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Top 10 things to do in Cairo

Destination(s): Cairo

With so much to see and do in Cairo it’s hard to know where to begin! This list of the top 10 things to do in Cairo removes the agony of choice – simply follow this advice for a sweet time. Right at the top of the ten best things to do in Cairo are, of course, the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, and the wonders of the Egyptian Museum. The ten best things to do in Cairo also includes the markets and mosques of Islamic Cairo, the serene churches of the Coptic quarter, and some lesser known activities. read more about Top 10 things to do in Cairo

Giza Plateau

Giza Plateau

  • Sh. Al Ahram Road
  • Old town of Giza, 5 miles into the desert
  • tel:+20 (0)2 385 0259
  • Visit website
  • Cairo

Situated about 25 km south west of the centre of Cairo, the Giza Plateau has been a necropolis since at least the start of the Pharaonic period. For many people, the chance to visit the Giza Plateau is a childhood dream come true, because this is where the most famous Egyptian Pyramids are situated.

The Giza Plateau is home to the Great Pyramid of Khufu (known to the Greeks as Cheops), the Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren), and the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus), and also the Great Sphinx and the Valley Temple, and the Solar Boat Museum.

As well as these famous attractions, there are numerous secondary pyramids that were built for queens and children of the pharaohs. All are believed to have been built during the Fourth Dynasty, over four thousand years ago! However, there are also numerous mastaba tombs dotted about the Giza Plateau, some of which date back to the First Dynasty and the beginning of the Pharaonic period.

The Giza Plateau has been intensively and systematically studied since the end of the 18th Century, but new discoveries are still being made. No-one knows how many of ancient Egypt's secrets are still locked up beneath the shifting desert sands. For many visitors, however, the most surprising thing is that the Giza Plateau is no longer isolated in the middle of the desert, but is actually right next to a suburb of Giza. The past and present truly are intertwined in Cairo! read more about Giza Plateau

Solar CITIES Urban Eco Tour

Solar CITIES Urban Eco Tour

  • Fangari Hindi st, Manshiyat Nasser, Mogamma Zabaleen
  • tel:+2 012 182 7315
  • Visit website
  • Cairo

Since 2005, the Solar CITIES project has been helping poor communities in Darb al-Ahmar and Manshiyat Nasser ("Garbage City") to build solar water heaters and biogas generators out of low cost, locally available materials. The project has received numerous grants, and has been recognised by National Geographic.

It is based on a participatory, bottom-up approach to development, which taps into the collective intelligence and expertise that is already embedded within the community.

On the Solar CITIES Urban Eco Tour you will meet Hanna Fathy, a young man from the Zabaleen community of garbage collectors, who has been involved with the project since the beginning. He will guide you through the communities with which Solar CITIES works, where you can meet locals that have benefitted from the project, and witness first-hand the impact it is having.

The Solar CITIES Urban Eco Tour is divided into two halves, reflecting the two communities the project works with.

The Darb al-Ahmar portion will begin at Bab Zwayla. You will be able to explore the Street of the Tentmakers, before walking through the streets of this fascinating area of Islamic Cairo, stopping to visit some of the houses that have solar water heaters and biogas generators installed. There will also be the chance to visit the Aga Khan Foundation, and see their rooftop garden. The tour will finish in al-Azhar Park – former rubbish tip and now one of Cairo's most inspiring green spaces – where you can grab some lunch. More specifically, Hussein El-Farag from Solar CITIES in Darb Al Ahmar, will give urban Eco-Tours of his family's historic Islamic neighborhood at the base of Al Azhar park. As Hanna Fathy's colleague on the other side of the City of the Dead, Hussein also shows the solar hot water and biogas systems that he and Hanna and Solar CITIES have built in his neighborhood, ending the tour with biogas heated tea on his roof in sight of the ancient mosque. Hussein's tour is the Islamic equivalent of the Coptic Christian Solar CITIES tour that Hanna gives outlined below.

The Manshiyat Nasser section of the Solar CITIES Urban Eco Tour will explore Garbage City, where the Zabaleen live. The Zabaleen are a Christian community that are responsible for collecting and recycling, by hand, most of Cairo's rubbish. You will have the chance to learn more about this process, and visit families that are involved in this work. You will also visit Hanna's house, to see the solar water heater and biogas generator that he has installed. You can visit some of the other NGO's that are working with the community, such as the APE and Roh al-Shabab, and to visit the Coptic monastery, which offers spectacular views over the area.

The Solar CITIES Urban Eco Tour is most suitable for people who have an interest in urban planning, development, or sustainable technology issues. A word of warning – you are visiting deprived areas of Cairo, and so may see things that you are not that comfortable with. Manshiyat Nasser, in particular, is a real eye-opener, with garbage literally everywhere. Having said that, seeing the inspirational work that Solar CITIES is doing is a real privilege, and could easily be the most memorable and meaningful part of your trip to Cairo.

Each tour will take around 4 hours, and costs 100 LE per person, or 150 LE if you do both tours. You can get a discount if you book as a group, but bear in mind Hanna can't take more than 5 people at once. To make sure he is available, you should book a week in advance.

Finally, these tours are very flexible, and you can get in touch with Hanna to discuss your own particular requirements. read more about Solar CITIES Urban Eco Tour

Camel Ride by the Pyramids

Camel Ride by the Pyramids

  • FB stables
  • Gamal Abdul Nasser St
  • tel:20 (0)16 5070288
  • Visit website
  • Cairo

Many people who visit the Pyramids choose to do a camel ride around the enclosure there. A better idea is to do a camel ride into the desert behind the Pyramids. You get fantastic views of the Pyramids, and can imagine you are part of an old trade caravan, travelling across the desert to sell your wares in far off, exotic locations.

There is nothing quite like a camel ride in the desert: you will really start to appreciate the power and beauty of these haughtily majestic creatures, as you sway from side to side on the camel's back, lulled both by the hypnotic motion and the monotonous beauty of the desert.

Many stables near the Sphinx can offer camel rides. FB Stables are highly recommended: they are used to dealing with tourists, are friendly and responsible, and their camels are in good shape. You can organise any sort of trip with them, from a one hour jaunt around the desert, to a multi-day safari.

One of the best times to do a camel ride is for sunset: as well as a magnificent view of the Pyramids, you will hear the beautifully mournful evening Call to Prayer from hundreds of mosques at the same time. Pure magic! read more about Camel Ride by the Pyramids

Step Pyramid of Saqqara

Step Pyramid of Saqqara

  • North Saqqara
  • (32 kilometres south of Cairo)
  • Visit website
  • Cairo, 12561

This is where it all began! The Step Pyramid of Saqqara is the oldest complete cut-stone building in the world. It was designed by the high priest and architect Imhotep for the 3rd dynasty pharaoh Djoser (about 2667 – 2648 BC).

Before this pyramid, the pharaohs were buried beneath rectangular tombs known as mastabas (which means "bench" in Arabic). Imhotep (who was later deified) stacked 6 mastabas on top of each other to create the first ever pyramid, which served as inspiration for the later structures at Giza and beyond.

The Step Pyramid of Saqqara is a truly incredible achievement, and despite standing for nearly 5000 years it is still pretty much intact. It is part of a much larger site that acted as a necropolis for the ancient Egyptians for over 3000 years. The whole area is littered with other pyramids and mastaba tombs, such as the Pyramid of Unas, the Serapeum, and the Mastaba of Ti. Some of these other monuments are open – check at the ticket office when you arrive.

Despite its significance, Saqqara receives a disproportionately small number of visitors, and is a very atmospheric place to wander around and explore on your own. There is isn't much shade, so make sure to cover up and take plenty of water.

The best way to get here is by taxi, and it's possible to combine your visit with nearby Memphis. read more about Step Pyramid of Saqqara

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

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

Ibn Tulun Mosque

Ibn Tulun Mosque

  • Off 'Abd al-Magid al-Labban (Al-Salbiyya) Street
  • Ibn Tulun Street
  • tel:+20 (0)2 391 3454 (Tourist Information)
  • Visit website
  • Cairo

This beautiful mosque is considered to be the oldest in Cairo that has survived in its original form, and is the third largest in the world by area. Completed in 879 AD, Ibn Tulun Mosque was built by Ahmed ibn Tulun, founder of the Talunid dynasty that was ruling Egypt at the end of the 9th Century.

The mosque consists of a huge open courtyard, including fountain, and is surrounded on three sides by enclosed wings known as ziyadas. The art and architecture of Ibn Tulun Mosque has a distinct Iraqi flavour (Ahmed Ibn Tulun was born in Baghdad) – make sure you check out the crenulated tops of the walls, which look like the paper-chain dolls that children cut out.

Interestingly, a local legend claims the mosque was built on the hill where Noah's Ark landed after the flood, and that the floral frieze that runs around the arches was originally carved on to the ark. Finally, a trip to Ibn Tulun Mosque is not complete without climbing its minaret. With the staircase spiralling up the outside of the tower, the minaret is unique in Cairo, and offers fantastic views of the city.

Ibn Tulun Mosque is next to the Gayer-Anderson Museum, and a short hop from the Citadel and the other sites of Islamic Cairo. The best way to visit is by taxi. read more about Ibn Tulun Mosque

The Religion Compound

The Religion Compound

  • Mari Girgis Street
  • Old Cairo
  • tel:+20 2 285 4509 (Tourist Information)
  • Cairo, 11728

The Religion Compound is one of the most picturesque and charming areas in the whole of Cairo. It consists of a small area built around the remains of the old Roman fortress of Babylon on the Nile, and contains pretty much all of the tourist sights of Old Cairo (also known as Coptic Cairo, and Fustat).

The Religion Compound is littered with monuments from all three of the main monotheistic religions, as well as the Coptic Museum and the Coptic Cemetery. Some of the more famous churches here include the Greek Church of St George (one of the few round churches still in existence in the region) and the Hanging Church (with its famous suspended nave). The Amr Ibn el-Aas Mosque is located just north of the compound, and was the first mosque ever built in Egypt (although it has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times).

Make sure you head down the passageway to the left of the Church of St George: it takes you in to a maze of exquisite cobbled lanes that wind past numerous other religious buildings. Must-see monuments here include the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (believed to be the oldest in Cairo, and built on the spot where Jesus and his family rested after their flight to Egypt), the Church of St Shenuti, and the beautiful Ben Ezra Synagogue.

The Religion Compound can be reached by taxi (ask for Fustat) or by Metro: Mar Girgis Station is directly opposite the Coptic Museum. read more about The Religion Compound

Al Azhar Park

Al Azhar Park

  • Salah Salem Street
  • Al Darassa
  • tel:+20 2 510 3868 / +20 2 510 7378
  • Visit website
  • Cairo, 11562

Covering an area of about 30 hectares, al-Azhar Park is the largest expanse of green in Cairo. Established by the Aga Khan Trust For Culture in 1984, it was built over the top of a huge pile of rubble that had been turned in to a rubbish tip. Don't let this put you off: al-Azhar Park is a peaceful oasis on the edge of the chaos that is Islamic Cairo.

Paths meander through idyllic gardens, and you are never far from one of the many water features. It's a great place to relax, and many people take a picnic. If you'd rather be waited upon, there are four restaurant/cafes located in the grounds. Because al-Azhar Park is on a hill, you get amazing views all over Cairo. On a clear day you can even see the Pyramids!

As with much of Cairo, the best bit is people-watching: old men reminiscing on benches, children playing leapfrog, and daring young lovers holding hands as they stroll through their own little world. If history is your thing, then check out the 800 year-old Ayyubid wall that has been partially restored. If music is more your scene, then ask at the information desk about up-and-coming concerts; many of them are free!

Al-Azhar Park is a perfect place to chill out after you've tackled some of the nearby sights of Islamic Cairo, such as Khan al-Khalili or the Citadel. You can get here by taxi, or even walk up from Khan al-Khalili. read more about Al Azhar Park

Wikalet al-Ghouri

Wikalet al-Ghouri

  • Muhammad 'Abduh Street
  • tel:+20 (0)2 2285 4509 (Tourist Information)
  • Cairo, 11211

The Wikalet al-Ghouri, in Islamic Cairo, was built in the 16th Century by Qansuh al-Ghouri, the penultimate Mamluk sultan. A Wikala was a warehouse and merchants hostel, and the Wikalet al-Ghouri has been carefully restored. You have to pay 15 LE to enter.

It is very complete, with a huge open courtyard and a maze of stairs and passageways leading around the different floors. There is a marble fountain in the middle of the courtyard. Many of the old rooms have been turned into miniature crafts centres, and it's possible to see workers producing leather ware, jewellery, paintings and so on. The combination of dark mashrabia windows on each room, and the striped marble building materials, is very effective; and although the Wikala al-Ghouri is very simple, it is deceptively beautiful.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday evening there is a free Sufi dancing show held in the courtyard. The show begins at 8.30 pm, though if possible you should arrive when the doors open at 6.30 pm, to make sure you get in.

The show is incredible: the dancers spin in place, whipping their brightly coloured skirts into a mesmerising kaleidoscope of patterns. At the end of the dance, they simply walk off without a wobble, as if they haven't just been spinning around in a circle for ages. It's dizzying just watching them!

Wikalet al-Ghouri is just behind al-Azhar Mosque, pretty much opposite Khan al-Khalili and a short walk away from the Street of the Tentmakers.
read more about Wikalet al-Ghouri