The best things see & do in Cairo
Through this article, we will take you on a journey to discover the best things to see in Cairo, Cairo is not only the capital of Egypt but also its most populous city, the engine of its economy, and the true soul of the country. It is also a much more interesting tourist destination than is often believed since it is often overshadowed by the long shadow cast by the Pyramids of Giza. Although it often takes only a couple of days to visit, the truth is that there is a lot to see from different points of view. Extraordinary mosques, historical monuments, neighborhoods with a lot of personality, art museums, bazaars with a 100% Islamic flavor and aroma…
Therefore, we dedicate these lines to show you in-depth the best of and how to visit this city of frenetic pace, offering practical information so you do not miss any detail. In any case, we remind you that Egypt Exclusive can take care of organizing all aspects of your trip, from travel to accommodation, including diet and cultural visits, among others. [ Check our Egypt Vacation Packages ]
Cairo the heart of Egypt and the Islamic world
Cairo is not only the capital but also the heart of Egypt. Socially, politically, economically, religiously, and geographically, as it is considered the center of the country, the link between Upper and Lower Egypt, between the Delta and the Nile Valley. And a similar centrality has had and continues to have in the Arab world.
For example, its dialect is recognized as the common version of Arabic, its media are broadcast both in North Africa and in the Middle East (although today the Qatari television station Al-Jazeera has become a reference point) and its leaders, governing from here, have traditionally played an integrating role in this geopolitical chessboard. For all these reasons, it is no coincidence that what has to do with Cairo ends up having repercussions throughout the Arab world.
The people of Cairo
Beyond its symbolic importance, it is also important in quantitative terms. More than 8 million people live in this megalopolis, a figure that rises to more than 16 million people if we also count its metropolitan area. These are official census figures, but other sources put the figure at over 21 million.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that the housing shortage is a real problem in the Egyptian capital, pushing many inhabitants to find a place to live. An example of this is the City of the Dead, a place that many visitors add to their list of things to do: it is a large cemetery where many Cairenes live to be close to their ancestors or simply for lack of a better place.
This problem has mainly worsened in recent decades since the city began to grow exponentially: in the mid-twentieth century, about 2 million people lived here, a figure that already doubled by 1970 and exceeded 7 million at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
A sustained growth that has no signs of stopping, as work is underway to build a new administrative and financial capital next to Cairo, in a desert area that was not urbanized. Its name will probably be New Cairo or Wedian and it will house modern new infrastructures, such as the tallest skyscraper in Africa or large mosques, all from a perspective more in line with the environmental sustainability challenges of the new times.
Climate of Cairo
In the capital, you will find a climatic situation halfway between the desert, of extreme dryness and heat, and the Delta, slightly softened by the influence of the Mediterranean. In any case, its classification is the desert climate (BWh), so in terms of temperature and rainfall it probably has nothing to do with your home city: here you will experience a much warmer environment during the day, with hardly any humidity or cloudiness. These are the main meteorological values that characterize the city:
- Average maximum temperatures: in July they are around 35ºC, but with peaks that can exceed 46ºC.
- Average minimum temperatures: 9ºC at night in January, although sometimes they can reach 1ºC.
- Thermal amplitude: as is characteristic of desert climates. Between day and night, there is usually a difference of about 15ºC.
Relative humidity: the value is approximately 55% of the annual average, lower than cities of the Delta but higher than other cities of desert climate, mainly due to the influence of the Nile River.
Therefore, you should be prepared to combat the sun and heat, following the advice we already gave you on the aforementioned page on the climate of Egypt: cover your head, protect your skin and eyes, wear light clothing, hydrate well and have a fan handy, especially if you travel in the summer season.
History of Cairo
As far as history is concerned, Cairo has little to do with Ancient Egypt, since the foundation of the Egyptian capital is relatively recent. Although it is surrounded by key places for the civilization ruled by the pharaohs, such as Giza, Memphis, or Heliopolis, the truth is that in this place there was no settlement as such until Persian or Roman times. In any case, before getting to the next section ‘Cairo: what to see, neighborhood by neighborhood’, it is important to know the history of this city, as it will help you understand how the different areas of interest of the city were formed.
Origins of Cairo: between Persians and Romans
The birth of the city of Cairo was a gradual process spanning different periods of Egyptian history. The Babylon Fortress is often considered the germ of the later city: in the last decades of the 6th century BC, the followers of the Persian King Cambyses II (27th Dynasty), who had just conquered Egypt, built a fortification on this site, which also served as a toll post on the trade routes between Upper and Lower Egypt. Later, the Romans rehabilitated the fortress and it remained a strategic site in Coptic and Byzantine times. Therefore, this fortress is one of the places we recommend visiting in the section ‘Cairo: what to see’, located in the Coptic Quarter, in the area called Old Cairo.
Arab conquest and the creation of Misr al-Fustat
The Fortress of Babylon was besieged and taken in the year 639 (year 17 of the Hegira) by the Umayyad Arabs, amid expansionism in North Africa. A year later, the general Amr ibn al-As built a camp between this fortification and the Nile River, called al-Fustat (‘The Camp’, in Arabic) or Misr al-Fustat: it was walled and had the first mosque in the country and on the African continent, the Mosque of Amr. Nothing remains of the primitive construction, but in the same location is a new structure rebuilt in the late nineteenth century, which also represents another attraction to see in Cairo because the visit is allowed when there is no prayer inside. Since then, Misr al-Fustat remained the administrative and political center of the new Arab rulers of Egypt. And so it has remained. In fact, the Arabic name for Egypt is Misr (مِصر), which in turn could derive from the name given to this place by the Akkadians, which in their language means “frontier”.
Al-Askar, Al-Qatta’i and Al-Qahira.
The successive rulers of Egypt gradually expanded the constructions in this area. The Abbasids, in power since 750, built Al-Askar (‘The Army’), another annexed military settlement with a government palace. The Tulunids, a dynasty that with Ahmad ibn Tulun declared itself independent of the Abbasids, built another fortress: Al-Qatta’i, which also had a palace and a mosque: the latter still stands and is one of the most interesting temples to see in Cairo. Subsequently, the caliphal-Muizz li-Din Allah, of the new Fatimid dynasty of Shiite current and coming from Tunisia, built at the end of the tenth century Al-Qahira (‘The Triumphant’, name from which the city takes its present name), a new settlement commemorating his victory in the country. It was located to the north of Misr al-Fustat and encompassed the buildings of Al-Askar and Al-Qatta’i. Here the al-Azhar Mosque was erected, one of the most beautiful and important mosques in the capital, with a center of learning that many consider the first university in the world. Al-Qahira was a royal enclosure for the caliph and his troops, and Misr al-Fustat remained the administrative center until the middle of the 12th century. The sum of all these areas is what is known today as Islamic Cairo, to which we also dedicate space in the section ‘Cairo: what to see, neighborhood by neighborhood’.
The Cairo of Saladin, Mamluks, and Ottomans
Another important milestone for the current configuration of the city of Cairo was the construction in the late twelfth century of the Citadel by Saladin, sultan of Kurdish origin and leader of Islam, which ended the Fatimid dynasty and began the Ayyubid. This fortress, which is also part of the list of things to see in Cairo, was erected on a small promontory in the hills of Mokattam. This location was interesting on a defensive level and from it, the whole environment was dominated. But the Citadel was more than a fortress, as it was also a governmental and administrative center, expanded and improved in successive stages. It was a time of reconstruction, because years before Shawar, vizier of the last Fatimid caliph Al-Adid, had burned Misr al-Fustat to prevent the Crusaders from taking it. And the result of this reconstructive process was the creation of a prosperous city, with hundreds of new buildings: mosques, public baths, madrasahs, palaces, etc. The prosperity was maintained and expanded by his successors, the military caste of the Mamluks, who continued to embellish the capital. Although the epidemic of 1348 wreaked havoc and the European ports of the Mediterranean were becoming the new epicenter of trade routes in the 15th century, Mamluk Cairo remained a dynamic city, of which many testimonies remain today. For example, in the section ‘Cairo: what to see’ we mention the Khan El-Khalili Bazaar, whose origins date back to the time of Djaharks el-Khalili, at the end of the 14th century. Since the sixteenth century, Cairo, like the rest of Egypt, remained under Ottoman rule, although with a certain autonomy at the commercial and cultural level: it was an important city in routes such as coffee, and Al-Azhar University maintained its enormous prestige in the Arab world.
From Napoleon to the present day
The expedition to Egypt by Napoleonic troops was fleeting in terms of its duration (1798-1801) but very transcendental for what has to do in Cairo with the ‘rebirth’ of Ancient Egypt. Although many valuable works and objects were unfortunately taken out of the country, the dissemination of the findings by the Commission des Sciences et des Arts de l’Armée d’Orient, which accompanied the military expedition, was key to the emergence of modern Egyptology. The Egyptian Museum and the nearby Pyramids of Giza are the best exponents of these worldwide tourist attractions. After that, Mehmet Ali kept alive the flame of this interest in Ancient Egypt, from which Cairo benefited. But he was also concerned with promoting the industrialization of the country and its capital, as well as rehabilitating and expanding other Cairo buildings, such as the Citadel of Saladin. In the second half of the 19th century, the largest urban regeneration project of the capital was carried out: Governor Ismail Pasha promoted a modern urban plan, inspired by the orthogonal layouts of the time and improved public sanitation. As a result, it became the preferred residential area for the upper classes, forming part of what is now considered the city center. Today, thanks to this belle epoque style and the commercial and leisure facilities, it is considered one of the areas to see in Cairo. In contrast, the lower classes were relegated to the oldest neighborhoods of the city (Old Cairo and Islamic Cairo), which also absorbed the huge influx of peasants who migrated from the countryside to the capital. In the first half of the 20th century, life in the capital was marked by British domination, which also used it as an important command center in World War II. However, they did not leave a significant mark on the city, so there are no major monuments to see in Cairo from that era. In the second half of the last century, as mentioned above, the capital experienced exponential growth, shaping in a somewhat disorderly and chaotic way this great megalopolis, the largest in Africa. Zamalek and Gezira, areas located on an island in the Nile River, which offer the most orderly and elegant face of the capital, with some of the most interesting cultural proposals to see in Cairo, were kept out of this chaos. And the same happened with the neighborhood of Heliopolis, in the east of the city. Already in the 21st century, the New Cairo or Weidan will try to place the capital at the level of other large modern and advanced cities in the world but also puts it in front of one of its great challenges: to become a more environmentally sustainable megalopolis, with less congestion and population pressure.
After knowing the history of Cairo, what to see in this city is presented as an easier task to organize: here we group, roughly, the areas of interest according to their periods of emergence, as you can see on a map, has a development from south to north: Giza for Ancient Egypt, the Coptic Quarter in pre-Arabic times, Islamic Cairo during the medieval and modern period and, finally, other neighborhoods of interest emerged in more recent times (Center, Zamalek, Gezira, etc.). The Coptic Quarter and Islamic Cairo make up, by the way, the so-called Historic Cairo, an area listed as a World Heritage Site by Unesco.
There is no doubt that many tourists who come to Cairo, do so with an eye on the wonders located west of the city: the Pyramids of Giza, its Great Sphinx, and the other visible remains of this spectacular necropolis of the Ancient Empire. They have located just 13 km in a straight line from the center (Tahrir Square) but administratively they are located in a different city, Giza. Therefore, we develop extensively all its contents on this other page of our website.
The Coptic Quarter and ancient al-Fustat
The Coptic Quarter is what can be considered the oldest part of Cairo. This area emerged a few centuries before the birth of Christ and took hold after his death, when Christianity was relieving the Egyptian religion, increasingly in decline. And so it remained until the Arab conquest in 639 established Islam as the majority religion. In this area are, for example, the remains of the Babylon Fortress, considered the seed of the city, built by the Persians in the sixth century BC and later expanded by the Romans, who gave it its characteristic appearance of red and white bricks. Some remains of its wall can still be seen today.
Ruins of the fortress of Babylon
Here are, therefore, the main constructions that have to do with Coptic Cairo. Recall that, according to Christian tradition, the Holy Family (St. Joseph, the Virgin Mary, and the Child Jesus) fled to Egypt to escape the persecution of King Herod. And, according to the belief of this religion, they could have reached this place, when the main city was Alexandria and here there was only a small town with a modest river port. Mention of this presence is indicated, for example, inside the church of St. George (of Greek Orthodox worship). Here there is a well in which it is indicated that the three biblical characters drank water. In this church, built in the 10th century and rebuilt in the early 20th century, there are also relics of St. George, a warrior saint highly venerated in other countries.
Cairo Hanging Church
Even more famous and ancient is the Hanging Church, one of those essential monuments to see in Cairo. Its origins date back to the third century and were attached to one of the gates of the aforementioned Roman fortress. Probably for this reason it received this name, as it seemed to hang from it. However, its current appearance is the result of a remodeling of the nineteenth century and has lost some of its original hanging characters, as the ground level has grown in all these centuries about 10 meters, due to sediment deposited here by the floods of the Nile. It is very characteristic of its entrance staircase and its interior shows a beautiful decoration of the thirteenth century, using materials as varied as ebony inlaid with an ivory altar or mosaics from different eras. Another of the buildings to see in Cairo Coptic is precisely the Coptic Museum. It is very useful to know the change of beliefs that have been from the ancient Egyptian religion and Greco-Roman paganism to the new Christian faith, whose iconography adopted symbols of all previous ones. In addition, objects of enormous value are preserved, such as ancient Bibles, manuscripts, and icons. Also noteworthy is the interior architecture of the museum itself, with lattices and wooden ceilings. Other notable Christian temples in this Coptic Quarter or its vicinity are:
Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus: its origins date back to the fourth or fifth centuries. Its name refers to the two Roman Christian martyrs, whose relics are preserved here. Although the most important episode related to this place is that it is believed that the Holy Family took refuge in its crypt for three weeks. Therefore, you can write it down as one of the churches to see in Cairo if you are moved by the Christian faith. Its interior is striking for its beautiful wooden coffered ceilings and its marble and red granite columns.
Church of St. Barbara: church with origins in the fourth century, originally erected in honor of St. Cyrus and rebuilt in medieval times to contain relics of this saint born in Asia Minor Monastery of St. Mercury: composed, in turn, of three small churches, namely, that of St. Mercury (tenth century), that of St. Shenute and that of the Virgin.
Another temple to see in Old Cairo is the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Despite being a historic synagogue, prayers are no longer held here. It was restored in the late twentieth century, although it was originally erected in the ninth century, when Abraham ibn Ezra, rabbi of Jerusalem, bought this land for its construction. He did so because, according to Hebrew tradition, an earlier synagogue founded by the prophet Jeremiah and later destroyed by the Romans was located here. Since the Coptic Quarter is considered the oldest part of the city, there are also Islamic buildings very close by. Recall that following the Arab conquest of the country, in this area was created Misr al-Fustat, a military settlement that would eventually become an administrative center in the early centuries of Muslim Egypt. In this sense, it is worth mentioning the mosque of Amr, which, as mentioned above, is considered the first in the whole country, built by the general Amr ibn al-As around 640. It exercised, therefore, a diffusing role of the new Islamic doctrine, although what can be seen today is the result of successive reconstructions. And we include it in this list of things to see in Cairo because its interior can be visited at times not dedicated to worship.
Many more places of interest you will have to see in Islamic Cairo, the area of the city that made up the different medieval settlements built by the dynasties that successively dominated the city: Abbasids, Tulunids, Fatimids, Ayyubids, Mamluks, and Ottomans, mainly. This area is sometimes known as Fatimid Cairo since it was the Calipha al-Muizz li-Din Allah, the first of this dynasty in Egypt, who in 969 established a new settlement in this area: Al-Qahira (‘The Triumphant’). The main buildings that remain from this Shiite dynasty, which dominated North Africa for more than two centuries, are located precisely in this city. But in reality, what any tourist has to see in Islamic Cairo also includes constructions of the other two previous settlements mentioned above (Al-Askar and Al-Qatta’i), built by the Abbasids and Tulunids. And later, other dynasties erected new constructions (Mamluks and Ottomans), in addition to modifying the pre-existing ones. Therefore, to speak only of Fatimid architecture would be incomplete. To begin this tour, we can move to the area that, from the end of the 10th century, was the medieval walled city. To do this, we take as a reference Al-Muizz Street, named after the founding caliph of Al-Qahira and which acts as the main axis of this area. In it or its surroundings are located some of the most interesting places.
Al-Muizz Street in Cairo
Starting from its northern end, you will see two of the few remaining vestiges of the walls that surrounded this medieval settlement: the Bab al-Futuh gate, which was the main entrance to the city for many centuries and is quadrangular in plan, and Bab al-Nasr, semicircular in plan. Next to them, one of the great mosques to see in Islamic Cairo: Al-Hakim. Built between the late tenth and early twelfth centuries, it was named in honor of the sixth Fatimid caliph of Egypt: Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, promoter of the temple. However, for a long time, it fell into disuse and was even used as a barracks by Napoleon. But a recent restoration has restored its splendor, especially in its courtyard with arcades and marble. It’s oldest and perhaps most characteristic elements are its minarets. Continuing a few hundred meters along Al-Muizz street you will reach Bayt al-Suhaymi (see section ‘Museums to see in Cairo’, below) and then, without leaving this street, you will come across the Al-Aqmar mosque, whose name means ‘moonlight’. This building, completed in the early decades of the twelfth century, is very unique because it was one of the first to have a facade with the main stone façade and ornamental design. This is its most symbolic element, with inscriptions referring to various Fatimid caliphs and fragments of the Koran. Its interior, on the other hand, has been greatly modified.
Continuing the walk we find shortly after another of the most interesting monuments to see in Islamic Cairo: the Sabil-Kuttab of Abdel Rahman Katkhuda, a construction of Ottoman times (mid-eighteenth century) that combined the function of the public drinking fountain and elementary school. It is located in the area known as Bayn al-Qasrin (“Between two palaces”, although none are still standing). However, it is one of the most beautiful sections, with other buildings of the Mamluk period and a beautiful facade. For example, the madrasa of Sultan Barquq (late fourteenth century) or the madrasa-museum of Al-Nasir Muhammad, one of the most prolific Mamluk sultans (late thirteenth and early fourteenth century). And not far behind is the next in this section: the madrasa-museum of Sultan Qalawun, from the late thirteenth century. It is a large complex of great decorative richness, with colored stones and marble panels in many places. It was modeled after the Mosque of the Rock in Jerusalem, which the Mamluks had taken from the Crusaders at that time.
Khan El Khalili Market
At this point you can take two directions: turn left or go straight ahead. If you decide to go to your left, heading east, you will come to two major points of interest: the Jan el-Jalili market and the Hussein Mosque. The Jan el-Jalili market is undoubtedly one of the great attractions of the city, one of those places that you ‘must’ see in Cairo: this great bazaar, whose origins date back to the fourteenth century, seduces any visitor not only for the handicrafts sold here but for the explosion of colors of the fabrics, the sounds of hammering brass or the aroma of spices from the food stalls. A place in which to put into practice the art of bargaining, a must to be able to buy here. In the area, there are also places with a lot of history and fame, such as the Fishawi coffee shop, the oldest in the city, located in Midan Hussein Square, one of the busiest in the historic center. In this same square is precisely the Al-Hussein Mosque, one of the things you have to see in Islamic Cairo if you are interested in this religion. It may not be the most outstanding historical-artistic level, as it is one of the most recent of the Egyptian capital: although its origins date back to the Mamluk period (mid-twelfth century), the current temple was rebuilt in the late nineteenth century. However, it is a most remarkable temple because the remains of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and son of Fatima, to whom the Fatimid dynasty was considered the heir, are preserved here. Therefore, this is a particularly sacred place for Shiite Muslims, but also highly respected by the Sunni current, the majority in the country. On the other hand, if from the madrasa-museum of Sultan Qalawun you continue straight on along Al-Muizz Street you will reach Al-Azhar Street, created in the twentieth century by distorting this medieval axis. On the other side of the street is another complex of great interest: the Wekalet El Ghoury. It houses madrasa and mausoleum, but above all, it is used as a venue for cultural and folkloric performances. Its beautiful architecture is a beautiful epitaph from the Mamluk period (early 16th century), shortly before the Ottoman occupation.
Interior of the Mausoleum of Sultan Al-Ghuri
Very close to El Ghoury is another of the most spectacular mosques that tourists have to see in Cairo: the Al-Azhar Mosque, which also overlooks Midan Hussein Square, although from the other side of the frenetic street-road of Al-Azhar. As you can deduce from the information we provide in this section ‘Cairo: what to see neighborhood by neighborhood’, mosques abound in the Egyptian capital, numbering in the hundreds. But for many travelers, if they had to choose just one, this would undoubtedly be the one. Built around 970, after the arrival of the Fatimid dynasty in the country and the foundation of Al-Qahira, it soon became a reference point for the Islamic religion. In fact, not only was (and is) a great center of prayer, but also of teaching, receiving every year thousands of Muslim students from all over the world and being considered by many as one of the oldest universities on the planet. In addition, its Grand Imam (or Grand Sheikh) is one of the main spiritual authorities for Muslims.
The exterior of the Al-Azhar Mosque
Its architecture is a pleasure to behold, with elements that not only correspond to the Fatimid era but also to other later periods, as all the rulers wanted to leave their stamp on the enclosure. In this sense, we can highlight:
Doors: the Barbers’ Gate stands out, the main one, which is so-called because the students’ heads were shaved here. But it is also worth mentioning other interior doors, such as the one that gives access to the Central Courtyard. Central Courtyard: stands out for its whiteness and cleanliness, and for being completely arcaded, with arches Fatimid of the tenth-century Minarets: half a dozen are counted, but the highest and most imposing is the Mamluk Sultan El Ghoury, early sixteenth century. Prior to him are the minarets of Sultan Qaitbey and Amir Aqbugha, while later are the two of the Ottoman period, with its particular style full of verticality reminiscent of other mosques in Istanbul Prayer Hall: enlarged several times, the last in the mid-eighteenth century at the behest of the Ottoman builder Abd-ar-Rahman Katkhuda. The mihrab of the Fatimid period is preserved. Madrasas: it has three dating from the time of the Mamluks and a library of enormous value, with about 60,000 volumes, many of the manuscripts.
South of El Ghoury and Al-Azhar, the area becomes even more bustling, full of stores and restaurants until you reach the third and last surviving gate of the Fatimid wall: Bab Zuwayla (the year 1092), the ancient southern entrance. Next to it is the Al-Muayyad mosque, which you will quickly recognize thanks to its twin minarets. They offer one of the best panoramic views to see in Cairo and were built over the Bab Zuweila gate of the ancient Fatimid wall. The complex was built in the fifteenth century, in the Mamluk period. Its interior, where the remains of the Mamluk sultan that gives it its name are preserved, is also most interesting, as its central courtyard and its dome with zigzagging decoration. In addition to all this to see in Islamic Cairo, there are many other places of interest south of the southern gate Bab-Zuwayla. For example, here you will find another of the most frequented and interesting markets: Sharia al-Khayamiya, also known internationally by its English name: Street of the Tentmakers. It is perhaps less touristy than Khan el-Khalili but it is possible to see how a multitude of local craftsmen work live, especially textile, and check their results.
Interior Sultan Hassan Mosque and Madrasa
If you continue further south, you will come across other extraordinary mosques that you have to see in Cairo. The first would be the mosque-madrasa of Sultan Hassan, another one that by history and art enter the top-10 of Cairo Islamic temples. Its construction dates back to the time of this Mamluk sultan in the mid-fourteenth century and has suffered many vicissitudes, as they often used it as a fortress to protect themselves in their frequent conflicts. And Napoleon also had it in the target of his projectiles, easily reachable from the nearby Citadel. Its great main entrance is one of the most monumental and in its central courtyard is preserved a beautiful fountain of ablutions under a vaulted shrine. Right next to it is another mosque, the Al-Rifai, which is almost twin of the Sultan Hassan, although much more recent: the early twentieth century, in imitation of the Mamluk style. However, its importance lies in the tombs it preserves Farouk (last king of Egypt) and the last Shah of Persia, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi. Both are located in the Salah El-Deen Square, where also rises another of the places that you must see in Cairo, as it is one of the great tourist attractions of the city: the Citadel of Saladin. It is named after the man who began its construction: Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, leader of Islam and scourge of the Crusaders, who located here his great headquarters and command center in the late twelfth century. However, it has undergone numerous renovations and extensions, as all the rulers wanted to make their contributions. Located in an elevated and strategic place, from where the whole city is dominated, as Napoleon’s French troops quickly understood, who occupied it during their campaign in this country. And its stones have much more history, as the Ayyubid sultan used ashlars from the pyramids of Giza for its construction.
Mosque of Muhammad Ali in the Citadel of Saladin
Although it was used as military barracks until the end of the last century and some rooms are still closed for this reason, most of the complex can be visited, so it represents one of the best monuments to see in Cairo. Here is a list of attractions that await you:
Views from the western terraces: these are among the favorites of visitors to the city, along with that of the minarets of the Al-Muayyad Mosque. On clear days, you can even glimpse the Pyramids of Giza!
Mehmet Ali Mosque: it is undoubtedly its most prominent and photographed construction, although it is relatively recent (19th century) and has a distinctly Ottoman style. It is also called an alabaster mosque because this is the elegant material that covers the lower part of the exterior of this temple. Inside is the marble tomb of this Egyptian wali. On the outside stands an iron clock, a gift from King Louis Philippe I of France in exchange for the obelisk that now stands in the Place de la Concorde (from the temple of Luxor), which never worked.
Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque is one of the mosques that survived the demolitions that Mehmet Ali caused for the construction of his mosque. This, smaller but older, is from the fourteenth century and is notable for its colorful minarets, decorated with green and blue mosaics, of great peculiarity when compared to the other mosques in the city but unfortunately do not shine as you would expect from them. Inside, highlights a fascinating courtyard with arcades resting on columns of ancient Egyptian and Roman times.
Suleymaniye Mosque: another small and old mosque, in this case about 1530, so it is considered the first erected during the Ottoman period in the Egyptian capital. In fact, it has an undoubtedly Turkish style, like that of Mehmet Ali and so many others in the city of Istanbul, with the characteristic system of domes and semi-domes.
Burg al-Haddad and Burg al-Ramla: in the perimeter of walls of this military enclosure there are some towers of a military character. These two stand out, which can be translated as the Tower of the Blacksmith and the Tower of Sand. They are twins and control the passage to the interior of the citadel.
National Military Museum: (see section ‘Museums to see in Cairo, below).
Police Museum: (see section ‘Museums to see in Cairo, below)
Further south of the Citadel, approaching the aforementioned area of al-Fustat, you will find another of the mosques to see in Cairo … if you still have strength left! It is one of those buildings of great historical and artistic value, which is usually included in the books of Art History for being very representative of its style: the mosque of Ibn Tulun. In this case, it shows the style of the early times of Islam, as it is the oldest mosque preserved in Egypt, built by the Tulunids around 879, with clear Abbasid influence (from whom they broke away). It can be seen, for example, in the helical type minaret reminiscent of the Iraqi Samarra, erected shortly before. It is also peculiar its fountain of ablutions under a large dome in the central courtyard. And also its surrounding outer wall, as was customary at the time, gave much amplitude to the enclosure. For a long time, a bazaar was installed in that space between the wall and the mosque! As you can see, we have devoted many lines to the mosques of the city, as they are undoubtedly monuments that, yes or yes, you have to see in Cairo. And proof of this is that many of them, you will recognize them when paying with money since they are represented in the Egyptian pound bills.
Although most of the monuments to see in Cairo are in the Islamic or Coptic quarters, what is considered as the Center is not either of these areas, but the one located northwest of these neighborhoods, which in the nineteenth century were marshlands. During the rule of the khedive Ismail Pasha they were urbanized, following the parameters of the European cities of that time, so it is not surprising that their buildings remind you in some way of French, Italian or British cities.
Tahrir Square (called Liberation Square in English) is the most important of all, the true heart where you feel the heartbeat of Cairo life. Here you will find the American University and, not far away, the Egyptian Museum (see section ‘Museums to see in Cairo’, below). From here, the tour can take you through other places such as Talaat Harb Square and continue along Qasr al-Nil Street, where the main boutiques are located. Also here is the Stock Exchange, which at the beginning of the twentieth century was one of the 10 most important in the world, and the Trieste Insurance Building, designed by the Italian-Slovenian Antonio Lascia. Along Shawarby Street you will reach the main entertainment area of Cairo, with famous cinemas and theaters where you can see, for example, belly dancing shows. On Adly Street, you will find the Shaar Hashamaim synagogue, one of the few remaining vestiges of the influential Jewish community that contributed economically to the development of the city in the early twentieth century but mostly left for Israel after the formation of that state.
Opera Square is another great open space, but unfortunately, it has little to do with El Cario that gave it birth: at the end of the 19th century, a majestic theatrical coliseum was built here, which was to be inaugurated with the world premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida (although in the end, it was with Rigoletto), something that undoubtedly shows the strength of this capital and this country at that time, shortly after the inauguration of the Suez Canal. At the end of the 20th century, it burned down and was demolished. This area is also known as Attaba and is one of the great commercial areas of the city. From here you can head north to Ramses Square, where the most important train station in the city is located and where today stands a replica of the colossal statue of Ramses II, now in the Great Egyptian Museum of Giza. Here also stands the minaret of the Al-Fath Mosque (inaugurated in 1990) and not by chance: it is the highest in the capital and the third highest in the world, according to some sources.
The islands of the Nile: Gezira and Rhoda
The Nile River crosses Cairo. Or rather, it serves as a border between the capital and the city of Giza which, although part of the same metropolitan area, actually belongs to another administrative entity. And as such, we dedicate this other page to it. In this great river, absolutely key to the emergence of Egyptian civilization and the capital itself, two large islands are formed, inside which there are neighborhoods and areas that can also enter this list of things to see in Cairo.
The northernmost island is called Gezira Island, which in Arabic means ‘island’. It was uninhabited until the 19th century when it became a royal garden. And today it can be divided into two areas: the north is the neighborhood of Zamalek and the south, that of Gezira. This is reached by crossing one of the three different bridges that connect it with the center, but the most important is the Qasr al-Nil, which connects Gezira with Tahrir Square. From a distance, the Cairo Tower dominates any panoramic view. This 1961 communications tower, which rises in the middle of the island, is the tallest building in the city (180 meters) and for a long time was the tallest in all of Africa. Its design evokes a lotus plant, so linked to ancient Egyptian civilization, and a lattice, an element widely used in Islamic architecture. At the top, it has a revolving restaurant with panoramic views, from where you can see both the Citadel of Saladin and the Pyramids of Giza. To the south of this, there is a complex dedicated to the arts, with an exclusive sports club and green areas. Highlights include the Mokhtar Museum and the National Museum of Modern Egyptian Art (see ‘Museums to see in Cairo’ section below), as well as the new Opera House. It also has a botanical garden and aquarium, the Grotto Garden. Zamalek, the northern area, is instead a pleasant residential area, home to diplomats and officials in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As such, it is also an area with numerous embassies. In fact, the origin of it was the palace built to accommodate Empress Eugénie, the Grenadine wife of Napoleon III, on her visit to witness the inauguration of the Suez Canal. Today it is part of a luxury hotel and is a magnificent combination of industrial and Islamic art. It also has museums and art centers (Aisha Fahmy and the Museum of Islamic Ceramics, both in the section ‘Museums to see in Cairo’). And next to the Zamalek Bridge connecting Gezira Island to Giza rise the neat Kitkat Mosque, with original wooden houseboats at its foot.
The island of Rhoda is smaller than Gezira and is much closer to the Cairo side of the river, forming here a small channel. For that reason, the bridges that connect it with Cairo are smaller. It also has no buildings as modern and high as Gezira but, instead, is much more related to the origins of the settlement that gave rise to this city. In fact, in Ancient Egyptian times, it had its own port and a Roman fortress similar to that of Babylon, which we referred to in the Coptic Quarter, as it was located next to it. On this island, there are two major points of interest. The most important is the Nilometer, one of the most interesting buildings to see in Cairo if you are a lover of Egyptian civilization. Although the one that exists today dates from Arab times (ninth century), its operation is very similar to the one that existed previously and to those that can be seen in other parts of the country: a large stone-lined well with a central column divided into different sections. If it reached the right level at a certain time of the year, there was reason to rejoice for the good agricultural year that was predicted. If it exceeded it, misfortune loomed in the form of fatal floods. On the other hand, if it did not arrive, misfortune would come in the form of drought and famine. Next to the Nilometer is a beautiful palace, the Manesterly Palace, used for concerts and prestigious cultural events. And north of Rhoda Island, the most interesting building is the Manial Palace (see section ‘Museums to see in Cairo), a beautiful museum dedicated to Islamic arts.
Other interesting places to see in Cairo
Although it is not a particularly green city compared to others, there is also an interesting park to see in Cairo: the Al-Azhar Park. It is very recent since it was inaugurated in 2005, but it is already an essential lung for the capital. Palm trees, gardens, ponds, cafes, and other pleasant structures make up this park, from where there are also panoramic views over the city. In addition, sections of the Ayyubid walls built by Saladin in the 12th century have been recovered. In this area, you will also find one of the churches to see in Cairo, that of St. Simon the Tanner. We have not mentioned it in the Coptic quarter because it is located about 7 km from it. However, it is so unique that you can add it perfectly to a route focused on Coptic Christianity in the capital. Actually, it is very recent (inaugurated only a few years ago), but its visit is surprising because it is located, literally, in the mountains of Mokattam: it is embedded in the rock. Its promoters were the Zabaleen, garbage collectors of Cairo, who profess this religion. Its interior is not completely enclosed but enters the rock to form a kind of auditorium in whose lower part has located the altar. It could accommodate about 10,000 parishioners at a time! That makes it one of the largest churches in the Middle East. And to give more originality to the space, reliefs on the life of the Virgin and on this local saint have been carved in the rock. For all this, this place is also known as the Church of the Cave and is part of our tours of the capital, as it is one of the most amazing places to see in Cairo and leaves no one indifferent. It is also worth mentioning another peculiar proposal to see in Cairo, located behind the Al-Azhar Park, at the foot of the hills of Mokattam: the Necropolis or cemetery of the Mamluk period, better known as the City of the Dead. And it receives this name because, indeed, for thousands of people it is their place of residence, sheltering among the tombs and mausoleums of the carrots. It should not be a tourist attraction but has achieved worldwide fame for its sociological uniqueness, being the most extreme result of the difficulty of many citizens to access housing in the Egyptian capital. Therefore, it is visited by many curious travelers, in some cases with organized and guided tours.
Ancient buildings in the Heliopolis Quarter in Cairo
Radically opposite is the neighborhood of Heliopolis (not to be confused with the city of Ancient Egypt), which emerged in the early twentieth century at the urging of a Belgian businessman and Egyptologist (Baron Empain). It was a northeastern suburb of the city that had little to do with Cairo at that time but ended up being absorbed by the current megalopolis. In this residential area of high society is located the Baron’s palace (a unique Hindu-style building), the International Football Stadium (with capacity for 75,000 spectators), 16 mosques and temples of different denominations, such as the Coptic cathedral of St. Mark. It is also the closest area to Cairo International Airport.
Museums to see in Cairo
In addition to all the areas described above, there are many museums to see in Cairo, with very different themes. They are interesting for their rich collections or for the beauty of the buildings themselves. Below we show the most important ones, stopping especially at the Egyptian Museum, but without forgetting others that can also be very interesting for any traveler.
The Egyptian Museum(s) in Cairo
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is undoubtedly the most important, one of those museums that your visit already justifies an entire trip. And although there are practically no archaeological remains to see in Cairo from the Pharaonic period (since Giza is administratively another city), this will undoubtedly be the favorite place in the capital for Egyptology enthusiasts. It is true that many of the great treasures of that civilization are to be found outside the country, in museums such as the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London, the Egyptian Museum in Turin, or the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. But none can match, in short, all that this museum has to offer, one of the most interesting in the world at all levels. And yet it has become too small! Its collection has more than 120,000 objects, which lack the space to be properly displayed, as evidenced by the fact that more than 600 mummies are piled up in its basements and that many of the valuable pieces have been moved to the Great Egyptian Museum of Giza, which we mention below. Here are some basic tips so you can organize your visit to the Egyptian Museum, but keep in mind that due to the restructuring of the collection by the transfer of pieces to the Great Egyptian Museum, some rooms may undergo major changes. In any case, these are the ‘must-sees’ of any visit:
Statues and busts of queens, pharaohs, and other characters:
Sphinx of Hetepheres II, wife of the pharaoh Dyedefra during the IV dynasty, (Ancient Empire) Cheops: a figurine of this pharaoh of the IV dynasty (Ancient Empire) Chephren: seated statue in diorite of this pharaoh of the IV dynasty (Ancient Empire), from the Temple of the Valley located in the necropolis of Giza Triad of Mycerinus: famous sculptural ensemble in diorite of this pharaoh of the IVth dynasty (Ancient Empire), accompanied by the goddess Hathor and the goddess of the nomo of Cinopolis The Mayor of the People: in wood, a nobleman of the Vth Dynasty (Old Empire) Pepy I: in copper, of the VIth Dynasty (Old Empire) Amenhotep III and Tiye: colossal sculptural group in limestone representing this pair of kings of the XVIIIth Dynasty (New Empire), originally located in Medinet Habu Bust of Akhenaton: portrait of this pharaoh of the XVIIIth dynasty (New Empire), where the stylistic and iconographic change that he enacted during his convulsive reign can be appreciated.
Amenemope: of the XXI dynasty (Third Intermediate Period) Psusenes I: of the XXI dynasty (Third Intermediate Period).
Reliefs and engravings:
Narmer’s Palette (ca. 3,100 BC) is a key piece in the history of Ancient Egypt, as it shows the one who is considered the first pharaoh of the country already unified, because on one side he wears the crown of Lower Egypt and on the other, that of Upper Egypt Stele of Merenptah: engraved around 1,210 BC, at the time of Amenhotep III, to commemorate his victory in the lands of Canaan. Much of its historical value lies in the fact that it contains the first explicit mention of the people of Israel.
Sarcophagi and mummies: due to the recent opening of the gallery of royal mummies at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (see below), some of the following may be transferred between the two museums
Sarcophagus from tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings, attributed to the mysterious and controversial pharaoh Akhenaton, of the 18th dynasty (New Empire) Mummy of Ramses II Mummy of the queen-pharaoh Hatshepsut, of the 18th dynasty (New Empire) Mummy of Thutmose II, of the 18th dynasty (New Empire) Mummy of Seti I, of the 19th dynasty (New Empire)
Pyramidion of Amenemhat III: crowned the Black Pyramid of Dahshur erected for this pharaoh of the XIIth dynasty (Middle Empire).
However, as you may have noticed, in the title of this section we have added some (s) because in recent years other museums related to Ancient Egypt have seen the light, which also deserves a place in this section of museums to see in Cairo. In 2017, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization was inaugurated, in the area known as al-Fustat, near the Coptic Quarter. It is focused on showing, in a more didactic way, the history and culture of the entire Egyptian civilization, that is, not only the one that developed during Ancient Egypt. To do this, it uses a very rich collection of some 50,000 objects, ranging from the Archaic period, through the Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic, Byzantine, medieval, and modern Islamic, to the contemporary period of our days. And to all this, we must add the inauguration of the Great Egyptian Museum, one of the museums that have generated more expectations worldwide. It is located just two kilometers from the necropolis of Giza. To it, we dedicate its deserved space to the Giza page.
Other museums to see in Cairo
Although the visit to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo may well occupy a whole day of your trip, these are others that you can also write down in your list of things to see in Cairo:
Museum of Islamic Art: located near the Abdeen Palace, the place from which the President of Egypt rules, but somewhat removed from the main tourist itineraries. However, it is worth a visit. Here are exposed artistic works of great value from the main mosques of the city, made safe from the European ‘treasure hunters’ in the early twentieth century. A collection that allows admiring the decorative mastery of Islamic art based on floral and geometric motifs and materials of the most varied: from bone to glass, through wood, stone, metal, paper, ceramics or fabrics Gayer-Anderson Museum: located next to the mosque of Ibn Tulun, is named after a British officer and collector, in love with Egyptian culture in general. It is composed of two typical houses of the sixteenth century joined together, with interior decoration and maintenance of the most careful. Different atmospheres are recreated: Persian, Byzantine, Syrian, etc. Among the antiques on display are objects from the Pharaonic era, ceramic tableware, wooden furniture, and much more.
Bayt al-Suhaymi: a typical Cairo residential house located in the north of Islamic Cairo, next to the Al-Aqmar Mosque, originally built in the seventeenth century. Therefore, it is another good proposal to see in Islamic Cairo for those interested in the daily life of centuries ago. Today it functions as a museum to show how a house of this type was distributed, with its characteristic decoration and everyday objects of the time.
National Military Museum: located in the Citadel of Saladin. It has a sample of uniforms and weapons of the Egyptian army, as well as richly decorated rooms Police Museum: located in the Citadel of Saladin, with a collection dedicated to this security force and crimes solved by its agents National Railway Museum: located in Ramses Square, next to the main train station. Very interesting to contemplate locomotives and carriages of the time, of great value considering that in this country was built the first railway line in Africa. For example, the four-seater locomotive brought by Empress Eugenie of France for the inauguration of the Suez Canal Mokhtar Museum: located in the southern part of the island of Gezira, is a monographic museum dedicated to Mahmoud Mokhtar, considered the father of modern sculpture in the country. Here are displayed almost a hundred of his works made in marble, bronze, or granite.
National Museum of Modern Egyptian Art: located in Gezira. The best museum to see in Cairo for lovers of avant-garde art, as it has a collection of thousands of works, mainly paintings, and sculptures. In it are represented the main artists of the twentieth century in the country, such as Mahmoud Sa’id or Inji Aflatoun.
Aisha Fahmy: located in the Zamalek neighborhood, it was the residential palace of the aristocrat and military chief Ali Fahmy. Built in the early 20th century, it was reopened as a museum in 2017 to house temporary exhibitions, although much of its interest lies in the elegant interior decoration. Museum of Islamic Ceramics: an interesting museum located in the palace of Prince Ibrahim, in Zamalek. It is dedicated to one of the disciplines in which the Muslim culture has achieved greater mastery. In fact, not only shows Egyptian ceramics, but also Persian, Moroccan, or Andalusian, among others, Manial Palace: built in the early twentieth century, is themed by rooms, where objects, decorations, and exhibits on Egypt, but also on other Muslim styles, such as Moroccan, Syrian or Persian.
Practical information about Cairo
Finally, to all this information about what to see in Cairo, we add other practical notes that will help you in your trip: how to get there, how to move around, and where to receive tourist information.
How to get to Cairo
Given the peculiar location of Cairo, the only viable way to get here directly is by plane. As we said in the section dedicated to ‘How to get to Egypt’, Cairo is the great gateway for international travelers. Whether they plan to visit Lower Egypt or make a circuit of Upper Egypt, for example by a cruise on the Nile. Except for direct routes and specific vacations to the beach destinations of the Red Sea or the Mediterranean Sea, which have nothing to do with Cairo, it is common to land in the capital to start here the route on Egyptian soil or to make a stopover at other airports in the country. Therefore, the combinations are numerous, but all are centralized at Cairo International Airport. These are its main direct connections, so you can assess the options available to you, although they may change over time or change their availability depending on the time of year:
Europe: Madrid (Spain), Athens (Greece), Bergamo, Milan, Rome (Italy), Paris (France), Malta, Moscow, Domodedovo (Russia), Vienna (Austria), London (UK), Sofia (Bulgaria), Amsterdam (Netherlands), Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich (Germany), Brussels (Belgium), Budapest (Hungary), Copenhagen (Denmark), Dublin (Ireland), Geneva, Zurich (Switzerland), Larnaca (Cyprus), Bucharest (Romania), Kiev (Ukraine) America: New York, Washington (United States), Toronto (Canada) Asia: Ras Al Khaimah, Sarjah, Abu Dhabi, Dubai (United Arab Emirates), Buraidah, Tabuk, Ta’if, Yanbu, Jeddah, Riyadh, Medina, Abha, Jizan, Dammam (Saudi Arabia), Aqaba, Amman (Jordan), Tel Aviv (Israel), Kuwait, Seoul (South Korea), Baku (Azerbaijan), Baghdad, Erbil, Najaf, Basra, Sulaimaniyah (Iraq), Bahrain (Bahrain), Bangkok (Thailand), Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Hong Kong ,Chengdu (China), Beirut (Lebanon), Istanbul (Turkey), Mumbai (India), Muscat (Oman), Tokyo (Japan), Damascus, Latakia (Syria), Aden, Seiyun (Yemen) Africa: Algiers (Algeria), Khartoum, Port Sudan (Sudan), Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Abuja, Kano, Lagos (Nigeria), Accra (Ghana), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Asmara (Eritrea), Casablanca (Morocco), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Douala (Cameroon), Entebbe (Uganda), Johannesburg (South Africa), Juba (South Sudan), Kigali (Rwanda), Nairobi (Kenya), N’Djamena (Chad), Tunis (Tunisia) Egypt (domestic flights): Sohag, Aswan, Hurghada, Hurghada, Luxor, Sharm El Sheikh, Abu Simbel, Alexandria, Marsa Alam.
There are different means of transport connecting the airport, located in the Heliopolis area, with the center. There are public buses to Abbasia and Tahrir Square, but they can be uncomfortable and chaotic for those who are not used to using them. Therefore, cabs or shuttle buses, of categories A, B, C, or D according to their size and range, are more advisable. The journey by car is easy in terms of travel through the El Orouba highway, but to complete the journey you will have to be patient because of the possibility of traffic jams. In the future, the airport will have its Metro station (Line 3).
Getting around Cairo
Once here, you can move in different ways to move to all the monuments to see in Cairo. In general, you should keep in mind that public transport is usually chaotic, crowded and not always punctual. On the other hand, if you opt for private solutions, such as cabs or car rental with a driver, the options will be more flexible, with more than interesting prices. In any case, these are the main means of transport you will find in the city:
Metro: it is the only means of suburban transport in the country. It combines underground and open-air sections and reaches very distant areas within the city. It is widely used by carrots for its low price. It has three lines, which are:
Line 1 (Blue): Helwan – El Marg Line 2 (Red): Shobra El Kheima – El Mounib Line 3 (Green): Attaba – Adly Mansour.
City bus: not the most comfortable option in terms of interior space (they tend to be overcrowded) and traffic flow (due to the complicated maneuverability of the buses in the chaotic Cairo traffic). But they can be useful to move to certain places to see in Cairo. For example, accessing the Pyramids of Giza is much cheaper than usual. The two major nodes of the network are Midan Ataba and Midan Abdel Moniem Riad. The minibusses, on the other hand, are smaller and are practically only used by Cairenes.
River bus: it is not a very practical means of transport, as its routes connect a very limited area, but it can be interesting if you want to see the city from another point of view… although for this purpose private ferries are more interesting and comfortable. In any case, there are several stops, most of them in the area of Old Cairo and Giza (Cairo University and Zoo).
Cab: of all public services to move around the city, this is the most recommended to move around the different monuments to see in Cairo. They have been updated a lot in recent years, especially white cabs, with vehicles where air conditioning is increasingly present. The black and white painted ones are on the other hand much older. In addition, you will also find some pink cabs, driven by and for women, providing extra security for female travelers. A standard fare will cost you LE 2.50 for the flag-down charge and LE 1.25 per kilometer. They can also be hired for longer or longer journeys, for which you will have to negotiate a price with the cab driver.
In any case, we remind you that in Egypt Exclusive we can take care of everything that has to do with Cairo and your travels. We have a fleet of chauffeur-driven vehicles at your disposal 24 hours a day, so you don’t have to worry about anything. All of them are comfortable, spacious, cool, and driven by experienced and professional drivers, who will attend to you in your language.
Tourist offices in Cairo and other practical information
There are several tourist offices where you can get more information about what to see in Cairo, how to get around, or what events are scheduled for the days you are in this city. Here are the three main ones:
Main Office: 5 Sharia Adly, near the Opera Square Ramses Train Station Office Pyramids Office: is in Giza, just opposite the Mena House Hotel, but can also provide information about the city of Cairo.
It won’t hurt to have some emergency phone numbers handy, which always carry the Cairo prefix (02). They are:
Ambulance: 02123 Fire Department: 02180 Police: 02122. It should be noted that there is a tourist police force, dedicated to serving mainly tourists, and quite diligently.
As far as opening hours are concerned, each museum and each establishment may have its own, but in general, the business hours are from 8.30 am to 2.30 pm. And the working days are from Sunday to Thursday, as Friday is the holy day for the Muslim population.
If your country requires you to do a Covid test, you can search here for authorized Covid test centers in Cairo prior to your flight back home.