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Home » Travel Guide to Cairo: modern, global, revolutionary

Travel Guide to Cairo: modern, global, revolutionary

Not just pyramids and the Egyptian Museum – but also the City of the Dead, Coptic culture, and trendy bars

Many come to Cairo in search of antiquity, and only get to see the largest capital of the Arab world and Africa from the window of a taxi, traveling between pyramids and mosques. Our guide is about 20th-21st century Cairo, a revolutionary, cultural, and global capital where a lot has happened since the time of the pharaohs.

In Cairo, the ghosts of the “Arab Spring,” socialism, and European colonialism coexist. City districts are full of eclectic architectural surprises: from art deco to neo-Islamic style, and the streets belong to the youth – in Egypt, 75% of the population is under 25.

Overwhelming and oppressive for many visitors and locals, Cairo is not for every traveler. Even native Cairenes escape from the noise and dust to downshift by the sea on the Mediterranean coast in the north or to the relaxed Dahab in Sinai. Cairo is not your option if you’re squeamish, can’t stay calm in unusual situations, and are looking for only an all-inclusive and perfect service in your travels. Cairo is your destination if you’re open to spontaneity in your trips, and the hustle and bustle energizes rather than scares you.

Attractions

Cairo is woven from many Cairos: Muslim, Fatimid, Mamluk, Ottoman, Coptic, Jewish, European, Arabic. It’s like a dozen small cities or “two Cairos,” as anthropologists described it 100 years ago, dividing Cairo into a conditional western, westernized, and eastern. Today’s Cairo is a city that developed and grew in the 20th century. Over this century, Egypt underwent two revolutions and two world wars that deeply affected the country. To understand modern Cairo, it’s worth focusing on this period rather than on antiquity.

From the 16th century to 1882, the country was part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1922, Egypt gained formal independence from British colonial rule, but Britain partially retained control over the country until 1954. In 1952, the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown by the Free Officers’ military coup. Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power, promoting ideas of Arab unity and socialism – it was during his rule that Cairo expanded. Industrialization led to massive housing construction – districts emerged that resemble Soviet micro-districts.

The impact of the Six-Day War lost to Israel in 1967 was fatal for the ideas of Arab nationalism and unity. It was replaced by the era of neoliberalism led by Anwar Sadat. Infitah, “opening” — the policy of economic and social reforms introduced by Sadat, continued to gain momentum under Mubarak. The decline in the standard of living caused by these changes is considered one of the main reasons influencing the development of the “Arab Spring” protests. The 2011 revolution did not arise out of thin air — the activity of various protest movements, from communists to Islamists, in Egypt had been ongoing for decades.

Cairo was fortunate to be at the intersection of cultural and political movements, creating a vibrant, diverse city that embraces change and incorporates the new. Eclecticism, cosmopolitanism, hybridity — these are the keywords that can describe Cairo’s culture and architecture. These words reflect the city’s location at the crossroads of the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean and on the Nile, between Africa, Asia, and Europe, with which it is simultaneously inextricably linked, and yet is utterly distinct and unique.

Main Historical Sights – Pyramids and Mosques

Antiquities and pyramids. Coming to Cairo to see antiquities is an old tourist tradition. Back in the 19th century, European travelers loved to climb the pyramids and have a picnic on top. Everything necessary for the picnic, and sometimes even the guests themselves, was carried by hired Egyptians. The pyramids (29.97778, 31.13228) and associated attractions are located in Giza, a suburb of Cairo. The complex is open from 8 to 5, but some attractions may close earlier. Most organized tourists arrive in the morning, so it’s best to either arrive right at the opening or after lunch, when the bulk of tourists on tour buses have dispersed. Entry to the complex costs around 5-6 euros. Tickets to enter certain pyramids, museums, or the Khufu’s complex should be purchased right at the entrance. With a student ID or an ISIC card (even a photo on the phone will suffice), you can get a 50% discount on the ticket. And not just for the pyramids in Giza, but for all attractions in Cairo and Egypt.

It's best to visit the pyramids either early in the morning or after lunch — when the bulk of tourists on tour buses have already dispersed
It’s best to visit the pyramids either early in the morning or after lunch — when the bulk of tourists on tour buses have already dispersed. Photo: Spencer Davis / Unsplash.com

When visiting the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum, besides knowledge about ancient dynasties, it’s important to keep in mind that Egyptology as a science was invented by Europeans for Europeans. Hence, ancient Egyptian values are found in world museums, not because the Egyptians weren’t interested in this heritage or didn’t treat it appropriately. In mid-2021, exhibits from the old Egyptian Museum building were transferred to a new one, closer to the pyramids. It is planned to be opened by the end of 2021, and for now, the collection cannot be seen. In the Fustat area, in 2020, the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization was inaugurated with a grand ceremony, displaying exhibits from the Early Kingdom, Pharaohs, Greco-Roman, Coptic, Medieval, Islamic periods, and Modern times.

For over 3,000 years, twice a year at sunrise, the sun illuminates the statue of Ramesses II in the Egyptian temple complex of Abu Simbel in the south of the country. In the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, a hole was made in the wall, and a pharaoh's statue was placed opposite it to also replicate the event from Abu Simbel twice a year
For over 3,000 years, twice a year at sunrise, the sun illuminates the statue of Ramesses II in the Egyptian temple complex of Abu Simbel in the south of the country. In the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, a hole was made in the wall, and a pharaoh’s statue was placed opposite it to also replicate the event from Abu Simbel twice a year. Photo: Grand Egyptian Museum / Facebook.com

Religious attractions. Cairo’s religious landmarks could fill several separate guidebooks. The Al-Azhar Mosque adjoins the El-Batniya district, which until the 1970s was known for its street market of psychoactive substances. The historically connected Al-Azhar University, where philosophy, the Arabic language, jurisprudence, astronomy, and logic have been studied since the 10th century, is today considered one of the main Sunni institutions — but it was founded by Shiites. Khan el-Khalili bazaar is partially closed on Sundays, as many traders are Coptic Christians. Muizz Street, a UNESCO heritage site, is full of medieval and later monuments — gates, mosques, mausoleums, madrasas, residential buildings, commercial spaces, and even a 13th-century hospital. The 13th-century complex of Sultan Al-Mansur Qalawun includes a hospital, madrasa, and mausoleum. A single ticket costs 100 pounds (1.96 euros), and for students, it’s 50 (0.98 euros). This street is crowded with beggars and helpers, who can sometimes be useful and guide you to a rooftop or minaret for a small fee (bargain hard). Not far from here is the less-visited and monumental complex of Sultan Al-Ghuri (15th century) with tombs and a mosque. Entry is free, but even locals leave a donation.

The alleys branching off the bustling street flow into a lesser-known district called Gamaleya, which tourists rarely visit. To this day, some of the older generation know this place as “Haret el-Yahud”—the Jewish quarter from the 12th century. From one of the oldest Jewish communities in Egypt, according to official data, fewer than ten elderly people remain. On Adli Street is the last functioning Cairo synagogue, Shaar Ha Shamaim.

The Al-Azhar Mosque adjoins the El-Batniya district, which was known for its street market of psychoactive substances until the 1970s
The Al-Azhar Mosque adjoins the El-Batniya district, which was known for its street market of psychoactive substances until the 1970s. Photo: David Stanley / Flickr.com

The Cairo Citadel, built by the famous Saladin in the 12th century to defend against the Crusades, stands tall over the district of Said Zeinab with its namesake metro station—named after the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Here tourists visit the colossal Ibn Tulun Mosque from 879 AD, while Shiite pilgrims come for the mausoleums and burials of the Prophet’s family. Not far from the citadel, next to the 14th-century Sultan Hassan Mosque-Madrassa, stands the eclectic Al-Rifa’i Mosque, built in 1912 under the direction of Hungarian Jewish architect Max Herz. In this mosque are buried the last monarchs of Egypt, King Farouk, who abdicated during the 1952 military coup, and the last Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The Cairo Citadel was built in the 12th century to defend against the Crusades.
The Cairo Citadel was built in the 12th century to defend against the Crusades. Photo: Dan / Flickr.com

The Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-As is the oldest mosque on the continent, a very serene and peaceful place. The general Amr Ibn Al-As did not find himself in these parts by accident – the mosque, named in his honor, was part of the tent camp of his troops that laid siege to the fortifications of Coptic Cairo during the first battle of the Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th century. This episode marks the beginning of the spread of Islam and Arabic influence in Egypt.

The City of the Dead (30.04345, 31.27234) is Cairo’s main cemetery, adorned with beautiful tombstones and Mamluk mausoleums. The cemetery is so vast that one could wander around it for an entire day. But what is most unusual is that amongst the graves and in the tombs, people live.

View from the mosque's minaret over the mausoleum-houses in the City of the Dead.
View from the mosque’s minaret over the mausoleum-houses in the City of the Dead. Photo: Charlie Phillips / Flickr.com

Copts in Cairo – City of Garbage Collectors and the Monastery in the Cave

The Coptic, or Old Cairo, is the oldest part of the city, which appeared long before modern Cairo, in the interval between the decline of ancient Egyptian religion and the arrival of Islam, when Christianity became the main religion of Egypt. The Copts didn’t choose this place by accident – a strategic canal that connected the Nile with the Red Sea passed here. On the territory of the ancient Roman fortress enclosed by walls, the main Coptic churches of the Greco-Roman period are concentrated, as well as the Coptic Museum and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, one of the most historically important Jewish temples. Here, geniza documents were found, and possibly the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who lived nearby, visited. The building itself dates back to the late 19th century, but a synagogue has likely been here since before the 9th century.

The facade of the Coptic Museum is adorned with national patterns. Photo: Panegyrics of Granovetter / Flickr.com
The facade of the Coptic Museum is adorned with national patterns. Photo: Panegyrics of Granovetter / Flickr.com

The Copts celebrate their own holidays, which do not coincide with Muslim ones, but often participate together in domestic and traditional celebrations. For example, on the spring holiday of Sham el-Nessim, on Easter Monday, they eat smoked herring. The intersection and coexistence of Abrahamic religions is natural for Egypt, but of course, it’s not without its issues. In recent years, there have been attacks in which dozens of people died and were injured – in Minya, Alexandria, and Cairo. Copts complain about inadequate representation in politics and public life and the government’s inaction in protecting their community from religious discord.

Garbage City (30.03673, 31.27817). All of Cairo’s waste is taken to the Manshiyat Naser area, or Garbage City. Typically, the ground floors are filled with garbage, where people (mostly Copts) sort it, while they live on the other floors. Thanks to this district, 80% of Cairo’s waste is recycled – more than in many major Western European cities. The area is filled with unsanitary conditions and stench, similar to a landfill, but at the same time, it has a friendly and warm atmosphere. Local residents are hospitable to tourists, whose numbers are increasing each year. The district is becoming not only one of Cairo’s top informal attractions but also features in regular guidebooks. However, people can still react nervously to photography, even though articles and documentaries are regularly produced about Garbage City.

garbage city cairo
Photo: stttijn / Flickr.com
Sorting garbage is the primary job of the Copts living in the Manshiyat Naser district
Sorting garbage is the primary job of the Copts living in the Manshiyat Naser district. Photo: Surfing The Nations / Flickr.com

Apart from the unusual atmosphere when garbage is processed in a residential area, the Manshiyat Naser district has a lot of Coptic heritage — temples, crosses, and other religious artifacts. The most impressive is the Monastery of Saint Simon the Tanner (30.03096, 31.27608), partially located inside a cave. Services are held in the Coptic language.

The Monastery of Saint Simon the Tanner is partially located inside a cave
The Monastery of Saint Simon the Tanner is partially located inside a cave. Photo: Alexander Lyutenkov / Wikimedia.org

Downtown is characterized by skyscrapers from the 1940s, architectural eclecticism, and Tahrir Square

Cairo does not have a real center. Downtown, or Wust el-Balad, meaning “middle of the city,” is a triangle roughly between the streets of Ramses, Imad ed-Din, and Tahrir Street, leading to Tahrir Square, famous for the events of the “Arab Spring“. This is the center, but a formal and artificial one, built to serve as a ceremonial facade instead of the Old City, which by the end of the 19th century was not suitable for tourists and rulers due to its misalignment with contemporary urban tastes.

Teenagers pose with the Egyptian flag against the backdrop of a destroyed truck during the "Arab Spring"
Teenagers pose with the Egyptian flag against the backdrop of a destroyed truck during the “Arab Spring”. Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy / Flickr.com.

Downtown is the most pedestrian-friendly district of Cairo. The main pleasure here is to walk around, tracing circles, triangles, and squares through the streets, examining old signs, well courtyards, and alleys filled with little shops, kiosks, and cafes. Different times of the day offer different scenes in Downtown, and in what seems like chaos, one can notice a rhythm. At three in the afternoon, civil servants leave their posts, and the streets jam up with traffic; in the evening, young people arrive to watch football on plastic chairs outside cafes, and from the shouts of fans, one can understand when a goal has been scored. The quietest and most peaceful time to stroll Downtown is before eight in the morning every day and until 11-12 noon on Fridays.

The architectural style of Downtown is often described as colonial, but it’s not as straightforward as “Europeans came and built everything.” Downtown was envisioned and planned as the “Paris on the Nile”, but later this area became quite eclectic. Because in the period from the 1930s to the 1950s, after the weakening of British control, Downtown became one of the main spaces for modernist experiments by Egyptian, Italian, French, Syrian, and Lebanese architects. Egyptian modernist architecture differs from European and Soviet in that it doesn’t necessarily strive for practicality and functional minimalism. Behind the simple concrete facades hide separate rooms and elevators for servants, 150 sq.m balconies, marble halls, and wooden parquet.

Downtown was envisioned and planned as "Paris on the Nile", but later this district became quite eclectic
Downtown was envisioned and planned as “Paris on the Nile”, but later this district became quite eclectic. Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy / Flickr.com

Today, what was once the richest and most modern district with astonishing amenities for the first half of the 20th century such as intercoms and central heating, is abandoned and forgotten. Almost all the architectural heritage of the 19th–20th centuries is unprotected, and its future is uncertain. Downtown never truly became the real center – perhaps Cairo is too vast, fragmented, and unequal, or maybe it changes too rapidly to revolve around a single unchanging center. You can start exploring the district from any point; it’s difficult to get lost amidst the grid of planned streets.

Imad ed-Din Street is the center of the golden age of Egyptian cinema, which spans the 1940s to the 1960s. Egyptian movies and music are known throughout the Arab world, which is why the Egyptian dialect is understood by many whose native Arabic dialect is significantly different. The street was filled with cinemas, concert halls, clubs, and cabarets on both sides. Nowadays, Egyptian films with English subtitles are shown at the Zawya Cinema.

The glitz and glamour of downtown under layers of time’s dust can continue to be admired on Talaat Harb Street, rich with unique historical buildings, like the “Miami” and “Radio” cinemas. Talaat Harb is one of the most popular streets for shopping; it gets crowded with pedestrians and cars in the evenings and on weekends. In its alleyways lies the Access gallery, where contemporary art exhibitions are regularly held. Young, creative Egyptians in downtown try to capture every possible piece of this grand and complex past and make it their own, in the present moment and for the future. In the small pedestrian district around Al Sharifain Street, local nonconformists, roller skaters, and skateboarders like to gather.

"Radio" Cinema on Talaat Harb Street / Historical buildings on Imad ed-Din Street.
“Radio” Cinema on Talaat Harb Street / Historical buildings on Imad ed-Din Street

Another cinematic location is the Immobilia residential building on Sheriff Street, the first skyscraper in Cairo, built in 1940. It has 370 apartments and 27 elevators for residents, guests, and service staff. Famous musicians and movie stars of the Egyptian industry once lived here. Today, no one lives here – only a few windows light up at night, the apartments are occupied by offices, and the ground floor spaces, originally designed for commercial use, are now cafes.

Immobilia Building under construction, photo from 1940
Immobilia Building under construction, photo from 1940

Not far away is the pedestrian district of Bursa, which was once a financial exchange. At the beginning of the 20th century, the combined Cairo and Alexandria exchange was among the top five largest in the world. Before the renovation, during the “Arab Spring” years, these streets were lined with plastic chairs from cafes popular among leftists and queer activists. Not a trace of the cafes remains, and the activists are either emigrants or in prison. Here, on a parking wall, remains (as of January 2021) the last piece of revolutionary street art from the “Arab Spring”. The rest of the street art, like the boy with bread on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, known for the tragic events of the 2011 revolution, was commissioned by the new government over the existing images created by the protesters.

Graffiti "Boy with Bread" on Mohamed Mahmoud Street / The last remaining revolutionary graffiti in Downtown
Graffiti “Boy with Bread” on Mohamed Mahmoud Street / The last remaining revolutionary graffiti in Downtown

Tahrir Square, the main site of the “Arab Spring”, has been completely rebuilt, graffiti covered, and policemen are stationed at every corner who are on duty around the clock. It’s hard to imagine that just ten years ago, this was the location of clashes and tent camps of one of the most famous revolutions of the 21st century. Despite the large number of tourists in Cairo, local police regularly stop foreigners with cameras and ask them to delete certain photos with administrative buildings or where the police themselves appear in the shots. From Tahrir Square, you can walk to the Nile promenade – Corniche an-Nil – and stroll south along the Garden City district. Garden City truly is a garden city with large trees lining its smoothly curving and intersecting streets at unexpected angles. Here, embassies are located in old villas, entrances in the art-deco style, and large chain hotels. Because of the embassies, Egyptian police also interfere with photography here, especially if using a camera rather than a phone. On the promenade, under the shade of trees, couples and groups of friends walk and arrange picnics. The Nile, depending on how you count, is the longest river on the planet, recognizable on maps by the narrow green strip amidst the deserts of northeast Africa. A popular tourist activity is to take a boat ride on the Nile, and for those seeking something special, rowing, windsurfing, and kayaking are available.

Zamalek is the greenest district in Cairo

Greenery is indeed scarce in Cairo. It hides behind the fences of the closed elite suburban communities of New Cairo, where those who can afford to escape the noise and chaos flee to. But in the affluent district on an island in the middle of the Nile with embassies and boutiques, one can find green streets, small private galleries, and restaurants and cafes popular among expats and well-off Cairenes. Taking a walk along the Nile promenade and the bridge into Zamalek is one of the favorite free pastimes of young men and women from neighboring districts.

A stroll along the Nile promenade in the Zamalek area is one of the favorite free activities for the youth in Cairo
A stroll along the Nile promenade in the Zamalek area is one of the favorite free activities for the youth in Cairo. Photo: hewy / Flickr.com

In Zamalek, you can find the main skyscrapers whose silhouettes dominate Cairo’s skyline. President Anwar Sadat, who set the country on a course of economic liberalization and friendship with the USA, dreamt that this island would become Cairo’s Manhattan. The current status of this dream is ironically reflected by one of the skyscrapers, the Forte Tower, which has never been commissioned due to corruption and has been a long-standing construction project since 1976. Another architectural beauty is the neo-gothic building of the Faculty of Arts, around which students relax during breaks. As in downtown, there are many luxurious modernist residential buildings from the mid-20th century here.

The district is the namesake of the football club “Zamalek” – the main opponent of the most successful club in Africa, Cairo’s “Al-Ahly”. During derby matches, authorities restrict interactions of the fans; the “Al Ahly” ultras were active during the street clashes of the 2011 revolution. The most adored Egyptian footballer, Mohamed Salah, whose images can often be seen on Cairo’s streets, plays for “Liverpool” – Egyptians never miss the English team’s matches.

A family in Cairo before the final match of the Africa Cup of Nations. Photo: Mark Fischer / Flickr.com. Evening is the best time to visit Al-Azhar Park: at sunset, the park offers an incredible view of Cairo
A family in Cairo before the final match of the Africa Cup of Nations. Photo: Mark Fischer / Flickr.com. Evening is the best time to visit Al-Azhar Park: at sunset, the park offers an incredible view of Cairo. Photo: Flo P / Unsplash.com

The Palace of Mohammed Ali on Manial Island is another green spot, more popular among newlyweds and photographers than tourists. Entrance is through a ticket to the museum.

Evening is the best time to visit Al-Azhar Park: at sunset, the park offers an incredible view of Cairo.
Evening is the best time to visit Al-Azhar Park: at sunset, the park offers an incredible view of Cairo. Photo: Flo P / Unsplash.com

Al-Azhar Park is one of the few parks in Cairo, built over a former dump, towering over one of Cairo’s poorest districts. It’s a popular spot for wedding photoshoots. Entry to the park is paid. The view of Cairo from the park is mesmerizing, especially at sunset. At the official sunset time, the azan (call to prayer) starts from hundreds of minarets around, the same yet with different voices, with slight delays and variations. The combination of the view and the polyphony is impressive.

Heliopolis and Madinat Nasr – a brutalist mosque and design by Belgian architects

These are neighboring districts that smoothly flow into each other, yet they are very distinct. Madinat Nasr was founded in the 1960s as part of a project to modernize the rapidly growing Cairo. Brutalist shapes familiar to the post-Soviet eye can be found here in unexpected buildings. For instance, in the slightly cosmic Al-Rahma Mosque or the circular October 6th War Panorama, a museum dedicated to Egypt’s achievements in the Yom Kippur War, constructed by architects and workers from North Korea.

Heliopolis was a new type of district for early 20th-century Cairo, planned and built by Belgian developers. Back then, it was a desert on the outskirts of Cairo, but today it’s a well-off and even slightly green district. A large community of Egyptian Copts live here, along with other Christians – Armenians, Syrian Catholics, Greek Catholics, and Orthodox Christians. This is evident from the churches. At the center of the district is the Baron Palace, a recently restored palace of the Belgian Baron Empain, one of the leading foreign developers. The building had been abandoned for many years. Now, it’s a popular spot among the youth who record TikToks against its backdrop. Its massive structure and architecture resemble a Hindu temple, echoing Angkor Wat in Cambodia, only made of reinforced concrete. You can visit the museum and gardens within the palace with a tour to appreciate the entire oddity of the baron’s colonial tastes. The entrance ticket costs 100 pounds (1.96 euros), 50 pounds (0.98 euros) for students, and an additional 50 pounds (0.98 euros) for photography. On Baghdad Street and its alleys, it’s interesting to observe the retro shop windows, calligraphy signs, greenery, and architecture.

Baron Palace - recently restored palace of the Belgian Baron Empain, one of the main foreign developers. It is now a popular spot among the youth, who shoot TikToks against the backdrop of the unique building
Baron Palace – recently restored palace of the Belgian Baron Empain, one of the main foreign developers. It is now a popular spot among the youth, who shoot TikToks against the backdrop of the unique building. Photo: Peter Snelling / Flickr.com

The Neo-Islamic architecture of the “Heliopolis” company buildings is a project by Belgian architects who moved to Cairo in 1905. Unlike the historical style, which copied specific elements and cited authentic Islamic architecture, all “Islamic” elements in these buildings are fictional. The original concept of this project is still felt even after more than a century; the galleries with columns provide shade for passers-by. Surrounding the Neo-Islamic streets are various churches. The Church of St. Mark is one of the old popular Coptic churches in Heliopolis. The Church of St. Catherine is a Syrian Catholic church by architect Naum Shebib, who also designed the Cairo TV tower. This unusual church is a project to create new church architecture without looking back at traditions. And tucked away on one of the alleys is a synagogue built in 1928.

Basilica of the Heliopolitan Virgin Mary. The founder of Heliopolis, the Belgian Eduard Empen, is buried in it
Basilica of the Heliopolitan Virgin Mary. The founder of Heliopolis, the Belgian Eduard Empen, is buried in it. Photo: Sailko / Wikimedia.org

Eating and Drinking

In many Cairo establishments, the 26% tax is not included in the price of dishes. Keep this in mind when ordering, or better yet, clarify with the waiter in advance.

Food – their own falafel and a dish made of pasta, rice, and lentils

Egyptian cuisine doesn’t enjoy the same popularity worldwide as its neighboring Syrian and Lebanese cuisines. However, the country’s location at the crossroads between continents has influenced the diversity of Egyptian dishes. Many Egyptian dishes are suitable for vegetarians, and during Coptic Orthodox holidays, when many Egyptian Christians observe fasting, most cafes offer a fasting menu “seiyami.”

The pride of local street food is “taameya” – the Egyptian version of falafel, but not made from chickpeas, but from fava beans, crispy on the outside and soft inside. Excellent fava bean falafel is prepared in the cafe Zooba, which recently opened a branch in New York. Or in the Egyptian fast-food chain GAD and the popular Kazaz in downtown.

Taameya is the Egyptian version of falafel, but not made from chickpeas, instead from fava beans
Taameya is the Egyptian version of falafel, but not made from chickpeas, instead from fava beans. Photo: W / Flickr.com

The same fava beans, which are cooked for hours with oil, garlic, cumin, onions, and lemon juice, are called “fūl medames.” It’s a hearty breakfast dish eaten with aish baladi bread. Sometimes in the mornings, you can see carts on the streets where they prepare and sell taameya and other Egyptian dishes. This is the most budget-friendly and, if you choose the right cart—usually the one with a long queue— a very tasty option.

Koshari is another vegan contender for the title of Egypt’s national dish. It’s made from rice, pasta, and lentils. A historically popular and slightly touristy restaurant considered the standard in koshari preparation is Koshari Abu Tarek. And, of course, no meal is complete without bread— in the Egyptian dialect, the same word signifies both bread and life: “aish.” All variations and combinations of meze appetizers, for example, baba ganoush, which in Egypt is prepared with tahini, can usually be ordered on a plate with bread separately or already in the bread. For Egyptian sandwiches and shawarma, you can head to Akher Sa’a. Kebda— liver fried with spices and onions, and suguk— spicy small sausages, are often found in the same aish baladi bread or fino— “Viennese”, a soft white European-style roll. A restaurant known for its meat dishes and eccentric owner is Kebdat el Brince.

Koshari is a dish made from rice, pasta, and lentils
Koshari is a dish made from rice, pasta, and lentils. Photo: Leandroid / Flickr.com

And of course, one cannot go without bread — in the Egyptian dialect, the same word “aish” means both bread and life. All variations and combinations of meze snacks, for example, baba ganoush, which in Egypt is prepared with the addition of tahini, can typically be ordered on a plate with bread separately or already inside the bread. For Egyptian sandwiches and shawarma, you can head to Akher Sa’a. You’ll often come across “kebda” — liver fried with spices and onions, and “suguk” — spicy small sausages, in the same “aish baladi” bread or “fino” — “Viennese”, a soft white roll in the European style. A restaurant known for its meat dishes and eccentric owner is Kebdat el Brince.

A provider of fresh morning bread in the old town of Cairo
A provider of fresh morning bread in the old town of Cairo. Photo: Paul Keller / Flickr.com

Fasahet Somaya is the ideal place if during your trip you haven’t made friends with any local mothers. Here, they prepare that very homestyle cuisine. In the tiny downtown restaurant, there are only a couple of tables, and the menu changes daily, but you can typically try “hammam” — pigeons stuffed with spicy rice and “mahshi” — stuffed vegetables and grape leaves. Cairo Kitchen offers an equally authentic, almost exhaustive menu of classic Egyptian dishes.

At the Cairo Kitchen restaurant, there's an authentic, nearly exhaustive menu of classic Egyptian dishes
At the Cairo Kitchen restaurant, there’s an authentic, nearly exhaustive menu of classic Egyptian dishes. Photo: Cairo Kitchen / Facebook.com

International cafes and restaurants are primarily concentrated in the Zamalek, Maadi, and Korba areas, in the historic center of Heliopolis. In downtown, breakfasts and Italian dishes with a local twist are served with a view of the synagogue at Eish w Malh. Cairoma claims to offer authentic Italian cuisine. Al Bostan Al Saeidi Passage is a lane with budget-friendly cafes in downtown. At Hend Elzaem in Heliopolis (30.090803, 31.324827), there are massive queues all day for koshary — it’s one of the tastiest in the city. Swiss Egyptian Restaurant, one of the oldest establishments in Korba, popular among the Copts of Heliopolis, is a good place for brunch, though it is more known for its baked goods and desserts. On the same street is Pepenero, another pricier Italian restaurant with a balcony in the historic neo-Islamic building of the “Heliopolis” company. Nearby is the TBS cafe with coffee and pastries, which also operates on Street 9 in Maadi. On that same restaurant street, Ralph’s German Bakery serves breakfast all day, and the upscale Ovio, which often seems to be frequented only by local expats, is also located in Maadi, nearby on Street 18. Falak in Garden City on the ground floor of an old house is simultaneously a bookshop, souvenir shop, and cafe. It’s frequented by many students, the food preparation is slow, and it’s quite smoky, but the atmosphere is cool and the food is tasty.

Sweets

During holidays, you can see advertisements from confectioners offering to purchase Eastern sweets on installment plans – just one example of Egyptian love for desserts. Try the semolina-based dessert basbousa with syrup, kunafa made from special vermicelli with syrup, nuts, and fruits, “Western” cakes and pastries at Patisserie El Abd and Mandarine Koueider. El malky prepares rice desserts with cream, ice cream, fruits, and nuts, of which um ali is especially good.

Coffee Culture

Sitting in a café and watching the world go by is the most accessible form of relaxation in the city. A favorite pastime of both young and old, but mostly men – smoking hookah and drinking coffee, tea, or fresh juice, reading a newspaper or watching football. Smoking is almost everywhere, except for Starbucks, but the bubbling of hookahs on Cairo’s streets can no longer be heard – serving hookah was prohibited due to the pandemic. Here, coffee traditions from different regions and eras coexist and occasionally intersect. Coffee in a Turk with cardamom is by default served with sugar, and it can be had at almost every step. Sufi Space in Zamalek occupies a large apartment with high ceilings in an old house. Groppi is a café with a retro atmosphere of last century’s Downtown chic. Bardo Clubhouse is an old villa in Maadi, which has become a space for events, exhibitions, meetings, and work. Entry is paid, and drinks are included in the ticket price. In “Heliopolis”, several coffee shops opened simultaneously that prepare from specialty beans – Cai Brew, Vasko, and Second Cup. And Brazilian Coffee Stores have been simply roasting and brewing coffee from cool Brazilian beans since 1929.

In Cairo, it used to be common to see men relaxing and socializing while smoking hookah, but since the beginning of the pandemic, authorities have banned hookah smoking on the city streets
In Cairo, it used to be common to see men relaxing and socializing while smoking hookah, but since the beginning of the pandemic, authorities have banned hookah smoking on the city streets. Photo: Marwa Morgan / Flickr.comIn Cairo, it used to be common to see men relaxing and socializing while smoking hookah, but since the beginning of the pandemic, authorities have banned hookah smoking on the city streets. Photo: Marwa Morgan / Flickr.com

Bars

Alcohol in Cairo is readily available, but mostly of local production and the assortment isn’t very large. You should try “Stella” beer — the national Egyptian lager with added rice, which has been produced for over 120 years.

"Stella" is the national Egyptian lager
“Stella” is the national Egyptian lager. Photo: crosby_cj / Flickr.com
    • Al Horreya — a classic bar surrounded by rumors and gossip, where the waiter Milad, who has long become a meme character, serves three types of beer year after year, and instead of a bill counts the empty bottles on your table. Ten years ago, it was one of the main hangouts for Egyptian revolutionaries.
    • Carol — a small bar with basic cocktails located in a former cabaret.
    • Le Bistro — a bar and restaurant owned by the son of the famous Egyptian actress of Jewish origin, Layla Murad, whom you can sometimes meet there.
    • Carlton Hotel Rooftop on the roof of a hotel adjacent to the Supreme Court.
    • A rooftop bar of a hotel in Zamalek with a view of the Nile; it has no website or social media, but despite this, it remains consistently popular among Cairenes and the capital’s visitors.
    • Wire — a cozy bar in Heliopolis with cocktails and a playlist featuring classic rock.
    • Tap Bar — modern bars in Maadi and New Cairo.
Wire — a cozy bar with cocktails in Heliopolis
Wire — a cozy bar with cocktails in Heliopolis. Photo: Wire / Facebook.com

Music

Historically, stars of Arabic music have always flocked to Cairo in pursuit of fame and opportunities. Musicians from other countries even sing in Egyptian Arabic due to Egypt’s influence on contemporary Arabic popular culture. Here’s a small selection of modern and classic songs that are familiar to many, not only in Cairo but throughout the Arab world.

Today’s rich musical environment is fragmented. Many concerts are canceled; the pandemic measures have adversely impacted musicians worldwide, and Egypt is no exception. The local nightlife continues, but the gender and class aspects of Cairo life hinder parties from reaching their potential heights — tickets are deliberately priced high to attract guests of a certain status, and attendance is only allowed for couples or mixed groups to maintain a gender balance.

As a result, in the most famous city clubs, like the Cairo Jazz Club, it’s mainly married couples that attend, and genuinely fun events are rare and must be sought out. Interesting concerts occur in a few places, and it’s easiest to look for them in Facebook events by the names of the performers you’re interested in or by following the main venues scattered around the city. Some of these include The Greek Campus, Darb 1718, Al Manara, and Room art space.

Shopping and Souvenirs

There’s a stereotype that in the Middle East region, it’s always necessary to haggle — that’s not true. In none of the mentioned places should you haggle.

  • Fair Trade Egypt — a social enterprise where they manufacture and sell souvenirs made of ceramics, glass, and textiles.
  • Oum El Donya is hidden in an apartment of an old house almost on Tahrir Square. Here they sell souvenirs, books, and jewelry.
  • AUC Bookstore — an English-language bookstore near the old campus of the American University in Cairo. There are many books about Egyptology, Islam, Egyptian society, history, politics. A passport is required for entry.
  • Kiliim carpets — another certified fair trade enterprise that sells hand-made natural-colored rugs with traditional geometric motifs.
  • Sherry’s Vinyl — Egyptian, Arabic, and international vinyl in Zamalek.
  • Nefertari — natural cosmetics and care products.
  • Rebel Cairo — scarves, beachwear, and more with bright contemporary prints.
  • Cairopolitan — contemporary design and art, posters, tote bags, humorous souvenirs.
  • Syria Mostafa — a shop for retro frames and sunglasses.
  • Al Yemeni — spiced coffee with cardamom, known in Egypt as Turkish coffee. Sold in bulk, different roasts.
  • Market under the highway (30.048891, 31.252332) — the maximum concentration of Cairo’s noise and chaos.
  • Book fair (30.052389, 31.248977) at the Ataba metro station, where old newspapers, comics, and posters are also sold. Nearby there are two notable buildings — the National Theater and a modernist parking building.

Where to Stay

Most tourists stay in Giza near the pyramids, but apart from the pyramids, there’s nothing else there. Cairo is a huge city with relentless traffic jams. The places in this guide are concentrated around downtown. The downtown itself is far from the most comfortable living area of Cairo: there are no supermarkets, spacious shopping malls, and other familiar conveniences. However, it has the highest concentration of housing in unique historical buildings of different eras and styles, which almost no one catalogs or protects. This is a special Cairo experience in itself — to live in the city center in a historic building, with grand entrances and backdoors, original early 20th-century elevators, and doors.

We have selected several apartments on Airbnb located in historic buildings:

  • one – four-meter ceilings and antique furniture in an early 20th-century building.
  • two – minimalist interior in an apartment in a 19th-century house with an open balcony filled with greenery.
  • three – exposed stone masonry, a large kitchen, a full-fledged office with a corner table, and a pink robe over a double bed.
  • four – a small apartment with access to the roof and a view of a colorful residential quarter in downtown.
  • five – a grand house from the 1920s, an entrance with stucco molding, and elegant antique furniture in the apartment — Cairo chic.

Other districts suitable for comfortable living are Zamalek, Dokki, Maadi, and Heliopolis. Zamalek and Dokki are central, while Maadi and Heliopolis are attractions in their own right, each with their own centers. In all these districts, they are used to foreigners, tourists, and migrants, and there are streets comfortable for walking, supermarkets, local and international chain places.

The most important historic hotel in Cairo is the Mena House, located near the great pyramids of Giza. It was originally a hunting lodge, built in 1869 for the Egyptian Viceroy Ismail Pasha. In 1885, it was sold to the English couple Ethel and Hugh F. Locke King. They immediately began building a hotel and opened it in 1886 under the name The Mena House. The hotel is named after the founding father of the first Egyptian dynasty, Mena, or King Menes. Since then, many buildings have been added to the historic part, and now it belongs to the “Marriott” chain. In 1894, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife stayed here. In the 20th century, guests of the “Mena House” included Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie, Frank Sinatra, and Charlie Chaplin. Rooms with a view of the pyramids can be rented for 800 euros a day.

From the Mena House hotel territory, the pyramids are visible
From the Mena House hotel territory, the pyramids are visible. Photo: Booking.com

Staying at another historic hotel in Cairo – the Windsor Hotel – is considerably cheaper (and more austere). During World War I, it served as a club for British officers, and much of its interior and furnishings date back to that period. Journalists have described it as “an unabated ode to the times of British colonial travels.” A room with a bathroom costs from 65 euros. The “closed forever” tag on Google Maps is premature: the hotel just hasn’t reopened yet after the pandemic.

One of the great things about Cairo is that you can enjoy the luxury of well-known international hotel chains for relatively little money. For instance, a deluxe room at the Kempinski Nile Hotel with a luxurious pool overlooking the Nile costs 650 euros a day. Representing another era of 1980s brutalist architecture stands the Sofitel Cairo Nile El Gezirah Hotel skyscraper. For lovers of modern conveniences and modernist architecture, a room in this comfortable hotel will cost 350 euros.

The El Gezirah hotel is located in a skyscraper built in Brutalist style
The El Gezirah hotel is located in a skyscraper built in Brutalist style. Photo: Air Babble / Wikimedia.org

The Cairo Marriott Hotel is one of the tallest buildings in Cairo. Its modern towers were opened in 1982, but its central wing was built as the palace of Khedive Ismail Pasha back in 1869 and was transformed into a luxurious hotel in 1894. A night at the Marriott costs from 400 euros.

At the Heritage and Madina hostels, you can spend the night in a dormitory for 45-60 euros. Heritage occupies a floor of a historic building, which has its facade on Tahrir Square. Madina, on the other hand, is on the top floor of a modernist skyscraper. The elevator doesn’t always work and can be a bit frightening to ride, but from the veranda, there’s a great view of downtown Cairo.

Transport

How to get there

Traveling to Cairo from Europe is a straightforward affair thanks to numerous direct flight options. Major airlines, such as EgyptAir, Lufthansa, Air France, and British Airways, operate frequent direct flights from European capitals like Paris, London, Berlin, and Madrid to Cairo International Airport. Depending on the season and how early you book, economy class fares typically range from €150 to €400 for a round trip. However, budget travelers can also keep an eye out for occasional promotions or deals from low-cost carriers or opt for flights with stopovers, which might offer lower fares. It’s always recommended to compare prices using flight comparison websites or apps to secure the best deal. Remember to check visa requirements and any travel advisories before departure.

Buses from Cairo airport to the city center run every 30 minutes from 07:50 to 18:15. The fare is less than one dollar; it’s essential to exchange local pounds at the airport. The bus takes about an hour to reach the center, depending on road traffic. Bus No. 111 goes to the city of Shubra, and No. 381 goes to the Embaba district. Both stop at Ramses Station, where you can switch to a bus, subway, or taxi. A taxi or Uber from the airport to the center will cost around ten dollars.

Getting around the city

The most common means of transport for Cairenes are buses and minibusses, known as microbuses. Uber works well in Cairo; you can pay with a card and not worry about taxi drivers trying to scam tourists. However, Uber drivers still prefer cash—prepare the exact amount with minimal change—and don’t always know the route, with GPS not always functioning perfectly.

The Cairo metro is convenient for traveling between the main areas during peak hours, especially if moving between downtown, Maadi, and Heliopolis. The Coptic Cairo is particularly accessible by metro—the entrance to the religious complex is a few hundred meters from the “Mar Girgis” (Saint George) metro exit. The ticket price depends on the number of stations you pass—no need to calculate yourself, you can just tell the cashier your destination station. A ticket costs five to ten pounds (0.10–0.20 euros). The metro has women-only cars, which are indicated on the platform and the train.

A few hundred meters from the "Mar Girgis" metro station is the oldest district of Cairo - Coptic.
A few hundred meters from the “Mar Girgis” metro station is the oldest district of Cairo – Coptic. Photo: Aslan Media / Flickr.com

When to go

For those wishing to definitely experience Cairo’s nightlife and “Stella” beer in bars, it’s not advisable to visit during the month of Ramadan or on the holidays of Uraza-bayram and Kurban-bayram. During Ramadan, bars are closed and alcohol is not sold, and on major holidays, many establishments are closed or change their working hours, and many city-dwelling Egyptians head to the seaside resorts.

The Islamic calendar is not tied to the one we live by, exact dates of holidays are worth checking when planning a trip. In 2024, Ramadan, the sacred month of fasting, is anticipated to commence around March 11 and conclude around April 9. Directly after Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, often referred to as the “Festival of Breaking the Fast”, will be observed. Later in the year, around August 17, Muslims will celebrate Eid al-Adha, the “Festival of Sacrifice”, which honors the prophet Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God’s command. As these dates depend on the lunar calendar, they might shift slightly based on the moon’s sighting. Travelers and planners should bear in mind the significance of these dates as they influence customs, business activities, and everyday life in Muslim-majority regions. The dates change every year.

However, for those interested in Islam or religion in general, this is instead a great time to visit. One can see how people celebrate the holiday, decorate their homes, gather in the streets, and share food in iftar with random passersby after a day of fasting.

The streets of Cairo are decorated with colorful garlands during Ramadan
The streets of Cairo are decorated with colorful garlands during Ramadan. Photo: EK McConnell / Flickr.com

In spring, everything blooms, and the city, which usually lacks greenery, seems very lively. However, from April to June, the khamsin winds blow, causing dust and sand to swirl in the air. In winter, Cairo is quite cold, the houses do not have heating, and they are designed to keep cool inside: do not be quick to leave your jacket and sweater at home.

Visas

Citizens of Europe and the USA planning a trip to Cairo, Egypt, typically need to acquire a visa. For many European countries and the USA, Egypt offers the option of obtaining a visa on arrival at major points of entry, including Cairo International Airport. This visa on arrival is usually valid for tourism purposes and allows a stay of up to 30 days. As an alternative, travelers can also apply for an e-Visa online before their departure, which streamlines the arrival process. However, it’s important to carry a passport valid for at least six months beyond the planned date of entry into Egypt. It’s also recommended to check with the Egyptian consulate or embassy in one’s home country for the most up-to-date visa requirements and potential changes in policy before traveling.

Tips

Noise. Cairo is one of the noisiest cities in the world. Beneath the windows, vegetable vendors advertise their goods using megaphones, junk dealers announce their presence with cries of “bekiya”, and gas cylinder suppliers knock on them with metal objects. Motorists stuck in traffic honk at each other, mimicking the rhythm of long-winded Arabic swear words. From the neighboring mosque, or more likely several mosques, the call to prayer (azan) will sound at dawn and four more times throughout the day. Therefore, earplugs are essential.

Language. Knowing a few words in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic will earn the respect and goodwill of the locals. Being able to read the Arabic alphabet and numbers will help you navigate confidently around the city and country. Yes, Arabic numerals in modern Arabic are not the same Arabic numerals we use. But they are similar. All vehicle numbers and many menus and price tags in local establishments are in these numbers. English is understood in most cases.

Arabic numerals from 0 to 9
Arabic numerals from 0 to 9

Photos. In Cairo, it’s challenging to take photographs without inadvertently pointing your camera at something considered a government facility. In such a case, a police officer, soldier, or security guard might approach and most likely ask you to delete the photo. It’s better to comply. After all, the military government and the state of emergency remain in effect.

Mosques. Many of the mosques in this guide operate as museums, and prayers are not held in them, so there is an admission fee. In any case, the rules for visiting mosques are straightforward — avoid prayer times, which can be discerned by the azan, or checked in advance online. They are tied to the sun (dawn, noon, sunset), and their timing changes slightly over time. Men and women are separated in different parts of the mosque, often with separate entrances from the street. Shoes are removed at the entrance and left in designated areas. Body parts that should be covered — for men, from the navel to the knees; for women, the entire body except for the face and hands. It’s better to bring a headscarf in advance.

Traffic lights. For those accustomed to traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, Cairo’s streets can be challenging to navigate, as they are infrequent. The main advice is to look around, find people calmly crossing the street, and follow them.

Traffic jams are a constant state of Cairo's roads.
Traffic jams are a constant state of Cairo’s roads. Photo: walidhassanein / Flickr.com

Maps. Google and other maps don’t quite grasp the peculiarities of Cairo’s streets and neighborhoods and can lead you astray. When exploring city districts, it’s better to rely on your instincts and look at the map layer that displays satellite images.

Harassment. Cairo is notoriously known for the prevalence of street harassment — 99.3% of Egyptian women have faced some form of harassment. There’s nothing one can change about their behavior or appearance to avoid excessive attention on the streets — even women in niqabs get catcalled. If you feel threatened in a crowded place, you can scream and draw attention to yourself and the unpleasant situation — passersby are generally not indifferent to such incidents.

Connection. On average, Wi-Fi in apartments and especially in public places is noticeably slower than mobile internet. SIM cards are sold upon presenting a passport and visa at any local telecom outlets of Vodafone, Etisalat, and Orange. You can buy one immediately upon arrival at the airport.

Shopping. There aren’t many supermarkets in Cairo — most locals shop at markets and in small stores and kiosks. The kiosks, which can be found on almost every corner, are called “koshk,” from the word “kiosk”. Supermarket chains — Carrefour, Seoudi, Metro, and some smaller ones — deliver products via the Instashop application. Alcohol is sold in the Drinkies store chain. Delivery. Almost all the restaurants mentioned in this guide, plus thousands of other establishments, deliver food through the Talabat app, which has an English interface.

Supermarkets in Cairo are not particularly popular — most locals shop at markets and small stores
Supermarkets in Cairo are not particularly popular — most locals shop at markets and small stores

What to see and read

First and foremost, you should read and watch Egyptians on Egypt. This includes the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz; many of his works have been published in Russian, for example, “The Triumph of the Elevated.”

Movies directed by Youssef Chahine, a Greek Catholic from Alexandria and one of the main Egyptian directors, have recently become available on Netflix with English subtitles. His short film about Cairo is freely accessible, also with subtitles. “What Did Egypt’s Arab Spring Achieve? | A Decade of Spring” is just one of many documentaries reflecting on the “Arab Spring.”

The best guide to contemporary Cairo architecture is “Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide”.

The last independent media outlet allowed to operate by the Egyptian government is Mada Masr.

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