Egypt, while commonly known for being home to the longest river in the world, the Nile, and the pyramids, is a country that transcends the Pharaohs with its abundance of culture, architecture, natural ecosystems, and stories. See our Cairo Travel Guide for helpful tips and recommendations.
This Cairo Travel Guide was written by Angie Balata, who lived, studied and worked in Cairo for 17 years.
Home to over 90 million people, this country straddles Africa and the Arab region and is bordered by the Mediterranean Ocean and the Red Sea making it a mosaic of geographical landscapes, cultures, languages, foods, and histories. And, while many visit this north African nation for its historical wealth, from pyramids and Pharaohs to temples and museums, not discovering all the other things it offers will surely mean missing out on some of the world’s most important treasures.
Once you are done with customs and after you have picked up your luggage, it’s time to have your first haggling experience. There will be many taxi and limousine companies seeking your business, but if you have access to Internet on your mobile, it is best to use UBER or CAREEM (the local alternative to Uber).
Cairo is a booming mega city of over 24 million people, which makes traffic frustrating at times and ensures that the city never sleeps. Do not underestimate the effect this has on one’s energy, so don’t shy away from a midday siesta (a common practice locally) because Cairo has as much adventure during the day as it does at night.
Use this Cairo Travel Guide to explore the Pyramids and beyond.
Around Cairo: Exploring the Pyramids
Start your adventure off by visiting the Pyramids in Haram, the furthermost end of Cairo (and in the opposite direction of the airport). The pyramids complex consists of the three major pyramids, Menkaure, Khafre and Khufu, and the great Sphinx.
Because of the heat and traffic, make sure to start your pyramid trip early in the morning. At the pyramids, several local services are offered including tours, and horse and camel rides.
Social Impact Traveller Tip: While a tour is not necessary, unless you are a major history buff, it is advisable to arrange a tour before you go to the pyramids. Keep in mind it is customary to offer a tip to service providers, which often ranges between 15-20%.
The only pyramid where visitors are allowed in is the big pyramid, Khufu, and you will need to pay for an additional ticket to the general admission ticket. Keep in mind that due to the altitude, the oxygen is thinner inside Khufu and it is not suggested that those with respiratory problems do this.
See the great Pyramids of Cairo, Egypt
Downtown & Around: Cairo Travel Guide
Downtown Cairo was the epicentre of the 2011 Revolution, which produced some of the most exciting street art in the world. Remnants of that art can still be found on the walls of the American University of Cairo. With its hustle and bustle, the downtown is the true heart of Cairo. The uniquely French inspired architecture concentric squares hold centuries of stories that can be still be found in the area’s renowned landmarks like Groppi and Café Riche.
Local Walking Tours
But, to truly experience the downtown and understand how cinema interacted with the rich and the poor and the architecture and the economics, we suggest a walking tour. One of the most prolific and engaging walking tours is offered by CLUSTER, an organization founded by a group of architects who wanted to preserve the urban beauty of the downtown while engaging the arts and cultural history of the area.
Social Impact Traveller Tip: Try the Cairo D-Tour, a weekly Friday tour that takes visitors through the main streets and back alleys, revealing the historic significance behind its decaying structures.
History and Culture
Memphis Museum near Cairo
Downtown is also home to several key historical and cultural institutions. For those wanting to see what was in the Pyramids many centuries ago, the Cairo Museum, is home to one of the largest collections of mummies and Pharaonic antiquities. For culture lovers, the Geographic Society of Egypt Museum holds one of the best collections of cultural artifacts, in spite of the name. Manial Palace is a complex built in the 20th century and features interiors the fuse Ottoman, Moor, Persian and European styles.
Social Impact Traveller Tip: MAKAN is most definitely the place to go to hear many of the folkloric music acts of Egypt, but, especially for zaar music—an old cultural form of music that is organized around the leadership of women.
Authentic Local Experiences
End the day with dinner at the nearby Felfela restaurant for a truly authentic Egyptian meal. Or if you are feeling adventurous head over to Koshari Abu Tarek for one of Egypt’s national dishes, koshary, a fulfilling mixture of pasta, rice, chickpeas, and brown lentils topped with cumin-spiced tomato sauce and crunchy onions.
In nearby Garden city, take a felucca ride around the downtown portion of the Nile from any of the vendors lining the Nile. We suggest the vendor directly across from the Four Seasons downtown. While we cannot claim that the coffee is particularly good in Cairo, the café culture is massive with all kinds of configurations, including the cafes that revolve around arts and culture. For a taste of contemporary and indie music, make sure to visit ROOM ART SPACE, where coffee essentially meets music. For a more chill/spiritual artistic and coffee experience, check out Sufi Bookstore. As Garden City is where most diplomatic missions are located, food options here tend to be stellar. We suggest the mouth-watering Lebanese import, Taboula,
The last gem of the downtown and around areas of Cairo is the Cairo Jazz Club, where you’ll find the best music in the country and where visiting acts come to find a home. They have something for everyone and each night of the week is a different experience.
See Islamic Cairo
Visit the Islamic quarters of Cairo
Walk around the old walled city in central Cairo.
Of course, any Cairo Travel Guide and visit to Cairo must include a tour of the Islamic quarters. It includes hundreds of mosques, mansions, and tombs. As a World Cultural Heritage site, this area is overflowing with rich architecture. Start your walk back into history with the Citadel of Cairo which was built in 1184 and was both the main seat of government and residence for its rulers from the 13th to the 19th centuries. It also boasts some of the best bird-eye views of Cairo. Head over to the Sultan Hassan Mosque, which is known for it’s remarkable size and innovative architecture. The mosque was not only designed with influences from other empires, but it was structured spatially in such a way as to allow the four schools of thought in Sunni Islam to coexist in community, while also offering space for individuality.
Take a break from the mosque tour and head over to Al Azhar Park. Developed by the Aga Khan Foundation, this 30-hectare park is a green oasis with sprawling gardens, fountains and picture worthy views of the city.
Ibn Tulun Mosque
Beyond the Sultan Hassan lies another notable mosque, including Ibn Tulun Mosque, the oldest mosque and a rare example of Abbasid architecture. Take a cab or walk down to Al Azhar Mosque, which holds the longest continuously run university in the world after Al Qarawayn in Morocco. Cross the street to get to Al Hussain Mosque before heading into the Khan El Khalili Market, one of the oldest bazaars in the region.
Don’t forget to visit the recently renovated El Muezz street where you’ll find some more of Islamic Cairo’s stunning mosques, artisans of the old arts, and cultural places. Though the mosques won’t be open, this street is a different kind of magic at night. Make sure to also catch a twirling dirvishes show at Wekalet El Ghouri, a historic caravanserais that used to house merchants and goods.
Social Impact Traveller Tip: make sure to stop at the Fishawy Café in the heart of Khan El Khalili. This café is over 200 years old and visited by many prominent artists in Egypt over the decades. We suggest the mint tea with a shisha (hookah) or a mango juice.
In the same complex, and the only remnant of what used to be the southern gate of medieval Cairo, is the 11th century Bab Zuweila Gate. Right before you reach the gate from the inside is the street of tent makers. Here local artisans laboriously produce the brightest cultural fabrics used for ceremonial tents at wakes, weddings and celebrations. Here you’ll find also a large collections cushion covers, bed cloths, table tops, carpets and purses.
See Coptic Cairo
Our Cairo Travel Guide introduces travellers to this part of old Cairo, which includes the Babylon Fortress, the Coptic Museum, the Greek Church of St. George and many other churches. The most famous among them is the Hanging Church, named so for its suspended nave over the a passage. This is the most prominent Coptic Church in Cairo.
Nearby is Cairo’s most famous pottery area, the Fokhareen (pottery makers) of Fustat, where you’ll find all kinds of local crafts for gifts or for your own indulgence. The pottery made here is hard to find anywhere else in Egypt. But, a successful trip to Fustat is when you can haggle to the price you want.
Within this area you’ll also find the Darb 1718 Contemporary Art and Culture Centre. Depending on the day, there is always some kind of cultural event happening here, especially on warm days. Make sure to check out their schedule online before you go!
This Island within Cairo is an affluent suburb where the rich and famous play, but it’s also the location for some of the best food and culture in Cairo. Most definitely, have a meal (we suggest brunch or dinner) at Left Bank to sit directly by the Nile and enjoy a typical Cairenne moment. Or, if you are seeking out true Egyptian food, Abou El Sid boasts décor and good old home recipes. A more street version, albeit in a contemporary cool atmosphere, is Zooba. For dessert, the family-run Mandarine Koueidar, which was founded in 1928, is a national legend with its French pastries and multiplicity of fruit flavoured icecreams
Social Impact Traveller Shop Local in Cairo
For local handicrafts, Zamalek is basically a mecca of options. Asfour El Nil is where you’ll find a fusion between traditional arts and contemporary designs. Nomad Gallery offers a wide selection of jewellery, clothes, and crafts. Fair Trade Egypt offers a wide selection of home décor, crafts and clothes from craft people from all over Egypt.
Social Impact Traveller’s Tip: For a list of handicraft stores in and around the downtown, please visit here.
Hollywood of Arab Arts
Don’t forget that part of Egypt’s charm is it’s long cultural history and Cairo is undoubtedly the Hollywood of Arab arts. With a cinematic history that stretches as far back as 1896 and a music history that can be traced back to the Pharaohs, it is no wonder that arts and culture pervades almost every neighbourhood in Cairo. While in Zamalek make sure to check out the Sawy Culturewheel for contemporary and folklore music and art, the Cairo Opera House for everything from opera and theatre to music and galleries, and Safarkhan Art gallery with one of the largest collections of modern and contemporary art.