Cairo is magnificent, beautiful and, at time, infuriating. From above, the distorted roar of the muezzins' call to prayer echoes out from duelling minarets. Below, car horns bellow tuneless symphonies amid avenues of faded 19th-century grandeur while donkey carts rattle down dusty lanes lined with colossal Fatimid and Mamluk monuments.
This mega-city's constant buzz and noise is a product of its 22-or-so million inhabitants simultaneously crushing Cairo's infrastructure under their collective weight and lifting its spirits up with their exceptional humour. A visit can jangle your nerves, but it's a small price to pay to tap into the energy of the place Egyptians call Umm Ad Dunya – the Mother of the World.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Cairo.
The last remaining wonder of the ancient world; for nearly 4000 years, the extraordinary shape, impeccable geometry and sheer bulk of the Giza Pyramids have invited the obvious questions: ‘How were we built, and why?’. Centuries of research have given us parts of the answer. Built as massive tombs on the orders of the pharaohs, they were constructed by teams of workers tens-of-thousands strong. Today they stand as an awe-inspiring tribute to the might, organisation and achievements of ancient Egypt.
One of the world’s most important collections of ancient artefacts, the Egyptian Museum takes pride of place in Downtown Cairo, on the north side of Midan Tahrir. Inside the great domed, oddly pinkish building, the glittering treasures of Tutankhamun and other great pharaohs lie alongside the grave goods, mummies, jewellery, eating bowls and toys of Egyptians whose names are lost to history. To walk around the museum is to embark on an adventure through time.
The oldest pyramid in Giza and the largest in Egypt, Khufu’s Great Pyramid stood 146m high when it was completed around 2570 BC. After 46 windy centuries, its height has been reduced by 9m. There isn’t much to see inside the pyramid, but the experience of climbing through the ancient structure is unforgettable – though impossible if you suffer from the tiniest degree of claustrophobia. The elderly and unfit should not attempt the climb, as it is very steep.
This museum, on the edge of Islamic Cairo, holds one of the world’s finest collections of Islamic art and is Egypt's (and one of the entire Middle East's) most beautifully curated museums. What’s on display is only a sliver of the 80,000 objects the museum owns, but the selected items are stunning. The museum was heavily damaged in January 2014 in a car-bomb attack on nearby police headquarters but after extensive renovations was finally reopened in early 2017.
Known in Arabic as Abu Al Hol (Father of Terror), this sculpture of a man with the haunches of a lion was dubbed the Sphinx by the ancient Greeks because it resembled their mythical winged monster who set riddles and killed anyone unable to answer them. A geological survey has shown that it was most likely carved from the bedrock at the bottom of the causeway during Khafre’s reign, so it probably portrays his features.
Founded in AD 970 as the centrepiece of the newly created Fatimid city, Al Azhar is one of Cairo’s earlier mosques, and its sheikh is considered the highest theological authority for Egyptian Muslims. The building is a harmonious blend of architectural styles, the result of numerous enlargements over more than 1000 years. The tomb chamber, located through a doorway on the left just inside the entrance, has a beautiful mihrab (a niche indicating the direction of Mecca) and should not be missed.
Sharia Al Muizz, as it’s usually called, named after the Fatimid caliph who conquered Cairo in AD 969, was Cairo's grand thoroughfare, once chock-a-block with storytellers, entertainers and food stalls. The part of Sharia Al Muizz just north of Khan Al Khalili’s gold district is known as Bein Al Qasreen, a reminder of the great palace complexes that flanked the street during the Fatimid era. Today the great Mamluk complexes provide one of Cairo’s most impressive assemblies of minarets, domes and striped-stone facades.
This museum, founded in 1908, houses Coptic art from the earliest days of Christianity in Egypt right through to early Islam. It is a beautiful place, as much for the elaborate woodcarving in all the galleries as for the treasures they contain. These include sculpture that shows obvious continuity from the Ptolemaic period, rich textiles and whole walls of monastery frescoes. Allow at least a couple of hours to explore the 1200 or so pieces on display.
The skinny lanes of Khan Al Khalili are basically a medieval-style mall. This agglomeration of shops – many arranged around small courtyards – stocks everything from soap powder to semiprecious stones, not to mention tacky toy camels and alabaster pyramids. Most shops and stalls open from around 9am to well after sundown (except Friday morning and Sunday), although plenty of the souvenir vendors are open as long as there are customers, even on Sunday.