Home to the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum and over 16 million people, Cairo is teeming with history and culture. The past blends with the present, creating a unique and exciting atmosphere. Magical, mystical and maddening but never mediocre
Cairo contains worlds within worlds, full of charm and contradictions. It is a maddening city with its incessant crowds, noise and pollution. Yet, it beckons you to linger and explore the various districts - each a different piece of the puzzle, evoking a fragment of Cairo's rich 7000 year history. A walk down any street in Cairo is a feast for the senses, and exploring beyond the popular districts below will not fail to fascinate.
The current heart of Cairo, the downtown region roughly centered on Midan Tahrir, stretches east to Ramses Station and south to Garden City. It is relatively young, as only in the mid 1800s was this area west of Ezbekiya to the Nile drained and developed. The architecture of the downtown cacophony of shops, restaurants, theaters, offices, apartment buildings, and hotels possesses an old-world elegance. Stand at Midan Talat Harb and you could almost imagine you were in Paris...well, until you are approached by an old man in a galabeya peddling papyrus.
The area also boasts numerous museums and contemporary art galleries. The Egyptian Museum, with its monumental collection of antiquities, is located on Midan Tahrir and requires several hours to peruse the collection. The recently opened Abdeen Palace Museum displays a collection from pre-independence times. Bookworms will want to browse among the dozens of small second-hand stalls at Ezbekiya, near Midan Opera, where there is a good selection of both Arabic and foreign language books and magazines.
Old Cairo (Masr el Qadima)
Sometimes known as "Coptic Cairo," this area provides a historical link between Cairo's Pharaonic and Islamic periods. It is likely that the area was settled during the 6th Century BCE. It was here in 130 CE that the Roman emperor Trajan erected Babylon Fort, the core of the old city. The area features several old Coptic churches as well as Ben Ezra Synagogue - the oldest in Egypt. The ruins of the old city of Fustat are also nearby. Many potters and ceramicists used to work in the area, but have recently been relocated.
The name of this district is misleading, as this fascinating part of the city is no more "Islamic" than any other. It seems to be the conventional way to describe the area that became the city center during medieval times. This area is very rich in history and culture, and takes days to explore thoroughly.
Highlights of this district include the Citadel; the vibrant Khan el Khalili bazaar, which is full of small shops, craftsmen's workshops, restaurants and coffee houses; Al Azhar Mosque, a thousand year old center of Islamic study; the Gayer-Anderson Museum; and the Cities of the Dead, cemeteries that are also home to hundreds of living residents. Throughout the district, there are dozens of beautiful mosques with many different architectural styles and that are open to non-Muslim visitors. There are also several old houses and secular buildings, which have been converted into museums or public spaces.
The area to the west of the Nile is technically a separate municipality from Cairo, but inextricably linked to the city. It is difficult to imagine that only a hundred years ago, the road leading west to the pyramids of Giza was a simple dirt track through an agricultural area. Now it is a clamorous wall of concrete and confusion, with numerous hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and residences. The Pyramids of Giza have drawn visitors throughout the centuries to gaze in awe at the "glory of the ancients". Surrounding the Pyramids area are the obligatory papyrus and perfume shops catering to the needs of the tourist.
Dokki & Agouza
Primarily a residential district comprising the villas and private sporting clubs of Cairo's movers and shakers and more cramped "baladi" quarters and market areas, there are a few interesting sites to visit in the area. These include the Agricultural Museum and Mamhoud Khalil Museum, a refurbished mansion displaying mostly European art and sculpture collected by Khalil, a pre-war politician. Moving north along the Corniche, the main landmarks are the Balloon Theatre and the National Circus, both of which occasionally give performances, and the British Council, which offers language training in both English and Arabic.
One of Cairo's newer districts, this is a sprawl of residential and office towers, dominated by Arab League Street. The strip is replete with upscale boutiques and just about every American fast food chain imaginable. It is a veritable parking lot on summer nights as cars cruise up and down the wide avenue. Several cozy restaurants and pubs can be found tucked away in the maze of backstreets.
Gezira & Roda Islands
The two main islands in the Nile are both developed to the point where you might forget you are technically on an island. Gezira, the northern island, can be divided into two separate districts. The southern half, Gezira proper, contains the new Opera House, where cultural performances are presented throughout the year, and the Museum of Modern Art, displaying work of Egyptian artists from the last 100 years. The Cairo Tower sits to the north and provides a spectacular panoramic view of the city from the top; on a clear day you can count pyramids in the distance.
The northern tip of the island is the district of Zamalek, once a British neighborhood that miraculously retains a residential feel despite the dense population. Zamalek's multitude of popular Western-style bars and nightclubs are a big attraction. Most of the island is dominated by the Gezirah Sporting Club, a private sporting club restricted to those who can afford the pricey membership fees.
Roda Island is more densely populated, but is worth visiting for the Manial Palace built in 1903 by King Farouk's uncle Prince Mohamed Ali Tewfik. Look out for the five buildings in the palace grounds that have an eclectic architectural style. The museum has a lovely collection of old manuscripts. There are no crowds of tourists here, which can provide a peaceful afternoon.
Heliopolis, Nasr City & Beyond
The area east of the city center started being developed at the end of the 19th Century by a Belgian entrepreneur, Baron Empain, whose residence, now unfortunately closed, can be seen on the way to the airport. This upscale district has numerous Western-style shops and restaurants. The elegant buildings in the area around Midan Roxy are architecturally appealing. Interesting sites in this area include the October War Panorama and Sadat's Tomb, erected on the site where the late President was assassinated in 1981.
Northwest of Heliopolis, and easily reached by Cairo's Metro line, is Matariyya. This contains the site of ancient Heliopolis, the City of the Sun - the earliest settlement in the Cairo area. The granite Obelisk of Senusert I (dating from around 1900 BCE) stands at Midan al-Misallah, and 500 meters (about a third of a mile) south stands the Virgin's Tree, which supposedly shaded the Holy Family during their time in Egypt.
To the south of Cairo, the suburb of Maadi is a popular residential area for foreigners, and though it has been subject to rampant development, the tree-lined streets camouflaging private villas in the older sections of the district are a peaceful change to the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city. Felucca rides on the Nile departing from the docks along the Corniche in Maadi are a relaxing way to spend an afternoon.
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