City Guide to Cairo, Egypt: Part 2 | Must See Attractions
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This is part two of a multiple part series in our City Guide to Cairo. Don't miss part one where we covered things you should know before visiting Cairo, Egypt.
- Bab al-Futuh - Conquest Gate
- Taking Ubers around Cairo
- Khan el-Khalili Bazaar
- Al-Azhar Mosque
- Bab Zuwayla - Gate
- Al Azhar Park
- Adjusting Expectations
- Sabaya, Lebanese Restaurant
- The Egyptian Museum
- Cairo Opera House and Museum of Modern Egyptian Art
As soon as we stepped off the plane in Cairo, you could argue that our experience of Cairo had begun. We immediately felt we were in a new place; the people, the culture, and the history of Cairo are so different from the other places we’ve been to in our current travels. Even though we were tired from a day of travel, we were wide-eyed and excited to see, hear, smell, and be up close to a city we’d been dreaming of visiting since we were kids. To think, we were in a city that was a center for so many civilizations throughout time, including the Pharaohs, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs. We originally set out with the intent of keeping our yearlong adventure within Europe, however, we're not ones to pass up great opportunities when they arise. It's an added bonus that we can now say we've been to Europe, Africa, and Asia (Istanbul, Turkey). Although, if we're being honest with ourselves, our travels to Africa and Asia have barely scratched the surface.
On the morning we planned to go sightseeing, we woke up bright and early. We appreciated the coolness of the morning (it was in the mid to high seventies), knowing the day would bring temperatures in the hundreds. We took a few extra minutes to enjoy the view of the pyramids from our balcony. We packed our daypacks with the days necesseties and lathered on sunscreen. With the heat, it was imperative that we bring extra water, and by mid-day, we were so glad that we had!
Sightseeing Itinerary in Cairo
Before arriving in a new place, we like to make a sightseeing itinerary ahead of time. Cairo was no different. We were so excited to see all of the ancient sites in the city, so we planned three full days of sightseeing. If you’re familiar with planning out attractions, it can be quite time consuming and at times challenging. We always want to see ‘everything’ and not miss a single hidden gem, however it’s a balancing act between time, cost, distance, and in our case, work we may need to finish.
So, to possibly make your research on sightseeing in Cairo (and other destinations) easier, we’ve kept our maps with all of the information we gathered (accurate at the time of our sightseeing). Finding hours, prices, and general information can sometimes be challenging, so we’ve tried to include these details on our maps and provide appropriate links below. And finally, not every attraction is suitable for every visitor, but the copywriters and marketing departments for the destinations sure make it sounds like it. How many times have you read “Great for kids and adults alike” and shown up at the venue to wonder why anyone over 20 years-old without kids would go out of their way to be there? Below we’ve included our itinerary with tips, impressions, and our takeaways on each place that, when combined with the official attraction information and website, may help you decide if it’s a destination for your travel adventure or not.
NOTE: We used this sightseeing map for our personal sightseeing adventures, because of that, some notes may not make perfect sense, and some information could be outdated. Information on this map was valid at the time of creation. All prices are shown in US dollars but are actually Egyptian Pounds (local currency). That being said, feel free to save it to your Google account and use it as a starting point (or modify it accordingly) for planning out your personalized itinerary in Cairo.
Day 1, Sightseeing in Cairo
Getting into downtown Cairo, form our hotel near the pyramids, would take about 45-60 minutes depending on traffic. We’d scheduled an Uber the night before (use our link and get your first ride free!), so it was simple enough to exit the hotel and wait. We confirmed the car and the driver were the same as the Uber app indicated and got in. The driver was very kind and spoke a few words in English. We appreciated his enthusiasm and willingness to share his country as he pointed out many sights as we drove into town.
Bab al-Futuh - Conquest Gate
We were dropped off at the first destination on our map, Bab al-Futuh, the Conquest Gate. It’s one of the three remaining gates from the Old City of Cairo and dates back to 1087 CE. We entered from Al Banhawi Street, the backside of the gate, and passed through to Sour Masr Al Kadimaa. We were welcomed by a surprisingly busy square and street. There were upwards of a hundred people of all ages, walking, sitting, and eating in the small square. We took time to see the gate, but didn’t want to stand out too much since we were the only tourists. We walked down the street and found a mosque that looked interesting, Al Jame' Al Anwar Mosque. A man standing at the entrance, who was keeping a large group of youngsters from entering, waved us in. We took off our shoes and Shannon was given a scarf to cover her hair. Entering the mosque and leaving the chaotic streets of the city was a serene experience. We quietly walked around the mosque and enjoyed the tranquility of the majestic building and expansive courtyard (known as a Sahn in Arabic).
We Took an Uber Instead of Walking (Shockingly Out of Character for Us!)
In most places we’ve visited, we'd just walk or take public transportation to the next destination. However, with what we’d read about safety, the low cost of Uber in Cairo, and the 100℉+ (38℃+) heat, we decided we’d do most of our traveling by car. When we exited that mosque, we made our way back to the busy main road and used the Uber (use our link and get your first ride free!) app to request a ride to the next destination. The ride was estimated to arrive in 7 minutes, but we waited for over 15 minutes. This is probably due to traffic and road conditions, because, as the day continued, this became a theme. We learned that we needed to doubled, triple, or even quadruple the time the Uber app estimated.
Our next destination was the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar. We looked over the route that Uber suggested and it stuck to the main roads. However, the driver took a turn down smaller, neighborhood roads. We didn’t think much of it at first, just that it made sense because it was a more direct route, cutting a bunch of distance off. However, it didn’t take long before the streets were lined with stores and stands that spilled onto the street and made the roadway so narrow that one car could barely get through, let alone traffic traveling in the opposite direction. We got to a point where the driver couldn’t go forward because his car wouldn’t fit and he couldn’t turnaround because the road was blocked. He hesitated, exited his vehicle, and asked someone on the street something. When he returned, he looked back at us and said he was sorry, his car wouldn’t fit and we'd have to get out and go the rest of the way by foot. We weren’t expecting the news, but we had no choice at this point but to get out and walk.
Sergio blended in relatively well with the crowds. He looks (apparently) Egyptian, so much so, that most people would speak to him in Arabic before realizing he didn’t know the language. Even the flight attendant on the plane to Cairo thought he was Egyptian and handed him the Arabic customs form to fill out. Shannon on the other hand, is very much a foreigner and sticks out like a sore thumb. The flight attendant didn’t hesitate to give her a customs form in English, and no one even considered speaking to her in Arabic. Not only did she stand out as a tourist, her light skin drew a lot of attention. So, our guard was up when walking down streets, especially small streets in non-touristy areas. And really, in our experience, almost all areas in Cairo are non-touristy areas these days.
As we’ve previously mentioned, we use Google Maps on our phone, as it provides us with our GPS location and helps us get driving, walking, and public transportation directions. We also have a city specific map layer that we can turn on within Google Maps that has our itinerary and all of the attractions we plan to see. Since we’re constantly on our phone we’re sure to keep it plugged into an external battery pack, otherwise we could end up with a dead phone three-quarters into our day. If we ran out of power back at ‘home’ it would be no big deal, but if it were to happen in the middle of a foreign city, it could be disastrous. However, having a phone in hand, and looking at it for directions every few minutes, is a clear giveaway that we’re tourists and don’t know where we’re going. While this can’t be completely avoided, we do our best to memorize several turns of the directions in advance. This way, we don’t have to take out our phones as often, and hopefully makes us more aware of our surroundings and less of a 'target'. It may be overdoing it at times, but ultimately we’re just trying to stay safe, and better safe than sorry, right?
Khan el-Khalili Bazaar
We arrived by foot to the square where the famous Khan el-Khalili Bazaar is located. It was a very busy area, with armed security between the square and the main road. It's a popular place for locals to gather, either under the covered courtyard in front of the mosque, on the large area of grass, or at the cafes that line a side of the square. We found the entrance to the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar at the northwest corner, next to the mosque. So, if you’re looking at the front of the mosque it’s to the left side of it, at the corner. The bazaar dates back to the 14th century and was built during the process of the rebuilding after the plague ravished the city in the 13th and 14th centuries. The complex has been modernized, but the bazaar is full of narrow pathways that crisscross back and forth and open onto larger squares. We found the bazaar to be more geared towards tourists than we expected, however, there are gems that can be found along the narrow passageways. While you're there, pay attention to the architecture, we found a few places with older tile works and magnificent archways. For a more authentic experience, there are many more places around town, with stores and shops spilling onto the streets, with goods piled on tables and hanging from rafters that seemed much more for the everyday shoppers and locals in Cairo. It just takes a bit of exploring the side streets to find them.
If you decide to purchase anything in the bazaar, or any other shops in the city, be prepared to negotiate. Haggling in Cairo is expected. When you’re negotiating a price, be sure you and the seller are in the same currency. We heard a gentleman call out that his scarfs were only 20. We thought he meant Egyptian Pounds, but quickly realized that he meant Euros. Also, the out-of-the-gate price is probably extremely high and you can negotiate a much, much lower price. We found a scarf that we were considering purchasing and the starting out price was E£600. We talked with the seller a bit and although we decided not to buy the scarf, he was willing to go down to E£200. That’s literally a third of the original price! Had we shown more interest, who knows how low he would’ve been willing to go.
Next, we headed to the Al-Azhar Mosque, which is just a short distance from the bazaar. It’s one of the older mosques in the city, and was founded in 970 CE. Over the centuries, the mosque has been enlarged many times, bringing together many different architectural styles. The school (madrassa) was established in 988 CE and claims to be the world’s oldest educational institution, although this is contested by Kairaouine Mosque in Fes, Morocco. Among most Muslim scholars it’s considered one of the most prestigious places to study Sunni theology.
Bab Zuwayla - Gate
We took another Uber ride to the Bab Zuwayla gate, one of the three remaining gates of the old fortification walls. Dating back to the late 11th century, this gate is at the south end of Al-Muizz Al-Deen Street. The minarets were placed on the gate in the 15th century and are part of the Mosque of al-Mu'ayyad, which is located inside the gate. Visitors can enter the gate and climb to the top of the wall and up the minarets for views of the city.
As we admired the gate and took pictures, it didn’t take long for a local man to approach us. We’d been approached by many people already, but kindly declined anything they were offering. This gentleman started to tell us, in very good English, about the gate and its history, showing us where bodies from executions were hung from the gate. We were aware that having someone approach you and offer to do something kind, when not having been asked was common. Furthermore, we knew that after it was all said and done they would more than likely expect a tip. We let him know we didn’t have any money on us and he insisted that he didn’t expect payment. He explained to us that he'd finished his studies in English and had been an English teacher when the economy changed with the uprising. So, all he wanted was the chance to practice his English. We accepted this, but hesitantly. He then told us about the Blue Mosque that was down the street and wanted to take us there. We said that we’d go on our own and started to look it up on our phone.
Our first red flag was that the mosque he said was the Blue Mosque, and the one Google told us was the Blue Mosque were in different locations on the map. He continued to insist that he wasn’t looking for payment and walked us to the mosque. We entered, but found it odd that Shannon wasn’t asked or even given a chance to put on a headscarf. The man who lead us there then said he was going to look for someone who ran the mosque. We waited and when he returned he said that we could see the mosque and climb to the top of the minaret. However, it would cost E£50 each. We reminded him that we didn’t have any cash on us, but they insisted we needed to pay. We looked around and both of us had the same thought, this didn’t look like the Blue Mosque, it was pretty run down. We apologized that we couldn’t pay and kindly left the mosque.
The gentleman we'd met, followed us out and asked us to help him out. He said he had a child and hadn’t had a job in over three years. We felt for him, but we also felt a bit hustled. We repeated that we didn’t have cash on us, which is why we couldn’t climb the minarets. He left without saying anything else. We struggled with this, because he was very kind and was just trying to get by, however he didn’t take us to the Blue Mosque (we confirmed this later). We obviously can’t be certain, but we’d venture to say that he probably had a deal with the mosque to make a percentage on the ‘ticket’ prices. Regardless of whether he was being honest or not, we’re not mad at him and wish him and his family nothing but the best.
The lesson here is to be aware that, while in Cairo, if someone offers to help you without you asking for it, the odds are pretty high that they’re going to expect something in return. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, you just need to be aware of what you’re getting into and what your limit and risk tolerance is. Keep in mind that we’ve never been charged to see a mosque, unless it had been converted into a museum. However, we'd expect to pay something to climb to the top of a minaret in any mosque.
Trying To Go To Al Azhar Park
Al Azhar Park was a donation by Aga Khan IV, a descendant of the family who founded Cairo in 969 CE. The park cost more than $30 million US dollars and consisted of a process of clearing 74 acres of land from the trash that had been dumped there over the previous 500 years. Once the excavation was underway, a portion of the 12th and 13th century Ayyubid Wall was found, which caused a brief halt. However, conservation work commenced and the excavation continued. Opened to the public in 2005, it’s an oasis from the urban desert city. When you look up images of the park, from the sky, it looks like this amazing green park surrounded by a sea of tan buildings. Needless to say, we were excited to walk around the park and get great views of the city from high atop the hill.
We requested a ride on Uber and waited, knowing that the five-minute estimated arrival time would be more like 15 minutes. At over 20 minutes of waiting and seeing the car on the Uber app go in the wrong direction multiple times (probably due to narrow roads and road blocks), the driver apparently decided to cancel the ride. We were left to make our way on foot. We were in one of the oldest parts of the city as we made our way to the park. It was an adventure, walking down narrow streets, passing shops and people enjoying the afternoon drinking tea on the street. We certainly drew plenty of stares and gathered attention. At one point we made a wrong turn down a road that was a dead end (although our map showed it wasn’t). Several people looked at us in what seemed to be pure confusion, perhaps they wondered who or what we were looking for? We looked down at our phone, trying to figure out an alternate route, but quickly decided it was time to turn around and make our way back to a main road when a couple of women started to yell at us.
We re-grouped and continued to make our way to the park by way of the GPS directions on Google. It was challenging because there are only two entrances to the large park, one on either end of it. We were headed to the South entrance, but were soon blocked by a chained and padlocked fence. Behind it, about 30 feet from the gate, a security person sat in a chair. We were able to get his attention and motion that we’d like to pass through. Unfortunately, he simply shook his head and motioned for us to go back the way we came. We turned around, and without knowing what else to do, we kept walking towards a main street. Well, one thing was certain, we were truly experiencing Cairo and walking the streets that most tourists never see. With that being said, we didn’t always feel comfortable, we guess that’s why people opt for tours, stick to the handful of ‘must see attractions’, or simply opt-out of visiting altogether. As we picked up our pace and walked past all sorts of stores and shops, we noticed a few had chicken coups and hanging blocks of meat; talk about fresh! We kept our wits and made it to a busy street and stepped aside.
We were exasperated. Most of the day had passed and we’d only seen a handful of attractions. We were tired, hot, and sweaty. There were so many things we couldn’t see or do because of roadblocks, both literally and figuratively. We knew we needed to reset our expectations. We talked it over and decided to end our sightseeing for the day. We were truly disappointed and wanted to see more, but realized that we’d seen more in that day than many tourists see in their entire time in Cairo. We weren’t on a tourist bus where the sights and stops were curated. We were seeing, no, experiencing, the ‘real’ Cairo. This turned our disappointment into appreciation.
We decided to end our day and requested an Uber ride. Thankfully, it didn’t take more than 15 minutes to arrive. Relived, we got into the car and settled into the ride. Shannon could tell that Sergio had something up his sleeve, but he wouldn’t give anything away. The driver took us to the Nile River, passing the Saladin Citadel of Cairo and drove through Tahrir Square. Upon arriving, we exited the Uber and walked across the Kasr El Nil Bridge, which connects Tahrir Square with the Cairo Opera complex. Downtown Cairo is split by the Nile River, so, from the middle, views of the city in either direction are impressive. Sadly, the air pollution and smog covered the horizon, so even thought it was a sunny day, it wasn’t very clear. After taking in the views of the Nile River, Sergio still had his lips sealed as to what he had planned. He led the way to the InterContinental Hotel, which is on the Nile River. When we arrived, he spilled the beans; the plan was a dinner at one of the highest rated restaurants in Cairo, Sabaya. While it wasn’t strictly Egyptian food, it was Lebanese, he thought it would be a nice surprise at the end of such a long day.
Stepping into the InterContinental Hotel was like walking into another world. We left the heat, smog, and noise, and entered into a cool, upscale, modern lobby. We immediately felt like we needed to ‘freshen up’, so we found the restrooms. We felt as if we rinsed off a couple of layers of sand and sweat, and could finally take a deep breath and relax. We found Sabaya on the second floor of the hotel. The restaurant is on the far side of the second floor lobby area, opposite the elevators. The restaurant is well decorated and has a very intimate atmosphere. There were only a few people in the restaurant eating, so the personal attention we received was excellent. Sergio had found a write up of the restaurant on The Travelling Squid, which had a great review on a variety of food they’d ordered. We went with most of her recommendations for ‘light eaters’, however, by the time we finished the meal, the few plates we’d ordered to share left us stuffed! The portions were big and the food was great!
We started with two large bottles of water, which, with how thirsty we were seemed to be all we needed at that moment. The restaurant serves complementary fresh vegetables and a cold, sweet, hibiscus, ginger drink. The fresh vegetables were a welcome sight, since we’d avoided them up to this point due to the water concerns in Cairo. Our server was great at waiting until we finished our current food before bringing out our next dish. Once the veggies were finished, (trust us, we finished them all!) the cold and warm mezzehs (appetizers) were brought out.
Appetizers: Warak Enab and Moussaka
We feasted our eyes and our stomachs on a bowl of Moussaka and a dish of Warak Enab, served with a plate of Aysh Baladi (essentially pita bread) and white rice. The Moussaka was recommended by The Travelling Squid, but we actually didn’t see it on the menu. However, when we asked about it, the waiter indicated they could make it for us. We’re glad we did, because the eggplant and chickpeas in a tomato sauce was delicious. The Warak Enab, rice and vegetable stuffed grape vine leafs, was perfectly flavored with olive oil and lemon.
As we finished our appetizers, already feeling a bit full, the main dish was brought out. We’d ordered the Sabaya Mixed Grill with a traditional rice, and like the previous dishes, it didn’t disappoint. It came with grilled vegetables, and a piece of several different types of meats. We tasted lamb, pork, beef, and chicken. All were seasoned well and cooked with tenderness in mind. They offered to bring out more bread and rice, and we attempted to decline, but with multiple waiters and staff helping our table, we ended up with a second plate of bread. And we must say, while we only eat bread and grains as a very special treat, this freshly made bread didn’t go to waste.
The entire meal was delicious! The serving sizes were generous, the presentation elegant, and the restaurant sophisticated and calm. At $30 US dollars, it was far from being the cheapest meal in Cairo, although, we spent a fraction on this upscale dinner compared to what we’d have paid in the US. It was a great cap to a day that didn’t go as expected! To get more information on Sabaya, visit the InterContinental website, click the 'Dine' option at the top of the page, and then choose Sabaya from the rotating list of restaurants.
Sightseeing Day 2
With a new understanding of life in Cairo, we adjusted our sightseeing goals for the new day. We narrowed down our list of attractions to the must-see items and set off for the day.
The Egyptian Museum
Opened in its current location in 1902, this museum houses a spectacular collection of 150,000 ancient artifacts in over 100 halls that date back as much as 5,000 years. There are several sections to the museum, which are roughly laid out in chronological order, starting clockwise when you enter the museum. See the Tutankhamun treasures, royal mummies, Pre-, Old-, Middle-, and Modern-Kingdom monuments, coins, papyrus, sarcophagi, and scarabs. We were impressed with the sheer magnitude of the collection and size of the museum. Every rooms is sure to have at least one great treasure held within it!
We’d done a bit of reading ahead of time on the museum, so it wasn’t a shock to see how items were displayed, however, it was still disappointing. This museum, arguably houses some of the most ancient and important artifacts in human history. However, there seems to be little effort to properly preserve and protect the items, let alone display them in an informative and visually captivating manner. At times, walking through the museum felt like we were walking through a giant warehouse of artifacts, not a well-curated display that tells a story and educates visitors. There are very few tags and signs indicating what things are, and of the few that are posted, even fewer are in English. This is sad, however, it’s heart-breaking and perplexing as to why these items aren’t being preserved.
Only a few oscillating wall fans cooled most of the museum, and just a couple of rooms were cooled with air-conditioning. Even then, the air-conditioning seemed to be on its last leg, and we doubt it cooled to a temperature that was consistently maintained for optimal preservation. We noticed throughout the museum that most of the artifacts could be touched, as there was no barrier between visitors and the ancient items. In fact, we saw people touching, rubbing, and leaning against statues and tombs that were thousands of years old. The items that were in cases, were simply in glass and wood cases that were decades old, which as best as we could tell didn’t have temperature and humidity controls. We’re not museum curators, artifact preservationists, or archaeologists, so perhaps we’re speaking out of turn. However, we can’t help but feel saddened that more resources aren’t being diverted into this museum, whether locally or internationally, to maintain such precious human history.
Even though we were disappointed in the curation and preservation efforts of the museum, the artifacts here beg to be seen. Any visit to Cairo wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Egyptian Museum. It takes quite a bit of time to see this museum, as it’s huge! So, plan accordingly. Museum information can be found on the Supreme Council of Antiquities website. Keep in mind that you’ll need to pay extra to be able to take pictures, but in our opinion, it’s worth it.
Cairo Opera House and Museum of Modern Egyptian Art
Upon leaving the Egyptian Museum, we made our way past the busy Tahrir Square and crossed the Nile River. Directly across the bridge is the Cairo Culture Center. We passed through a security checkpoint and walked through a courtyard that was lined with museums and cultural buildings, including the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art and the Cairo Opera House. The courtyard, landscaping, and architecture were pleasant and quite interesting. During our visit there weren’t any performances, however, it would be a great experience to see a show here! Visit the Cairo Opera website for more information on performances.
We left the Cairo Opera House, having had a pleasant day of sightseeing. We enjoyed views of the Nile River again, and even filmed a short video to send home to the parents. We were glad that our day was a bit less eventful than the previous day, and we looked forward to the next day, where we planned a day at the Giza Pyramids.
Stay Tuned for Our Sightseeing Adventures at the Great Pyramids of Giza.
This is the second part of our City Guide to Cairo, Egypt. Stay tuned for our next post with our guide to the Great Pyramids of Giza! Plus, catch up with part one, because you don’t want to miss our post about our experiences, including a couple of mishaps, along with tips and things you should know before you visit Cairo.