A Practical Travel Guide to Cairo, Egypt

by | Nov 27, 2022 | Africa, BLOG

Cairo is the second-largest city in Africa. With over 20 million people and at least 14 million tourists visiting the ancient city every year, Cairo is as glorious as ever.

This is a Cairo travel guide with practical information to help you plan your trip. See all the must-visit attractions and places, things to do, and most importantly, tips on where to eat and stay in Egypt’s capital.

Cairo means “Victorious” and is in Northern Egypt, along the Nile River, just 100 miles from the Mediterranean Sea.

Cairo’s historical significance is reason enough to visit, but the city is not only an ancient site but a modern ambassador for 21st-century Egypt.


The following is a simple but practical Travel Guide to Cairo


Brief History of Cairo

Cairo has a strategic significance near the Mediterranean coast along the ever-important Nile River, an essential trading route since ancient times.

In 969 current, Cairo was founded after the Arabs conquered Egypt. The city was blessed with extraordinary architecture and landmarks as crucial as some of the oldest libraries and universities in the world. Cairo thrived during the Middle Ages and survived the crusades. It eventually became part of the Ottoman Empire and became the capital of modern Egypt in 1848.

The British occupied Cairo until 1956, when the country was allowed to rule itself. Except for the Egyptian revolution of 2011, Cairo has remained a safe, flourishing metropolis.

Travel Guide to Cairo - Pyramids of Giza
Cairo – Pyramids of Giza – Wonder of the Ancient World – Photo: Spencer Davis

Travel Guide to Cairo: Facts and Stats

  • Arabic is Egypt’s written language, but Egyptian is the spoken language. The Egyptian pound is the country’s currency.
  • Giza and its pyramids are the most visited tourist destination in Egypt, and it’s only 12 miles southwest of Cairo.
  • Cairo has warm, dry weather with average summer temperatures of 80°F and mild winter temperatures as low as 48°F.
  • Crime ratings are high in Cairo but not significant in safe, designated touristic areas, including the archeological sites and Old Cairo.
  • Historic Cairo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

How to Get There?

Cairo International Airport is the largest in the country and receives local and international airlines. The Cairo airport is only 9.3 miles northeast of Cairo.

The Egyptian Railway connects Cairo with other Egyptian cities and can be a viable alternative if you are visiting from a neighboring Middle Eastern or North African Destination.

Once in Cairo, taking a shuttle or taxi is ideal, although you can rent a car or share a ride with one of several app-based services.


Where to stay in Cairo?

Cairo is a bustling city but has distinct aspects within well-defined neighborhoods and areas. Staying in one or another will significantly impact your experience, so knowing your way around the best place to stay in Cairo is encouraged.

Cairo is a centric city; you don’t need to move around much to visit its landmarks and tourist sites. In terms of convenience, no area in Cairo is better than others, but they are different. Here’s where to stay in Cairo.


Downtown

Downtown Cairo is the commercial district, and it looks and feels like any modern city—it’s often compared to Paris thanks to its French architecture and boulevards.

This zone of central Cairo is minutes away from major museums, monuments, and markets.

Most large hotels are in this area, including the Ramses Hilton, the InterContinental, and the Nile Ritz. Of course, there are much smaller and more affordable alternatives scattered in the area. The Ahmed Helmy Bus Station and the Ramses Railway Station are straightforward ways to get here and avoid transit.

Cairo, Egypt
Visit Cairo – Jack Krier

Zamalek

The Zamalek neighborhood is right in front of Downtown Cairo, on the other side of the Nile River, and includes the Island of Gezira. This modern area has a European feel but is much more modern than the City center.

There is a large ex-pat community in Zamalek. Here, thriving restaurants and nightclubs invite visitors to enjoy themselves around the clock. And even if Zamalek is often described as the new part of Cairo, there are still plenty of cultural and historic sites within walking distance of shopping centers and cool-looking bars.

City of Cairo
Cairo – Zamalek – Photo: Mujaddara  via Creative Commons

Giza

The movies picture the pyramids of Giza as a destination nestled within the arid North African desert, but they are within Cairo’s city limits. The area is a lovely place to stay, especially if you’re planning to visit the many pyramids, monuments, and sculptures on the archeological site.

You’ll find fanciful hotels and affordable lodging options minutes away from the pyramids. Staying at a height pays off—the pyramids of Giza are a spectacular view from your suite at the Marriott, just saying.

Pyramids of Giza - Cairo, Egypt
Cairo – World Famous Pyramids of Giza – Photo: Osamaa Bosaadi

What to eat in Cairo?

Cairo is the Egyptian cuisine capital and a gem on the African continent. Local cuisine combines North African, Middle Eastern, and Egyptian specialties that look and taste familiar at times but are unique to others.

Food is also inexpensive in Cairo, with many small eateries and street food alternatives for the traveler on a budget. Medium-priced and high-end restaurants also exist, and they’re worth splurging on from time to time. Below, you’ll find a list of popular Egyptian cuisine food in Cairo, and there’s something for everyone.


Falafel

Falafel is a splendid snack to have at all hours. Known locally as Tamiya, these crispy fava bean or chickpea fritters are typical in Cairo as they are in the Middle East. Falafel is also a fantastic alternative for travelers with tight budgets, as it is a source of plant-based protein as filling as it is tasty.

Falafel
Cairo – Falafel – Photo: Anton

Fattah

Fattah is a popular Middle Eastern dish with special significance in Cairo. Although there are many versions of this meaty rice-based dish, the Cairo version usually contains rice, chunky beef or lamb, and a spicy tomato sauce. Think of comfort food, and you’ll precisely know what to expect from Fattah.


Mahshi

Mahshi is popular street food in Cairo and translates to stuffed food. You might recognize the stuffed grapevine leaves, as they’re also common in other countries, but Cairo’s one-biters are some of the best in the world. Mahshi is more than stuffed vine leaves. People stuff many other veggies with nutty and meaty fillings of all types.


Mesaka’a

You might know this dish by its Greek name Moussaka. A flavorful and colorful braised eggplant stew with tomato sauce, minced beef, and lots of spices. This messy dish is best enjoyed with flatbread, and it’s a hearty meal to keep you satisfied all day, especially when served with a side of rice.


Shawarma

It’s no secret that people love meat in Cairo, and one of the city’s most popular grilled meat specialties is a Middle Eastern superstar — Shawarma. Meat is grilled until charred perfection in a vertical broiler and sliced to make a type of wrap or sandwich — a perfect grab-and-go meal.

Shawarma
Shawarma – Noblevmy via Creative Commons

Baklava

For a sweet ending, there’s no surprise that the Middle Eastern honey and puff pastry baklava play a role in Cairo’s cuisine. Of course, there are many other pastries and sweets in the city, but the baklava is hard to beat. This nutty dessert is crispy and sticky at the same time. Delicious!

Baklava
Cairo – Baklava – Photo: Ömer Haktan Bulut

What to do in Cairo?

Now that you know how to get to Cairo, where to stay, and what to eat, let’s talk about the best things to do in Cairo, Egypt. Of course, the best things to do in such a multifaceted city depend on your preference, but there’s no doubt you’ll find inspiration in the list below.

There’s something in Cairo for foodies, history enthusiasts, outdoorsy travelers, and lovers of Egyptian culture. The best part? You’ll find everything within the city’s limits, from fine-dining restaurants to ancient pyramids.

Coptic Museum Cairo
Coptic Museum Cairo – Creative Commons

Visit Old Cairo

Start your visit to Cairo by going back to its origins. Old Cairo is a historical area within Cairo with many Roman and Islamic sites of interest — they go back thousands of years!

Old Cairo is an Island right across from Giza. Coptic Cairo, within Old Cairo, has an immense concentration of temples and landmarks that tell the story of Cairo. Don’t miss it! Also known as Islamic Cairo, this old neighborhood will make you feel like you are traveling back in time.

Old Cairo
Cairo Travel Guide – Old Cairo – Photo: World Bank Photo via Creative Commons

Tour the Grand Egyptian Museum

The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization of NEMC is a must for every traveler in Cairo. The Egyptian Museum has a tremendous collection of art and artifacts going back thousands of years. The museum is the right place to see authentic mummies, but that’s just the beginning.

Be amazed by the lavish lifestyle of pharaohs and learn about the beautiful Egyptian culture from prehistoric times to the Empire’s fall. Don’t miss the Royal Mummies Hall — one of the best things to do in Cairo, Egypt.

Egyptian Museum - Cairo
Cairo – Egyptian Museum – Photo: Naemolia

Get Inspired by the Giza Pyramids

Of course, no visit to Cairo is complete without walking the archeological site of Giza, home to the famous pyramids and the Sphinx.

The Giza Pyramid Complex is just 8 miles from downtown Cairo, and you’ll want to spend an entire day in the area. The pyramids were built between 2600 and 2500 BC, but the whole place has recently been renovated, so the complex is more comfortable for visitors than ever.

Giza Pyramid
Giza Pyramid – Wonder of the Ancient World – Thais Cordeiro

Climb up Cairo Tower

After the pyramids, this 610-foot-tall tower is the most recognizable monument in the city.

The tower, built in 1961, resembles a stylized lotus plant with its lattice casing.

From the top, the 360-degree views of Cairo are best in the late morning after the mist has cleared or in the late afternoon when the pyramids are often seen.

Cairo Tower
Cairo – Cairo Tower – Photo: Jack Krier

Get Lost in the Khan El Khalili Bazaar

The Khan El Khalili Bazaar in Downtown Cairo is one of the world’s most colorful markets and one of the oldest, dating back to the tenth century.

If you are looking for Egyptian souvenirs, antiques, and jewelry, look no further, but you’ll have a wonderful time walking the enormous market, even if you don’t buy much. Coffee houses and small food stalls give the market variety and make it enjoyable for locals and tourists alike.

Khan El Khalili Bazaar
Cairo – Khan El Khalili Bazaar – Photo: Heba Ofety via Creative Commons

Cruise the Nile River

The Nile River gives life to Cairo and all of Egypt. The famous river is the longest after the Amazon River and helped the ancient people in the area build the majestic Ancient Egyptian Empire. The Nile has historical, cultural, and commercial significance to this day.

Take a tour on a boat (locally known as felucca) along the Nile and see Cairo from afar. Ideally, just before sunset. More luxurious alternatives exist, but you don’t have to spend much to enjoy the renowned river.

Nile River - Cairo
Cairo – Nile River – Photo: Francesco Gasparetti via Creative Commons

Visit the Mosques

Muhammad Ali Mosque

This alabaster-white mosque inside the Citadel took 18 years to build, with domes upon domes upon domes, and its interior is all glittering chandeliers and bold striped stone, the central dome a vivid emerald green.
The Mohammed Ali Mausoleum is on the right as you enter.
The gleaming clock in the entrance courtyard was a gift from King Louis Philippe of France in exchange for the obelisk that now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, but it arrived damaged and was never restored.

Muhammad Ali Mosque
Cairo – Mohammed Ali Mosque – Photo: Dan via Creative Commons

Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hasan

The Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hasan are Egypt’s most extensive and exquisite. Built between 757 and 1362, this impressive building features a picture-perfect central fountain and massive doorways that will inspire you.

The Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hasan
Cairo – Sultan Hasan Mosque – Photo: Omar Elsharawy

Al-Rifa’i Mosque

The Al-Rifa’i Mosque is equally impressive and beside the larger Madrasa of Sultan Hasan Mosque. This ancient building is worth visiting for the diligence of its decoration alone. You’ll find these mosques in the Salah al-Din Square, beneath the Citadel.


Al-Azhar Mosque

Al-Azhar Mosque was founded in 970 as the city’s main mosque and study center. To this day, its institutions remain essential to Egyptian religious and political life.

Although teaching has long since moved out of the mosque and is now taking place on several new campuses across the country, Al-Azhar University remains one of the most esteemed learning centers in the Sunni Islamic world.

Al-Azhar Mosque
Cairo – Al Azhar Mosque – Photo: David Stanley via Creative Commons

Be Amazed by Saladin’s Citadel

Dominating the city from a rocky spur in the Muqattam Hills, the Citadel is a large fortress that served as a royal house and barracks from its founding in the 12th century until the end of the 19th century.

Its first elements date back to King Salah ad-Din, Saladin, but it has been rearranged and expanded numerous times throughout its history.

There are three mosques, ancient palaces, and museums to explore.

Citadel of Saladin
Visit Cairo – Citadel of Saladin – AmazingtwogirlsCreative Commons

Walk the Al-Azhar Park

This verdant park in East Cairo is amongst the most influential public spaces in the world, and it’s for its manicured gardens and historic buildings. The walkways run through this immense park, framed by waterways and monuments, with the city of Cairo in the background.

Al-Azhar Park is a welcome green spot in arid Cairo—an authentic oasis inspired by ancient Islamic gardens. Begin and end your visit at the park’s northernmost point, the Urban Plaza.

Al-Azhar Park
Cairo – Al Azhar Park – Photo: Yasser Nazmi via Creative Commons

Welcome to Cairo!

Cairo is both an ancient and modern city, where the Egyptian past meets modern architecture and is livened by specks of European influence. Cairo is the ultimate trip for old history lovers and an experience to remember for a lifetime, but the city has something for every type of traveler. Now you know the best things to do in Cairo, Egypt, and we’re just getting started—there’s a surprise in every corner of Cairo.

Cairo, Egypt
Cairo Travel Guide – Mohamed Ahmed





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