A Local's Guide to Rwanda

Beth Watson, 19.11.18

Alternative Destinations

With a large gorilla population, volcanic hiking trails and a safe and clean capital city, Rwanda should be at the top of every traveller’s wishlist. But, unfortunately, many people still associate the country with the genocide committed against its Tutsi population in 1994. But, after a rapid recovery, Rwanda is now thriving. It’s now one of the safest nations in the region, with a majority woman government and a flourishing creative scene- so no surprise that it's often referred to as ‘the Future of Africa’.

Local's Guide Rwanda Blog Image

In this Rwanda travel guide, we’ll take through you our Rwanda travel tips, the best places to visit and why it's the perfect destination to book for 2019.

What are some interesting facts about Rwanda?

1) Cow dung art is tradition in Rwanda

Imigongo Art On Display Imigongo on display in France. Photo credit: Ji-Elle

While cow dung art might sound strange to some of us, in Rwanda it's a way of keeping alive some of the cultural practises that were almost lost after the genocide. The dung is dried, then decorated using organic paints to make spiral or geometric patterns.

2) Rwanda is one of the smallest countries in Africa.

Another fun fact about Rwanda is that the whole country equals just 10,169 square miles, which makes it perfect destination for the traveller without much time on their hands.

3) Plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda.

Rwanda banned plastic bags before it was cool, way back in 2006. The ban came into force to help the country’s agricultural industry and is taken very seriously. So, when travelling to Rwanda, be sure not to leave any in your suitcase!

4) Murals are a big thing in Kigali

Walking around Rwanda's capital, you'll be taken aback by the colourful murals created by the NGO “Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga.” But these are so much more than just pretty pictures, these government-backed murals are used to raise awareness about causes such as feminism, the refugee crisis as well as HIV related-stigma.

What food is Rwanda known for?

Despite being a landlocked country, Rwanda is known for its fried fish thanks to one of Africa’s great lakes, Lake Kivu, which keeps local fisherman busy and local plates full of freshwater fish. Other popular foods in Rwanda include meat brochettes and Isombe (mashed cassava leaves).

Rwandan food advice

What's the national dish of Rwanda?

Ugali

Ugali Photo credit: Paresh Jai

One of the most common dishes in Rwanda is Ugali. And if you've visited a buffet in Rwanda you’ll definitely have come across Ugali, which is a type of cornmeal porridge. It’s not the most flavoursome of dishes but it’s certainly filling!

What other foods do they eat in Rwanda?

Sambaza fish

Fried Sambaza Fish Sambaza with tomatoes. Photo credit: Antoshananarivo

When in Rwanda, you have to try Sambaza. The unique little lake fishes have quite a strong sardiney taste, and might not be for everyone, but alongside lemon slices and chips they’re pretty delicious.

Coffee

While we’re great fans of Colombian coffee at Alternative Airlines, Rwanda’s tropical climate and volcanic soil makes it one of the best regions for growing coffee in the world. A lot of it, however, tends to get exported. It’s still possible to get your hands on some, the trendy Inzora rooftop cafe in Kigali sources all of its beans from the southwest of the country.

Akabanga

Akabanga Chilli Oil Photo credit: JC Medina

You might be surprised to see what looks like a medicine bottle on your table when you sit down for dinner. But, even though it might look like medicine, Akabanga can sometimes do more harm than good. For those not accustomed, this super hot chilli oil is best consumed with caution.

Rwanda Travel tips

Where to eat in Kigali

For the best fish...

Rwandan style fish and chips A typical serving of Rwandan fish and chips

So there’s lots of places where you can find great fried fish in Rwanda. But the general consensus is that the Green Corner in the Nyakabanda neighbourhood in Kigali has some of the best in town. Expect cold beers, plastic tables, and some delicious plates of fish!

For live music and local cuisine...

Republounge blog The Republounge. Photo credit: Illume Creative Studio

The Republounge offers delicious local cuisine, colourful decor and great live music every weekend. It’s a favourite among tourists and locals alike because of the great atmosphere and tasty food.

For a special occasion...

Fusion Main Meal Photo credit: Frankie Leung

Fusion is a Michelin Star restaurant offering poolside dining and a number of world-class meals. Choose from Italian pasta dishes or fusion meat and fish options. The Michelin Star obviously comes with a price tag but for a special occasion there’s really nowhere better.

What to do in Rwanda

Visit the Genocide Memorial Centre

Exterior of the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali Outside the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali

When travelling to Rwanda for the first time, it’s important to get to know its past. Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Centre is a place of remembrance for over 250,000 victims of the Rwandan genocide and an essential landmark for those trying to get to grips with this harrowing event in the Rwanda’s history.

Give something back at the Women's Center

The Nyamirambo Women’s Center in Kigali was founded by 18 Rwandan women in 2007 to try and end gender-based violence and discrimination. The organisation uses tourism to raise money for local women through offering tours of Nyamirambo and by selling their own range of clothes and accessories (which make awesome souvenirs)!

Go shopping at Kimironko Market

Another must-visit in Kigali for picking up gifts and souvenirs is Kimironko market. Here, you’ll find produce from neighbouring countries as well as clothing and shoes made by local women. The market does get very busy, which can be a bit overwhelming for some. So proceed with caution!

Visit the gorillas

Mother and baby mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda Photo credit: Carine06

Okay, it’s an obvious one. Rwanda is famous for its gorillas. But after years of conservation work, the total population has reached over 1000 gorillas (they were down to 242 in 1981) and so it really is the perfect time to visit. The permit to see gorillas in Rwanda is a bit more expensive than in neighbouring Uganda. But, with easier treks and the incredible views of Vocanoes National Park and you won’t regret coughing up a bit more. To search flights to other safari destinations across Africa, please visit the Alternative Airlines safari flights page.

Admire the views at Lake Kivu

View of Lake Kivu

You can’t talk about Rwanda without mentioning Lake Kivu. This glorious lake offers excellent views and is what provides Rwanda with its delicious freshwater fish. Once you’re in the town of Kabuye, you’ll find a lot of people touting boat tours so make sure you compare a few of them before you put down the cash! The beaches around the lake are clean and picturesque (probably because of the strict ban on plastic bags) and perfect for a walk on a cool day.

Rwanda travel advice

Is it safe to visit Rwanda?

Yes! Rwanda has one of the lowest crime rates in East Africa and crime committed against tourists is very uncommon. Like in most places, the thing to look out for is the road traffic. The most important piece of travel advice to follow is be careful crossing the road and make sure that, if you rent a motorcycle, you wear a helmet.

Is it safe to travel to Rwanda alone?

Yes. Rwanda is a safe country with friendly locals and good public transport links. Whether you’re after a luxury tour to see the gorillas, or you’re backpacking your way across East Africa, lone travelers will feel at home in Rwanda. Need some advice about traveling alone? Check out our solo travel blog.

What’s the weather like in Rwanda?

Rwanda has a fairly high altitude which means it has a mild tropical highland climate. The average yearly temperature in Kigali is a moderate 21 degrees, which is perfect for people who don’t like too much heat! Although it rains the most from March to May, the temperatures stay pretty stable in Rwanda throughout the year. The dry season is usually from December to February, which makes Rwanda the perfect place for a winter getaway!

Do you need a visa to visit Rwanda?

People from most nations will need a visa to enter Rwanda, but luckily these are easily purchased on arrival for around £20 GBP, or $30 USD. The standard visa will grant you entry to the country for 30 days.

Which airlines fly to Rwanda?

In May 2017, RwandAir, the national carrier of Rwanda, launched its first flight from Gatwick to Kigali which runs three times a week. The airline also operates flights to the Rwandan capital from Accra, Cape Town, Dubai, Harare, Johannesburg, Lagos, Mombasa, Mumbai and Nairobi. You can also find flights to Rwanda with airlines such as Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways, KLM, Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, Brussels Airlines and Coastal Aviation.

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