Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is home to the pyramids and some mind-blowing ancient treasures. A city with a population of around 21 million, which makes it the second largest city area in Africa, it can be daunting at first glance. Smog hangs over the buildings, traffic is deadlocked, the noise can be deafening. Yet there is something about this city on the Nile that had me say “I could live here” on my very first visit.
Be it the mix of ancient and modern history, or be it the presence of the historic Nile river with feluccas sailing by even in the bustling city center. Maybe the thousand minarets (the skinny towers typical of mosques) sticking up from the city, or maybe the many small food carts serving up fresh delights every night alongside the quays of the Nile. There definitely is something very special about Cairo.
Cairo is the starting point for most visitors to Egypt because of the Cairo International Airport, the opportunities for interesting day trips (such as to Memphis, south of Cairo, or north to the Mediterranean) it presents, or the cruises that head up the Nile to Aswan. But the biggest draw for tourists is the nearby Giza pyramid complex, which includes the Great Pyramid of Giza. After all, coming to Egypt without seeing the pyramids is like missing the Eiffel Tower in Paris. But what else is there to do once you have clambered around the pyramids and marveled at the Sphinx? Plenty.
Read on for some great things to see and do while in Cairo.
1. Museum Of Egyptian Antiquities / Grand Egyptian Museum
Let’s start with a bit of an unknown. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, or Cairo Museum, was once the oldest archeological museum in the Middle East, holding a collection of more than 120,000 artifacts from ancient Egypt. It is in downtown Cairo, a hundred-odd yards from the central Tahrir Square. It’s home to the shimmering Tutankhamun mask, mummies, colossi from ancient temples, golden jewelry, and tiny but perfect objects that once amused a pharaoh.
Still open at the time of writing, this colossus of a museum on the banks of the Nile is due to be superseded by a brand-new museum near the pyramids, on the outskirts of Cairo: The Grand Egyptian Museum. This museum’s opening has long been delayed, but eventually, all the important artifacts will be housed in the modern complex, while the old museum will undergo restorations and face an uncertain future. Whichever will be open when you reach Cairo, put either on top of your to-do list, as the ancient treasures brought together here are truly unbelievable.
2. National Museum Of Egyptian Civilization
The second new museum added to Cairo’s must-see list is the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, which will go hand in hand with the above museums but will concentrate on the history, and the telling of it, rather than on the individual artifacts. That said, the pharaohs’ mummies were transferred with great pomp and circumstance during the Former Rulers’ Parade in early 2021.
Located in the old part of Cairo and overlooking Ain El Sira Lake, where replicas of pharaonic boats float, the setting is scenic and tranquil, considering the noise of Cairo steps away from there. A stunning modern building, the displays take you through the different eras of Egyptian civilization and don’t just concentrate on the ancient pharaohs, but also include stunning examples of Islamic art and the Middle Eastern and Arab world.
3. Old Coptic Cairo
The winding alleyways of so-called Coptic Cairo, or Old Cairo, are several centuries older than Islamic Cairo and are a delight to get lost in. And get lost you will. There is much to see, starting with the Coptic Museum, showcasing some 15,000 pieces of art, taking you through Coptic as well as Cairo’s history.
The Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, or Hanging Church, is one of the oldest buildings in Coptic Cairo, and one of the oldest churches in Egypt, dating to the third century A.D.
Dating to roughly the same age, the Mosque of Amr Ibn El-Aas lies just steps away from the church, showcasing the closeness of the religions in Old Cairo. The mosque is very picturesque with countless colonnaded walkways around a large expanse of marble courtyard.
4. The Khan El Khalili Bazaar
Since the 14th century, the old bazaar in Cairo, the Khan el Khalili (also spelled “Khan al-Khalili” or “Khan al Khalili”), has been drawing crowds. A warren of lanes filled with stalls, not unlike the Istanbul Grand Bazaar, the air is heavy with incense, the light reflected from many shimmering lanterns and mirrors, and anybody loving kitchen wares, be they bowls, pots, coasters other nice and useful items, will have to ask their airline for an extra baggage allowance. The atmosphere is buzzing. Yes, you do get asked where you are from, get stopped at every corner as soon as you dare to slow down, but this is part of the game. Look, haggle, and buy everything you can fit into your suitcase. I certainly did.
Rest for a tea on the terrace of one of the cafes alongside the Al-Hussain Mosque. Preferably around prayer time, watch the Muslim faithful congregate under the enormous umbrellas that give shelter in front of the mosque.
5. Al-Azhar Mosque
There are countless beautiful mosques dotted around Cairo, and during prayer time, the haunting calls to the faithful echo through the streets. One of the most beautiful mosques, though, is the Al-Azhar Mosque in the heart of Islamic Cairo, dating back to A.D. 972. The intricate Arabian architecture is just stunning, the courtyard is huge, and there are many small architectural details to be discovered.
What makes this mosque even more special, though, is the fact that it is also one of the world’s oldest universities, established in A.D. 988 by Caliph El-Aziz. And those black, flowing gowns you wear when graduating from university? They originated right here and were inspired by the robes the students wore.
6. Salah El-Din Citadel
Salah El-Din Citadel, the Citadel of Saladin, was built around A.D. 1180 by Sultan Al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known simply as Salah ad-Din or Saladin, and the citadel became the seat of many rulers that followed him.
The ancient fort looks across Cairo and is so vast that it houses a mosque and several museums within its sturdy walls. Its walls stretched so far that it once joined the city of Cairo with another old city called Ayyubid, protecting both cities from the Crusaders. But in 1798, Napoleon conquered Cairo and Alexandria and set up camp in the citadel, proving it was no longer invincible. Incidentally, while Napoleon was there, he also reportedly found the Rosetta Stone while digging near the foundations of another fort in the Nile Delta.
7. Saqqara Step Pyramid
Less than 20 miles outside of Cairo, toward the south, lies another pyramid, but one that is very different in design from the pyramids of Giza. The Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara is not only the first known pyramid built by the ancient Egyptians, and thus Egypt’s oldest pyramid, but also Egypt’s oldest known stone structure, dating to around 2600 B.C.
Standing in the middle of the desert in a ruined but still intriguing complex of other associated buildings, I first spotted this pyramid from the plane, coming in to land at Cairo International Airport. The complex is named after King Netjeryknet of the third dynasty, better known as Djoser, meaning Sacred or Holy One. He basically wanted a unique mortuary complex.
8. Cairo’s Necropolis
While the pyramids are the pharaohs’ necropolis, the more mortal peoples’ necropolis is right in the heart of Cairo: a vast cemetery filled with ancient graves dating back to the seventh century. But here, the necropolis is not merely a city of the dead, but very much of the living. Having turned into a settlement for the poorest of Cairo’s inhabitants, some of which have lived here all their lives, the necropolis today is a cross between a historic site and a slum. It is a fascinating outing to view the old mausoleums and tombs that survived the centuries, and you can go on a guided tour to learn more about the past while assessing the current situation for the residents of the necropolis.
9. Historic Hotels
As soon as the tombs of Egypt’s pharaohs were discovered in the late 19th century, tourism became a staple income for Egyptians, with travelers from around the world flocking to Cairo and beyond to experience what people then called The Orient. From Florence Nightingale to Agatha Christie, they all came, and they all wanted to stay somewhere stylish and comfortable.
Many of the hotels that sprung up to cater to visitors are still going strong today. They make for great, historic stays. The most famous is probably the Mena House in Giza, with views across the pyramids. You have views from the old part, which is currently being restored, but also the more modern addition. It is a fabulous place to sit on your balcony and have the gigantic pyramids at the bottom of the garden.
For another great location, stay at the Cairo Palace, right by the Nile. The interior and the gardens are superb and offer an oasis away from the hectic city outside the front entrance.
Pro Tips: Cairo is easily and safely explored by metro, a much faster alternative to the taxis that get stuck in traffic all too often.
Also, don’t forget, Cairo is a modern, bustling metropolis, with non-ancient sights, such as the Opera House or the Cairo Tower, well worth checking out if you have the time.
For more information on Egypt’s destinations and history, check out these stories: