Cairo is a massively large, sprawling, chaotic, smoggy, noisy… ok… probably way too many adjectives in there but the list could go on and I think you get the point. While the city appears rough and unappealing at the surface, dig a little deeper and you will find countless gems scattered throughout the city.
The city’s metropolitan area contains nearly twenty million people, making it home to 1/5 of Egypt’s entire population and has become Egypt’s most important area easily. It is home to Egypt’s most treasured possessions, the epicenter of public outcries as in 2011, and the cultural center for the modern day Egyptian. To skip out on Cairo would be to skip out on the soul of Egypt, making this dusty metropolis a must visit for first timers visiting the country.
Within Cairo itself, there are three main areas that are of greatest interest to visitors, each offering a completely different view of Egypt. Of greatest interest to tourists is the area surrounding Tahrir Square with the Egyptian Museum nearby. After having your fill of ancient Egyptian treasures, diving into Islamic Cairo and Coptic Cairo offer historic insights into two of the largest groups that make up present day Egypt. If these three areas are not enough for you, then simply wandering around and getting lost within the chaotic streets of downtown Cairo is an adventure all in itself. To be honest, it is hard to be bored in this city no matter how long you decide to stay here.
Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum
If there is an absolute center for Cairo and Egypt as a whole, Tahrir Square is it. The large open space is where Egyptians come to celebrate in their happiest of times and protest during the hardest of times. The square very much serves as the pulse indicator for Egypt and recently, the results haven’t been so good. The area was the epicenter of the violent Revolution that erupted back in 2011, resulting in a new government and declining tourism numbers. Today, the square is quiet, surrounded by an endless string of cars stuck in traffic.
The main reason to visit this area of Cairo is to visit the Egyptian Museum. This pink, unassuming building is the pride and joy of Egypt today. Its contents so important that during the chaos the ensued the revolution, citizens surrounded the building to prevent criminals from looting the building. With too many items and not enough space, the museum is essentially a hoarders house consisting only of some of the world’s most precious ancient treasures. A half day is minimum at the museum and to truly give each section justice, a second day is required. A such, the Egyptian Museum is too large to be detailed here. For details about the museum, including information on items you should not miss, check out our detailed post about the museum coming out soon.
While a majority of the entire city practices Islam, this area of the city gets its name for the sheer number of historic mosques that pop up throughout the skyline. If you only have time for one area of Cario to explore, this is the one. Filled with rows of locals selling everything from garlic to hookahs with architectural eye candy as a backdrop, this is perhaps the Cairo you imagined before you stepped foot in the city.
Perched on top of a hill that offers sweeping views of the dusty sprawl that is Cairo, the Citadel makes for a great afternoon. Views aren’t the only reason to come here as the hilltop is home to several old mosques including the symbol of the city, Muhammad Ali Mosque.
Cario’s most visible landmark, Muhammad Ali Mosque, was completed in 1848 and was the largest in the world at that time. Like most Ottoman style mosques, Muhammad Ali has a large open courtyard with a highly decorative ablution fountain. The simple, yet elegant layout of the courtyard projects tranquility as you walk along the line of repetitive alabaster columns, putting you in a meditative mood.
Inside, the massive open prayer space and multi domed roof are truly impressive; the deep blues contrasting perfectly with the gold inscriptions and inlays. Claire became quite the celebrity here (and around the whole Citadel for that matter), as all of the school children on a field trip wanted a picture with her… I guess I was too scary looking.
Around the Citadel, there are a few other mosques and several viewpoints that allow you to take Cario’s sprawl into perspective. Closest to you, a layer of old and elegant mosques quickly gives way to a sea of unfinished buildings, their red bricks and raw concrete creating a central theme to the city’s skyline. From what we learned, unfinished buildings are not taxable in Egypt, so many people leave buildings unfinished in order to avoid taxes. Eventually the sea of raw bricks and concrete end abruptly as the desert and pyramids at Giza take over in the hazy distance.
Bein al-Qasreen Street
Cairo’s most elegant street, Bein al-Qasreen has undergone major restoration to reveal a majestic symphony of minarets and street vendors. A fine collection of medieval mosques make a perfect backdrop for the rows of hookahs and other metal works that are sold along the road. If there is one street you don’t want to miss in Cairo, it is certainly this one.
Budget minded travelers can get here using Cairo’s metro and getting off at Bab el Shaaria. Getting off here takes you along the northern side streets that feel anything but touristy. Extremely loud and rough around the edges, your senses certainly heighten as you pass piles of garlic and listen to the clanging of metal workers performing their trade. Everything from minaret toppers to fast food carts are made in this noisy little side street.
Once you get onto Bein al-Qasreen street, the walk becomes tamer and the buildings become more impressive as wonderfully restored medieval mosques line the street amid the daily bustle. All of the sights here are covered under one ticket which you can buy at The complex of Sultan Qalawun. The geometric patterns and fine details that line all of these mosques will have you looking up till you can’t anymore. No longer active places of worship, the mosques here are free to explore and you do not have to follow any guidelines.
Coptic Cairo, just a subway ride away from downtown, offers a unique insight into Egypt’s largest minority group, the Coptic Christians. One of the earliest major christian churches, the Coptics split away from the rest of Christendom in 451 CE over the idea that Jesus was both human and divine (the Coptics only believed Jesus to be 100% divine).
Today, Coptic christians make up less than 10% of Egypt’s population. Like most minority groups in countries around the world, they have been subject to persecution. Recently, extremist groups have targeted churches and businesses owned by Coptics. Despite this, the traditions and culture of this group has been a part of the fabric that makes up Egypt for nearly two thousand years.
On the street, you would be hard pressed to pick out a Coptic christian in the crowd. A visit to Coptic Cairo is the best way to gain insight on a group that has been a part of Egypt for longer than the Islamic part of Egypt that defines much of the country today. The easiest way to get to this area of Cairo is to take the metro to the Mar Girgis stop. Upon exiting, the ancient barrier wall the surrounds Coptic Cario stands before you with the tops of several ancient churches jutting out above. The walled in area is rather small and easily done within a few hours.
The highlight of visiting the area is taking a reflective moment in Abu Serga Church. One of the oldest buildings remaining in Cairo, the church dates back to the 4th century but has been rebuilt many times since then. Believed to be built upon the cave that the Holy Family lived in along their route in Egypt, the church holds great importance to the faithful. The rather simple interior is still stunning, with its brickwork and geometric patterns that cover the alter. Behind the alter you can descend a series of steps that lead you down to the supposed temporary residence of the Holy Family.
Ben Ezra Synagogue, its current building dating back to the late 1800s, is built near the site where tradition believes Moses was found. The woodwork inside the synagogue is remarkable and worth the few minutes your neck will allow you to stare upwards as you take in the fine details that make this building beautiful (no pictures allowed though).
Not far from the Synagogue is the less visited Saint Barbara Church, which contains the remains of the saint herself. The icons above the alter are the main reason to peek into this church.
The most visited church, Hanging Church, is accessed from the outside of the old Babylonian fortress wall. The church has played a central role in the Coptic church for over a thousand years but its current appearance dates back the the 18th century. The church is filled with very important icons, with tourists and pilgrims alike peering into the faded faces of these precious pieces of art. This is the best church to sit in and observe the faith being carried out as the faithful move from icon to icon in ritual, kissing them or touching them with their forehead. On the right side of the church, you can see where the place gets its name, as this section of the church is hanging over on a small cliff.
For those looking for more history and information on the Coptic Church, the Coptic Museum is worth a look and is full of interesting relics and artifacts from one of the earliest christian churches in the world.
Where to Eat and Stay in Cairo
Most budget accommodation is clustered in central Cairo, There is nothing ancient about this part of city as it consists of a traffic congested web of streets lined with a seemingly repetitive array of clothing (the manikins are really creepy looking), second hand electronics, and lingerie shops. But with all the ancient sites awaiting you along the rest of your journey throughout Egypt, it is good to get a feel and taste for modern day Cairo. In addition to this the area puts you within walking distance of the Egyptian museum and Cairo’s best eats.
Hostels, in the original sense of the word, do not exist in Cairo or the rest of Egypt. We ended up staying in two places in Cairo, Freedom Hostel and Australian Hostel. Of the two, we would hands down stay at Freedom Hostel next time we are in Cairo. The staff here are like family and are very knowledgeable of Cairo and how to get to wherever your next destination is. The breakfast is good, and the rooms clean and comfortable. As with anywhere in the area, quiet is non existent as the noises that make up Cairo’s streets project into the rooms until the wee hours of the morning. If you’re a light sleeper, ear plugs are a must (but I must stress, this will be the situation in any budget establishment in Cairo)
For eats, a bustling chain restaurant called GAD will become your friend that you will miss dearly after you leave the limits of the city. When it comes to budget meals, its hard to find a place that serves the variety and portions that this chain offers. Despite being a chain, each GAD tends to be different from the other and quality varies from restaurant to restaurant. After venturing to several in the city, our favorite was on 26th of July Street.
For a quick bite, it’s hard to find anything better than koshari when your running about your day. Made from rice, macaroni, and lentils mixed and topped with tomato sauce, garlic, vinegar, chickpeas and crispy fried onions, this is a tasty, filling and cheap treat to refuel yourself midday. You can find places making the dish nearly everywhere in Egypt.
Our favorite place in Cairo to grab food was Al- Falaky pigeon restaurant. For 60 EGP, you get a stuffed BBQ pigeon along with bread, hummus, salad, and a broth soup.
Cairo: A Diamond in the Rough
At first glance, Cairo’s dusty streets don’t look worthy of a long stay but once you scratch the surface, the city becomes a beautiful and diverse place to explore. The longer you stay in Cairo, the more the noisy town opens up to you. If you have the time, plan a little extra for Cairo as it will be sure to surprise you if you dig deep enough.