Cairo, which Egyptians proudly call the ‘Mother of All Cities’, spreads along the banks of the River Nile for 40km (25 miles) north to south, the largest metropolis in Africa. Travellers through the ages have been both fascinated and repelled by Cairo.
Visitors are intrigued by its twisting streets, medieval buildings, oriental bazaars and Islamic architecture of carved domes and sculpted minarets, while being appalled by its dirt, pollution, noise, crowds and constant demands for baksheesh (gratuities).
Paying baksheesh is the local custom, however, so expect to give little and often. Culture shock is part of the experience of Cairo and can at times be wearing. But as is written in the ancient tales of the 1001 Nights, ‘He who hath not seen Cairo, hath not seen the world’.
Cairo is a disorienting place but most of the city lies on the east bank of the River Nile. Visitors often feel most comfortable finding their feet in the Westernised downtown district of central Cairo around Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square). This is a public transport hub, separated from the Nile by the massive Nile Hilton Hotel. Here too is the city centre’s main attraction, the Egyptian Museum.
Opposite downtown is the Nile island of Gezira, with the island of Roda just to the south. The Pyramids of Giza, however, are on the west bank of the river, some 18km (11 miles) from the centre. Old Cairo lies south of central Cairo, while Islamic Cairo encompasses a large area to the east. The city is growing rapidly, both in terms of population and geographical area, with new suburbs expanding on its outskirts, especially into the Eastern Desert.
Northwest of the city centre, near the airport, Heliopolis is home to many of Cairo’s wealthy (and the Presidential Palace), while to the west, the middle-class suburb of Giza has expanded to within sight of the Pyramids.
Although Cairo today is Egypt’s capital and largest city, teeming with some 18 million people, its position of prominence in the long timeline of Egyptian history is relatively recent. It did not even exist when the pyramids at Giza were constructed. Then, the town of Memphis, 24km (15 miles) to the south, was the Pharaonic capital. Cairo was not founded until the Romans rebuilt an old Persian fortress along the Nile in AD116, which was known as Babylon-in-Egypt, in today’s Old Cairo district.
From the latter ninth century, a succession of Arab rulers made their mark on the city: Ibn Tulun built his royal city el-Qatai, the Fatimids built the walled city of el-Qahira, from which Cairo takes it name. In the 13th century, the Mamluks, a caste of Turkish soldier-slaves, rose to power, then the Ottomans, the French under Napoleon and finally the British ruled in their turn.
The birth of modern Cairo came in 1863, when the ruler Ismail expanded the city along the Nile in the style of the great European cities. After the country returned to Egyptian rule in 1952, Cairo rose to the forefront as the capital of the Arab world.
Cairo is also called the ‘City of 1000 Minarets’ and it is the exotic skyline of graceful domes and towering minarets that casts a spell of magic over the grinding reality of the metropolis. Most visitors come to see the great Pyramids of Giza, the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb and other wonders in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, as well as to shop in the sprawling Khan al-Khalili marketplace. There are also dozens of mosques, Coptic churches, smaller museums and winding streets to explore.
This tourism is Egypt’s key source of foreign income, while the public sector, including government and social services and the military, makes up the largest ‘industry’. The city is also the centre of a growing trade, finance and insurance sector.
During the summer, temperatures in Cairo can climb to 38 degrees Celsius, though the low humidity is some consolation. The best time to visit is between October and April. Occasional downpours occur in January and February, while during March and April the khamseen, a strong, hot, dry wind, blows in periodically from the desert.
Cairo is one of the greatest cities to explore, but it is not a fairytale city, with beautiful minarets and pitturesque bazars. Of course it has those, but they are not the essence of Cairo. Cairo is exciting, alive and with over 10 million people an overcrowded city.
The city of Cairo is also full of sights of different kinds. There are remains from the Pharaonic days, there are museums, there are loads of islamic monuments.
See the special sights section for details for all these attractions. Just walking around downtown and in the older residential parts inside the wall of the city where craftsmen work on the sidewalks outside their homes is also a real pleasure. It is easy to meet real Cairenes that are eager to discuss anything with you.
Some of them try to lure you to their carpetshop, others are really interested and interesting to talk with.
Be sure to visit the bazar of Khan el Khalili to do some shopping, see shopping section for details.
Cairo has many sights, enough for a week or two. Here they are divided into sections according to their nature. Of all the sights you cannot afford to miss the Pyramids (would you consider skipping them?), the Spinx and the Egyptian Museum. They are the unique remainders of the oldest civilization of the planet.
Try to get a good taste of islamic culture as well by visiting some of the mosques and the old town. Visiting these sights will give you some understanding of the basis of present day life in Egypt. Furthermore the COptic quarter offers some interesting sights worth exploring. The city of death is a category apart and merits a visit as well.
Cairo offers an incredible selection of shopping, leisure, culture and nightlife. Shopping ranges from the famous Khan el-Khalili souk, (or bazaar) largely unchanged since the 14th century, to modern air-conditioned centers displaying the latest fashions.
All the bounty of the East is here – particularly good buys are spices, perfumes, gold, silver, carpets, brass and copperware, leatherwork, glass, ceramics and mashrabiya. Try some of the famous street markets, like Wekala al-Balaq, for fabrics, including Egyptian cotton, the Tentmakers Bazaar for appliqu?-work, Mohammed Ali Street for musical instruments and, although you probably won’t want to buy, the Camel Market makes a fascinating trip.
When you need a break from city life, try a round of golf on the famous Mena House course overlooking the Pyramids, watch the horse racing at the Gezira Club or visit the Zoo and the Botanical Gardens. Take a trip on the Nile in a felucca or ride on horseback from the Giza Pyramids to Sakkara.
For a day trip outside Cairo visit Haraniyya village and see the beautiful tapestries and weaving produced by local people. If you wish, you may get away from it all at the top of the Cairo Tower, a modern 187 meter-high tower with views of the city from all sides, topped by a revolving restaurant.
Cairo comes alive at night, which is the best time to shop, eat delicious Middle Eastern cuisine, or simply watch the world go by from a pavement cafe. You can dine in a floating restaurant on the Nile, sample an apple-flavored shisha waterpipe at a coffee-shop or see oriental dancers and cabarets at a luxury hotel.
The splendid Opera House complex houses several galleries (including the Museum of Modern Art), restaurants and concert halls. Listening to Arabic music under the stars, in the open-air theater, is a magical experience. At El-Ghuriya, in the heart of Islamic Cairo, you can watch folk musicians and whirling dervish dancers. And don’t forget the most essential after-dark experience, the Sound and Light show at the Pyramids, a dramatic fusion of light and music recounting the story of antiquity.
Most of the monuments in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt are not so difficult to identify. Most have one of several different types of markers and the more important have full descriptions. Therefore, walking through one of the historical areas of Cairo, one does not necessarily need a guide, though certainly it helps.
Modern Cairo consider Central Cairo to consist of the area bordered by Old Cairo to the south, Islamic Cairo to the east and the Nile River to the west, but this covers a number of different districts.
Modern Cairo (Central Cairo)
Islamic Cairo is not the oldest section of Cairo, as that distinction belongs to Old Cairo. Westerners visiting Cairo many not wish to think in terms of Islamic here, but rather medieval. Indeed this area encompasses the medieval history from beginning to end.
Old Cairo actually predates Cairo itself to old Babylon and the Romans. Located here are some of the oldest Christian Churches in the World, as well as one of the oldest Mosques.
Old (and Coptic) Cairo
Giza is where the Great Pyramid is located, but there is more to the west bank of the Nile. Several important districts are located here, along with wonderful restaurants and great shopping opportunities.
Heliopolis is a suburb of Cairo located to the north east, though there is no break between the cities as there was when it was first constructed in 1906.
At that time the building style of the city, known as Masr al-Gedida or New Cairo had a mix of architecture set in a garden environment which reflected the tastes of the original promoter, Baron Empain, who built the Tram system in Cairo.
Originally there was a strictly enforced building code with considerable neo-Arabic style used in buildings, but there are also some exotic dwellings in the area. Originally, it attracted upper class families, and today that segment is still there, along with the middle class.