Land of the Pharaohs and Pyramids, Cairo is a place of history and culture. The capital of Egypt offers a lot to do. Read this complete guide to the most interesting places to see and visit.
A millenary land of culture, Cairo is a treasure chest of beauty ready to be discovered. The capital of Egypt is located on the Nile River, in the north-eastern part of the country, and is a concentrate of over six thousand years of history: from pyramids to mosques, from bazaars to citadels, from the Coptic quarter to the Egyptian museum.
The city of Cairo is also striking for its contrasts between ancient and modern. The Old Town, east of the Nile, built according to the canons of Islamic architecture, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since the 19th century, Cairo has also been growing on the west side of the river, giving way to more modern, linearly designed architecture.
However, the land of the pharaohs must be discovered slowly, without being overwhelmed by the confusion of a metropolis of over 16 million inhabitants, the largest and most important city in Egypt. In "One Thousand and One Nights" we read: "Whoever has not seen Cairo has not seen the world". We, therefore, head out on a discovery of this city, starting from the historical center of Islamic Cairo.
Between mosques and bazaars, a tour of Islamic Cairo
Islamic Cairo preserves the highest concentration of medieval Islamic monuments in Egypt. Cairo's historic center is located in the heart of the metropolitan area, an open-air museum of decorated palaces, domes, and minarets. Non-Muslims are also allowed to access Islamic monuments, but they have to take off their shoes and wear suitable clothes.
Our tour starts at the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, the Old Town market dating back to 1400 AD. The souq is one of Cairo's main attractions: a maze of alleys, stores, and workshops, where you can buy traditional products such as metal lamps, handcrafted fabrics, and spices. Walking along a trail of unique sounds, scents, and colors, you might also want to sip a cup of tea at the El Fishawi Café, the oldest and most famous coffee shop in Cairo.
The entrance to the bazaar is opposite the El-Azhar mosque. Built in 972 BC, it is also one of the oldest Islamic universities in the world and the main Islamic theology center. Inside is also the tomb of the founder of the university, Jawhar al-Siqilli, a general of Sicilian origin who is also credited with founding the city of Cairo.
Nearby is the mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein, open only to Muslims. Built in 1154, it is believed to hold a sacred relic, the head of Al-Hussein, Mohammed's nephew, whose followers, the Shiites, oppose the Sunnites (who consider the Umayyads the legitimate successors of the prophet).
Moving south we find one of the most important Mameluke testimonies in the city, the mosque and the madrassa of Sultan Hassan, a complex dating back to 1362 known for its size (as it’s the tallest minaret in the city) and for the giant octagonal fountain inside it.
Not far from here is the mosque of Ibn Tulun, with its splendid minaret with the characteristic helical external staircase. At its top, instead of the classic crescent moon, is the reproduction of a miniature boat, which makes it the only of its kind in Cairo.
The citadel of Cairo and the city of the dead
Just behind this mosque, we can see another important monument in the city, the Citadel of Saladin, a fortress built by the sultan Saladin in the 12th century against the attacks of the Crusaders. From the high rocky platform, the Citadel of Cairo dominates the whole city. Originally a military post and later the residence of the governors of Egypt, today the Citadel is also home to the National Military Museum.
Once you have passed the large square, just look up to see the mosque of Muhammad Ali, which is located in one of the highest points of the Citadel. Nicknamed "alabaster mosque" for its white stone, you probably will notice the tall minarets, which retain part of the original cladding of blue and green ceramic.
There are many interesting places to visit in Cairo, including the so-called "city of the dead". What was and still is the city’s Muslim cemetery, since the middle of the last century, with the surge in population, it has become a real citadel. The increase in population dates back to the 1930s when the poorest families in search of housing decided to move to the old abandoned cemetery. Each Mamluk family owned a chapel with a small plot of land attached and no local government opposed the construction of thousands of free houses, but without any permission. Today the area is perhaps a place with a macabre taste, but certainly unique, where time seems to have stopped forever.
The Coptic Quarter of Cairo: the Churches and the Synagogue
The Coptic quarter is also part of the Old Town, a testimony of the Greek-Roman city of Babylon in Egypt, at the time the seat of the Coptic Christian community in Cairo. Among the places to visit there are certainly the ruins of the fortress of Babylon, built by the Persians on the banks of the Nile. Just behind the walls of the fortress is the Coptic Museum, which tells the story of the Coptic period in Egypt. On the upper floor of the museum, some examples of silk fabrics are on display, for which the Copts were famous, in addition to what is considered the oldest existing book, a Coptic version of the Psalms of David dating back 1600 years. The museum is easily accessible by subway, heading south to Mar Girgis station. Open every day, except during Ramadan, when it is open for fewer hours.
A stop at the Church of the Holy Virgin Mary, called "the Suspended Church", is a must because it is almost "suspended" between two Romanesque towers. Another very beautiful church is the Church of Saint George, with a circular plan, dating back to the 10th century, but largely rebuilt following a fire in 1904. Nearby is the Church of St. Sergius, dating from the fifth century, one of the most venerated places: it seems to have been built on the site where the Holy Family found refuge during the Flight into Egypt.
Continuing along the road, we reach the 9th century Ben Ezra Synagogue, the oldest in Egypt: the ambient is gathered around a single room, where there are some manuscripts dating from the archaic period of Egyptian Judaism. Another interesting building in the area is the Church of Saint Barbara, from the eleventh century, killed by her father for trying to convert her to Christianity, and which houses her relics.
The Egyptian Museum and the Cairo Tower
We continue our journey to Cairo moving towards its most modern part. The large central square, Tahrir Square, is has become notorious of late because it was the stage for the recent Egyptian revolution that took place in 2011 against former President Mubarak, better known as the "Arab Spring". This is the site of the Egyptian Museum, with the richest collection of Egyptian artifacts in the world. There are many statues dating back to Ancient Egypt, Middle, and New Kingdom. The room with the sarcophagi, the one dedicated to the pharaoh Akhenaten and his son Tutankhamon, as well as the room of jewelry and mummies, are quite the spectacle. The museum can be visited every day for a fee. From 2020 it will be moved to a new location in Giza, next to the pyramids.
Crossing the capital, the Nile forms two islands, Roda and Gezira, residential areas with lots of greenery around them. Another symbol of the city was built south of Gezira, the Tower of Cairo or Cairo Tower, 187 meters high. Built in the 1950s, the tower has a metal structure that opens slightly at the top, imitating the shape of the lotus flower, a sacred Egyptian symbol. The tower offers a wonderful view of the city, especially at sunset. In the west, in the distance, you can even catch a glimpse of the pyramids.
The Pyramids of Egypt: the necropolis of Giza and the Sphinx
About 20 km southwest of Cairo is Giza, a town on the western bank of the Nile famous for hosting one of the most important necropolis of ancient Egypt, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It includes the three Pyramids of Giza, whose construction dates back to about 4500 years ago when the pharaohs erected these monumental structures for their burial.
The largest and oldest of the complex (147 meters) is the Pyramid of Cheops, the only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world still visible today; inside it archeologists found, in addition to the underground chamber, the Queen's Chamber and the King's Chamber, although neither the body nor the funerary outfit of Cheops was ever found. The Pyramid of Chephren belongs to the son of Cheops, who succeeded his father as king. Although it was designed on a smaller scale (136 meters high), a 10-meter base makes it look like the largest in the complex. Finally, the Pyramid of Mycerinus, "only" 66 meters high: made of blocks of stone larger than those used in other structures, it had to be covered with white limestone.
The famous Sphinx of Giza, located on an enormous stone platform, is part of the Chefren funeral complex. The statue is an imposing lion with a human head 73 meters long and 20 meters high, which was supposed to protect the pharaoh. The missing nose was destroyed in the 14th century during the reign of Sheikh Saim-ed-Dahr. Famous is the enigma that the Sphinx would have addressed to travelers, strangling those who could not solve it: "What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, three legs in the evening, and no legs at night? Oedipus gave the correct answer: Man.
What to eat in Cairo
Cairo's cuisine is very simple but enriched with spicy sauces such as garlic "dakka" and sesame "tahina". Among the typical dishes there is certainly the "koshari", a first course made with rice and pasta and seasoned with chickpeas, peppers and fried onions; the "fuul", broad-bean puree with oil, parsley and other aromas; and the "babaganoush", made with eggplants, peppers and sesame.
Among the dishes to be eaten in Cairo is the "bamyya", a lamb or chicken stew with rice and vegetables, and the "molokyya", a meat dish seasoned with bitter herbs. To accompany all dishes there is the traditional bread, the "pita", a medium-thick loaf baked in the oven.
At the end of the meal, don't miss the "katalef", a fried sweet stuffed with walnuts and almonds. The typical non-alcoholic drink that is used to bring to the table is the "salhab", made from milk, rosewater and pistachio, but also the aromatic tea, the "karkadé" and the "zabib", distilled aniseed.
To enter Egypt, you need a passport with a residual validity of at least six months, or an identity card (paper or electronic) valid for expatriation with a residual validity of six months accompanied by two passport photos, necessary in order to obtain a visa that is issued by the border authorities on arrival in the country. Extended identity cards with a paper or stamped coupon will not be accepted.
An entry visa is always necessary but, whereas for business stays it must be requested before departure at your home country’s Consulate or Embassy in Egypt, for tourist stays it is also issued at airports.
The website to apply for the first departure visa online is: www.visa2egypt.gov.eg
Cairo is a city visited all year round thanks to its subtropical climate. The best seasons to visit Cairo, however, are spring and autumn, with days that are not too hot and not too rainy. Several events and festivals take place throughout the year, such as the anniversary of the birth of the prophet in March; the celebrations of the end of Ramadan in September; the Cairo International Film Festival in July; or the "Wafaa el Nil Festival", a large folk festival dedicated to the Nile, in August.