36 Hours in Kigali, Rwanda’s gleaming capital

Kigali, Rwanda’s gleaming capital, pulses with African charm. About 23 years after the horrific genocide in Rwanda, Kigali has reclaimed its narrative and emerged as a proud and progressive city, buzzing with tech hubs, creative start-ups and cafes serving some of the best coffee in East Africa.

But despite its rolling green hills, sparkling clean streets and energetic young arts scene, Kigali still struggles to attract tourists — most visitors to Rwanda pass right through on their way to jungles and safaris, making now an ideal time to visit before the world catches wind of all Kigali has to offer.

With low crime, a vibrant dining scene and friendly locals, this is a city ready for its close-up. Hire a driver for the day, or live more dangerously and jump on one of the ubiquitous motorbike taxis — however you choose to explore, you’ll find an optimistic city eager to welcome you.

Friday 1) 3 P.M. A Somber Start

To embrace the Kigali of today, you must understand its complicated past. In 1994, 800,000 ethnic Tutsi citizens were systematically murdered by their Hutu neighbors over the course of 100 unspeakably brutal days.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial opened in 2004 and serves as both a museum tracing the events of the genocide, as well as a mass burial ground for more than 250,000 victims. The main exhibition details the colonial history of Rwanda and the factors that led up to the slaughter.

A second exhibition focuses specifically on children who were murdered in the genocide, while a third examines other mass atrocities, including the Nazi Holocaust and the genocides in Cambodia and Armenia.

Give yourself at least 90 minutes to make your way through the exhibits, then head outdoors to the peaceful memorial gardens to pay respect to the victims buried here and process what you’ve just seen. (Audio tours cost 12,000 Rwandan francs, or about $14.)

2) 5:30 P.M. Up on the Roof

Rwanda is known as the land of one thousand hills, and at sunset, Kigali is truly the jewel in its bucolic crown. At Inzora Rooftop Cafe, a charming coffee shop tucked inside the Ikirezi bookshop, Friday night is cocktail night and custom tipples, featuring gin, hibiscus and jasmine are mixed for customers on the sky-high patio.

Pull up a perch and savor the last streaks of daylight; if you’re feeling peckish, Inzora also offers tasting boards featuring Rwandan cheese, jam and house-made pickles (cocktails, 6,000 francs; wine 4,000 francs; tasting board 8,000 francs).

3) 8 P.M. Bistro à Go-go

Kigali is enjoying a restaurant boom, and there’s perhaps no better spot to sample the creative fusion that marks the city’s food scene than Poivre Noir.

The menu at this superb bistro combines French and Belgian influences with Rwandan ingredients; standouts include pork filet mignon sautéed with tagliatelle and mustard cream (12,500 francs), and a knockout burger of Rwandan beef served on a homemade toasted English muffin (8,500 francs). Save room for dessert — both the coffee liquor chocolate mousse and the Belgian cuberdon ice cream, based on the cone-shaped, berry-flavored gummy Belgian candy have a cult following.

9 A.M. Coffee Talk

Rwanda’s hills, volcanic soil and temperate climate make it ideal for growing coffee, but while the world loves Rwandan java, most locals never touch the stuff. A handful of new fair-trade coffee shops are slowly changing that.

At Question Coffee, beans grown by women farmers are roasted in-house by smiling baristas. Pair a creamy cortado (2,500 francs) with a cinnamon-dusted pretzel (1,000 francs), baked down the road at The Women’s Bakery, and delivered fresh each morning.

5) 10 A.M. In the Heights

At the foot of Mount Kigali — the highest of Kigali’s hills, with an elevation of more than 6,000 feet — sits Nyamirambo, one of Kigali’s most diverse districts.

Early risers can enjoy panoramic views of the city after scaling the mountain’s summit (start at the Sun City Hotel and then head straight up), but those who prefer a later start should head directly to the Nyamirambo Women’s Center, an N.G.O. combating gender-based violence through the power of needle and thread.

The center houses a vibrant sewing shop where local seamstresses transform colorful kitenge — the bright, batik-printed cotton fabrics ubiquitous across East Africa — into dazzling souvenirs, and it also offers a lively walking tour every day at 10 a.m. that takes visitors into Kigali neighborhood life.

Tours run two and a half hours and are offered daily; stops include a milk bar, a women’s hair salon and a secondhand clothing market (15,000 francs; call ahead).

6) 1 P.M. The Big Fish

Rwanda is a landlocked nation, but its freshwater Lake Kivu keeps fishermen in brisk business. At lunchtime, make your way to The Green Corner, a no-frills Nyamirambo institution, for “The Big Fish,” a mouthwatering, slow-roasted whole tilapia that you eat with your hands.

Pull up a plastic chair, order a round of Mutzig beers with your fish (beers 1,200 francs; fish 10,000 to 15,000 francs, depending on size) and relax — it can take an hour for your food to appear, but you won’t regret the wait.

7) 4 P.M. Frame of Mind

Kigali is filled with interesting art galleries, but none are quite so vibrant — or have such an endearing back story — as Niyo Art Gallery. A humble Rwandan home that has been transformed into a small, colorful museum, Niyo features local artists who have agreed to split their profits with the Niyo Cultural Center, which protects and educates more than 100 Kigali street children and also offers them training in traditional music, drumming and dance.

8) 6 P.M. Hotel Rwanda

In 1994, when Paul Rusesabagina sheltered hundreds of Tutsi refugees within its four-star walls, the Hotel des Mille Collines was the last word in Kigali luxury. Today, the rooms of the real-life Hotel Rwanda are a bit worse for wear, but downstairs at the enchanting poolside bar, the allure remains.

Order a drink and make a toast to Rwandan history: At twilight, it is immensely pleasant to sip something cold and watch the city light up below.

9) 8 P.M. Ready, Set, Brochette

Rwandans can’t get enough of the brochette — skewered cubes of grilled savory meat or fish. To sink your teeth into some of the best brochettes in Kigali, head to the festive Repub Lounge, where there’s live music, flowing carafes of wine and a striking view of Kigali’s twinkling lights from the patio.

For hungry groups, the African-style house specialty — in which the kitchen selects 12 dishes for sharing — is an unbeatable deal (brochettes, 7,000 francs; house specialty, 16,000 francs per person).

10) 11 P.M. Go Underground

Kigali isn’t exactly known for its party scene, but there are a number of rollicking dance clubs and nightspots if you know where to look. One of the best, Papyrus, sits within stumbling distance of Repub Lounge. Upstairs, Papyrus is a restaurant, bakery and lounge, but in the basement, it’s a sweaty, full-volume disco that only really gets going after the clock strikes midnight (cover charge, 2,000 francs).

Sunday 11) 10 A.M. Heaven on Earth

At Heaven, a delightful expat-run restaurant and hotel, the weekend brunch buffet is sacrosanct. For traditional Sunday morning dishes with an African twist, get your fill of buttermilk pancakes with mango and plum; made-to-order omelets with Gouda, peppers and dodo (a hardy leafy green); and a full range of sweet and savory crepes (adults 11,500 francs; children 7,500 francs).

12) 12 P.M. Let’s Talk Shop

Kigali overflows with souvenir stalls, but the quality can be questionable, and many items on offer are actually not made in the country.

But at Go Kigali, a beautifully curated boutique located inside the new Kigali Marriott hotel, shoppers can choose from gorgeous jewelry, clothing for adults and children, leather satchels, woven baskets and more, all made by Rwandan and East African artisans.

Each item has a tag providing detailed information on its origins. The owners also run full- and half-day city tours of Kigali.


Heaven Boutique Hotel (doubles from $145) offers 22 bright and spacious rooms featuring cushy, mosquito-net draped beds; local artwork; a gym and heated saltwater pool; and complimentary breakfast at the adjacent Heaven Restaurant.

Service is friendly; other perks include yoga classes, an on-site organic garden and a concierge happy to arrange gorilla treks, market tours and more. On the same property, the ultra-luxe Retreat by Heaven (doubles from $675), with 11 plush rooms and a focus on wellness, takes pampering to the next level.

The brand-new Radisson Blu Kigali (doubles from $240) opened in 2016 in conjunction with the Kigali Convention Center, a striking multicolor glass dome that has quickly become a new icon of the city.

But with five-star service, extra-large rooms, six restaurants and bars and an Amani spa, this amenity-packed hotel is not just for business travelers.