24 Hours in Kigali
The heart of the New Africa sits upon 1,000 hills.
Kigali, Rwanda’s colorful capital, is a city of hills, high energy and happy hustle. To truly feel the New Rwanda — the progressive, sustainable nation that emerged from the ashes of 1994’s horrific genocide and today is almost obsessively optimistic — there’s no better way than to jump on a moto, the city’s ever-present motorbike taxis, and hold on for dear life as your driver speeds up and down Kigali’s slopes on streets so clean you could practically eat off of them.
Rwanda has not forgotten the terror that spun out of control just 23 years ago, but it is fair to say that the country has rebuilt and re-emerged as a unified and progressive nation. Technology, clean-energy initiatives and gender equality are more than talking points here; they are a way of life. Street crime is at rock-bottom levels. And upstart restaurants, galleries and boutique fashion designers are filling the city. With delicious food, eclectic shopping and genuine warmth from the locals, a day in Kigali is a day well spent.
Dive straight into the history of Kigali with breakfast at the Hotel des Mille Collines, better known to foreigners as the Hotel Rwanda, thanks to its central role in the eponymous 2004 film starring Don Cheadle. The Hotel des Mille Collines, which prior to the Rwandan genocide was considered the most luxurious bolthole in the entire nation, became internationally famous after more than 1,000 Rwandans took refuge inside its walls during the genocide and were protected by the hotel’s manager, Paul Rusesabagina.
Today, the hotel has lost some of its five-star luster, but its charming pool, warm and friendly service, and delicious breakfast buffet remain. Take advantage of all three by sidling up to the poolside terrace for an early morning feast of pastries, meats, tropical fruit and eggs made to order.
No place better captures the color and energy of modern Kigali than its Kimironko Market, a chaotic wonderland of produce, fabrics and souvenirs, all accessed through a maze of crowded alleys packed with shouting vendors. Be prepared to haggle for prices and for sellers to swarm you as they offer their wares; don’t mind the pandemonium — it’s friendly, and no one will take offense if you choose not to purchase.
After the din of Kimironko, switch gears for some quiet reflection. The Kigali Genocide Memorial, arguably the most important site in the entire city, opened in 2004 to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the genocide, and remains its definitive site for education, tribute and historical record of that extreme tragedy. For a first-time visitor to Rwanda, the memorial — which is one part museum and one part burial ground for more than 250,000 victims — answers the essential questions of how the country’s history set the stage for the horrific genocide, what the atrocities looked like, and how, 20 years on, the nation continues to unify and rebuild.
After a jam-packed morning, feast both your eyes and your appetite at the quintessential midday Kigali celebration that is its trademark lunch buffet. White-collar businessmen, blue-color day laborers and every color of Kigali citizen in between come together at the city’s iconic all-you-can-eat feasts to enjoy plates piled high with soup, rice, plantains and curries. And at Shokola Storytellers Cafe, a charming, rustic spot that sits smack on top of the Kigali Public Library, you can enjoy open-air breezes, sweeping views over Kigali’s rolling green hills and an endless variety of hearty vegetarian fare. The fresh-squeezed juices and smoothies here sweeten the deal (literally).
Kigali boasts a thriving art scene that is deeply tied to its social welfare initiatives and community growth. And the Kacyiru neighborhood, just around the corner from Shokola, is one of the city’s ultimate hotspots for exciting, cutting-edge galleries to scout. Start your cultural education at Inema Arts Center, a collective of young Rwandan artists that provides gallery space to 10 artists-in-residence and showcases mixed media, sculpture and painting, all infused with the buzzing creativity of modern-day Kigali. Once you’ve browsed to your heart’s content, scoot around the corner to Ivuka Arts Studio, a grassroots arts education center that introduced modern art to Rwanda and now houses over a dozen young artists who create within its walls. If you have a love of funky, bright, unabashedly modern African art, it’s quite likely you’ll end up leaving one of these two spots with a purchase wrapped to hang at home.
Prefer the type of art that you can wear, rather than stare at on the wall? Rwanda’s budding fashion scene is rich and quickly earning international acclaim. For the best selection of high-quality ethical African fashion, all made at home in Rwanda and crafted with the utmost care, check out Haute Baso, where modern style and traditional craftsmanship coexist to create sleek African-inspired clothing, intricate accessories and all manner of wearable art. If your shopping itch remains, take a quick seven-minute drive to Sonia Mugabo, headquarters of one of Rwanda’s most exciting young woman designers, where bespoke and off-the-rack creations can be ordered or purchased on the spot.
Heaven, an expat-run restaurant and boutique hotel nestled on a high perch and offering lovely Kigali views, is an ideal spot to rest and recharge after a long day exploring the city. Watch the city below slowly fill with twinkling lights as you feast on the elegant African-fusion fare of this little gem. Standouts include their Rwandan beef filet with cassava leaf chimichurri; the harissa chicken supreme with pineapple tabouleh; and the lip-smacking deep-fried Lake Kivu sambaza, a delectable starter course of tiny, crunchy local fish served up with aioli and spicy habanero sauce. Many nights at Heaven include live music, dancing or drum circles, so call ahead if you’re curious about entertainment options to go with your meal.
Pili Pili is the name of a super-hot African pepper oil, but at the bar and lounge Pili Pili, everything is perfectly cool. Close out your nonstop Kigali day with a cocktail or round of ice-cold Mutzig beers by the neon-lit pool at this ultra-sleek spot. Here, life-size statues of zebras and gorillas hang out alongside the well-dressed diners; jazz and pop songs play amid the hum of conversation, and the nighttime hills of Kigali shimmer with lights just beneath the open patio.