Creative Center of Africa

The must-see features a booming arts scene and award-winning restaurants.

There's no denying that mountain gorillas are Rwanda's most well-known attraction. After all, who could resist cosplaying as naturalist Dian Fossey and frolicking with a family of primates in the mist? But in rushing to the jungles of Volcanoes National Park, many travelers miss out on another one of the country's treasures: Kigali. A thriving and rapidly evolving cultural center that’s often referred to as the "Singapore of Africa," Rwanda's capital boasts a booming arts scene, eco-luxury hotels, trendy fashion boutiques, urban green spaces, and some of the best restaurants on the continent.

In 2015, the country’s government launched an initiative called Made in Rwanda, which encouraged citizens to shop locally and banned the import of donated clothing bundles (mitumba.) Besides bolstering the local textile industry, officials there also prioritized attracting and retaining young talent, as well as increasing the population's tech literacy. As a result, a new generation of Rwandans were able to launch their own creative projects, which helps explain a recent explosion of innovative attractions, from award-winning pan-African restaurants to sustainable jewelry shops—all of which prove that Rwanda is so much more than its tragic past.

Here’s everything you need to plan a trip to one of Africa’s friendliest and most cutting-edge cities.

a woman selling dried beans at kimironko market in kigali
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Best places for first timers to visit in Kigali

To better understand the people of Rwanda and Kigali, it’s essential to begin your visit at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Here, you’ll learn about the history of Rwanda, its colonization, and other key factors that set the stage for the 1994 massacres of Tutsis and their allies. While the experience is heart-wrenching, you’ll come away with a greater appreciation for how far this resilient country has come in just a few decades.

Next, get your bearings during a guided tour of the city with Choose Kigali. You can tailor your route according to your personal interests—art, food, and fashion are popular requests—but be sure to buzz past the city’s architectural highlights, including the Kandt House Museum, home to the first colonial governor of Rwanda, and the Kigali Convention Centre, where the design was inspired by the thatched, beehive-shaped King’s Palace in the former capital of Nyanza.

No visit to Kigali is complete without browsing through the bustling rows of produce, fabric, meat, household goods, shoes, and more at Kimironko Market. (If you’re looking for it, there’s probably someone selling it.) Buy some kaleidoscopic kitenge fabric before making your way over to a skilled tailor who can whip up a custom purse or top for you in no time.

man pouring syrup over pancakes at poivre noir in kigali
Poivre Noir

Where to eat and drink like a local in Kigali

Discover the diversity of pan-African cuisine

Kigali is quickly becoming one of Africa’s great food cities. Leading the movement is chef Dieuveil Malonga, who visited 48 of Africa’s 54 countries in order to better understand the continent’s diverse heritage and ingredients. His restaurant Meza Malonga, serves up innovative dishes such as plantain-stuffed ravioli and mango sorbet topped with sweet potato foam. It recently earned a nod from the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

For another spin on pan-African cooking, stop by Nyurah, which features Rwanda’s freshest seasonal ingredients, including crayfish from the Twin Lakes and Rwandan turmeric polenta (kaunga). Meanwhile, Repub Lounge, a long-time local favorite, offers live music alongside East African comfort food like coconut curry fish and sizzling meat skewers (brochettes).

A former Belgian colony and close ally of France until the early '90s, Rwanda continues to host a number of top restaurants with European influences. Dine on Tanzanian chocolate mousse with speculoos at Poivre Noir and herb-crusted tilapia at Le Petit Chalet.

Wake up with a cup of Rwanda’s finest

Gifted with ideal coffee growing conditions including regular rainfall, volcanic soil, and high altitude, Rwanda is gaining a reputation for its flavorful brew. Go by one of the chic cafes in downtown Kigali, like Kivu Noir or Rubia Coffee Roasters, for a pick-me-up. Next, head out to Question Coffee's nearby farm in Kayonza to pick coffee cherries and make your very own coffee blend—the ultimate foodie souvenir. Run by women farmers, Question Coffee also operates a training center in Kigali where Rwandans can develop their skills in coffee roasting, tasting, preparation, and service. “It’s so much more than coffee,” says Tamsyn Fricker, director and co-founder of Travel Artistry Africa.

a gorilla sculpture surrounded by walls of paintings in the inema arts center in kigali, rwanda
Rwanda_SCORA X-Change 2022

Museums, art, and culture in Kigali

Rwanda’s design heritage runs deep, as does the country’s love of bright colors and ecstatically joyful prints. Now, thanks in part to the Made in Rwanda initiative, the arts scene is experiencing a boost of talent.

“Kigali is a growing and vibrant city,” says Emmanuel Nkuranga. A self‐taught painter and a mixed‐media expressionist, Nkuranga is also the founder of tour company Choose Kigali as well as Inema Arts Center, the largest art center in Rwanda. For those traveling to Rwanda, he recommends MADS Kigali, a contemporary gallery that offers immersive arts classes, as well as Niyo Arts Center, which currently hosts 17 artists in residence and donates 40% of its profits to women and children living in poverty.

More and more, tourists are finding the chance to get hands-on through the likes of wheel classes at Laini Studio, founded by Winnie Kalisa. A talented ceramicist drawing on traditional Rwandan pottery techniques and modern design aesthetics, Kalisa currently operates a second studio at the ultra-luxe Singita Kwitonda Lodge in Volcanoes National Park. Another popular option? Basket weaving at Azizi Life, which supports the craft work of Rwandan artisans.

Kigali’s fashion scene is also enjoying a full-blown renaissance, with designers like Linda Mukangoga of Haute Baso, Matthew “Tayo” Rugamba of House of Tayo, and Joselyne Umutoniwase of Rwanda Clothing blending Rwandan heritage and locally made fabrics with contemporary tailoring and bold styling. For jewelry to match your new look, don’t forget to stop by K’tsobe Workshop and Abraham Konga, where you'll find metals studded with natural materials like seeds, cow horn, and shells.

a rwandan village dwarfed by a massive volcanic mountain in the background
Edwin Remsberg/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Nature and outdoor experiences in Kigali

Lush, rolling, and vibrant, the beauty of Kigali’s landscape is such that you’ll never feel far from nature, even in a city of 1,288,000 people. To edge a bit closer to Rwanda’s wild side, hike up Mount Kigali in the southwest corner of town. Enjoy panoramic views from the top and break up the three-hour trek at charming cafes along the way. (Be sure to keep any snacks far away from the mischievous vervet monkeys; they aren’t so cute when they’re trying to rip a bag of potato chips from your hand.)

Because Rwanda is comparable in size to Massachusetts, many of the country’s top outdoor experiences, such as gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park, going on safari in Akagera National Park, and canoeing and birdwatching at the Twin Lakes are technically doable as day trips. Just remember that you’ll need to be there at 7 am for your gorilla trek briefing—an awfully early wakeup call even with an extra-large mug of Rwandan coffee.

For wildlife spotting without leaving Kigali, Alissa Ruxin, owner of The Retreat by Heaven, suggests checking out the new Nyandungu Eco-Park. “Thirty percent of Kigali’s Central Valley (which used to house factories) has been restored into the original wetland and opened to the public with lovely walking and biking paths and incredible bird watching right in the heart of the city,” she says.

chaise lounge chairs surrounding a pool surrounded by lush vegetation
The Retreat

Kigali hotels and other great places to stay

Immerse yourself in an urban oasis at The Retreat by Heaven, Kigali’s first eco-friendly hotel outfitted with solar electricity, organic toiletries, and locally crafted furniture sourced from a sustainable Tanzanian teak farm. Located within walking distance of the city center, The Retreat boasts many of the indulgences you’d expect from a larger resort, including a saltwater swimming pool, a state-of-the-art gym, a full-service spa, an outdoor yoga deck, a meditation room, and two of Kigali’s top-rated dining spots, Fusion Restaurant and Heaven Restaurant. Guests even get to pick from a range of complimentary onsite cultural activities, such as Rwandan cooking classes and banana winemaking (a great workout for arm day).

If you’re on a budget, Heaven, The Retreat’s more modest little sister, provides access to many of the same perks at half the price. In recent years, Kigali has seen a spate of hotel openings, including the new M Hotel, equipped with a rooftop pool overlooking the city skyline, and The Hut Boutique Hotel, beloved by locals for its buzzing restaurant and lounge.

colorful homes on a hillside in kigali, rwanda
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What to know before you go to Kigali

Best times of the year to visit

The most popular time to visit Kigali is during the long dry season from June to September. If you would like to go gorilla trekking, it’s best to avoid the wettest months, because the muddy jungle can become unnavigable. However, it’s certainly possible—and even advantageous—to travel throughout Rwanda at other times during the year. Come during the rainy season if you plan to visit Nyungwe’s habituated chimpanzee troops, which laze about during light showers, or go on safari in a freshly lush Akagera National Park.

You may also want to consider the timing of annual celebrations and events: Liberation Day, which marks the end of the Rwandan Genocide, and the Rwanda Film Festival are both held in July. Kwita Izina, a naming ceremony for the gorillas born in Volcanoes National Park, happens each September.

Kigali time zone

Kigali falls under Central Africa Time (CAT). This is seven hours ahead of New York’s Eastern Standard Time and 10 hours ahead of California’s Pacific Standard Time.

The weather and climate

Kigali receives a good amount of rain throughout the year, with heavy storms from March to May. June to September brings the long dry season—and with it—greater numbers of tourists. The rain returns for a shorter wet season from October to November, followed by a short dry season from December to February. Thanks to its proximity to the equator and high elevation, Kigali has a relatively stable, mild climate, with daytime highs ranging between 77 degrees Fahrenheit to 81 degrees Fahrenheit and nightly lows between 57 degrees Fahrenheit to 61 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.

Languages

More than 99% of Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda, the national language. The country has three other official languages: French, English, and Swahili. In Kigali, many Rwandans speak English.

How to get around

In Kigali, it’s most common to travel by taxi or to hire a car with a driver. (Rates are very reasonable, thanks to the strong dollar.) Motorcycle taxis (boda boda) are also popular, although they’re typically not covered by insurance. The city also has plenty of safe, clean paths for walking and cycling around its neighborhoods. But be forewarned—Rwanda is called the Land of a Thousand Hills for a reason.

The currency

Kigali uses the Rwandan franc (RWF), although American money is widely accepted. As of January 2024, a US dollar exchanges for R₣1,270.87 (RWF). Plan to pay for local services in cash.

International adapters you’ll need

Rwanda uses the C type plug found in most European countries, marked by two rounded prongs. Occasionally you’ll find a J type plug which is similar to C, except that it has the addition of a third grounding pin.

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Alexandra Owens is a travel journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including National Geographic, BBC Travel, Food & Wine, and more. Prior to launching her freelance career in 2020, Alexandra worked as an editor at Allure, Sotheby's, and The Economist. When she’s not writing, she’s probably planning her next trip—and crossing her fingers that it involves scuba diving. Follow her adventures on Instagram or at her website.