City Highlight: Cairo

Published on: Wednesday, October 11, 2017

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Home to over 20 million people – and Africa’s second largest city – Egypt’s capital is a fascinating destination with enough to keep a visitor busy for weeks

Affectionately called Umm ad-Dunya, or “The Mother of the World” by locals, Cairo roars with life. Although tourist numbers have fallen dramatically following political upheaval and fears over security at tourist sites, travel to Cairo is currently deemed safe – and the lack of crowds makes visiting its iconic attractions extra-special.

When to go

Spring (March-May) is a great time to visit, with pleasantly warm days and little chance of rain, although temperatures start to climb by May. Don’t miss the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, which runs for three weeks in March and April and includes music, theatre, dance and film.

Summer (June-August) is hot and often muggy, with averages of 35C and no rain to cool things down; this is the time locals head to the seaside resorts. Air-conditioning does go some way to help, but you’ll need to keep sightseeing to early mornings and late afternoons.

Autumn (September-October) is temperate, much like spring, with warm days and cool nights. The Cairo International Film Festival takes place in November, and is a star-studded affair celebrating films from “The Hollywood of the Middle East”, as Egypt has long been known, and beyond.

Winter (December-January) has lovely cool days ideal for sightseeing, but bear in mind that at night temperatures can plunge to as little as 8C, so you’ll need to pack warm clothes. Winter is traditionally the high season, but is much less busy than in years gone by.

Getting around

Don’t even think about driving or cycling – traffic in Cairo is chaotic, congested and dangerous for the uninitiated. Buses are overcrowded too, and difficult to navigate. Instead, hop into a taxi; as well as traditional cabs, Uber operates in Cairo. The city also has a modern, air-conditioned metro that is efficient and affordable and covers many of the major sites. Escorted tours – with a guide and transport included – are also a popular way to sightsee, especially for sites like the Giza Pyramids.

For more details on transport options, see our Getting around Cairo page.

Must-see attractions

Giza Pyramid Complex
A visit to Cairo isn’t complete without a trip to the Giza pyramid complex, set on the southwestern outskirts of the city. The largest of the three pyramids found here, the Great Pyramid of Giza, is one of the seven ancient wonders of the world – and the only one still intact. Here too is the iconic Great Sphinx, a limestone sculpture depicting a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human.

Egyptian Museum of Antiquities
Crammed with artefacts including papyrus fragments, jewellery and ancient coins as well as sarcophagi (stone coffins), carvings, statues and mummies, this museum is probably most famous for housing treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun, including his magnificent funeral mask.

The Citadel of Cairo
Built on a limestone outcrop at the end of the 12th century, the Citadel’s original purpose was to protect Cairo against the Crusaders; after that it became the residence of the country’s rulers until the 1870s. Also on this site (and visible from afar too) is the grand Mosque of Muhammad Ali, and there are several smaller mosques and four museums here too. The views are outstanding.

The Hanging Church
So-called because of its location above two Roman gates (its official name is Saint Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church), this ornate church is the one of the oldest in Egypt. Accessible up 29 steps (it’s also known as the Staircase Church), the roof is in the shape of an upturned Noah’s Ark, and the interior has the kind of intricate geometric patterning more commonly seen in mosques, with 13 pillars representing Christ and his disciples.

Islamic Art Museum
This museum reopened in January 2017, three years after damage from a car bomb targeting police headquarters nearby forced it to close. The museum houses one of the most important collections of Islamic art in the world, ranging from the 7th to the 19th centuries, and a large one at that – only 5,000 of its 100,000-strong collection are on display at any time.

In addition, the city contains a number of impressive mosques and madrassas (theology schools) and a walled medieval city centre. Check out our Things to see in Cairo section.

Quirky and Off-beat

Play some golf on a championship course
You wouldn’t necessarily associate Cairo with golf, but the sport was introduced to the city by British forces stationed in the city during WW1 and there are now over 20 courses around the country. While most are members-only, some, like the Mena House Hotel, are open to visitors.

Khan el Khalili Bazaar
This ancient souk has been selling pretty much the same items for thousands of years – come here for high-quality clothing, perfume, leather items, rugs and spices – and be prepared to haggle with all manner of smooth-talking salesmen. There are plenty of coffee shops should you need a break along the way.

Birqash Camel Market
Set in the village of Birqash, 35km northwest of Cairo, the camel market has been here for hundreds of years and offers an authentic insight into Egyptian life. It’s not for the faint-hearted, though: most of the camels, which come from as far afield as Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, are sold at auction to local butchers, and the atmosphere is loud and busy.

For other off-beat attractions, see our Things to do in Cairo page.

Travel tips

Must-try specialties

Ful medames – fava beans with eggs and vegetables
Shawarma – barbecued meat served in a flatbread
Babaghanoush – a dip made of pureed aubergines
Bania – a slow-cooked stew made with lamb, okra and tomatoes
Qatayef – a sweet dessert served usually during Ramadan, filled with cream and nuts
Kahwa – a strong, Turkish style coffee
Karkaday – a hibiscus tea served either hot or cold
Zibib – an aniseed-flavoured alcoholic drink

Tipping: It is customary – for locals as well as tourists – to tip everyone you encounter, from hotel porters and housekeeping staff to taxi drivers and tour guides. It can get annoying, but bear in mind that many service workers rely on tips to make a living and anything, however small, is appreciated. Tipping in restaurants is usually around 10% of the bill.

Hotels in Cairo

Many of the international hotel chains are represented here, with rooms offering views of the Nile at a premium. Cheaper options are readily available, especially in downtown Cairo. With the slump in the tourist industry over the past few years, some great deals can be had. There are some good hotels near the Pyramids at Giza but there’s little else to do in the area. For our hand-picked recommendations on where to stay in Cairo, check out our Hotels in Cairo guide

Nightlife in Cairo

Cairo has an energetic nightlife scene, ranging from shisha lounges and Western style bars to lively nightclubs. Traditional Egyptian bars are called baladi bars; the most famous, El Horreya, retains a 1930s vibe and is a great place to people-watch. Landmark cultural venues in the city include El Sawy Culturewheel, where you can catch anything from classical Arabic music to musical theatre, as well as art exhibitions and film festivals. For more recommendations, see our Nightlife in Cairo section.

Visa requirements for Cairo, Egypt

Visas are required for nationals from the EU, Australia, the USA and Canada. These can be obtained on arrival at airports for US$25 and are valid for 30 days; they can be paid with by US dollar, Sterling or Euros. Your passport must be valid for six months or more. Those travelling into Egypt overland or from other countries should check with the consulate in their place of residence. Visitors from all countries besides the EU and USA must register with the police within a week of arriving; hotels normally will do this for you. For more information, see the Egypt Visa and Passport Requirements page.