Kigali is a beautifully modern city in the heart of East Africa that lures visitors in with lush rolling hills, breathtaking views and the promise of a hassle-free trip. There are a million reasons to visit and fall in love with the Rwandan capital, so be prepared to extend your stay by a couple of days, if only to spend the weekend with the new friends you’ll definitely make during your stay…
In this brief guide, we share some insider tips on where to stay, what to do, what to eat, and generally what to expect during your visit to Kigali. We’ve tried everything ourselves with the help of the Rwandan aKoma team who guided us to dive right into the local lifestyle.
Arriving and leaving Kigali
Entry into Kigali is either by road or by air. If you fly, you’ll land at Kigali International Airport located in the suburb of Kanombe, a 15- to 30-minute drive to the city center, depending on traffic and your chosen mode of transport.
If arriving by road, one’s experience at the border is rather relaxed and friendly. Prepare for long lines through customs, depending on the time of day. In both cases, you can expect to be asked a couple of questions, including your profession and the contact details of your accommodation. Nothing too cumbersome though. Also remember that Rwanda is a plastic-free country so any plastic bags are to be discarded prior to entry into the country, as bags are systematically searched at the border. That’s something to think about when you’re packing...
And a bonus - citizens of Uganda or Kenya are guaranteed entry without a visa thanks to the free Interstate pass - pretty neat!!
How to get around in Kigali
Its small size and affordable transport options are some of Kigali's perks. For 500 to 1,000 francs on a motorcycle taxi and anything from 8,000 francs in a regular taxi, you can cross the city without wasting any time!
Taxis are readily available at International Arrivals at the airport, and for about 8-12,000 francs, you can get direct and quick access to the city center.
Avid walkers will find Kigali a beautiful retreat as well-managed pavements are present in every part of the city. When the hills get the better of your stamina, hop on a motorcycle taxi (moto) and you're off to your next stop within a few minutes – without fearing for your life, it should be added, since drivers obey traffic rules.
You're likely to use motorcycles at some point during the course of the day, so smart wardrobe choices will be required: leave the tight skirts at home (way too awkward, trust our experience here) and pack scarves and a light jacket instead.
Where to stay in Kigali
We stayed at AirBnBs during our week-long stay and found it a good, affordable option. There are many properties to choose from in Kigali, with rates ranging from 10,000 to 50,000 francs per night, for 1-3 bedrooms. Most hosts will provide affordable transportation to and from the airport or bus station (Nyabugogo).
The choice of neighbourhood shouldn’t be a major concern, given that the city is very safe and that you can get anywhere in about 20 minutes by motorcycle.
There are plenty of exchange bureaus that will change all East African currencies as well as USD and Euros. Kenyans are likely to find a branch of their favourite bank (KCB, Equity and Ecobank all have a presence in Kigali) but beware of ATMs...charges for international withdrawals may surprise you – not in a good way – and network failures are common. Better rely on cash or Mpesa while in Kigali!
In case of a cash emergency, the usual suspects Western Union and Dahabshiil are in operation.
As in other East African cities, Visa cards are widely accepted at high end establishments.
What to Do and See
Kigali Genocide Memorial- It's a heart-wrenching experience to retrace the history of the 1994 genocide but it is also a chance to honour those who lost their lives during the genocide.….
The Kigali Public Library is an impressive building with great views. It is located behind the US Embassy. You can also work over a cup of coffee at the beautiful rooftop Shokola cafe, Innovation Space.
Kigali Convention Centre- This ultra modern facility comprises a five-star hotel with 292 rooms, a conference hall that can host thousands of people, several other meeting rooms, as well as an office park. The entrance is free for anyone interested in checking it out. The building is quite impressive at night when it lights up with the colours of the Rwandan flag.
Visit Art Galleries- Kigali is home to some talented artists and we had the chance to see firsthand some of their works. Ivuka and Inema art galleries are some of the impressive ones in the city.
A lot of the tourist fare sold at Kimironko Market and in town strongly resembles what you'd find at a Maasai market in Nairobi, only at a markup. The most unique souvenirs come in the form of weaved handicrafts such as baskets and table sets. A smaller market to visit is Caplaki Market where handmade jewelry and wooden carvings can be found.At the higher end of the scale, it's worth checking out local jewelry creators (Inzuki) and fashion houses (Haute Baso).
Food and drinkThere is virtually no street food in Kigali. In fact, eating off the street is frowned upon, but you will be spoilt for choice otherwise. Just don't expect to spend less than an hour at a restaurant, unless it has a buffet option. Eating out is an experience best enjoyed with time on your hands and friends by your side ;)
Here are some of the delicacies you can sample in Kigali
- Lifaa: a chapati wrap served with chips.
- Isombe sauce: a local dish made of cassava leaves cooked with ground peanuts, sometimes completemented by bits of fish or meat. It's a hit or miss: you either love it or hate it. Fans of green veggies are strongly encouraged to give it a try!
- Akabanga: for a typical Rwandan flavour, add a few drops of this deliciously spicy oil to any meal. You may become addicted so don't say we didn't warn you.
It can be challenging if you do not speak French and Kinyarwanda. But most Rwandans understand English and a bit of Swahili so it shouldn’t be too hard.
Enjoy Kigali, we did!
Text: Zeddy Kosgei and Laila Le Guen
Photos: Kangai Mwiti
A big heartfelt thank you to the Amplify Rwanda cohort that showed us a good time in their city and shared helpful tips in spite of their busy lives. And as always, an extra-large thank you to aKoma.