Cairo city guide: How to spend a weekend in Egypt’s big, bold capital
Cairo used to be known as the Paris of the Middle East
Cairo might be a big, noisy, traffic-logged city, but exploring its revived downtown core is one of Egypt’s most underrated experiences
Why go now?
It was once known as the Paris of the Middle East, and thanks to Egypt’s National Committee for the Protection and Renovation of Cairo’s Heritage, it’s now easier to see why. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of former ruler Ismail Khedive’s remodelling of Cairo in the style of the French capital, the Committee has been busy restoring many of the city’s heritage buildings to their former glory this year.
With big savings to be had in Egypt due to the downturn in tourism combined with the still-flagging Egyptian pound, now’s a great time to rediscover the splendour of the capital’s bustling core, its historic buildings and institutions now sitting alongside a wave of hip new galleries, restaurants and hotels.
Take a view
Why you should consider Egypt for your next holiday
Take a taxi to Cairo’s Citadel (1), the dramatic medieval Islamic fortification (open 8am-5pm daily; entry E£40/£1.70) dominating a limestone hill in the city’s southeast. The resplendent 19th century Mosque of Muhammad Ali is the key sight in the complex, but you can also visit two smaller mosques, and several small museums. From the outdoor terrace, you can see the pyramids of Giza across the urban sprawl of the city on a clear day.
Take a hike
Start at Cairo Opera House (2) (0020 227 390 299; cairoopera.org), the city’s performing arts hub, at the southern end of Gezira Island. Designed in the Islamic style, the huge domed cultural complex opened in 1988 to replace the resplendent mid 19th-century Khedivial Royal Opera House, which burned to the ground in 1971. Several arts institutions are clustered within the Opera House grounds, including the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art (3) (0020 227 366 667), which is currently undergoing a facelift.
Walk across the Kasr Al Nile Bridge (4) towards Tahrir Square (5). Best known as the centre of mass protests during Egypt’s 2011 revolution, this historic square (actually more of a traffic circle) is now attractively grassed, a huge Egyptian flag flapping at its centre. Note the intricate Italian-designed Omar Makram Mosque (6) to the southwest of the square, and the downtown campus of the American University Cairo (7), which was built around the neo-Mamluk Khairy Pasha Palace in the 1920s, to the southeast.
The Mosque of Muhammad Ali is in Cairo’s Citadel (Getty Images)
Head northeast along historic Talaat Harb St (8), which contains remnants of Cairo’s multi-colonial past including the Egyptian Diplomatic Club (9) on the corner of Al Bustan St, and Cafe Riche (10), thought to be Cairo’s oldest restaurant, on the edge of Talaat Harb Square (11), which is encircled by elegant, French neoclassical buildings.
Take a left onto Mahmoud Bassiouny St (12), past Groppi (13), a Swiss cafe that has been trading since 1892. When you hit Champollion Rd (14), head one block north to ogle the late-19th century palace of former Ottoman statesman Said Halim (15), arguably Cairo’s grandest abandoned mansion.
Lunch on the run
Just a block north of Said Halim’s Palace, Abou Tarek (16), 16 Champollion Rd (open 7am-11pm daily) is one of the city’s most famous kushari restaurants. A mix of rice, lentils, chickpeas and macaroni topped with cumin-scented tomato sauce and crunchy fried onions, this vegetarian comfort food is considered the national dish, and a great, cheap filler (less than £1). A warning: the house-made chilli sauce has serious kick.
Kushari is a mix of rice, lentils, chickpeas and macaroni (iStock)
Don’t miss the opportunity to explore the brilliant original Egyptian Museum (17) (0020 225 794 596; sca-egypt.org) while you can, as its ancient bounty is destined for a new home near the pyramids in the coming years. Beyond the main draw – the treasures of Tutankhamen’s tomb – don’t miss the bizarre mummified pets gallery, and the minute statuette of Khufu, the only three-dimensional depiction of the builder behind the Great Pyramid that survives today. The museum is open 9am-7pm daily; entry is E£60 (£2.60).
For modern art, check out the latest exhibition at Townhouse Gallery (18) (0020 225 768 086; thetownhousegallery.com). The country’s first independent art space reopened in a converted downtown paper factory last year; it’s open noon-9pm Saturday to Wednesday.
Make for the eighth-floor rooftop terrace bar at the Carlton Hotel (19) (0020 122 776 1192; carltonhotelcairo.com), a fabulously art deco affair that still feels stuck in the year it opened (1935). The perfect spot to suck down an ice-cold Stella (the local larger, not the Belgian pilsner) in the late afternoon sunshine, the bar is open till late.
The Egyptian Museum features a mummified pets gallery (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Dine with the locals
If you’re happy to eat early, aim to be at Fasahet Somaya (20), 15 Youssef al-Guindi St, when it opens at 5pm, because it shuts at 7pm. One of Cairo’s emerging breed of restaurants helmed by women, this sweet little hole-in-the wall (look for the bright blue entryway; the sign is in Arabic) is run by a home cook who changes her small menu of delicious Egyptian-inspired dishes, from baked macaroni to slow-cooked lamb with chocolate, daily. Expect change from £2 for a flavour-packed meal.
Another great option is nearby Felfela (21) (0020 223 922 833, felfela.com). A little oasis in the city centre, this quirky downtown icon has been serving Egyptian staples – including some of the best falafel in town – since 1963. It’s open 8am-midnight daily.
Out to brunch
Brunch is slowly becoming a “thing” in Cairo. Zamalek has a few good options: try bright and cheerful Zooba (22) (zoobaeats.com), open 8am-1am daily, for Egyptian street food that won’t upset Western stomachs; or light-filled Left Bank (23) (0020 227 350 014) at the northern tip of Zamalek, open 8am-midnight daily, for pastries, eggs, and pancakes.
Take a ride
Take a taxi (about E£50/£2 from downtown) to the pyramids of Giza (24). Entry to the site, including the Great Sphinx, about a 15-minute walk from the Great Pyramid, is E£80 (£3.50), and another E£200 (£8.70) if you want to enter the Great Pyramid. Its treasures long-since plundered, there’s nothing much to see inside, but it’s an interesting – if somewhat claustrophobic – experience clambering into the guts of the tomb.
A trip to the pyramids of Giza is a must (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Head back to the city centre via Coptic Cairo (25), a part of Old Cairo which encompasses several churches including the beautiful 9th century (some say 7th) Hanging Church, as well as the Ben Ezra Synagogue (itself a former church), the Coptic Museum (E£40/£1.70) and the remains of the Roman-era Babylon Fortress. There’s tight security in place here following recent attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christian monuments and community.
You can pick up everything from Persian carpets to hand-painted pottery, Middle Eastern spices to natural perfumes, at the maze of shops comprising Khan el-Khalili (26), Cairo’s most famous souk. The quality of Egyptian cotton here, however, is generally not the best. Haggle hard.
For an excellent selection of well-made local crafts, check out Oum El Dounia (27) (0020 223 938 273; oumeldounia.com), open 10am-9pm daily, in downtown, or head to trendy Zamalek for hip boutiques including must-visit Fair Trade Egypt (28) (0020 227 365 123; facebook.com/fairtradeegypt), open 9am to 8pm daily.
Khan el-Khalili is Cairo’s best-known souk (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
EgyptAir (0844 822 1110; egyptair.com) flies from Heathrow to Cairo International Airport (29) at least once daily. A shuttle bus leaves half-hourly for destinations including downtown and Zamalek (E£35/£1.5 per person). Less stressful than haggling for a taxi (about E£100/£4 to downtown) is booking one of the various “limousine” services at arrivals for roughly the same price. The 22km drive takes less than half an hour when it’s quiet, but can take over an hour at peak times.
The family-run Windsor Hotel (30) (0020 225 915 810; windsorcairo.com) is a downtown Cairo institution, complete with one of the world’s few original working Schindler lifts, and original in-room telephones that connect to a switchboard. Doubles from US$63 (£50), B&B.
Occupying the fifth floor of a downtown apartment block, the charming Talisman Hotel (31) (0020 223 939 431; facebook.com/talismanhotelcairo) is thought to be Cairo’s first boutique hotel, and remains one of the best. Awash with Egyptian textiles, doubles start at US$91 (£71), B&B.
Due to open later this year, The St Regis Cairo (32) (0020 225 979 000; starwoodhotels.com/stregis) is set to redefine luxury in downtown Cairo. Spread across 39 storeys, the Nile-front development will house a decadent spa and full gym alongside its 336 guest rooms. Reservations to open soon.