The largest city in Egypt and the nation’s capital, Cairo, is in many ways the seat of the entire Arab world. Its metropolitan area is home to a whopping 20 million people, and that energy and freneticism are reflected in its streets, culture, and people. It is a bustling megalopolis with a history spanning several centuries, several millennia if you count the pyramid complex on the opposite bank of the Nile in Giza, which is a part of its metropolitan area to this day.
Cairo can be a difficult place to navigate. Entrepreneurial Cairenes are famous for trying to pull tourists in a million directions in order to sell you whatever goods or tours they’re peddling that day. But rather than be left to the whims of an opportunist, the city demands that you decide what you’d like to see in advance so you don’t end up hoodwinked.
To make it easier for you to plan ahead, we’ve put together a guide to the best things to see in Cairo.
The Nile (Qasr al-Nil Bridge)
The longest, most famous river in the world, the Nile is the heart of Egyptian civilization, with most of the country’s major cities residing on its banks to this day, Cairo included.
There are many ways to enjoy this famed river while you’re in town, but the easiest way may just be to take a stroll across the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, an iconic structure that connects downtown Cairo with Gezira Island and Giza on the opposite bank. If you’d like to hire a felucca to sail the river for an hour or two, Zemelek, the neighborhood on the southern tip of Gezira, is a good place to find someone available to take you.
The Citadel of Saladin
An Islamic-era fortress, the Citadel of Saladin was the seat of the Egyptian government for almost 700 years. It was used as a military stronghold under the British occupation, and was finally opened to the public to tour in 1983. Today, it houses four museums, four mosques, and boasts possibly the best view of Cairo in the whole city. Even the pyramids are visible in the distance from the peak of this ancient complex.
The Hanging Church
Though its real name is Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, it’s predominantly called the Hanging Church because of the way part of the building is suspended over a gatehouse of the former fortress.
After entering through an iron gate from the street, one must climb a total of 29 steps to reach the front door of the church itself, hence its other nickname, “the Staircase Church.” It contains 110 relics and numerous examples of Byzantine artwork. There are several places inside where a transparent floor has been installed so you can see through to the cavernous keep below.
Church of Saint George
Also in Old Cairo, near the Hanging Church, is the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George. It was originally built in the 10th century, but had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1904.
This is the only round church in Egypt and derives its unique shape from being built on top of a round tower that dates back to the Roman Empire. The interior is arresting; its vaulted dome is ringed with stained glass windows, and is painted a deep, cerulean blue and adorned with frescoes.
The most famed of the Cairene souqs, Khan el-Khalili is a singular spectacle. It has evolved over several centuries from being an important center for commerce and trade to its current iteration, now mostly geared toward tourists. Despite its current reputation for merely selling cheesy souvenirs, there are still many legitimate craftspeople and artisans that operate out of the market, particularly in the areas of fine jewelry and leather goods.
The Egyptian Museum
Though it may soon be eclipsed by the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum on the Giza plateau, the relatively humble Egyptian Museum in Tahrir square is still a draw. While it was rumored that a majority of the 120,000 piece collection would be moving to GEM ahead of its opening, the only pieces actually lost are the royal mummies and the Tutankhamun collection. The rest remains, including an extensive collection of ancient papyri and New Kingdom antiquities.
A tourist attraction that has gained a bit of a cult following, Garbage City is home to the Zabaleen, literally “garbage people,” but more accurately, the city’s unofficial garbage collectors who have made a living sorting Cairo’s trash for hundreds of years.
The neighborhood’s narrow streets aren’t readily accessible by car, so after you take a taxi to Mansheya Nasir and cross over to the frontage road, the easiest way to get around is on foot or by tuk-tuk. Garbage City is home to a multitude of small shops and food stalls, and you will not soon forget its endlessly photographable corridors.
Monastery of Saint Simon
Just above Garbage City sits the Mokattam Mountain, within which is one of the most curious places in Cairo: the Monastery of Saint Simon the Tanner. A Coptic Orthodox church built into a cave, it is the largest Catholic church in the Middle East.
Much newer than some of the other famous Coptic sites in Old Cairo, the church was completed in the late 70s. It is decorated with numerous paintings and carvings, flooded with natural light during the day, and seats 2,000 people. There are four churches total in the immediate surrounds, as well as a view of French-Tunisian graffiti artist El Seed’s work Perception, which is painted across nearly 50 buildings in Zabaleen.
Cairo Opera House
Built to replace the Khedivial Opera House which was destroyed by a fire in 1971, the Cairo Opera House was funded by a gift from the nation of Japan. It was inaugurated in 1988, marked by a visit from Japanese Prince Tomohito of Mikasa and the staging of the first Japanese Kabuki show on the African continent or the Arab world.
Today it hosts Cairo’s most prestigious shows and performances by both local Egyptian and touring international outfits. It actually contains several performance spaces, including the grandiose four-leveled Main Hall, which seats 1,200 people and is used largely for orchestral, operatic, and ballet performances.
The Pyramids of Giza
Although not technically in Cairo, but rather across the Nile on the outskirts of the city of Giza, a visit to the Pyramids are on nearly every tourists’ to-do list while in town.
They are the only surviving wonder of the ancient world, and the largest of them, the great pyramid of Khufu, was the tallest building on Earth for nearly 4,000 years until it was surpassed by the completion of England’s Lincoln Cathedral in the early 14th century.
There are a few different kinds of tickets you can buy to enter the pyramid plateau, granting access to enter different sites while inside. The best value is a comprehensive ticket that allows access to everything in the area, including the pyramids of Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure, and to the Solar Boat Museum, all for LE 600.
If you are staying in Giza at one of the many pyramid-view hotels, the entrance near the Great Pyramid is probably more convenient. If you’re coming from Cairo, either by taxi or with a driver, the entrance near the Sphinx is easier to reach. Whichever one you chose, these two ticket gates are the only places to purchase tickets to enter any of the pyramids, so you’ll have to decide in advance.