Over 20 years on from the devastating genocide, pockets of Rwanda have found their groove, providing a mix of luxury and adventure for discerning tourists.
Change has since come swiftly to the land of a thousand hills, whose plucky capital city, long relegated to pilgrimages of grief and airport stopovers on the way to see mountain gorillas, is emerging as East Africa’s greatest success story. In Kigali, a slew of gleaming new luxury hotels, an international restaurant boom and sparkling-litter free streets are luring travellers who might otherwise have overlooked the city in favour of rural safaris. Rwanda, which was ranked as the ninth-safest nation in the world (and number one in Africa) by the World Economic Forum this year, is changing its narrative.
“Kigali is the epicentre of the land of a thousand hills and rapidly becoming the tourism and business hub for the region,” says Belise Kariza, chief tourism officer at the Rwanda Development Board.
A Radisson Blu opened in 2016 (Radisson Blu)
Radisson Blu launched a new Kigali complex in 2016 which consists of a 292-room luxury hotel whose exterior is lined with colourful metal ribbons, and the egg-shaped glass-and-steel Kigali Convention Center, which was unveiled just in time for the 2016 African Union Summit last July. Marriott followed suit three months later, launching its first-ever property in sub-Saharan Africa on the opposite side of the city.
The two new international brands have brought competition to a market once dominated by the Serena, a former InterContinental property that for a decade was considered Kigali’s only real luxury bolthole; and the grand Hotel des Milles Collines, made famous by the film Hotel Rwanda. The sparkling new Ubumwe Grande Hotel, which also opened just in time for the 2016 African Summit, newbie The Manor, and Swiss International’s Villa Portofino are also now in the mix.
Hotel des Milles Collines was made famous by the film Hotel Rwanda (Hotel des Milles Collines)
And cuisine and culture in Kigali have upped their game in tandem. At bustling nightspot Repub Lounge, locals gather on the open-air patio above the city’s twinkling lights to sip Virunga beer and feast on coconut curry fish, beef brochettes and liboke chicken in steamed banana leaves. At sleek Pili Pili, an urban lounge with a chill party vibe, it’s hard to decide what to focus on: the breathtaking view, the turquoise pool, or the solid bistro fare of pizzas, pastas and tapas, all served under pink and purple lights. Sushi lovers now have two duelling hotspots from which to source their sashimi: terrace-style Sakae and super-authentic Kiseki, while Sol E Luna and Brachetto offer top-notch Italian.
The Inema Arts Center sponsors workshops, dance performances and happy hour events in addition to housing 13 resident artists and a women’s craft collective; their mission of nurturing Rwanda’s next artistic generation is echoed by fellow creative spaces Ivuku Arts and NIYO Art Gallery.
And at Heaven Boutique Hotel, which locals point to as the spark that started the movement, Owner Alissa Ruxin says she is just getting started.
Kigali has had a slew of upmarket restaurant openings (Brioche)
Heaven Boutique Hotel, a charming 22-room lodging house with bright, eclectic rooms and soft, mosquito-net covered beds, opened adjacent to the restaurant in 2015, and this summer, Ruxin welcomed the first guests to The Retreat, an 11-room wellness-themed property offering bespoke luxury experiences on a level never before seen in Kigali.
“I think we are on the cusp of something so exciting in Rwanda,” Ruxin says, noting that the price for a permit to view Rwanda’s sought-after mountain gorillas has increased to $1,500, and the jungle lodges that house gorilla tourists routinely charge $800 a night or more. “There is a niche, there is a market; [gorilla tourists] have to fly in and out of Kigali. I want to be their first night and their last night.”
Where to Stay
Heaven Boutique Hotel (doubles from $145) offers 22 bright and spacious rooms featuring cushy, mosquito-net draped beds; local artwork; a gym and heated saltwater pool; and complimentary breakfast at the adjacent Heaven Restaurant. Service is friendly; other perks include yoga classes, an on-site organic garden and a concierge happy to arrange gorilla treks, market tours and more. On the same property, the ultra-luxe Retreat by Heaven (doubles from $675), with 11 plush rooms and a focus on wellness, takes pampering to the next level.
The brand-new Radisson Blu Kigali (doubles from $240) opened in 2016 in conjunction with the Kigali Convention Center, a striking multicolor glass dome that has quickly become a new icon of the city. But with five-star service, extra-large rooms, six restaurants and bars and an Amani spa, this amenity-packed hotel is not just for business travelers.