Yes, we know. You came to see the pyramids. But there is a lot more to discover in Cairo – a chaotic, confusing city that reels you in with its contradictions. On this corner, a limousine cruises by a donkey cart. On that corner, Mameluke domes sit beside modern skyscrapers. With its contemporary culture and ancient traditions, Cairo is a city that spans the centuries. Dare to dream of a post-COVID escape to Egypt with this guide.
You can’t leave Egypt without visiting the great pyramid of Khufu (formerly known as Cheops), but it’s not the only thing to explore on the plateau at Giza, just outside Cairo. You could spend the best part of a day out here discovering the pyramids, the mighty Sphinx, and a range of ancient tombs. Travellers in the post-COVID world will also be among the first to set foot in the highly anticipated Grand Egyptian Museum, which was set to open in 2020 but will be held back until 2021 (hopefully when some international borders have reopened).
Less than an hour from Cairo, the Saqqara Necropolis is Egypt’s largest archaeological site, covering more than 16 hectares. For more than 3500 years, this was where Egypt’s royals, nobles and military leaders were buried, and it is where you will find Egypt’s oldest pyramid – the Step Pyramid of Djoser. Other highlights include the richly decorated mastabas (mudbrick tombs) of Kagemni and Mererukka, and the Imhotep Museum, which was built in honour of famous architect Imhotep, who constructed Ancient Egypt’s first pyramid – the Pyramid of Djoser.
In medieval times, Cairo was one of the grandest cities of the world, and historic Shari Al Muizz street was its Fifth Avenue. Even today, you get a feel for how imposing it must have been when the city’s elite made their homes here in grand palace complexes. The best time to visit is dusk, when coloured lights liven up the cafes, caravanserais (roadside accommodation for caravan travellers) and mosques.
Grab a riverside seat at La Palmeraie in Sofitel Gezirah, where they serve not just drinks but also delicious Moroccan food. During the day, you have a close-up view of the Nile; at night, softly glowing lamps dial up the romance factor.
Want a taste of old Cairo? In the alleyways surrounding the Khan al-Khalili market sits El-Fishawy, the city’s oldest café. They have been serving guests since 1797 – the year before Napolean invaded Egypt. Arabesque interiors, handmade furniture and copper chandeliers add to the atmosphere.
Blessed with a lovely rooftop setting, Crimson Bar and Grill is known both for its classy cocktails and superior wine list. Book ahead if you plan on staying for dinner, and be aware that the outdoor seating books out well ahead.
The most memorable sleep in Cairo is actually just out of town. The Mena House Hotel at Giza, originally built as a royal hunting lodge, is rich in atmosphere, and gives its guests a wonderfully up-close view of the pyramids. It is one of the few places in the world where you can gaze in awe at ancient monuments while you enjoy your breakfast.
If Cleopatra were barging her way up the Nile today, the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at the First Residence is the sort of place where she might disembark. The rooms are palatial, with inviting beds and marble bathrooms, and the service is simply superb.
There are half a dozen “Zooba” chain outlets in Cairo, known for their cheap and cheerful Egyptian street food favourites. This is a great place to try local dishes such as ful (mashed fava beans flavoured with cumin and onion), hawawshi (pita bread stuffed with pulling-apart beef, onions and peppers) and ta’ameya (the local take on falafel). Zooba offers versions pepped up with eggplant or pickled lemon.
Abou Tarek started out in Cairo with a street stall but these days, he presides over a four-storey restaurant that bears his name and specialises in just one dish: koshary. Regarded as Egypt’s national dish, this combination of rice, macaroni, lentils, and chickpeas, topped with a tomato sauce and fried onions, is a must-try.
Seafood lovers will want to order up big at Gandofli, Cairo’s most popular chain of seafood restaurants. The creamy seafood soup, served in a kettle, is the top pick among the entrees. For main, try one of the fish dishes or enjoy a serve of the namesake gandofli – steamed clams spritzed with lemon.
Egypt’s flourishing art scene sets the pace for the entire Arab world, and Picasso Gallery is a good place to get a feel for some of the artists who are making their mark here. Look for pieces by Amina Salem, whose portraits comprise Arabic calligraphy tackling gender issues, and the real works of Samir Rafi.
The life-size sculpture of a water buffalo by the door is a sign that you have arrived at Ubuntu, a gallery that champions up-and-coming Egyptian artists. Works by the big names of tomorrow, including painters, sculptors and ceramicists, are all on display.
Hands-down winner of the award for most imposing art space is Al Masar Gallery, where the tall ceilings and elegant interiors provide the perfect backdrop for works by some of Egypt’s best-known artists including Hazem Taha Hussein, known for his layered canvases.
Since its launch 20-odd years ago, Caravanserai has been so successful that it now has three outlets in Cairo, all located a short walk from each other in the upmarket Zamalek neighbourhood. Its coveted goods include beautiful homewares – from bowls to bedding – sourced from around the world as well as the store’s own line of furniture and furnishings.
You will find goods from around the country on display at Fair Trade Egypt, from hand-woven cotton to beaded jewellery and Bedouin rugs. Not only do these traditional wares make for fabulous souvenirs, but you can be assured the goods have been fairly traded and that the proceeds of your purchase go directly to communities in need.
If you’re a sucker for stationery, don’t miss a visit to Abd el Saher, Cairo’s last working bookbinder. You can pick up lovely notebooks bound in leather or oil paper, or have your favourite book bound and embossed with your own initials. A great place to pick up an unusual gift.