Egypt is changing by the minute as it continues its post-revolution recovery, but there are still a number of unshakeable constants in the formula for the perfect day in Cairo: giving a nod to the city’s ancient past, soaking up its contemporary art and music scene, and learning the colloquial morning greeting to earn warm smiles and instant friends.
Pack a scarf, tissues, water and a wad of cash, and if you have mobile data access, fire up your Uber account for more comfortable – and fairly priced – transport. Here’s how to make every hour in Cairo count.
Time for the pyramids?
While the pyramids of Giza, Saqqara and Dahshur rightly deserve a day to themselves, it is possible to squeeze a visit to the Giza necropolis into a day packed with other activities if you’re pressed for time. Plan to be there for its 8am opening (7am in summer) to wander around the famed three pyramids of pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, dating from 2550 to 2490 BC, as well as the iconic Sphinx.
Once the Grand Egyptian Museum, which already houses headline attractions like the towering statue of Ramses II and King Tut’s golden death mask, opens in 2019 or 2020, Giza will command a full day or two of your time.
If you can save the pyramids for their own day, start with Coptic Cairo, the quiet home to some of the oldest churches in the history of Christianity. After sunrise, ride south along the Corniche next to the Nile after sunrise to feel virtually alone in a city of more than 20 million people. As traffic tends to clog up as the day progresses, getting the biggest leg of the journey done first can save time. For a cheaper ride, take the metro toward Helwan to the Mar Girgis stop, which is right next to the site. Start with the intricate carvings on the wooden doors of the Hanging Church, which served as the seat of the Coptic Pope from the 7th to the 13th centuries, and then enjoy the area’s many other historically significant structures, including the Ben Ezra Synagoguewith its rare manuscripts and the Church of St George with its impressive dome.
Take a short cab ride over to the capital’s other centre of antiquity, Islamic Cairo, and climb up to the Mosque of Mohammed Ali and the Citadel, a dramatic structure that offers a panoramic view over the city. Either walk through the Bab Zuwayla gate to lose yourself for the rest of the morning in the hustle and haggle of Khan Al Khalili market, or head back toward the Corniche to catch a felucca ride on the Nile at the Dok Dok landing dock in Garden City.
Recharge on carbs and protein with a Cairene breakfast of fuul (fava bean paste), ta’amiyya (the Egyptian variant of falafel) or kushari (mix of noodles, rice, black lentils, fried onions and tomato sauce) while wandering the streets of downtown. After taking in the imposing buildings of Tahrir Square, walk up Talaat Harb street toward Townhouse Gallery, the celebrated home of a number of Egypt’s most compelling contemporary artists.
Escape the impending bottleneck traffic from school buses that jam the streets starting at 2pm by heading across the 26 July bridge to Zamalek to spend the afternoon hours in a pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood. Start with the newly renovated Aisha Fahmy Palace, a repurposed mansion now featuring an arts centre, and then walk along 26 July St to sample its many shops, juicers and bookshops. For a lighter lunch, head to Self or Sea Salt, a vegan-friendly cafe, or pack an artery with loaded nachos and a burger at Mince.
Shop along Mohammed Maraashly and Brazil streets to pick up handmade Egyptian crafts, unique jewellery or a rug or two. The many art galleries and boutiques on Zamalek’s cool shady streets make it ideal for wandering. A scoop of gelato from Mandarine Koueider, a popular dessert shop with a bench outside for people-watching, can be a delicious excuse for a rest.
A quick cab ride to the southern end of the island brings you to the Cairo Opera House, a landmark of Egypt’s culture scene. The pristine property houses dance and music halls as well as art and history museum venues in one location, and is the perfect place for a quiet sunset. Check the opera board schedule in case you’re up for taking in a performance. If not, take a short walk to the nearby Qasr El Nil bridge, the boisterous nightly hangout for families, young couples and groups of friends seeking selfies with a Nile view.
Stretch out your evening on the west side of the Nile in Doqqi and Mohandiseen, neighbourhoods that house the city’s underground clubs and smoke-filled late-night cafes. First, try out Cairo’s top seafood destinations with shrimp and calamari at Samakmak (24 Ahmed Orabi St) or clams at Gandofli (80 Ahmed Orabi St). Both restaurants are in the heart of Mohandiseen, with quick and easy access to the neighbourhood’s bars and clubs. Try out a cocktail or Egyptian lager at Basement Urban Pub before making your way to Cairo Jazz Club to hear what the city’s top musicians and DJs have to offer. It’s best to reserve in advance, but tourists can usually haggle their way in.
For a one-of-a-kind Middle Eastern kitsch experience, hop on one of the many flashing party boats that putter around the Nile while passengers dance to unintelligible techno. Back on land, wrap up the early morning at a downtown cafe with a sweet tea and a fruit-flavoured shisha. Try Cafeteria El Horreya downtown for mingling with Cairo’s bohemian class over a beer or a game of chess. Get started with a simple sabah al-khair or sabah el-fol for the colloquial ‘good morning’ greeting and then enjoy the smiles and conversation that follow until closing time at 5am.