I go to Egypt for work a few times a year, and in the midst of all the work madness I always try to carve out time to see different parts of Cairo.
Cairo itself is difficult to explain – it’s messy, chaotic, tumultuous and loud. The air is warm, even in February, and a light layer of dust and pollution sits over everything. Wherever you turn there are people and cars and honking. Cairo is famous for it’s traffic, and this was NO JOKE. I was in complete sensory overload like I’ve never experienced, and at the end of every day I usually fall into bed with my head spinning from all the madness.
With some 20 million people living within metropolitan Cairo, you can imagine why the city is the way it is. I mean, I thought living in London would make be prepared for my first visit – but even for me the city feels all-enveloping. But this is the very thing I love about Cairo. There are so many layers of history. I often found myself looking around (to complete strangers who didn’t understand me) exclaiming “this is HOW old?!”.
These were some of my favorites for a few days in Cairo:
1. The Pyramids of Giza
While the Pyramids of Giza aren’t technically within the city, they aren’t a far drive and are definitely a must-see. The pyramids are the only one of the original seven Ancient Wonders of the World still standing today, dating back to more than 2,000 B.C. Entrance tickets are 120 L.E. ($7) and I found the easiest way to get there from central Cairo was with Uber. See my Guide to Visiting the Pyramids of Giza for more detail.
2. The Egyptian Museum
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo sits in Tahrir square. It is the largest museum in Egypt and home to some 160,000 items in 107 halls. Here, you can explore ancient pharaonic artifacts stretching back 5,000 years, and see mummies up close. The mummy room is possibly one of the coolest things I’ve seen!
3. Baron Empain Palace
This interesting building is located in the neighborhood of Heliopolis. It was built in the early 1900s and is modeled after the Hindu temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
4. The City of the Dead
The City of the Dead is a four mile maze of ancient tombs and mausoleums but is also home to some half a million Egyptians – largely due to the lack of adequate housing in Cairo.
5. Bab Zuweila
I managed along this spot purely by accident – and it would have been easy to miss – but it is the perfect place to escape the madness of the city below and have a view Cairo from above. And Cairo from above is a completely different world! Bab Zuweila is one of the three remaining gates in the walls of the old city and dates back to 1087. The entrance ticket to climb up to the top of the gate and the two towers is less than $2!
6. Khan El Khili Market & Souk al Khayamiya
Souk al Khayamiya, the tentmakers market, is located right next to Bab Zuweila in an alley under a high covered roof. It’s not a big alley – but it’s lined with all kinds of little shops and stalls where Egyptian merchants have sold their goods for centuries. It’s a bit more off the tourist path than the Khan El Khili market so I always find better deals there on rugs, shoes and tapestries.
The more touristy Khan El Khili market is a short walk away and it also worth a visit. I particularly like it in the evening when the lanterns are lighting up all the alleys and hidden corners. Make sure you bargain hard in both markets!
7. The Saladin Citadel
The Saladin Citadel is an ancient Islamic fortress that sits high above Cairo and houses a number of museums, mosques and other sites. It’s also one of the best spots to get sweeping views of sprawling Cairo! The mosque of Muhammed Ali is my favorite building in the citadel and has a beautiful courtyard.
8. Abou Tarek
Abou Tarek in downtown Cairo is one of the most famous spots to get the favorite Egyptian dish of Koshary. Koshary is MAJOR comfort food – it’s macaroni noodles with tomato sauce, rice and lentils, and topped with crispy onions. It sounds pretty strange but it’s really good and worth a try on any trip to Egypt.
9. Nile River
No trip to Cairo is complete without some time spent sitting along the Nile!
Where to stay?
The neighborhood of Zamlek, which is actually an island in the middle of the Nile in downtown Cairo is a nice area to stay in. I stayed at Hotel LongChamps (from $80), which is a really cute boutique hotel in this nice tree-lined area of the city.
Is Cairo Safe?
I know this question will be asked, and it’s possibly my least favorite travel question because so much of ‘feeling safe’ depends on the person.
The context of Egypt is ever changing and you should look at travel advice prior to departure, but on the whole I would say yes, Cairo is safe. Things happen, it’s the inherent risk in traveling. But if you are afraid of ‘terrorism’ or something of that sort then I’ll just say that you are more likely to be in a car accident while in Cairo than to be kidnapped or blown up. But again, how safe you feel really depends on your comfort level and how much traveling you’ve done in the past.
As a woman on my own people definitely looked at me, and I mean really looked. But I tried to remember that I’m 5’10 and have ‘light’ hair (compared to Egyptian women!) so I don’t really blend in in most places. I wandered the streets and markets on my own and although there was some verbal harassment (whistling, etc.) no one really bothered me.
On the whole, I found people to be very friendly and helpful. But like I said, this depends on your comfort level, where you’ve been/lived before and open-mindedness. I’ve read a lot of blog posts on Egypt that were pretty insulting and ignorant, so I just want to say that my week in Egypt or their 3 days/4 weeks/2 months etc in Egypt, are in no way indicative of an entire country and its people. Like all travel, be open to all the experiences and try not to enter the country with too many preconceived notions.