For many tourists visiting Rwanda, the star attraction is the ability to go ‘full Attenborough’: trekking through the high, misty rainforests of east-central Africa, whispering in awe as you view the 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 little more than a pre-Monkey stopover, with travelers landing at Volcanoes National Park in the north of the country, or as far south as the Nyungwe Forest National Park.
(You’ll need a gorilla trekking permit for the privilege of viewing these majestic creatures (a cool US$1,500 / £1,200), of course). But with major changes taking place in the city, that looks set to change.
One might say that business is booming in Rwanda, with authorities scrambling for red tape to encourage start-ups – the recent boom in the tech sector has even seen Kigali dubbed the ‘Silicon Valley of Africa’.
With gleaming modern architecture and a thriving arts and food scene, the city has its sights set on the future, the government aiming for a Singapore-like rise in status. As proof of its international ambition, RwandAir launched direct flights between Kigali and Heathrow in November.
Kigali is getting into the spotlight, it seems, and not just as a destination for the British government’s controversial asylum-seeker deportation programme. Eager to see the city beyond the headlines, I snubbed the gorillas – sorry, Sir David – and explored Rwanda’s capital instead.
I started with a hike up Mount Kigali, accessible from the outskirts of the city, with Patrick Kwizera, a 51-year-old Tutsi born in Uganda. He arrived in Rwanda as a teenage soldier in 1990, fighting in the civil war. He now he enjoys a quieter life as a tour operator.
It is clear to see how green Kigali is from these lush hillsides, with well-maintained roads cutting through farmland in the urban centre. Kwizera told me Rwanda is known as “‘the land of 1,000 hills,” and the poetic moniker made sense: Looking down on the capital, the hills flanking the city made the misty landscape look more green than gray.
We passed banana groves 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 pristine.
Besides being secular minded to keep the community clean, umuganda it refers to a government program that sees residents go out in force to clean up the streets of Kigali on the last day of every month. “It started generations ago, with people coming together to clean up the streets and clean up the environment. We still have it.
Back on the ground floor, I made my way to Nyamirambo, a vibrant multicultural area of the city home to pastel-painted mosques and restaurants selling sizzling kebabs to meet my guide, Aline Tuyishimire. Aline works for the Nyamirambo Women’s Center, an NGO that supports local women through education and job training, including how to produce textile products, from children’s clothes to home furnishings.
But for now, he couldn’t wait to show me some of the milk bars in town. These are thriving social hubs, similar to the English pub or French café, with milk served from huge vats. “Gira inka,” she said handing me a glass of the white stuff in a bar across from the Women’s Center. “It’s a Kinyarwanda phrase that translates to ‘may you have a cow’,” she said, “meaning ‘good luck’.”
My football levels suitably recharged, that evening I visited Meza Malonga, a high-end restaurant with less than 20 covers. It is normally booked months in advance but I was able to get a table after a cancellation.
It was opened in 2020 by chef Dieuveil Malonga, born in the Republic of the Congo and trained in Germany. “When I first came to Rwanda in 2016, there weren’t many great restaurants here,” he said. “But it has completely changed. Now, people travel here for the food.
He was drawn to the greenery of Kigali and runs farms where he can experiment with the produce. “If you opened in, say, 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, an elegant synthesis of the new confidence that pulsates in the city.
For three hours I savored the 11-course set menu, eating Rwandan quail, beef tartare topped with a local favorite cassava, and earthy sorghum bread that redefined how tasty bread can be. At US$80 (£65) apiece, it’s even better value than the gorilla allows.
Due to Rwanda’s small size and landlocked location, Kigali’s wider food scene has been heavily influenced by neighboring countries. It’s evident in places like Habesha, an Ethiopian restaurant whose food made me dream of a trip to Addis Ababa, and Now Now Rolex, a hub of vaguely hipster restaurants where I enjoyed a Ugandan Rolex: a chapati roll and omelette spiked with beef and chips .
The modern remains of modern Rwanda are exciting to discover, but they are not without context. The 1994 genocide casts a long shadow, from which the country is still emerging. It has seen at least 800,000 people killed in a campaign of violence waged by the Hutu government against the Tutsi minority.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a museum, exhibition and memorial complex detailing how the killings were instigated, following decades of sporadic massacres and extreme propaganda.
It is 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.
It makes Kigali’s forward-thinking vision all the more poignant, and that ambition is no more clear than in 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 as a young man.
As a child, Nkurunziza had to travel to neighboring Uganda to stock up on paint, as Kigali’s contemporary art scene was, he claimed, non-existent. Now, with Inema as a model, there’s a smattering of colorful galleries and studios nurturing the next generation of artists.
“We don’t have 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 attracted to offbeat abstract expressionism more than the more prescribed realism.
The results are impressive: Inema’s centerpiece is a gorilla statue created from paint-spattered motherboards, perhaps a nod to the technology that also defines 21st-century Kigali. I saw similarly intriguing work at Niyo Art Gallery, founded by Niyonsenga Pacifique, which showcases kaleidoscopically colorful oil paintings with a frenetic sense of movement.
I also stopped by the Np Arts Center which is run by 24-year-old artist Patrick Nizeyimona. Opened three years ago when the art scene was starting to flourish, it offers classes for children and exhibition spaces for young artists.
“Many artists from wider Africa come here now,” Nizeyimona said. “Here the market seems free and there are many opportunities. They have the freedom to express themselves.” This is only partly true: you won’t find political art in these galleries. President Paul Kagame has cracked down on dissent within his country, his regime has been accused of threatening journalists and artists.
Kigali still has a long way to go in terms of true freedom of expression. But the city is pushing forward regardless; over the course of a week I saw how the ambition and creativity of the people are helping transform Kigali into a modern powerhouse of central Africa. Well worth exploring – the gorillas can wait.
Jamie Fullerton was a guest of Mythos Boutique Hotelwhich has rooms from US$100/£82 a night, including breakfast.
Three more African capitals you never thought you’d visit
Rarely is a petrol station worth a detour, but it is rarely as spectacular as the Fiat Tagliero building. This swooping art deco icon, built by an Italian engineer in the 1930s, is inspired by the wings of an airplane and is one of several striking modernist structures in the Eritrean capital that helped it gain Unesco recognition in 2017.
Walk a trail around some of its architectural highlights, including the sinuous Bar Vittorio and the elegant Opera House.
If there were one soundtrack to the Ethiopian capital, it would be the distinctive and earth-shattering sounds of Ethio-Jazz. This unique genre – a blend of tribal rhythms, Afrobeat and jazz, and incorporating local stringed instruments – had its heyday 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 live entertainment, but newcomers to the scene should head to the bustling Fendika Cultural Center, which stages Ethio-jazz performances and other forms of dance and music.
The capital of Angola is the historic heart of one of Africa’s most unexplored nations. This former stronghold of the Portuguese empire played a pivotal role in the transatlantic slave trade during 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: take a stroll along Avenida de 4 Fevreiro, the wide Atlantic seafront, backed by tall skyscrapers, palm trees and grand historic buildings.