Its sheer noise, pollution, and confounding traffic are an assault on your senses, but look beyond the modern hubbub, and you’ll find a history that spans centuries. Full of vigor, Cairo is where you really get a feel for Egyptian street life. No trip to Egypt is complete without a stay in the city Arabs call Umm al-Dunya (The Mother of the World). Find the best places to visit and interesting things to do in this buzzing metropolis with our list of the top attractions in
1. Pyramids of Giza
The Pyramids of Giza are Cairo’s number one half-day trip and a must-do attraction on everyone’s itinerary. Right on the edge of the city, on the Giza Plateau, these fourth dynasty funerary temples have been wowing travelers for centuries and continue to be one of the country’s major highlights. Despite the heat, the dust, and the tourist hustle, you can’t miss a trip here.
The Pyramid of Cheops (also called the Great Pyramid or Pyramid of Khufu) is the largest pyramid of the Giza group, and its interior of narrow passages can be explored, although there isn’t much to see, except a plain tomb chamber with an empty sarcophagus.
Directly behind the Great Pyramid is the Solar Boat Museum, which displays one of the ceremonial solar barques unearthed in the area that has been painstakingly restored to its original glory.
2. The Egyptian Museum
You would need a lifetime to see everything on show.
The museum was founded in 1857 by French Egyptologist August Mariette and moved to its current home — in the distinctive powder-pink mansion in Downtown Cairo — in 1897. Yes, the collection is poorly labeled and not well set out due to limits of space (and only a fraction of its total holdings are actually on display). It also suffers currently with some empty cases due to artifacts having been transferred to the GEM, but you still can’t help being impressed by the sheer majesty of the exhibits.
If you’re pressed for time, make a beeline straight for the Tutankhamun Galleries. The treasures displayed here were all found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, son-in-law and successor of Amenophis IV (later Akhenaten), who died at the age of 18.
3. Al-Azhar Mosque
It’s also one of the world’s oldest universities — Caliph El-Aziz bestowed it with the status of university in AD 988 (the other university vying for “oldest” status is in Fes) and today, Al-Azhar University is still the leading theological center of the Islamic world.
The main entrance is the Gate of the Barbers on the northwest side of the building, adjoining the neo-Arab facade built by Abbas II. Leave your shoes at the entrance and walk into the central courtyard. To your right is the El-Taibarsiya Medrese, which has a mihrab (prayer niche) dating from 1309. From the central courtyard, you get the best views of the mosque’s five minarets, which cap the building. Across the courtyard is the main prayer hall, spanning a vast 3,000 square meters. The front half is part of the original building, while the rear half was added by Abd el-Rahman.
4. Old Cairo (Coptic Cairo)
The Coptic Museum here contains a wealth of information on Egypt’s early Christian period and is home to one of Egypt’s finest collections of Coptic art. Next door, the 9th-century Hanging Church contains some beautiful examples of Coptic architecture. Founded in the 4th century, the church was originally built over the Roman gate towers (hence the name) and was substantially rebuilt during the 9th century.
For many Christian travelers though, the real highlight of a visit to this district is the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, where local legend says the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus, and family sheltered during King Herod’s massacre of male babies. Farther into the quarter, you come to the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which is said to be built near the spot where the baby Moses was found in the reeds. Just outside the quarter, you can also visit the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-As; the first mosque built in Egypt.
Coptic Cairo is easiest reached by taking the Cairo Metro to Mar Girgis station.
5. Khan el-Khalili (Souq Quarter)
This Middle Eastern souq (bazaar) is a labyrinthine collection of skinny alleyways established as a shopping district in AD 1400, which still rings with the clang of metal workers and silversmiths.
The main streets have long ago given themselves over completely to the tourist trade (with plenty of cheap papyrus pictures and plastic pyramids on display), but divert off the main drag into the surrounding alleyways, and the tiny stores and cluttered workshops are some of the best places to pick up traditional products in Egypt. Here, you’ll find everything from antiques and gorgeous metal lampshades to locally woven textiles.
While here stop in at Cairo’s most famous coffee shop, Fishawis, where syrupy Arabic coffee and sweet tea are dished out to tourists and local merchants alike at a rapid-fire pace.
6. The Citadel
The Mosque of Muhammad Ali is the most famous monument and the main reason for visiting. Nicknamed the “Alabaster Mosque,” its white stone and tall, disproportionately slender minarets are one of Cairo’s great landmarks. The other big reason to come up here are the views across the city; head to the Gawhara Terrace for the best panorama in town.
Just to the northeast of the Muhammad Ali Mosque is the El-Nasir Mosque, built in 1318-35 by Mohammed el-Nasir. A collection of rather half-hearted museums (the Police Museum, National Military Museum, and Carriage Museum) take up some of the other buildings on site and are more worthwhile viewing for the architecture of the actual buildings rather than the exhibits themselves.
You can walk to the citadel area from Bab Zuweila, if you’re feeling energetic, by heading along Khayyamiyya Street. The walk takes about 30 minutes.
7. Sultan Hassan Mosque
It was built in 1356-63 for the Sultan Hassan el-Nasir.
The exterior, with its large areas of stone, is reminiscent of an ancient Egyptian temple. The massive main doorway at the north corner is almost 26 meters high, and the minaret at the south corner is the tallest in Cairo at 81.5 meters.
The main doorway leads into a domed vestibule, beyond which are a small antechamber and a corridor leading into the ornate open Court centered around an ablution fountain. From here, an iron door leads into the sultan’s mausoleum where the stalactitic pendentives of the original dome still survive. In the center of the chamber is the sultan’s simple sarcophagus.
Directly facing the Sultan Hassan Mosque is the El-Rifai Mosque, built in 1912 to house the tomb of Khedive Ismail and constructed to replicate its older next door neighbor. The ex Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980), is also buried here.
8. Museum of Islamic Art
Ottoman tile work, Ayyubid ceramics, frescoes, delicately patterned wood-inlay, coinage, carved marble tombstones, and jewel-toned carpets, among other items are all on display.
Definitely spend some time perusing the illuminated Qurans and the exhibits of richly decorative ceramics, glassware, and metal-ware. Then move on to admire the heavily ornate jewelry collection and the rooms devoted to Astronomy and other sciences, where you’ll find highly detailed astrolabes and other equipment. A visit here is a journey through the breadth and wealth of Islamic heritage.
The museum sits on the edge of the Islamic Cairo district, so it’s a good place to either begin or end a visit to the neighborhood. It’s within easy walking distance (once you’ve crossed a hideously busy main road) to Bab Zuweila.
9. Bab Zuweila
You can climb to the top of this medieval era relic (built in the 11th century) for some amazing rooftop views over Islamic Cairo. The gate itself has two minarets and is the last southern gate of the old town still standing. Right next door is the red-and-white stonework of the Sheikh al-Mu’ayyad Mosque, and a few steps farther away are the fascinating artisan stalls of the Street of the Tentmakers, where Egypt’s bright fabric used for weddings and other special occasions is sold in bulk.
The Nile island of Gezira is home to the district of Zamalek and the majority of Cairo’s arty boutiques and hipster restaurants. Dating from the mid 19th century, the entire area has a distinctly European feel to its architecture with wide boulevards rimmed by jacaranda trees and splendidly ornate Belle Époque mansions (many of which are now home to various embassies).
Zamalek is Cairo’s top dining destination, but the southern tip of Gezira also has a clutch of art galleries to explore. The Palace of Arts is housed in the Nile Grand Hall on the former Gezira Fair Grounds, and features a schedule of rotating exhibitions in its galleries. Nearby is the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, which has a fine collection of 20th-century Egyptian art including works by Mahmoud Said and Mahmoud Mukhtar.
Much of the southern section of Gezira is taken up by the exclusive tennis courts and riding stables of the Gezira Sports Club, but towering above all the lush greenery is the 187-meter-high Cairo Tower, built in 1961 by President Nasser. A trip up the observation deck at sunset to see dusk settle over the city is a must