Best Things to do in Cairo
Despite ranking in the top 30 largest countries with its 1 million square kilometers of land, Egypt is a country that is notorious for its geographic ‘distribution.’ 99% of Egypt’s population utilizes only 5% of the total land area but nearly 100% of its aquatic resources as a result of the predominantly barren ecosystem
The Great Giza Pyramids
The Giza Pyramids, built to endure an eternity, have done just that. The monumental tombs are relics of Egypt’s Old Kingdom era and were constructed some 4,500 years ago.
Egypt’s pharaohs expected to become gods in the afterlife. To prepare for the next world they erected temples to the gods and massive pyramid tombs for themselves—filled with all the things each ruler would need to guide and sustain himself in the next world.
Pharaoh Khufu began the first Giza pyramid project, circa 2550 B.C. His Great Pyramid is the largest in Giza and towers some 481 feet (147 meters) above the plateau. Its estimated 2.3 million stone blocks each weigh an average of 2.5 to 15 tons.
Khufu’s son, Pharaoh Khafre, built the second pyramid at Giza, circa 2520 B.C. His necropolis also included the Sphinx, a mysterious limestone monument with the body of a lion and a pharaoh’s head. The Sphinx may stand sentinel for the pharaoh’s entire tomb complex. The third of the Giza Pyramids is considerably smaller than the first two. Built by Pharaoh Menkaure circa 2490 B.C., it featured a much more complex mortuary temple.
The Egyptian Museum
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo houses over 120,000 artifacts, including the contents of Tutankhamen’s tomb and most of the mummies that have been discovered since the 19th century.
The museum’s exhibits span from the beginning of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt (approximately 2700 BC) through the Greco-Roman period.
The building consists of two floors on the ground floor, you can follow the history of Egypt from the Old Kingdom up through the Greco-Roman period by turning left at the entrance and looping around the museum. This provides a good background for most of Egypt’s ancient history. Upstairs the museum is organized thematically with a large portion of the area taken up the exhibit of the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb, including his famous funerary mask. Also upstairs is the room dedicated to the beautiful jewelry discovered in the Royal Tombs of Tanis. Another highlight of the museum, the Royal Mummy Room, requires the purchase of a separate ticket. Inside you can see the mummies of some of Egypt’s most famous pharaohs, including Ramesses II, Seti I, and Egypt’s only queen, Hatshepsut.
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.
For many Christian travelers though, the real highlight of a visit to this district is the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, where local legend says the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus, and family sheltered during King Herod’s massacre of male babies. Farther into the quarter, you come to the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which is said to be built near the spot where the baby Moses was found in the reeds. Just outside the quarter, you can also visit the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-As; the first mosque built in Egypt. Coptic Cairo is easiest reached by taking the Cairo Metro to Mar Girgis station.
Location: Sharia Mar Girgis, south of Downtown.
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. For shoppers, the main souq road is Al-Muski Street (called Gawhar al-Qaid Street at its eastern end). The gold and silver workshops mostly congregate just north of this street’s intersection with Al-Muizz Li-Din Allah Street, while the spice market section is just to the south.
The market is hemmed in on its eastern side by the Neo-Gothic bulk of the Sayyidna el-Husein Mosque, built-in 1792 to honor the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson.
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 is the views across the city; head to the Gawhara Terrace for the best panorama in town. Just to the northeast of the Muhammad Ali Mosque is the El-Nasir Mosque, built-in 1318-35 by Mohammed el-Nasir. A collection of rather half-hearted museums (the Police Museum, National Military Museum, and Carriage Museum) take up some of the other buildings on-site and are more worthwhile viewing for the architecture of the actual buildings rather than the exhibits themselves.
You can walk to the citadel area from Bab Zuweila, if you’re feeling energetic, by heading along Khayyamiyya Street. The walk takes about 30 minutes.
Location: Off Midan Salah-ad-Din, Islamic Cairo District
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. Directly facing the Sultan Hassan Mosque is the El-Rifai Mosque, built-in 1912 to house the tomb of Khedive Ismail and constructed to replicate its older next-door neighbor. The ex Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980), is also buried here. Both mosques prominently sit on Midan Salah ad-Din, directly below Cairo’s Citadel.
Location: Midan Salah-ad-Din, Islamic Cairo District.
Tips on Travel to Cairo
Tips in Cairo should be given literally for any service. Do not forget to leave cash reward to a waiter in a restaurant, a maid at your hotel and, of course, to a guide, as well as a passerby, who has helped to find the way to places of interest.
There are always police officers on duty in the streets of the city. Feel free to ask them for help. The representatives of law enforcement will tell you how to get to the street of your destination and will always help.
Do not wear short skirts, shorts, and T-shirts with short sleeves for a walk-in Cairo. The proper clothes for the city should be as close as possible. Bright outfits should also be worn in night clubs only. All major hotels, shopping complexes, and petrol stations allow payments by credit card. When going to the market, make sure you have enough paper money. It is better to stock up with more cash in small denominations. Currency can be exchanged not only in banks but also in specialized exchange offices, which can be found in every major shopping center and restaurant. Banks offer the most favorable exchange rate. As a rule, the rate is almost the same in all institutions.
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