Travel to Cairo – Oriental City of Wonders
Amazing, chaotic Cairo stands at the crossroads of the Middle East and Africa, a city of contrasts and some 21 million people. There are many different faces to this grand old lady with the city being much more than its stunning ancient sites: it gives the visitor a different experience each visit. Come to Cairo to discover souqs, experience a belly-dancing show, see the Pyramids, Tutankhamun’s gold, take a Nile cruise, smoke a sheesha and enjoy a coffee in a typical coffee house.
In terms of Egypt’s history as a whole the Cairo of mosques and minarets we see today is a relative newcomer, dating from the 10th century – something of a surprise to many visitors as the ancient Pyramids are on the city’s doorstep.
The city can very roughly be split into three areas: starting on the west bank of the Nile is Giza, home of the Pyramids; lying on the east side of the river and you enter the downtown area around Tahrir Square where the treasure-crammed Egyptian Museum can be found.
Further east and spreading out from the foot of the Citadel is Islamic Cairo, an area of amazing Islamic architecture forming a huge network of narrow streets and souqs, whilst southwest and back towards the river is Coptic Cairo, an ancient Christian enclave with ancient roots.
The main draws to Cairo are of course the obvious ones – the mind-blowing Pyramids and Sphinx and the Pharaonic riches of the Egyptian Museum, but there is so much more to the city. On a hot afternoon take a walk through the cooler, narrow streets of Islamic Cairo where the sounds, sights and smells will transport you to an utterly different world. Here visit the Citadel, haggle in the Khan el Khalili souq, explore Sharia Khayamiya – the Street of the Tentmakers – and around Bab Zuweila, perhaps ending with sip of coffee and a sheesha in Fishawi’s.
In the evening take in a traditional belly-dancing show, a still-popular pastime for many Cairenes, or a night cruise on the Nile complete with meal and floor show, before next day heading out to explore Saqqara’s Step Pyramid and further south the less-visited Red and Bent Pyramids. In Coptic Cairo you can wander an area with a history dating back to the second century AD, where churches, monasteries and convents can be found hidden amongst a network of narrow streets.
Allow plenty of time for Cairo if you possibly can. If you only have a day then visit the Pyramids in the morning and the Egyptian Museum in the afternoon and in the evening enjoy a cruise or belly-dancing show. Two days will enable you to add a walking tour of Islamic and Coptic Cairo and three will allow an exploration of Saqqara and the Dahshur pyramids.
Cairo is famous for its coffee houses, belly-dancing shows and more recently its club scene. There are hundreds of coffee-houses in the city with their tell-tale brass-topped tables, sheesha waterpipes and games of backgammon or dominoes – they make great places to hang out and watch city life go by.
The most famous are Fishawis in Islamic Cairo and Ash Shams downtown. Belly dancing has a long history in Egypt with top performers earning millions of dollars, even if it is still perceived as a slightly sleazy pastime: see a show at one of the top 5* hotels or make your way to Palmyra’s for an unforgettable backstreet experience at the other end of the scale. There are a host of bars and nightclubs to enjoy, with Zamalek island being a popular hang out.
Taxis are widely available but can be tiresome as they are fraught with difficulty: you must agree the price beforehand, fend off constant offers to take you shopping (or dismiss them when they are foisted unannounced on you!) can be uncomfortable, noisy, dirty and dangerous. They are however relatively cheap (if you are a good haggler) and can be fun. Municipal buses are crowded and to be avoided whenever possible whilst the underground Metro system is useful for linking some parts of the city on its somewhat limited network. Those with relatively little time who want to maximise what they see should consider a private tour with driver and guide. This will enable more to be seen in less time and in addition will be considerably more comfortable than public transport.
- Crouch as you climb inside a Pyramid, then emerge to explore the golden artefacts in the Egyptian Museum
- Explore the backstreets of Islamic Cairo, haggling in the souq and enjoying a coffee in a local coffee house
- Head south from Giza to Saqqara’s step-pyramid and discover the less-visited Red and Bent Pyramids.