Today (February 11, 2019): Top10 best things to see and do in Rwanda.
I recently enjoyed a week long holiday in Rwanda, one of the most astonishingly beautiful countries I’ve ever visited. Nicknamed ‘the land of thousands hills’, Rwanda lies within the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, bordered by Uganda to the north, Tanzania to the east, Burundi to the south, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west. Despite being one of Africa’s smallest nations, Rwanda has an incredible treasure trove of biodiversity. Mountains dominate the center and west of the country, while the east consists of savanna, plains and swamps. Although Rwanda is all too often associated with the horrible 1994 Genocide that resulted in the mass murder of one million people (20% of the country’s total population), the country has risen from the ash and managed to rebuild itself as one of Africa’s safest countries. And Rwanda is one its way to become one of the continent’s greatest travel destinations, with something for everyone to enjoy. Here’s my top 10 list of the best things to see & do in Rwanda. I used Uber Luxe Safaris as a tour operator for my own holiday in Rwanda, and I highly recommend them!
There is more information below the slide show. Think I missed one? Share your favorite attraction in Rwanda in the comments.
10. STAY AT ‘HOTEL RWANDA’
Hotel des Mille Collines – known all over the world as ‘Hotel Rwanda’ – is not a spectacular hotel but it’s a property with such an incredible and moving history that for many visitors to Rwanda, it is a must place to visit. Built and managed by Belgian airliner Sabena in 1973, Hotel des Mille Collines was known for two decades as the premier grand hotel of the country. When the 1994 Genocide ravaged the country, the hotel’s European managers were evacuated and control was given to local employee Paul Rusesabagina, who used the property as a shelter for about 2,000 fleeing Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Rusesabagina bribed the army with money and alcohol to protect the refugees and to obtain food and water. Due to the hotel’s high profile and Rusesabagina public efforts, the United Nations and foreign governments exerted pressure on the Rwandan government forces to ensure the safety of those trapped inside. This incredible story was later used as the basis of 2004 movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’, although the hotel does not actually appear in the film (it was largely shot in South Africa).
9. UNWIND AT LAKE KIVU
If you’re surprised that Rwanda has a beach – you’re not alone. Rubavu (also known as Gisenyi) is a waterfront town located on the northern shores of Lake Kivu, the country’s largest body of water which takes up about half of Rwanda’s western border. Only an hour away from Volcanoes National Park, Rubavu is a great way to unwind after trekking adventures. Rich colonial mansions, surrounded by lush tropical gardens fringe the lake shore. Visitors can enjoy a relaxing day strolling down the palm-tree fringed lakeside promenade, enjoy the sunshine on the sandy beach on the lakeshore, or take an energetic swim in the lakes cool waters. Rubavu also marks the beginning of the Congo Nile Trail, a tangled network of trails and roads (227 km or 140 mi in total) that follows the lake’s amorphous coastline all the way down to Rusizi near the border with Burundi. The magnificent landscape between Ruvabu and Rusizi is made up of rolling hills, emerald tea plantations and small fishing communities, offering cyclists and trekkers a glimpse of Rwandan rural life rarely experienced by most tourists.
8. LEARN ABOUT RWANDAN CULTURE AT BUTARE’S ETHNOGRAPHIC MUSEUM
Butare was the largest and most important city in Rwanda prior to 1965 when it lost out to more centrally located Kigali. Today, Butare is still considered the intellectual and cultural pulse of Rwanda. It is also an attractively compact and sedate town of shady avenues emanating from a main street lined with small hotels and breezy terrace restaurants. The most prominent attraction in Butare is the National Museum, which houses the finest ethnographic collection in East Africa. Seven galleries display historical, ethnographic, artistic and archaeological artefacts accompanied by visual aides, giving visitors a rich insight into the Rwandan culture. The cultural significance of Butare is further underlined by a visit to nearby Nyabisinu, formerly known as Nyanza, the traditional seat of Rwanda’s feudal monarchy. The impressive Royal Palace at Nyanza, a domed construction made entirely of traditional materials, has been painstakingly restored to its 19th century state and is now maintained as a museum.
7. TAKE A TOUR OF A TEA OR COFFEE PLANTATION
Rwanda produces some of the best quality teas and finest coffees in the world. Rwanda’s tea is renowned all over the globe, making it the country’s number one export. And its coffee is winning international competitions as well and sought after by companies like Starbucks. The country is perfectly fertile to grow both tea and coffee, especially along the Congo-Nile crest in the country’s west, because of the high altitude, the rich volcanic soil, sunny days and equatorial fog. There are several tea & coffee route experiences in the North and Western provinces. These tours explore the growing and production processes at major plantations, from picking, washing, selection and drying the leaves up until drinking your own tea and coffee. These tours are community based projects, so 100% of the profit from these tours goes towards the local population.
6. CLIMB A VOLCANO
The “Parc National de Volcans” (or PNV as it’s known by locals) protects the Rwandan portion of the Virunga Moutains, a transfrontier conservation area that includes protected areas in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This corner in northwestern Rwanda is a breath-taking unforgettable place where culture, adventure and conservation intersect, only a short two hour drive from Rwanda’s capital of Kigali. Home to five majestic volcanos, the park is covered in thick rainforest and bamboo. The area is known around the world for being home to the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas in their natural habitat, and although visited predominantly for the mountain gorillas (more on that below), the dramatic landscape also offers thrilling hiking. There is a chance to climb to Mount Bisoke’s beautiful crater lake or even undertake a two day trek to the summit of Mount Karisimbi (4507 m or 14787 ft), Rwanda’s highest point and Africa’s 5th highest mountain.
5. HIKE TO DIAN FOSSEY’S TOMB
Dian Fossey – whose story is told in the movie ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ – was an American scientist, who came to Rwanda to study the gorillas. She started a war against poaching to save these majestic creatures from extinction but was eventually brutally murdered in her cabin, an event which shocked the world. Theories about her murder are varied but have never been fully resolved. For anyone interested in Dian Fossey’s personal story, I highly recommend the trek to her grave at Karisoke scientific base. This base was established by Dian Fossey inside Volcanoes National Park in the saddle area between Mt Visoke and Mt Karisimbi (from which the name Karisoke is derived). The camp site stands at an altitude of around 3000m (over 9000 ft) and was abandoned during the unrest of the 1990s. All that remains today is the graveyard where Dian Fossey and several of her favorite gorillas are buried. The trek to the Karisoke research camp takes around 4 hours and takes you through some of the most beautiful stretches of Hagenia – Hypericum forest in the the park.
4. GO ON SAFARI IN AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK
Akagera National Park, named after the River Kagera, is located in northeastern Rwanda, along the country’s border with Tanzania, about two hours by car from the capital Kigali. Founded in 1934 by the Belgian government (who at that time occupied Rwanda), the park’s spectacular scenery is dominated by savannah, papyrus swamps, small lakes and rolling hills. Following years of recovery after the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, Akagera is now a safe home again for Africa’s Big Five – lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo – and other incredibly diverse wildlife. It’s also recognized as one of the best spots for bird-watching in Rwanda. Days here are spent with game drives in search of the Big Five and boat safaris on the lakes among many hippopotamus and nile crocodiles. The park’s large surface area and sparse traffic leaves one with the unique feeling of being virtually alone in the wilderness — a feeling that is difficult to come by in the more popular safari parks in Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa.
- Recommended hotel: Magashi Camp by Wilderness Safaris
3. OBSERVE CHIMPANZEES IN THE WILD
Deep in the southwest within the Albertine Rift Area is Nyungwe National Park, home to the region’s largest and oldest remaining patch of mountain rainforest, and protecting a number of ecosystems (e.g. rainforest, bamboo, grasslands, swamps and bog habitats). Nyungwe’s biodiversity is astonishing by African standards: more than 300 species of birds (with 24 endemic to the African highlands) are found within the national park, in addition to more than 140 species of orchids, reptiles and butterflies. However, Nyungwe is mainly known as the best place in the world to observe chimps in their natural habitat. Dashing at high speed through the flora, hooting and clanging, it truly is an exhilarating experience to encounter chimpanzees playing, wild and free. Most active in the morning, an early rise is required for maximum viewing opportunity, with expert trackers guiding you on a deep forest trail, while you learn about these fascinating creatures and the enchanting forest they call home.
- Recommend hotel: One&Only Nyungwe House
2. VISIT THE KIGALI GENOCIDE MEMORIAL
The Kigali Genocide Memorial commemorates the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, the most brutal and efficient killing spree in human history, organized by unworthy political leaders of that time. Over the course of approximately 100 days, more than a million people – sons and daughters of Rwanda – were killed. Sparker by the murder of president Habyarimana when his plane was shot down, the country descended into madness, with civilians being encouraged by the media to rape, maim and kill their neighbors, friends and family members. The international community was capable of intervening but unwilling to act. Today, the people of Rwanda embrace peace and reconciliation and are deeply committed to eradicate ethnic, regional and any other forms of division. The testimonials at Kigali’s Genocide Memorial are deeply moving accounts standing in memory of the brutality and lost lives. More than 250,000 victims of the Genocide are interred here.
1. COME FACE TO FACE WITH A MOUNTAIN GORILLA
Tracking the endangered mountain gorilla through the mysterious intimacy of the rainforest, alive with the calls of colorful birds and chattering of the rare golden monkey, is one of the most unique, memorable and life-changing travel adventures one can undertake in a lifetime. Gorilla trekking takes place from Volcanoes National Park’s headquarters where you are allocated to one of the twelve habituated gorilla groups. Only eight visitors are allowed per gorilla group each day, and to minimize possible transmission of human diseases, visitors are asked to maintain a distance of 7m (about 22 feet) from the gorillas. Typically, tracking can take from one to ten hours and requires some level of fitness since the hikes goes through dense jungle vegetation up steep and often muddy slopes. A maximum of 80 gorilla permits are issued per day and during high season these sell out far in advance, so it is therefore important to book gorilla permits as early as possible (USD$ 1500 per person per trek).
- Recommended hotel: Bisate Lodge by Wilderness Safaris
- Review: read a review of my gorilla trekking here.