The largest city in the Arab world
As Easter came, what best way to spend it than going away and get the best of the bank holidays, escaping the horrible cold weather in Europe for the 30+ degrees in Cairo. Yes, one of the most beautiful dream destinations finally becoming a reality. And in the planning, coupling this trip to some of the greatest places this marvellous country has to offer.
This is the largest city in the Arab world, and one of the largest in the planet. A massive melting pot of ancient civilizations and cross-roads of cultures, ever growing as far your eyes can reach. Once the epi-centre of the world’s second oldest civilization known to man, and do the wealthiest and longest ever to be in the planet. Consider the fact that we are closer to Cleopatra in time than the original Egyptians. It’s fascinating to think about it, and of course the invaluable legacy left and the few we know about them with only around 10% of the entire civilization uncovered from the sand, and that is already vast.
No matter what we hear in the news, sometimes sad, other horrific when a terrorist attack happened in the city, what is certain is the great and fascinating people; truly nice and helpful, very hospitable and kind making you feel secure and protected; and there are hordes of people. Way too many inhabitants everywhere, packing the streets and the roads everywhere. It is a very secure city and a tourist should not fear nor be scared. Egypt is a very potent tourist destination, ever growing and developing.
Being so huge city and having an endemic lack of mass transit system, expect the traffic to be one of the worst you have ever seen. To me, this was only comparable to some cities in India such as Delhi or Mumbai. The only chances to move around will be by taxi in most of the cases, bearing long time at the many traffic jams. Hopefully they keep expanding the metro system as currently there’s a great lack of lines and coverage, and buses are… how to explain, a mystery to understand in the routes, directions and system overall.
Something you should have in consideration while in the city is the wind. Yeah sounds irrelevant at first, however when it does occur, it does carry sand storms and desert dust. You might think it is pollution (which in part it is), but it’s merely that, dust and sand reducing the visibility and turning the blue sky into grey/brown-ish tones. The more wind the worst the situation can turn, and it can last for days. So why mentioning this in here you can ask, well, our own experience. We had 2 days with perfect blue sky and full visibility, and the remaining 3, specially the last day, with such problem. But hey, don’t take me wrong, you can still go out, do the sightseeing and everything, it’s just annoying that everything in you gets dusty, although the worst is not having a blue sky, specially if that day is when you planned the Giza Plateau.
Navigating the city is easy once you get the orientation. Remember it is simply massive, lots to see and do, and incredible landmarks. Plan at least 3 days for the city itself coupled with Giza Plateau, or 4 when including some more funerary complexes near Cairo as Dahshur and Saqqara. We knew we would be short of time hence some sights were merely rushed, others scrapped. The major problem we encountered was the lack of good public transportation, hence moving around can take long, precious time when you are short of it.
As a few notes regarding food, restaurants and bars over all, this is a city where you have absolutely everything! From incredible Arabian dishes from all over the Arab world, to every imaginable Western chain restaurant. Name it and you have it. But the local food is truly fantastic, and generally inexpensive unless of course, you chose to go to upscale places, for what there is no need. Within the Islamic Cairo walled area the restaurants are more pricey than elsewhere, some of which tourist orientated, but that’s easy to avoid by simply looking at the clientele, the more locals you see the better no doubt. Then along the Al Haram Avenue, that one going from Giza metro station all the way towards the Giza Plateau and the Pyramids you have everything you could fancy for, especially all the fast food eateries, local and westerns.
For more information on Cairo, visit Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Egypt’s currency is the Egyptian Pound (LE). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Cairo
- Islamic Cairo This is the old and traditional Cairo. The entire of it is has been listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Follows al-Muizz Street, and it’s where you will find most of the historical and architectural gems of the city. Mosques, palaces, madrassas, mausoleums and traditional houses, everything based around the main street and the many small alleys where everything is a big market, surrounded by the ancient city walls. There are too many monuments to even list, hence the ones below are the major. There is a unique ticket which gives you access to 8 of these historical places. It is worth to do it, as the interiors are really unique and perfectly preserved, restored and cared of. The nearest metro station is El-Geish, where you walk south along Al-Hosneya Street towards the old city walls.
-Al-Hakim Mosque Towards the northern edge of the old town, right by and walls and main north gate, the impressive Bad al-Futuh, and the smaller one Bab El Nasr.
-Al Moez Ldin Allah Al Fatmi Street The main thoroughfare cutting from north to south the entire Islamic Cairo. An astonishing monumental street like no other, although the side and parallel streets do also contain incredible architecture. Most of the sights are along this street.
-Bayt al-Sihaymi Continuing south along the street from Al-Hakim Mosque. The Best preserved Ottoman merchants house in the city.
-El-Selehdar Mosque Opposite the Bayt al-Sihaymi.
-Masjid Al-Aqmar Another of the many mosques along this street, just continuing south-wise.
-Sabil-Kuttab of Abdel Rahman Katkhuda Marking the fork between the main street and a parallel one. An ancient tower-like monument.
-Beshtak Palace With its entrance next to the previous tower, one cannot imagine the luxurious and opulent interiors.
-Masjid Elzaher Barqooq The next mosque along the street, with such a fine detail in its elaborate decoration and carvings.
-Qalawun Complex Built by Sultan al-Mansur Qalawun between in 1285. Containing a hospital (bimaristan), a madrasa, a mosque and his own mausoleum, considered the world’s second most beautiful after India’s Taj Mahal.
-Khan El Khalily Market This is the main bazaar within the medieval Islamic Cairo. Its main entrance in on Sekat Al Badstan Street, perpendicular to Al Moez Ldin Allah, not much farther south from the Qalawun Complex.
-Midan Hussein and Sayyidna al-Hussein Mosque At the other side of El Khalily Market, one of the largest in size in this area.
-Al-Azhar Mosque Right across the Al-Azhar major street, opposite al-Hussein Mosque. It’s the oldest mosque and oldest university in the world.
-Masjid Sultan al-Mu’ayyad Back on the main road Al Moez Ldin Allah and continuing south.
-Bab Zuwayla The main southern gate leading out of the medieval core, built in 1092.
-Al Khayama – Al Sorogyah Street Starts by the Bab Zuwayla and continues heading south, with many sights and historical buildings along its way.
-Sultan Hassan Madrassa and Mosque Taking Al Qalaaha Street right by the intersection of where Al Sorogyah Street terminates, you will see it at the end.
-Bab El-Azab One of the main gates into the Citadel. Overlooking Salah El-Deen Square and Avenue, with the Sultan Hassan Mosque at the other side
-Citadel Offering the best views of the whole city and Pyramids. Within the citadel there are many buildings, museums and mosques. This will take a while to visit the whole complex.
-Mosque of Muhammad Ali Built between 1830 and 1848, one could think it is out of sudden in Istanbul where you can see the very same king of Ottoman mosques. You are welcomed to enter its impressive interiors during the non-prayer times.
-Al-Nasser Mohammed Ibn Kalawoun Right across the Muhammad Ali Mosque. Built in 1318 as the royal mosque of the Citadel. Special to mention are the interiors, courtyard and minarets superbly carved.
-Ibn Tulun Mosque Located west from the Citadel, home to the oldest minaret in Egypt.
- Coptic Cairo The oldest part of the city (bearing Giza of course), located on the east bank of the Nile River and not far from it, farther south at a considerable distance from Islamic Cairo and the Citadel. Metro Mar Girgis. Although not as impressive as the Islamic area, it is in any case, totally different in architecture. Here you will find the Orthodox and Catholic churches, the remains of the Roman Castle of Babylon and the Synagogue.
-Mosque of Amr ibn al-As Located at the north of the Coptic Cairo district, was built in 642 becoming the first mosque ever built in Egypt and the whole of Africa. Restored and expanded over the centuries, destroyed and rebuilt, the current structure dates mostly from the 18th century.
-Church and Monastery of Saint George Built within the Roman Babylon Fortress in the 10th century, the current structure dating from 1904.
-Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus Church Right behind the Saint George Church, originally dating from the 4th century church, believed to be built on the place where Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus once rested.
-Saint Barbara Church The next church, behind Saint Bacchus. Another of the oldest Orthodox churches in Cairo, dating from the 5th century.
-Ben Ezra Synagogue The oldest in Egypt, built in the 19th century on the site believed to be where baby Moses was found.
-The Hanging Church, Sharia Mar Girgis Dating from the 5th century, it is the main sight with it’s nice patio and church. Landmark of the Coptic Cairo, built atop the enormous main gates of the Babylon Fortress.
-Coptic Museum Just side by side north of the Hanging Church, nowadays home to precious items safeguarded from the churches and buildings in the area.
-Roman fortress towers of Babylon The most visible archaeological remain of the once huge Roman fort. Notice within the stone blocks and bricks, the hieroglyphs. Such stones are coming from the Pyramids and other ancient Egyptian constructions.
-Nilometer Located in Rhoda Island, one of two major islands in the river, measuring the level of the water since antiquity.
- Downtown West aligning with the River Nile, and in between both the Islamic and Coptic neighbourhoods. Mostly residential and business area where the streets and avenues are wider and follow an orthogonal grid compared against the older districts with the labyrinthine maze of streets.
-Midan Tahrir (Tahrir Square) Metro Sadat. This is the city’s main square and major transit hub, home to many ministries, government offices, museums, hotels and embassies within the area.
-Arab League building Facing the river and the Ritz Carlton hotel.
-Egyptian Museum Although currently very run down and relegated to the amazing new one at the Giza Plateau soon to be opened, it is nevertheless, containing some of the finest Egyptian antiquities in the world.
-Mogamma Building Completed in 1949 in moderne style, is a complex of government administrative offices. You cannot miss it, it’s the huge white building at the south of the square.
–Midan Talaat Harb Square Along Kasr Al Nile Street which heads northeast diagonally from Tahrir Square, you find this charming circus with nice architecture around, feeling an absolutely Mediterranean flair.
-Prince Said Halim’s Palace Next to Midan Square, the home of the once Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire between 1913 and 1917.
-Nile waterfront Best appreciated from any bridge crossing the Nile. Not the most impressive sight, but the view of the Nile with the Cairo Tower is iconic.
-Ramses Train Station Al-Shohadaa / Martyrs metro station. In older maps you can find it as the old name, Mubarak Station. The major railway terminus in the country, where taking a train towards the north, Alexandria or south, Luxor, Aswan and beyond.
If you are arriving into Cairo on a flight, you will need to get the Visa on arrival for 15$ (at least if you are an European citizen). For other nationalities please check online the requirements needed. Never risk travelling there without knowing your needs.
There is no “proper” public transportation from the airport to the city. There are minibuses, which we did not figure out how they work, or taxi, the best and quickest option for sure.
Everyone will balance on you as you come out of the arrivals door, trying to get you into a taxi where the quotations could be at first exorbitant. Do never pay attention to these drivers. Instead, negotiate until you have a quote of around 80LE, a fair amount considering it is already clearly more than what locals pay. They will generally not go any lower than that. They know you are a tourist, so they expect from you such fare. But don’t worry, 80LE or so is really a bargain for the distance you will be travelling.
Once in Cairo, if you need to take a taxi (which I’m sure you will be depending on them all the time), it’s totally easy. Make sure they put the taximeter on, and that’s all. It costs 2.50 LE plus 1.25 LE per kilometre, which is extremely cheap.
Within the city there are 2 metro lines, very helpful is you happen to be near a metro station, but not ideal for general sightseeing. More lines are due to open and/or under construction hence the situation will soon change considering the massive size of the city.
As the capital city, every chain of hotels are present. From the top high luxurious to the more modest and anything in between; and depending on the political situation, tourism industry can get affected, with a rise and decline in matter of weeks, therefore you can find generally incredible deals at 5 star hotels.
In any case, there are many 4 star hotels offering very competitive rates, so you should not have any problem in finding a great place and nice deal. The best location would be without any doubt by the main road leading to Giza Plateau, the Al Haram Avenue. So it’s not so overcrowded, not that polluted and not as noisy than if you would be more to the centre. It is also one of the safer locations in general at all the times. Within the Islamic Cairo you can get beautiful historic properties, also very safe, and right there in the middle of the UNESCO listed neighbourhood, but generally very crowded with locals and tourists.
Start by having a look at some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers. Then, if your budget is still not met, there is a good selection of properties through airb&b and the likes of course.
We found our place at the Gawharet Al Haram Hotel, 103 Al Haram St, 00202. Simple 4 stars hotel, previously owned by the Spanish chain HUSA, but now run independently. Notice and be aware that the location which Google maps shows for this hotel is totally wrong. It’s not at the beginning of the street near the metro station, as opposed, it’s towards the end, really near the Pyramids itself. Very friendly and welcoming staff, comfortable, clean and nice, with a small pool which can be at such weather and after returning from your sightseeing day, a salvation to refresh and renew your batteries.