Cairo, Egypt: What to See and What to Do? Cairo is so large it can be extremely hard to decide how and when to see all of the sites you have dreamed of. While not complete this list may give you an insight into the most important sites in the city. We left out the Pyramids of Gizah since we deal with them in another post.
Cairo, Egypt is a mix of the modern and the historic. Many travelers have a love/hate relationship with this mixed up, crazy town. There is pollution, violent protests, and bad traffic. There is also vigorous street life, a rich history, and unique culture. You have to take the good with the bad, but often the wonder of the good parts outshines the bad. Where else can you ride a camel past the pyramids by day and stay in a luxury hotel at night? When you do get there, be sure to stay in the city Arabs called Umm al-Dunya aka Mother of the World.
Um al-Dunya, translated as ‘Mother of the World,’ is an Arabic expression. This simple phrase highlights the great achievements of the ancient Pharos. The list includes the Pyramids, culture and more.
The Wonderous World of Downtown Cairo, Egypt
Here it is, The Paris of the Eastern World. Take a stroll through the downtown district if you want the feel of 19th century Cairo, Egypt.
The confusing and often crowded streets provide amazing street hiking. The brilliant architecture, a little soot-stained is beautiful and sometimes breathtaking. The Belle Epoque buildings are starting to crumble with age, but they are still awe-inspiring. Midan Talaat Harb is where you will find the best of the remnants.
Ever wanted to see how Egyptian royalty lives? The best example lies on the western edge of downtown on Al-Gumhuriya Street. There you will find the 19th century Abdin Palace, home to the last of Egypt’s khedives.
The former king’s home is a museum where you can see a collection of pictures, tapestries, and other gifts. The king received these from many visiting dignitaries from all over the world.
It’s easy to get around downtown Cairo, Egypt on foot. Always remember to look both ways before crossing the street. The drivers do not look for you, you must look for them.
The Awe-Inspiring Egyptian Museum
The Egyptian museum lies right next to Midan Tahrir. The central square of downtown Cairo, Egypt. The best way to get there is to take the Cairo Metro to Sadat Station. Follow the exit signs and the pink mansion will be impossible to miss.
If you came to Cairo, Egypt hoping to see some of the historical antiquities. Cairo’s Egyptian Museum is the first place to go.
The size and number of artifacts are more than you can take in with only one day. You will have to return a second time and will still not see everything.
Many of the items are not labeled. The cramped space in the museum leaves many things placed here and there with no system. There are so many relics they are only able to show a few at a time. That leads to some of the hodgepodge atmospheres.
The French Egyptologist August Mariette founded the museum in 1857. Everything was later moved to the powder pink mansion in downtown Cairo, Egypt in 1897.
Visit King Tut
People pressed for time on their visit many times opt-out of the museum. They go straight to the Tutankhamun Galleries to learn all about the famous boy king of Egypt. The galleries show the many treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Tutankhamun was the son-in-law and successor to Amenophis IV (later, Akhenaten).
Tutankhamun known as King Tut died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 18. Howard Carter discovered the tomb in 1922. His discovery led to the most intact tomb ever found in Egypt.
First, Room 3 has the famous golden death mask and sarcophagus. Second, Room 35 has his lion throne inlaid with an image of the king with Queen Ankhesenamen. Room 9 holds his fascinating wardrobe collection. Third, Room 4 holds all the glamorous jewelry King Tut wore in life. Last, Go to rooms 56 and 46 to view more mummies including the Lady Pharaoh Hatshepsut.
You can also greet Seti I, Rameses II and Thutmose II. There are many other interesting rooms for you to visit as time goes by.
The Sacred El-Azhar Mosque
Al-Azhar Mosque is the oldest surviving mosque in Cairo, Egypt. The mosque is the world’s oldest known University. (There is another in Fes that is equally as old.) It’s construction completed in 972 AD. The status of a university received from Caliph El-Aziz in 988 AD. Today, it is the leading theological center of the Islamic world.
The Gate of Barbers is the main entrance to the mosque. You will find it on the northwest side of the building adjoining a neo-Arad facade constructed by Abba II. The custom requires you to leave your shoes at the front entrance. You are then allowed access to the central courtyard. From here, you will get the best view of the mosque’s five minarets.
The El-Taibarsiya Medrese will be on your right. It has a prayer niche called a mihrab that dates back to 1309. The vast main prayer hall is right across the courtyard. It spans approximately 53,820 square feet, ensuring lots of people have lots of room to pray. The front half is all original, the rear half added by Abd el-Rahman.
The Al-Azhar Mosques location is right at the heart of Cairo, Egypt’s Islamic district. It is more convenient to get there by taxi. The street the mosque is on is even called Al-Azhar Street, making it easy to find. Al-Azhar Street runs east from Midan Ataba to the downtown area. It should be very easy to find.
Coptic Cairo, the Site of Old Cairo
Here in these labyrinthine lanes lined in churches will you find the walls of Old Babylon. This is where the Roman Emperor Trajan built his fortress along the Nile. If you go to the main street, you’ll see the still-standing Roman towers.
Visit the Coptic art of Egypt’s early Christianity period at the Coptic Museum. Located next door is the 9th-century Hanging Church. The church is the home to the most beautiful examples of Coptic architecture. This church, founded in the Fourth century and named due to its odd construction. The church overhangs the Roman gate towers. The church was rebuilt during the Ninth Century.
All three of the Abrahamic faiths are present here. Christian travelers may want to make a pilgrimage to the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus. According to legend, the Virgin Mary, the infant Jesus and Joseph hid inside this church. They used the site to escape King Herod and the Slaughter of The Innocents.
You may want to continue to the Ben Ezra Synagogue further into the old quarter. The synagogue lies near the site of the bulrushes where Moses was found.
You may want to visit the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-As, the first mosque built in Egypt. The mosque’s location is on the outside of the old quarter.
Shopping In the Souq Quarter
Access the Coptic Cairo via the Cairo Metro to Mar Girgis Station Khan el-Khalili, Also Known as the Souq Quarter
If you like shopping, Khan el-Khalili is the place to be! In Cairo, Egypt, a bazaar is often called by its Arabic name, souq. The maze of alleyways construction began around in 1400. The center served as a shopping district. The area even now rings with old fashioned metal working artisans.
The main streets sell only cheap trinkets. If you want something good, you’ll have to go off the beaten track. You will find tiny stores or cluttered workshops that sell more traditional items. You could get a metal lampshade, a woven textile or a very rare antique. The most famous coffee shop in Cairo, Egypt is Fishawis. Here is where you can buy the best syrupy Arabic coffee or sweet tea.
The main street for the souq district is Al-Muski Street. The eastern end is Gawhar al-Qaid Street. North of the Al-Muizz Li-Din Allah Street intersection to find gold and silversmiths. South if you are in search of exotic spices.
The eastern side is the Neo-Gothic bulk of the Sayyidna el-Husein Mosque. The mosque dates back to 1972 and was built to honor the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
Khan el-Khalili can be accessed across the street from the Al-Azhar Mosque.
The Commanding Citadel
The Citadel in Cairo, Egypt constructed around 1179 by Saladin at the foot of the Mokattam Hills. Only the eastern walls still survive today. Much of the original floor plan has given way to the designs of other rulers that had since taken over.
Most people come here to visit the Mosque of Mohammad Ali. This famous monument is also called “The Alabaster Mosque” due to the white stone exterior. The tall, slim minarets are one of the great landmarks of Cairo, Egypt. For a great panoramic view, you will want to go to Gawhara Terrace.
East of here is the El-Nasir Mosque. Mohammad El-Nasir started construction in 1318 and completed it seventeen years later. There are a few small museums nearby. They are worth visiting to admire the architecture rather than the half-hearted exhibits. This includes the Police Museum, the National Military Museum, and the Carriage Museum.
Take a brisk 30-minute walk to reach the Citadel from Bab Zuweilla.
Sultan Hassan Mosque
The Sultan Hassan Mosque is the finest example of Mamluk architecture in the world. The stalactite detailing and intricate arabesque features are a vision of Arabian artistry. The construction of this mosque began in 1356 for Hassan el-Nasir. Construction took seven years to complete.
The exterior resembles an ancient Egyptian temple with its large areas of stone fascade. The south corner is home to the tallest minaret in Cairo, Egypt at about 269 feet tall. At the North, is a massive doorway that is roughly 85 feet tall.
The first thing you’ll see on entering is a domed vestibule leading to a small antechamber. Next, follow a corridor to an ornate open courtyard featuring an ablution fountain. If you’re brave enough to see what’s behind the iron door, you’ll find the Sultan’s mausoleum. If you look up, you’ll see the stalactitic pendentives of the original dome. The middle of the chamber, you will find the Sultan’s very simple sarcophagus.
Facing the Sultan Hassan Mosque is the more modern El-Rifai Mosque which was built in 1912. Interred here are Khedive Ismail and Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the former Shah of Iran.
These mosques are below Cairo. Egypt’s Citadel at Midan Salah ad-Din.
The Impressive Bab Zuweila
Bab Zuweila is by far the most interesting of all the Islamic gates in Cairo Egypt. It is an ancient relic dating back to the 11th Century. You can climb to the top and get an amazing bird’s eye view of the rooftops of Cairo, Egypt. This impressive gate with its two minarets is the last southern gate of the old town that still survives. The red and white stonework of Sheikh al-Mu’ayyad Mosque is right next door.
You will find this gate in the Islamic Cairo district on Al-Muizz Li-Din Allah Street. Speaking of which.
Al-Muizz Li-Din Allah Street
You will find restored Mamluk buildings along the northern area of Al-Muizz Li-Din Allah Street. Early Islamic lovers of architecture will want to visit Madrassa of as-Salih Ayyub.
The Madrassa of Qalaun across the street equals it in beauty. Both are architectural triumphs of the Mamluk period.
Qalaun’s son added fine marble, mother-of-pearl mosaics and stained glass mirrors in 1293. Muhammed al Nasir. Beautiful as it is, it had the more practical purpose of being a hospital when it first opened.
A bit north and you will find the Madrassa an-Nasr Mohammed, constructed in 1309. This building has as much ornate detailing as its predecessors.
Ibn Tulun Mosque
Ibn Tulun Mosque is the second oldest standing mosque in Cairo, Egypt. Construction took place somewhere between 876 and 879 AD. The building emulates the Kaaba in Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It was the largest mosque in existence at that time. Fragments of intricate frieze work decorate the main court’s colonnades.
The main prayer hall still has some of its carved stucco and wood decorations on the southern side of the court. Much of the original gold mosaic decoration is still intact.
There is a 131-foot tall minaret on the mosque’s northern side. The doorway has a fine horseshoe arch over the entrance. There is also fine a spiral staircase swirling through the interior.
The inspiration for the design was the minarets of the Great Mosque of Samara on the Tigris. You can get a superb view by climbing the 173 steps. To the east, you will find the Mokkatum Mountains and a sea of houses to the north.
The Ibn Tulu Mosque is a short stroll from the Sultan Hassan Mosque. Go straight down Al-Saliba Street.
The Calming Al-Azhar Park
As exciting as Cairo Egypt is, sometimes, you have to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
You may need a mini-vacation to calm down from your current vacation. You can make use of Al-Azhar Park, where the citizens of Cairo, Egypt spend their downtime. Hard as it is to believe, the park is constructed on what used to be a medieval trash dump!
The construction is a very recent addition to Cairo Egypt. Constructed in 2005 in response to a public need for respite from the crowded city. The manicured gardens are perfect for strolls and watching the sunset over the city. You are sure to find many good restaurants on-site, making it the perfect place to rest after a day of sightseeing. Be warned that it can get a bit packed on the weekends.
The easiest way to get to Al-Azhar Park is by taxi. Should you find yourself near Islamic Cairo walk east on Darb al-Ahmar Street. You will soon come to the lower park entrance. The main entrance location is on Salah Salem Street.
The Modernity of Zamalek
While some people love the historical value of Cairo, Egypt. Some of the time you may want to shop at an exquisite boutique or eat at a trendy restaurant. If you want that, then visit the Zamalek district located on Gezira, an island in the Nile River. It dates back to the 19th Century and has a marked European vibe to it. The broad boulevards jacaranda trees line both sides of the road. The ornate Belle Epoque mansions are now home to several embassies.
Zamalek has the best eateries you will find in Cairo, Egypt. You will find art galleries at the southern tip that are worth an afternoon of exploration. In the Nile Grand Hall on the former Gezira Fairgrounds is The Palace of Arts. They feature a rotating schedule of exhibits.
Don’t think all Egyptian art is pharaohs and ancient hieroglyphics! A short visit to the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art will prove that. Of special note are the works by Mahmoud Said and Mahmoud Mukhtar. Do you like playing tennis or riding a horse? The Gezira Sports Complex has you and the southern section covered. Jutting out over the lush greenery is the 614 foot tall Cairo Tower. It was built in 1961 by President Nasser. No trip to Zamalek is complete without a trip to the Cairo Tower observation deck to see the sunset.
South of Zamalek is Roda Island, where you can visit Monastirli Palace. The palace is the home of a former Ottoman Pasha. Have you ever wondered how the people of Cairo measure the ebb and flow of the Nile River? You will want a look at the Nileometer in the royal gardens. This one was built in 861 AD.
On the northern part of the island is the Manyal Palace, which was built in 1805-18 in the time of Mohammed Ali. It is currently closed for maintenance.
Mosque of Al-Hakim
One of the most fascinating rulers of Egypt is Caliph Al-Hakim. This Fatimid leader could be Egypt’s answer to Caligula. He was the leader calling for frequent murders and bizarre rulings. He once decreed that no one but he should eat Egyptian mallow-leaf. Strange but true. He often disguised himself as a donkey mounted peasant to make sure people were obeying him.
The mosque construction concluded in 1013 but, before becoming a mosque it once served as a mental hospital. It was completely restored in the 1980s. The minarets are most interesting. Once round, they are now square after the rebuilding triggered by the 1303 earthquake.
Follow Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah Street all the way north from Al-Azhar Mosque. The Mosque of Al-Hakim location is on Al-Galal Street.
After Cairo, Egypt, where to next?
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