Cairo Travel Guide

Overview

Cairo, Egypt, has been called "the mother of the world," "city of a thousand minarets" and "city of victory." Visitors will find it to be a fascinating, intense and often bewildering mixture of old and new. Cairo businesspeople in suits and locals in traditional robes can both be found at sidewalk coffee shops, while minarets and domes share the skyline with high-rise office buildings and hotel towers. Traditional music competes with jazz or Egyptian pop, as well as with the incessant honking of horns.

Cairo's layers of ancient, medieval and modern can be a bit overwhelming. Many things take longer than they should, and nothing works quite perfectly. Expect technology to cut out from time to time. Patience is a virtue: The expression Ma'alesh (which translates loosely as "Don't worry about it") seems to be on everyone's lips—especially when you're in a hurry. If you set reasonable goals, expect things to take longer, schedule fewer tasks, take frequent breaks and drink plenty of water, you'll have a memorable time in Cairo.

On the plus side, scattered amid all the chaos, there are several amazing sites to visit in Cairo, including world-class museums, ancient and, of course, Egypt's iconic pyramids in Giza.

Geography

Cairo is divided into quarters and neighborhoods, and knowing where these areas are is the best way to orient yourself. Downtown is on the east bank of the Nile River and spreads out from Tahrir Square. The main road called Corniche el-Nil runs along the eastern bank of the Nile. Islamic Cairo refers to the medieval quarter of the city, east of downtown. The famous Khan el-Khalili bazaar, the Citadel and many prominent mosques are found in this area. Old Cairo refers to the oldest part of the city, to the south of downtown. About 9 mi/15 km northeast of downtown Cairo is Heliopolis, with several chic shopping streets, luxury hotels and the airport nearby.

Technically, all areas west of the Nile are said to be in Giza. Mohandiseen and Dokki districts are just across the Nile from downtown Cairo. The pyramids and the Sphinx are located in the southwestern part of Giza, about 7 mi/10 km from downtown.

There are five islands in the section of the Nile that runs through Cairo. The two main islands (for tourist purposes) are Gezira and Roda. Gezira Island is the site of many luxury hotels, restaurants, museums and landmarks, with Zamalek, a cosmopolitan and relatively upscale neighborhood, at its northern end. Just south of Gezira Island, and west of Old Cairo, is Roda Island, usually called el-Manial. Two other islands to the south, Qorsaya and Dahab, are mostly farming villages, and Warraq to the north is beginning to be populated.

Some maps employ the Arabic words midan (square) and sharya (street). This guide uses the English equivalents. Also, you should be aware that transliteration of Arabic into a Latin alphabet yields many variations. Place names may be spelled in a variety of ways, for example, with either an el- or an al-.

History

Ancient Egyptian civilization stretches back several thousand years, but the city today known as Cairo did not exist during the time of the pharaohs. The first developments in the area were Persian and Roman fortresses built in Babylon (the area referred to as Old Cairo). A city called Fustat was founded near there following the Arab conquest of Egypt in AD 642. The foundations of modern Cairo were laid in 969 when the Fatimids, a Shiite dynasty from Tunisia, founded El-Qahira.

Salah al-Din (Saladin) gained control over the city in 1171 and established the Ayyubid dynasty, which converted the country from Shiite to Sunni (orthodox) Islam. The Mamelukes, a group of soldier-slaves, seized power from the Ayyubids in 1250. Power changed hands again in 1516 when Egypt became part of the Ottoman Empire. Trade with Europe flourished during this period. Beginning in the 1600s and continuing to the mid-1700s, Cairo was the center of commercial and intellectual exchange. However, a series of devastating plagues and famines in the late 1700s weakened the country economically and socially.

The iconoclastic Muhammad Ali took power in 1805, establishing the country's first royal dynasty. He battled the Ottoman rulers in Istanbul and gained nominal independence for Egypt in 1840. After vying with the French for political and economic control of Egypt, Britain eventually gained the upper hand in the late 1800s. Central Cairo was renovated with wide tree-lined boulevards and pleasant gardens and buzzed with social activities during "the season," which lasted December-March when many wealthy Europeans enjoyed luxury hotels, balls and socializing. This glamorous period came to an end when World War II's battles reached Egypt's Mediterranean shores.

The end of the war brought Cairo prosperity, as well as a tremendous population explosion, which began to tax urban resources. In the 1970s, President Anwar Sadat's policies created a plethora of government-owned businesses, which dominated the economy. Legal reform and a privatization program during the 1990s led to increased foreign investment and the availability of more foreign goods. Today, Cairo is the largest city in the Middle East and Africa, as well as the political and cultural capital of Egypt.

Cairo, like the rest of Egypt, gradually grew increasingly polarized between the secular government of Mubarak's ruling party and Islamic fundamentalists, including the often violent and outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The surprise in the election of 2005 was not that President Hosni Mubarak won a fifth term but that candidates sympathetic to the Brotherhood won 76 seats in Egypt's parliament, the Majlis.

Part of the mass public protests called the Arab Spring, or the so-called "Egyptian Revolution," involved more than 40,000 citizens protesting the Mubarak government corruption, mass poverty and high levels of unemployment. The demonstrations led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. A series of subsequent elections from November 2011 to early 2012, and Mubarak's trial, brought more violent demonstrations to Cairo, almost bringing tourism in the city to a standstill.

In 2012, Mohamed Morsi, a senior leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president, making him the first democratically elected president in the country's history. Alarmingly, Morsi's fundamentalist Islamic government wanted to institute many strict traditional Islamic practices. Consequently, Morsi faced strong and sometimes violent opposition, leading to even more protests and eventually resulting in his overthrow from office in July 2013 by his own appointed military leader, General Abdel Fatteah el-Sisi. In May 2014 another new government was elected, albeit with a low voter turnout, with the landslide victory of former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

President el-Sisi has been in office since the 2014 election, having won a second term in the 2018 general elections. Unlike his predecessors, el-Sisi has taken many bold initiatives. While some have made positive impacts, he has been a very controversial leader, both domestically and internationally.

In Cairo, there's been a tremendous amount of construction and expansion, particularly into suburban areas to the east and to the west of Giza, while the city center continues to fall into disrepair.

Sightseeing

Cairo's most popular tourist sights are the monuments and relics of Egypt's pharaonic past. The prime attraction in the city itself is the Egyptian Museum—it's so full of ancient artifacts that it's almost bursting at the seams. Many noteworthy collections are held in various museums throughout the city.

The most famous ancient Egyptian monuments—the pyramids and the Sphinx—are not in Cairo proper, but in the suburb of Giza (although most photos make it appear that the structures are out in the desert, they're actually at the edge of town). Plan a half-day at the site, and be sure to go inside the 5,000-year-old Great Pyramid of Khufu (prepare yourself for crowded, claustrophobic surroundings). You can see other pyramids on a day trip to Saqqara or Dashur, which are south of Giza. The pyramids and tombs there are less frequented by tourist groups and vendors, so you can have a more peaceful visit.

Cairo also has an incomparable collection of Islamic monuments, spanning several periods and architectural styles. Take time to visit a couple of mosques—the city has dozens of them. They're wonderful examples of Islamic art and architecture, and they help illustrate the development of the city and the importance of Islam in modern-day Egypt. Entrance to most mosques should be free, although unscrupulous locals may try to convince you otherwise. A few have an official ticket office and entry fee. Only consider a tip when you are climbing a minaret or when you take plastic shoe covers at the entrance. If you do not want to leave your shoes at the entrance, it's best to take a plastic bag to hide them when you take them inside.

You should visit Bab Zuwayla—the only remaining southern gate of medieval Cairo, with a small museum and wonderful views from the minarets above. The Citadel is another must-see. Perched on a hill, the vast stone-walled fortress has several museums and monuments and the showpiece Muhammad Ali mosque, as well as views over the city and Sufi dancing several evenings a week. You can also wander around the winding, narrow side streets to witness daily life in the medieval quarter.

The Coptic Quarter in Old Cairo has a very different feel from the rest of the city. Some of Cairo's oldest structures are found there, including a number of elaborate churches.

Nightlife

Once a nightlife wasteland, Cairo now has a number of options. Just about every major hotel in the city has at least one bar and disco, while several have theme nights, featuring belly dancers and hookah pipes. Some of the best nightspots, however, are not in hotels. Keep in mind, too, that nightlife and food often go hand in hand in Cairo.

Bars typically close 2-3 am. Discos tend to stay open an hour or two later.

Dining

The number of restaurants in Cairo has expanded greatly in the past few years, so you'll find restaurants in all price ranges. Fresh fish, ordered by the pound/kilogram from a display case and cooked to order, is a local specialty. Dinner cruises on the Nile are also very popular. For variety, you can find nearly every type of world cuisine, mostly at high-end specialty restaurants. Many of the best fine-dining restaurants are found in Cairo's top hotels. Note: Although shrimp is widely available, you may want to avoid eating it. Travelers who do not have a known allergy to shellfish will occasionally have an allergic reaction in Egypt.

Muslims do not eat pork, and few restaurants serve it. Alcohol is also forbidden to strict Muslims, but many restaurants serve at least wine and beer. Some owners, however, have banned alcohol on their properties, so don't be surprised if a restaurant is alcohol-free. In most places listed, major credit cards are accepted, but it's best to call first to make sure.

Cool off in the summer Cairene-style, with an iced karkadi (hibiscus tea) or a glass of fresh-pressed mango or orange juice at one of the city's hundreds of juice bars. Check out the bags of fruit hanging in front to know what is in season, and if you're worried about stomach troubles later, ask for your juice without ice (bidun talg).

Most restaurants open for business around 1 pm. Typically, lunch is the biggest meal of the day and is eaten sometime between 1 and 4 pm (but closer to the latter). Restaurants remain open through the evening, but the dinner rush doesn't usually begin until 9 pm (and will continue until midnight). If you want to eat fashionably late, reservations are recommended.

The online restaurant guide and delivery service, El Menus, features more than 1,500 menus and 150,000 dishes in Cairo. Select a restaurant by location or cuisine type. http://www.elmenus.com.

The most popular online ordering and delivery service in Cairo (and throughout Egypt) is Talabat. You can narrow down restaurants by type of cuisine, delivery time, delivery cost and other parameters. This is a fantastic and convenient way to get meals in Cairo if you don't feel like going out. The mobile app works better than the website. https://www.talabat.com/egypt.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one and not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than £E 40; $$ = £E 40-£E 79; $$$ = £E 80-£E 119; $$$$ = £E 120-£E 200; $$$$$ = more than £E 200.

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