Cairo is one of the world’s great megacities. As beautiful as it is crazy, and as rich in historic finery as it is half dilapidated, Cairo tends to be a city that travelers love and hate in equal measures. Its sheer noise, pollution, and confounding traffic are an assault on your senses, but look beyond the modern hubbub, and you’ll find a history that spans centuries. Full of vigor, Cairo is where you really get a feel for Egyptian street life. No trip to Egypt is complete without a stay in the city Arabs call Umm al-Dunya. Find the best places to visit and interesting things to do in this buzzing metropolis with our list of the top attractions in Cairo.
Pyramids of Giza
The Pyramids of Giza are Cairo’s number one half-day trip and a must-do attraction on everyone’s itinerary. Right on the edge of the city, on the Giza Plateau, these fourth dynasty funerary temples have been wowing travelers for centuries and continue to be one of the country’s major highlights. Despite the heat, the dust, and the tourist hustle, you can’t miss a trip here.
The Pyramid of Cheops is the largest pyramid of the Giza group, and its interior of narrow passages can be explored, although there isn’t much to see, except a plain tomb chamber with an empty sarcophagus.
Directly behind the Great Pyramid is the Solar Boat Museum, which displays one of the ceremonial solar barques unearthed in the area that has been painstakingly restored to its original glory.
Farther south on the plateau is the Pyramid of Chephren (also known as the Pyramid of Khefre), with an internal tunnel area, which can be entered, and the smaller Pyramid of Mycerinus (Pyramid of Menkaure). Guarding these mortuary temples is the lion-bodied and pharaoh-faced Sphinx; one of the ancient world’s iconic monuments.
The Giza Plateau is set to welcome another attraction when the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) is finally finished. When opened, it will be the biggest museum in the world devoted to exhibiting the antiquities of a single civilization, displaying a wealth of Ancient Egypt’s artifacts that have never been seen by the public before. After a stop-start construction, beset with financial difficulties, the museum opening date has been set for 2020.
The pyramid plateau is on the edge of Giza’s suburban sprawl, roughly 13 kilometers southwest of the central city. Most people arrive by taxi, but it’s also accessible by an easier-than-you-think combo of taking the metro to Giza and then hopping on a local minibus that drops you outside the entrance. As the pyramids’ area is quite sprawling though, many travelers elect to see the area by tour. One of the most popular things to do at the pyramids is a camel ride. A good option for first-time visitors is the Private Half-Day Trip to the Giza Pyramids with Camel-Riding. This includes pickup and drop-off at your hotel, a guide, lunch, and 25 minutes on a camel.
The Egyptian Museum
The absolutely staggering collection of antiquities displayed in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum makes it one of the world’s great museums. You would need a lifetime to see everything on show.
The museum was founded in 1857 by French Egyptologist August Mariette and moved to its current home — in the distinctive powder-pink mansion in Downtown Cairo — in 1897. Yes, the collection is poorly labeled and not well set out due to limits of space (and only a fraction of its total holdings are actually on display). It also suffers currently with some empty cases due to artifacts having been transferred to the GEM, but you still can’t help being impressed by the sheer majesty of the exhibits.
Highlights include Tutankhamun’s death mask and sarcophagi (Room 3), the pharaoh’s lion throne (Room 35), and his fascinating wardrobe collection (Room 9). Afterwards, don’t miss a wander through the Egyptian jewelry collection (Room 4), which contains more bling than you’ll ever see again in one lifetime, and finish off by viewing the Royal Mummies Collection (Room 56 & 46), where you can say hello to Hatshepsut, Tuthmosis II, Ramses II, and Seti I in person.
The Egyptian Museum sits right beside Midan Tahrir, the central square of Downtown Cairo. The easiest way to arrive here is to take the Cairo Metro to Sadat station (on Midan Tahrir) and follow the exit signs to the museum.
Al-Azhar Mosque is the finest building of Cairo’s Fatimid era and one of the city’s earliest surviving mosques, completed in AD 972. It’s also one of the world’s oldest universities — Caliph El-Aziz bestowed it with the status of university in AD 988 (the other university vying for “oldest” status is in Fes) and today, Al-Azhar University is still the leading theological center of the Islamic world.
The main entrance is the Gate of the Barbers on the northwest side of the building, adjoining the neo-Arab facade built by Abbas II. Leave your shoes at the entrance and walk into the central courtyard. To your right is the El-Taibarsiya Medrese, which has a mihrab (prayer niche) dating from 1309. From the central courtyard, you get the best views of the mosque’s five minarets, which cap the building. Across the courtyard is the main prayer hall, spanning a vast 3,000 square meters. The front half is part of the original building, while the rear half was added by Abd el-Rahman.
Al-Azhar Mosque is right in the heart of the Islamic Cairo district and easy to reach by taxi. Al-Azhar Street runs east from Midan Ataba in the downtown area right to the square where the mosque sits.
Old Cairo (Coptic Cairo)
This small church-filled cluster of twisty laneways lies within the walls of Old Babylon where the Roman Emperor Trajan first built a fortress along the Nile. Parts of the Roman towers still preside over the main street.
The Coptic Museum here contains a wealth of information on Egypt’s early Christian period and is home to one of Egypt’s finest collections of Coptic art. Next door, the 9th-century Hanging Church contains some beautiful examples of Coptic architecture. Founded in the 4th century, the church was originally built over the Roman gate towers (hence the name) and was substantially rebuilt during the 9th century.
Khan el-Khalili (Souq Quarter)
Khan el-Khalili is one of the world’s great shopping experiences. This Middle Eastern souq (bazaar) is a labyrinthine collection of skinny alleyways established as a shopping district in AD 1400, which still rings with the clang of metal workers and silversmiths.
The main streets have long ago given themselves over completely to the tourist trade (with plenty of cheap papyrus pictures and plastic pyramids on display), but divert off the main drag into the surrounding alleyways, and the tiny stores and cluttered workshops are some of the best places to pick up traditional products in Egypt. Here, you’ll find everything from antiques and gorgeous metal lampshades to locally woven textiles.
While here stop in at Cairo’s most famous coffee shop, Fishawis, where syrupy Arabic coffee and sweet tea are dished out to tourists and local merchants alike at a rapid-fire pace.
In a commanding location at the foot of the Mokattam Hills, Cairo’s citadel was built by Saladin in 1176. The original structure he laid out has long disappeared except for the eastern outer walls, but a legacy of rulers has made their own additions here.
The Mosque of Muhammad Ali is the most famous monument and the main reason for visiting. Nicknamed the “Alabaster Mosque,” its white stone and tall, disproportionately slender minarets are one of Cairo’s great landmarks. The other big reason to come up here are the views across the city; head to the Gawhara Terrace for the best panorama in town.
Sultan Hassan Mosque
One of the finest examples of Mamluk architecture in the world, Sultan Hassan Mosque is a vision of Arabic artistry with an abundance of stalactite detailing and intricate arabesque features. It was built in 1356-63 for the Sultan Hassan el-Nasir.
The exterior, with its large areas of stone, is reminiscent of an ancient Egyptian temple. The massive main doorway at the north corner is almost 26 meters high, and the minaret at the south corner is the tallest in Cairo at 81.5 meters.
The main doorway leads into a domed vestibule, beyond which are a small antechamber and a corridor leading into the ornate open Court centered around an ablution fountain. From here, an iron door leads into the sultan’s mausoleum where the stalactitic pendentives of the original dome still survive. In the center of the chamber is the sultan’s simple sarcophagus.
Museum of Islamic Art
Severe damage sustained from a car-bomb attack in 2014 resulted in this museum shutting its doors to the public for years but thankfully it has now been reopened. Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art holds one of the most important collections of Middle Eastern artistry in the world. Ottoman tile work, Ayyubid ceramics, frescoes, delicately patterned wood-inlay, coinage, carved marble tombstones, and jewel-toned carpets, among other items are all on display.
Definitely spend some time perusing the illuminated Qurans and the exhibits of richly decorative ceramics, glassware, and metal-ware. Then move on to admire the heavily ornate jewelry collection and the rooms devoted to Astronomy and other sciences, where you’ll find highly detailed astrolabes and other equipment. A visit here is a journey through the breadth and wealth of Islamic heritage.
Of all the Islamic Cairo district’s gates, Bab Zuweila is the most interesting. You can climb to the top of this medieval era relic (built in the 11th century) for some amazing rooftop views over Islamic Cairo. The gate itself has two minarets and is the last southern gate of the old town still standing. Right next door is the red-and-white stonework of the Sheikh al-Mu’ayyad Mosque, and a few steps farther away are the fascinating artisan stalls of the Street of the Tentmakers, where Egypt’s bright fabric used for weddings and other special occasions is sold in bulk.
Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street
The northern section of Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street is rimmed by fine Mamluk buildings, which have been painstakingly restored to their former glory. The Madrassa of as-Salih Ayyub, built in 1247, is a showcase of the tranquil simplicity of Islamic architecture.
Directly across the road from the madrassa is the drop-dead gorgeous Madrassa of Qalaun, rightly considered one of the Mamluk period’s greatest architectural triumphs. It was completed in 1293 by Qalaun’s son, Muhammad al-Nasir, and has an interior packed to the brim with intricate tile work, fine marble, mother-of-pearl mosaics, and stained-glass windows. Qalaun’s madrassa also functioned as a hospital when it first opened.
Ibn Tulun Mosque
The second oldest mosque still standing in Cairo, Ibn Tulun Mosque, was built between AD 876 and 879 and modeled on the Kaaba in Mecca (Saudi Arabia). At the time it was built, it was the largest mosque in existence.
The Main Court’s colonnades have plentiful surviving fragments of intricate frieze work on display and open onto a series of narrow-fronted halls. The main prayer hall (on the southern side of the court) still holds onto fragments of its older decoration of carved stucco and wood, and the mihrab here has remnants of its original gold mosaic decoration.
Built over what was essentially a medieval rubbish dump, Al-Azhar Park is the green lungs of the old district. It was opened in 2005 and provides a much-needed respite to the overcrowded chaos of Cairo’s street hustle. Inside, the gloriously manicured gardens are a lovely place for an evening stroll, especially as the views over the entire old city are gorgeous from here at sunset. There are also a couple of good restaurants on-site, so it’s the perfect spot to put your feet up after a long day of sightseeing. If you come on the weekend, the park is packed full of local families escaping the surrounding roar of traffic that cocoons the rest of Cairo.
Al-Azhar Park is most easily visited by taking a taxi, but if you’re already in the Islamic Cairo district and it’s not too hot, you can turn east onto Darb al-Ahmar Street from Bab Zuweila and walk to the lower park entrance.