For many tourists visiting Rwanda, the main attraction is the chance to “full Attenborough”: a trek through the cloudy rainforests of eastern Central Africa, whispering in awe as you observe majestic gorillas in their natural habitat.
Kigali – the capital at the heart of the country and home to 1.2 million people – has traditionally been just a pre-monkey stopover, with landing travelers rushing to the Volcanoes National Park in the north of the country or to the south to Nyungwe National Forest. Park.
(You’ll need a gorilla trekking permit to have the privilege of seeing these majestic creatures (US$1,500/£1,200), of course). But with big changes happening in the city, that seems about to change.
Some might say business is booming in Rwanda, with authorities cutting red tape to encourage start-ups – the recent boom in the tech sector has even seen Kigali dubbed the “Silicon Valley of Africa”.
With glistening modern architecture and a thriving arts and dining scene, the city has its sights set on the future as the government envisions a Singapore-like elevation in status. Further proof of its international ambition, RwandAir launched direct flights between Kigali and Heathrow in November.
Kigali is in the spotlight, it seems, and not just as the landing destination of the UK government’s controversial asylum seeker deportation scheme. Eager to see the city beyond the headlines, I snubbed the gorillas – sorry, Sir David – and explored the Rwandan capital instead.
I started with a hike on Mount Kigali, accessible from the outskirts of the city, with Patrick Kwizera, a 51-year-old Tutsi born in Uganda. He came to Rwanda as a teenage soldier in 1990, fighting in the civil war. He now leads a quieter life as a tour operator.
It’s clear to see how green Kigali is from these lush slopes, with well-maintained roads cutting through the farmlands of the urban center. Kwizera told me that Rwanda is known as “the land of 1,000 hills”, and the poetic nickname had a meaning: looking at the capital from above, the hills flanking the city made the misty landscape more green than gray. .
We walked through banana trees and mud-brick villages, and I was struck by how beautiful and litter-free the trail was. “We have a custom called ‘umuganda’,” Kwizera said when I asked why everything was so spotless.
Besides being an age-old mindset to keep the community clean, umuganda refers to a government scheme that sees residents come out in force to clean the streets of Kigali on the last day of every month. “It started generations ago, with people coming together to clear the roads and clean up the environment. We still have that.
Back on the ground floor, I headed to Nyamirambo, a bustling, multicultural part of town home to pastel-painted mosques and restaurants selling sizzling meat skewers to meet my guide, Aline Tuyishimire. Aline works for the Nyamirambo Women’s Center – an NGO that supports local women through educational and vocational training, including how to produce textile products, from children’s clothing to home furnishings.
But for now, she wanted to show me some of the milk bars in town. They are thriving social centers, similar to the British pub or French cafe, with milk served in huge tubs. “Gira inka,” she says, handing me a glass of white stuff at a bar across from the Women’s Center. “It’s a Kinyarwanda phrase that translates to ‘may you have a cow,’ she said, ‘which means ‘good luck’.”
My calcium levels were properly replenished, that evening I visited Meza Malonga, an upscale restaurant with less than 20 covers. It’s normally booked months in advance, but I managed to book a table following a cancellation.
It was opened in 2020 by Chef Dieuveil Malonga, born in the Republic of Congo and trained in Germany. “When I came to Rwanda in 2016, there weren’t many good restaurants here,” he said. “But it’s completely changed. Now people travel here for food.
He was drawn to Kigali’s greenery and runs farms where he can experiment with produce. “If I opened, say, in New York, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have the same feeling,” he said. “Here I know where my onions come from.”
Malonga’s African fusion cuisine has made his restaurant the hottest table in town, a stylish encapsulation of the newfound confidence beating across town.
For three hours, I savored the 11-course menu, eating Rwandan quail, beef tartare topped with the local favorite cassava, and earthy sorghum bread that redefined the flavor of bread. At US$80 (£65) per head, it’s even better than the gorilla allows.
Due to Rwanda’s small size and landlocked nature, Kigali’s wider food scene has been heavily influenced by neighboring countries. This is evident at places like Habesha, an Ethiopian restaurant whose food made me dream of a trip to Addis Ababa, and Now Now Rolex, a vaguely hipster restaurant hub where I sampled a Ugandan Rolex: a chapati and omelette roll pimped with beef and fries. .
Modern Rwanda’s modern loot is exciting to uncover, but it’s not without context. The 1994 genocide cast a long shadow from which the country is still emerging. At least 800,000 people were killed in a campaign of violence by the Hutu government against the Tutsi minority.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a museum, exhibition and memorial complex depicting how the killings were brought about, after decades of sporadic killings and extreme propaganda.
It’s also full of emotional contrasts: the peaceful rose gardens invite contemplation, while inside, the graphic wounds of the victims highlight the sheer violence of the regime. I found the Children’s Room, which lists victims’ favorite foods along with their method of execution, particularly difficult to navigate.
This makes Kigali’s forward-looking perspective all the more poignant, and this ambition is no clearer than on the city’s art scene. In 2012, Inema Arts Center was opened by artist brothers Innocent Nkurunziza and Emmanuel Nkuranga. The idea, according to Nkurunziza, was “art with a mission”: to provide the kind of creative environment he could not find in Kigali in his youth.
As a child, Nkurunziza had to travel to neighboring Uganda to stock up on paint, as Kigali’s contemporary art scene was, according to him, non-existent. Now, with Inema as a model, there are a handful of colorful galleries and studios nurturing the next generation of artists.
“We don’t have a war now,” Nkurunziza said. “It’s fresh, it’s new.” He said that due to the lack of art schools in Rwanda, this new generation is more drawn to non-conformist abstract expressionism than the more prescribed realism.
The results are impressive: Inema’s centerpiece is a gorilla statue created from paint-splattered motherboards – perhaps a nod to the technology that also defines Kigali in the 21st century. I’ve seen equally intriguing work at the Niyo Art Gallery, founded by Niyonsenga Pacifique, which features oil paintings in kaleidoscopic colors with a frenetic sense of movement.
I also stopped at the Np Arts Center, run by 24-year-old artist Patrick Nizeyimona. Opened three years ago as the art scene was beginning to blossom, it offers classes for children, as well as a showcase space for young artists.
“A lot of artists from wider Africa are coming here now,” Nizeyimona said. “The market feels free here and there are lots of opportunities. They have the freedom to express themselves. This is only partially true – you won’t find political art in these galleries. President Paul Kagame has cracked down on dissent in his country, with his regime accused of threatening journalists and artists.
Kigali has a long way to go in terms of genuine freedom of expression. But the city advances in spite of everything; over the course of a week, I saw how people’s ambition and creativity help make Kigali a modern powerhouse in Central Africa. It’s worth exploring – the gorillas can wait.
Jamie Fullerton was the guest of Myth Boutique Hotelwhich offers rooms from USD100/£82 per night including breakfast.
Three Other African Capitals You Never Thought You’d Visit
A gas station is rarely worth a visit, but then again, they are rarely as spectacular as the Fiat Tagliero Building. This plunging art deco icon, built by an Italian engineer in the 1930s, is inspired by the wings of an airplane and is one of many striking modernist structures in the Eritrean capital that have helped it gain international recognition. Unesco in 2017.
Beat a trail around some of its architectural highlights, including the curvaceous Bar Vittorio and the elegant Opera House.
If there was a soundtrack to the Ethiopian capital, it would be the distinctive and earth-shattering sounds of Ethio-Jazz. This unique genre – a mix of tribal rhythms, Afrobeat and jazz, and incorporating local string instruments – had its peak in the 1960s and has seen a slow and steady comeback in recent years.
There are bars and music clubs throughout the city with regular shows, but newbies to the scene should head to the bustling Fendika Cultural Center, which puts on Ethio-jazz shows as well as other forms of dance and music.
The Angolan capital is the historic heart of one of Africa’s most underexplored nations. This former stronghold of the Portuguese Empire played a central role in the transatlantic slave trade in the 15th and 16th centuries; travelers can learn more at the UNESCO-listed Fortress of São Miguel and the National Museum of Slavery.
But the prosperity of modern Luanda is also evident: stroll along Avenida de 4 Fevreiro, the vast Atlantic promenade, surrounded by skyscrapers, palm trees and grand historic buildings.