Often referred to as the cradle of civilization, Cairo is as vibrant and beautiful as it is overwhelming. It’s one of the most densely populated cities in Africa and is famous for some of the most treasured history and culture in the world. Sprawled across the fertile Nile river, there’s much more to Cairo than the pyramids. From the sizzling, herby ta’ameya, to the humming of its social cafe culture, Cairo is one of the most mesmerizing metropolises in the world. If you’re after a real taste of the ancient world and still value tantalizing food and a buzzing, eclectic culture, this Cairo guide will help you see why Cairo is the best place to find it all.
Travel Around Cairo
Cairo is a large city, home to the ancient heart and soul of Egypt. Travelers may flock from far and wide to see the Giza pyramid complex, but the metropolis boasts a world-class culinary scene and its own unique Middle Eastern culture too. You’ll want to spend at least three days in Cairo if you’re only interested in touring the highlights, but history and culture buffs should aim to stay for at least one week.
The city is not difficult to navigate, but traffic can make getting around an effort at times – especially the main road of Al Haram, on the way to Giza. Cairo is not a walker’s paradise, so it’s important to choose your accommodation location wisely. To make up for it, the public transport system is sprawling, easy to use, and affordable. Options include an efficient, speedy subway system, as well as local buses and shared minibusses for the adventurous.
Cairo is also the perfect city to rideshare, with apps like Uber or Careem becoming increasingly popular and accessible. It’s also extremely affordable to ride in normal taxis or hire a private driver through your hotel or a travel agency – but ridesharing will always be your cheapest private option.
For those with itchy feet, the Nile Corniche is a great place to take a long, scenic walk. Whether you want to sit and take in the view with a coffee or get some exercise in, the river is a peaceful escape from the buzz of Cairo.
Cairo is home to a plethora of unique neighborhoods. From the leafy green expat suburbs to the sizzling street-food havens, there’s something for everyone, it just depends on your taste.
Giza – the heart and soul of Cairo – lies around 5 kilometers west of the city center. Home to the famous Giza pyramid complex, the area is lively and densely populated. Filled to the brim with authentic local spots and a sprawling tourist center, Giza is the best area to stay if you’re a history buff, or are looking for a unique accommodation experience with a view of the pyramids. The area is a charming view into authentic Cairo if you’re willing to step off the lively Al Haram road and explore the villages right below the main pyramid.
Zamalek is an affluent other-worldly oasis on the island in the Nile. Large, leafy trees line the streets where expats and wealthy Egyptians eat at high-end restaurants and hip cafes. The area is known for high-quality jewelry and antique shopping, as well as its active nightlife scene.
On the edge of the east bank of the Nile lies the lively Downtown area, encompassing Cairo’s best budget accommodation, street food, and shopping. Designed by French architects a century ago, the Downtown area hosts Cairo’s famous museums and the bustling Tahrir Square . The area is easily walkable, unlike most other parts of Cairo, and has morphed into one of the city’s hippest areas.
Heading south from Downtown is the upmarket, peaceful area of Maadi. Like Zamalek, Maadi is a green, luscious area perched on the banks of the Nile river. Tucked away from the bustle of Cairo city, Maadi features a plethora of parks and relaxing public spaces, creating an intimate community atmosphere. The streets buzz with delicious novel eateries, serving up both local fare and fusion treats.
Home to an eclectic. food scene, Cairo has seen over 6,000 new eateries open since 2011. From fine dining to street eats and fusion cafes, Cairo’s food scene flaunts full, rich flavors. Boasting traditional Egyptian fare, as well as Yemenite, Sudanese, and Korean bites, Cairo locals are serious about their food.
It may come as a surprise, but the city is also a vegan and vegetarian haven, with traditional Egyptian fare focused on beans, ta’ameya (Egyptian falafel), salad, and bread. Whether you’re after a local hole-in-the-wall eatery or a fusion take on ful, the selection in Cairo is bound to knock your socks off. Meat eaters will also feel at home here – from sizzling liver sandwiches to meat soaked in thick gravy, there is something to suit every taste and budget.
For an authentic Egyptian street food experience, head to Kebdet El Prince street in Imbaba. The street buzzes with locals chowing down on koshary, sogo, molokhia and liver, but get there early if you want a table – it’s a Cairo crowd favorite.
Alcohol is not a huge part of the social life in Cairo, but that doesn’t mean nightlife is scarce. The city comes alive after dark, with many people heading to baladi bars (translating to people’s bars) or ahwas for shisha and coffee.
Cairo is a popular city for young people and families, so there is always something to do, even if bars aren’t your style. From live music to theatre performances, your after-dark activities are taken care of. Bars, discos, and clubs are dotted throughout Cairo, but most close at midnight. Zamalek is a well-known area for nightlife, so if you aren’t content with a relaxing Friday night shisha, head to the island on the Nile and get your party on!
Egypt in general is famous for affordable, authentic shopping, but Cairo is something else entirely. From souks (markets) to high-class shopping malls and ancient bazaars, Cairo boasts vibrant, colorful opportunities for shoppers. If you’re looking to take home authentic Egyptian cotton or a shisha pipe, Cairo is where you’ll find it.
One of the best places to find authentic Egyptian antiques, jewelry, leather goods, or spices is Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar. Filled to the brim with smiling vendors and fresh bread, the bazaar is a unique insight into an authentic Egyptian shopping experience. For a luxury shopping experience, head to the Mall of Arabia in the 6th of October area, or to Zamalek. Both are affluent neighborhoods to buy quality clothes, jewelry, or crafts – just make sure to wear good walking shoes!
For a more affordable, modern shopping experience, your best bet is Downtown. The sprawling area is a hub for the youth of Cairo and boasts huge street markets and pop-up stalls full of second-hand clothing, shoes, and knick-knacks.
Cairo attracts around 9 million tourists every year with its rich cultural and historical scene. Known first and foremost for its ancient sights on the Giza plateau, there’s a hidden layer to Cairo that many tourists don’t discover. From hosting a thriving arts and entrepreneurial scene, to being a hub for street art, every inch of Cairo is set to blow you away.
There’s a unique blend of Islamic, Coptic, and ancient Egyptian history in Cairo, leaving visitors with a plethora of options to explore every day. The Egyptian Museum is renowned for showcasing the best of Egypt’s ancient artifacts. Located in the center of the Downtown area, aim to spend at least one whole day here if you’re a true history lover. The Museum of Islamic Art is also a well-known stop for those interested in delving deeper into the complex, buzzing history of the city. For those looking for beautiful souvenirs and to learn about a lesser-known side of Egyptian history, a visit to the Papyrus Institute will give you insight into how this plant played such a vital role in Egyptian civilization.
Cairo has an amazing range of accommodation options for every type of traveler. From budget hostels to hotels, Airbnb and guesthouses, there’s something for everyone. Generally, your choice of accommodation will be dependent on the area you’re staying in. The Downtown area is famous for being accessible for every budget, with very affordable hotels for those who will spend most of their time outside enjoying the city anyway.
If you’re looking to stay in a more upmarket hotel or an Airbnb, try looking around Zamalek or Maadi. The best quality hotels are mostly located along the Nile Corniche, including Sofitel, the Kempinski Nile Hotel, or the Ultra Loaloa Nile Maadi Hotel. For a unique accommodation experience with views of the pyramids, you’ll find a small amount of charming Airbnb listings around the Giza area, as well as boutique hotels and guesthouses.