French is the lingua franca of the country and nearly everyone has a basic to moderate understanding of French. In Kinshasa and much of the Western DRC, nearly everyone is fluent in French with Kinshasa being the second or third largest French-speaking city in the world (depending on your source), although locals may be heard speaking Lingala amongst themselves. Much of the eastern and southern half speaks Swahili or related languages. The rest of the country speaks either Kikongo, Lingala, Tshiluba, or a smaller tribal language.
The "Academie des Beaux-Arts" is often considered a touristic site and is in itself and with its gallery a good place to meet the famous artists of this country. Big names like Alfred Liyolo, Lema Kusa oder Roger Botembe are teaching here as well as the only purely abstract working artist Henri Kalama Akulez, whose private studio is worth a visit.
Congo is the centre of popular African music. The rhythms are irresistible, once you get the feel for it. Try visiting a local bar or disco, in Bandal or Matonge (both in Kinshasa), if possible with live soukouss music, and just hit the dance floor!
The currency is the Congolese franc. Banknotes are issued in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 centimes, 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 francs. The only Congolese bank notes currently in circulation in most places are the 50, 100, 200 and 500 franc notes. They are almost worthless, as the highest valued banknote (the 500 franc note) is worth only about US$0.90.
U.S. dollars in denominations above $2 are much preferred to francs. In contrast, U.S. coins and $1 and $2 U.S. notes are considered worthless. Note that if you pay in dollars, you will get change in francs. Though francs may sometimes come in bills so old they feel like fabric, U.S. notes must be crisp (less than 3 folds) and be printed in or after 2003, or they will not be accepted.
In some shops, the symbol FF is used to mean 1000 Francs, and 1 U.S. Dollar is considered equivalent to 1000 Francs.
There are some supermarkets in Gombe commune of Kinshasa that sell food and drinks, soap, kitchen devices and bazar: City Market, Peloustore, Kin Mart, Hasson's.
SIM cards and prepaid recharge for mobile phones are available in the street and at Ndjili airport, at a reasonable price.
Mastercard/Maestro ATMs are available now in Kinshasa at the "Rawbank" on boulevard du 30 Juin (Gombe District), and in Grand Hotel. It spits out U.S. dollars. Visa card is also usable with "Procredit" bank ATMs in Kinshasa, avenue des Aviateurs, or outside in front of Grand Hotel (only US$20 and US$100 notes).
Congo has one national dish: moambe. It's made of eight ingredients (moambe is the Lingala word for eight): palm nuts, chicken, fish, peanuts, rice, cassave leaves, bananas and hot pepper sauce.
Do not drink the local water. Bottled water seems to be cheap enough, but sometimes hard to find for a good price. The usual soft drinks (called sucré in Congo) such as Coke, Pepsi, Um Bongo and Mirinda are available in most places and are safe to drink. Local drinks like Vitalo are amazing. Traditional drinks like ginger are also common.
The local beer is based on rice, and tastes quite good. It comes in 75 cl bottles. Primus, Skol, Castel are the most common brands. Tembo, Doppel are the dark local beers.
In rural areas, you may try the local palm wine, an alcoholic beverage from the sap of the palm tree. It is tapped right from the tree, and begins fermenting immediately after collection. After two hours, fermentation yields an aromatic wine of up to 4% alcohol content, mildly intoxicating and sweet. The wine may be allowed to ferment longer, up to a day, to yield a stronger, more sour and acidic taste, which some people prefer.
Beware of the local gin. The distillation process, if not controlled properly, can generate methanol instead of ethanol, which is toxic and can cause blindness.
There are more and more hotels in Kinshasa, with smaller hotels available in Gombe and Ngaliema area.
EUPOL, the EU police, in Kinshasa
At present, the country cannot be considered a tourist destination. Travel by car is extremely dangerous, particularly outside Kinshasa, Goma and Kisangani. Certain regions are controlled by rebel forces and cease fire agreements are weak. Several countries have issued travel warnings. A UN peace keeping mission is trying to prevent warfare.
Public transport is also unreliable at best, predominantly due to a lack of vehicles, and bad road conditions during the rainy season. Safety equipment is missing.
You will need a yellow fever vaccination in order to enter the country. There are health officials at entry points, such as the airport in Kinshasa who check this before you are allowed to enter.
Congo is malarial, although slightly less in the Kivu region due to the altitude, so use insect repellent and take the necessary precautions such as sleeping under mosquito nets. The riverside areas (such as Kinshasa) are quite prone to malaria.
If you need emergency medical assistance, it is advised that you go to your nation's embassy. The embassy doctors are normally willing and skilled enough to help. There are safe hospitals in Kinshasa, like "CMK" (Centre Medical de Kinshasa) which is is private and was established by European doctors (a visit costs around $20). Another private and non-profit hospital is Centre Hospitalier MONKOLE, in Mont-Ngafula district, with European and Congolese doctors. Dr Léon Tshilolo, a paediatrician trained in Europe and one of the African experts in sickle-cell anaemia, is the Monkole Medical Director.
Drink lots of water when outside. The heat and close proximity to the equator can easily give those not acclimated heatstroke after just a few hours outside without water.There are many pharmacies that are very well supplied but prices are a few times higher than in Europe.
Photography is officially illegal without an official permit which, last known was $60. Even with this permit, photography is very difficult with the Congolese becoming extremely upset when photographed without permission or when one is taking a picture of a child. These confrontations can be easily diffused by apologizing profusely and not engaging in the argument. Sometimes a small bribe might be needed to "grease the wheels" as well.
Never under any condition photograph government buildings or structures which include but are not limited to police stations, presidential palaces, border crossings, and the anywhere in the airport. You will be detained by police if caught and unable to bribe them for your transgression.
When motorcades pass, all vehicular traffic is expected to provide a clear path. Do not photograph these processions.
At approximately 6AM and 6PM daily, the national flag is raised and lowered. All traffic and pedestrians are required to stop for this ceremony, with reports indicating that those who do not are detained by security personnel.