Kinshasa is the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
This once modern African city has suffered from the decay and stagnation caused during the conflict in the country. Many modern buildings lay unused and abandoned. The private sector is making progress. The authorities have recently been reconstructing the potholed roads and generally tidying the city. The main thoroughfare, Boulevard du 30 Juin, now looks very smart, with 4 lanes in each direction and modern street lighting. The excesses of the mobile phone companies advertising has been brought under control - no longer is every building painted red, blue or orange.
Kinshasa's infrastructure is largely dysfunctional; electricity is reliable only in Gombe (the city centre where most expats live) with other parts of the city experiencing power outages several times weekly. Running water can be found in most parts of the city, although Gombe is again the only area that enjoys a fairly consistent level of service. While certain central roads are paved, most neighborhood roads are dirt only. None of the roads are well maintained.
Connections to Europe can be made with Air France from Paris, France , Brussels Airlines from Brussels in Belgium,Royal air Maroc from Casablanca in Morocco . Hewa Bora also offered flights to and from Europe until they were placed upon the EU's no-fly blacklist.
The Kinshasa airport used to have a terrible reputation for corrupt officials asking for bribes. They have improved things and it is quite manageable. Just follow everyone else and try not to look like a tourist! A yellow fever vaccination certificate is essential. Watch out for being mobbed by volunteer 'helpers' once you are outside the airport, who will want to carry your bags in return for tips.
Keep in mind that when returning to the airport to leave you can not drive your car or take a cab onto the airport property without paying for parking / access $5 or $10.
A taxi into town will probably cost you $30-$50 (usually without air conditioning!). It is an hour's drive into the centre of Kinshasa. Best option is to get a shuttle offered by one of the travel companies on the right outside the arrivals door.
The railroad of Congo once covered the entire country during colonial times, but has fallen in to heavy disuse. While there is a central train station in Kinshasa, train service is erratic at best and does not run to many destinations for tourists. Tickets are usually only able to be bought the day of travel shortly before the train arrives and can prove to be difficult to get.
Apart from the road Matadi to Kinshasa a car is no means for overland travel. You might be successful with a 4x4 in the upper northern region (Bangassou - Nia Nia - Isiro) and maybe the axis Kinshasa - Lumumbashi. All other towns are accessible only by air transport or boat.
You can go by bus, which really isn't the best choice. You would probably die
You can arrive by boat from Brazzaville, if you have a visa. There are speed boats that go quickly for a limited number of people, or you can take the barge with local merchants if you have time. Ask to go to "the Beach", which is the ferry terminal.
Officially there is a city bus and it has been bolstered recently by some older buses from Belgium being gifted to Kinshasa to improve the routes. This system pales in comparison to the "taxi" system that has risen organically to serve the needs of the people of Kinshasa.
Essentially, these taxis are small buses. They run set routes between embarkation points that are the "stops". The cost between these various points is usually around 350 Francs. If one's destination is through multiple points, different taxis will need to be boarded to complete the route, making the system take a good deal of time during busy traffic hours.
People waiting at the stops will move their hands in a variety of gestures to signal which direction they are going. A taxi will then stop and pick up someone if they are going in the same direction and have space in the taxi.
This system works well for the locals. For visitors and foreigners, it can be quite difficult as one needs to know the hand signs, have knowledge of the routes, be ready to sit in cramped, hot vehicles with many other people, and deal with the potential dangers of these vehicles as many are barely road-worthy. Traveling through this manner absolutely requires local help for those unfamiliar with the system. One will also have to speak French or Lingala as the drivers do not speak English.
There are also traditional taxis for hire. They are available for single runs or can be hired by the day. This can be a tricky business and should be handled with care (especially at the airport) as there are those will take people to remote locations and rob them. Again, help from a local is best or using drivers that others in the area have past experience with and trust. Rates for these taxis vary widely and if one does not appear to be of African descent, there will also be an automatic premium added.
Go see the bonobos by Lac de ma Vallée, Chutes de Zongo in Bas Congo and Bombo Lumene on the road to Kikwit. A BBQ on a sandbank on the Congo River is definitely also a must. Renting a boat for a day with a driver and all the gear (tables, chairs, a suntent and a BBQ) will set you back around 150$ at the Yacht Club Kinshasa. The boat can take 8 people, so if you share the cost it is quite affordable. A truly unforgettable experience if you don't forget the meat and the Primus!
Don't forget to get some arts in Le marché des valeurs, sometimes called marché des voleurs... the first calling means market of value, the second in changing only one letter means market of thieves. Be prepared to haggle and don't pay the initial asking price that will be at least 60-75% over the final price if not more. For some more upscale art you can go to the Academie des Beaux Arts on Avenue Pierre Mulele (formerly Avenue 24 Novembre) or to Symphonie des Arts: towards Kintambo on the Boulevard du 30 Juin, turn right after the elephant when you see the barrier on your right... then it's on your left hand accross from the big colonial villa. A more time consuming but far more interesting and personal way to get to know the artists of the country would be to visit their private studios. Prices are high even there for paintings of Lema Kusa, Henri Kalama or Nshole, but worth every penny considering the quality of their works and their international career.
A more relax and fun way to buy street art is to have a beer at Surcouf: it's on the street off the boulevard 30 Juin towards Justice off the INSS building. Sit at a table and have a drink (Primus is recommended) and the artists will come and show all kinds of artworks all the time. The same rule on negotiating applies as at Marché des valeurs.
Kinkole is a small village in the eastern part of the city's rural area. It's on the RN1 (Boulevard Lumumba), further than the airport. It has a nice restaurant area where you can enjoy all the local food on a terrace. A lot of people come here to relax so there's a lot of people trying to get you into their business. If you go closer to the river there's a fisherman market where food from the river is brought. Be careful if you want to take pictures, you'll probably have to pay someone first as this is considered the international border.
Jardin d'Eden is a restaurant and music bar by the shores of the Nsele river, in the eastern part of the city's rural area. It is further than Kinkole, after the airport. There is a really relaxing athmosphere there. You can eat, listen to the live band playing Congolese classiscs or even take a boat on the river Nsele. The food and drinks are affordable for middle class.
The US Dollar (USD) is the prevalent currency for most transactions of any significant quantity. Payment in USD for a purchase will likely return change to you in USD for denominations greater than $5-$10. Lesser amounts, and any remainder, will be paid in Congolese Francs (approx 900 CF per 1 USD - as of 22 MARCH 2010). Credit cards are not widely accepted -- do not count on them to keep you afloat. Only major hotels (ie The Memling) and some Supermarkets will accept them (if there are no connectivity issues). Cash can be withdrawn from the PRO CREDIT Bank with a valid international VISA ATM card. Denominations are distributed in USD and/or CF. Ensure that you have notified your bank of your intentions to travel in order to ensure seamless and unhindered use of foreign ATMs.
Plenty of cyber cafes exist, so don't worry about staying connected.
The Association Belgo-Congolais (ABC) rents out videos (VHS and DVD).
Go for a walk/jog along the river in front of the British /German embassies.
Go to church on a Sunday morning like most of the locals do.
Lingala is the local language spoken in this region beyond French. Learning a bit goes a long way to befriending locals.
The good supermarkets are the following: Peloustore located on the boulevard (big orange/yellow building with green letters). Good vegetables and all dry goods that you can find in Belgium. Expresse located on the boulevard, a little off from Peloustore. Here you can find good vegetables and the best "charcuterie", cold cutt meat? City Market If you turn on the corner of Expresse you will see this large supermarket on your left hand. It has the best bread in town. Alternatively across from it you will find excellent bread (and more) in Patisserie Nouvelle, which also has good lunch possibilities. Hasson et Freres located just off the roundabout near the central station: the street just before turning on the boulevard: this is definitly the best place to get your meat: the "filet pur" is the best meat you can get!
Lots of restaurants for 'expats' exist, where you can pay in dollars but it is very expensive. Don't be surprised to pay up to $20 for a pizza (and $40 at the hotel for one).
Many cheap roadside stalls exist, primarily outside of downtown's Gombe.
The freshwater prawns from the Congo river are incredible - called Cossa Cossa on menus (as distinct from imported saltwater prawns which are Gambas) - generally served with a garlic and chili (pili-pili) butter sauce. A plate of these will set you back around $25-$40 dollars depending where you eat.
The more expensive restaurants are in Gombe.
Local beer - Turbo King is a darker beer, regular lagers are Primus (which some feel is the best local beer, brewed by the local Heineken brewery) and Skol. European Mutzig comes in smaller bottles! A bit more expensive, and slightly harder to find as it is brewed in Lubumbashi by Simba Breweries, is Tembo, a tasty amber ale preferred by locals and expats alike. Tembo garners the highest ranking for a DRC beer on ratebeer.com. Lots of expensive French and South African wine available in restaurants and supermarkets. Portuguese plonk goes for as low as $3 a bottle at grocery stores catering to expats (Peloustore, Express, etc.).
Kinshasa becomes alive most nights when residents head to Matonge, a place filled with dancing bars, restaurants and night clubs. Lately Bandal and Bonmarche are the more popular "quartiers" to visit the local bars and "discotheques". Go to a local nightclub and learn how to dance Congolese rhythms. Get ready to shake your booty! For those that prefer to stay in Gombe, the following offer good possibilities:
Do not drink from the tap. Bottled water is readily available. Also, when cleaning your teeth make sure that you use bottled water.
Accommodation in Kinshasa can be very expensive. A consequence of the past problems mean that many organisations only recognise two hotels as having international standards. So the Memling and the Grand have a virtual monopoly. Prices of these two can be in excess of $300 per night plus breakfast.
Don't drink the local water. Bottled water seems to be cheap enough but sometimes hard to find for a good price. The best way is if you are staying in a upscale hotel that provides it with the room just tip the housekeeping staff to get extra bottles put in your room (usually if you tell them while giving them the money that works the best, and after the first 2 days of asking for the water you usually don't have to worry about telling them anymore, just give them the $5 a day).
Make sure you have all required vaccinations - i.e. yellow fever, typhoid, etc..
Mosquitoes can be a problem in the entire city. Malaria medication should be taken.
When traveling by car, always lock all the doors before you set off, as it is not uncommon for opportunist thieves to try to open them and snatch belongings. For the same reason, keep bags and valuables out of reach and out of sight.
It is highly recommended that you have someone with you at all times that is a local (besides while being in your hotel). Cab drivers will usually stay with you too when going to local shops and making quick stops and will serve as your translator if you get a good one. Be careful with any equipment you have with you such as digital cameras and video equipment. Be careful also of what you take pictures of. Even if they say no photos only at the airport and of government buildings, a lot of times the police and UN people will get upset if you are taking videos at other places where technically it is supposed to be ok to do. Just be sure to have plenty of locals with you that know what they are doing and can provide security and a way out if you get stuck or in trouble. Follow their advice and pay attention when out and about. When in doubt about taking a photo of something don't until you get very clear instructions that it is ok. Don't keep cameras in open view unless you've been cleared to take a photo (which is just like taking a photo to them it seems). Also be equally prepared for hostility and positive reactions when taking photos.
If you are approached by people claiming to be police, be wary. If they are not in uniform, they are probably not police but are most likely hoping to relieve you of your money and valuables. A common tactic is for a group of men in a car to show a fake police identity card and ask you to go with them to the police station. Do not get in the car; just walk away. Be prepared to run. Never lose your temper, but keep negociating in a friendly way; in the end, they will give up.
Recent road scams have included a group of fake police officers in an unmarked 4x4 vehicle that will pull over unsuspecting people driving alone in cars, then forcibly take them in to their vehicle, drive them out to the country, rob them of everything and leave them stranded. While the main targets have been UN staff in obvious white UN vehicles, all foreigners driving should be wary of this group or others operating like them. For general safety, people should never drive alone in vehicles, especially after dark.
BBC World Service radio broadcast in English and French in Kinshasa on 92.6MHz.