Cairo, the city of one thousand minarets, is not for the faint of heart, footsore nor easily flustered. A daunting, dusty, dazzling riot of ruins and riches. Encircled by sand, smothered by sun, but nourished by the Nile, Cairo stands upon a triangle of land abutting the Mediterranean that has been peopled, plundered, pillaged and applauded for many thousands of years.

Cairo was not the first settlement to flourish upon this fertile delta. The ancient city of Memphis, the first capital of the Pharaohs, arose two and a half thousand years earlier, around 3,100 B.C. In the succeeding millennia, an ancient civilization prospered, leaving in its wake a succession of structures, of which The Pyramids are the most celebrated, which continue to awe and amaze the modern world.

Populated by 18 million people, Cairo as it is today, has grown from an assortment of cities, the first of which, Babylon-in-Egypt, began in 525 BC. The passage of centuries would see the rise and fall of many Empires who would come to claim Cairo as their own. Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Turks all came in turn to conquer, dwell and mark their might by stone and sword upon this magnetic city.


It is unsurprising that a city so steeped in history, stacked in ruins, and saturated by culture and custom, has so much to offer the first-time tourist. It is hard to be bored, easy to be overwhelmed, and careful planning is advisable. In addition, before wandering the streets or entering mosques, it is important to be aware of local custom and religious practice, and to dress respectfully.

Cairo is divided into areas, each representing, more or less, a period of its history and growth. Central Cairo, Islamic Cairo, Coptic Cairo and The Cities of the Dead all lie to the east of the Nile whilst Giza, The Pyramids and The Great Sphinx lie to the west. The residential islands of Gezira and Roda occupy the centre. Each district, individual and unique, harbours a wealth of attractions. It is possible to highlight but a few here.

The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities located in Central Cairo near Midan Tahrir, should not be skipped. Housing more than 100,000 pieces, ranging from the earliest Pharaonic dynasties to the Roman era, it is the largest and richest collection of its kind in the world. Such is its size that it is better to view the collection over successive half days rather than to attempt to see it all in the course of one.

Cairo was conquered for Islam in 636 AD and the resulting city, Fustat, lies to the east of Central Cairo. Stuffed with mosques, minarets and mausoleums, many replete with bejeweled interiors and graced by shady courtyards, swollen with street life and crammed with bazaars, it is possible to explore this district for days upon end, lost in absorption. Equipped with a good map and a guide book, it is worth undertaking at least one walking tour of the area.

Especially recommended is the Sultan Hassan Mosque, an example of Mamluke architecture at its finest. Visit the Ib Tulun Mosque, the oldest and most well preserved mosque in Cairo, famed for its spatial aesthetics designed to promote tranquility and serenity. Of equal note is the Moonlit Mosque, so named because the pale stones reflect the moonlight, and the Blue Mosque, with its spectacular turquoise, indigo, rose, plum and green interior. Climb to the top of the minaret for good views out over Cairo.

You could finish with a tour of The Citadel, a fortified complex containing a mosque whose minarets tower impressively over Cairo, dominating the skyline. Begun in the C12th, it became the site of successive royal residences and the scene of many massacres and political machinations. Now, the main monument, the Mohammed Ali Mosque, testifies to the achievements of Mohammad Ali who in 1811, having wined, dined, and then summarily ambushed and murdered 500 Mamlukes, initiated a period that oversaw the modernization of Cairo.

Close by the Citadel and lying at the foot of the Muqattan Hills, sprawls The Cities of the Dead. Three million Cairenes live amongst the graves and it is, perhaps, not a place where the squeamish will wander carefree. However, although courtesy and caution are necessary, and women might prefer to travel accompanied, they are, in fact, relatively safe. Within the Northern Cemetery, in particular, a number of historically interesting and architecturally impressive tombs can be found.

Coptic Cairo, built during the Roman Christian era, flourished between 300 and 1000 AD. Particularly recommended is the Coptic Museum that houses a rich range of Coptic art, texts and textiles. Equally, the Hanging Church, the oldest Christian worship place in Cairo is worthy of a visit. It is so named as it is built on the top of a Roman Gate.

No trip to Cairo would be complete without a visit to the Pyramids and The Great Sphinx at Giza. Built around 2,600BC, lying eleven miles west of the city centre, the Great Pyramid is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Close by is the Sphinx, built, it is thought, around the 3rd millennium BC. It is the largest single stone construction existing today. For the adventurous, camel rides are available.

You could also visit The Step Pyramid of Djoser and its surrounding complex. Located at Saqarra and built in the 27th century BC, it is an awe-inspiring achievement.


There are plenty of opportunities to shop in Cairo. Hoardes of traders, burdened with wares, crowd the main streets and popular tourist spots waiting to waylay the passerby. If a tourist, it is more than likely that the first price you are given will be grossly inflated. For most things, it is customary, inoffensive and advisable to haggle, providing it is done with courtesy and humour. In fact, you may be considered rude or foolish not to try.

By far the most colourful, exotic and exciting place to shop in Cairo is at the famed Khan el-Kahlili bazaar. The market, built in 1382, it is one of the oldest markets in the world and continues to thrive and flourish, providing a location for a brisk trade and the purchase of every type of good, of every degree of quality, imaginable.


As the sun goes down and the heat retreats, the lights come up and Cairenes go out, and there is a rich array of choice available for an evenings entertainment. Although Egypt is a Muslim country and alcohol is traditionally and officially frowned upon, this rule is observed by some more than others, and there are many hotels that provide western style bars frequented by Egyptians and foreigners alike.

In addition, there is a plethora of local baladi bars, clubs offering live music, discos and casino’s, many of the trendier of which can be found within or nearby the more expensive Western hotels in Zamalek, or scattered along the banks of the Nile River. The Pyramids Road to Giza is also studded with neon signed late night dives. However, generally, these are both seedy and overpriced.

If seeking something more unique and exotic, you might consider a classical Arabic music concert, some belly-dancing or, alternatively, a performance by the Cairo Opera Company. Pick up a copy of the Cairo Times or another weekly publication for more extensive listings and coverage of all the options available.

Eating Out

The cuisine in Cairo is not often a cause for celebration. However, culinary enthusiasts will not find themselves at a total loss. Visit Rifai for delicious Middle Eastern Food or Andrea in Mokattam for some seafood spiced and served with an eastern twist. Also recommended is the Fish Market or, alternatively Le Papillon, a restaurant that serves good quality moderately priced Lebanese food. Fine dining and western food can be found at the more expensive hotels.

If visiting Cairo for the first time, with a stomach uninitiated to the cuisine and climate, it is advisable to be sensible and take precautions if not wishing to be waylaid by sickness for the duration of your trip. Drink only bottled water and avoid road-side snacks or food that may have been sitting for sometime. Equally, try and avoid food that may have been washed with water and cannot be peeled.

Tourist Information

Egyptian Tourist Authority (ETA)Abbassiya Square, Misr Travel Tower, Cairo. Tel: +202 685 3576Fax: +202 685 4363


Cairo’s airport is located in Heliopolis, 22km northeast of Cairo. It is, approximately, an hours drive from Central Cairo.