As many historic countries, there are hundreds if not thousands of books on visiting Egypt, namely Cairo’s most sought after attractions. This is an attempt to write a comprehensive and easy to follow guide to visiting Cairo. Plan to spend at least 4 full days in Cairo, traffic doesn’t help – even with a jam packed schedule you’re bound to lose some daylight driving from one location to the other. We’ve listed everything in this guide by area to help you plan your vacation!
A bit about Cairo
An energetic metropolitan city- one of the largest in the world, the largest in the Middle East and the largest in Africa. With a population of close to 20 million people, you’ll get a taste of Cairo’s one of a kind traffic jams – yet worth every second of exploring the ins and outs. There’s a sense of love that one has for their hometown that’s relentless – but as you begin your journey you too will fall in love with this city.
Getting around can be hectic in a busy city like Cairo, but luckily with technology at our fingertips (literally) nowadays things are much easier. Uber is widely used for the app lovers out there; you can also opt to use a local transport service application called Careem – which works the same way.
Where to stay
The most prominent Cairo question is where to stay; with so much to do we tend to get lost figuring out the most central place. The first intuition is to stay to close to the airport, but on the contrary – Cairo’s International Airport is a bit out of the way (about 15 miles from city center). If you plan to do a lot of sightseeing (which you should), you’ll want to go deeper into the city!
A personal favorite is Zamalek, it’s a bit cliché but it’s incredibly safe, central to most of the nightlife scenes, most prestigious restaurants and a hub of locals and foreigners. If you’re looking for best food in Zamalek, check out a full post here.
The main attraction here is the Cairo Nile Tower, which is great to visit close to sunset to get a view of Cairo in daylight and a glimpse of the city lights in the evening.
One of the main roads on the outskirts of the Zamalek Island is Abu Al Feda Street– home to many restaurants along the Nile, stationary cruise ships for dining and nightlife and also a pick up point for Feluccas. A Felucca is a humble boat famous for evening Nile cruises and some of the best views.
If you’re looking to stay closer to the Pyramids, favorite hotels are Mena House Hotel or Le Méridien Pyramids Hotel & Spa for the best views! The Pyramids are located in the city of Giza, which is on the outskirts of greater Cairo.
Another popular area, is the infamous Downtown Tahrir Square zone. Known for the monumental 2011 revolution, but also the center of the bustling city. There are plenty of hotel options, but the best views are from the international 5-star chain hotels Ritz Carlton.
Now that that’s settled, here’s everything to see while visiting Cairo. Let’s break this down by neighborhood and what you’ll be seeing in each area. If you’re looking for more off the beaten path sites, check out our post here on hidden gems in Cairo!
A central area connecting Giza and Cairo, and home to the historic Tahrir Square. Here you’ll find the Egyptian Museum where you can visit an assortment of exhibitions – but mainly get to see mummies!
Close to downtown is the Ibn Tulun Mosque is the oldest mosque in the city that has remained in its original structure. The mosque is quite similar to many historical structures in Cairo, but it’s attached to a one of a kind museum with preserved artifacts dating back centuries. Hence, the Gayer Anderson Museum is a must.
Khan Al Khalili is a bustling bazar by day or night and a must for visitors and locals alike. You’ll be greeted by Al Hussein Mosque at the entrance of the bazar and as you go further in you’ll be surprised by the many attractive structures, narrow alleys, and hundreds of shops.
Stop at any of the local restaurants and order feteer, an Egyptian staple essentially made of flake pastry and filled with both savory and sweet deliciousness. Most popular place to grab the warm dish is Egyptian Pancake House. Locals will tell you that another must visit is the El Fishway Cafe – where you can enjoy Egyptian tea and a water-pipe or shisha.
A favorite is Bayt Al Suhaymi an Ottoman era house museum built in 1648. Another architectural beauty is the Textile Museum adjacent to the Qalawun Complex and mosque.
At the end of the Khan Khalili strip is Bab Zweila (although many don’t make it in that far). Bab means door in Arabic, and it’s essentially just that a large gate frame highlighting another entrance into Khan Al Khalili.
Although the Citadel is really one place, there’s a ton to do around. The Saladin Citadel and its landmark Mosque of Muhammad Ali will be the main attraction here.
The Madrassa of Sultan Hassan Mosque is massive and you can easily spend hours roaming around. The architecture is so unique – probably my favorite mosque! Right next door is El Rifai Mosque – which is just as spacious and beautiful.
Yet another historic compound combining Islamic, Christian and Jewish histories. At the entrance, you’ll be greeted by Amr Ibn Al As Mosque and several corridors of shops and restaurants. Further down, is the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which dates back to the 9th century.
As you dive into the historic district, you’ll reach Coptic Cairo. The Christian Quarter houses the famous Hanging Church, Church of St. Gergius and St. Bacchus Church.
If you’re in Cairo, you’re here for the pyramids. & here we are. The Giza Pyramids are located in a large complex, which houses several pyramids including the “Great Ones” – Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. This is a great opportunity to get a horse or camel ride around the area as it can be quite a walk (especially in the heat).
From there, check out the Solar Boat Museum then head to see the Sphinx. As you wrap up your day, head over to the Mena House Hotel for some amazing panoramic views of the pyramids and great food. If you’re feeling extra hungry, try some mashawy, or charcoal grilled meats at Andrea Restaurant or have a hefty traditional lunch at Felfela… both within a walking distance of the pyramids.
If you have some free time in the evening, consider checking the sound & light show at the Pyramids. The time table is available here as they offer the show in three languages every night!
Culture & Arts
Egypt, locally known as Um Al Dunya, or the mother of the world, has a charm like no other city. Even with it’s overpopulation, loud car honks, and clouts of smog – it remains one of the most visited countries in the world for both its’ rich history and deeply rooted culture. Here are the most visited sites for Cairo’s arts scene.
Cairo Opera House –the main performing arts venue in the Egyptian capital, be sure to catch a show – ballet, symphonies, orchestras, or internationally renowned performers check out the full schedule here!
El Sawy Culture Wheel – a private cultural center and a platform for unique urban initiatives. Here’s a calendar of all their events.
Wekalet el Ghouri Arts Center– If you’re looking to experience a Whirling Dervish Performance (locally known as a Tannoura show) this is where you need to be! Beware that you cannot purchase tickets before hand, so plan accordingly! Typically shows run on Saturday, Monday and Wednesday and begin at 7:30 p.m!
Where & what to eat
Koushary – known as the poor man’s dish, but really a superb bowl of carbohydrates. Layers of lentils, rice, pasta, tasty tomato sauce, and friend onions, this 5-layer extravaganza in an Egyptian staple. Favorite places to grab the hefty dish? Koshary Al Tahrir, Koshary Abu Tarek and for a “fine dining” Koshary, try Zooba!
Hawashy – can it get better than a deep fried burger? Yes. Hawashy. It’s not really a burger, it’s an enclosed pita bread stuffed with ground beef & an assortment of spices (not spicy, just spices). Our favorite place to grab hawashy? Hawashi Al Refaie conveniently located in downtown!
Foul & Falafel – a traditional Egyptian breakfast made of falafel, locally known as taameya, and foul which is a dish of refried fava beans. Popular local spots are the Gad chain (which has locations all over the country) and Felfela (another felfela, not the one by the pyramids for feteer).
Molokhia – an acquired taste, a dark leafy green thick soup base typically served with rice and fried chicken. The official name of the leaf used in this delicacy is “Corchorus olitorius,” which has the features of collard greens before it’s cooked down to this stew. You’ll find Molokhia served in every restaurant in Egypt, but make sure to try the warm bowl at Abu El Sid for the most favored.
Feteer – remember when you were strolling through El Hussein and we said you have to try feteer at Egyptian Pancake House? Well you do! & not just that, make sure to try the flaky pastry dish as both savory and sweet. Another good spot is 3al 7aseera, which is just a beautifully decorated little whole in the wall but absolutely worth the visit!
Serving the best last for all those with a sweet tooth! Egyptian desserts are pretty much the same as most Middle Eastern/Mediterranean sweets. You have your typical Baklawa, and Konafa. But what’s really authentic to Egypt is Um Ali, which translates to Ali’s Mother. The dish really has nothing to do with a Ali, it’s a deep-dish bread pudding made with phyllo dough, nuts & milk. Another one of a kind dessert is Bassbousa a crumbly cake made with semolina and drenched in homemade syrup! We don’t have favorite places for dessert, you’ll be able to find these in any restaurant you try in Cairo!
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