Beyond Antiquity

After visiting the pyramids, clients can discover Egypt’s urban side

By: Gabriella Gershenson

To many, Egypt means antiquities the temples of Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel, the pyramids at Giza. But there is much to see in Egypt’s bustling urban life as well. Cairo is the largest city in Africa over a quarter of Egypt’s population lives here, and more than 4 million tourists visit each year. With its diverse neighborhoods, sites and considerable international population, Cairo is a destination in its own right. Find out what makes this city the playground of the Arab world.

Zamalek & Gezira

This affluent island, located on the Nile between Giza and downtown Cairo, is split into northern and southern districts. To the north is upscale Zamalek, home to foreign embassies and a considerable expatriate population. On the south is the leafier enclave of Gezira, which features some of the city’s most famous landmarks, like the Cairo Opera House and the Cairo Tower. Thanks to tree-lined streets, the island offers a break from Cairo’s relentless pollution.

Here, clients are most likely to see women comfortably strolling in Western-style garb, like blue jeans and T-shirts. Zamalek and Gezira are ideal for Western travelers, as its residents are accustomed to foreign habits.

Uninhabited until the mid-19th century, the island features several opulent palaces that were built under the auspices of British rule. Now, they are home to other institutions. The palace of Khedive Ismail is now the Cairo Marriott, while Prince Amr Ibrahim’s palace is the site of the Ceramic Museum.

Because of its upscale population, Zamalek offers some of the best shopping and dining in Cairo. Stroll down 26th of July Avenue and you will find vendors selling imported scarves and knickknacks, as well as native textiles and silver goods. On the avenue, there are also plenty of cafes to enjoy, including Abu El Sid, one of Cairo’s finest Egyptian restaurants. Don’t miss the opportunity to sample mulukheiya, a traditional leaf stew served with white rice and rabbit, or to smoke one of the ubiquitous shishas.

Islamic Cairo

For a more authentic flavor of Egypt’s capital, visit Islamic Cairo, one of the world’s oldest Islamic cities. Founded in the 10th century, this was once the cultural, spiritual and intellectual center of the Arab world. Though dusty and quite decrepit now, the district is thoroughly enchanting and still maintains its other-worldly air. Surrounded by walls dating to the Middle Ages, you will see ancient mosques, hammams (bathhouses), palaces, fountains and ornate harem windows while strolling labyrinthine streets.

The quarter can be intimidating for travelers poverty is visible, activity is somewhat chaotic (it is not unusual to see vendors selling livestock or donkeys pulling carts), and the area is not heavily trafficked by tourists. But to walk the streets is an unforgettable experience.

In addition to the innumerable ancient sites, you will also find some of the most beautiful and reasonably priced Egyptian handicrafts in Cairo. Although Khan Al-Kalili, or the Khan, is the city’s best-known market, you will get better deals (and perhaps better merchandise) in the more remote areas of the neighborhood. Sharia Al-Muski is a lively, well-known market street and Sharia al-Khayamiyya (the street of the tentmakers) exhibits handmade fabrics, bedspreads and wall-hangings in a covered marketplace.


A short 2½-hour bus ride from Cairo is Alexandria, Egypt’s Mediterranean city. There are plenty of tours leaving Cairo for Alexandria on a daily basis, making this an excellent day trip destination. Fishermen docked along the seashore provide excellent eye candy for the casual observer and outstanding fish for Alexandria’s famous seafood restaurants. The Biblioteca Alexandrina is a striking example of modern Egyptian architecture, whereas the Roman Amphitheatre (Kom-Al Dikka), the only amphitheatre in Egypt, is one of the few remaining examples of the city’s Roman past.

Al Fayoum
About 60 miles southwest of Cairo is the Al Fayoum Oasis, home to some of Egypt’s most fertile lands and heady archaeological sites. Noteworthy are the ruins of the pyramid of Meidum, the first pyramid attempted in Egypt, as well as some of the most beautiful Greek funerary portraits unearthed anywhere, now on display in museums around the world.
Ain-as-Siliyiin, a site of healing springs, lush gardens and local farmers selling their wares, is another worthy destination that showcases the fruits of the land.


Getting there from Cairo:
Alexandria: Superjet buses from Cairo to Alexandria cost about $5 depending on the time of day. The journey is 2½ hours.

Al Fayoum: Buses for Al Fayoum from Cairo leave every 30 minutes between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. from the station at Kubri al-Misalla. Once at Al-Fayoum, hiring a taxi for half a day to drive you around (it will be necessary) will cost about $10.

Cairo Tours:
Salah Mohammed Abdel Hafez Full-day tours
20-298-0650, 012-313-8446 (cell)

Masr Travel Half-day tours
20-393-0168, 20-392-4440 (fax)

American Express Travel Half-day tours


Dress: When traveling in Egypt, women should be dressed modestly. Long skirts or pants are recommended. If your arms are bare, keep a scarf handy so you can cover yourself at a moment’s notice.

Mosques: When touring mosques, you will be asked to take off your shoes upon entry choose footwear that can be easily removed.

Tipping: Here, the culture of baksheesh, or tipping, thrives. From mosque attendants to taxi drivers, make sure that you have plenty of single-pound notes for your helpers along the way.