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A weekend in Cairo: how to make the most of two days in Cairo

Destination(s): Cairo

Cairo is the largest city in Africa, and one of the most exciting cities in the world. There is enough to see and do in Cairo to keep you busy for weeks. Luckily, it’s possible to see the best sights in a weekend, if you’re up for it! To make the most of your weekend in Cairo, you will need to hit the ground running, and use your time wisely. Two days in Cairo is enough time to see the most important Pharaonic, Islamic and Christian sights. You can easily see the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, the Citadel, and Coptic Cairo during a weekend in Cairo, and not be too rushed to appreciate them. You’ll also be able to enjoy a spot of shopping in the fascinating Khan al Khalili bazaar, and sample some authentic Egyptian cuisine. Five thousand years of history in 48 hours – not bad going! Note: this guide assumes you are staying in Downtown Cairo. Since you are spending only a weekend in Cairo, you need to be in the thick of things! Furthermore, note that it's sensible to dress conservatively at all times in Cairo. This is essential, however, on days when you will be visiting mosques or churches. read more about A weekend in Cairo: how to make the most of two days in Cairo

The Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid

What can be said about the most iconic, and controversial, building in the world? The Pyramid of Khufu, most commonly known as the Great Pyramid of Giza, is the only one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world that is still standing.

It is believed to have been built during the reign of 4th Dynasty pharaoh Khufu (known as Cheops in Greek), and completed round about 2560 BC. Constructed from an estimated 2.3 million blocks of sandstone, and with an estimated total mass of nearly 6 million tonnes, the Pyramid of Khufu has to be seen to be believed. Awe-inspiring does not even come close to describing the Great Pyramid, and it is still not known how the ancient Egyptians built it (assuming they even did)!

Furthermore, many researchers don't believe it was a tomb after all – other explanations include astronomical observatory, centre of cult initiation, and representation of the earth's physical properties. Decide for yourself as you soak up the magic and majesty of this timeless monument.

Along with the Pyramids of Khafre (Chephren) and Menkaure (Mycerinus), and of course the Sphinx, the Pyramid of Khufu is part of the Giza Pyramids Complex. Make sure you also find the time to check out the Solar Boat Museum next to the Pyramid of Khufu.

The best way to visit the Giza Plateau is by taxi. read more about The Great Pyramid

Babylon Fort

Babylon Fort

  • Mar Girgis Street
  • tel:+20 (0)2 391 3454 (Tourist Information)
  • Cairo

The remains of the Babylon Fort mark the gateway into what is known as Coptic Cairo. People often refer to the area as Old Cairo, or Fustat, since this is where the first invading Arab armies settled. The varied nomenclature can be confusing, and misleading. In fact, there was a city called Kheraha here in ancient Egyptian times, that was an important regional capital. When, how and why the name changed to Babylon is debated, but it appears that the Persians built the first fort here, some time in the 6th Century BC. At that time Babylon Fort stood on top of the cliffs (probably the Muqattam Hills), but when the Romans invaded, they rebuilt the fort in its current position, which would have been right next to the Nile (the river's course has changed significantly over time). The Babylon Fort protected an important garrison town, which by the time of the first Arab invasion in the 7th Century, had a successful port as well as a canal linking the Nile to the Red Sea (constructed in pharaonic times). The original Arab city, Fustat, was actually built just outside the walls of Babylon Fort; interestingly, many of the churches in the area were not built until after the Arab conquest. All that really remains of Babylon Fort now are the remnants of the huge round towers that guarded the entrances to the fort. As you face the Coptic Museum, you can see the skeletal remains of one tower to the right; the Greek Orthodox Church of St George is built on top of the remains of the second tower, to the left. read more about Babylon Fort

Church of St. Barbara (Sitt Barbara)

Church of St. Barbara (Sitt Barbara)

  • East of Fortress of Babylon
  • tel:+20 2 285 4509 (Tourist Information)
  • Cairo, 11211
Greek Church of Saint George (Mari Girgis)

Greek Church of Saint George (Mari Girgis)

  • Mar Girgis Street
  • Coptic Cairo quarter
  • Cairo
Church of the Virgin (Al Adra)

Church of the Virgin (Al Adra)

  • Near the Babylon Fort
  • Coptic Cairo
  • Cairo, 11728
Abu Seifein (St. Mercurius) Church

Abu Seifein (St. Mercurius) Church

  • Mari Girgis Street
  • Deir Abu Seifein Convent
  • tel:+20 2 285 4509 (Tourist information)
  • Cairo, 11728
Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren)

Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren)

  • Giza Pyramids Plateau
  • tel:+20 (0)2 391 3454 (Tourist Information)
  • Visit website
  • Cairo, 12561

The Pyramid of Chephren (or Khafre, in ancient Egyptian) is the second largest of the three pyramids at Giza, and is sometimes known as the Second Pyramid. It appears larger than the Pyramid of Khufu, but that is because it is built on higher ground and the peak is still intact. It is believed to have been built during the reign of 4th dynasty pharaoh Khafre, thought by most archaeologists to be Khufu's son.

Unlike the Great Pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre still has the remains of the limestone casing stones at the top – these would have protected the pyramid and given it a brilliant iridescent glow that could allegedly be seen from the mountains of Israel. The pyramid is linked by a causeway to the Great Sphinx – you can walk down this causeway, though you can't enter in to the compound of the Sphinx from here (you have to skirt around the outer wall).

You can usually go inside the Pyramid of Chephren for a small fee, and follow a steep and claustrophobic passage all the way down to the burial chamber. There is not much to see, but the sensation of being inside such a huge physical mass is an incredible experience.

The best way to visit the Giza Plateau is by taxi. read more about Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren)

The Coptic Museum

The Coptic Museum

  • Mar Guirguis Street
  • In the center of Old Cairo, across from the exit from the Mar Girgis Metro stop
  • tel:+20 2 362 8766 / + 20 2 363 9742
  • Visit website
  • Cairo

The Coptic Museum houses the largest collection of Coptic artefacts in the world, with over 16,000 pieces on display. Copt comes from the Greek word for Egypt, and Coptic Christians are Egyptian Christians. Mark the Evangelist is credited with introducing Christianity to Egypt in the first century after Christ, and with similarities to aspects of ancient Egyptian belief, it quickly took hold.

The Coptic Museum traces the development of Christianity in Egypt from its beginnings to the present. The museum is housed in a beautiful old building in the precinct of the old Roman Babylon Fort, and artefacts are spread out over two floors. The objects displayed are varied, and include art in various mediums such as metal, stone and wood, as well as manuscripts and textiles.

A large part of the appeal is that the Coptic Museum forges a link between the worlds of ancient Egypt, Christianity and Islam. For example, it is fascinating to see how the ankh symbol of Egypt gradually evolved into the Christian cross known today. The museum also includes very beautiful gardens that provide a wonderful place to relax.

The Coptic Museum is situated in the heart of Old Cairo, amongst the other buildings that make up the Religion Compound. As well as by taxi, it is easy to get here by Metro – get off at Mar Girgis station, and the museum is directly opposite. read more about The Coptic Museum

Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus)

Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus)

  • Giza Pyramids Plateau
  • tel:+20 2 383 8823
  • Cairo, 12561

The Pyramid of Mycerinus (or Menkaure, in ancient Egyptian) is the baby of the three Pyramids of Giza, if you can call something 108 m long and 67 m high a baby! Like the Pyramids of Khufu and Chephren, the Pyramid of Menkaure was built during the 4th dynasty, and so is well over 4000 years old! Not much is known of Menkaure, though he was believed to have been another of Khufu's sons, and successor to Khafre.

The Pyramid of Mycerinus is set back from the other two pyramids, about a 15 minute walk away. It therefore receives fewer visitors than its two bigger brothers, but is well worth checking out. Many observers claim that, when viewed on its own, the Pyramid of Mycerinus exudes an almost palpable sense of power – far more than that of the other two. Because it is smaller, and so easier to comprehend, the effects of the geometry are magnified. Make sure you go to experience this example of pyramid power for yourself!

The best way to visit the Giza Plateau is by taxi. read more about Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus)

The Hanging Church

The Hanging Church

  • Mar Girgis Street
  • Coptic Cairo
  • tel:+20 (0)2 285 4509 (Tourist Information)
  • Cairo

The Hanging Church is also known as The Saint Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Church. It is the most famous Coptic church in Cairo, and one of the oldest Coptic churches in Egypt that is still in use.

The Hanging Church was probably built towards the end of the 7th Century AD, though it is believed there was an earlier church here dating to the 3rd or 4th Century. By the 11th Century AD it became the official seat of residence of the head of the Coptic Church (the Patriarch of Alexandria).

It is part of the Religion Compound of Old Cairo, and is known as the Hanging Church because it is built over the gate of the southern tower of the Roman Fortress, Babylon on the Nile. Its nave is suspended over the passage (the church is known as al Muallaqa in Arabic, which means "the suspended"). Make sure you look down through the plastic viewing ports in the floor to see the proof that you are not actually on the ground!

The Hanging Church is lavishly decorated, with a beautiful vaulted wooden ceiling, marble columns and pulpit, and lots of ebony and ivory screens. It also contains over 100 religious icons, the oldest of which dates to the 8th Century. Services still take place here in the ancient Coptic language, believed to be related to ancient Egyptian.

The Hanging Church can be reached by taxi, or take the Metro to Mar Girgis station and the church is just in front of the station entrance. read more about The Hanging Church

Solar Boat Museum

Solar Boat Museum

  • Giza Pyramids Plateau
  • tel:+20 (0)2 391 3454 (Tourist Information)
  • Visit website
  • Cairo, 12561

The ancient Egyptians believed the dead pharaoh would join the Sun God in his solar boat to sail through the underworld. In 1954 an actual solar boat (or barque) was found in a sealed pit next to the Pyramid of Khufu. The boat was made of cedar wood and almost perfectly preserved, although disassembled in to over 1000 pieces. A team of archaeologists spent over 10 years reconstructing the boat, which is now on display in the Solar Boat Museum, next to the Great Pyramid.

The boat is a remarkable feat of engineering – about 40 m long and with a displacement of around 400 tonnes! It is not known whether the boat played a purely symbolic function, or whether it actually served as Khufu's ship of state. There is some physical evidence that suggests the boat actually sailed at sea!

The Solar Boat Museum houses a number of artefacts found in the pit, as well as the reconstructed boat itself. It also has an interesting photo exhibition detailing the immense amount of work that went into the salvage operation. The best way to visit the Giza Plateau is by taxi. read more about Solar Boat Museum

Church of St. George (Keniset Mar Girgis)

Church of St. George (Keniset Mar Girgis)

  • Mari Girgis Street
  • tel:+20 2 285 4509 (Tourist Information)
  • Cairo, 12556
The Sphinx

The Sphinx

  • Giza Pyramids Plateau
  • tel:+20 2 383 8823
  • Visit website
  • Cairo, 12561

Like the Pyramid of Khufu, the Sphinx (often known as the Great Sphinx) is simultaneously one of the best known and yet most controversial monuments in the world.

With the body of a lion seamlessly blending in to a human head, the Sphinx is carved from a single piece of in-situ rock 73 m long and 20 m high. It is sublimely beautiful, and has struck wonder into the hearts of visitors through the ages. It is believed to be a solar symbol, possibly representing the unity of matter and consciousness, the physical and spiritual realms.

Conventional wisdom dictates that the Sphinx was constructed by Chephren (builder of the Second Pyramid), and it is true that the Valley Temple next to the Sphinx is linked to the Pyramid of Chephren. However, an alternative view – backed by geological evidence – suggests the Sphinx is much older than the normal 4th Dynasty date ascribed it, perhaps having been built as early as 10,000 BC. Adding to the mystery, a number of esoteric groups believe that the mythical "Hall of Records" is located beneath the Sphinx, containing the secret knowledge of the ancient Egyptians.

Whatever the truth of these claims, the allure of this moving monument will continue. The best way to visit the Giza Plateau is by taxi. read more about The Sphinx

Church of Abu Serga (St Sergius)

Church of Abu Serga (St Sergius)

  • Near Mari Girgis Street
  • (Downtown)
  • Cairo, 11728
Felfela

Felfela

  • Talaat Harb Street
  • tel:+20 (0)2 2392 2833
  • Cairo, 11111

Beloved of tourists and locals alike, Felfela is a Cairo fast food institution. On the right as you head up Talaat Harb street towards the midan, Felfela is a simple, brightly coloured and brightly lit restaurant that offers a whole range of Egyptian street food classics.

You can get koshary (with or without meat), chicken or beef shawerma, different types of taamiya and felafel sandwiches, all sorts of fuul... simply name your staple!

Although it's a bit more expensive than the proper dive restaurants offering this food, Felfela is still cheap, and reassuringly hygienic.

The way it works is easy: you order and pay at the cash desk, and the staff will give you a ticket. (Felfela has menus in English, and the staff speak English too.) You take your ticket to the appropriate part of the restaurant (the staff will tell you where to go if you aren't sure), and swap it for some food!

You can either eat amongst the other customers, standing up at the waist-height counters, or take your food to go. Either way, it's delicious!

Felfela is set right amongst the action of Downtown Cairo. Afterwards, why not head to the nearby Stella Bar, Horeya, or Odeon Palace Bar, and grab yourself a local beer to wash your food down!

There is also a proper sit down version of the restaurant just around the corner on Hoda Sharaawy Street. read more about Felfela

Coptic Cemetery of Old Cairo

Coptic Cemetery of Old Cairo

  • Religion Compound
  • Mari Girgis
  • Cairo, 11728
Ben Ezra Synagogue

Ben Ezra Synagogue

  • Coptic Cairo quarter
  • Coptic Cairo
  • tel:+20 (0)2 285 4509 (Tourist Information)
  • Visit website
  • Cairo
Zamalek

Zamalek

  • Northern tip of Gezira island
  • Cairo

Technically, Zamalek is the northern half of the island Gazira, although most people refer to the whole island as Zamalek. The southern tip hosts the Sofitel hotel, Opera house, Planetarium and Museum of Modern Islamic Art. The middle of the island is taken up by the greenery of various private members clubs, such as the exclusive Nadi al-Gazira, and also the bizarre Fish Garden park. The northern half of the island is, by Egyptian standards, a relatively green and peaceful residential area. The area is affluent, popular with expats, and hosts a number of foreign embassies. There are lots of good quality shops in Zamalek, selling western style and designer clothes, jewellery, and some exquisite and original crafts. The main branch of Fair Trade Egypt is also on Zamalek, and well worth a visit. The staff are very knowledgeable, and have lots of information about the community groups they work with around Egypt. The Sawy Cultural Centre is also on Zamalek, at the western end of the busy 26 July street. They always have interesting art exhibitions going on, host lots of concerts, and even have a non-smoking café! Finally, Zamalek is home to tons of trendy and quirky restaurants, bars and cafes. Best of the bunch are probably La Bodega, L'Aubergine, and Sequoia; competition is fierce, and the list ever-growing. read more about Zamalek

Amr Ibn el-Aas Mosque

Amr Ibn el-Aas Mosque

  • Sidi Hasan al-Anwar Street
  • Fustat
  • tel:+20 (0)2 391 3454 (Tourist Information)
  • Visit website
  • Cairo
Abou el Sid

Abou el Sid

  • 157, 26th of July Street, just down from Diwan book store
  • tel:+20 (0)2 2735 9640 / +20 (0)10 100 8500
  • Visit website
  • Cairo

Abou el Sid, located on Zamalek, offers excellent, authentic Egyptian cuisine in very atmospheric surroundings. Décor is traditional Arabesque, heavy on the mashrabiyya wooden panelling, but the atmosphere is lively and down to earth. A word of warning though - the staff can be incredibly rude, and the service isn't always great.

Don't let this put you off though, because Abou el Sid is an excellent place to share a selection of mouth-watering mezzes, and offers a wide range of traditional Egyptian mains. Try the Rabbit with Molokheiya for a real taste of rural Egypt, their old-school fish Sayadeya, or opt for Egypt's national dish, Koshary (a mix of pasta, lentils, fried onions and tomato sauce). Abou el Sid also serves a range of alcohol, and Egyptian water pipes (shishas).

Abou el Sid gets very busy, so it's advisable to book in advance. If you can't get a table, L'Aubergine and La Bodega are near by, or you could try the Abou el Sid branches in Mohandiseen, Maadi or City Stars. read more about Abou el Sid

The Citadel

The Citadel

  • Salah Salem Highway
  • tel:+20 2 512 9619
  • Cairo

The Citadel is one of Cairo's most popular and readily identifiable attractions. In the 12th Century AD Salah ad-Din (known as Saladin in the west) recognised that Cairo needed a fortress to help protect the city against attack by the Crusaders. He chose this prominent limestone spur, that is now on the edge of what is known as Islamic Cairo, for his stronghold. It later became the seat of government, until the middle of the 19th Century. It has always maintained some sort of military garrison, even up to the present day.

The Citadel offers some of the most spectacular views of Cairo, and it's great fun trying to identify sights from here that you have already visited. You should even be able to make out the Pyramids!

It also contains three mosques that represent very different architectural styles: the Mamluk an-Nasir Mohammed Mosque, the Ottoman Suleiman Pasha Mosque, and the Mohammed Ali Mosque. The latter is huge and opulent, and its spires dominate the skyline of Cairo.

As well as the views, fortifications and mosques, the Citadel has a number of museums: the Military Museum; the Police Museum; al-Gawhara Palace Museum; and the Carriage Museum.

The Citadel is best reached by taxi. Just next door are the Sultan Hassan Mosque and al-Refa'i Mosque, and it's also possible to walk towards Ibn Tulun Mosque and the Gayer-Anderson Museum, or even to Khan el-Khalili bazaar. read more about The Citadel

La Bodega

La Bodega

  • 157, 26th of July Street
  • Balmoral Hotel
  • tel:+20 (0)2 27362188 - +20(0)2 27350543 - +20 (0)2 27356761 - +20 (0)2 273
  • Cairo

La Bodega restaurant is on 26th July street, Zamalek. With its quality Mediterranean food, expensive drinks and classy surrounds, it's long been a mainstay of the dining and nightlife scene. Enter through the street level doorway that still has a sign for the Balmoral, and either climb the stairs or take the old-school ornate iron lift to the first floor.

La Bodega bistro has a restrained atmosphere of efficiency and sophistication, with dark wood furniture, subdued lighting, and classical paintings adorning the walls. The menu is Mediterranean with a French bias, and La Bodega is renowned for its steaks. Although the food is expensive, it is good quality, and the service is excellent. The restaurant also offers a wide range of set menus that are great value, though you have to arrive early in the evening to qualify.

You don't have to eat in the La Bodega bistro. Many people choose to head around the corner and prop up the huge, copper plated bar. You'll often find groups of professional expats and Egyptians here, catching up over a cocktail or a glass of wine. The serving staff are very knowledgeable, and can make a good range of cocktails. You can even find Caipirinha, though don't expect it to taste like it does in Brazil!

La Bodega is a classy place, so it's best to dress up before you go. A word of warning, the "welcoming" staff in the marble lobby who check your reservation can be incredibly rude, and will often refuse entry to groups of single men.

If you fancy something a little less pretentious, Deals and L'Aubergine are just around the corner, as is Aboul Sid if you are looking for classy Egyptian cuisine. read more about La Bodega

Citadel: An-Nasir Mohammed Mosque

Citadel: An-Nasir Mohammed Mosque

  • The Citadel
  • Salah Salem Highway
  • Cairo, 11211

The an-Nasir Mohammed Mosque is the oldest of the three mosques in the Citadel. It's a Mamluk mosque, built by an-Nasir Mohammed in 1318, and then re-built in 1335. The an-Nasir Mohammed Mosque used to be the royal mosque of Cairo, where the sultans would pray, and would have been one of the most magnificent in the city. However, its original dome collapsed some time in the 16th Century, and the Ottomans stripped the mosque of much of its marble.

Nowadays, although an-Nasir Mohammed Mosque has been restored, it still feels rather austere. The courtyard and the mihrab are very simple, although the interior of the mosque does have a row of unusual, arched windows.

The most interesting thing about an-Nasir Mohammed Mosque is the minarets. The minaret to the north, which would have faced the dwellings of the officers and soldiers garrisoned in the Citadel, is very plain. The minaret to the west, however, faced the Sultan's residences. It's elegantly carved in a zigzag pattern, and has a tip that is unique in Cairo: a small dome resting on a solid, tapered stone column, that looks a bit like a king's sceptre. It's decorated with blue, green and white glazed tiles, that are known as faience mosaics, and were popular in Persia at the time. read more about Citadel: An-Nasir Mohammed Mosque

Deals

Deals

  • 5 El-Sayed el-Bakri Street
  • tel:20 2 736 0502
  • Cairo

Deals is a mainstay of the Zamalek drinking scene. It's a cramped, slightly dim bar just off the main 26th July street in Zamalek, and is popular with both expats and upper class Egyptians. It's friendly and quite lively, and if you go there alone, you can quickly find yourself drawn in to conversations with the nearest group of drinkers. The staff at Deals are friendly, the service is quite efficient, and drinks prices tend to be reasonable. Be careful if you drink the imported spirits, though, since the cost of these quickly mounts up. Deals also offers bar snacks and simple meals, as well as a selection of Chinese food. Deals stays open quite late – last orders tend to be about 1.30 am. read more about Deals

L'Aubergine

L'Aubergine

  • 5a Sayed El Bakry Street
  • tel:+20 (0)2 20 27380080
  • Cairo, 12151

L'Auberine restaurant, on Zamalek, is a favourite hang-out of rich young Egyptians. Downstairs is a dimly lit, slightly cramped restaurant, that used to be the only purely vegetarian restaurant in Cairo. Nowadays, meat is also on the menu, although there is still a wide variety of half decent veggie fare. Prices are a little on the high side, and if the serving staff are not always that friendly, at least they are efficient.

The real action at L'Aubergine, though, is in the bar upstairs. Even more cramped and dingy than the restaurant, the bar is the province of the younger Cairo jet set, but has a great atmosphere. It actually feels like being in a Western style bar, especially since you have to pay at the bar for each drink you buy, which is unusual in Egypt.

There is live music at L'Aubergine each week, and it's also a popular place to watch the football. Don't expect to get a seat though, and warm your vocal chords up thoroughly before entering: you're going to have to shout to be heard! read more about L'Aubergine

Citadel: Mohammed Ali Mosque

Citadel: Mohammed Ali Mosque

  • Citadel Historic Complex
  • Salah Salem Highway
  • tel:+20 (0)2 391 3454 (Tourist Information)
  • Visit website
  • Cairo

The Mohammed Ali Mosque was built over a period of about 20 years in the early part of the 19th Century, and was completed in 1848, though its domes had to be entirely rebuilt during the 1930's. Also known as the Alabaster Mosque, the Mohammed Ali Mosque was built in the classical Ottoman style, and its huge domes and soaring minarets are the most famous landmark of Cairo's skyline. It is not, however, particularly graceful from up close, and it has received a lot of criticism. It has even been likened to a fat cat and a huge toad! The interior of the Mohammed Ali Mosque is grand, bordering on garish: great chandeliers illuminate the huge, domed space, and cast light on the technicolour marble walls. There is colourful, gilded wood and gold in abundance. No matter what you think of its artistic, the Mosque of Mohammed Ali is undeniably spectacular! The great man himself is buried in an ornate, white marble tomb to the right of the entrance. The courtyard of the Mohammed Ali Mosque is also interesting: there is an elaborately decorated marble fountain with carved wooden roof in the centre of the huge, square courtyard. At the west of the courtyard is a large iron clock that was given to Mohammed Ali by King Louis-Philippe of France, as a thankyou for the ancient Egyptian obelisk that stands in Place de la Concorde in Paris. The clock has never worked! read more about Citadel: Mohammed Ali Mosque

Khan el-Khalili Bazaar

Khan el-Khalili Bazaar

  • Off Hussein Square
  • (Across from El Azhar Mosque)
  • Cairo, 11211

Established in the 14th Century, and in constant use since then, Khan al-Khalili (or more simply, The Khan) is Egypt at its most intoxicating. Cairo has always been an important trade centre, and this tradition continues today in the bustling maze of alleys that forms Khan al-Khalili Bazaar.

The Khan itself is relatively small, and is largely devoted to tourists. There are souvenirs here for every taste and budget: spices, jewellery, inlaid mother-of-pearl boxes and backgammon sets, water pipes, scarves, lamps, delicate perfume bottles (and the perfume to go in them)… you can even get yourself a singing, dancing camel!

Be warned, though, the traders here are black belts at haggling – so be firm, but maintain your sense of humour and enjoy the experience for what it is: the raucous, beating heart of commerce the old-school way.

When the banter gets too much, relax in al-Fishawi Coffee Shop with a water pipe and a strong Turkish coffee. This café has been open 24 hours a day since 1773, and Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz is said to have visited every day up to his death in 2006.

At the east end of the Khan is al-Hussein Square, home to the beautiful al-Hussein Mosque. The western end is bound by Muizz li-Din Allah Street. You can head north to Bab al-Futuh, past Islamic monuments such as al-Aqmar Mosque and Beit al-Souhaymi, or south towards Bab Zwayla and the Street of the Tentmakers. Leading west from Khan al-Khalili towards Ataba is al-Muski Street, a crazy local market that is well worth exploring.

To get to Khan al-Khalili Bazaar, take a taxi to al-Azhar Mosque and cross the road via the underpass. The more adventurous traveller can walk up to the bazaar from Ataba Metro station, along al-Muski.
read more about Khan el-Khalili Bazaar

Al-Azhar Mosque

Al-Azhar Mosque

  • Al-Azhar Street
  • Opposite El-Hussein Square
  • tel:+20 (0)2 59 3893
  • Visit website
  • Cairo

Al Azhar Mosque is one of the most beautiful mosques in Egypt, if not the whole world. It was established in 972 AD, the first Fatimid monument built in Cairo. Its name means "the most blooming", after one of the prophet Mohammed's daughters.

Al Azhar Mosque has been renovated and extended over the years, and it reflects a number of architectural styles. The large main courtyard is a particular highlight: 275 by 112 feet, made of glistening white marble, and home to hundreds of ancient columns. The five minarets are particularly elegant, and can be seen from much of Cairo. It is possible to climb some of the towers, though they are often locked and you should remember to give the porter a little something for his trouble.

Al Azhar Mosque is also arguably the most significant in the whole of the Sunni Muslim world: it is home to the second oldest University in the world, established in 975 AD, which specialises in all forms of Islamic studies. The scholars of the university are very well respected, and are often called upon to issue fatwas, or religious rulings.

Al Azhar Mosque is situated in the heart of Islamic Cairo, opposite Midan al-Hussein and Khan al-Khalili bazaar. It is best visited by taxi, though you could also walk up from Ataba Metro station. read more about Al-Azhar Mosque

Al Hussein Mosque

Al Hussein Mosque

  • El-Hussein Square
  • tel:+20 (0)2 285 4509 (Tourist Information)
  • Cairo

Al-Hussein Mosque is one of the most beautiful Cairo mosques. Situated in Midan al-Hussein, next to Khan al-Khalili, al-Hussein Mosque is named after the Prophet's grandson, who was killed by the Umayyads in Iraq in 680 AD during a battle over the succession of the Caliphate. It was this conflict that caused the schism in Islam that gave rise to the two main subdivisions of Sunni and Shia: with the Sunnis recognising the legitimacy of the Umayyad claim, and the Shi'ites maintaining that only a blood relative of Mohammed could be the Caliph. Hussein is revered as a martyr in the Shi'ite world, and although Egypt is predominantly Sunni Muslim, Hussein is still regarded as a saint here too. His head is buried inside al-Hussein Mosque. Technically, the mosque is closed to non-Muslims, though the caretakers will sometimes let you in if you appear respectful enough. Al-Hussein Mosque is elegant and restrained: a huge prayer hall with hundreds of light grey marble pillars, tasteful hanging lamps and chandeliers, and high vaulted ceilings. The mihrab is gorgeous: white, blue, grey and black marble arranged in to traditional geometric designs. The shrine to Hussein is a huge engraved silver affair surrounded by shining white marble, and offset by soft, almost otherworldly green lighting. You will often see pilgrims from all around the Muslim world at Hussein's shrine, walking slowly around it, chanting. read more about Al Hussein Mosque

Egyptian pancake house

Egyptian pancake house

  • Midan Hussein
  • tel:2024505871
  • Cairo

The Egyptian Pancake House is situated in on the edge Khan al-Khalili bazaar, and is a good place to eat in the area.

Egyptian pancakes (sometimes referred to as pizzas or pies) are actually known as feteers, and are sort of like a pizza topping stuffed inside a crepe. They are a perfect quick and tasty filler.

The Egyptian Pancake House offers various savoury and sweet feteers, and the best thing to do is to take a selection, and share. They aren't the best in Cairo, but they are authentic, and compared to a lot of the overpriced rubbish served up in the bazaar area, if you do need to eat, this is a good bet.

The spicy sausage feteer is particularly good, as is the honey, nuts and cream. Watch how the chef makes the pastry, slapping it on the counter and swinging it around his head to stretch the dough.

At the Egyptian Pancake House, you eat your feteers sitting at plastic tables and chairs balanced on the busy pavement, with a stream of vendors and the occasional tour bus parading past. This organised chaos, so typical of Cairo, is a big part of the fun! read more about Egyptian pancake house

Estoril

Estoril

  • 12 Talaat Harb Street
  • tel:+20 (0)2 25743102
  • Cairo, 11111

Estoril is a cosy restaurant/bar tucked down an alley in Downtown. It's a small place, and although the smart tables are close together, it still feels quite intimate. The lighting is soft, and the atmosphere muted. There is no music, so soft conversation provides the aural backdrop.

Estoril is decorated in a restrained, classy fashion: modern Arabic paintings adorn the walls, and there are a few mashrabia screens dotted about. The end of the room is dominated by a heavy wooden bar, complete with mashrabia panelling, and an ornate, gilded mirror.

The staff are usually very welcoming, and the service is generally good: attentive and efficient, without being fussy. The menu at Estoril consists of classic Arabic dishes, many of which have been given a French twist. Start your meal with a selection of hot and cold mezze, and move on to a main of chicken, beef or veal. The chicken with molokheiya is pretty good. There's also a good selection of seafood, and – unusually for Egypt – a decent choice of quality veggie dishes. Finish with fresh fruit salad, or a traditional sweet mihallabiya.

Don't feel rushed to leave after your meal – grab a stool next to the beautiful bar, and linger over a drink or two.

Note that Estoril can be rather hit and miss. Sometimes the food and service is great; other times it's mediocre at best. And some nights, especially at weekends, the bar can be rather boisterous, whereas other nights it's all but dead. It's worth turning up to see what's going on, because there are lots of other places nearby like The Greek Club and Le Grillon.
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Greek Club (The)

Greek Club (The)

  • 21 Mahmoud Bassyouni Street
  • Midan Talat Harb
  • tel:+20 (0)2 2575 0822
  • Cairo, 11111

Situated just off Midan Talaat Harb in Downtown, the Greek Club is open to everyone. Non-members have to pay an entrance fee of 5 LE, and there is a cover charge of 1 LE and a minimum charge of 30 LE.

You get far more than you pay for, however, because the Greek Club is in some ways one gorgeous contradiction. The dining room is minimalist elegance personified: an open, almost breezy space with high, vaulted ceilings and ridged columns. The colour scheme is yellow and cream with deep red trim, which also extends to the tables dotted about the vast room. The walls are livened up with the occasional colourful painting.

At odds with the sophisticated surroundings of the Greek Club, is the informal vibe. The staff are very friendly, and the atmosphere can border on the raucous. The high ceilings do nothing to swallow the babble of voices, which even drown out the traditional Greek music playing through chunky speakers.

The menu at the Greek Club is not that comprehensive: there are some mezze, a suitably delicious Greek salad, chicken escallops, and a fair bit of seafood (the calamari is divine), but no moussaka. The food is cheap and cheerful, and for a downtown bar, the drinks prices are criminally low. As well as beer and wine, ouzo is also available. read more about Greek Club (The)

Horeya

Horeya

  • Midan el-Falaki
  • Bab el-Louk
  • Cairo

Horeya is without a doubt one of the coolest bars in Downtown Cairo. It is not, however, somewhere you come for a quiet drink in nice surroundings! It's essentially an old coffee shop that also serves Stella beer. It has high ceilings, vomit yellow walls and pillars, and a dirty grey stone floor that is littered with fag butts and bean casings the same colour as the walls.

Horeya is crammed full of Stella-sponsored tables and rickety wooden chairs, and patrolled by a handful of serving staff who almost aggressively thrust bottle after bottle of Stella at you. These bottle stay on the table, and are used to calculate your tab when you finally stagger out.

The best thing about Horeya is the clientele: you literally rub shoulders with Egyptians from all walks of life, expats, the occasional tourist, and lots of earnest students from the American University in Cairo practising their Arabic. Even if there were music, you wouldn't be able to hear it over the chaotic hubbub of conversation. Talking to random punters is compulsory!

The most bizarre part of Horeya is that in the corner, separated from the beer drinkers by an imaginary force-field, are groups of old men drinking Turkish coffee and playing chess. It's entirely typical of Horeya that they even manage to do this boisterously! read more about Horeya