Cairo is a big, dirty, historic, fascinating city in northern Africa and one not to be missed. We loved discovering Cairo and all it had to offer. It’s one of the oldest cities in the world with legends both biblical and modern woven into its founding. Sitting on the legendary Nile River and straddling the line between the Middle East and the African Continent, Cairo is a megacity destination. Situated along the river, the city’s ancient origins stem from the nearby city of Memphis and legend has it that in 641 A.D, an Arab general was leaving his tent on his way to conquer Alexandria when he came across two doves in the tent. Not wanting to disturb the birds, he quietly left and it is said that the spot where the birds were resting is now the center of the “Old Cairo” area in the city.
Cairo is old, very old and there’s no doubt that you’ve heard of the Great Pyramids of Giza or the Sphinx but there’s more to this ancient city than that. The old and well-reserved Islamic city and Coptic sites of Cairo add to the cultural character of the area while the modern and vibrant city streets seemingly built right on top of it make it a destination that is somehow both old and new simultaneously. Cairo is one of the largest cities in the world and one of the most densely populated with a population of over 20 million people in the Cairo metro area. While the city has its modernity, it is a predominantly Muslim city, and along with that comes certain conservative values such as wearing modest clothes and overt public displays of affection.
Go shopping in the maze of Khan el-Khalili
Located in Medieval Cairo in the Islamic Neighborhood, a stroll through the souk of Khan el-Khalili is regarded as one of the world’s greatest shopping experiences. The bazaar is a labyrinthian complex of sights, smells, and sounds that started its life around 1400 AD. The skinny winding alleyways are disjointed and crowded and the clanging of metal workers and shouting of vendors probably still sounds the same as it did over a thousand years ago. On the outside streets, you’ll notice tons of people both local and tourists walking by and selling kitschy Egypt-themed wares like plastic pyramids and papyrus scrolls but make sure to tuck into one of the alleyways for the real Khan el-Khalili experience.
In the interior, you’ll find glassware, metal wares, spices, and a variety of handcrafted items and goods usually bought only by the locals. In fact, here is where you’ll find one of Cairo’s most famous coffee shops “Fishawi”. Thick syrupy-like Arabic coffees and sweet tea is dished out to locals at a rapid-fire pace but if you’re looking for some real treasures be sure to check out the shops on the north end where you’ll find gold and silversmiths making handcrafted jewelry. In the south end is where you find the colorful and aromatic spice dealers so make sure to pick up something exotic you can’t find at home.
Get out of the Sun and learn about ancient Egypt at the Egyptian Museum
Located pretty much in the middle of downtown Cairo, the Egyptian Museum is a must-see while you’re in the city. Get out of the heat of the sun and bustle of the city and check out centuries of history. The building and collection are regarded as one of the world’s greatest museums and the sheer amount of things to see here will take a lifetime just to see it all. Heading towards the pink stone mansion, the Egyptian Museum was founded in 1857 by French Egyptologists and in 1897 the museum opened to the public.
Some of the most prized possessions and galleries at the Egyptian Museum include the Tutankhamun Gallery which features a myriad of possessions and treasures found in the tomb of his successor the 18-year old Amenophis IV. The tomb was discovered in 1922 and contained the largest in-tact collections of artifacts ever found. Some highlights include Tutankhamun’s death mask, his sarcophagi, a pharaoh’s lion throne, and his wardrobe collection. To see just the highlights you’ll have at least two hours but as previously stated, you can spend an entire lifetime looking at everything.
Spend some time on the glamorous island of Gezira
Located in the middle of the Nile River is the island of Gezira and on the island is the glitzy neighborhood of Zamalek. Dating from the 19th century, the island has a little more of an artsy hipster vibe and a little more of a European slant in its design. Wide boulevards are lined with trees giving shade and Belle Époque mansions flanking the sides. International cuisine and hipster fare make it one of the best dining destinations in the city while art galleries and clothing boutiques really make it feel like the “Paris of Nile”.
Located here is the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, which hosts a wide collection of Egyptian art from the 20th century including works from Mahmoud Said. For something a little more low-key and for fans of architecture, the nearby Aisha Fahmy Palace is an original 1907 palace faithfully restored to its former glory with original fixtures and rococo interiors and it hosts rotating art exhibitions.
The southern end of the island is one of the more well-to-do neighborhoods in the city with the Gezira Palace being here which once housed guests such as Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, and Franz Josef I of Austria who attended the grand opening of the Suez Canal. Green spaces, tennis courts, and riding stables are all located here but rising above it all is the Cairo Tower. The 613-foot tall tower was built by president Nasser in 1967 and it includes an observation deck with incredible views of the sunset and the city in the distance.
Take a cruise down the Nile
People might tell you that no trip to Cairo is complete without seeing the pyramids, but what gave this city and others around it life thousands of years ago was undoubtedly the Nile River. Taking a trip down the river is pretty much a must-do and there are varying ways to go about it. The traditional felucca boat is the most iconic way to float down the river. Made up of two sails and wood felucca boats can usually hold up to around ten people with two crew members controlling it. Tours are available usually from hotels or you can always charter your own. For around 8$ USD you can charter your own boat for about an hour or if you’re into a less than private ride public felucca charters can sometimes go for less than 50¢ USD.
For more robust rides down the Nile, there are several other options available to you. Larger cruise-style boats offer everything from floating romantic restaurants to nightclubs. When Cleopatra floated down the Nile several centuries ago she probably didn’t have a chardonnay in her hand, but if she could have, she probably would.
Wonder through Coptic Cairo
Cairo is already an old city and the Coptic neighborhood in Old Cairo is even older than that. The small twisted alleyways and lanes that make up a large part of the area lie within the old walls of former Babylon. Roman towers built by Emperor Trajan still stand overlooking the streets and the Nile where he built his first fort here. Above the gates of the fortress is the iconic “Hanging Church” built in the 4th century as a humble construction of palm logs and stones, it kept growing over the years and its position looming over the looming overhead has a few distinguishing features such as large bell towers meant to resemble a basilica, which would have been a first for churches in Egypt at the time.
One of the major landmarks in the area is the Church of St Sergius and Bacchus where the legend has it that baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph briefly resided here after King Herod’s massacre of male babies. For even more biblical-era hot spots deeper into the neighborhood is the Ben Ezra Synagogue which is built near the spot where baby Moses was found in the nearby reeds.
People Watch Egyptian-style
If there’s one activity that people around the world from the poorest to the richest places do, it’s people watch. From the terraces and cafés of Paris to the humble pizza stand in New York, people-watching is a world-class activity. Cairo is hustle and bustling 24-7 with people coming and going in all directions so why not take a step back and indulge in one of the many ways people here like to relax? With a shisha and a coffee. Egypt is one of the world’s biggest coffee capitals and when it was introduced to the Arab world in the 1600s, the Islamic clergy tried to outlaw it. It took some convincing to keep it around but now coffee houses (or ahwa) are a staple of Cairo life.
In Egypt, it’s said that there is a coffee shop on every corner. They are incredibly easy to spot and range from upscale indoor dining to just a couple of plastic chairs on the side of the road. You’ll usually spot them by the men sitting outside, reading a newspaper, playing backgammon, and smoking shisha while they chat with other patrons or watch soccer on the TV. It’s a great way to relax, feel like a local, and not spend too much money.
Lounge in the Oasis of Al-Andalus Garden
Every day dozens if not hundreds of people walk by this little garden oasis in the middle of the city and probably don’t even realize it is there. The Al-Andalus Garden sits on the bank of the Nile between Gezira Sporting Club and the Cairo Tower in Zamalek. Despite its very central location, the reason why so many people don’t realize it’s there is because of the high walls that surround it which also makes it a place of calm and tranquility in the usual cacophony of the city.
Al-Andalus Garden was built in 1929 by Zulfugar Pasha for his wife in the style of a traditional Andalusian garden. The space was originally meant to be part of the royal mansion but while that part is gone, the garden remains with preserved old structures, lush greenery, colorful mosaics, and an ornate fountain reminiscent of Moorish Spain. Enjoy the gardens and plants, as well as sights of the Nile and the city landscape, and feel royalty.
See the Pyramids
Nobody goes to Paris without seeing the Eiffel tower and no one really goes to London without seeing Big Ben, and just like those iconic landmarks, no one comes to Cairo without seeing the pyramids. About a half-day trip’s outside of Cairo is the pyramids of Giza located on the Giza plateau. The largest of the pyramids is the pyramid of Cheops with three other pyramids nearby and guarding the monuments is the legendary Sphinx.
While the pyramid at Giza is world renowned, several other pyramids nearby such as the pyramid of Meidum, Dashur, Saqqara are often more devoid of tourists, are older, and offer remoteness that you won’t be able to experience elsewhere.
Our Final Word
There is so much more to Cairo than just the pyramids. Cairo is a vibrant city that never sleeps and it seems like there is a new discovery at every corner. Do not just use Cairo as a stop over point to visit other parts of the country, as it is a destination in it’s own right. Cairo is also very reasonably priced and there are accommodations close to the pyramids from budget to luxury. We have stayed in both a mid-level hotel and luxury, both having a view of the pyramids. Have fun and discover Cairo for yourself.