I didn’t know what to expect from Rwanda, but I’d heard so many great things about Kigali and the country in general that I was thrilled to fit in a visit last month. My partner and I spent 3 nights and 3 days in Kigali and had a wonderful and relaxing time.
We’d spent the few days prior on Lake Bunyoni in Uganda where we were pretty active so we didn’t push ourselves too much, enjoying some of the luxuries of one of Africa’s cleanest cities. Here’s our itinerary for our 3 days in Kigali, plus some recommendations we picked up along the way but couldn’t visit ourselves.
Day 1 in Kigali – Taxis and Vegan Pho
We arrived in Kigali at the Jaguar bus station, about 2.5 hours after our bus left from Kabale, Uganda. Other than a quick stop at the border crossing, it was a very uneventful ride – my favorite kind of transit!
We’d booked an Airbnb on the other side of the city from the bus station, but there were tons of taxis around and we found a ride with no issue. Our driver called our Airbnb host for instructions and off we went! The only confusion was a moment where we thought he quoted us 80,000 RFW for our ride (about $75 USD) but realized he was quoting 8,000 RFW which was much more reasonable.
We checked in to our Airbnb – a pleasant enough spot off the highway with great views of the city, but nothing special. Then we set out in search of dinner, ravenous since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast that morning.
Within a 15 minute walk, there were several highly reviewed restaurants. We opted for one called Asian Kitchen, primarily serving Thai and Vietnamese food. I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of vegan offerings, and I ordered the vegan pho, craving a comfort soup as I was feeling a bit under the weather.
We were pretty exhausted by this time after a long day of travel, and since we had plans to be at our basket weaving course the next morning at 9, we settled in for bed at a reasonable time and bypassed the night life.
Day 2 in Kigali – Umuganda Day, “Hotel Rwanda” and Basket Weaving
We woke up early planning to grab breakfast somewhere before our 9 am class across town. After living in Kampala for a few months, we were accustomed to boda bodas (motorbikes) offering you a ride at every turn, and thought we’d find the same here in Kigali. We were very surprised to find that nobody would stop for us, and the few who did wouldn’t agree to give us a ride when they saw we needed to go across town!
After ten minutes or so of wandering, we asked some locals what was going on and they informed us it was cleaning day. Nothing was open and no rides were supposed to be given until cleaning day was done, around noon.
A bit frustrated and still unclear on what exactly was going on, I sent off an email to our course instructors letting them know we couldn’t figure out how to get across town. (It was 6 kilometers away and we would be majorly late even if we tried to walk). Then, in spite of the warning that nothing was open, we optimistically searched for a breakfast place. It was about 8:30 am at that point, and noon seemed a long way off for a meal.
Two hours of walking later – no exaggeration – we hadn’t found a single place open to even buy a snack. We had, however, met several other locals who explained that it was Umuganda day, cleaning day, or variations of the answer. Hungry and sunburnt (already) by this point, we resigned to rest and freshen up at the Airbnb, find a place for breakfast once it opened, and catch our breath.
Christian spent the next hour researching the best brunch places in Kigali and was able to confirm that the Hotel des Mille Collines would be open at noon. I also received an email back from our course instructor reminding us that they’d rescheduled our class for 2pm because of Umuguanda day. Whoopsies.
After killing a few hours, we were finally able to hail two boda boda drivers to take us to brunch. In Kigali, the traffic and safety laws are much more strictly enforced and there can only be two people per motorcycle, and each rider must wear a helmet. (In Kampala, you can fit three to four on a boda boda and if anyone is wearing a helmet, it’s usually only the driver).
We finally made it to brunch and had an indulgent meal with coffee, a rum and juice, and even a hiatus from my typically vegetarian diet with some fish brochettes.
Later, I learned this was the hotel after which the movie Hotel Rwanda was made, and a historic site where over 1000 people were saved during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
After we finished lunch, we were off to our basket weaving course at the Nyamirambo Women’s Center. We joined seven other guests and three instructors to learn about the traditional Rwandan weaving for the afternoon! We were informed that the very teeny baskets we saw in front of us took days to weave and in the hopes we could create a finish product, we’d instead be making earrings or a necklace (which I was pleased about.)
Several hours later, and a lot of assistance from our instructors, Christian had a necklace and I had a set of earrings that I have worn frequently since the class.
We were already worn out from the several hours of walking that morning, and our intensive efforts in the weaving class wore us out even further. Hungry again, we found another restaurant called Heaven which offered nice views of the city, and we settled in for dinner and drinks. It was a beautiful spot and the cocktails were creative and delicious, so we spent most of the evening there before catching a taxi home and going to bed.
What is Umuganda Day?
Umuganda Day is the last Saturday of every month in Rwanda, the national day of service. You’ll find people sweeping the streets, landscaping around their yards, or participating in other acts of service to improve the city. It’s also a time when school-aged students learn about the Rwandan Genocide and reconciliation efforts since it ended.
I absolutely loved the concept once we realized what was going on and I think it would be something every country would benefit from. You can tell that it makes a difference – Kigali is one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever seen!
There’s a lot more nuance to it than I’ve described and NPR does a nice job in this article explaining the pros and cons, and history, of Umuganda Day.
Day 3 in Kigali: The Rwanda Genocide Memorial and Museum
We woke early again expecting to have a cooking course with the Nyambiro Women’s Center, this time certainl we had the schedule right with our 9 am appointment! We stopped at a cafe called the Belgium Patisserie for pastries and coffee before we arrived at the center.
Somehow though, there had been a problem with the booking through I-LikeLocal and there wasn’t a class scheduled for the day. We didn’t find out until we got there, but the awesome staff gave us copies of the recipe book from the course anyway and apologetically refunded our money. We decided to take advantage of the extra hours and head straight to the Genocide Memorial and Museum so we could take our time.
We took a boda boda to the museum and joined a group for the introductory video. The ten or fifteen minute intro provided the basic overview of the genocide and some harrowing quotes from survivors that left me quite emotional to begin with. After the video, we were escorted to the next building where the four main exhibits were housed.
Over the next two hours, we worked our way through the museum taking in all the info, personal accounts from survivors, and learning about how Rwanda has tried to recovery from the tragic events of 1994. There was an entire exhibit on genocides around the world throughout history, which I appreciated for a greater context of how genocide can take place anywhere in the world.
It was a heavy morning but the museum was extremely well done. I felt like I learned so much, both about Rwanda’s genocide and those from the past 100 years in Europe, Asia, and Africa. I left with a curiosity to learn more about how things like this are able to happen, and a deep appreciation for all that Rwanda has overcome in the past 20 some years to rebuild their country. With the genocide being so recent, I was struck by how the majority of the country’s citizens we met were likely to have experienced the genocide personally to some degree.
The trauma Rwanda faced is far from healed, but the country has made huge strides toward healing and reconciliation. Umuganda day is one of the ways they’ve addressed this.
In this itinerary post, I can’t do justice to the intensity of the museum or the impressive lengths Rwanda has gone to repair itself since, and I won’t try. But I think this was an incredibly important stop on our trip and I encourage everyone to visit and read about the history if you visit Rwanda.
After the museum, we went back to Heaven for a buffet brunch. We spent most of the afternoon leisurely eating and talking about all we had seen and learned that morning. Beyond the history, we were blown away by Kigali in general – the infrastructure (great sidewalks and street lights everywhere); the safety (traffic laws and helmet requirements); their eco-initiatives (no plastic bags, efforts to transition their buses to electric).
Kigali is leaps and bounds ahead of so many cities in so many regards, both throughout Africa and throughout the world. It was such a contrast to Kampala, which I also love dearly but definitely think is behind in many of those same areas.
I’ve heard people comment that Kigali is a great place for novice travelers to start in Africa, and after having traveled through Addis Ababa, Kampala, Jinja, Marrakech, and Fez, I’d have to agree. I’m eager to return some day with a bit more energy and awareness of the monthly holidays (if you can call Umuganda Day a holiday) to see some of the other sights.
Other Things to Do in Kigali
If you spent less time eating and resting than we did, I’m sure you could fit in even more sight seeing. Some things I’d like to do on a return trip include:
City Walking Tour – available through Nyamirambo Tours
Actually doing the cooking class through Nyamirambo Tours
Visiting the Kabaka’s palace
Hitting up the nightlife
Exploring the coffee scene
Where to Stay in Kigali, Rwanda
If you fancy a luxury stay in Hotel des Mille Collines, the inspiration for the film “Hotel Rwanda”, prices will run $150-300 a night.
Another great option and slightly cheaper option is Heaven Restaurant & Boutique Hotel (where we ate twice). A stay will cost you between $100-$200 a night on the weekend, depending on your room. Both of these are pretty centrally located to the main sights in Kigali so they’re super convenient for exploring the city.