Nestled in Rwanda’s north is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. It is home to spectacular scenery, some of the best hotels in the country and Lake Kivu – the main attraction of this idyllic lakeside resort town that tens of thousands of visitors flock to every year. If you’re visiting Rwanda and want to explore the country’s beauty or simply want to take a relaxed weekend out of Kigali, Gisenyi is the place for you.
Located 160kms or three hours drive from Kigali, the journey to Gisenyi is an easy one that takes you along a winding road past rolling hills, corn fields and the famous road stop Urwibutso Enterprises. Whether you’re travelling by public bus or with your own car, it’s worth taking a break there. Sample some of the best brochettes in Rwanda, pick up Mandazi (local take on the donut) and even strawberry juice made from locally grown produce.
The road to Gisenyi also takes you past Musanze – the gateway to the gorillas. As the regional centre of Rwanda’s Northern Province, Musanze is a thriving hub of economic activity. The town is the perfect place to grab a bite to eat before continuing to Gisenyi. Volcana Lounge, located on the main road, has spectacular views out to the Volcanoes National Park and the best pizza in town.
After driving for one hour from Musanze, the glistening Lake Kivu reveals itself. At 2,700 square kilometres, the huge body of water certainly earns its place among Africa’s Great Lakes. Driving down into Gisenyi you will notice some of the more than 150 hotels and restaurants dotted along the lakeshore, from budget motels to luxury resorts. If you’re after an upmarket experience, look no further than the Serena Kivu. The hotel has its own private beach, a panoramic restaurant, indoor and beachside bars, a swimming pool and the ‘Maisha’ Health Centre where you can indulge in spa treatments, boating, swimming, tennis, fishing, hiking and trekking. For those after something a little less extravagant but just as stylish, the Gorillas Lake Kivu is for you. This hotel has lake views and a terrific restaurant called Ubwato – the name given to the canoes used by local fisherman. Volleyball and badminton are also on offer for the active guest.
If you’re keen to stay away from the hustle and bustle of Gisenyi, a number of boutique resorts located a short drive from town will have you relaxed from the moment you arrive. Paradise Malahide and Inzu Lodge are two of the best small hotels in Gisenyi and offer excellent accommodation at a reasonable price.
Paradise Malahide is a favourite for Kigali residents wanting to take a weekend away to recharge, soak up some sun or indulge in the best Isambaza in Gisenyi. These small fish are caught by fishermen who go out every other evening and spend the night on the lake. If you’re by the shore at dusk, be sure to listen out for the fishermen singing. When the sun goes down, their lamps light up the lake like small fires dotted on the horizon. A twin room including breakfast at Paradise Malahide costs 45,000 francs (US $65).
Another excellent option is Inzu Lodge. On offer is double and twin single tented accommodation for 25,000 francs per night (US $40). Alternatively, bringing your own tent will set you back 12,000 francs (US $20). The lodge is located on the hillside above the shore and has spectacular views all the way out to eastern Congo. Inzu Lodge also returns a percentage of their profits back to the local community.
A trip to Gisenyi would be incomplete without visiting Tam Tam Beach. Located on the road to the Bralirwa brewery, the beach hosts music parties and a number of boating activities. You can canoe, take a sail boat out or enjoy a ride on a Jet Ski. Prices range from 3,000-6,000 francs (US $5-10). Once you’ve exhausted yourself, the Tam Tam bar is a popular spot to relax for locals and tourists alike. For those more interested in seeing the lake from afar, a recently opened eco-walk provides unrivalled views of Gisenyi and neighbouring Goma – all the way out to the active Nyiragongo volcano in the DR Congo. The walk takes you along the side of the rehabilitated Mt Rubavu. Simply go to the main church in town where the walk starts, pay a small fee and enjoy this self guided stroll. Be on the lookout for local birds and wildlife.
After seeing the town from above, the main market is the perfect place to get to know Gisenyi, try local produce or have your own piece of clothing made. Seamstresses and tailors there still use old style Singer sewing machines. A custom made dress will set you back around 12,000 francs (US $20). If you’re not afraid to explore, a little known secret in Gisenyi is the natural hot springs dotted along the edge of Lake Kivu. Take the road past the brewery and follow it down to the lakeside. All locals known where they are so simply ask for the Amashasa.
After a busy few days exploring Gisenyi, it’s time to head back to Kigali. On your way back drop in to the famous KIAKA. This artisan cooperative produces some of the finest handicrafts and artwork in Rwanda and should not be missed. Located fifteen minutes out of Gisenyi, KIAKA sells handmade bowls, traditional Agaseke (peace baskets), hardware supplies and much more. Prices range from US $1 to $30.
Gisenyi is your perfect holiday destination. With numerous hotels offering high quality accommodation, world class restaurants and dozens of fun activities for the whole family, add this historical lakeside paradise to your itinerary when you next visit Rwanda.