Top Things To Do & See In Rwanda

Museums, memorials, national parks, tea plantations, lakes, hikes, and more from Peter Brooks, who calls Rwanda his second home.

By Jacqueline Parisi

21 October 2020

Top Things To Do & See In Rwanda

COVID-19 Update
As of August 1, 2020, Rwanda has opened to international travel for visitors arriving by scheduled commercial flights. There are no restrictions based on nationality or point of departure; however, all travelers must have proof of a negative SARS-CoV 2 Real Time Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) test performed within 120 hours of departure. A second PCR test is conducted upon arrival.

If you stumble upon Peter Brooks’ Instagram today, the first thing you’ll notice in his bio is the short phrase: “I Travel A Lot.” All caps. Period at the end. And he does. Brooks, who founded 28th and Foster Consulting, has crossed Johannesburg, China, Bali, Paris, Japan, Rome, and Dubai off his bucket list...to name a few. But as of 2019, he had never been to Rwanda.

“I barely knew anything about it,” explains Brooks. “In fact, I probably couldn’t point Rwanda out on a map.”

But after watching Black Earth Rising, a documentary—whose accuracy many have called into question—recounting the 100-day Rwandan genocide that took place in the 1990s, he became interested in this small, landlocked country in Eastern Africa that's just about the size of Maryland and borders the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda. So he Googled it. He watched some of the president’s speeches, read releases from cabinet members, and quickly realized that something exciting is brewing right now in Rwanda. The country isn’t just rebuilding after its painful past. It’s booming. There’s a vibrant creative scene and countless tech start-ups/incubators that run the gamut from ed tech to public transportation and ride sharing—all in pursuit of the ambitious goal of becoming “the Singapore of Africa.”

So Brooks did what anyone who Travels A Lot would do. He booked a plane ticket.

Two days later, as Brooks was speaking on a panel in NYC, he happened to meet Allen Kendunga, a Rwandan in the audience. Call it what you want—chance, serendipity, fate—but Brooks took it as a sign. Kendunga was able to prep Brooks for his inaugural trip to Rwanda by introducing him to locals. Fast forward to today, and Brooks has just capped off his third visit to the country.

He’s involved with Africa In Colors, a platform to highlight African talent and creative work around the world that was founded by Rugamba Raoul, as well as an advisor to Choose Kigali. Founded by by Emmanuel Nkuranga of Inema Arts Center (more on that below), Choose Kigali is a part-hotel, part-art gallery, part-event space that, just this past September, opened a Chef’s Table restaurant helmed by Zimbabwean chef Treasure Makwanise.

We caught up with Brooks (as he was in Rwanda, actually) to get the inside scoop on all the best things to do throughout the country.

Kigali, Rwanda | @rwanda

One thing that surprised Brooks when he first visited Rwanda was just how structured and built out it is—and clean.

“Rwanda's capital of Kigali is very modern and very clean,” he tells us. “I’ve never been to a place this clean.”

To learn more about the 1994 Rwandan genocide...

"Kwibuka means ‘to remember’ and describes the annual commemoration of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda." | @kigali_memorial

Downtown, you’ll find Kigali Heights, an expansive commercial complex located adjacent to the Kigali Convenient Center in Kimihurura that’s home to parks, office buildings, restaurants, shops, and the University of Kigali. This area is also where you’ll find the Campaign Against Genocide (CAG) Museum, which was opened in December 2017 and serves as a sobering reminder of how the genocide against the Tutsi and Hutu was prepared and committed.

It's also well worth a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which is about a 10-minute drive in the northwestern direction from the museum. There are three permanent exhibitions: one on the planned nature, horror, and post-reconstruction of the Tutsi genocide; the second, titled "Wasted Lives," on the massacres that have not been recognized as genocides by international law (Namibia, Armenia, Cambodia, Balkans, Holocaust); and the third, "Children's Room," dedicated to the memory of children killed in the Tutsi genocide.

To get a taste for Kigali's vibrant art scene...

Brooks tells us that the Inema Arts Center, less than a 15-minute walk from the Kigali Convention Centre, is a must-visit. Founded in 2012 by brothers (and self-taught painters) Emmanuel Nkuranga and Innocent Nkurunziza, Inema is an art gallery and creative communal space that showcases the untapped potential of Rwandan art by showcasing 10 artists-in-residence. The center hosts workshops, trainings, and hands-on classes to spur continued creative expression while supporting an “Art with a Mission” program, which provides art supplies and classes to local orphanages.

“The brothers who founded Inema are really the forefathers of the art scene here,” says Brooks. “It’s a really big attraction.”

To spot game...

Outside of the city, Brooks recommends the Gorilla Sanctuary in Volcanoes National Park, which shelters the highest number of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Conservation area. Just two hours from Kigali International Airport, this 160km² area, which is named after the chain of dormant volcanoes in the Virunga Massif, is one of the most accessible gorilla national parks in the world. It’s also home to golden monkeys, countless varieties of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.

“Gorillas are THE marquee experience in Rwanda,” explains Brooks. “This is one of the few places on earth where you can have access to endangered mountain gorillas, Gorilla beringei beringei.”

Although Rwanda has doubled the price of a gorilla trekking permit to $1500 per person per trek (compared to the $600 price that Uganda charges), the splurge is worth it since it's far easier to spot this endangered species in Rwanda.

Other popular national parks in the country include:

  • Nyungwe Forest National Park
    Africa’s largest protected mountain rain forest and home to East Africa’s only canopy walk, along with gorilla trekking experiences and chimpanzee tours.
  • Akagera National Park
    Home to antelope, buffalo, giraffes, hippos, hyenas, jackals, leopards, lions, rhinos, and zebras.

To dive deeper into Rwandan culture...

To experience one of Africa's most comprehensive ethnographic collections, the Ethnographic Museum is a must. Its seven galleries display historical, artistic, and archaeological artifacts, along with geographical and geological displays. You'll learn about everything from hunting and agriculture to pottery, weaving, and woodwork. This museum, one of six that constitute the National Museums of Rwanda, was opened in 1989 with the support of the Belgian government and is located about 130km south of Kigali in Huye.

To taste some of the country's signature tea...

Gisovu Tea Estate | @xoe.xaxa

Tea was introduced to Rwanda in 1952 and quickly flourished due to the country's fertile volcanic soil and temperate climate. To this day, it's one of their largest exports, with countless tea plantations, cooperatives, and private growers throughout the country. Black tea is the most popular type, although you'll also find green and white tea.

The two major plantation tours are both located within Nyungwe Forest National Park: Gisovu and Gisakura.

  • Gisovu Tea Estate is situated on the northern edge of the park. It offers both day tours and accommodation, as well as other activities like mountain biking.
  • Gisakura Tea Estate, the more famous of the two, is further to the west. Unlike Gisovu, it doesn't have accommodations on the plantation itself, but there are ample options to choose from just a walk or short drive away.

Note: Plantations don't accept reservations or bookings from travelers directly. They must be arranged via a tour operator.

To relax lakeside...

Lake Kivu is also a popular destination in Rwanda. Designated as one on Africa’s Great Lakes, it straddles the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on the Rift Valley and covers an expansive surface area of 2,700km². It’s dotted with inland islands, including Idjwi: the 10th largest in the world.

Nearby towns to Lake Kivu include Gisenyi (in the Rubavu district on the northern reaches of the lake) and Kibuye (in the Karongi  district to the west).

While you're there, don't miss the chance to go hiking or mountain biking along the Congo Nile Trail, which extends 227km from Rubavu, through to Rutsiro and Karongi, up to Nyamasheke, and ends in the Rusizi District.

“In terms of scenery, Rwanda has one of the most amazing landscapes that I’ve ever seen,” says Brooks, “and it’s so easy to access nature from the city. The country is known as ‘the land of a thousand hills,’ and, for me, they’re reminiscent of the Hollywood Hills. In the North, it even reminds me a bit of Scotland with its lush, rolling terrain. Whether you’re lakeside at Kivu, in the mountains, visiting one of the tea plantations, or seeing the volcanoes or the national parks, Rwanda has everything that you’d want and would expect out of an African country—and everything is really close.”

For more information on how to plan your African safari to countries like South Africa and Kenya, refer to our ultimate guide.

Nyungwe, Rwanda | @nargiza.travel