Cairo contains worlds within worlds, full of charm and contradictions. It is a maddening city with its incessant crowds, noise and pollution. Yet, it beckons you to linger and explore the various districts - each a different piece of the puzzle, evoking a fragment of Cairo's rich 7000 year history. A walk down any street in Cairo is a feast for the senses, and exploring beyond the popular districts below will not fail to fascinate.
The current heart of Cairo, the downtown region roughly centered on Midan Tahrir, stretches east to Ramses Station and south to Garden City. It is relatively young, as only in the mid 1800s was this area west of Ezbekiya to the Nile drained and developed. The architecture of the downtown cacophony of shops, restaurants, theaters, offices, apartment buildings, and hotels possesses an old-world elegance. Stand at Midan Talat Harb and you could almost imagine you were in Paris…well, until you are approached by an old man in a galabeya peddling papyrus.
The area also boasts numerous museums and contemporary art galleries. The
Old Cairo (Masr el Qadima)
Sometimes known as "Coptic Cairo," this area provides a historical link between Cairo's Pharaonic and Islamic periods. It is likely that the area was settled during the 6th Century BCE. It was here in 130 CE that the Roman emperor Trajan erected
The name of this district is misleading, as this fascinating part of the city is no more "Islamic" than any other. It seems to be the conventional way to describe the area that became the city center during medieval times. This area is very rich in history and culture, and takes days to explore thoroughly.
Highlights of this district include the Citadel; the vibrant Khan el Khalili bazaar, which is full of small shops, craftsmen's workshops, restaurants and coffee houses; Al Azhar Mosque, a thousand year old center of Islamic study; the Gayer-Anderson Museum; and the Cities of the Dead, cemeteries that are also home to hundreds of living residents. Throughout the district, there are dozens of beautiful mosques with many different architectural styles and that are open to non-Muslim visitors. There are also several old houses and secular buildings, which have been converted into museums or public spaces.
The area to the west of the Nile is technically a separate municipality from Cairo, but inextricably linked to the city. It is difficult to imagine that only a hundred years ago, the road leading west to the pyramids of Giza was a simple dirt track through an agricultural area. Now it is a clamorous wall of concrete and confusion, with numerous hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and residences. The Pyramids of Giza have drawn visitors throughout the centuries to gaze in awe at the "glory of the ancients". Surrounding the Pyramids area are the obligatory papyrus and perfume shops catering to the needs of the tourist.
Dokki & Agouza
Primarily a residential district comprising the villas and private sporting clubs of Cairo's movers and shakers and more cramped "baladi" quarters and market areas, there are a few interesting sites to visit in the area. These include the
One of Cairo's newer districts, this is a sprawl of residential and office towers, dominated by Arab League Street. The strip is replete with upscale boutiques and just about every American fast food chain imaginable. It is a veritable parking lot on summer nights as cars cruise up and down the wide avenue. Several cozy restaurants and pubs can be found tucked away in the maze of backstreets.
Gezira & Roda Islands
The two main islands in the Nile are both developed to the point where you might forget you are technically on an island. Gezira, the northern island, can be divided into two separate districts. The southern half, Gezira proper, contains the new
The northern tip of the island is the district of Zamalek, once a British neighborhood that miraculously retains a residential feel despite the dense population. Zamalek's multitude of popular Western-style bars and nightclubs are a big attraction. Most of the island is dominated by the
Roda Island is more densely populated, but is worth visiting for the
Heliopolis, Nasr City & Beyond
The area east of the city center started being developed at the end of the 19th Century by a Belgian entrepreneur, Baron Empain, whose residence, now unfortunately closed, can be seen on the way to the airport. This upscale district has numerous Western-style shops and restaurants. The elegant buildings in the area around Midan Roxy are architecturally appealing. Interesting sites in this area include the
Northwest of Heliopolis, and easily reached by Cairo's Metro line, is Matariyya. This contains the site of ancient Heliopolis, the City of the Sun - the earliest settlement in the Cairo area. The granite Obelisk of Senusert I (dating from around 1900 BCE) stands at Midan al-Misallah, and 500 meters (about a third of a mile) south stands the Virgin's Tree, which supposedly shaded the Holy Family during their time in Egypt.
To the south of Cairo, the suburb of Maadi is a popular residential area for foreigners, and though it has been subject to rampant development, the tree-lined streets camouflaging private villas in the older sections of the district are a peaceful change to the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city. Felucca rides on the Nile departing from the docks along the Corniche in Maadi are a relaxing way to spend an afternoon.
With so much culture and history at your fingertips, you may have a hard time deciding which site to see first, second, and so on. Rest assured, tours abound in Cairo for every type of traveler and for any wallet size.
The Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx are a powerful testament to the ingenuity of the ancient Egyptians. The best time to visit the area is early in the morning. As the day wears on, the crowds increase, especially during Egyptian holidays, as does the chance of being assaulted by dozens of postcard vendors and men offering rides on camels. The Giza pyramids are easily reached by city taxis or public transport.
The Pyramids are a marvel of engineering, and archaeologists have puzzled over exactly how they were built - and more esoteric types have wondered why. It is, however, generally accepted that the Pyramids were built as tombs for the ancient kings, an evolution from the single-stepped mastabas that designated burial sites in earlier times. Pyramid building was popular from about the 3rd to the 13th Dynasty with the biggest and best examples to be found in Giza.
The Sphinx, an ancient monument, has sparked many controversial theories. Egyptologists, however, agree that the Sphinx was built by Khafre's workers. The enormous lion statue has recently had a face lift, as experts endeavored to save the structure from further environmental damage and undo some earlier shoddy restoration work. Visitors can view the Sphinx only from a distance now, but it is still possible to see the Dream Stela between the forepaws, erected by King Thutmose IV, who fell asleep one afternoon in the shade of the then-buried colossus and in a dream was told to clear the sand which had engulfed it. The Sphinx has sat as a silent sentinel for nearly 4500 years, gazing to the east, witnessing the growth of the ever-changing Cairo.
Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops)
Soaring at nearly 147 meters (482 feet), the massive granite Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), is the largest and the most enigmatic in Egypt. The smooth Tura limestone that once encased the granite structure is no longer intact, and the pyramidion (capstone) is long gone. A separate ticket is required to enter the Pyramid, and since the authorities have limited visitors to 300 a day, it is advisable to arrive at the nearby ticket-kiosk early in the morning.
From the entrance, the descending passage takes you down to the Subterranean Chamber, currently closed, while the ascending passage takes you up to the so-called Queen's Chamber, which is not, by the way, a burial chamber. Continuing the ascent, the spacious Grand Gallery, with its high corbelled ceiling, brings you to the King's Chamber, where the granite sarcophagus of King Khufu lies empty. Unlike other Pyramids, the King's burial chamber is above ground. Two small openings can be seen in both the King's and Queen's chambers - these are the controversial "air shafts," which have spawned all sorts of interesting theories. That eerie hum you might hear inside is not spiritual energy channeling through the structure, but a ventilation system that was installed several years ago.
The interior of the Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren) is currently closed for restoration, but the complex is visible. Some of the limestone casing near the top still remains, giving the pyramid an interesting profile. The ruins of the eastern mortuary temple are still standing, and the causeway (in ancient times a covered passageway) takes you to the remains of the valley temple, where the mummification ritual would have taken place.
Outside the Pyramid, to the east, you will find the black basalt pavement where the mortuary temple once stood, and a causeway which in ancient times would have led to the valley temple. Three small Queen's Pyramids also stand on this side, near the Solar Boat Museum (admission EGP10). This museum has an exhibit of a wooden boat that was excavated and subsequently reconstructed by Ahmed Youssef. The boat, from one of five boat pits surrounding the Pyramid, symbolically offered passage for the king into the afterlife.
Surrounding the Pyramids' area are numerous souvenir shops, and towards Saqqara and Dahshur you can find a lot of carpet stores where weaving techniques are demonstrated. Popular restaurants nearby include Andrea, serving delicious grilled chicken in a garden-like atmosphere, Christo, offering fish meals and a good view of the Pyramids, and the lower-priced Felfela, serving a range of traditional Egyptian fare. The nearby Mena House Oberoi Hotel is a relaxing place to stop for a drink after touring the site, and offers an exquisite Indian restaurant called The Moghul Room, as well as Al Rubayyat, which serves continental cuisine. Many of the area’s bigger hotels also offer dining options. For those who have more than a casual interest in Pyramids, Mark Lehner's book, "The Complete Pyramids" is quite comprehensive and available at most bookstores and hotels in Cairo.
Pyramid of Menkaure
The "little" Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus), standing a respectable 62 meters (203 feet) high, was unfinished at the time of the King's death, and completed by his son. The nasty gash on the north face was caused by earlier explorers trying to dynamite through in order to find the entrance passage. The pyramid is open to visitors, and lately seems to take the bulk of the tourists denied admission to the Great Pyramid, so is therefore not for the claustrophobic. The burial chamber is empty; the sarcophagus was removed and subsequently lost at sea in transport when the ship sank on its way to Great Britain.
Outside, you can see several courses of granite casing, and the desert in front of the entrance is littered with stones removed from the Pyramid itself. Like all of the Pyramids of Giza, Menkaure's was once seen as a convenient stone quarry for medieval builders. To the east stands the remains of the mortuary temple and the causeway, while to the south are three Queen's Pyramids.
An alternative way to enjoy the pyramids is to attend one of the nightly Sound and Light shows, presented in several different languages. Though it may seem a bit too "touristy" to some, the narration has some historical interest, and the light show is truly beautiful. Others prefer to rent horses from one of the many nearby stables and have a gallop in the desert surrounding the Pyramids. Take care as many of the Pyramid horses are poorly trained, and riders have reported more than a few nasty spills.
If you still have energy and time after wandering around Giza, head south to the Saqqara complex, dominated by the Step Pyramid of the 3rd Dynasty King Zoser. Built before the Pyramids of Giza, this Pyramid shows the evolution of design from the single stepped mastabas to the final smooth-sided Pyramid structures that would follow in the next dynasty. Other beautifully-inscribed tombs of noblemen and officials, as well as later dynasty Pyramids, are also open to visitors. The eerie Serapeum, a funerary catacomb built for the sacred Apis bulls, is currently closed for restoration.
South of Saqqara is the rarely visited site of Dahshur, where Khufu's father Sneferu built the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. The latter's unusual profile was caused by a change of building angle halfway through construction. The Red Pyramid gets pretty close to the architectural perfection of the Giza Pyramids, and you can explore the interior without the claustrophobic crush of the Giza crowds. In the distance is the unusually shaped mud and brick pyramid of Amenemhet III.
A word of advice: It is best to rent a car to visit Saqqara and Dahshur, as the sites are far from the main road, and transportation back into Cairo is not easy to find.
Old Cairo, or Masr el-Qadima, provides a historical link between Pharaonic times and the Islamic period. This district was the center of Cairo during Roman times, until after the Arab invasion. The historical sites in this area, which has been continuously inhabited for around 2000 years, are surrounded by modern residences. Old Cairo is easily reached by the Metro. The Mar Girgis stop is directly in front of the cluster of Medieval Churches and the Coptic Museum. While here, check out Al Khatoun for traditional Egyptian art.
As you leave the Metro station, you arrive at the twin towers of the western gate of the fortress of Babylon Fortress, Coptic Museum & Hanging Church, built by the Roman emperor Trajan (98-117 CE). These towers were built on what were the banks of the Nile at that time. The Orthodox Church of St. George stands on top of the left-hand tower. Along from the towers, the Coptic Museum houses an extensive collection of Coptic art and artifacts, as well as secular items, collected from old churches and houses. There is much to admire here—old icons, textiles and manuscripts; so it will take a few hours to fully peruse the collection. If you enter the grounds of the Coptic Museum, you can walk through the gates and see the old gatehouse under the Hanging Church.
The Al-Muallaka (Hanging) Church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is so named as it is suspended above the gatehouse. It was founded in the late 7th Century. Destroyed 200 years later, it was rebuilt and eventually became the center of the Coptic Patriarchate. Over the years the structure has seen several renovations, and though the Patriarchate has moved, Coptic Masses are still held in the sanctuary. Often, members of the Coptic community are present and offer free in-depth tours of the church.
Greek Orthodox Church of St. George
The nearby Greek Orthodox Church of St. George has the same circular design of the Roman tower upon which it was built. Founded in the 10th Century, and alternating between Greek and Coptic ownership, the original building was damaged by fire in 1904, though fortunately most of the relics and icons survived. The present church was rebuilt on the site, and is the center of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. The adjacent monastery does not usually admit visitors.
A subterranean gateway, accessible from Mar Girgis Street, leads you through the narrow alleys of the oldest part of the district. The main building of the Convent of St. George is a nunnery, and not open to the public. You can, however, visit the remains of a Fatimid house on the site, and a small chapel containing the relics of St. George. To the left side of the Convent, you can also visit a small room used for the chain-wrapping ritual, symbolic of the persecution of St. George by the Romans. The attending nuns still perform the ritual, wrapping visitors in chains and reciting the appropriate prayers.
Continue down the narrow alley to the Church of St. Sergius, the oldest in Egypt, built originally in the 5th or 6th Century. It is located at the site of a crypt where it is believed the Holy Family stayed when they were in Egypt. Like the other churches in the area, it has been rebuilt several times since its founding, but still retains its original design. Further along on the left is the Church of St. Barbara. As the legend goes, St. Barbara was murdered by the Roman Governor for preaching the gospel in the 3rd Century.
To the south of St. Barbara is the Ben Ezra Synagogue, the oldest in Egypt, built on the site where it is believed that the Pharaoh's daughter found Moses. The synagogue does not hold services anymore, but has been completely restored. During rebuilding in the 19th Century, the Geniza (a cache of medieval manuscripts, including secular and religious documents) was discovered.
The cemeteries surrounding the churches are ideal for a peaceful stroll. At the northern part of the compound is the Church of St. George, originally founded in 681 CE and rebuilt in the 19th Century, and the Church of the Virgin, rebuilt in the 18th Century.
A short distance from the fortress proper are a few other sites of interest, including the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-As. Originally founded in 641 CE, and rebuilt several times since, the mosque is regarded as the oldest in Africa. The remains of the city that would become modern Cairo-Fustat - are to the east and parts have been excavated. The area around Fustat was once full of potters and craftsmen, but they have been recently relocated.
In addition to all the gems found around Cairo, various tour companies offer balloon, helicopter, safari, mosque, church and boat tours to help complete your stay in Cairo.
Safari Egypt Tours ( http://www.safariegypt.com/ )
Planet Tours ( +20 12 398 9689/ http://www.planetours-eg.com/ )
Culture and History Tours
Summit Tours ( +20 24 478 8921/ http://www.cairotours.net/ )
Travel EG ( +20 22 392 9569/ http://www.traveleg.com/ )
Egypt Unexpected ( +20 12 141 8581/ http:/egyptunexpected.com/ )
Cairo Tours ( +44 20 7706 0900/ http://www.egyptreservation.com/)
Float along the Nile
Pack2Egypt ( +1 416 799 7333; +20 10 542 0600 / http://www.pack2egypt.com/ )
Egypt Unexpected ( +20 12 141 8581/ http:/egyptunexpected.com/ )
City Discovery Tours ( +1 419 244 6440 / http://www.city-discovery.com/ )
The wide range of entertainment in Cairo, in addition to the historic monuments, offers something for everyone. The city offers a surprising diversity of art and culture ranging from Western to more traditional forms. On any given day, you can go to see a new foreign film, visit a contemporary art exhibition, and relax in the evening at a nightclub, watching Oriental dancing.
In a city with 7000 years of history, it is easy to overlook the modern aspects of its culture. Cairo has a vibrant modern art scene, and several galleries scattered throughout the city are good venues to check out local artists. The downtown area has a great concentration of galleries to view contemporary art, and all are within walking distance of each other. Townhouse Gallery is fast becoming a favorite among the locals, and has three floors of exhibition space that usually changes about once a month. Another good downtown art spaces is Mashrabia.
Cairo has numerous museums for just about every interest. The Egyptian Museum, located on Tahrir Square, is the first stop for most people interested in Egypt's Pharaonic past. The collection is extensive and exhausting; it may be best to plan a few trips in order to absorb it all. The Museum of Islamic Art and the Coptic Museum both have comprehensive collections and are located near other sites of historical interest, making the museum stops a nice break and a good way to synthesize things. Several specialty museums are worth checking out if their particular topic is of interest to you including the Agricultural Museum, the Geological Museum, the Post Office Museum, the Railway Museum and the Entomological Society Museum. At the Citadel, you can visit the Police Museum, the Military Museum and the Carriage Museum. Those interested in the pre-revolution period should visit the Abdeen Palace Museum and the Manial Palace Museum.
The National Museum of Egyptian Modern Art, located at the Opera House complex, has an extensive collection, mostly by 20th century artists. The Gezirah Art Center, located near the Marriot in Zamalek, has a lovely collection of ceramics. The Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Dokki displays a private collection of European art - including works by Monet, Gauguin, Pissarro and Van Gogh.
Cairo has dozens of cinemas screening new foreign and Egyptian films. Most foreign films are subtitled and edited by Egyptian censors. Advertised show times are a bit odd in Egypt. The film usually starts an hour after the published time, but this is not always the case! The Renaissance at the World Trade Center in Maspero is the newest and most comfortable theater in town. Renaissance II is located in Nasr City. Also in Nasr City, the modern Geneina Mall cinema has several screens running recent films. Nearby Tiba, located near the Tiba Mall, has similar offerings. The MGM in Maadi Grand Mall is another good choice for foreign films. Two centrally located hotels, the Hilton Ramses and the Cairo Sheraton also have cinemas. Tahrir Cinema in Dokki usually has a new film every week. Downtown is a good choice for movie-hopping for several older cinemas are located quite near each other, including Odeon (three screens), Radio Cinema, and Metro.
Many cultural centers occasionally run foreign film series, occasionally subtitled in English, including the French Cultural Center, the Goethe Institute, the Information and Cultural Center of Japan, the Italian Cultural Institute and the Higher Institute of Culture, located on the grounds of the Cairo Opera House. Most of these screenings are free.
The Cairo Film Festival takes place around the end of the year. Several theaters participate in the festival, and it is very popular as it is the only chance to see uncensored films during the year. The films are usually only screened once or twice, and the schedule changes daily.
The new Cairo Opera House is the premier performance space in Cairo. Throughout the year, it hosts musical performances ranging from classical and opera to jazz and Arabic music, performed by both local and international artists. The Cairo Opera Company and the Cairo Symphony put on regular performances during the season. The Balloon Theatre has performances of traditional Egyptian music, and the Gumhuriya Theatre, a smaller venue than the Opera House, often has music performances.
Many popular nightclubs have regular live music performances such as the Cairo Jazz Club, where you can hear just about any variety of Western-influenced tunes including classical music. Many of the city's five star hotels also have live lounge singers, performing either Arabic or Western popular music.
Again, the Cairo Opera House is the first place to check for dance performances. The Cairo Opera House Ballet has a respectable repertoire and performs roughly from September to May, and the Opera House hosts a variety of foreign dance companies throughout the year ranging from classical ballet to modern and ethnic dance. Locally-choreographed modern dance performances are sometimes staged at the Opera or at the nearby Hanagar, a smaller performance space/art gallery on the Opera House grounds. The Gumhuriya Theatre sometimes hosts foreign dance troupes. The Balloon Theatre features traditional folk dancing troupes.
A "tourist version" of the whirling dervishes, a form of spiritual dance practiced by Sufis, can be seen on Wednesday and Saturday at Al-Ghouri Mausoleum near Khan el Khalili. The performance is free and usually fills up quickly, but it is well worth the wait in line.
Oriental dance, or belly dancing, is performed all over the city in venues ranging from five-star hotels to more seedy downtown establishments. Famous dancers like Fifi Abdu and Dina sometimes perform at nightclubs in the big hotels, and the cover charge reflects their popularity. Downtown nightclubs like Palmayra are less expensive - and the dancers are not as skilled. Several nightclubs on Pyramids Road also feature belly dancers.
Most of the live theater you will see in Cairo is performed in Arabic, of course, and good venues include Kasr el Nil and Miami. The American University of Cairo puts on several theater performances during the school year at the Wallace Theatre and other smaller venues, and many of the shows are in English. During the spring term, a popular theater festival is held where local writers are invited to contribute 15 minute scripts, which are selected by jury and then performed over a few nights. For a different kind of theater, storyteller Sherine El-Ansary, who performs in Arabic and English, does shows at the end of the month at Beit Zeinab Khatoun near Al Azhar Mosque.
A basic rule for booking a room in Cairo is to try to get one on the top floor so you're as far away from the traffic as possible, but if you can't, get one that does not overlook the street. Also remember to check on the availability of hot water, if breakfast is included (and exactly what it consists of), and whether the rooms have mosquito netting. If not, you really need a mosquito repellent machine - unless of course you want to be eaten alive! Bargaining can help in some cases, but most receptionists in Cairo know how much the other hotels charge, so they'll know if you're bluffing. Be warned - the trips the hotels offer you are not what they initially seem - you always end up paying more for your food, water, camel ride, perfume, etc.
As a major tourist destination, Cairo has hotels to suit all budgets and most tastes. For the discerning business and leisure traveler, there are several downtown choices, such as the Ramses and the Conrad International.
Less upscale, but very good value, is the Cosmopolitan Hotel on Ibn Taalab Street, off Kasr El Nil. There's also the Windsor Hotel, just out of the center, behind Cinema Diana, on Alfi Bey Street. According to local legend it was the private bath house of Turkish leaders during the Ottoman Empire and the home of Russian engineers who were constructing the Aswan Dam. More recently, it has gained fame for being set ablaze during the 1952 Revolution and playing host to Michael Palin while he filmed "Around the World in 80 Days." However, things have somewhat calmed down, and it is now a simple hotel that's still full of character. There is also a famous bar that's popular with locals and tourists alike.
Most of the budget hotels are located around Midan Tahrir, in the downtown area. The further out of town you go, the more difficult it will be to find a budget hotel. If you choose to stay out near the Pyramids, you could find that you spend a large amount of your stay stuck in traffic on the permanently busy Pyramids Road - doubly painful if you're in a taxi! Perhaps one of the nicest cheap hotels is the Pension Roma on Mohammed Farid Street, which is popular with foreigners who are in between flats or staying for awhile in Cairo.
Garden City and Zamalek
The Semiramis, the Helnan Shepheard, and the Grand Hyatt are among the more expensive choices of Garden City. The El-Gezirah Sheraton is one of the more expensive hotels in Zamalek, a neighborhood well known for its exclusive sporting club. Another Zamalek hotel of particular note is the Cairo Marriott, located in a beautiful palace built by Khedive Ismail in 1869.
If you choose to stay out near the Pyramids there is the Siag Pyramids Hotel on the Saqqara Road, the world famous Mena House Oberoi and the grand Le Meridien Pyramids. There are also several luxury hotels on the Pyramids Road, (but these probably don't have views of the Pyramids). Apart from the obvious high standard of accommodation and usually good restaurants, the more expensive hotels have that summer essential - after a beach that is - the swimming pool. And what's more, most of them are open to the public for around EGP25 per day.