Egypt is a fascinating country, here ruled pharaohs, sultans, Romans and British although the list could be longer. Each domination has left a characteristic mark on the appearance of the cities as well as on the culture of the people. Our route begins at the Citadel of Saladin and concludes on a ship. Read on and discover the other stages
Enter the medieval center of the Islamic world
The Citadel of Saladin (Qalaat Salāḥ ad-Dīn) was built in the 12th century to protect Cairo from possible Crusader attacks. Strategically located on a promontory at the foot of Mokattam Hill, it dominates the city and is very difficult to conquer. From its walls one enjoys an incomparable panorama over the metropolis, the desert and the pyramids of Giza.
This gigantic enclosure has been declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco and houses monuments not to be missed:
- Mehmet Ali Pasha Mosque or Alabaster Mosque. It is famous for its tall and slender minarets, the great marble pulpit and the more than 136 stained glass windows of the domes. The interior vault is wonderful and somehow reminiscent of the mosques of Istanbul. No wonder it is the most visited place of worship in the country.
- Al-Gawhara, a forgotten jewel. The Palace consists of halls, rooms and chambers. The walls and ceilings are decorated with baroque-style gilded ornaments with repeated motifs and natural scenes. The highlight is the richly decorated throne room where Sultan Mohammed Ali received guests.
- Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque, the royal mosque. Under its roof, the sultans performed their Friday prayers. It is an austere construction that shelters a rectangular courtyard with a sanctuary on the side of the qibla (the place where Muslims pray) and surrounded by arcades.
- Sulayman Pasha Mosque, the first mosque built by the Ottomans. It is of small dimensions and is surrounded by a garden enclosure. You will see floral paintings, colorful inscriptions and elegant marble cladding.
- Egyptian military museum. Its wings cover the history of the armies from the time of the Pharaohs to the present. You will see artillery pieces, war paintings, Israeli tanks from the Yom Kippur War and an exhibition on the military operation in Egypt during the Second World War.
Get lost in Khan Al Khalili suq
Khan el-Khalili is a famous bazaar in the heart of Cairo. It is close to the Saladin Citadel and is the perfect place to find the ideal souvenir. Before you go shopping, keep these three tips in mind: always bargain, always carry cash and don't go into every store. To help you choose, we have compiled some of the merchandise available:
- Gold jewelry
- Bastet statuettes, the typical Egyptian souvenir. At the time of the pharaohs, Bastet was the goddess of war and fertility. She had a feline appearance and the cat was her totem animal. You will find an endless number of alabaster or granite figures, the price depends on the material used.
- Leather articles
- Spices. The most typical is dukkah, a mixture of thyme, garlic, mint and pulverized hazelnuts. It is used to flavor meats and fish. Another characteristic ingredient is hibiscus. Its sun-dried flowers are used to make the national infusion: karkade or bissap. You can also buy black cumin (the "gold of the pharaohs"), anise, coriander, bay leaves and tahini, a thick paste made from ground sesame.
- Replicas of manuscripts and papyrus paintings
- Khayamiya, hand-sewn textile appliques
- Cachimba, a classic of Egypt and the Muslim world. Strolling through the streets of Cairo it is not uncommon to see locals sharing a shisha. In the market you will find hundreds of colorful devices, aromatic tobaccos, cleaning kits and extra mouthpieces.
- Silver, copper and brass
The market was built on the ancient burial place of the Fatimid caliphs. In the 14th century it was a caravanserai (an inn for caravans) and grew into a commercial complex of great importance. Nowadays it is a labyrinth of very suggestive alleys. Touring Khan Al Khalili will take you some time but I assure you it is worth it.
Take a break
Finding the perfect bargain takes strength but there is no shortage of options to regain energy. The most recommended is in the market itself: The Fishawi, a historic cafe opened in 1979. When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt, the establishment was already serving tea and karkade. It is divided into three parts: el-Bosfor (the hall dedicated to King Farouk, it is decorated with ebony furniture and silver and crystal antiques), The Masterpiece (ornamented with shells, ivory and arabesques) and Rhyme, the area dedicated to the rhyming contests held during Ramadan. Open 24 hours a day from Monday to Sunday.
Egyptian specialties include hawawshi (a crispy pita stuffed with meat, onions, hot peppers and chopped herbs), fattah (boiled beef or lamb, seasoned and served on a bed of rice and toasted pita bread. It is usually accompanied with a tomato and garlic sauce) or mulukhiyah, boiled leaves of white jute and other plants. It is mixed with chicken broth until it reaches the ideal thickness and served with rice and pieces of meat.
If you travel to Cairo in January I recommend ordering Hommos El Sham or halabessa, a spicy tomato soup with chickpeas, garlic and onions, served hot and garnished with cumin, chili and lemon. Although temperatures are milder compared to the mainland, January is the coldest month and a hot dish always comes in handy.
Stand open-mouthed in front of the pyramids
With a full stomach you can head for Cairo's main attraction: the pyramids. These witnesses to the time of the pharaohs are located in Giza, a suburb of the capital on the west bank of the Nile. Since you are staying only one day, you won't be able to take the full tour. An exhaustive visit to the complex would take you about eight hours. However, it is worth the trip to see these ancient monuments up close.
The archaeological complex consists of the pyramids of Cheops, Mycerinus and the queens, a necropolis, the Temple of the Valley and the Great Sphinx. Here you can take some impressive pictures, especially if you go a little further away and climb the nearby hills. Another option is from the top of a camel. In the surroundings you will find dozens of people who offer a few laps to these placid animals.
End the day cruising the Nile
To end the day in style I recommend booking a sunset cruise. In Egypt, a traditional experience involves a ride on a falua, a small one- or two-sailed triangular-shaped boat. Cruises depart from various points in the city, including Giza. You can choose from several options; the ones that fit your plan last between one and two hours and often include dinner and/or a belly dance show.
How can you get around Cairo?
The capital of Egypt is huge and very populated. Like all major cities, the fastest means of transport is the metro. The subway network consists of three lines (red, yellow and green) and transports thousands of travelers every day. The first car leaves at 5:15 while the last one leaves at 00:30. If I have to be honest, it is the fastest option but not the most comfortable: the cars are usually crowded and you might run into pickpockets.
If possible, I recommend you to avoid cabs - they tend to inflate their fares if they transport tourists - and choose on their Uber or Careem, a local app. Other options are public buses, private minibuses and ferries across the Nile. If you're looking for how to get between the airfield and your hotel, I recommend reading the post on getting between the airport and the city.
Is it worth seeing Cairo in one day?
It depends, if you are passionate about ancient Egypt or Islamic art, one day is not enough. In this case you should dedicate at least three days to Cairo. However, if Cairo is part of a longer route that touches, for example, Alexandria and the Mediterranean coast, Luxor or the Red Sea towns, 24 hours will give you the opportunity to see the highlights. Of course, you will have to wake up early to make the most of the day.