Butare was the largest and most important city in Rwanda prior to 1965, when it lost out to the more centrally located Kigali, 35km to its north, as the capital of independent Rwanda. Today the site of several academic institutions, including the country’s largest university Butare is still regarded to be the intellectual and cultural pulse of Rwanda. It is also an attractively compact and sedate town of shady avenues emanating from a main street med with comfortable small hotels and breezy terrace restaurants.
The most prominent tourist attraction in Butare is the superb National Museum, which houses perhaps the finest ethnographic collection in East Africa, Absorbing displays of traditional artefacts are illuminated by a fascinating selection of turn-of-the century monochrome photographs, providing insight not only into pre colonial lifestyles, but also into the subsequent development of Rwanda as a modern African state.
The cultural significance of the Butare area is further underlined by a visit to nearby Nyabisindu, formerly known as Nyanza, the traditional seat of Rwanda’s feudal monarchy. The impressive Royal Palace at Nyanza, an enormous domed construction made entirely with traditional materials, has been painstakingly restored to its 19th century state and is now maintained as a museum.