Most people prefer to get accustomed to Downtown Cairo before tackling the older Islamic quarters, for even in this westernized area, known in Arabic as wust al-balad (literally, “the town centre”), the culture shock can be profound. The area is essentially a lopsided triangle, bounded by Ramses Station, Midan Ataba and Garden City, and for the most part it’s compact enough to explore on foot. Only the Ramses quarter and the further reaches of Garden City are sufficiently distant to justify using transport. At the heart of the Downtown area is the broad, bustling expanse of Tahrir Square, its most famous landmark the domed Egyptian Museum, which houses the finest collection of its kind in the world.
The layout of the downtown area goes back to the 1860s, when Khedive Ismail had it rebuilt in the style of Haussmann’s new Paris boulevards to impress dignitaries attending the inauguration of the Suez Canal, and had it named the Ismailiya quarter. Cutting an X-shaped swathe through the area are the main thoroughfares of Talaat Harb and Qasr al-Nil (each about a kilometre long). Though the area was founded in the nineteenth century, most of the buildings you see today date from the early twentieth century and, behind the inevitable layers of dust and grime, reflect the elegance of that period’s architecture.