1. Pyramids of Giza
We know it’s a cliche but we’re going to say it anyway: you can’t visit Egypt without seeing the pyramids. They are more than 4,000 years old and the way they were built and their purpose is still something of a mystery. Because of their prominence in history they are understandably one of the most visited places in the world, so you’re unlikely to be alone if you do go to see them and lots of companies offer tours to the most famous of the pyramids at Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo. Of these, the Pyramid of Khufu (the largest) and the Pyramid of Khafre are the two most famous, along with the Great Sphinx of Giza. The Pyramid of Khufu, also known as the Great Pyramid, is the only surviving structure on the list of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Like we said, the list of pyramid tours is almost endless, so do lots of homework and ask around before you book.
2. Tour the art galleries
The art scene in the Middle East has rightly earned itself a great reputation and a lot of this is because of the existing and emerging talent from Egypt. Cairo is home to dozens of wonderful art galleries showcasing the region’s best work. The large Zamalek Art Gallery in Zamalek focuses on contemporary art and has a busy exhibition calendar. The Townhouse Gallery is a non-profit gallery that selects and supports a number of artists-in-residence each year as well as holding exhibitions, live performances and “In Conversation With…” events. Check its program here.
Address: Zamalek Art Gallery: 11 Zamalek Street, Zamalek, Cairo. The Townhouse Gallery: 3 Hussein Basha Al Meamari, Marouf, Cairo
3. Egyptian Museum
The number of pieces in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities tops more than 120,000 but not all of them are on display at once (fortunately).The museum dates back to 1835 and has grown in size and prominence ever since. It’s now home to the world’s largest and most important collections of Pharaonic antiquities, including jewelry, mummies, Tutankhamen’s treasure trove, and other pieces found in various pharaoh tombs. Some of the collection is being moved to the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is expected to open in 2018, but there’s still so much to see. The flow of the museum takes you through the collection in almost chronological order but don’t feel you have to follow it. Highlights include the statue of Khafre, Royal Mummies Hall and the wooden Ka-Aper statue. Labels are in English and Arabic.
Address: Midan al-Tahrir, Downtown Cairo
Opening time and tickets: Open daily 9am – 7pm, and 9am – 5pm in Ramadan. General admission for non-Egyptians is 60EGP (Dh14) for adults, entry to Royal Mummies Hall is 100EGP (Dh21)
4. Walk like an Egyptian
This isn’t our title, this is the tagline of the Cairo Walking Tours company that offer daily tours around the city, including one exclusively for women. Even if walking tours aren’t usually your thing, it’s a perfect thing to do if you’re only visiting Cairo for a few days. The Coptic and Arabic Cairo Tour looks at the role religion has played in Egypt’s somewhat tumultuous history, and includes visits to some of the city’s most famous churches and mosques. Check out the rest of the tours here.
5. Relax in Al-Azhar Park
This relatively new park in Cairo (built in 2005 with funding from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture) covers 30 hectares of the Cairo footprint. And in a city as busy as this, it’s a welcome bit of green space. Prior to its creation it was essentially a massive pile of trash which, once cleared, uncovered some sites of huge cultural and historical significance. One of the big ones was the Ayyubid wall, which despite being buried in garbage for many years had several towers still remaining. The money also went towards restoring the 14th century Umm Sultan Shaban Mosque and a 13th century palace. The park itself has ponds, fountains, gardens and a couple of small but good cafes and restaurants. Citadel View is a firm favorite with locals and tourists alike. Be aware the park gets very busy on a weekend when locals take a break from the congested streets.
Address: Salah Salem Street, Cairo
Opening times and entry: Open most days from 9am – midnight, but ask at the gate when you arrive. Entry costs from around 5EGP (Dh1)
6. Browse Lehnert and Landrock Bookshop
At more than 110 years old, this bookshop is something of an institution and one of the best things to do in Cairo if you’re looking to get off the tourist trail. It’s named after two photographers who toured North Africa and the Middle East in the early 20th century. It has a great collection of children’s books and educational (but fun) games in Arabic and English which would make good gifts. There’s also a large local interest section and specialist books in Arabic, English, German and French. Even if you don’t know what you want, it’s worth a good rummage.
Address: 1st Floor, 36 Abd-Alkhalik Sarwat, Cairo
7. Shop at the Khan el Khalili Bazaar
It’s not so much what’s for sale in this market that makes it one of the best things to do Cairo but more where it’s for sale. The bazaar is in the Saffron Tomb Mausoleum, burial site of the Fatimid caliphs. Wander down the alleyways which are crammed with stalls that spill out and little cafes serving traditional Arabic coffee. The architecture is particularly beautiful at night when the stores light their lanterns that reflect on the stone walls and archways. The shops sell everything you’d expect in a traditional souk, but what’s the harm in looking? Stop off at the famous Fishawi’s cafe for a drink if you start to feel a little tired, it’s been serving coffee for more than 150 years so it must be doing something right.
Address: El-Gamaleya, Qism El-Gamaleya, Cairo
8. Madrassa of Sultan Hassan Mosque
Work started on this mosque in Cairo’s city center in around 1356 by the grandson of Sultan Qalaun, and it is one of the largest mosques in the world. Its central courtyard has four vaulted halls at either side, known as iwans, which were built to represent the four main schools of Sunni Islam. Visitors are allowed into the courtyard through a passageway and into the iwans, which are decorated with traditional red and black hanging lamps. If you only want to visit one religious site on your trip to Cairo, make it this one – it really is one of the best things to do in Cairo.
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*Published November 2018. Prices correct at the time of publication but may be subject to change and/or availability.