Contrary to first impressions of careening buses and crammed sidewalks, Cairo is an excellent city for walking. Really.
It’s especially good for aimless, mapless wandering: districts are relatively compact, the terrain is level and the scenery changes quickly enough to keep things interesting.
These are some of the best places to stroll, over the course of a day.
Islamic Cairo in the morning
Start early – before 7.30am – with tea at Fishawi’s and watch the khan slowly wake up. If you do want to work in a little sightseeing, take a quick stroll up Bein al- Qasreen to admire the buildings without the crush of traffic and commerce. But the better, more aimless amble is to the south: take the small alley behind Sharia al-Azhar, heading in the direction of Al-Azhar Park, then head south, roughly following the old walls built by Salah ad-Din that are being excavated as part of the park development. The tiny workshops produce shoes, parquet flooring, mother-of-pearl inlay boxes and more. But it’s also a residential district, where families on upper floors run baskets down to the ba’al for groceries, and knife-sharpeners and junk traders (the men who shout ‘Beeeeeee-kya!’) roll through the lanes. Keeping your general bearings with the park to your left, you can wander all the way down to the Citadel. Near the end, you’ll wind up on the southern stretch of Darb al-Ahmar. To loop back to Sharia al- Azhar, go via Sharia al-Khayamiyya, where you can get a souvenir photo taken at Studio Shosha.
Garden City at twilight
The interlocking circles that form the streets of Garden City are maddening if you want to get anywhere, but they’re perfect for strolling just for the sake of admiring the crumbling mansions in this colonial-era district. The best time to visit is the hour before sundown, when the dust coating the architectural curlicues turns a warm, glamorous gold and the starlings shrill in the fruit trees.
You can start at the north end (get the brutalist concrete Canadian embassy behind you right away!) and wind south. Keep an eye out for wrought-iron dragons on cobwebbed gates, a rare Turkish-style wood-front home and the last real garden in Garden City, behind the Four Seasons hotel.
You’ll wind up, conveniently, near the Dok Dok felucca pier and Nileside Topkapi.
Downtown after midnight
This is less walking than café-hopping, when the air is cool and the streets are thronged. Start at Tawfiqiyya Souq, which will just be shutting down, while the ahwas (coffeehouses) in the side alleys are just warming up. Then wander back to Midan Orabi, where you can perch on any random planter and someone will come and sell you tea. From here Sharia Alfy and the smaller streets on either side are your playground for snacking, sheesha-smoking and maybe even some lavish tipping of belly-dancers. Don’t miss the Kawkab ash-Sharq café, which is devoted to singer Umm Kolthum – you might even get caught up in a spirited sing-along. No matter how late you’re out, you can wind up the night at the 24-hour Odeon Palace Hotel bar.