25 years after the genocide which devastated the hilly, wildlife-filled paradise of Rwanda, the country's capital is emerging as one of Africa's hippest destinations. Here's why the capital of Rwanda should be on your radar in 2019 and some of the top things to do in Kigali.
Rwanda was recently voted the world's ninth-safest country and Africa's safest country by the World Economic Forum. It's got one of the lowest crime rates of any African city – in Kigali, locals and tourists can happily stroll along the park-lined boulevards long after the sun has sunk beneath the distant hills. Heading further afield? The long-distance buses which depart from the coach station in the city centre are cheap, safe and reliable.
Things to do in Kigali
1. Understand more about the country's chequered history
Kigali's – and Rwanda's – history is a dark one, but a visit to the country's capital provides a fascinating insight into Rwanda's post-genocide recovery. Of course, reminders of the events of 1994 are everywhere. Many of the city's churches now double as memorials – thousands of people were massacred after fleeing to these buildings, in the mistaken belief that they would be safe there. Many locals believe the world turned its back on Rwanda during its darkest hours, which makes learning about this tragic chapter of its history even more important.
2. The art scene is thriving
Kigali's first art gallery, Ivuka Arts, opened in 2007, in the neighbourhood of Kacyiru. Today, there are almost 10 galleries in the city, including Yego Arts, where you'll find work by up-and-coming artists, as well as a packed calendar of events. Another favourite is the Niyo Art Gallery – artists who exhibit here agree to donate a portion of their profits to Niyo Cultural Center, where street kids can go to learn how to sing, drum and dance. Strangely enough, one of the best places to pick up some Rwandan art is the five-star Kigali Marriott in the city centre. The lobby is home to Go Kigali, a boutique specialising in local artwork.
3. Get a taste of the local love for cricket
You don't have to be a cricket fan to be appreciate the sport here. The city's beautiful new Gahanga Cricket Stadium, with its curved buildings inspired by Rwanda's hills (and a café sponsored by Yorkshire Tea), was unveiled in 2017. The former grounds were part of the École Technique Officielle complex, the scene of one of the genocide's worst massacres, so the move was an essential part of the city's healing process. Eric Dusingizimana, the captain of Rwanda's cricket team, raised money for the new grounds' construction by breaking the world record for spending the longest time batting (he lasted 51 hours, if you were wondering). Head to this striking sports venue to take in the view of Kigali from the grassy banks and to raise a tea-themed toast to this wonderful city.
4. Dip into Kigali's cafe culture
Moving on from tea... exploring the city's brilliant cafe culture is a must and one of the top things to do in Kigali. One of our favourite spots is INZORA rooftop café, which you'll find in the city centre, behind the Dutch Embassy. Everything – from the furniture to the coffee – is locally sourced, and customers are encouraged to bring reusable cups. Left yours at the hotel? Don't panic – the cafe's cups are compostable. It's worth coming here for the food as well – the spiced oat gooseberry cookies are legendary. We also love Question Coffee, where customers can sign up for coffee master classes, and Magda Café in the Kacyiru neighbourhood. Head here for freshly baked pastries and the best coffee in Kigali.
5. Enjoy the city's green spaces
Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills, and after a day pounding Kigali's steep streets you'll know why. You don't even have to leave the city to experience the country's green side – one of the best things to do in Kigali is wander its parks and gardens. You'll soon notice it's also one of Africa's cleanest cities, partly thanks to a ban on plastic bags. The city has fantastically diverse architecture, from historic buildings such as the Kandt House Museum, with its elegant stonework and rambling gardens, to more modern structures, like the illuminated, bubble-like Radisson Blu hotel. In recent years, the city's roads have also become less crowded, and this trend looks set to continue, partly due to the planned introduction of a government-funded e-bike scheme.
6. Find souvenirs with added meaning
Nyamirambo Women's Center, in the neighbourhood it's named after, is a great place to pick up colourful, locally made toys, ornaments and clothing. But it's so much more than a souvenir store – it was set up as a way of giving domestic abuse victims a source of income, and the profits go towards various good causes, including the adjacent library, where women can learn to read and write. The team behind Nyamirambo Women's Center also lead daily guided tours of the Nyamirambo neighbourhood – highlights include a visit to a fabric store and hair salon, and a traditional meal in a local home.
7. Use Kigali as a gateway to some of Rwanda's best attractions
The days when Kigali was seen merely as an entry point are long gone, but there's certainly a huge amount on offer for those who explore beyond the country beyond the capital. The good news is that some of the most exciting new attractions are close to Kigali. While Nyungwe Forest National Park, in the west of the country, remains a popular gorilla-spotting destination, the opening of Wilderness Safaris' new camp in Akagera National Park, 100 kilometres to the east of Kigali, has brought exception wildlife-spotting opportunities much closer to the city. Magashi, which opens this spring, will be a six-tent safari camp on the shores of Lake Rwanyakazinga. It will be the first luxury safari camp inside the park, which is home to buffalos, lions, leopards, elephants, giraffes, hyenas, zebra and over 500 species of birds.
8. Explore great accommodation options
Kigali has a wide range of independent hotels, in addition to properties owned by the world's biggest hotel chains. Check in to the recently opened Retreat boutique hotel and you'll find 11 stylish rooms and a beautiful spa inside a stunning building designed by Italian architects. The 99 rooms at the Onomo Hotel each have the feel of a New York loft, with minimalist decor and exposed brickwork. For a property with history, stay at the Hôtel des Mille Collines – the inspiration for the film Hotel Rwanda. In 1994, its European managers were evacuated to safety while local staff were left behind. Paul Rusesabagina was left in charge as house manager, and he's credited with saving thousands of people by sheltering them at the hotel.