Scarred by arguably the most brutal genocide of the post-war period, and beset by political tumult for much of the 20th century, Rwanda is nothing like the country it once was. Today, despite some claims of human rights abuses and low-key corruption, the nation remains a beacon of hope for many of the other Central African nations trying to shed a painful past. Stable government and regular democratic elections are the name of the game, while cities like Kigali and Huye have awoken to become centers of culture and art and even nightlife. Economic wealth is being generated by sustainable industries like coffee growing, alongside not-so-sustainable ones like mineral mining.
And Rwanda has also realized another of its great money makers: that gorgeous backcountry. This ranges from the montane reserves of the chimp-dotted Nyungwe Forest to the verdant hills and pretty banks around Lake Kivu – and it rarely fails to impress!
Lets explore the best places to visit in Rwanda:
Since the dark days of the Rwandan genocide, the city of Kigali really has done a U-turn.
Where once marauding gangs and death patrols roamed, today there are bustling markets and spice-scented street stalls.
The ramshackle barrios now ooze the energy of day-to-day bustle, while the appearance of shimmering steel skyscrapers on the horizon is just another sign of the flow of foreign investment in these parts.
There are a couple of things you simply need to see: the moving Genocide Memorial and the grand presidential palace.
Apart from that, it’s just a case of taking in the newfound national confidence, shopping Rwandan handicrafts in the bazaars, and sinking cold ones in the raucous nightclubs.
Huye was once known as Butare, and most locals still call it that today.
But whatever its moniker may change to, there’s no altering this one’s prestigious history.
Huye is the home of the National University and the National Institute of Scientific Research, along with countless other revered learning centers.
That makes it something like Rwanda’s answer to English Oxford, or Massachusetts’ Cambridge.
It also makes it a place rich with cultural attractions.
Visitors can hear tales of the old Tutsi monarchs at the National Museum of Rwanda; they can eat alongside erudite students, and they can delve into the stalls and handicraft emporiums of Huye Market.
3. Volcanos National Park
While most African hinterlands away from the Great Rift Valley are forced to compete with the likes of Kruger and Maasai Mara, Ngorongoro and the Serengeti, when it comes to the wild, mist-topped backcountry of Rwanda’s Volcanos National Park, all bets are off! Yep, this truly breathtaking conservation area – contiguous with Virunga across the border – is topped by the once-smoking calderas of mighty mounts like Karisimbi and serrated Sabyinyo.
All around these craggy volcanic peaks, visitors discover lush montane forests and thick groves of African redwoods.
And within those there’s another treasure: the uber-rare mountain gorilla!
Kibuye juts its way into the blue-brown waters of Lake Kivu in a series of curved headlands and steep-sided bays.
Surely one of the most handsome towns in all of Rwanda, it’s surrounded by high hills that come dressed in wisps of mist by morning and offering sweeping views of the lake waters and the islands by afternoon.
Between the streets, there are some earthy little eco lodges on the shores, along with one interesting Catholic church, and a memorial to the Rwandan genocide.
There’s also a smattering of empty beaches around the center, and oodles of boats available for tours away from the banks.
5. Akagera National Park
Akagera National Park is the same savannah and riparian swamp mosaic you’d expect to find in the super-famous game parks of the East African Rift.
That’s because its 1,200 square kilometers of land abut right up to the border with Tanzania, giving rise to roaming herds of giraffes, antelopes, jackals and more.
Safaris are slowly becoming popular, with outfitters now organizing game drives and game walks from the smattering of lodges that exist.
And the environments are beautiful too, with the meanders of the Kagera River giving way to shimmering Lake Shakani, oodles of papyrus swamps and protected birding areas aplenty.
The gateway to that great speck of blue that is Lake Kivu, sitting amidst the verdant hills and mountains of the Albertine Rift Valley, Gisenyi is a place where the African jungles cascade down grassy hills in sporadic bouts of palm trees and exotic cassiyas.
They fall to meet the muddied waters of the lake, where flitting insects and boatman flies cause ripples on the surface.
Although shared with larger Goma across the border with DRC to the west, the banks of the lake are the real draw.
They are peppered with bamboo built shacks and eco lodges – perfect for those eager to immerse themselves and escape in the Rwandan wilderness.
There was once a time when Rwandan royalty trod the dusty lanes and roadways of far-flung Nyanza; when ancestral monarchs wandered under the great bulbous domes of the adobe and thatched ancient King’s Palace.
One of the last capitals of the pre-colonial Kingdom of Rwanda, this spot in the southern reaches of the country is steeped in history and tradition.
Come and trace the story of the nation’s onetime leaders, unravel sobering and moving episodes of the Rwandan Genocide, and tour the museum collections that lurk in the old court rooms.
Nyanza is also the home of the Rwesero Art Museum; perhaps the most prestigious and rich in the country.
8. Nyungwe Forest National Park
There are few protected forests that can boast the same kind of superlatives as Rwanda’s mystical Nyungwe Forest National Park.
For starters, this vast area of more than 940 square kilometers is the single largest enclave of montane forest remaining in this corner of the continent.
What’s more, the thick canopies of mahoganies and clambering jungle vines hide one of the most diverse arrays of simian life in the world.
There are chimpanzees and rare golden monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabeys and big baboons all swinging through the boughs here!
9. Lake Kivu
While Lake Kivu is hardly a single destination, it’s worth a special mention on its own simply because of the sheer wealth of attractions and activities it offers travelers to Rwanda from its place on the extreme western border of the country.
Covering a vast area of more than 2,700 square kilometers, it ranges from Gisenyi in the north to the multicultural island of Ishwa in the south.
Along the way, visitors will be able to spot rustic fishing villages on stilts, clusters of trademark catamaran skiffs on the water, a speckling of pretty tropical islands, and perhaps even the more modern outlines of industrious natural gas extractors above the lake.
Gisuma is Rwanda’s coffee king.
Set amidst the foothills and sylvan valleys that rise to the Nyungwe Forest, the town is just a small speck on the map.
But, thanks to its tasty beans and potent caffeine-infused brews, it’s risen to become well-known by baristas and coffee enthusiasts the world over.
Today, the industry is headed by the ethical Gisuma co-operative organization, which has increased the take-home pay of local growers in the region by as much as 45% since it began.
And even if you don’t like the black tipple, the area around Gisuma is beautiful to behold: rolling fields of coffee bushes peaking and dipping with the topography of the mountains all around.
Nestled deep in the granite-carved valleys of Rwanda’s north-eastern provinces, the city of Nyagatare is not only the best gateway for exploring the verdant and biodiverse reaches of the Akagera National Park, but also an interesting little backwater town in its own right.
As many as 100,000 people call it home, breathing life into the ad hoc craft markets and the university campus that pepper the city center.
And then there are the rustic hamlets that dot the hills close by, encompassed by landscapes of croc-spotted rivers and hippo-heavy swamps.
Visitors to the northern town of Ruhengeri can’t help but look up; up to where the mist-shrouded peaks of the mighty Virunga Mountains raise the horizon; to where great beasts like the mountain gorilla roam the verdant forests.
In fact, those natural draws (namely the Volcanos National Park) are pretty much the main attraction here, and the wealth of safari outfitters and package touts offering gorilla stalking expeditions is testimony to the fact.
That said, Ruhengeri is a decent, charming place on its own.
There are some great guesthouses, lively beer bars, and seriously awesome views from almost everywhere you go!
13. Lake Muhazi
Winding and weaving like an East African snake through the hills of Rwanda’s Eastern Province, the waters of Lake Muhazi have long represented a favorite rest, recuperation and relaxation spot for dwellers of the capital at Kigali.
The banks are spotted with secluded picnic points, and there’s even a popular country club offering volleyball courts, quiet cabanas on the shore, eateries, and bike and boat rentals.
The enchanting towns of Gahini and Rwesero are perfect stopovers for people making their way here, with just a clutch of great homestays to kick-back in before touring the nearby coffee fields and Catholic cathedrals.
For a taste of off-the-beaten-track Rwanda, why not make a beeline for the little town of Kibungo.
Set in the east of the country, this provincial capital boasts a collection of higher education institutions (cue a population of term-time students to boot), and the lively stalls and shopping areas of the Kibungo Central Market.
The spot also has a small offering of places to stay, making it a convenient one in which to rest the head on the way through to the Tanzanian border in the south, or to the waters of Lake Muhazi just to the north-west.
15. Gishwati Forest National Park
Sprawled over the hilltops just a short distance from beaches and resorts of Lake Kivu and Gisenyi, the Gishwati Forest National Park is now right on the forefront of Rwandan conservation.
After mass migrations of refugees to the hinterland in the 1990s, during the genocide, the area suffered heavily from deforestation.
Today, evidence of this can be seen in the bare ridges and rolling meadows within.
However, efforts are being made to rejuvenate the wilderness, and there are programs in place to plant thousands of new trees by 2020. Still, there’s no denying the reserve is beautiful, with green highlands and woods that house L’Hoest’s monkeys and chimps!