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Practical Guide to Discovering Cairo: Top Attractions and Essential Tips for Your Visit

Cairo, the bustling capital of Egypt, is not only the economic hub of the country but also its heart and soul. Often overshadowed by the famous Pyramids of Giza, Cairo has a lot to offer visitors from diverse perspectives. It boasts magnificent mosques, historic landmarks, charming neighborhoods, art museums, and bazaars brimming with authentic Islamic flavor.

In this guide, we delve deeper into Cairo’s top attractions and provide you with essential tips to ensure that you make the most of your visit. We offer practical information to help you navigate this vibrant city and not miss out on any of its wonders. And if you need assistance, Egipto Exclusivo can handle everything from transport and accommodation to cultural tours and dining arrangements.

Table of contents

The Center of Egypt and the Islamic World

Cairo is more than just the capital of Egypt, it is the very center of the country. This sprawling city serves as the social, political, economic, and religious hub that links Upper and Lower Egypt, the Delta, and the Nile Valley. Its central location has also made it a crucial part of the Arab world.

For instance, the local dialect spoken in Cairo is considered the standard Arabic dialect. The city’s media outlets have significant reach throughout North Africa and the Middle East, with the Qatari television channel Al-Jazeera being the current reference point. Additionally, the leaders who govern from Cairo have historically played an integrative role in the larger geopolitical chessboard of the region. Due to its immense significance, any developments in Cairo can have far-reaching impacts across the Arab world.

The Population of Cairo

Cairo is not only a symbolically important city, but also a quantitatively significant one. With over 8 million inhabitants, it is a megalopolis that expands to over 16 million people when including its metropolitan area, according to official census figures. However, some sources estimate the population to be above 21 million.

This large population has led to a shortage of housing, which is a major issue in the Egyptian capital. Many residents are forced to find alternative living arrangements, such as the City of the Dead, a large cemetery where people live in close proximity to their ancestors or due to a lack of better options.

The problem has worsened in recent decades due to the exponential growth of the city. In the mid-20th century, only around 2 million people lived in Cairo, but by 1970 the figure had doubled, and by the beginning of the 21st century it had surpassed 7 million.

The city’s growth shows no signs of slowing down, as plans are underway to build a new administrative and financial capital next to Cairo in an undeveloped desert area. This new city, likely to be named New Cairo or Wedian, will feature modern infrastructure such as Africa’s tallest skyscraper and large mosques, all designed with environmental sustainability in mind.

Panoramic views of Cairo

Cairo's Climate

The climate of Cairo can be described as a hybrid between the desert, which is extremely hot and dry, and the Delta, which is slightly tempered by the influence of the Mediterranean. However, the city is classified as having a desert climate (BWh) and is significantly different from many other parts of the world in terms of temperature and precipitation. Here are the main meteorological values that characterize Cairo:

  • Average maximum temperatures: during July, temperatures can reach around 35ºC, with peaks that can exceed 46ºC.
  • Average minimum temperatures: during January, temperatures can drop to 9ºC at night, but can sometimes fall as low as 1ºC.
  • Temperature range: there is usually a difference of around 15ºC between day and night, which is typical of desert climates.
  • Relative humidity: the average annual value is around 55%, which is lower than Delta cities but higher than other desert climate cities, mainly due to the influence of the Nile River.

Due to the heat and sun, it is important to take precautions when visiting Cairo. As we mentioned on the climate page of Egypt, it is recommended to cover your head, protect your skin and eyes, wear lightweight clothing, stay hydrated, and have a fan available, particularly during the summer season.

History of Cairo

Although Cairo is not directly related to Ancient Egypt, it is still surrounded by key places that were important during the time of the pharaohs, such as Giza, Memphis, and Heliopolis. However, it wasn’t until the Persian or Roman period that a settlement was established in the area where the city of Cairo now stands.

Understanding the history of Cairo is important to appreciate how the different areas of the city came to be. The birth of the city was a gradual process that spanned different periods of Egyptian history.

Origins of Cairo: From Persians to Romans

The Fortress of Babylon is considered to be the origin of the subsequent city of Cairo. It was built in the last decades of the 6th century BC by the followers of the Persian king Cambyses II (XXVII dynasty), who had recently conquered Egypt. The fortress served as a toll station on the trade routes between Upper and Lower Egypt.

Later, the Romans took over the fortress and it remained a strategic location during the Coptic and Byzantine eras. The fortress is now one of the must-see places in Cairo, located in the Coptic Neighborhood, within the area known as Old Cairo.

The Arab Conquest and the Founding of Misr al-Fustat

During a period of expansionism in North Africa, the Babylon Fortress was seized and taken by the Umayyad Arabs in 639, in the year 17 of the Hijra. The following year, General Amr ibn al-As established a camp between the fortress and the Nile River called al-Fustat, which means “The Camp” in Arabic, or Misr al-Fustat. This newly established city was walled and contained the first mosque in Egypt and on the African continent, the Amr Mosque. Although the original construction is no longer present, a rebuilt structure from the late 19th century remains in the same location and is a popular attraction in Cairo, as visits are allowed when there is no prayer taking place inside.

Misr al-Fustat became the administrative and political center of the new Arab rulers of Egypt, and it has remained so since its founding. Interestingly, the Arabic name for Egypt is Misr (مِصر‎), which may derive from the Akkadian designation for the region, meaning “border.”

Al-Askar, Al-Qatta’i y Al-Qahira

After the establishment of Misr al-Fustat and Al-Fustat, successive rulers of Egypt expanded the constructions in the area. The Abbasids, who came to power in 750, built Al-Askar (‘The Army’), another military settlement adjacent to Misr al-Fustat, with a government palace. Later, the Tulunids, a dynasty that declared independence from the Abbasids under Ahmad ibn Tulun, built another fortress called Al-Qatta’i, which also had a palace and a mosque. The mosque still stands and is one of the most interesting temples to visit in Cairo.

In the late 10th century, the caliph al-Muizz li-Din Allah of the new Fatimid dynasty built Al-Qahira (‘The Triumphant’), a new settlement north of Misr al-Fustat that included the constructions of Al-Askar and Al-Qatta’i. Here, the Al-Azhar Mosque was built, which is considered one of the most beautiful and important in the capital, with a teaching center that many consider the first university in the world. Al-Qahira was a royal enclosure for the caliph and his troops, while Misr al-Fustat remained the administrative center until the mid-12th century. All of these areas together make up what is now known as Islamic Cairo, which we will explore further in the section ‘Cairo: What to See, Neighborhood by Neighborhood.’

What to see in Islamic Cairo

The Cairo of Saladin, Mamluks, and Ottomans

The construction of the Citadel by Saladin marked a significant moment in the history of Cairo. This Kurdish sultan and leader of Islam, who ended the Fatimid dynasty and initiated the Ayyubid, built the fortress at the end of the 12th century on a small hill of the Mokattam hills. The Citadel, which is now a popular attraction in Cairo, was strategically located and provided excellent defense for the area.

Apart from being a fortress, the Citadel also served as a governmental and administrative center that was expanded and improved over the years. This was a period of reconstruction, following the burning of Misr al-Fustat by Shawar, the vizier of the last Fatimid caliph Al-Adid, to prevent it from being taken by the Crusaders. The rebuilding process resulted in the creation of a prosperous city, with hundreds of new buildings, including mosques, public baths, madrasas, palaces, and more.

The military caste of the Mamluks succeeded Saladin in maintaining and expanding Cairo’s prosperity. Despite the havoc caused by the epidemic of 1348 and the shift of trade routes to European ports in the 15th century, Mamluk Cairo remained a dynamic city with a rich history that can still be seen today. One example is the Jan El Jalili bazaar, whose origins date back to the end of the 14th century.

In the 16th century, Cairo, along with the rest of Egypt, fell under Ottoman rule. Despite this, Cairo retained some autonomy in terms of trade and culture, remaining an important city on trade routes such as coffee. Al-Azhar University maintained its enormous prestige in the Arab world during this period.

From Napoleon to the Present Day

The expedition of Napoleon’s troops to Egypt from 1798 to 1801 was fleeting in duration but had a lasting impact on Cairo. Although many valuable works and objects were taken out of the country, the dissemination of the findings by the Commission des Sciences et des Arts de l’Armée d’Orient, which accompanied the military expedition, was crucial for the emergence of modern Egyptology. The Egyptian Museum and the nearby Pyramids of Giza are the most famous tourist attractions that testify to this era.

Mehmet Ali, who came to power after the French campaign, continued to foster the interest in Ancient Egypt. He promoted industrialization and the rehabilitation and expansion of Cairo’s constructions, including the Citadel of Saladin. Today, Cairo remains a bustling city, still deeply rooted in its rich history and culture.

During the latter half of the 19th century, the biggest urban redevelopment project was undertaken in Cairo. Governor Ismail Pasha championed a modern urban plan that was inspired by the orthogonal designs of the time and focused on better public sanitation. As a result, it became the preferred residential area of the upper classes and is now part of the city center. The Belle Époque style and its commercial and leisure venues make it a must-see in Cairo. However, the poorer classes were relegated to the older neighborhoods, such as Old Cairo and Islamic Cairo, which also absorbed a significant influx of peasants migrating from the countryside to the city.

The first half of the 20th century was marked by British domination of the city, which also used it as a key command center during World War II. However, the British left little impact on the city, so there are no significant monuments to see in Cairo from that era.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the city experienced tremendous growth, creating a large megalopolis that was somewhat disorganized and chaotic, and is now the largest in Africa. Nevertheless, areas such as Zamalek and Gezira, located on an island in the Nile River, remained outside of this chaos and offer the most elegant and orderly face of the city, with some of the most interesting cultural offerings to see in Cairo. Heliopolis, situated in the east of the city, underwent a similar transformation.

As the 21st century unfolds, the district of New Cairo, also known as Weidan, aims to elevate the capital to the level of other cutting-edge metropolises across the globe. However, it also confronts a significant challenge: transforming into an environmentally sustainable megalopolis that can reduce congestion and ease demographic pressures.

What to See in Cairo, Neighborhood By Neighborhood

After exploring the rich history of Cairo, planning what to see in the city becomes a more manageable task. We’ve organized the areas of interest by their historical periods, which are laid out on a map from south to north: Giza for Ancient Egypt, the Coptic Quarter for the pre-Arabic era, Islamic Cairo for the medieval and modern periods, and finally, other fascinating neighborhoods that emerged more recently (Downtown, Zamalek, Gezira, etc.). The Coptic Quarter and Islamic Cairo together form Historic Cairo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Western Part of Cairo: Giza and the Journey to Ancient Egypt

Undoubtedly, many visitors to Cairo have their eyes set on the stunning wonders situated to the west of the city – the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Sphinx, and other remnants of this awe-inspiring Old Kingdom necropolis. Although they are just 13 km away from the center (Tahrir Square), they are administratively located in a different city, Giza. Hence, we provide a detailed account of these sites on a separate page of our website.

Coptic Quarter of Cairo

The Coptic Quarter and Ancient Al-Fustat

Considered the oldest part of Cairo, the Coptic Quarter has its origins centuries before the birth of Christ. It flourished after the death of Christ, when Christianity replaced the declining Egyptian religion. This continued until the Arab conquest in 639 established Islam as the dominant religion.

The area boasts the remains of the Fortress of Babylon, which is considered the city’s seed. It was built by the Persians in the 6th century BC and later expanded by the Romans, giving it its characteristic appearance of red and white bricks. Some parts of its wall are still visible today.

As such, the main constructions related to Coptic Cairo are located here. According to Christian tradition, the Holy Family, consisting of Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary, and Baby Jesus, fled to Egypt to escape King Herod’s persecution. According to the beliefs of this religion, they may have arrived here when Alexandria was the main city, and the population was small, with only a modest river port.

The Church of St. George (Greek Orthodox) has a notable presence of the Holy Family, as indicated by a well inside the church where the three biblical figures are said to have drunk water. This 10th-century church, rebuilt in the early 20th century, also houses relics of Saint George, a revered warrior saint in other countries.

One of the most famous and ancient monuments in Cairo is the Hanging Church, which dates back to the 3rd century and was attached to one of the gates of the Roman fortress mentioned earlier. Its name is probably derived from its hanging appearance, although it has lost some of this character due to rising ground levels caused by Nile floods. The entrance staircase is particularly distinctive, and the interior features beautiful 13th-century decorations, including ebony and ivory inlays on the altar and mosaics from different periods.

The Coptic Museum is another must-see building in Coptic Cairo. It is particularly useful for learning about the shift in beliefs from ancient Egyptian religion and Greco-Roman paganism to the new Christian faith, which adopted symbols from all previous religions. The museum houses objects of enormous value, such as ancient Bibles, manuscripts, and icons. The interior architecture of the museum itself, with latticework and wooden ceilings, is also noteworthy.

Below are some notable Christian temples in and around the Coptic Quarter:

  • Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus: This church dates back to the 4th or 5th centuries and is named after the Roman Christian martyrs whose relics are preserved here. According to tradition, the Holy Family sought refuge in its crypt for three weeks. Its interior is impressive, featuring beautiful wooden coffered ceilings and columns of marble and red granite.
  • Church of St. Barbara: Originally erected in the 4th century in honor of St. Cyrus, this church was later rebuilt in medieval times to house relics of the saint, who was born in Asia Minor.
  • Monastery of St. Mercurius: This monastery is composed of three small churches, namely, St. Mercurius (10th century), St. Shenute, and the Virgin.

Another significant temple in Old Cairo is the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which was built in the 9th century when Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra from Jerusalem purchased the land for its construction. While prayers are no longer held here, the synagogue was restored in the late 20th century. According to Hebrew tradition, there was a previous synagogue founded by the prophet Jeremiah, which was later destroyed by the Romans.

Due to its status as the oldest part of Cairo, the Coptic Quarter is also home to various Islamic structures in its vicinity. Following the Arab conquest of Egypt, Misr al-Fustat was established in this area as a military outpost, which later developed into the administrative center of early Muslim Egypt.

One notable structure in this area is the Amr Mosque, which as mentioned earlier, is considered the country’s first mosque. It was commissioned by General Amr ibn al-As around 640 and played a significant role in spreading the new Islamic teachings. Although what can be observed today is the result of numerous reconstructions, it is still worth including in any list of things to see in Cairo because its interior can be visited during non-worship hours.

Visiting Islamic Cairo

Exploring Islamic Cairo

Islamic Cairo is a fascinating area of the city that comprises various medieval settlements constructed by different dynasties, including the Abbasids, Tulunids, Fatimids, Ayyubids, Mamluks, and Ottomans. Although the region is sometimes referred to as Fatimid Cairo, after the Shiite dynasty’s founder, who established the city in 969: Al-Qahira (“The Triumphant”), many constructions from the other settlements are also present here.

The Fatimid dynasty, which ruled North Africa for over two centuries, has left an impressive architectural legacy in this area. However, Islamic Cairo’s other settlements, Al-Askar and Al-Qatta’i, built by the Abbasids and Tulunids, respectively, are equally significant. Later, the Mamluks and Ottomans added new constructions to the area and modified the existing ones. Therefore, any visitor exploring Islamic Cairo should not limit themselves to Fatimid architecture alone.

To embark on a tour of Islamic Cairo, we can begin by exploring the area that was once the walled medieval city since the end of the 10th century. Al-Muizz street serves as the main axis of this area and leads to some of the most remarkable places to see. 

Starting from the northern end of the street, we come across two of the remaining vestiges of the walls that once surrounded the medieval city: the square-shaped Bab al-Futuh gate, which served as the main entrance for centuries, and the semicircular Bab al-Nasr. Adjacent to them lies one of the magnificent mosques to visit in Islamic Cairo, the Al-Hakim Mosque. Named after the sixth Fatimid caliph of Egypt, the mosque was built between the end of the 10th and the beginning of the 12th century. Despite falling into disuse for a long time, the mosque has undergone recent restoration and now features a stunning courtyard with arcades and marble, along with its oldest and most distinguishing elements, the minarets.

Continuing a few hundred meters along Al-Muizz street, we reach the Bayt al-Suhaymi (see the “Museums to see in Cairo” section below) and then come across the Al-Aqmar Mosque without leaving this street. Completed in the early decades of the 12th century, the mosque is unique because it was one of the first to have a stone main facade with an ornamental design. Its most symbolic element is the inscriptions that refer to several Fatimid caliphs and fragments of the Quran. Although its interior has undergone significant modifications over the years.

As we continue our tour, we come across another fascinating monument in Islamic Cairo: the Sabil-Kuttab of Abdel Rahman Katkhuda. This Ottoman-era building from the mid-18th century served as both a public drinking fountain and an elementary school. It is located in the Bayn al-Qasrin area, which is one of the most beautiful stretches, adorned with other Mamluk-era buildings and a stunning facade. Notable constructions in the area include the madrasa of Sultan Barquq from the late 14th century and the madrasa-mausoleum of Al-Nasir Muhammad, a prolific Mamluk sultan from the late 13th and early 14th centuries.

Another impressive sight on this stretch is the madrasa-mausoleum of Sultan Qalawun from the late 13th century. This large complex boasts intricate decoration with colored stones and marble panels in many places. It was modeled after the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which the Mamluks had captured from the Crusaders at around that time.

At this point, you have two options: you can turn left or continue straight. If you opt to go left towards the east, you will reach two significant points of interest: the Jan el-Jalili market and the Hussein Mosque. The Jan el-Jalili market is undoubtedly one of the city’s most popular attractions, and a “must-see” spot in Cairo. Its origins date back to the 14th century, and it offers visitors a vast array of handicrafts, colorful fabrics, the sounds of brass hammering, and the aroma of spices from the food stalls. It is an ideal place to practice the art of haggling to score a good bargain. Additionally, the area features several famous and historic establishments, such as the Fishawi cafe, the city’s oldest, located in Midan Hussein Square, one of the busiest spots in the historic center.

The Hussein Mosque is situated in the same square and is a must-see for those interested in Islamic Cairo. Although it may not be the most historically or artistically significant mosque in the city, as it was rebuilt in the late 19th century despite its Mamluk-era origins (mid-12th century), it holds special significance for Shiite Muslims. The remains of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad and son of Fatima, are enshrined here, making it a sacred site for Shiites and highly respected by the Sunni majority.

Continuing along Al-Muizz Street from the madrasa-mausoleum of Sultan Qalawun will lead you to Al-Azhar Street, which was created in the 20th century, distorting this medieval axis. Across the street, you will find the Wekalet El Ghoury, a complex housing a madrasa and a mausoleum. However, it is most notably used as a venue for cultural and folk shows. Its stunning architecture is a testament to the Mamluk era (early 16th century), just before the Ottoman occupation.

Located in Midan Hussein Square on the opposite side of the bustling Al-Azhar street, Al-Azhar Mosque is another breathtaking must-see for tourists in Cairo. As highlighted in our section “Cairo: What to see neighborhood by neighborhood,” the city is home to hundreds of mosques. However, for many travelers, Al-Azhar Mosque stands out above the rest. Constructed in 970 after the arrival of the Fatimid dynasty and the establishment of Al-Qahira, it quickly became a significant Islamic center. It has been a hub for prayer and learning, attracting thousands of Muslim students from all corners of the world annually, and is considered one of the world’s oldest universities. Moreover, its Grand Imam (or Grand Sheikh) is a leading spiritual authority for Muslims.

Its architecture is a delight to the eye, with elements that not only correspond to the Fatimid period but also to later periods, as all rulers wanted to leave their mark on the site. In this sense, the following can be highlighted:

  • Doors: The main entrance, called the Gate of the Barbers, was named after the area where students’ heads were shaved. Additionally, other interior doors, like the one that provides access to the Central Courtyard, are also noteworthy.
  • Central Courtyard: The courtyard is entirely porticoed and stands out for its whiteness and cleanliness. It features Fatimid arches from the 10th century.
  • Minarets: The mosque has six minarets, with the tallest and most imposing being the one built by Mamluk sultan El Ghoury in the early 16th century. The minarets of Sultan Qaitbey and Amir Aqbugha are from earlier periods, while the two Ottoman minarets are later, with a verticality style that recalls other mosques in Istanbul.
  • Prayer Hall: The prayer hall has been expanded several times over the years, with the latest being in the mid-18th century by the Ottoman builder Abd-ar-Rahman Katkhuda. The mihrab from the Fatimid period is still preserved.
  • Madrasas: The mosque has three madrasas dating back to the Mamluk period and a library with around 60,000 valuable volumes, including many manuscripts.

To the south of El Ghoury and Al-Azhar, the atmosphere becomes even livelier, with countless shops and eateries lining the streets leading to the third and final remaining gate of the Fatimid wall: Bab Zuwayla, built in 1092 and serving as the southern entrance to the city in ancient times. Next to it stands the Al-Muayyad mosque, recognizable by its twin minarets that offer stunning panoramic views of Cairo. Erected during the height of the Fatimid era, the mosque’s interior boasts impressive features, such as the preserved remains of the Mamluk sultan who named it, its central courtyard, and its dome with intricate zigzagging decorations.

Aside from these notable sights in Islamic Cairo, many other places of interest await to the south of the Bab-Zuwayla gate. One of the most popular and fascinating markets is the Sharia al-Khayamiya, also known as the Street of the Tentmakers in English, where local artisans, particularly textile makers, can be seen creating their products in real-time.

Continuing further south, you will discover other remarkable mosques that are must-see attractions in Cairo. Among them is the mosque-madrasa of Sultan Hassan, which ranks in the top ten of the city’s Islamic temples in terms of history and art. Built during the mid-14th century by the Mamluk sultan bearing the same name, the mosque has undergone numerous changes, having been used as a fortress in times of conflict. It was even targeted by Napoleon, who found it easily accessible from the nearby Citadel. The mosque’s main entrance is grandiose, and its central courtyard features a beautiful ablution fountain set beneath a vaulted temple.

Adjacent to the mosque-madrasa of Sultan Hassan stands another mosque, Al-Rifai, which bears a striking resemblance to its neighbor, although it was built at the beginning of the 20th century in imitation of the Mamluk style. Its significance, however, lies in the tombs it houses: those of Faruk, the last king of Egypt, and the final Shah of Persia, Mohamed Reza Pahlevi.

Both mosques are situated in Salah El-Deen square, where one of Cairo’s most popular tourist attractions also stands: the Citadel of Saladin. The citadel was named after Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, the leader of Islam and a fierce opponent of the Crusaders, who established his command center here in the late 12th century. However, the citadel has undergone numerous renovations and expansions, as each ruler wanted to make their mark. Perched atop a strategic location, it dominates the entire city, as Napoleon’s troops quickly realized when they occupied it during their campaign in Egypt. The stones used to build the citadel have even more history, as blocks from the pyramids of Giza were utilized by the Ayyubid sultan.

Even though some rooms remain closed due to its past as a military barracks until the end of the last century, the majority of the complex is open to visitors, making it one of the best monuments to explore in Cairo. You will discover the following attractions:

  • Western Terraces Views: These are among the favorite spots of visitors, along with the minarets of the Al-Muayyad Mosque. On clear days, you can even catch a glimpse of the Pyramids of Giza!
  • Muhammad Ali Mosque: Without a doubt, this is the most prominent and photographed building of the complex, despite being relatively recent (built in the 19th century) and having a distinctly Ottoman style. The elegant material covering the lower part of the exterior of this temple is alabaster, hence its nickname, the Alabaster Mosque. Inside, you will find the marble tomb of Egypt’s vali, Muhammad Ali. Outside the mosque stands an iron clock gifted by King Louis Philippe I of France in exchange for the obelisk now standing in the Place de la Concorde (originally from the temple of Luxor), which never worked.
  • Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque: This is one of the mosques that survived the demolitions Mehmet Ali ordered for the construction of his mosque. This smaller but older mosque dates back to the 14th century and stands out for its colorful minarets decorated with green and blue mosaics, which are quite unique compared to the rest of the city’s mosques. Unfortunately, they do not shine as brightly as one might expect. Inside, there is a fascinating courtyard with arches that rest on columns from ancient Egypt and the Roman era.
  • Suleiman Pasha Mosque: Another small and ancient mosque from around 1530, considered the first one built during the Ottoman period in the Egyptian capital. It has an undeniable Turkish style, similar to that of Muhammad Ali and many others in the city of Istanbul, with its characteristic system of domes and semidomes.
  • Burg al-Haddad and Burg al-Ramla: These military towers are located within the perimeter walls of the complex. The twin towers, known as the Blacksmith Tower and the Sand Tower, controlled access to the interior of the citadel.
  • Military National Museum: (see section ‘Museums to see in Cairo’ below)
  • Police Museum: (see section ‘Museums to see in Cairo’ below)

Moving further south of the Citadel and nearing the al-Fustat area, you will discover yet another mosque that deserves your attention, that is, if you still have some energy left! The Ibn Tulun Mosque is one of the most historically and artistically significant buildings in Cairo, and is usually featured in Art History books as an exemplar of its style. It showcases the early Islamic architecture and is the oldest mosque still standing in Egypt. Built by the Tulunids in 879, it exhibits clear Abbasid influence, from which they eventually broke away. One can observe this influence in the helical minaret that is reminiscent of the one in Samarra, Iraq, built a short while before. The mosque’s central courtyard is distinguished by its large-domed ablution fountain, and the surrounding outer wall, which was typical of the period, offers ample space to the enclosure. For a long time, a bazaar was held in the area between the wall and the mosque.

As you can see, we have dedicated numerous lines to the city’s mosques as they are undeniably among the must-see monuments in Cairo. So much so that many of them are featured on Egyptian pound bills.

Zamalek island of Gezira

Downtown Cairo

As you head towards the center of Cairo, you’ll find that most of the monuments to see in Cairo are located in the Islamic or Coptic neighborhoods. However, the actual center of the city is located northwest of those neighborhoods, which were once swampy lands until they were urbanized during the rule of the Khedive Ismail Pasha. The new development followed the parameters of European cities of the time, which is why you’ll notice that the buildings here have a distinctly French, Italian or British feel to them.

Tahrir Square, also known as Liberation Square, is the most important square in the city and the true heart of Cairo. It is home to the American University, and not far away is the Egyptian Museum (see ‘Museums to see in Cairo’ section below). From here, you can explore other places such as Talaat Harb Square and continue along Qasr al-Nil Street, where you’ll find the main boutiques. The Stock Exchange, which was once one of the ten most important in the world, is also located here, as well as the Trieste Insurance Building, designed by the Italo-Slovenian Antonio Lasciac.

If you take Shawarby Street, you’ll reach the main entertainment area in Cairo, where you can find famous cinemas and theaters that offer belly dancing shows, among other things. On Adly Street, you’ll find the Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue, which is one of the few remnants of the influential Jewish community that played a significant economic role in the development of the city during the early 20th century but left for Israel after its formation.

Although Opera Square is a large public space, its current appearance is far from the Cairo of its origins. In the late 19th century, an impressive theater was built here, with the intention of premiering Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida (although it ended up being Rigoletto), which was a testament to the capital’s and country’s strength at the time, shortly after the inauguration of the Suez Canal. Unfortunately, the theater was destroyed by fire at the end of the 20th century. Attaba, as the area is also known, is a significant commercial district in the city.

Moving north from here, you’ll arrive at Ramses Square, which houses the city’s most important train station, and where a replica of the colossal statue of Ramses II is now located, previously housed at the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza. The minaret of the Al-Fath Mosque (inaugurated in 1990) is also a prominent feature here, and not by coincidence: it is the tallest in the capital and the third tallest in the world, according to some sources.

Exploring Gezira and Rhoda, the Nile Islands

As the Nile River flows through Cairo, it serves as a natural border between the capital and the city of Giza. While Giza is part of the same metropolitan area, it is a separate administrative entity, and thus deserves its own mention.

Within the Nile River, two large islands – Gezira and Rhoda – have formed. These islands are not only important to the emergence of Egyptian civilization but also have neighborhoods and areas that should be included in any list of must-see places in Cairo.

Gezira Island

Gezira Island, the northernmost island formed by the Nile River, was originally a royal garden in the 19th century and now consists of two distinct areas: the Zamalek district in the north and Gezira in the south. 

There are three bridges that connect the island to the city center, with the Qasr al-Nil being the most important one as it connects Gezira to Tahrir Square. The Cairo Tower, a 1961 communications tower, stands out as the tallest building in the city (180 meters) and is a prominent feature on the island. Its design resembles a lotus plant and lattice, evoking ancient Egyptian civilization and Islamic architecture respectively. At the top of the tower, there is a rotating restaurant that provides panoramic views of the city, including the Citadel of Saladin and the Pyramids of Giza. The southern part of the island is home to a complex dedicated to the arts, including the Mokhtar Museum, the Egyptian Museum of Modern Art, and the new Opera House. It also features a botanical garden and aquarium, known as the Grotto Garden, and an exclusive sports club and green areas.

Zamalek, the northern area of Gezira Island, is a charming residential neighborhood that was originally built for diplomats and officials in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is now home to several embassies, museums, and art centers, such as the Aisha Fahmy and the Museum of Islamic Ceramics. One of the highlights of the area is the palace that was built to house Empress Eugenia, the wife of Napoleon III, during her visit to witness the inauguration of the Suez Canal. It has been converted into a luxury hotel and is an impressive blend of industrial and Islamic art. Near the Zamalek Bridge that connects Gezira Island with Giza, you can find the Kitkat Mosque and its original wooden houseboats.

Rhoda Island

Rhoda Island is smaller than Gezira and is located much closer to the Cairo side of the Nile, connected by smaller bridges. Unlike Gezira, Rhoda is not characterized by tall and modern buildings but is instead more closely connected to the history of the city’s settlement. In ancient times, Rhoda Island had its own port and a Roman fortress, which was situated next to the Coptic Quarter.

There are two major points of interest on the island. The first is the Nilometer, a fascinating construction for those interested in Egyptian civilization. Although the current structure dates back to the Arab period (9th century), it operates in a similar way to those that existed before, and to those found in other parts of the country. The large stone-lined well has a central column divided into different sections, and if it reached the appropriate level at a certain time of year, it signified a good agricultural year. If it exceeded this level, it signaled the possibility of fatal floods, while a level that fell short indicated drought and famine.

Next to the Nilometer is the beautiful Manesterly Palace, used for prestigious concerts and cultural events. To the north of the island lies the Manial Palace, which is dedicated to Islamic arts and is one of the must-see museums in Cairo.

Other Interesting Places to See in Cairo

Although it’s not a particularly green city compared to others, there’s also an interesting park to see in Cairo: Al-Azhar Park. It’s very recent, as it was inaugurated in 2005, but it’s already an essential lung for the capital. Palm trees, gardens, ponds, cafes and other pleasant structures make up this park, from where there are also panoramic views of the city. In addition, sections of the Ayyubid walls built by Saladin in the 12th century have been recovered.

Another unique proposal to see in Cairo is the Necropolis or Mamluk cemetery, better known as the City of the Dead, located behind Al-Azhar Park at the foot of the Mokattam Hills. It’s called this because, in fact, it’s the place of residence for thousands of people, sheltering among the tombs and mausoleums of Cairenes. It shouldn’t be a tourist attraction, but it has achieved worldwide fame for its sociological singularity, being the most extreme result of the difficulty many citizens have in accessing housing in the Egyptian capital. For this reason, it receives the visit of many curious travelers, in some cases with organized and guided tours.

Radically opposed is the Heliopolis neighborhood (not to be confused with the ancient Egyptian city), which emerged in the early 20th century at the initiative of a Belgian entrepreneur and Egyptologist (Baron Empain). It was a suburb northeast of the city that had little to do with Cairo at the time, but it ended up being absorbed by the current megalopolis. In this residential area of high society, there is the Baron’s palace (a unique Hindu-style building), the International Football Stadium (with a capacity of 75,000 spectators), 16 mosques and temples of different faiths, such as the Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark. In addition, it’s the closest area to the Cairo International Airport.

Cairo Museum

Must-Visit Museums in Cairo

Cairo is home to a plethora of museums that cater to all interests, ranging from ancient history to modern art. The following are some of the most noteworthy museums worth exploring during your visit to the city. While the Egyptian Museum is undoubtedly the most famous, there are several others that are equally intriguing and should not be overlooked.

The Egyptian Museum of Cairo

For those interested in Egyptology, a visit to the Egyptian Museum of Cairo is a must. This museum is home to the most significant collection of artifacts from ancient Egypt, making it one of the most important museums in the world. While there are few archaeological remains from the Pharaonic era in Cairo itself (since Giza is a separate administrative area), this museum is a treasure trove for enthusiasts. Although many of Egypt’s greatest treasures are held in foreign museums, such as the Louvre in Paris or the British Museum in London, none can match the sheer quantity and diversity of the artifacts on display in Cairo. 

However, the museum has become too small to properly exhibit all of its 120,000 objects, which has resulted in more than 600 mummies being stacked in its basements. Many valuable pieces have been relocated to the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, which is discussed below.

Moving on, we have listed some essential items to include in your itinerary for the Egyptian Museum. However, please note that due to the transfer of artifacts to the Grand Egyptian Museum, certain exhibits may undergo significant changes. Here are the must-see exhibits:

  • Statues and busts of queens, pharaohs, and other significant figures:
    • Sphinx of Hetepheres II, wife of Pharaoh Dyedefra during the Fourth Dynasty (Old Kingdom)
    • Khufu: Figurine of Khufu Pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty (Old Kingdom)
    • Khafre: Seated statue in diorite of Khafre, Pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty (Old Kingdom), from the Valley Temple in the necropolis of Giza
    • Triad of Menkaure: a famous diorite sculptural group of this Pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty (Old Kingdom), accompanied by the goddess Hathor and the goddess of the nome of Cynopolis
    • The Mayor of the Village: a wooden sculpture of a noble from the Fifth Dynasty (Old Kingdom)
    • Pepi I: Copper statue of Pepi I, from the Sixth Dynasty (Old Kingdom)
    • Amenhotep III and Tiye: Colossal limestone sculptural group of Amenhotep III and Tiye, representing this pair of kings from the Eighteenth Dynasty (New Kingdom), originally located in Medinet Habu
    • Bust of Akhenaten: a portrait of this Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty (New Kingdom), showing the stylistic and iconographic change he promulgated during his turbulent reign.
  • Funerary masks:
    • Amenemope: from the Twenty-First Dynasty (Third Intermediate Period)
    • Psusennes I: from the Twenty-First Dynasty (Third Intermediate Period)
  • Reliefs and engravings:
    • Narmer Palette (ca. 3100 BC), a key piece in the history of Ancient Egypt, as it shows the man who is considered the first pharaoh of the already unified country, wearing the crown of Lower Egypt on one side and that of Upper Egypt on the other.
    • Merneptah Stele: engraved around 1210 BC during the time of Amenhotep III, to commemorate his victory in the land of Canaan. Its historical value lies in that it contains the first explicit mention of the people of Israel.
  • Sarcophagi and mummies: Please note that some of the following items may have been transferred to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization’s royal mummies gallery:
    • Sarcophagus from the tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings, attributed to the mysterious and controversial pharaoh Akhenaten of the 18th Dynasty (New Kingdom)
    • Mummy of Ramses II
    • Mummy of the queen-pharaoh Hatshepsut, of the 18th Dynasty (New Kingdom)
    • Mummy of Tutmosis II, of the 18th Dynasty (New Kingdom)
    • Mummy of Seti I, of the 19th Dynasty (New Kingdom)
  • Other objects:
    • Pyramidion of Amenemhat III: crowned the Black Pyramid of Dahshur built for this pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty (Middle Kingdom)

However, you may have noticed that we have added an “s” to the title of this section, as in recent years, other museums related to Ancient Egypt have emerged that also deserve recognition. In 2017, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization was inaugurated in the al-Fustat area, near the Coptic Quarter. Its focus is to showcase the history and culture of the Egyptian civilization as a whole, encompassing not just the era of Ancient Egypt. Its extensive collection of around 50,000 objects covers the archaic period, pharaonic era, Greco-Roman period, Coptic era, Byzantine era, medieval and modern Islamic period, and contemporary times.

In addition to this, the highly anticipated Grand Egyptian Museum has opened, located only two kilometers away from the Giza Necropolis. We have dedicated a well-deserved section for it on the Giza page.

Other Museums to Visit in Cairo

While a trip to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo can easily take up a whole day of your itinerary, there are other museums worth adding to your list of things to see in Cairo:

  • Islamic Art Museum: Located near Abdeen Palace, where the President of Egypt governs, this museum may be off the beaten tourist path but is definitely worth a visit. It boasts a valuable collection of artwork from the city’s main mosques, rescued from European “treasure hunters” in the early 20th century. The collection showcases the decorative mastery of Islamic art with floral and geometric motifs, using a variety of materials ranging from bone to glass, wood, stone, metal, paper, ceramics, and textiles.
  • Gayer-Anderson Museum: Named after a British officer and collector who was fascinated with Egyptian culture, this museum is situated next to Ibn Tulun Mosque. It consists of two 16th-century houses joined together, with meticulously preserved interior decorations. Different environments are recreated, such as Persian, Byzantine, Syrian, and more. Among the antiques on display are objects from the Pharaonic period, ceramic tableware, wooden furniture, and much more.
  • Bayt al-Suhaymi: A typical residential Cairo house located in the northern part of Islamic Cairo, next to Al-Aqmar Mosque. Originally built in the 17th century, it is another great option for those interested in the daily life of centuries ago. In fact, it now functions as a museum showcasing the layout of a house of this type, with its characteristic decoration and everyday objects from the past.
  • Military National Museum: located within the Citadel of Saladin, this museum showcases uniforms and weapons used by the Egyptian army, as well as lavishly decorated rooms.
  • Police Museum: also located in the Citadel of Saladin, this museum features a collection dedicated to the history of this security force and notable cases solved by its agents.
  • National Railway Museum: situated in Ramses Square, next to the main train station, this museum houses vintage locomotives and carriages that are of great historical significance, as Egypt was the first country in Africa to have a railway system. One of the highlights is the four-seater locomotive brought by Empress Eugenia of France for the inauguration of the Suez Canal.
  • Mokhtar Museum: located in the southern part of Gezira Island, this museum is devoted to Mahmoud Mokhtar, known as the father of modern sculpture in Egypt. It displays nearly a hundred of his works made of marble, bronze, or granite.
  • National Museum of Egyptian Modern Art: situated in Gezira, this is a must-visit museum for fans of contemporary art. Its collection of thousands of paintings and sculptures focuses on the works of Egypt’s most prominent 20th-century artists, such as Mahmoud Sa’id and Inji Aflatoun.
  • Aisha Fahmy Museum: housed in the Zamalek neighborhood’s former palace of aristocrat and military leader Ali Fahmy, this museum reopened in 2017 to host temporary exhibitions. Its main draw, however, is the elegant interior decoration.
  • Museum of Islamic Ceramics: located in the Prince Ibrahim Palace in Zamalek, this museum is dedicated to the art of ceramics, one of the highest achievements of Muslim culture. It not only showcases Egyptian ceramics but also those from other regions, such as Persia, Morocco, and Andalusia.
  • Palacio Manial: built in the early 20th century, this palace is themed by rooms that display objects, decoration, and exhibitions related to Egypt, as well as other Muslim styles such as Moroccan, Syrian, and Persian.

Traveling to Cairo: Practical Information

In addition to the extensive information on what to see in Cairo, here are some practical details to make your trip smoother, including how to reach the city, getting around, and where to find tourist information.

Getting to Cairo

As Cairo is located in a unique location, the most practical way to arrive here is by air. As mentioned earlier in the “How to Get to Egypt” section, Cairo is the primary point of entry for international travelers to visit both Lower and Upper Egypt, including Nile cruises. While direct routes exist to Red Sea or Mediterranean beach destinations that are not related to Cairo, landing in the capital is typical to start your Egyptian journey or connect to other airports in the country. The options are vast, but all flights are centralized at Cairo International Airport. Below are the major direct connections, which are subject to changes in availability or routes based on the season:

  • Europe: Madrid (Spain), Athens (Greece), Bergamo, Milan, Rome (Italy), Paris (France), Malta, Moscow, Domodedovo (Russia), Vienna (Austria), London (United Kingdom), Sofia (Bulgaria), Amsterdam (Netherlands), Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich (Germany), Brussels (Belgium), Budapest (Hungary), Copenhagen (Denmark), Dublin (Ireland), Geneva, Zurich (Switzerland), Larnaca (Cyprus), Bucharest (Romania), Kiev (Ukraine)
  • America: New York, Washington (United States), Toronto (Canada)
  • Asia: Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Dubai (United Arab Emirates), Buraidah, Tabuk, Ta’if, Yanbu, Jeddah, Riyadh, Medina, Abha, Jizan, Dammam (Saudi Arabia), Aqaba, Amman (Jordan), Tel Aviv (Israel), Kuwait, Seoul (South Korea), Baku (Azerbaijan), Baghdad, Erbil, Najaf, Basra, Sulaimaniyah (Iraq), Bahrain (Bahrain), Bangkok (Thailand), Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Chengdu (China), Beirut (Lebanon), Istanbul (Turkey), Mumbai (India), Muscat (Oman), Tokyo (Japan), Damascus, Latakia (Syria), Aden, Seiyun (Yemen)
  • Africa: Algiers (Algeria), Khartoum, Port Sudan (Sudan), Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Abuja, Kano, Lagos (Nigeria), Accra (Ghana), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Asmara (Eritrea), Casablanca (Morocco), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Douala (Cameroon), Entebbe (Uganda), Johannesburg (South Africa), Juba (South Sudan), Kigali (Rwanda), Nairobi (Kenya), N’Djamena (Chad), Tunis (Tunisia)
  • Egypt (domestic flights): Sohag, Aswan, Hurghada, Luxor, Sharm El Sheikh, Abu Simbel, Alexandria, Marsa Alam.

Various modes of transportation are available to connect Cairo International Airport, located in the Heliopolis area, to the city center. Although public buses are an option, they can be uncomfortable and chaotic for those not accustomed to them, so it is advisable to opt for taxis or shuttle buses categorized as A, B, C, or D depending on their size and class. The route to the city center via the El Orouba highway is straightforward, but patience is necessary in case of traffic congestion. In the future, the airport will have its own Metro station (Line 3).

Navigating Cairo

Once you arrive in Cairo, there are several ways to travel around the city and see all the sights it has to offer. Keep in mind that public transportation can be crowded, chaotic, and not always punctual. However, private solutions like taxis or rental cars with a driver are more flexible and offer reasonable prices. Here are the main modes of transportation you can use in Cairo:

  • Metro: the only suburban transport in Egypt, it runs both underground and above ground lines, connecting distant parts of the city. It is widely used by locals due to its affordable fares. Cairo’s metro has three lines, including:
    • Line 1 (Blue): Helwan to El Marg
    • Line 2 (Red): Shobra El Kheima to El Mounib
    • Line 3 (Green): Attaba to Adly Mansour
  • Urban bus: though not the most comfortable option, urban buses can be helpful to reach certain locations, such as the Pyramids of Giza at a lower cost than taxis. Cairo’s bus network operates from two main stations, Midan Ataba and Midan Abdel Moniem Riad. Microbuses, smaller in size, are mainly used by locals.
  • River bus: while not very practical, river buses offer a different perspective of the city, particularly in the Old Cairo and Giza areas. Private ferries provide a more comfortable experience, but there are several stops where river buses operate, including the Cairo University and Zoo.
  • Taxi: the most recommended option to move around Cairo and visit different landmarks. The white taxis are more modern, with air conditioning becoming increasingly available, while the black and white ones are older. For female travelers, there are also pink taxis, driven by women for women. The standard rate starts at 2.50 LE for the initial flag down and 1.25 LE per kilometer. Taxis can also be hired for longer trips, for which the fare should be negotiated with the driver.

At Egipto Exclusivo, we offer comprehensive travel solutions for your Cairo trip, so you can leave all your worries to us. Our fleet of chauffeur-driven vehicles is available round the clock, ensuring that you have a comfortable and stress-free ride. Our vehicles are spacious, air-conditioned, and driven by experienced and professional drivers who can communicate with you in your preferred language. With us, you can sit back and enjoy your journey, without having to worry about transportation logistics.

Tourist Offices and Practical Information in Cairo

If you need more information about what to see in Cairo, how to get around, or what events are happening during your stay, there are several tourist offices available. Here are the three main ones:

  • Main office: located at 5 Sharia Adly, near Opera Square.
  • Ramses Train Station office
  • Pyramids office: located in Giza, right in front of the Mena House Hotel, but can also provide information about the city of Cairo.

It’s always a good idea to have some emergency phone numbers handy, which always have the prefix of Cairo (02). They are:

  • Ambulance: 02123
  • Fire department: 02180
  • Police: 02122. Note that there is a tourist police force dedicated to assisting tourists, and they are quite diligent.

As for schedules, each museum and establishment may have their own, but generally, the opening hours are from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and working days are from Sunday to Thursday. Friday is considered a sacred day for the Muslim population.

Plan your trip to Cairo

Enjoy experiences
Enjoy experiences
Change your currency (Spain only)
Change your currency (Spain only)
Vuelos muy baratos Cairo
Very cheap flights
Rent your car
Rent your car
Sign up for Wifi or telephone
Sign up for Wifi or telephone

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