Cairo Travel Guide


Central Cairo
As the city's main square and focal point, Midan Tahrir is badly lacking in splendour. Still, most visitors end up spending a lot of time here because it's home to the Egyptian Museum and central to many hotels. Chief of these is the first modern hotel to be built in Cairo, the Nile Hilton. Although aged and surpassed in luxury and amenities by the countless five-star hotels built since, the hotel remains a vibrant favourite with locals for lunch and as a wedding venue. Nearby, the upper floor of the Ali Baba Cafeteria, near the American University in Cairo is a good place to watch the goings-on outside.

Northeast of Midan Tahrir, within the triangle of Tahrir, Midan Ramses and Midan Ataba, is Downtown. Centred on Midan Talaat Harb, Downtown is the noisy, busy unmistakeable commercial heart of Cairo. Its streets are packed with glitzy shops and above is a beehive of countless thousands of small, dusty businesses. Much grand architecture remains but the character of the area has changed considerably from its cosmopolitan, cafe-society heyday. Look up at the surviving architectural gems as you walk around to catch a glimpse of a far more elegant Paris-on-the-Nile-era Cairo. Imagine wide, tree-lined boulevards, tearooms, grand hotels and open-air cafes with dance bands.

Further out, the Manial Palace Museum, built in the early 20th century for an uncle of King Farouk's, has some wonderfully overblown interiors; a thoroughly overstocked Hunting Museum - animal lovers beware; and a private Throne Hall complete with red carpet, gilt furniture and ranked portraits of illustrious forebears. The magnificent garden, with its diverse variety of trees and plants, is the largest private garden in Cairo and well worth a visit.

Egyptian Museum
More than 100,000 antiquities from almost every period of ancient Egyptian history are housed in the Egyptian Museum. With so much to see, trying to get around everything in one go is liable to induce Pharaonic phatigue. The best strategy is to make a couple of visits.

Without doubt, the exhibit that outshines everything else is the treasure of the young New Kingdom pharaoh Tutankhamun - don't miss the astonishing solid-gold death mask.

Other highlights include the Royal Mummy Room; the Amarna Room, devoted to Akhenaten, the 'heretic king' portrayed with Mick Jagger-like lips; the Graeco-Roman Mummies; the glittering galleries in Room 2 that display an astounding array of finery extracted from New Kingdom tombs found at the Delta site of Tanis; and the larger-than-life-size statue of Khafre (Chephren), which many consider to be the museum's masterpiece.

Giza Pyramids
The Pyramids at Giza are the best known of the ancient pyramids. Part of a massive necropolis attached to the ancient capital of Memphis, their wonder lies in their age and in the twin mysteries of how they were built and what for. The key sites to visit are Giza, closest to Cairo, as well as Abu Sir, Memphis, Saqqara and Dahshur.

They are the sole survivors of the Seven Wonders of the World and the planet's oldest tourist attraction. Built by successive generations of pharaohs, they were already more than 2500 years old at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ. Despite all the evidence, there are still those who refuse to accept that the ancient Egyptians were capable of such a stupendous achievement.

The oldest pyramid at Giza and the largest in Egypt, the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) stood 146m (478ft) high when it was completed around 2600 BC. About 2.3 million limestone blocks, weighing around 2.5 tonnes each, were used in the construction of this giant. Although there is not much to see inside the pyramid, the experience of climbing through such an ancient structure is unforgettable. Along the eastern and southern sides of the pyramid are five long pits that once contained the pharaoh's boats. You can see one of the boats in the Solar Boat Museum.

Southwest of Khufu is the Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren). At first it seems larger than Khufu because it stands on higher ground and its peak still has part of the original limestone casing that once covered the entire structure. Check out the substantial remains of Khafre's mortuary temple outside to the east. At a height of 62m (203ft), the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus) is the smallest of the three pyramids. A deep gash in the north face is the result of an unsuccessful attempt by a caliph to dismantle the pyramid in 1186.

Known in Arabic as Abu al-Hol (Father of Terror), the Sphinx is carved from the natural bedrock at the bottom of the causeway to Khafre's pyramid. Recent geological and archaelogical survey has shown that the Sphinx most likely dates from Khafre's reign, and probably portrays his features, framed by the striped nemes headcloth worn only by royal personages. Unfortunately the monument is suffering the stone equivalent of cancer, and recent restoration attempts have sped up, rather than halted, the decay. The gaudy sound and light show held near the Sphinx is a fairly expensive, though amusing, way to see the Pyramids at night.

This suburb of Cairo was conceived as an exclusive 'garden city' in the desert, intended to house the European officials who ruled Egypt, although it also attracted the Egyptian upper classes. Construction on a desert site northeast of Cairo began in 1906, using an odd European-Moorish architectural style - a European fantasy of the Orient set in stone. In the 1950s, however, overcrowding in Cairo caught up with this not-so-distant neighbour and the former desert barrier was breached by a creeping tide of middle-income high-rises. Ranks of apartment buildings festooned with satellite TV dishes now greatly outnumber the graceful old villas, but Heliopolis remains an upmarket address: the president resides here, as do most of his ministers and the odd deposed head of an African state.

While there are few must-see sights in this elegantly faded suburb, the area is a great place to stroll free from the crowds of Downtown. It's at its best around dusk, when pinkening skies add atmosphere and bats start to flit between the trees. The suburb's most extraordinary sight is the Baron's Palace (Qasr al-Baron). The personal residence of Baron Empain, it was modelled - for no known reason - on the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Other highlights include the Basilica, a miniature version of Istanbul's famous Aya Sofia, and Sharia Ibrahim Laqqany, lined with fantastical architecture. The best way to get to Heliopolis is the airport bus (No 356), which can be caught behind the Egyptian Museum in Midan Abdel Moniem Riad.

Islamic Cairo
World Heritage-listed Islamic Cairo is the old medieval metropolis, stretching from the northern walls and gates of Al-Qahira down to Fustat in the south. Unchanged over the centuries, the neighbourhood is a maze of narrow, twisting alleyways lined with splendid mosques and medieval facades. Vans compete for right of way with donkeys and carts, and boys with impossibly laden barrows. Remember to dress appropriately if you're planning to take in some mosques, and take your shoes off before entering prayer halls. Most mosques are closed to visitors during prayer times.

By far the best place to enter Islamic Cairo is the great bazar, Khan al-Khalili. Jaundiced travellers glibly dismiss this as a tourist trap, but Cairenes have plied their trades here since the 14th century and it's possible to find almost anything for sale. From the bazar, head north up the side of the Mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein, one of the most sacred Islamic sites in Egypt, toward the old northern gates. The square-towered Bab an-Nasr (Gate of Victory) and the rounded Bab al-Futuh (Gate of Conquests) were built in 1087 as the two main northern entrances to the new, walled Fatimid city.

South of Khan al-Khalili, a busy market street runs down to the twin-minareted gate of Bab Zuweila, the sole surviving gate from the old city's southern wall. The view from the minarets is one of Cairo's best - access is through the Mosque of Al-Muayyad. Continuing south from Bab Zuweila, you pass through the Street of the Tentmakers, Cairo's only remaining medieval covered bazar, filled with artisans specialising in applique work and ceremonial tents. You emerge in a large square dominated by the 1356 Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan and the more modern Mosque of Ar-Rifai.

Other highlights of Islamic Cairo within easy walking distance include the Citadel, home to Egypt's rulers for 700 years, whose impressive fortifications offer superb panoramas of the city. The nearby Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan is the finest piece of Mamluk architecture in Cairo, while the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Qalaun is one of the most lavishly decorated Mamluk interiors. The Northern Cemetery, where the city's homeless squat cheek to jowl with the city's dead in mausoleums, is home to the Mosque of Qaitbey, whose exquisitely carved dome is a must-see. The Southern Cemetery hosts the rococo Haush al-Basha tomb complex, a riot of decidedly non-funerary color. There's also the Museum of Islamic Art, which has one of the world's finest collections of Islamic applied art. James Bond fans may recognise the Orientalist fantasy Gayer-Anderson Museum, the only fully furnished medieval house in the city, from The Spy Who Loved Me.

Old Cairo
Once known as Babylon, this ancient part of Cairo predates the coming of Islam and is the seat of the Coptic Christian community. The area's heartland is a small, tightly walled compound known as Coptic Cairo. Once hosting more than 20 churches within less than a square kilometer, this number is now down to five. It remains a haven of tranquility, although there won't be much peace until reconstruction work to halt damage from rising groundwater ends in 2002; currently many monuments are in disarray. Pick of the crop is the Coptic Museum, which houses Coptic art from Graeco-Roman times to the Islamic era. Also worth a visit are the Al-Muallaqa (Hanging Church) and St Sergius church, on whose site the Holy Family are reputed to have sought shelter in a cave during their Flight into Egypt.

Old Cairo is also home to the city's remaining Jewish population. The area's Ben Ezra Synagogue, Egypt's oldest, is said to be where the prophet Jeremiah gathered the Jews after they fled from Nebuchadnezzar, destroyer of their Jerusalem temple. There is also a spring which is supposed to mark the place where the pharaoh's daughter found Moses in the reeds, and where Mary drew water to wash the baby Jesus. The easiest way to get to Old Cairo from Midan Tahrir is via the Mar Girgis metro station.

Off the Beaten Track

Al-Fayoum Oasis
Taking in an area 70km (43mi) wide and 60km (37mi) long, including the lake Birket Qarun, Al-Fayoum is Egypt's largest oasis. Home to two million people, it is an intricately irrigated and extremely fertile basin watered by the Nile via hundreds of capillary canals that were first built by 12th-dynasty pharaohs. It was a favourite vacation spot for 13th-dynasty pharaohs, who built fine palaces, and later was named Crocodilopolis by the Greeks, who believed the lake's crocodiles were sacred. These days the region is revered for its lush vegetation and abundant crops, and amazing variety of birdlife.

There isn't a whole lot to do at Al-Fayoum, and the grimy Medinat al-Fayoum (Fayoum City) should be avoided at all costs. Qasr Qarun and the Pyramid of Meidum are deserving of a visit, the vicinity of the lake is attractive and the desert scenery around Wadi Rayyan, just beyond Al-Fayoum, is gorgeous. The oasis is about 100km (62mi) southwest of Cairo, and because it's so spread out, having your own transport is best.

Birqash Camel Market (Souq al-Gamaal)
A visit to Egypt's largest camel market, on the edge of the Western Desert, makes for a wild contrast to Cairo city life. The market is an easy half-day trip from Cairo but, like all of Egypt's animal markets, it's not for the faint-hearted. Hundreds of camels are swapped here daily, most having made the long haul up the 40 Days Road from western Sudan.

Some 20km (12.4mi) south of Saqqara in a quiet patch of desert, Dahshur is an impressive field of 4th- and 12th-dynasty pyramids. An off-limits military zone until 1996, as yet there are few touts or guides so you can enjoy the monuments in peace. There were originally 11 pyramids at the site, although only the Bent and Red Pyramids remain intact.

The Bent Pyramid is so named for its change from a 54° to a 43°-angle during building, after the structure showed signs of stress. A rare thing among the pyramids around Cairo, it still has most of its outer casing intact. The Red Pyramid is the world's first true pyramid, and represents the lessons learnt from the Bent Pyramid. It is named for its red-toned limestone inner casing, though some say it's due to the red graffiti scribbled on it in ancient times. Both pyramids were built by Pharaoh Sneferu, father of Khufu and founder of the 4th dynasty. The same height, the two pyramids are the third-largest in Egypt, after the Great Pyramid and Pyramid of Chephren at Giza.

The simplest way to visit Dahshur is as part of a tour to Saqqara and Memphis. Alternatively, you could hire a taxi and cover Abu Sir, Memphis and Saqqara on the way.

Port Said
Situated on the northern entrance to the Suez Canal on the Mediterranean coast, Port Said is a very young city by Egyptian standards. It was founded in 1859 by ruler Said Pasha when excavations began for the Suez Canal.

Port Said was bombed in 1956 during the Suez Crisis, and again in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel; the damage can still be seen here and there, although the city was extensively rebuilt. The original settlement was established on land reclaimed from Lake Manzala, and the city sits on an isthmus connected by causeways to the mainland. Ferries cross Lake Manzala to Al-Matariyya and across the canal to Port Fuad.

There isn't much left of the former Pharaonic capital of Memphis, 24km (15mi) south of Cairo, although the museum contains a fairly impressive statue of Ramses II. The real reason for heading out here is to see the pyramids, temples and tombs strewn around Saqqara, the heart of Memphis' ancient necropolis, 3km (1.8mi) away from the former capital.

The star attraction here is Zoser's Funerary Complex, dominated by the world's first decent attempt at a pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Zoser. Also of note is the Pyramid & Causeway of Unas, the site of funerary hieroglyphs known as Pyramid Texts. The Serapeum, where sacred Apis bulls were entombed, provides an eerie walk through barely lit galleries to see macabre sarcophagi. The Mastaba of Ti is perhaps the grandest and most detailed private tomb at Saqqara and one of the main sources of knowledge about life in Old Kingdom Egypt.

Saqqara is a great place to play Indiana Jones and explore half-buried ruins surrounded by peaceful desert. You really need to set a whole day, if not two, aside to get even a superficial view of the area, and transport to get around the Saqqara site is essential. It's best to hire a taxi and visit Memphis, Abu Sir, Saqqara and Dahshur.

Wadi Natrun
Wadi Natrun, a long, narrow depression in the desert just west of the Delta region, shelters several ancient Coptic monasteries. A visit highlights the endurance of the Coptic Christian sect, for it was to the desert that thousands of Christians fled to escape Roman persecution in the 4th century AD. They lived in caves or built monasteries, and developed the monastic tradition that was later adopted by European Christians. At one time there were 60 monasteries scattered across the valley, but today just four remain. All of these holy retreats are surrounded by high, mud-brick walls and appear similar to desert fortresses, which in effect they once were.

Deir as-Suriani boasts Coptic wall paintings and icons, some of which date back to the 8th century. At Deir Anba Bishoi you can explore the fortified keep just inside the walls, entered by a drawbridge. Deir al-Baramus has five churches and an unusual refectory, while Deir Abu Makar is the most secluded and permission to visit must be obtained in advance. The region is about 100km (62mi) northwest of Cairo, and there are hourly buses from Cairo to Bir Hooker, from where you can hire a taxi to do the rounds of the monasteries.

Other Egypt Attractions

The mighty Macedonian Alexander the Great came to Egypt in 331 BC, after conquering Greece and selected a small fishing village on the Mediterranean coast to establish his new capital, Alexandria. The city is oriented around Midan Ramla and Midan Saad Zaghoul, the large square that runs down to the waterfront. Alexandria once had a great library that contained more than 500,000 volumes, and at its peak the city was a great repository of science, philosophy and intellectual thought and learning.

The Graeco-Roman Museum contains relics that date back to the 3rd century BC. There's a magnificent black granite sculpture of Apis, the sacred bull worshipped by Egyptians, as well as an assortment of mummies, sarcophagi, pottery, jewellery and ancient tapestries. Another highlight is one of the few historical depictions of the Pharos of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The only Roman Amphitheatre in Egypt was rediscovered in 1964. Its 13 white marble terraces are in excellent condition and excavation work is still under way, although the dig has shifted a little to the north of the theatre.

Pompey's Pillar is a massive 25m (82ft) pink granite monument measuring 9m (30ft) around its girth. The pillar should rightfully called Diocletian's Pillar, as it was built for the emperor in AD 297, and was the only monument left standing following the violent arrival of the Crusaders around 1000 years later. The Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa are the largest known Roman burial site in Egypt, and consist of three tiers of burial tombs, chambers and hallways. The catacombs were begun in the 2nd century AD and were later expanded to hold more than 300 corpses. There's a banquet hall where the grieving would pay their respects with a funeral feast. Experts are hoping to discover Cleopatra's Palace under the sea bed off Alexandria; platforms, pavements and columns have been found, and in 1998 a black granite statue of a priest of Isis and a diorite sphinx were raised from the sea. Cleopatra's Library was destroyed by the Crusaders.

Aswan, Egypt's southernmost city, has long been the country's gateway to Africa. The prosperous market city straddles the crossroads of the ancient caravan routes, at the 'other' end of the Nile, not far above the Tropic of Cancer. In ancient times it was a garrison town known as Swenet (meaning trade), and it was also important to the early Coptic Christians. The main town and temple area of Swenet were located on Elephantine Island in the middle of Nile (the island was known then as Abu, and later renamed by the Greeks). The temples and ruins here are not nearly as well preserved and impressive as those elsewhere in the country, but there are other good reasons to visit. If you're not 'tombed out', a visit to the Tombs of the Nobles is worthwhile, and a highlight is the Nubian Museum, showcasing history, art and Nubian culture from the prehistoric to the present. The Nile is glorious here as it makes its way down from the massive High Dam and Lake Nasser - watching the feluccas glide by as the sun sets over the Nile is an experience you're unlikely to forget.

Built on the site of the ancient city of Thebes, Luxor is one of Egypt's prime tourist destinations. People have been visiting the magnificent monuments of Luxor, Karnak, Hatshepsut and Ramses III for thousands of years. Feluccas and old barges shuffle along the Nile between the luxury hotel ships of the Hilton and Sheraton cruising to and from Cairo and Aswan.

Luxor Temple was built by Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC) on the site of an older temple built by Hatshepsut and added to by Tutankhamun, Ramses II, Alexander the Great and various Romans. Excavation work has been under way since 1885. The Temples of Karnak are a spectacular series of monuments that were the main place of worship in Theban times. They can be divided into the Amun Temple Enclosure, which is the largest; the Mut Temple Enclosure on the south side; and the Montu Temple Enclosure. The lonely statues of the Colossi of Memnon are the first things most people see when they arrive on the West bank, though the Valley of the Kings, including the spectactular tombs of Nefertari (currently closed) and Tutankhamun, are the big attraction. Luxor is accessible from Cairo by buses or trains which run every day.

The wannabe Koh Samui of the Middle East, Dahab is 85km (53mi) north of Sharm el-Sheikh on the Gulf of Aqaba, near the southern tip of Sinai. Dahab was once a sleepy backwater, but these days there are more backpackers than Bedouin, and the town has become something of a lazy layover. There's dirt-cheap accommodation virtually on the beach and inexpensive restaurants and hotels, and the swimming and snorkelling in the Gulf of Aqaba are magnificent. Buses connect Dahab with Sharm el-Sheikh, Cairo and Suez each day.

Dakhla Oasis
Centred around the town of Mut, this oasis is nearly 200km (40mi) from Kharga Oasis and more than 250km (155mi) from Farafra Oasis. Mut is a labyrinth of old laneways and mud-brick houses clinging to the slopes of the hill. Atop the hill are the remains of an old citadel that once was the town proper. The views from this hill over the medieval town and the empty backdrop of cliffs, dunes and desert are quite fantastic. There's an old Islamic cemetery near the new town centre, and several hot sulphur springs around the town.

Nearby, Al-Qasr is an ancient little town with much of its traditional architecture still intact. The medieval atmosphere is accentuated by the narrow covered streets (built to provide shelter from the summer sun and desert windstorms) and the animals that roam through them. Many of the houses and buildings have lintels above their front doorways inscribed with the builder's name, the home-owner's name, the date and a passage of the Quran - the earliest of these dates from 924. There are three buses daily from Cairo to Dakhla.

Marsa Alam
Marsa Alam is a fishing village on Egypt's Red Sea Coast 132km (82mi) from Al-Quseir. It sits on the T-junction between the Red Sea Coast road and the road from Edfu, 230km (142mi) inland on the banks of the Nile. There's really not much here besides an odd-looking shopping arcade, a school and a telephone office. Swimming and snorkelling in the area are magnificent, but you have to be careful - much of this southern coastal region is mined and sometimes there's nothing to indicate the danger. A daily bus from Aswan passes through Marsa Alam.

About 145km (90mi) southwest into the desert is the Tomb of Sayyed al-Shazli, who was an important Sufi leader in the 13th century. His tomb was restored earlier last century, but you may not make it through the checkpoints.

Sidi Abdel Rahman
Sidi Abdel Rahman is a lovely waterfront town on the Mediterranean coast that's free of the hordes of tourists who flock to other Mediterranean towns. Fine white-sand beaches abound along this stretch of coast and it's easy to find your own deserted bit of paradise. The town is a centre for nomadic Bedouin who sometimes congregate at a small village nearby. The government is actively trying to settle these tribespeople and many have traded their mobile lifestyle - living in tents and herding sheep and goats - for government-built houses of concrete. Buses from Alexandria heading for El Alamein can drop you off, but there's not much happening after the early afternoon.

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