Burundi Travel Guide
This is a Burundi Travel Guide from taste2travel.com
Date Visited: May 2023
Burundi is a landlocked country which sits very much in the shadow of neighbouring Rwanda, which has itself undergone a remarkable renaissance in recent years.
While the Rwandan capital, Kigali, is modern and glitzy, the capital of Burundi, Bujumbura, is more gritty, dusty and chaotic. Most accommodation options in the Bujumbura are located along the breezy shores of the gigantic Lake Tanganyika, the longest freshwater lake on the world.
If your time in Burundi is limited to visiting just the capital, you will come away with a less than favourable impression of the country. The true gems of Burundi are to be found away from the capital, high up in the nearby mountains.
Burundi has a troubled history marked by ethnic tensions and conflicts. In 1962, it gained independence from Belgium and became a republic.
The country has experienced periods of political instability, including a civil war between Hutu and Tutsi factions that lasted from 1993 to 2006 and resulted in widespread violence and loss of life.
Since the end of the civil war, Burundi has made progress in terms of political stability and socio-economic development. However, challenges such as poverty, corruption, and limited access to basic services persist.
Burundi is known for its rich cultural heritage, including traditional dances, music, and crafts. The drumming tradition holds significant cultural importance in the country.
In terms of governance, Burundi is a presidential republic. The president is both the head of state and the head of government. The country has faced criticism for its human rights record and restrictions on political freedoms.
Overall, Burundi is a country with a complex history and ongoing challenges. While it has made progress in some areas, there is still a need for sustained efforts to address socio-economic issues and promote peace and stability.
I enjoyed my time in Burundi and was pleasantly surprised by what I saw and experienced. I look forward to returning again one day to explore the country further.
Burundi is a land-locked, and mostly mountainous country, which is located in East Africa. Although it does not have access to any ocean, it is located on the massive Lake Tanganyika which is the world’s longest freshwater lake at 673 km (418 mi) in length.
The lake is shared among four countries – Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Zambia and Burundi.
Burundi is bordered by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the east and southeast, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the west.
It is a relatively small country, covering an area of approximately 27,834 square kilometres (10,747 square miles) – making it slightly smaller than Belgium and slightly larger than neighbouring Rwanda.
Burundi has a diverse topography, with varying elevations and landscapes.
The central and eastern parts of the country are dominated by high plateaus and hills, while the western border is formed by Lake Tanganyika, which is one of the deepest and longest lakes in the world.
The capital, Bujumbura, is located in a broad valley, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It is the only flat area of land in the entire country.
Burundi is part of the Great Rift Valley, a geological feature that stretches across East Africa. The western border of the country, formed by Lake Tanganyika, lies within the Rift Valley.
The people of Burundi are diverse, with various ethnic groups contributing to the country’s rich cultural fabric. The two main ethnic groups in Burundi are the Hutu and Tutsi, with the Hutu comprising the majority of the population.
Other smaller ethnic groups include the Twa, who are traditionally hunter-gatherers, and the Ganwa, who are agriculturalists.
The well-known conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi is essentially a class war, with the Tutsis perceived to have greater wealth and social status (as well as favouring cattle ranching over what is seen as the lower-class farming of the Hutus).
In Burundi, the Hutu people are the largest ethnic group, constituting the majority of the population. They primarily engage in agriculture and make up a significant portion of the rural communities.
Approximately 90% of the country’s population is dependent on agriculture, but in what is a very hilly and mountainous country, agricultural productivity, and access to farmable land are low.
The Hutu have their own language, Kirundi, which is widely spoken throughout the country. Kirundi speakers are also found in neighbouring countries such as Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Tutsi people, although a minority, have played a prominent role in Burundi’s history. Traditionally, they were cattle herders and were historically associated with political and social leadership roles.
However, it is important to note that ethnic distinctions in Burundi have been a source of conflict in the past, and today efforts are being made to promote national unity and reconciliation.
The government, and various organisations, are working to promote unity, social cohesion, and the recognition of shared citizenship among the people of Burundi.
The Hutu and Tutsi
In Rwanda and Burundi, the Tutsi and the Hutu are, ethnically, the same people. The distinction is one purely of class, but this distinction has had a devastating impact on relations between all who call Rwanda, and Burundi, home.
During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, it is estimated that approximately 800,000 Tutsi were massacred by Hutu militia groups.
This class classification has existed for centuries. People were classed as either Tutsi or Hutu, depending on their proximity to the king. If you were close to the king, you owned wealth, you owned a lot of cattle, you were a Tutsi.
If you were more distant from the king, you were a cultivator, you didn’t own much cattle, you were a Hutu.
Colonial rule, which began in the late 19th Century, did little to bring the groups together. The Belgians, who ruled what would later become Rwanda and Burundi, forced Hutus and Tutsis to carry ethnic identity cards.
The colonial administrators further exacerbated divisions by only allowing Tutsis to attain higher education and hold positions of power.
It was a classic strategy of ‘divide and conquer’, but it laid for the roots for the devastating genocide of 1994.
The flag of Burundi was adopted on June 28, 1967, when the country gained independence from Belgian colonial rule. It was designed by a local artist and has remained unchanged since its adoption.
The flag consists of a rectangular design divided into three equal horizontal bands of red, white, and green, from top to bottom.
At the centre of the white band, there is a large, circular representation of three red, six-pointed, stars outlined in green. The stars are arranged in a triangular shape, with two stars forming the base and one star at the apex.
The red band represents the struggle for independence and the sacrifices made by the Burundian people, while the white band symbolises peace. It also signifies the desire for peaceful coexistence and harmony among the country’s different ethnic groups.
The green band represents hope for a prosperous future and the country’s agricultural wealth. It symbolises the importance of agriculture in Burundi’s economy and the country’s commitment to environmental sustainability.
The three red six-pointed stars on the flag hold several meanings. They represent the three ethnic groups of Burundi – Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa – coming together in unity. The green outline of the stars represents the country’s lush vegetation and natural resources.
The official currency of Burundi is the Burundian franc (BIF). The currency is abbreviated as “BIF” and is represented by the symbol “FBu” or “F”.
The franc is nominally subdivided into 100 centimes, although coins have never been issued in centimes since Burundi began issuing its own currency.
The Burundian franc is issued by the Central Bank of Burundi, which is known as the Bank of the Republic of Burundi.
Bank notes are issued in denominations of 100, 500, 1000, 2000, 5000 and 10000 BIF.
On the last day of my visit, the government issued a new 5,000 BIF bank note which is the exact same design as the previ0us note, with the only difference being the colour – a change from light blue to beige.
Currency Black Market
A currency black market exists in Burundi with the rates changing constantly.
At the time of my visit, the following rates applied:
- Unofficially: US$1 = BIF 4,000
- Officially: US$1 = BIF 2,831
The option to use the black market exists in many safe places in Bujumbura – ask at any money changer!
No need to take risks by exchanging money on the street.
Generally, credit cards are not accepted in Burundi.
Larger hotels (e.g. Hotel Safari Gate) will allow guests to settle their bill with a credit card, however, due to government restrictions, tour companies and every other company are unable to accept payments with credit card.
It’s best to bring enough USD cash to cover all expenses while in Burundi.
You should avoid using ATMs in Burundi, unless you wish to purchase BIF at the (unfavourable) official exchange rate!
Burundi is an affordable travel destination, especially if you are changing money on the black market.
Sample costs (using black market rate)
- Room at the Hotel Safari Gate in Bujumbura (including breakfast): US$65 per night.
- Meal (budget restaurant): US$5 – 10
- Meal (mid-range restaurant): US$15 – 20
- Primus Beer (0.5L): US$1
- Cappuccino: US$1.30
Sightseeing in Burundi offers a unique blend of natural beauty, cultural heritage, and historical significance. Despite its small size, Burundi boasts a variety of attractions that can appeal to different interests.
To appreciate the true beauty of Burundi, it’s essential to leave the hot and dusty capital of Bujumbura and venture into the interior, where you’ll find a much cooler climate and picturesque, green, hilly countryside dominated by tea plantations and farmlands.
Near the former capital of Gitega, the Gishora Royal Drummers are one of the main attractions of Burundi.
While in Burundi, I occasionally used the services of Ikaze Ventures, a tour company which is owned by the amazing Uwimana Dative (IG: dative_dalor_uwiman/), who is very enthusiastic about tourism in her beloved Burundi.
At the age of 25, Uwimana is a motivated entrepreneur, CEO and a former winner of “Miss Popularity” in Burundi. She is highly driven and this shows in the level of service she provides her clients.
Through her leadership, Ikaze Ventures has trained, and utilises, a team of local female guides.
Public transport outside of Bujumbura isn’t readily available, and most of the main sights, e.g. Tea Plantations, the Gishora Royal Drummers, cannot be easily reached by public transport. It’s much more convenient to utilise a tour company such as Ikaze Ventures.
The capital and largest city of Burundi, Bujumbura (Pop: 375,000) is a fairly unremarkable place. Hot, dusty and chaotic, the capital is located on a hot, lakeside plain, the only flat piece of land in Burundi.
Bujumbura is located on the north-eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, the second deepest lake in the world after Lake Baikal. Most worthwhile accommodation options, and restaurants, are located along the lakeshore.
The main attraction of Bujumbura is the immense Lake Tanganyika, the world’s longest freshwater lake. There are many sandy beaches (some man-made) along the lakeshore. Boats are available for lake cruises.
Bujumbura Craft Market
Located in downtown Bujumbura, the small Bujumbura craft market is a great place to pick up bargain souvenirs and gifts.
Prices asked by the vendors at the craft market are very reasonable. It’s the best souvenir shopping in town.
Gishora Royal Drummers
The #1 tourist attraction in Burundi, the Gishora Royal Drummers are a renowned cultural group known for their exceptional drumming performances and their role in preserving and promoting the country’s traditional music and heritage.
Drumming has deep cultural and historical significance in Burundi, often used to communicate messages, celebrate important events, and accompany various ceremonies.
I visited the Gishora Royal Drummers with Ikaze Ventures as part of a day-trip which included a visit to the Taza Tea Plantation.
The drummers are named after the village of Gishora, located near the former capital of Gitega, which is considered the cultural heart of Burundi.
Video: Gishora Royal Drummers
Gitega is located 100 km due east of Bujumbura, a drive of 2 hours along a windy, mountainous highway.
Video: Gishora Royal Drummers
Performances are staged on demand, whenever tourists arrive at the performance compound, and run for one hour.
The performance involves a great amount of energy and is truly electrifying to watch. While it is a show for tourists, it is thrilling and exciting to watch.
Gishora Royal Palace
The Gishora Royal Drummers perform at the former Royal Palace compound which is located a short drive from the former capital of Gitega.
A visit to the drummers will include a visit to the palace which remains largely unchanged.
The royal estate of Gishora dates from the early 19th century, when the Burundi kingdom had a series of regional palaces.
The Gishora estate consisted of the royal residence, the sacred drums shrine and the house of the servants.
The drum shrine houses two ritual drums that are never beaten: Ruciteme (the one for whom we clear the forest) and Murimirwa (the one for whom we cultivate). Both drums rest on a table inside a dedicated hut.
The royal residence was a courtyard exclusively accessible to the royal family.
In 1966 King Mwambutsa IV was deposed by Prince Ntare V. Ntare V’s rule was however short lived as he was in turn deposed in a coup led by prime minister Captain Michel Micombero.
The military coup meant the end of Burundi as a kingdom, this ended a royal tradition going back to the later 1600s.
Taza Tea Plantation
Burundi is known for its tea production, which is an important sector of the country’s economy.
Tea cultivation and processing have been significant contributors to employment and export revenue.
In 2021, Burundi exported $28.6M in tea, making it the 27th largest exporter of tea in the world. At the same year, tea was the 3rd most exported product in Burundi.
The main destinations of tea exports from Burundi are: Pakistan, Oman, Egypt, China, and United Kingdom.
The country’s favorable climate and altitude make it suitable for growing high-quality tea.
As part of a day-trip with Ikaze Ventures, I had the privilege of spending time with the tea pickers at the Taza Tea Plantation.
For about one hour, I walked with my guide, Uwimana Dative, and a representative from Taza Tea, through the extensive tea plantation.
I was able to witness the tea picking process up close and was able to pick some leaves to chew on – something the pickers like to do!
Dramatic, cloudy skies made for moody photography and the pickers were great fun to be around. They enjoyed being photographed.
While in Burundi, I stayed at the comfortable, but tired and dated, Hotel Safari Gate which lies on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.
A standard room on booking.com costs around US$65 per night.
The hotel offers a swimming pool, gym and a lake-front restaurant where breakfast is served each morning.
There are newer, more contemporary, hotel options further along the lakeshore.
Burundian cuisine is influenced by a combination of local ingredients, traditional cooking methods, and cultural practices. The country’s cuisine reflects its agricultural heritage, with an emphasis on locally grown produce, grains, and legumes.
One of the most popular staples is Ugali (Sima), a thick porridge made from maize (corn) flour, similar to other East African countries. It is a common accompaniment to many meals such as stewed meat.
Restaurants / Cafés
Most restaurants in Bujumbura can be found in the various hotels which line the shore of Lake Tanganyika.
In downtown Bujumbura, both the Bujacafe and Le Café Gourmand serve very good café style food.
Located on Avenue de France, Le Café Gourmand is one of the most popular cafes in Bujumbura, serving freshly baked breads and pastries, and offering a menu of delicious sandwiches and tasty coffee.
The best place to sit at Le Café Gourmand is the rooftop terrace, which affords panoramic views of downtown Bujumbura.
The coffee, pastries and food at Le Café Gourmand are always excellent.
Not to be outdone, the popular Bujacafe also offers very good coffee and food in a leafy garden space in downtown Bujumbura.
Alcohol is served at many restaurants in Bujumbura, with South African wines and local beers such as Primus standard favourites.
The Visa Policy of Burundi is wonderfully simple.
Nationals of a few neighbouring countries, the East African Community (EAC), enjoy visa-free travel to Burundi, while all other nationalities can apply for a Visa-on-Arrival (VOA) at both Bujumbura International Airport and at all land borders.
It’s important to note that while a VOA is available at all border entry points – both at land borders and at Bujumbura International Airport, you can only apply for a full VOA (i.e. valid for a stay of one month) at Bujumbura airport.
If you enter via a land border, you’ll be issued with a ‘transit’ VOA which is valid for 3 days! If you wish to stay longer in the country, you’ll need to get your transit visa extended in Bujumbura, which is a process that can take the best part of a day.
You can save yourself considerable time and hassle by using a local tour operator, such as Dative to take care of the extension for you. Her company can secure extensions in a matter of hours while you are busy sightseeing.
Summary of visa costs (@ June 2023):
- One month entry visa (Bujumbura airport only) = US$90
- 3-day transit visa (Bujumbura airport and all land borders) = US$40
- Visa extension in Bujumbura (to convert transit visa into one month visa) = US$10
As can be noted from the above fees, if you are a penny-pinching traveller, you could secure a one-month visa for US$50 instead of the usual US$90 by first purchasing a transit visa for US$40 then extending it for an additional US$10.
The only negative is that you’ll spend most of one day in Bujumbura tied up in the extension process.
The only international airport in Burundi is Melchior Ndadaye International Airport – aka Bujumbura International Airport (IATA: BJM), which is located 8 km from downtown Bujumbura.
Built by the Belgium colonial authorities, the airport was opened in 1952 and remains mostly unchanged and unrenovated. The small terminal, which is open to the elements, lacks air-conditioning and is in a state of disrepair.
There is one café on the airside of the terminal which is operated by
On 1 July 2019, the airport was renamed Melchior Ndadaye International Airport after the first democratically elected president of Burundi who was murdered in a coup d’état in October 1993, three months after being elected.
The following airlines operate scheduled services to/from
- Air Tanzania – flies to/ from Dar es Salaam, Kigoma
- Brussels Airlines – flies to/ from Brussels
- Ethiopian Airlines – flies to/ from Addis Ababa
- Kenya Airways – flies to/ from Nairobi–Jomo Kenyatta
- RwandAir – flies to/ from Kigali
- Uganda Airlines – flies to/ from Entebbe
Taxis and hotel shuttle services typically charge US$20 for the 8 km trip between the airport and downtown Bujumbura.
Entry into Burundi can be made overland from Rwanda, Tanzania and DRC.
As mentioned in the Visa section, 3-day transit visas can be purchased at all land borders for US$40. These can be extended in Bujumbura for an additional US$10.
The quality of roads and transportation infrastructure in mountainous Burundi can vary, especially in rural and remote areas. Some roads might be unpaved or in poor condition, making travel challenging.
Unlike neighbouring Rwanda, there are no speed cameras in Burundi which means the driving style is faster and more reckless!
The best option for exploring outside of Bujumbura is to utilise a tour company such as Ikaze Ventures, who will include a vehicle and driver.
Minibuses (Matatus) are a common mode of public transport in Burundi, especially in urban areas like the capital city, Bujumbura.
Matatus are privately operated and serve as a primary means of transportation for many residents. Often crowded, they follow set routes and pick up passengers along the way.
Motorcycle taxis, known as boda-bodas, are a popular and often more convenient option for short-distance travel within cities and towns. They are commonly used for quick point-to-point trips and are readily available for hire.
Taxis are available in urban areas and provide a relatively more comfortable and private mode of transportation compared to minibuses and boda-bodas. They can be hired for both short distances within a city and longer journeys.
There are a few car rental companies in Bujumbura such as 4X4 Burundi, who offer cars starting at US$60 per day.
That’s the end of my travel guide for Burundi.
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Author: Darren McLean
Darren McLean is an Australian full-time digital nomad who has spent 36 years on a slow meander around the globe, visiting all seven continents and 229 UN+ countries and territories.
He founded taste2travel to pique one’s curiosity and inspire wanderlust.