The capital of Egypt has more than enough charms to fill a traveler’s itinerary, and even more fascinating sites stretch far out from Cairo in all directions.
Big-hitter cities like Luxor and Aswan are farther away and require more time, but a handful of must-see destinations can be done on a day trip from Cairo.
Pick out your favorite pyramid in Giza and Saqqara
Travel time: 45 minutes from Cairo to Giza, 45 minutes from Giza to Saqqara
As the only remaining wonder of the ancient world, the Pyramids of Giza usually get the most face time from visitors, but Egypt's oldest pyramid is actually just a little farther south from the capital. If you want to fill an entire day with just pharaonic burial grounds, start out with the Giza Necropolis after breakfast to hike around the pyramids of Menkaure, Khafre and the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Check at the ticket office which pyramids have inner chambers open to the public, as it changes daily and even hourly. Surprisingly, the inner chamber of the smallest pyramid, Menkaure, is the largest and most interesting, with three different levels. You can also head out into the desert from there to hunt for an iconic photo op with all three pyramids.
Exit the plateau past the Sphinx into the hustle of Giza to find a taxi (or pick up an Uber). If you forgot to pack water or a sandwich for lunch, now is the time to pick something up at one of the many shops outside the walls of the site before starting the 25km (15.5 mile) drive to Saqqara, which has no good food options. Once in Saqqara, head to the Step Pyramid of Djoser, the oldest pyramid in Egypt and one that offers a unique aesthetic contrast to the smoother Giza pyramids. Built as a sort of architectural experiment during the reign of Djoser (2670 BC), the first pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, the Step Pyramid was the first burial chamber to be built from limestone instead of bricks of clay and at 62m (203ft) was the tallest structure at the time.
How to get to Giza and Saqqara from Cairo: The easiest way to visit Giza and Saqqara is to join an organized tour or hire your own private guide and driver or taxi for the day. You can use Uber to get to Giza but not Saqqara, which is farther away.
Check out little-visited pyramids and an ancient capital at Dahshur and Memphis
Travel time: 1 hour, 15 minutes from Cairo to Dahshur, 20 minutes from Dahshur to Memphis
South of Saqqara, you can visit the lesser-known Red Pyramid and Bent Pyramid, both named after their most unique characteristics, before heading to Memphis to see Egypt’s former capital during the Old Kingdom. For history buffs, the name "Memphis" is synonymous with pharaonic Egypt, and most pyramids built around Cairo were raised while Memphis was the seat of power. While little remains of the ancient city, there is a worthwhile open-air museum and a sphinx.
How to get to Dahshur and Memphis from Cairo: Joining an organized tour that includes Dahshur and Memphis or hiring your own private guide and driver or taxi for the day is the best way to visit.
Explore Alexandria, Egypt’s second city
Travel time: 2.5 hours
Cairo may be the capital, but in the minds of poets, scholars and artists of the 1960s and ’70s, Alexandria and its crashing waves will always contain the restless soul of Egypt. As the setting of Nobel Prize–winning author Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Miramar, the city is its own character, and visiting even today it’s easy to see how it charmed not only Egyptians but the artists and scholars of Europe as well.
Head to the Alexandria National Museum, an impressive colonial structure housing a carefully curated selection of artifacts that tell the city’s tumultuous history through the Pharaonic, Roman, Coptic and Islamic eras. Take a 20-minute walk toward the water to the city’s center of culture and learning, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. With its unique sloping disk shape and exterior walls decorated with dozens of different scripts, it’s an architectural wonder. Check out the main reading hall and take a tour.
From there, you can take a leisurely stroll along the Corniche, stopping at one of the many cafes or restaurants to enjoy the waterfront before arriving at Fort Qaitbay, a beautifully maintained harbor citadel and popular hangout spot. Pick one of the city’s top-rated fish restaurants, like Kadoura or Fish Market, for dinner before heading back to Cairo.
How to get to Alexandria from Cairo: Many accommodations and tour operators run day trips to Alexandria. To visit independently, hop on a train from Ramses Station in Cairo.
Discover a desert mirage at Al Fayoum
Travel time: 2 hours
The popular oasis destination of Al Fayoum, 100km (62 miles) south of Cairo, rightfully deserves at least two days of exploration, but if you're pressed for time, you can still take in a number of the area’s natural wonders during daylight hours. Leave Cairo early enough to beat morning traffic, and first stop at Karanis, 25km (15.5 miles) north of Fayoum city center. After admiring the ancient ruins, which include two Graeco-Roman temples, move on to the natural wonders of Al Fayoum, including the Wadi Rayyan Protected Area with its waterfalls, rowboat tours to the middle of the lake and wildlife in the surrounding national park. Birdwatchers should be on the lookout for eagles, falcons and migrant birds. The visitors center on the lakefront can help with any questions.
Afterwards, head to the pottery school in Tunis village to mingle with local artists,and stop in the many pottery studios to pick up a gift. The pottery center is a good point from which to explore the vast Lake Qarun, where during fall and winter months you can spot flamingoes and other birds resting here before heading farther south.
How to get to Al Fayoum from Cairo: Many hotels in Cairo can help you organize a day tour, or you can negotiate a day rate with a taxi.
Soak in the surf in Ain El Sokhna
Travel time: 2 hours
Beachfront Sokhna has become such a popular Red Sea beach weekend getaway that well-heeled Egyptians now name-drop the place into conversations any chance they get, their eyes practically glazing over at the thought of their next seaside escape.
As a watersports destination with pristine beaches and year-round sunshine, Ain El Sokhna (meaning "hot spring") caters to both lazy sun worshippers and adventure junkies, with plenty of snorkeling, diving, sailing, windsurfing, kitesurfing and boat tours. As a relatively new Red Sea development, the cleaner beaches here are less crowded than at Sharm El Sheikh or Hurghada, both of which can be crowded with beach-goers in peak season, making Sokhna a hot destination for tranquility-seeking Egyptians.
After a dip in the calm turquoise waters, check out one of the beach resorts like Stella di Mare for lunch or hop on a Sunmarine vessel for a 90-minute boat tour with lunch and views of sea life. The beachfront resorts are packed with bar options to round off the day’s activities with a sundowner before heading back to Cairo.
How to get to Ain El Sokhna from Cairo: Negotiate a day rate with a taxi driver in Cairo, or if you can brave the traffic in Cairo, rent a car for a road trip to the coast.