Top Eight Places to Visit in Rwanda
By Philip Briggs | Updated January 23, 2022
Rwanda is one of Africa’s most rewarding and underrated ecotourism destinations. The main attraction, following in the footsteps of primatologist Dian Fossey, is gorilla tracking in the spectacular Virunga Mountains. But the aptly nicknamed Land of a Thousand Hills has much more to offer wildlife lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. After visiting the gorillas, you can further muddy your boots on a number of other guided hikes and activities in the Virungas, or by tracking chimpanzees and other forest dwellers in Nyungwe Forest National Park. Elsewhere, safaris in the rejuvenated Akagera National Park come with a fair chance of spotting all the Big Five, and you can enjoy some downtime on the mountain-ringed shores of Lake Kivu.
Here is our pick of the top places to visit in Rwanda:
Volcanoes National Park
If you’ve ever dreamed of tracking mountain gorillas through the forested slopes described by Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist, Volcanoes National Park is the place to do it. This magnificent national park protects the Rwandan slopes of the Virunga Mountains, a series of tall freestanding volcanoes that support more than half the world’s remaining 1,000-odd mountain gorillas. Tracking these gorillas on foot is surely the most exhilarating and emotionally engaging wildlife experience on offer in Africa, and 96 permits are now available daily to visit 12 habituated groups, including the very same group first studied by Fossey in the 1970s.
Another popular guided activity in Volcanoes National Park – and a real must-do, in my opinion – entails tracking a habituated troop of golden monkeys through the stands of bamboo where they feed. More demanding day hikes lead to Fossey’s abandoned research center and tomb at Karisoke, and to the stunning crater lake nestled at the 12,126ft summit of Mount Bisoke. More ambitious still is the overnight hike to the 14,787ft peak of Karisimbi, which is the tallest of the Virunga Volcanoes and the highest point in Rwanda. On all these excursions you stand a chance of seeing other wildlife, including the skittish populations of elephant and buffalo that regularly leave their steaming calling cards on the forest trails.
In 1899, Nyanza Hill was chosen as the permanent capital of King Musinga Yuhi V, a role it retained until the monarchy was abolished in 1961. Musinga’s old palace – an enormous domed structure made of traditional organic materials – was reconstructed a few years back and now houses the Rukari King’s Palace Museum, which explores the history, traditions, and lifestyle of the Rwandan monarchy. A newer house built by Musinga’s son and successor Mutara III houses the Rwesero National Art Gallery and its collection of contemporary Rwandan artworks.
Nyungwe Forest National Park
I’d rank Nyungwe Forest high on any list of Africa’s most underrated wildlife destinations. Protecting the largest extant block of Afromontane forest in East or Central Africa, this mountainous park doesn’t support any gorillas, but it is home to 13 other primate species. Nyungwe is one of the best places to track chimpanzees, while the localized L’Hoest’s monkey, a 400-strong troop of Rwenzori colobus, and Rwanda’s only population of grey-cheeked mangabey are often seen on forest walks.
A highlight of Nyungwe is the 600ft-long canopy walk that opened to tourists in 2010. This suspended metallic structure spans a forested gorge and offers a superb monkey’s-eye view over the forest floor 120ft below. Nyungwe is also one of the best forest birding destinations in East Africa, boasting a checklist of 270 species that includes 26 very localized Albertine Rift endemics and the brilliantly colorful great blue turaco.
Formerly called Butare, Huye was Rwanda’s largest and most important settlement in the Belgian colonial era. Today, it is a likeably sleepy town whose main road, lined with old buildings and terrace cafés, retains a slightly time-warped continental feel. Huye is home to the National Museum of Rwanda, which houses some fine ethnographic collections, as well as the country’s oldest and most respected university.
Akagera National Park
People tend not to think of Rwanda as a conventional safari destination. And, to be fair, it isn’t all that long ago that Akagera National Park, the country’s only savanna reserve, was a decidedly underwhelming prospect by comparison to its better known counterparts in Tanzania or Kenya. But that has all changed since 2010, when Akagera was placed under the management of African Parks, a respected international NGO tasked with reversing a long decline associated with heavy poaching, land encroachment and overgrazing by livestock.
Today, following the reintroduction of lion and rhino to supplement growing populations of elephant, buffalo and leopard, Akagera is a highly rewarding Big Five destination, one where you are also likely to see giraffe, hippo, and up to a dozen species of antelope, including eland, roan, topi, oribi and impala. Pleasingly uncrowded, it is also a very scenic park, protecting a well-watered mosaic of acacia woodland, open grassland, and rocky outcrops, along with a labyrinthine network of swamps and lakes fed by the Kagera River. This habitat diversity is reflected by an astounding tally of 530 bird species recorded within the park’s relatively small area.
Gishwati Mukura National Park
Rwanda’s newest and smallest national park, 13-square-mile Gishwati Mukura was created in 2015 to protect the last two relict patches of what was once the country’s largest rainforest. Wildlife includes a small semi-habituated chimpanzee community, the only population of golden monkeys outside the Virungas, and more than 230 bird species. Although it is far smaller in scale than Nyungwe, Gishwati Mukura’s proximity to Volcanoes National Park makes it more convenient add-on for those limited time.
Running along the Congolese border for 55 miles, Lake Kivu is a gorgeous inland ocean whose shimmering waters are hemmed in by the steep green hills of the Rift Valley. Three attractive port towns stand on the Rwandan lakeshore, the most popular being Rubavu (formerly Gisenyi), thanks to its seductive tropical languor, resort-like layout, and proximity to Volcanoes National Park. The hillier ports of Karongi (Kibuye) and Rusizi (Cyangugu) are even prettier than Rubavu, and the road that connects the three towns is very scenic too.
Sprawling over several hills and valleys in central Rwanda, Kigali is very attractive as capital cities go, and it is also famously well-kept and litter-free. The compact center is easily explored on foot, while the undulating green suburbs offer a range of fine culinary opportunities. Nobody should leave Rwanda without paying a visit to the harrowing Kigali Genocide Memorial, which opened in April 2004, on the tenth anniversary of the genocide.