A roaring metropolis of nearly 20 million people, Cairo is the cultural capital of the Arab world. Most visitors to Egypt spend at least a few days here, exploring its medieval mosques, sampling its fine museums and shopping in the labyrinthine Khan El Khalili bazaar. It remains one of the earth’s greatest metropolises, still larger in both population and extent than any city west of China. Enriched by the spice trade and the traffic in luxury goods, its sultans and emirs adorned the city over centuries with extravagant architecture.
The best travel tips for visiting Cairo
Modern Cairo spins on Midan at-Tahrir (Tahrir Square), a huge square on the east bank from which all distances in Egypt are measured. It was originally named Midan al- Isma‘iliyyah, after 19th-century ruler Khedive Ismail, and was a focal point for the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
Running northeast from the Egyptian Museum is Shari Qasr El Nil, once the city’s main shopping street and still displaying a few vestiges of the architecture and vintage glamour from when this part of downtown Cairo was planned in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
East of Shari Qasr El Nil, Shari Mohammed Sabri Abou Alam indicates the overlapping of Ismail’s new quarter with old Misr as it was before the French marched in, and leads to Azbakeya, which was founded as a pleasure zone in the 15th century but had evolved into an upper-class residential area by the time Napoleon established his headquarters here in 1798.
The newer districts of Cairo are not without appeal. On Gezira Island, joined to the mainland by three bridges, two of them near Midan at-Tahrir, you’ll find Gezira in the south and Zamalek in the north. These adjoining suburbs are both popular with wealthy Cairenes and European residents and have several cultural attractions.
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Best things to do in Cairo
As the Egyptian capital, there are lots of things to do in Cairo from major architecture to cultural gems. There are the best things to do.
#1 Explore the Egyptian Museum
On the north side of Midan at-Tahrir stands the Egyptian Museum The museum was first commissioned in 1835 by the government, which were desperate to stop widespread plundering and looting of the country’s many archaeological sites. It moved between several locations until this present building was built in 1902 under Pasha Abbas Hilmi.
It now holds more than 100,000 of the world’s greatest collection of Egyptian artefacts, from statues to mummies, jewellery and mosaics. Unfortunately, it is now far too small to house this massive collection; some of the exhibits are cramped and dusty, not to mention badly lit and labelled, and many objects within the storerooms have never been on public display.
There’s much to see at the Egyptian Museum, including wonderful objects from the lesser-known Royal Tombs, discovered un-plundered at Tanis in the northern Delta in 1939. The golden objects are simply stunning, dating to the 21st and 22nd dynasties (around 1000 BC) when Tanis was the capital of kings who originated in Libya to the west.
RoughGuides Tip: make sure to read our article about how to spend 24 hours in Cairo.
#2 See the museums of Rawdah Island
Rawdah (or Roda) Island is dominated by the huge Grand Nile Tower Hotel (formerly the Grand Hyatt Cairo) on the northern tip. There are still some gems to be found on the island. Once belonging to the Muhammad Ali family is Manial Palace built between 1901 and 1929.
It was left to the Egyptian nation in 1955 by Prince Muhammad Ali, the younger brother of Khedive Abbas Hilmi Pasha and a first cousin of King Farouk. It includes a museum exhibiting Farouk’s game-shooting trophies; the prince’s own beautiful residence with its furnishings; and a 14-room museum housing family memorabilia.
On the southern tip of Rawdah Island is the smaller Monastirli Palace. This contains the Umm Kulthum Museum, dedicated to the life and work of Egypt’s best-loved singer, songwriter and actress.
On show are her iconic sunglasses, good-luck handkerchiefs, photos and video clips of her performances, as well as her correspondence with previous leaders and politicians.
In the same compound, at the southern tip of the island, is the Nilometer, clearly visible from across the river (it is distinguished by a conical cap). This is a reconstruction made in 1893 of a 17th-century Ottoman dome destroyed by the French in 1800; its interior is covered with fine Turkish tiles.
RoughGuides Tip: make sure to read our article about the best day trips from Cairo
#3 Visit the Mosque of Ibn Tulun
When the Abbasids repossessed Misr for the caliphate in 905, the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, rightly considered one of the architectural glories of the Muslim world, was the only building left standing in Al-Qata’i. It is the oldest mosque in the city surviving in its original form and is the largest in Cairo in terms of land area.
It has undergone several restorations, the first in 1297 and the latest within the decade. Built in the imperial style of the Abbasid court at Samarra in Iraq, where Ubn Tulun had lived as a young man, the mosque is built of red brick and stucco – original materials, rather than granite, limestone and marble borrowed from other sites, as is often the case in later mosques.
The mosque is impressive both for its simplicity and its grand scale – its courtyard alone covers 2.5 hectares (6.5 acres) and the sycamore-wood frieze of Qur’anic verses around the court is more than 2km (1.25 miles) long. The unusual spiral minaret was probably inspired by the minaret in Samarra, Iraq, although legend has it that a distracted Ibn Tulun rolled up a piece of paper and told the architect to use that as the design.
#4 Be wowed by the objets d’art in the Gayer-Anderson Museum
Adjoining the mosque’s northeast corner is the Gayer-Anderson Museum. Two restored houses, Beit el-Kiridiliya (1632) and Beit Amna Bent Salim (1540), have been joined together to create a delightful larger dwelling with a salamlik (reception suite) and haramlik (harem suite).
Both are filled with objets d’art, antique furniture, carpets, silks and embroidered Arabian costumes from all over the Middle East, the collection of Gayer- Anderson, a British major and army doctor, who restored the houses and lived here in the 1930s and 40s. The entrance to the museum leads from the Mosque of Ibn Tulun.
#5 Compare the Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hassan with its copycat Al-Rifa’i Mosque
At the northwestern corner of Midan Salah ad-Din square loom two colossal religious buildings: the Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hassan, built between 1356 and 1363; and the Al-Rifa’i Mosque, which was built to complement it architecturally between 1869 and 1912.
Visitors sometimes fail to understand that these two buildings were constructed more than five centuries apart, since the modern mosque shows perfect respect for its older neighbour across the street in fabric, scale and style.
The Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hassan Madrasa provided a daunting model since it is probably the greatest of the Bahri architectural monuments, and second only to the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in the grandeur of conception among all the historic buildings in Cairo. The walls are 36 metres (117ft) high and so solidly built that the mosque was twice used as a fortress – first in 1381 during a Mamluk revolt and then again in 1517 during the Ottoman invasion. Plan to visit both.
#6 See the historic Citadel
The Citadel, entered from Bab al-Gabal (also known as Bab al-Muqattam) reached from the Salah Salim highway, was begun by Saladin in 1176 as part of a grand scheme to enclose all of Misr within walls. In 1182, by which time he had gone north to fight his last campaigns against the crusaders, it was complete, and though it was later modified it was never without a military garrison.
In 1218 Sultan al-Kamil, Saladin’s nephew, took up residence in the Citadel, and from that time until the construction of Abdeen Palace in the mid-19th century it was also the home and seat of government of all but one of Egypt’s rulers, including Ottoman viceroys.
The Lower Enclosure contains the famous gate-passage where Muhammad Ali conducted a massacre of Mamluks in 1811. It can be approached by an 18th-century gateway, restored in 1988, but it is best seen from the terrace of the Police Museum on the upper level, which contains the Southern and Northern enclosures, nearly two-thirds of the Citadel’s entire area.
#7 Gawp at the art in the Museum of Islamic Art
Relocated along Darb al-Ahmar in 1903 from its original home at the Fatimid Mosque of Al-Hakim, The Museum of Islamic Art recently reopened after three years of extensive renovation and reorganisation in 2017.
This museum has more than 1,700 items on display (and thousands more in storage) and is considered one of the world’s finest collections of Islamic applied arts. The ceramics, woodwork, carpets, textiles, manuscripts, calligraphy, metalwork, stonework and arms date from the 7th to 19th centuries, exhibited chronologically beginning with the Umayyad era, before continuing with the Abbasid/ Tulunid, Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman periods.
The entrance on Shari Port Said features a facade with decorations and recesses inspired by Egyptian Islamic architecture from these various periods.
#8 Geek up at the Al-Azhar Mosque and University
Lying a short distance down Shari Al-Azhar to the east, the Al-Azhar Mosque and University were built in AD 970 as the first mosque of Fatimid Cairo; a madrasa was added in 988. Finally, in 1961, Al-Azhar was re-established as a university under Nasser’s government when a wide range of secular faculties were added.
As such it is considered the world’s second-oldest continuous educational institution (after the University of Al Kairaouine in Fez, Morocco), and is still Egypt’s supreme religious authority attracting Islamic scholars from around the world.
It is believed that university black graduation gowns originated from here, inspired by the flowing robes of Al- Azhar’s students. The entrance to the mosque is the splendid 15th-century Bab al-Muzainin (“barbers’ gates”).
#9 Explore Shari Al-Muizz li-Din Allah al-Fatimi
On the other side of Shari Al-Azhar, the Qasabah, or Muizz, continues north until, just beyond a 15th-century madrasa, it is interrupted by another modern street, Shari al-Muski. Traditionally associated with old Christian and European quarters, by the end of the 19th century it was lined with European-owned shops.
Al-Muski is now a chaotic and busy pedestrian street, where wholesale traders offer their wares to small merchants from all over Egypt. The great north–south thoroughfare called the Qasabah is medieval Cairo’s main street and can still be followed on foot from Ibn Tulun northward for more than 5km (3 miles). However, the best place to take a stroll is the 1km (0.6- mile) stretch along Al-Muizz li-Din Allah al-Fatimi between the two gates – Bab Zuwaylah and Bab al-Futuh – which is a pedestrian-only zone.
#10 Wander along Khan El Khalili
Back on Muizz, the first major street to the right (east) leads to the warren of alleyways at Khan El Khalili, famous formerly for Turkish goods and now the tourists’ bazaar, although many traditional workshops continue to operate in the surrounding area, and the adjoining goldsmiths’ souq, for example, is still popular with locals.
There is a variety of goods for sale designed for the tourist trade including silverware, stained-glass lamps, incense, carpets, spices, gold jewellery, perfume, papyrus, gallabiyahs and belly dancing costumes. Naturally, haggling is expected, and some might find it annoying to be badgered by the vendors, but it’s a colourful place where visitors can get any kind of Egyptian souvenir all under one roof.
Where to stay in Cairo and around
Cairo has hundreds upon hundreds of hotels that range from cheap and barely cheerful to gargantuan, gold-plated super-lux hotels that stand over the River Nile. The best areas to stay are downtown, Doqqi and Zamalek, all of them offering accommodation for all budgets.
Make sure to read our article about the best areas to stay in Cairo.
Downtown, Doqqi and Zamalek
Sharia Talaat Harb, the road that connects Talaat Harb Square with Tahrir Square, has oodles of budget places to stay. A short metro ride from Downtown, there are a handful of midrange hotels in this suburb. Expect to pay more for your hotel in Zamalek, but have a little less chaos outside your window.
For the best rooms and views in the city - but the biggest bills as well, look at accommodation around the Nile River.
Best restaurants and bars
From street stalls to fine dining, big-name chains to tiny independent cafes, you’ll never go hungry in Cario. This is where to eat and drink.
If you’re on a budget, Downtown is the place to stretch it. Think: street food, cheap Middle Eastern restaurants, shawarma and cafes selling falafels. There are fewer restaurants in Doqqi but still plenty of places to sate your hunger.
Zamalek is home to the best restaurants in the city and some high-class joints. Along the River Nile a lot of the high-end hotels have decent restaurants attached. Book ahead.
How to get here
Most visitors will arrive via Cairo International Airport, though you can get to Cairo by bus and train as well.
For internal flights, EgyptAir and their subsidiary EgyptAir Express has the most regular network and flies daily from Cairo International Airport to Abu Simbel, Aswan, Borg El Arab (Alexandria), Hurghada, Luxor, Marsa Alam, Marsa Matruh and Sharm El Sheikh.
Nile Air is the largest airline after EgyptAir and flies to similar domestic destinations as well as several airports in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, among other places in the Middle East.
FlyEgypt is a low-cost carrier that flies from Cairo to Asyut, Borg El Arab (Alexandria), Hurghada, Luxor, Sharm El Sheikh and Sohag.
The government-owned Egyptian National Railways serves the Nile Valley to Aswan, the Red Sea cities of Suez and Port Said, and the Delta and North Coast cities of Alexandria and Marsa Mutrah.
Air-conditioned passenger trains usually have 1st and 2nd classes, while non-air-conditioned trains have 2nd and 3rd classes. There are at least six through trains a day, and fares are inexpensive, but unless one is travelling on an organised tour, tickets are purchased at railway stations (in Cairo inside Ramses Station at Midan Ramses); alternatively, you can book 1st and 2nd-class tickets on the website.
The most popular route for tourists is the twice-nightly air-conditioned sleeper train between Cairo and Luxor (journey time 10 hours) and Aswan (15 hours), which is operated by privately run Watania. This service must be paid for in foreign currency (US dollars, euros or pounds sterling) at the separate Watania sleeper office/counter at the stations.
Air-conditioned buses link most parts of Egypt to Cairo and Alexandria, and beyond the Nile Valley, it’s often the only option. Seats may be reserved up to two days in advance. There is also a fleet of cheaper non-air-conditioned buses, but they can be crowded and stop frequently.
Although bus times change without notice, departures are so frequent that this is rarely a problem. The Cairo Gateway Bus Station (Torgoman) on Shari Al Gisr in Bulaq, close to the Orabi metro station and 1km (0.6 miles) northwest of Midan Ramses and the train station, handles most of the long-distance buses.
There are numerous companies, and tickets can be bought here from different windows depending on the destination; those for airconditioned buses should always be booked in advance. Increasingly, tickets can be booked online.
Find out the best ways to get to Egypt.
How many days do you need in Cairo?
Generally, 3-4 days should be enough to cover the major Cairo attractions and get a good sense of the capital. This is enough time to visit the Giza Pyramids and the Sphinx, explore the Egyptian Museum, take a stroll in Islamic Cairo, visit the Citadel of Salah El Din and the Alabaster Mosque, and explore the Khan El Khalili market.
Additionally, you can take a day trip to Memphis, Saqqara, or the Dahshur pyramids. If you have more time, you can also explore other attractions such as the Coptic Cairo, the Hanging Church, or take a Nile cruise to see the city from a different perspective.
Keep in mind that Cairo is a bustling city with a lot of traffic, so plan your time wisely to make the most of your stay.
Looking for inspiration for your trip? Talk to our Egypt travel experts.
Tips for getting around
Cairo is a bustling and busy city with many transportation options available to get around. Here are some of the best ways to get around Cairo:
Cairo has a reliable metro system that runs from early morning until late at night. It's a fast and inexpensive way to travel around the city.
Taxis are plentiful in Cairo and can be flagged down on the street. They are usually metered, but it's always a good idea to negotiate the fare before getting in.
Uber is also available in Cairo. It can be more convenient than taxis as you can book and pay for them through the app.
Microbuses are small vans that operate along set routes. They are often crowded and can be a bit tricky to navigate, but they are an inexpensive way to get around.
If you want to explore the Nile, taking a felucca (traditional sailboat) is a great way to do so. You can hire a felucca for a few hours or a full day and enjoy the beautiful views of the city from the river.
Best time to visit Cairo
The best time to visit Cairo is during the cooler months of November to February when the weather is mild and pleasant. During this time, temperatures are typically between 15-20°C (59-68°F) and there is little to no rainfall.
This makes it an ideal time to explore the city's historic sites such as the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Egyptian Museum, and the Citadel.
However, if you don't mind the heat, the summer months of June to August can also be a good time to visit Cairo. While temperatures can soar to over 40°C (104°F), this is also the low season for tourists, which means you'll have a chance to experience the city's attractions without the crowds.
Additionally, the evenings can be pleasantly cool, allowing for enjoyable outdoor activities. It's worth noting that Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, can affect your trip to Cairo, as many restaurants and cafes may be closed during the day. However, this can also be a unique cultural experience if you are interested in learning more about Islamic traditions.
Find out more about the best time to visit Egypt.