Cairo, Egypt, has been called "the mother of the world" and "city of victory." Visitors will find it to be a fascinating and often bewildering mixture of old and new. Cairo businesspeople in suits and locals in traditional robes can both be found at sidewalk coffee shops, and minarets and domes share the skyline with high-rise office buildings and hotel towers. Traditional music competes with jazz or Egyptian pop, as well as with the incessant honking of horns.
Cairo's layers of ancient, medieval and modern can be a bit overwhelming. Many things take longer than they should, and nothing works quite perfectly. Patience is a virtue: The expression Ma'alesh (which translates loosely as "Don't worry about it") seems to be on everyone's lips—especially when you're in a hurry. If you set reasonable goals, take frequent breaks and drink plenty of water, you'll have a memorable time in Cairo.
Cairo is divided into quarters and neighborhoods, and knowing where these areas are is the best way to orient yourself. Downtown is on the east bank of the Nile River and centers around Tahrir Square. The street called Corniche el-Nil runs along the eastern bank of the Nile. Islamic Cairo refers to the medieval quarter of the city, east of downtown. The famous Khan el-Khalili bazaar, the Citadel and many prominent mosques are found in this area. Old Cairo refers to the oldest part of the city, to the south of downtown. About 9 mi/15 km northeast of downtown Cairo is Heliopolis, with several chic shopping streets and the airport nearby.
Technically, all areas west of the Nile are said to be in Giza. Mohandiseen and Dokki are just across the Nile from downtown Cairo. The pyramids and the Sphinx are located in the southwestern part of Giza, about 6.5 mi/10 km from downtown.
There are five islands in the section of the Nile that runs through Cairo. Gezira Island is the site of many luxury hotels and restaurants, with Zamalek, a cosmopolitan and relatively upscale neighborhood, at its northern end. Just south of Gezira Island, east of Old Cairo, is Roda Island, usually called el-Manial. Two other islands to the south, Qorsaya and Dahab, are mostly farming villages, and Warraq to the north is beginning to be populated.
Some maps employ the Arabic words midan (square) and sharya (street). We use the English equivalents. Also, you should be aware that transliteration of Arabic into a Latin alphabet yields many variations. Place names may be spelled in a variety of ways, for example, with either an el- or an al-.
Ancient Egyptian civilization stretches back several thousand years, but the city we know as Cairo did not exist during the time of the pharaohs. The first developments in the area were Persian and Roman fortresses built in Babylon (the area referred to as Old Cairo). A city called Fustat was founded near there following the Arab conquest of Egypt in AD 642. The foundations of modern Cairo were laid in 969 when the Fatimids, a Shiite dynasty from Tunisia, founded El-Qahira.
Salah al-Din (Saladin) gained control over the city in 1171 and established the Ayyubid dynasty, which converted the country from Shiite to Sunni (orthodox) Islam. The Mamelukes, a group of soldier-slaves, seized power from the Ayyubids in 1250. Power changed hands again in 1516 when Egypt became part of the Ottoman Empire. Trade with Europe flourished during this period. Beginning in the 1600s and continuing to the mid-1700s, Cairo was the center of commercial and intellectual exchange. However, a series of devastating plagues and famines in the late 1700s weakened the country economically and socially.
The iconoclastic Muhammad Ali took power in 1805, establishing the country's first royal dynasty. He battled the Ottoman rulers in Istanbul and gained nominal independence for Egypt in 1840. After vying with the French for political and economic control of Egypt, Britain eventually gained the upper hand in the late 1800s. Cairo was renovated with wide tree-lined boulevards and pleasant gardens and buzzed with social activities during "the season," which lasted December-March. This glamorous period came to an end when World War II's battles reached Egypt's Mediterranean shores.
The end of the war brought Cairo prosperity, as well as a tremendous population explosion, which began to tax urban resources. In the 1970s, President Anwar Sadat's policies created a plethora of government-owned businesses, which dominated the economy. Legal reform and a privatization program during the 1990s led to increased foreign investment and the availability of more foreign goods. Today, Cairo is the largest city in the Middle East, as well as the political and cultural capital of Egypt.
In the 21st century, Cairo, like the rest of Egypt, has grown increasingly polarized between the secular government of the ruling party and the fundamentalist, often violent and outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The surprise in the election of 2005 was not that President Hosni Mubarak won a fifth term but that candidates sympathetic to the Brotherhood won 76 seats in Egypt's parliament, the Majlis.
Cairo also has felt the effects of tensions in the Middle East. In 2005, suicide bombers attacked near the Kahn al-Khalili bazaar and the Egyptian Museum, and police and Sudanese refugees clashed, leaving more than two dozen dead. In 2006, police collided with demonstrators again, this time supporters of two judges appearing before a disciplinary board for accusing pro-government judges of helping fix the November 2005 election.
Part of the Arab Spring, the so-called "Egyptian Revolution" protesting government corruption, poverty, and high levels of unemployment led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. A series of subsequent elections from November 2011 to early 2012 and Mubarak's trial brought more violent (and deadly) demonstrations to Cairo, almost bringing tourism in the city to a standstill.
In 2012, Mohamed Morsi was elected president, making him the first democratically elected president in the country's history. Morsi's government faced strong and sometimes violent opposition, resulting in his overthrow from office in July 2013. Political tensions and civil unrest remained like the flow of the ancient Nile River, with highs and lows. However, in May 2014 another new government was elected, albeit with a low voter turnout, with the landslide victory of former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Tourism is slowly rebounding.
Cairo's most popular tourist sights are the monuments and relics of Egypt's pharaonic past. The prime attraction in the city itself is the Egyptian Museum—it's so full of ancient artifacts that it's almost bursting at the seams. The big draws of the collection are the contents of Tutankhamen's (King Tut's) tomb and a dozen royal mummies displayed in oxygen-free cases. The museum has too much for you to absorb in one visit—we recommend you spend two half-days there.
The most famous ancient Egyptian monuments—the pyramids and the Sphinx—are not in Cairo proper, but in the suburb of Giza (although most photos make it appear that the structures are out in the desert, they're actually at the edge of town). Plan a half-day at the site, and be sure to go inside the 5,000-year-old Great Pyramid of Khufu (prepare yourself for crowded, claustrophobic surroundings). You can see other pyramids on a day trip to Saqqara or Dashur, which are south of Giza. The pyramids and tombs there are less frequented by tourist groups and vendors, so you can have a more peaceful visit.
Cairo also has an incomparable collection of Islamic monuments, spanning several periods and architectural styles. Take time to visit a couple of mosques—the city has dozens of them but among the most interesting ones are the Ibn Tulun, Aqsunqur ("Blue") and Sultan Hassan mosques. They're wonderful examples of Islamic art and architecture, and they help illustrate the development of the city and the importance of Islam in modern-day Egypt. Entrance to all mosques should be free, although unscrupulous locals may try to convince you otherwise. Only consider a tip when you are climbing a minaret or when you rent overshoes at the entrance. If you do not want to leave your shoes at the entrance, it's best to take a plastic bag to hide them when you take them inside.
You should also visit Bab Zuwayla—the only remaining southern gate of medieval Cairo, with a small museum and wonderful views from the minarets above. The Citadel is another must-see. Perched on a hill, it has several museums and monuments and the Muhammad Ali mosque, as well as views over the city and Sufi dancing several evenings a week.
The Coptic Quarter in Old Cairo has a very different feel from the rest of the city. Some of Cairo's oldest structures are found there, including a number of elaborate churches—Al-Muallaqa (the Hanging Church) is our favorite. The Ben Ezra Synagogue is also well worth a visit. Also be sure to see the Coptic Museum.
For a look at decorative arts, visit the Museum of Islamic Art, the Gayer-Anderson House and the Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum.
Once a nightlife wasteland, Cairo now has a number of options. Just about every major hotel in the city has a bar and disco. Some of the best nightspots, however, are not in hotels. Keep in mind, too, that nightlife and food often go hand in hand in Cairo.
Bars typically close 2-3 am. Discos tend to stay open an hour or two later.
The number of restaurants in Cairo has expanded greatly in the past few years, so you'll find eateries in all price ranges. Fresh fish, ordered by the pound/kilogram from a display case and cooked to order, is a local specialty. Dinner cruises on the Nile are also very popular. For variety, you can sample fine Italian, Swiss, French and Asian cuisine or the food of other Middle Eastern countries. Note
: Although shrimp is widely available, you may want to avoid eating it. Travelers who do not have a known allergy to shellfish will occasionally have an allergic reaction in Egypt.
Muslims do not eat pork, and few restaurants serve it. Alcohol is also forbidden to strict Muslims, but many restaurants serve at least wine and beer. Some owners, however, have forbidden alcohol on their properties, so don't be surprised if a restaurant is alcohol-free. In most places listed, major credit cards are accepted, but it's best to call first to make sure.
Cool off in the summer Cairene-style, with an iced karkadi (hibiscus tea) or a glass of fresh-pressed mango or orange juice at one of the city's hundreds of juice bars. Check out the bags of fruit hanging in front to know what is in season, and if you're worried about stomach troubles later, ask for your juice without ice (bidun talg).
Most restaurants open for business around 1 pm. Typically, lunch is the biggest meal of the day and is eaten sometime between 1 and 4 pm (but closer to the latter). Restaurants remain open through the evening, but the dinner rush doesn't usually begin until 9 pm (and will continue until midnight). If you want to eat fashionably late, reservations are recommended.
Your best bet for anything and everything about Cairo's restaurants, cafes and bakeries is the Cairo Dining Guide, published annually. It's available in bookstores and hotels for £E 20 with its companion booklet, the Cairo Shopping Guide. Besides the essentials, the Guide tells you which places have Wi-Fi, smoke-free and children's play areas, parking, dancing and everything else. http://www.cairodining.com.
The online restaurant guide El Menus features more than 1,500 menus and 150,000 dishes in Cairo. Select a restaurant by location or cuisine type. http://www.elmenus.com.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one and not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than £E 40; $$ = £E 40-£E 79; $$$ = £E 80-£E 119; $$$$ = £E 120-£E 200; $$$$$ = more than £E 200.
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