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 its plethora of monuments, palaces, mosques and churches, Cairo is truly a city where the past is always present. Despite the proximity of the Pyramids, Cairo is, in fact, not a Pharaonic city. The earliest known settlement is Babylon Fort, established by the Romans. Babylon, the symbol of Roman power for many years, was later used as a safe place for Egyptian Copts fleeing from the atrocities of the Roman Emperor. It is even said that the Holy Family settled in the area. Many of the churches that were built in and around the Fortress, such as Al Muallaqua (Hanging) Church and Abu Serga can still be seen today.
The area's history turned a new chapter when Muslim warriors from the Arab peninsula (now known as Saudi Arabia) swept across Egypt conquering the Romans and Persians. The Muslims, commanded by Amr Ibn al-As, laid siege to Babylon Fort in 642 CE. Realizing the power and influence of the Arab Muslims, who had also earned the support of the Egyptian peasants and townspeople, Cyrus, the viceroy of Egypt, decided to relinquish the Fortress to the Muslim army.
The city subsequently underwent many changes of rule passing from the Abbasids to the Tulunids (responsible for the Mosque of Ibn Tulun) and then to the Fatimids. It was the latter who established what is now known as Islamic Cairo in 969. There are many fine remains of the Fatimid's reign including Al Azhar Mosque and the gates of Bab al Futuh. A serious threat was posed to the Fatimids in 1168 CE by the arrival of the Crusaders who advanced into Egypt from Palestine. Eventually, the Fatimids were forced into exile by the Seljuk Turks, commanded by Salah ad-Din (known also as Saladin). He made a lasting impression on the city by constructing the Citadel, close to the Moukkattam Hill. Upon his death, Saladin was succeeded by his brother Al-Adel, who in turn was succeeded by his son Al-Kamel. The Ayyoubid dynasty finally came to an end when Al-Kamel's nephew, Al-Saleh, died in 1250.
Power was seized by the Mamelukes, a Turkish slave-soldier class. During their 267 year reign, the Mamelukes turned Cairo into the intellectual and cultural center of the Muslim world. Their achievements include the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Quala'un, the al-Nasir Muhammed Madrasa/Mausoleum and the Wikala of al-Ghouri. They were also successful soldiers, gaining control of Syria and Palestine. The prosperity brought by the Mamelukes came to an end when Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route of the Cape of Good Hope. The new route helped the European merchants, who used to cross Egypt, to dodge the heavy taxes demanded by Cairo. The Mameluke dynasty finally crumbled when the Turkish Sultan Selim entered Cairo in 1516.
Istanbul, the seat of the rulers of the Ottoman empire, swept the carpet from under the feet of Cairo, reducing it to the status of a province. Trade revenues were sent to Istanbul, together with taxes collected from the Egyptian population. The Mamelukes were allowed to live on and maintained some power but they were deposed by Napoleon in the late 18th Century.
After the departure of the French troops, following their dramatic defeat at the hands of the British navy in Abu Qir Battle, the British, commanded by General Frazer, invaded Egypt in 1807. They were resisted by the Egyptian nationalist movement and locals. In the meantime, an Albanian officer named Mohammed Ali Pasha was appointed ruler of Egypt by the Ottoman Sultan. Supported by the Egyptians and the Mamelukes, Mohammed Ali Pasha succeeded in defeating the British in 1811. He then firmly established his control on the country and disposed of his Mameluke opponents in a sinister massacre.
Mohammed Ali Pasha further expanded Egypt and constructed many buildings - all heavily influenced by European architectural design. Most notable among these is the Mohammed Ali Mosque - a very imposing structure. He was also responsible for developing Egypt's infrastructure with the Barrages on the Nile, locally known as Qanater Khayyeria; railway networks extending between Cairo, Alexandria and Upper Egypt; and military and engineering schools.
The Mohammed Ali Pasha dynasty was thrown into turmoil when Khedive Said, who ascended to the country's throne in 1854, borrowed a huge sum of money from European countries to dig the Suez Canal, a waterway connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Khedive Said, notorious for his lavish lifestyle, also borrowed money to build villas and grand palaces, (including the Abdeen Palace, now a museum).
Unable to honor its financial commitments to European countries, Egypt came under the supervision of Britain and France, which finally led to its occupation by Great Britain. The country was liberated after a group known as the Free Officers staged a revolution on July 23, 1952. They forced King Farouk to relinquish his throne and go into exile and also dismissed the British Occupational Forces. Over the last few decades, Cairo has enjoyed mixed fortunes. The assassination of Sadat and terrorist attacks have undoubtedly left their mark on the country as a whole. Still, the city is gradually picking itself up; the government is stable, the economy is steady and tourism is on the rise again. This renewed confidence has had a very positive effect on the city's cultural and entertainment scene with new venues, like the Cairo Opera House, being opened all the time.
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 & 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.
The drinking and dining venues in Cairo are as diverse as its population. You can eat fuul and taameya sandwiches for EGP.5 (50 piastres) each, a bowl of koshary (all good vegan food) for about EGP1.50 or have an international three-course meal in a five-star hotel for EGP350 and up; the choice is yours.
Fuul (mashed beans) and taameya (fried bean patties) are traditional working-class Egyptian fare, and are common breakfast dishes. They are usually served in aish shami, the local equivalent of pita bread. Some of the dirtiest, most unhealthy-looking eateries in Cairo serve the best fuul and taameya, although you just might feel as though you're taking your life in your hands by eating in them! Koshary is usually eaten as a lunch dish, and is the original Egyptian fast food. Its main ingredients are macaroni and rice covered with salsa (tomato sauce) with a sprinkling of fried onion, hummus and lentils. If you're in a koshary restaurant and applying your own sauce, be sure to shake the bottle VERY well. The other optional extra is chili sauce (the dark red stuff) and, yes, it is as hot as it looks.
A tub of take-away koshary costs anywhere from EGP1 to EGP2.50, depending on the establishment and the portion. Some of the best kofta and grilled chicken can be found at the quaint Alfi Bey. One of the best (and certainly one of the cleanest) fuul and taameya establishments is Felfela, which has a sit-down restaurant, a take-away service, and a koshary restaurant. Felfela serves the cleanest and cheapest Egyptian food in town but be warned - during the peak season literally bus loads of tourists turn up so it can get pretty crowded. There is, however, another branch in the Pyramids. Of particular note is Le Grillon and for old world charm, try the Odeon Palace Bar.
A very famous coffee shop that has been open for 200 years is El Fishawi in Khan El-Khalili. You get all the usual ahwa drinks here with the added "advantage" that the world will come to you. This is only an advantage if you enjoy dead foxes, wallets, "cigarette shishas" and trinkets waved under your nose continuously. In addition, it's more expensive than most other ahwas.
Other popular Egyptian dishes are kofta and grilled chicken, usually found in restaurants that serve just that, with a selection of salads, usually green salad, hummus, baba ghanoush (eggplant mashed up with tahini), torshi (pickles) and bread. A good place to try these dishes is the family-friendly Andrea. There's also what Egyptians translate as "Egyptian pizzas," which should perhaps just be referred to as fiteer as they appear to bear no resemblance to pizza. Fiteer can be eaten sweet or savory, and they're made while you wait. You order your fiteer and chose what you want in/on it from the ingredients in the bowls in the work area. br>
Of course, Cairo offers cuisine from all over the world, not just Egypt. For Indian food, try the excellent Kandahar, which also features live music. Prestige is an Italian restaurant and pizzeria that plays pop music over their speakers. For Mediterranean and Turkish dishes served in a rustic interior try Ataturk Restaurant and Grill. Tornado is a cafe that is popular among the young and fashionable for its hip atmosphere.
Rossini is an all exclusive and rather expensive place to enjoy a meal. The Grand Cafe is set in a beautiful garden, and is a great place to spend the afternoon. Lebanese cuisine can be found at Al-Dalouna, a restaurant popular among families, while Chicken Tikka serves up local dishes in an American-themed dining room. La Casetta is an Italian restaurant that specializes in making your meal and evening as enjoyable and romantic as possible.