My first day in the city sees me seize the many offerings of Zamalek, the glamorous northern part of the Gezira island on the Nile. Dotted with elegant townhouses, Zamalek houses embassies from all over the world. Away from the chaos, its tree-lined streets march to the beats of a gentler drum, with trendy cafés and restaurants, and well-behaved traffic usually whizzing towards the majestic Cairo Opera House.
Begin your day at Left Bank, a river-side café that offers a smattering of buttery breakfast options, from Western offerings like muffins and croissants, to the traditional, heartily indulgent Cairene breakfast. The generous spread consists of slabs of feta cheese, sprinkled with tomatoes, accompanied by local staples like falafel and a flavourful fava bean dish called fulmedames. Two eggs cooked in a style you like round up this morning meal, eaten in Cairo’s chic setting, against the backdrop of the Nile. A meal for two here costs EGP350/Rs1,370.
Calling the Cairo Tower a tourist trap would be harsh but accurate. Go anyway, for the only other way to get a bird’s-eye view of the city is a helicopter ride, or a visit to the higher floors of a five-star hotel in the neighbourhood. The immediate landscape of the island is a geometric splatter of pools and grassy grounds, belonging to neighbouring Al Ahly and Gezira sporting clubs, membership to which is often limited to Cairo’s elite and athletic. The bursts of breeze on its towering terrace are refreshing, as you see bridges stretch out toward the city from the island, and cars speeding along by the banks of the Nile. The quiet at this hour is a relief from the flow of tourists, which usually begins toward the evening, when Cairo Tower is bejewelled with colourful lights. The café located just under the terrace is a promising spot for a light meal, coffee, and a changing panorama of Cairo, as the sun descends. It is open between 9 a.m.-1 a.m., and tickets are priced at EGP180/Rs705.
The most prominent structure in the National Culture Centre, Cairo Opera House is a well-appointed performance venue. With a main auditorium that seats 1,200, one can go here in formal finery for a performance by Cairo’s finest music groups. The elegant room is split across four levels, tailor-made for opera and ballet performances by the touring global groups it frequently hosts when the theatre is not staging its own repertoire. Also worth a visit on the campus is an open-air theatre with delightful acoustics, and a thoughtfully curated Museum of Modern Egyptian Art which displays the works of local artists across mediums—painting, sculpture, and other mixed media. The museum, which I visited for free, remains closed on Mondays and Fridays and is open from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. on all other days (www.cairoopera.org).
Visiting the architectural stronghold of Christianity in Egypt without a quality guide is unwise. Outfits such as Walk like an Egyptian, among others, provide well-informed, English-speaking guides for the purpose, and for other places of historical interest across Cairo.
Start by gazing at the Roman ruins, as your guide walks you through the empire’s time in the city. Proceed to The Hanging Church, named for its vivid location above a gate leading into the Roman Empire’s Babylon Fortress. After climbing 29 steps, one enters a grand room to marvel at ornate walls, carved pillars, and benches featuring woodwork under a high-vaulted roof. Proceed to Saint Serguis and Bacchus Church, which sports a brick-exposed interior, believed to be built at the spot where the holy family rested after their Egyptian excursion. Its most curious feature is a 10-foot-deep crypt, revered for its reputation as a resting spot for Mary, and Joseph and infant Jesus.
While the main attractions of Coptic Cairo are its churches, there is also a small, sepia-toned market underneath the main street, featuring a jewellery shop and well-priced books about Egyptian architecture and history.
Built during the Mamluk period, the massive Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan is an ambitious attempt for the 14th century. The mosque has been thoughtfully designed to include the four schools of Sunni thought: Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanafi and Hanbali in enclaves inside its 118-foot-high walls. Commissioned under the patronage of Sultan an-NasirHasan despite a steep daily cost of 30,000 dirham, this structure remains incomplete. It never fulfilled its eventual purpose of holding his body, which was not found after his assassination. The Sultan gave Egypt one of its grandest mosques, still among the largest in the world. Its architecture features the decorative chinoiserie style, right next to an ornate entrance indicating Egypt’s trade ties with China over 600 years ago. The curious egg-shaped dome is made of wood. Past the entrance, lamps hang from the mammoth ceiling, with the mosque’s tallest point being a 223-foot-tall minaret.
Wind down with a stop at Al-Azhar Park, Cairo’s greenest urban attraction. The gated park, opened in 2005, was originally a landfill, transformed at the initiative of Agha Khan IV, 49th and current Imam of NizariIsmailism. Sprawling over 30 hectares of central city land, it is a veritable oasis in the urban hustle of Cairo.
Bordered by a 12th century Ayyubid dynasty wall, the gardens in the park follow traditional Islamic architecture, with prominent waterways and walkways gently dividing the green space into cosier enclaves. A variety of food courts and restaurants overlook wide views of the city, including the historic Mosque of Muhammad Ali on the western horizon. You’ll find the park filled with yoga classes, couples by fish ponds, and children playing by the fountains with families watching from nearby benches. Visit an hour before sunset to bask in the golden light, and watch the light change across the park and the city. Entry is EGP20/Rs78.
One of the largest museums in the region, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, commonly known as the Egyptian Museum or Museum of Cairo, is a must visit—with an Egyptologist in tow. Guides are usually found by the ticket counter, and can be hired on an hourly basis. Inside, the grand ground floor features a collection of New Kingdom (1550–1069 B.C.) objects, including a variety of traditional coffins arranged by style, withering scrolls of papyrus, and coins from across kingdoms and cultures, largely Islamic, Greek, and Roman. The first floor houses two rooms of mummies, arranged with notes on ingredients used in the processing of each body, often with obvious and visible effects.
The most-viewed attraction at the museum is Tutankhamun’s tomb, displayed in its entirety on the first floor, alongside his bust, a series of complex gold coffins, and more gold trinkets, objects and jewellery than one would expect to see in a lifetime. The museum is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and tickets to the museum cost EGP120/Rs470, with an additional EGP150/Rs587 for entering The Royal Mummies Hall.
Cairo’s largest and most vibrant tourist souk, Khan El-Khalili, offers a promising collection of shops. Known for its semi-precious and precious jewellery, the marketplace has trinkets of every colour and price, and is a good spot for souvenir shopping. Originally built as a mausoleum for the Fatimid caliphs, the structure underwent sea changes since, eventually re-modeled in the 16th century by Sultan al-Ghuri. Inspired by the Ottoman style, it closely resembles a Turkish bazaar.
Drop by the 100-year-old café Fishawi for its sepia-steeped ambience—known for having hosted local and international celebrities—Egyptian Nobel Laureate author Naguib Mahfouz and more recently, Will Smith—over the years. An ideal order would include mint tea or the hibiscus-based karkade, considered Egypt’s national drink, with a shisha on the side. You will probably need the shisha after all the bargaining at the souk. Fun fact: Most of the shops decide their own timing. An Egyptian-style coffee at Fishawi, which is open 24×7, costs EGP20/Rs78.
Dubbed the ‘world’s largest open air museum of Islamic monuments,’ Muizz Street comes into its own after sunset. Located a short walk north of Khan El-Khalili, this bustling walk is flanked by some of Egypt’s oldest and grandest structures. A stroll can unveil architecture from dynasties that have ruled the city in different eras—from the Fatimid dynasty in 970 A.D. to the more recent Pasha rule, of which famed emperor Muhammad Ali was the most prominent. Home to the Qalawun Complex, it also houses a spectacular masoulem, and prominent Mamluk architecture, including the precious sight of a minaret within a dome.
At night, the entire street lights up. Enjoy traditional Egyptian street food like shish taouk, hamammahshi (Egyptian braised pigeon), and mahshi (stuffed grape leaves), against the rich backdrop. Remember to go with a history book or a guide.