Rwanda Itinerary Guide: Honest Advice for Planning an Awesome Trip

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Where to Rwander?


This Rwanda itinerary guide is one of four Unconventional Route blog posts about Rwanda. The others are Rwanda travel tips, Rwanda’s pros and cons, and hiking Mount Bisoke.

Even though Rwanda’s a small country, you can’t squeeze it all into a single trip. So to help you decide what to include in your Rwanda itinerary and what to leave out, here’s our experience.

For each of Rwanda’s top tourist regions that we visited during our eight-day trip, we’ll share why you might want to add it to your itinerary, why not, and our favorite things to do and see.

Combine our experiences and opinions with advice from your friends who’ve been before and what other bloggers and guides say. Adjust for your personal preferences, budget, and timeline. And have a Rwanda-full time.

In This Rwanda Itinerary Guide

Why add each of the following areas to your Rwanda itinerary, why not, and what to do, eat, and see at each (based on our limited experience).

A Better Rwanda Travel Guide than Ours

Bradt’s Rwanda travel guide has more and better information than any other out there, our site included.

Read it cover to cover before you go (one of our top travel tips), and bring it with you.

Kigali modern Schokala cafe
Kigali’s Shokola Cafe was quiet and clean, just like the rest of the city.

Kigali

Rwanda’s capital is by far the country’s biggest city but far from a metropolis; it’s more of a large-scale suburb.

Why Add It to Your Itinerary?


✓ Inevitability

You’re probably flying into and/or out of Kigali’s airport and all Rwandan roads go through the capital, so you’d have to try hard to avoid it.

✓ Cosmopolitan Rwanda

Kigali has by far the best and most varied options for shopping, dining, partying, sleeping, and everything-ing in the country.

Nyamirambo Womens center
Like the rest of Kigali, we didn’t find anything particularly special in Nyamirambo Women’s Center.

Why Not Add It to Your Itinerary?


✗ Nothing special

Rwanda’s other attractions are more worth your time. Unless you have days to kill, rather than include Kigali in your itinerary, let it fill in the gaps. See and do Kigali’s attractions in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings you happen to be passing through.

Things to Do and See We Liked (So You Might Like Them, Too)


The Genocide Memorial

The final resting place for 250,000 Rwandans who were murdered during the 1994 genocide. The museum will overwhelm you with poignancy, but it won’t overwhelm you with information. We felt the videos and displays are just the right amount of information to understand and feel what happened.

It’ll take an hour or two to see all of it. Visits are by donation.

Khana Kazan Restaurant

By our last night in the country, we’d had our fill of Rwandan food, so this Indian restaurant hit the spot. And it hit hard. The food was delicious, the servings were much bigger than expected, and they really mean it when they say, “spicy.” For 40k RWF (~40 USD), we stuffed ourselves silly and had two beers each.

Question Coffee

Kim loved the coffee in Rwanda and Question’s was unquestionably her favorite. There’s only one location in Kigali but you’ll get a taste of it at the Volcanoes National Park headquarters if you do any treks there.

Kigali City Tower

We didn’t go because of bad weather, but an expat we talked to said that when the weather’s nice so is the view.

She pointed out that it emblemizes the country: it looks clean and modern from the outside but inside, where the offices are mostly empty, something’s off.

It’s free to go up. Don’t let the guards tell you otherwise.

Where to Stay


Not where we stayed

On our first night in Kigali, the hotel we stayed at tried to overcharge us. On our last night, we found baby cockroaches all over the floor and bed frame and had to evacuate to another last-ditch hostel.

Maybe try Step Town Hotel. A lady we met in Nyungwe, who comes regularly to work on her nonprofit, Boundless Peace, told us the manager’s fantastic and will give you all the Rwanda travel tips you need (but check ours, too). Our fault for not heeding her advice.

Pair of male impalas fight head to head
A pair of male impalas showing off for the ladies.

Akagera National Park

On Rwanda’s eastern border with Tanzania, Akagera National Park is a game park that, like the rest of the country, is steadily recovering and repopulating after being devastated by the genocide.

If you want to include Akagera in your Rwanda travel itinerary, we highly recommend spending a night or two so you can drive the length of the park from south to north before returning to Kigali.

Why Add It to Your Itinerary?


✓ It’s not a zoo

The park may not yet have the same quantity of wild animals but it doesn’t have nearly the same quantity of human animals either, so it feels wilder.

Lee, an American pediatric doctor we met at Karenge Camp, comes to Rwanda once or twice a year and never misses Akagera when he does. He prefers the safaris there over all the other game parks he’s been to in Africa with his Rwandan friend and guide, Charles Karenzi.

✓ Support the cause

The money you spend at Akagera ($50 US per day park entry + $12 US for your vehicle) crucially supports the rehabilitation and protection of the park and its animals.

Zebra mother and baby in the tall brush.
Did you know that baby zebras are born with brown and white stripes?

Why Not Add It to Your Itinerary?


✗ Fewer animals

For example, seeing elephants in Akagera is a big deal whereas in other parks we’ve been to in Namibia, South Africa, and Kenya they’re abundant.

✗ Time limitations

You need at least two days to comfortably experience Akagera. It takes three hours to get to from Kigali, five hours to drive through from the south gate to the north one, and four hours to get back from. So if you only have a few days in Rwanda, you’ll want to prioritize the mountains, jungles, and lakes that make the country unique.

✗ You need your own car

If you’re not renting a car for your Rwanda travels, getting to and around Akagera will be too difficult and expensive.

If you are renting a car, see our Rwanda travel tips post for some advice based on our experience.

Kilala Plain full of animals
Kilala Plain in the north of Akagera.

Things to Do and See We Liked (So You Might Like Them, Too)


Kilala Plain

Kilala Plain is a long way from the south of the park, where the entrance and most hotels are, but is worth it as there’s less dense brush so you can spot more animals.

Driving down the hill into Kilala plain was exactly the African safari experience you might imagine. We saw herds of buffalo, giraffes, warthogs, zebra, and buck everywhere. And, unlike in other African game parks, we could actually get out of our car and have a picnic among them!

Imigongo Art Cafe

On the drive between Kigali and Akagera, we stopped for a quick pick-me-up of meatballs, samosas, and banana bread (all 500 RWF each) and freshly made coffee (1,500 RWF).

Wild Nights

A night or two in Akagera is worth it for the animal noises, clear starry nights, spectacular sunrises and sunsets, and campfire conversations.

Kim walks into Ruzizi Tented Camp
Ruzizi Tented Camp was a piece of paradise beside Lake Ihema in Akagera.

Where to Stay


Ruzizi Tented Camp

Our only disappointment from Ruzizi Tented Camp was that none of the hippos or crocodiles came to graze or relax on the grass in front of our lakeside luxury tent, which apparently occurs frequently. Kim did send me out of bed to investigate some late-night rustling just outside our tent, though.

Ruzizi exceeded our expectations otherwise. Glamping on our own private swathe of lakefront jungle felt adventurous, the fireside dinner on the lakeside dock was delicious, and the sunrise at breakfast was as spectacular as the balls of the vervet monkeys that watched us eat were blue.

Chris reading at Karenge Bush Camp
Reading just outside of our safari tent at Karenge Bush Camp.

Karenge Bush Camp

Karenge is on a hill overlooking Kilala plain at the end of a rough road through leopard territory and swarms of tsetse flies (don’t worry, they disperse as soon as you park). There are only six two-person sleeping tents and one main dining tent, all of which are made without cement or other permanent construction materials to leave a minimal footprint.

Despite the basic facilities, Karenge Bush Camp is luxurious in its own way. Each tent (and its accompanying shower and toilet) has a pristine view over the plain, the staff go out of their way to make sure you’re enjoying yourself, and the dinners are delectable.

Mount bisoke hiking group at Volcanoes National Park
Our hiking group embarks on a muddy adventure up Mount Bisoke at Volcanoes National Park.

Volcanoes National Park

The name, Volcanoes National Park, buries the lede. Sure, there are volcanoes, but this place is all about the gorillas.

Musanze, Rwanda’s third or fourth biggest city, is 30 minutes away. Mid and low-budget travelers typically base their visit from there. Those who don’t think twice about the $1,500 US fee to hang with gorillas tend to stay in more remote camps closer by.

Why Add It to Your Itinerary?


✓ Gorillas

Duh.

✓ Tourist friendly(-er)

Thanks to all the tourist attention and money the gorillas attract, the area around Musanze and Volcanoes National Park has the most developed tourism infrastructure in Rwanda. That’s not saying much, but it is easier to find other things to do, see, and eat here than elsewhere in the country.

Chris drinking free coffee at the Volcanoes National Park Headquarters
Mzungu mania at Volcanoes National Park HQ prior to trek time.

Why Not Add It to Your Itinerary?


✗ Uganda and Congo are less extraordinarily expensive

Gorilla trekking costs a lot more in Rwanda, 1,500 USD, than in neighboring countries. It costs 600 USD in Uganda and 450 USD in Congo.

✗ Not much to see in Musanze

We didn’t find much appeal to the busy city of Musanze itself.

Chris and Kim smiling on the Mount Bisoke hike
Full of spunk and clean from mud before the muddy slip and slide Mount Bisoke hike.

Things to Do and See We Liked (So You Might Like Them, Too)


Mount Bisoke Hike

The hike up Mount Bisoke turned out to be a lot more than we bargained for, in both good ways (gorillas!) and bad (mud and fog!). We don’t recommend it to everyone, as we share in our practical guide (/warning) to the hike.

Italian Food at La Locanda

The three-course meals (13,000 RWF) we had in our guesthouse’s relaxing restaurant, which is open to the public, hit the spot after our hike. Apparently, the pizza’s even better, but they only make it when there are ten or more people.

La Paillotte

Despite its name, this restaurant’s pretty much the opposite of French. Service is friendly and meals are reasonably fast, surprisingly cheap, and enormously portioned.

Not knowing this, we ordered a 1,500 RWF guacamole salad for a starter. Out came a whole soup bowl full of pure, if slightly too peppery, guac. After devouring it, there was no way we could also finish the 5,000 RWF daily menu of soup, a heaping main course, and dessert.

Nyirangarama Akabanga HQ

Nyirangarama HQ is along the road between Kigali and Musanze. Legend has it that it’s on the exact spot where around 1983 a man named Sina Gerard began selling snacks to passersby. His customers particularly enjoyed his hot sauce, so he started selling it on its own. And people didn’t stop buying it.

Today, you’ll find the eyedropper bottles of his Akabanga hot sauce on nearly every dining table in Rwanda and the highway where he started is now the headquarters of his empire.

Buy some 500 RWF bottles of Akabanga to take home. Or buy some of his Rwandan wine for 8,000 RWF or 14% alcohol banana beer for 1,000 RWF. (But only do so if you’re curious because we promise it tastes nasty). Teetotalers can try his Agashya passion fruit juice instead.

La Locana restaurant in Muzanze
La Locanda spoiled us with homecooked Italian food and cozy rooms.

Where to Stay


Somewhere with lots of warm water and fast laundry

We were grateful to have a strong warm shower and a fireplace waiting for us amidst the peaceful gardens of La Locanda after getting scratched, bruised, and filthy dirty trekking in Volcanoes National Park. They also did our laundry for us in the evening after we returned, so we didn’t have to carry muddy gear with us for the rest of our trip.

We were too exhausted to deal with going out for dinner, so it was also a relief to eat at their aforementioned restaurant.

Lake Kivu rainbow
The sun managed to poke through for a couple of hours on our second morning at Lake Kivu.

Lake Kivu

Africa’s eighth biggest lake by area and the world’s seventeenth biggest by volume, Lake Kivu is landlocked Rwanda’s top destination for relaxing by the water.

Why Add It to Your Itinerary?


✓ Rwandan beach life

The cheap plastic beach chairs, beer-branded umbrellas, and palapa at Gisenyi’s Tam Tam Beach’s grill and the pool and beach chairs at Lake Serena Hotel next door felt like any tropical seaside destination, minus the salt.

✓ Swimming

The water’s refreshing and no hippos or crocodiles live in the lake.

✓ Fish

Eat some fresh-from-the-lake fish, catch your own on a night fishing tour with local fishermen, or swim with them in the pleasantly-temperatured waters.

✓ Views

Rwanda’s luscious hills are more impressive when they’re reflected in the lake below.

Lake Kivu blue monkey
What’re you looking at?

Why Not Add It to Your Itinerary?


✗ A bit boring

The Lake Kivu area teeters on the fine line between relaxing and boring. Once we did our boat tour with Emmanuel (see below), we had a hard time finding things to do other than chill.

✗ The lake may explode

A cloud of CO2 and methane sit at the bottom of the lake, held down by the massive weight of the water above it. If were to ever squeeze out onto the top in what’s called a limnic eruption, it would be the world’s deadliest fart, creating a cloud of deadly suffocating gas.

Hiking to the top of Napolean's Hat on Lake Kivu with friends, one of our Rwanda itinerary guide top recommendations.
Hiking to the top of Napoleon Island on Lake Kivu with friends.

Things to Do and See We Liked (So You Might Like Them, Too)


Boat tours

For 20,000 RWF an hour, you can hire a captain to boat your around to feed monkeys, startle fruit bats, hike hills, spot birds, and swim and chill on the Kivu Lake’s islands.

As with any tour, your enjoyment will largely depend on the quality of your guide. For that reason, we recommend reaching out to Emmanuel of Blue Monkey Tours. He’s a go-getter who speaks good English and understands the importance of delivering word-of-mouth-worthy service. He can also guide you on the Congo-Nile trail and Mount Kibuye.

Hike the hills

On our last morning in the Lake Kivu area, we didn’t know what to do, so we opened Maps.Me, looked around for signs of trails, and picked out one (this one) near Kibuye that looked to take us up to the top of a hill.

While the trail vanished halfway up, we found our way to the top without too much difficulty. The 360-degree view of Kibuye and Kivu from up top was fantastic, walking in the rural countryside and greeting the people there was wonderful, and our swim in the lake afterward, was extra refreshing.

Try the sambaza fish at Lake Kivu as part of your Rwanda itinerary and trip.
Fried sambaza, grilled beef, and fried green bananas for lunch in Gisenyi, Lake Kivu.

Sambaza

Sambaza are sardine-like fish endemic to Lake Kivu. I had them at every opportunity. Kim didn’t because she refuses to eat any sort of small fish. Too bad because I bet if she had sampled them the surprisingly un-fishy flavor and lack of bones might have changed her mind.

Sunset drinks

Being on the eastern edge of a big lake you often can’t see the other side of makes for magnificent sunsets.

Kibuye’s swanky Cormoran Lodge gives you a great vantage point and, aside from the 4,000 RWF coffees, the restaurant is a reasonably good deal for dinner after.

Paradis Malahide

We met our friends here, just south of Gisenyi, after their Congo volcano crater trek. The food didn’t impress too much but the location on the lake certainly did.

Sauna and swimming

A hot tip from a Canadian Rwanda resident we met in Nyungwe: Moriah Hill Resort in Kibuye has a Finnish-built sauna. For around 6,000 RWF you can spend as long as you want jumping between it and the lake.

Kayak

A freshwater version of our adventures in Coron, Philippines, paddling from island to island, would make for a great day for those who, like us, like to stay fit and active while traveling. We missed out on it because we didn’t realize it was a possibility until the day we had to leave.

Macheo Eco Lodge in Kibuye Lake Kivu
Hilltop Macheo Eco Lodge has friendly staff and gorgeous views.

Where to Stay


Macheo Ecolodge

We enjoyed decent food, cold beers, nice views, a quiet vibe, and friendly staff at this tidy little budget hilltop eco-llodge and campsite.

Gisenyi vs. Kibuye

Gisenyi’s more developed than Kibuye and more popular with weekending Kigalians, so if you want to party and generally have more action and things to do, Gisenyi’s a better bet. It’s also a couple of hours closer to Musanze and Volcanos National Park than Kibuye.

Kibuye’s smaller for a quieter spot and for those continuing on to Nyungwe. And the road between Gisenyi, Kibuye, and Nyungwe is freshly paved.

Nyungwe forest and tea plantations
Tea plantations surround the misty and dense tropical Nyungwe forest.

Nyungwe

Pronounced kneeooong-way, this national park in the southwest of Rwanda is the largest montane forest in East and Central Africa. It’s also believed to be one of the oldest in Africa, so evolution has had tons of time to work its diversity-creating wonder.

Why Add It to Your Itinerary?


✓ Beautiful views

The mist evaporating off of Nyungwe’s rugged mountain jungles is a show-stopper. Or a drive-stopper. While driving towards and through the park, we parked our car on multiple occasions to take it in. And the sunrise views from Kitabe EcoCenter were the best of our entire Rwanda trip.

✓ Fresh air

The forest filtered air feels extra fresh and invigorating in densely-populated Rwanda, where every last parcel of non-parkland is some type of farm.

Morning mist at Kitabi in Nyungwe Forest
Morning mist at Kitabi Eco Lodge just outside the Nyungwe Forest

Why Not Add It to Your Itinerary?


✗ Out of the Way

Adding Nyungwe to your Rwanda itinerary may be a bit of stretch if you’re only coming for a short trip to see the gorillas and maybe hang out at the lake a bit. It takes at least four hours to get there from Gisenyi, another hour to drive through, and at least another four hours back to Kigali.

✗ The Expense

The hikes cost 40 USD each and the accommodation is expensive for what you get. For instance, a rustic hut at Kitabi Eco-Center with shared bucket showers and no internet (but an amazing view!) costs close to 50 USD a night. The One&Only‘s more luxurious—we pretended to be interested in staying the night to have the chance to check it out—but costs 1,799 USD.

Mountain monkey in Nyungwe Forest
One of the many mountain monkeys we saw on the side of the road through Nyungwe. They didn’t seem to mind the rain. They’d like Vancouver.

Things to Do and See We Liked (So You Might Like Them, Too)


Free Jungle Game Drive

You have no choice but to drive slowly along the 50km paved road that cuts straight through Nyungwe because of the 40km/h speed limit 40km/h, but if you’re like us you’ll go even slower. That way you have a better chance of spotting some of the forest’s 13 species of primate, 275 birds, 85 mammals, 32 amphibians, and 38 reptiles.

Sunrise views at Kitabi Eco Lodge
Sunrise at Kitabi Eco-Center in Nyungwe.

Sunset and sunrise at Kitabi Ecocenter

The One&Only on one side of Nyungwe National Park may be many levels of luxury above Kitabi Ecocenter on the other, but no matter how much you pay you can’t top the views from Kitabi.


Jungle walks and hiking

We decided against squeezing a hike in Nyungwe’s 130 kilometers worth of trails into our Rwanda travel itinerary (and squeezing out the 40 USD each to do so). A fellow Canadian we met who lives in the area and comes regularly to explore them told us (politely) that was a bad decision.

Be sure to include the Inyambo cows as part of your Rwanda itinerary
Hard to blame this bull for looking angry. Those horns must get annoying.

Inyambo Cows

Break up the four-plus hour drive between Nyungwe’s eastern entrance and Kigali with a stop at the King’s Palace Museum in Nyanza and pay 3,000 RWF to hang out with enormously horny Inyambo cows.

Cafe Connexion and Inzozi Nziza

Two more spots to stop at between Nyungwe and Kigali. Both are in Huye (Butare).

Cafe Connexion’s goal is to get Rwandans to start consuming the coffee they produce by charging low prices (500 RWF) for high-quality coffee.

Inzozi Nziza was closed when we went by, which is too bad because multiple people raved to us about it.

Kitabi at Nyungwe Forest
Kitabi Eco-Center is rustic and still needs work, but their views are five-star.

Where to Stay


Kitabi Ecocenter

Kitabi Ecocenter is a work in progress, but it has the makings of a masterpiece. The staff is fantastic, the traditional huts are unique, the buffet dinners are satisfying, and the social vibe is a welcome change from other lonely corners of the country. And, as already mentioned, the views are incomparable.

The American owner told us the cold bucket showers would change our lives. We tried and we’re not convinced.

What’s Your Plan?

Leave a comment with any questions we might be able to help you with planning your Rwanda travel itinerary. Don’t miss our other three blog posts on Rwanda (links below). And please share your own suggestions, opinions, and experiences for other readers’ benefit.

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Need help planning your trip and travel itinerary to Rwanda? Let us help with this in-depth guide to Rwanda.

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