The Cairo Rundown
A brand new day has come to Egypt. Fresh off a people power movement for social justice and democracy - the subsequent effects of which still ripple across the globe - the country is on the brink of momentous change. While the demonstrators have left Tahrir Square (for now) and the outcome of the revolution is as yet undetermined, the campaign of civil resistance that thrust Cairo in the spotlight has injected new hope into a sector of the economy that accounts for over 10% of gross domestic product: tourism.
Few circumstances engender more sympathy for your country, after all, than the triumphant, grassroots overthrow of an octogenarian despot. So Hosni Mubarak out, waves of new tourists in? Such is the hope, from Sharm el-Sheikh to Abu Simbel. The fact, however, is that Cairo, mega-city par excellence, is too epic to pass up at any time.
This is how prolific Cairo is. You could, conceivably, skip the Giza Necropolis and still have your fill. With close to 20 million people and thousands of years cumulative history, metro Cairo is incomparable on the African continent and, as such, invites all manner of justifiable hyperbole. Though the impossibly complex capital resists scrutiny, Cairo, from the Great Pyramids to the Al-Azhar Mosque, the banks of the Nile to the shisha shops of Khan el-Khalili, has a singular, infectious rhythm.
Cairo’s Top 10
10. Tahrir Square was must-see tourist fodder even prior to the revolution. Now, however, “Liberation” Square has a whole new context and identity.
5. Al-Azhar Mosque is a grand, prominent landmark and paragon base of Sunni theology. The mosque dates back to the year 972 and runs the second oldest university in the world.
9. Al-Azhar Park No less an influential authority than the non-profit Project for Public Spaces deems Cairo’s Al-Azhar Park one of the best in the world.
4. The Saladin Citadel of Cairo sprawls over Mokattam hill and comprises many superb points of interest, from Al-Gawhara Palace to the National Military Museum, Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qala'un Mosque to the Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha.
8. Cairo Opera House is a handsome epicentre of culture and home to the Cairo Symphony Orchestra and Cairo Opera Ballet Company, among others.
3. The Mosque of Ibn Tulun is thought to be the oldest mosque in the “City of a Thousand Minarets”. The adjacent Gayer-Anderson Museum is terrific.
7. The Coptic Museum traces the vital legacy of Egyptian Christianity with a multifarious ensemble of exhibits.
2. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, otherwise known as the Egyptian Museum, is a trove of priceless artefacts, with the bulk of 120,000 items on display.
6. Khan el-Khalili is a matchless bazaar district. The lively, labyrinthine suq has served Cairo for almost 700 years.
1. The Great Pyramid of Giza was one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the only ancient wonder of the world still in existence. The entire Giza Necropolis, from the Sphinx to the Tomb of Khentkaus, is about as essential as it gets.
- Giza – Nearby Giza and Al Jizah offer The Sphinx and Pyramids, both mysteries of the ancient world.
- Egyptian Museum – More than 136,000 treasures on display, so plan to spend several hours or days here.
- Saladin Citadel – A medieval Islamic castle fortified by Saleh al-Din between 1176 and 1183 BC.
- Church of St Barbara – Athanasius the scribe built this structure in 684.
- Abdeen Palace – This 1863 mansion housed the royal family until 1952.
Cairo Art & Culture
- The Religion Compound – This area incorporates Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
- Netherlands Flemish Institute – Offers lectures on archaeology or Egyptology, but check the schedules.
- Beit Al Souhaymi – The 17th-century Moorish royal home of Sheik Al Azhar.
- Cairo Opera House – Be sure to reserve tickets for opera, ballet or a concert.
- Qarafa – The City of the Dead is a cemetery with tombs of past Sultans and Amirs, but dress respectfully.
- Khan el-Khalili Bazaar – Experience the bazaar, an ambling classic marketplace stuffing the streets and alleyways.
- Khan Misr Touloun – For an Egyptian souvenir, many visitors choose this shop of authentic handmade goods.
- Zamalek Area – There are modern shops and several quaint ones here, though some are quite upscale.
- Muhammed Ali Street – Music quarter offers musical instruments, both imported and rare.
- Souq Al-Khiamiyya – A 17th-century bazaar where you can watch items being made.
Gay & Lesbian Cairo
- Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf – Caution is the rule, as PDA of the same-sex kind is definitely a no-no in Cairo.
- Pubs – There are no specific gay watering holes in Cairo.
- Romantic Strolls – In Egypt, men walk hand in hand, and women do the same.
- Le Meridien Pyramids – Claiming to be gay friendly, this hotel is a bit pricey but caters to the tourist crowd.
- Latex – For mixed socializing, Latex is somewhat safe, but be sure to check out the schedule of parties.
- Dream Park – For a break from the ancient world, this modern theme park is a fantastic change of pace.
- Al Azhar Park - The green grass, fountains and trees of this public space look almost alien to the city of sand.
- Fustat Garden – Light amusement park atmosphere and a wonderful garden.
- Cairo Zoo – Established in 1891, this zoo was once a private garden and menagerie.
- Sayyed Zeinab Cultural Park – Generally for children, this is a great place to relax and enjoy Egypt.
- Katameya Heights – This modern facility in the fifth district offers golf or tennis, with a spa and fitness club.
- Hash House Harriers – A club that encourages physical fitness by running every Friday afternoon.
- Gezira Sporting Club – A high-end sporting club with a lot to offer, but it comes with a luxury price.
- Cycling – The Cairo Cyclists begin rides on Friday and Saturday mornings outside Cairo American College.
- Equestrian – Horseracing runs from early November through May at the Hippodrome.
A city of 20 million people typically has more than a few districts to explore. While not all of Cairo’s ostensibly boundless urban sprawl is worth a whirl, it pays to have a firm grasp of the national capital’s landscape.
Old Cairo is a requisite tourist area that unites some of the most intrinsically historic points of interest in the city. The inherent enclave of Coptic Cairo, in particular, is fraught with precious landmarks like Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church, Ben Ezra Synagogue, the Church of St. George and the Babylon Fortress.
Heliopolis is a foremost suburb replete with landmarks of note, such as St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Heliopolis Palace and Baron Empain Palace. The satellite city was also the fountainhead for the eponymous Heliopolis style of architecture that took hold in the early 20<sup>th</sup> century.
New Cairo is a recent urban development that evinces the collective desire of Cairo’s moneyed classes to escape the choking furnace of the core city for gated community life. Neighbourhoods within unfurl breezy streets of luxury villas, international university campuses and upscale shopping malls.
Islamic Cairo is the linchpin of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage “Historic Cairo” inscription and, as such, figures prominently on the tourist agenda. The millennium-old quarter is home to Khan el-Khalili suq, Saladin Citadel, historic mosques and countless architectural gems. Al-Muizz Street is a foremost artery of Islamic Cairo.
Garden City is an affluent area of Cairo that was built by the British. A popular central area with desirable proximity to the Nile Corniche.
Giza, though a separate city with over 2.5 million people, is indistinguishable from Cairo proper. The massive suburb lines the west bank of the Nile and is the gateway to the Giza Plateau, where Cairo’s most famous icons await. Dokki and Mohandisee are notable embassy areas in Giza, with popular nightclub, coffeeshop and restaurant haunts for the city’s upper-middle class.
The Nile River island of Gezira hosts a range of landmarks, from Cairo Tower to the Cairo Opera House.
Downtown Cairo is the central business and commercial district of the city. Wide boulevards hint at a late 19<sup>th</sup> century French urban plan and the presence of numerous hotels makes the area a perpetual hub for tourists.
Cairo Eat & Drink
For the hungry and indecisive, Cairo’s relentless food options transform mealtime into a bewildering, nerve-racking affair. Copious restaurants, cafés and stalls cram city streets and ply clientele with indelible staples like ful, fetyeer, taa’miya, shawarma and ta’amiya. Suffice to say that in a city as big and food-mad as Cairo, it pays to follow your gut, have a sense of adventure and eat a little, often.
Dar El Amar (Saraya al-Gezira, Gezira Blue Nile Boat) is all about traditional mezze on the Nile at affordable prices.
Gomhouriya (42 Sharia Falaki, Downtown), like a lot of Cairo restaurants, has a substantial following because of one iconic dish. In this case, it’s the stuffed squab, or pigeon.
El-Mashrabiah (4 Sharia Ahmed Nessim, Giza) is a quiet, elegant spot for carnivores and lovers of classic Egyptian cuisine.
At-Tabei Ad-Dumyati (31 Sharia Orabi) is renowned for its array of good, straightforward and insanely cheap Egyptian dishes.
El Shabrawy (Sharia Ibrahimy, Heliopolis) is rightfully beloved for takes on comfort staples like makaroneh and ta’amiya.
Mahfouz (5 Sikket al-Badistan, Khan el-Khalili) is a reliable coffeehouse den deep within the recesses of Cairo’s bustling bazaar district.
Alaa Al Aswany, noted writer and political activist, helped further the cult of Kebabgy (Sofitel El Gezirah, Gezira) by setting a pivotal scene at the Nileside eatery in one of his novels.
La Gourmandise (35 Sharia al-Giza Giza Ground fl, First Mall complex) proves that Cairo does pâtisserie as well as any city outside of France.
Abu Tarek (40 Sharia Champollion), if judged by the queues, serves the best of that most venerable of national dishes in Egypt, kushari.
Villa d’Este (1191 Corniche el-Nil Bulaq Conrad Cairo) is the most formal and expensive Italian restaurant in Cairo for good reason. The level of service and quality of dishes here is second to none.
The Cairo International Film Festival is a major event for world cinephiles. Inaugurated in 1976, the annual event held in late November and early December was a first in the Arab world.
The Cairo Jazz Festival debuted in 2009 and has quickly become a regular on the city events calendar. The festival takes place over three days in March at the all-important El Sawy culturewheel.
The Cairo International Book Fair is the most prominent literary event in the Arab world and, in years past, has been a perpetual target of government seizures and shakedowns. Over 2 million visitors attend the event at Cairo International Fair Grounds in Madinat Nas every year.
Avid classical music mavens should keep an eye on the monthly schedule at the wonderful Cairo Opera House.
The annual Cairo Dance Festival celebrates Egypt and the Arab world’s myriad contributions to the performance artform.
A dinner cruise or felucca ride on the Nile is touristy, without question, but well worth the negligible cost and experience nonetheless.
The sheer ferocity and passion of the Cairo Derby makes Fulham-Chelsea look woefully insignificant. The rivalry pits city football clubs Al-Ahly, the “African Club of the Century”, and Zamalek SC at Cairo International Stadium.
When To Go
The desert climate of Cairo and the Nile River Valley can feature some nasty weather, from high winds and dust storms to flash floods and intense humidity. A metropolis as big and dense as Cairo has a unique meteorological character and greenhouse effect, a reality most evident at summer swelter’s crest.
With that, visitors averse to merciless heat will want to avoid the Egyptian capital when the mercury soars above the 90°F (32°C) threshold from May to September. While winter nights can get downright chilly, Cairo is a decidedly more tolerable and patient city to navigate from November to February.
What To Miss
Aggressive, pushy tour guides and vendors clamour around tourists at the Giza Necropolis with uncommon zeal. For this reason and, indeed, because of the dogged, inexorable popularity of the Great Pyramids, many visitors choose to stay away. That, however, would be a mistake. Try to arrange a visit to the foremost ancient wonder with a private, knowledgeable guide between the hours of 8 a.m. and noon and, for your own comfort and safety, outside of the summer months.
Likewise, Nile dinner cruise and Khan el-Khalili café operators often prey on desperate tourists to offer inferior fare at elevated prices. Since both are such indelible cornerstones of the total Cairo cultural experience, it pays to do your research beforehand. Better yet, befriend a trusted local and tag along with a group of native Cairenes for insider intel on all the hip hot spots in the city.
Cairo International Airport handles over 16 million passengers a year, which makes it the second-most important hub in Africa. The airport serves a multitude of destinations in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
A conventional taxi or limousine service (more luxurious but still affordable to most) are the best options for transport into Cairo proper from the airport. Taxi drivers expect even non-Arabic speakers to ask about and negotiate fares in advance, so let go of any haggling hang-ups before departing the terminal.
Cairo neophytes should avoid getting behind the wheel within the city at large. Few urban centres on the planet have a more sordid or notorious record when it comes to vehicular congestion. Public buses can be maddeningly crowded but are an efficient mode of transport, on the whole. Taxis and the Cairo Metro, however, remain the most reliable and hassle-free choices in the vast Egyptian capital.
Immense Cairo is a complex place. Capital of Egypt, the most populous city in Africa and the Arab world, with a history that spans some seven thousand years, the metropolis of almost 18 million people is a wonder to behold. Amid the chaotic gridlock and urban sprawl lies incomparable attractions, from the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities to the Khedivial Opera House. The Old City is a hive of activity, much of which centers around the Khan el-Khalili suq, the ideal open-air marketplace in which to bargain, shop and sample terrific street fare. Major landmarks in the ancient quarter include the Coptic Museum, Hanging Church, Babylon Fortress, and Ben Ezra Synagogue. Islamic Cairo is a UNESCO World Heritage section of the city that contains such gems as the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, the oldest temple of worship in Cairo, and Al-Azhar University, the oldest university in the world. Last but not least of course, are the pyramids at Giza, the only Wonder of the Ancient World left intact.
Attractions & Activities
- The Giza Plateau
- Khedivial Opera House
- Al-Azhar Park
- Museum of Egyptian Antiquities
- Old Cairo
- Cairo International Film Festival
- Cairo Book Fair
- Cairo International Song Festival
- Arabic Music Festival
- Al-Ahly Sporting Club Football
Restaurants & Nightlife
- La Bodega
- Moghul Room
- Pub 28
- Rooftop Bar
Cairo has a hot desert climate with high humidity and sparse rainfall. Beware of heavy air pollution over the city in fall and Saharan dust storms in March and April.
- Winter (December to February) 9-19°C
- Spring (March to April) 12-27°C
- Summer (May to September) 18-33°C
- Fall (October to November) 14-28°C
Cairo On Wikipedia
Cairo official guide
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