When you are studying what to do and see in Cairo you will discover that the Egyptian capital is much more than the pyramids and its extraordinary museum. In fact, only in the latter alone you can spend many hours without finishing seeing it all.
If we add the Coptic quarter, the many mosques and other attractions, the conclusion is that it takes at least 4 days to see the city. In addition, there are other aspects to take into account, such as the chaotic traffic that makes every trip very slow. Finally, these days will allow you to glimpse how people live in Cairo and stroll unhurriedly through its always crowded streets.
Day 1: From the pyramids to the Egyptian Museum: Cairo's major landmarks
For the first day I suggest you visit the most essential places of the city, from the pyramids to the Khan el Khalili Bazaar, through the museum and the Sphinx.
Since you are not yet used to the city and the way to move around it, it may be advisable to hire a guided tour, which includes all these places. Of course, you can also do it on your own, but then you should be prepared to negotiate with the cab drivers the price of each trip.
On the other hand, as I always say, a trip requires some flexibility. If you want to stay longer in one place, for example, you must be prepared to make changes in the route. In the museum, because of its large size, it is quite possible that you may want to come back another day to finish the visit, but it depends on your interests.
Be amazed by the sight of the pyramids of Giza
Few monuments in the world are better known than the pyramids of Giza. As you no doubt already know, they are three great constructions destined to serve as tombs for the pharaohs after whom they are named: Cheops, Chephren and Mykerinos. The first visit of the day will be to the esplanade where these pyramids are located. You are sure to be impressed by the sight of structures more than 4,500 years old.
In addition to being able to see the three pyramids from the outside and with peace of mind, you will also be able to enter some of them. My advice is to enter at least one of them, because even though there is nothing inside, the sensation is worth it.
The entrance to the enclosure, between 07:00 and 19:30 hours, is paid and costs approximately 10 €. If you want to enter the Great Pyramid, you must prepare something more, as it costs almost 20 €. It is best to book a tour where they explain everything so you don't miss a single detail.
Joaquín's Traveller Tip
Look for the panoramic viewpoint overlooking the three pyramids. Although you have to walk for about 15 minutes it is really worth it.
Go to the Temple of the Valley of Kephren
Although less well known than the neighboring monuments, it is worth a few minutes walk to see the Temple of the Valley of Chephren. With its square floor plan of 45 meters on each side, and thick walls with the exterior slope is a visit that you will love.
The custom among many pharaohs was to build a temple next to the pyramid that was to give him burial. In this case, the building is located about 500 meters from the Great Pyramid and remained buried in the sand until the nineteenth century, which explains its good state of preservation.
It is assumed that there was a tunnel connecting the temple to the pyramid, although there are no remains. The function is not very clear either, but some experts claim that the process of mummification of the pharaoh was carried out in these temples.
The mystery of the Sphinx
Right next to the pyramids is one of the most famous figures in the world: the Sphinx. With a height of about 20 meters and a little more than 70 meters long, it represents a human head with the body of a lion.
Although there are different theories, it is believed that it was built around 2500 BC, as part of the funerary complex of the pharaoh Kephren. It is assumed that its function was to become the guardian of the Egyptian ruler' s tomb.
Joaquin's Traveller Tip
The Giza esplanade can be quite uncomfortable during the summer, when the intense heat combines with the dust to create an atmosphere that is hard to breathe. If you can afford it, in those dates it is better to go very early or leave the visit for just before closing time.
Lunch in the area
If it is time for lunch you can make a stop on the way to look for a place nearby. Unfortunately, this is not the best area of the city to find a good restaurant, so many prefer to bring a snack to recharge their batteries.
Those who prefer something more formal (and don't want to settle for some pizza at a western chain) will have to walk a few minutes. The most popular place is Dar Darak, mainly because of the quality of the food. Another option is the Hadaba, although like the previous one the prices are higher than what you will find in other parts of the city.
Learn about the history of Egypt in the Cairo museum
After spending an intense morning seeing the pyramids and the rest of the monuments in the area it is time to return to the city center. If you have not hired a tour to take you, it is best to negotiate with a cab driver the price of the trip, always asking first at your hotel what is the right amount.
It is difficult to say how much time you will spend in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. When it was opened in the early twentieth century, it had about 12,000 pieces, but today it is up to 150,000 objects. But keep in mind also that:
- Not everything is on display: due to lack of space, which is why a new headquarters is being built and is expected to be open very soon.
- Take a guided tour: if you are a fan of Egyptian art, it will be impossible to get out of the museum. With its statues, reliefs, funerary items or paintings you can spend hours inside. To get the most out of it, it may be advisable to hire a guided tour of the museum to have the explanations of an expert.
- The room of Tutankhamun: is one of the most important rooms (with separate payment) in which are the treasures found in his tomb, along with the room of "the mummies", with the remains of several of the most important pharaohs.
It is possible that there comes a time when you are somewhat saturated by the amount of objects in the museum. When I was there I decided to stop at that time and come back another afternoon to complete the visit. It is something you can do if you consider it is the best way to enjoy the exhibition.
Have a drink in the Zamalek Quarter
Given the size of the museum and, above all, the amount of things to see inside, I can assure you that when you leave you will only feel like relaxing. My suggestion is that you go to the last point of the tour: the neighborhood of Zamalek. Located on the Gezira island of the Nile, this area is considered one of the most affluent of the city.
To get there you just have to cross one of the 3 bridges that connect it to the rest of the city, although the closest and most interesting is called Qasr Al Nil.
- Where to dine: In Zamalek you will find numerous places to dine, both traditional restaurants and other more western style. Among the former you can try Abou Elsid (Amman Square) or Egyptian Nights (Saray El Gezira Street), while the latter include O'S Pasta (26 July Street) and JW Steakhouse Restaurant (Saray El Gezira Street).
- Where to have a drink: When you have finished dinner I recommend choosing one of the bars in the area, either a traditional open -air bar or a more European-style one. Beforehand, you should take time to see the Opera House, one of the cultural centers of the Egyptian capital. If you feel like having a drink, in this neighborhood you will find places for them, although always inside the big hotels. The most famous are Harry's Bar, in the Marriott hotel, and The Place, near the Al Gezira Sheraton hotel. The first has karaoke and live jazz performances, while the second owes its fame to its great terrace overlooking the Nile.
Day 2: From the antiquity of Memphis and Saqqara to the modern Cairo of Tahrir Square
For the second day, the itinerary starts with a half-day excursion to the outskirts of Cairo, specifically Memphis and Saqqara. Afterwards, I propose you to get to know some of the most current atmosphere of the city and end the day with a fantastic cruise on the Nile with dinner and show included.
Memphis: the ancient capital of the pharaohs
First of all, it is very complicated to make this visit on your own. If you do not want to have to negotiate with a cab driver the fare for a half-day excursion, it is best to hire a guided tour that will take you to both Memphis and Saqqara. This way, in addition, you will have at your disposal a guide who will explain everything you are seeing.
Memphis, 19 kilometers from Cairo, was one of the most important cities in the world until 2250 BC. In its temples the pharaohs were crowned and, during the Middle Empire, it was considered the point of union between Upper and Lower Egypt.
The capital was first moved to Thebes and, little by little, Memphis was depopulated to the point that part of its buildings were dismantled to use the material in the constructions of Cairo. The most striking thing that can be seen is the great statue of 13 meters of Ramses II, a real gem. And, also interesting is the so-called Alabaster Sphinx, sculpted in a single piece of that material and measuring 4 meters high and 7 meters long.
The wonders of Saqqara
The highlight of this half-day excursion is undoubtedly Saqqara. Many claim that this city was the beginning of the splendor of Egyptian civilization. One name stands out among its builders: Imhotep, perhaps the first architect and engineer in history.
Arriving with a tour you can enter the site with the car, something that is appreciated when the heat is hot. Otherwise, you have to walk from the parking lot to where the monuments are.
In its archaeological zone, of 9 square kilometers, the following remains stand out:
- Step Pyramid of Zoser: built by Imhotep, about 2630 B.C., it is the most important place of the complex. Destined to give burial to the pharaoh Zoser, it is 60 meters high and it is believed that it was the seed for the construction of the rest of the pyramids of Egypt.
- Tomb of Mereruka: although less famous, this tomb is the one that is in better condition of all the enclosure of Saqqara. It is worth to enter inside and hear from the guide the stories hidden in its 17 rooms and 4 storerooms.
- Pyramid of Teti: it is also worth entering this pyramid. On its walls you will be able to see several hieroglyphs, although you will need the help of the guide to understand their meaning.
Stroll through Tahrir and its surroundings
Returning from Saqqara, possibly tired, the itinerary will continue in a totally different area: Tahrir Square. You can not say that this is the most modern area of Cairo, but the atmosphere is totally different from what you have seen in Khan el Khalili.
That area tends to be very crowded, especially by young people. To relax, the best thing to do is to find a cafe to have a tea or a soft drink.
After that, just stroll around the area. You will find that the streets leading off from the square are lined with stores or places to eat, but if you prefer, you can also head to the banks of the Nile to walk along the shore.
Cross the Qasr al Nil Bridge
A nearby spot where Cairenes often gather to watch the sunset is the Qasr al Nil Bridge. Although you won't have time to wait until then, it is worth crossing it to get to the Cairo Tower, an old telecommunications tower covered by a kind of lattice.
At the top of the tower there is a viewpoint that offers great views of the city. If you feel like it, you can go up and spend some time before continuing the tour.
Don't miss a Nile Cruise
Without the Nile River, Egyptian civilization would never have flourished. The importance of this great water source is fundamental to the country and it is still a major element that unites it from north to south. To pay tribute to it, I propose to end this second day with a short cruise on the Nile including dinner and show.
You will embark at sunset for a short tour of the city while the sun sets. From the waters you will have a different view of some of the monuments of Cairo, beautifully illuminated at night.
If you have chosen, as I said, the option with dinner, you will be able to taste some of the specialties of the tasty Egyptian food. In addition, it is quite common that these tours are enlivened by a show, especially belly dancing or traditional live music.
Day 3: Coptic Quarter, Saladin Citadel and night show at the Pyramids
Do not think that with these first two days you have already seen the most important of Cairo. In fact, the tour for this third day is quite intense.
Although it is focused on two specific areas (the Coptic Quarter and the Citadel of Saladin), the visit to each of them will take you several hours. I advise you to start fairly early in the morning so that you have time to see everything.
Tour the impressive churches of the Coptic Quarter
Although the Egyptian population is overwhelmingly Muslim, there is an important Christian minority in the country : the Copts. In Cairo, the community is grouped in the same neighborhood, known for its large number of churches and monasteries.
In addition, in the Coptic neighborhood you will be able to see the oldest church, mosque and synagogue in the city.
To make the visit you can approach on your own to one of the two existing entrances to the neighborhood, but you can also hire a tour to have a guide to explain the interesting history of the area.
In summary, as you can go deeper in this article on what to see in the Coptic Quarter, here are the most interesting places to visit:
- Coptic Museum: houses works of art dating back to the beginnings of Christianity in Egypt and covers up to the arrival of Islam.
- Hanging Church: officially called the church of Santa Maria, its nickname comes from the fact that it was built over the southern gate of the ancient Roman fortress. Inside you will be able to see 13 pillars representing Christ and the apostles.
- Greek Orthodox Monastery and Church of St. George: the martyr St. George, executed by the Roman Empire, is one of the most revered among the Copts.
- Church of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus: this is the oldest church in the neighborhood, because, although built in the fourth century, contains pillars dating from the fourth century. It is one of the most visited temples by believers to be the place where, according to the Copts, the Holy Family hid in his flight to Egypt.
- Mosque of Amr Ibn Al As: the oldest mosque in Egypt. It was built in 642 AD by the conqueror of the country for Islam.
- Ben Ezra Synagogue: erected in the 9th century on the site of a former church, this synagogue, according to tradition, was where Jeremiah gathered the Jews in the 6th century after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Note that entry to religious temples, regardless of denomination, is free, but that a small donation is usually left for their upkeep.
The beauty of the Saladin Citadel
After lunch, the next point of the tour is the Citadel of Saladin, a spectacular fortification where you can visit several mosques, museums and other attractions.
This citadel, as its name suggests, was built in 1176 by Saladin. The reason was to have a good defense against the Crusaders. Later, the complex served as the residence of the country's leaders for more than seven centuries.
As you can see in this article on what to see in the Citadel, there are many places to stop, although you should keep in mind that it closes around 17:00. Here are the main ones.
- Gawhara Palace: this building is right at the entrance and today houses an interesting museum.
- Alabaster Mosque: this mosque is also known by the name of the Egyptian ruler whose tomb is inside, Mohamed Ali. The temple was completed in 1848 and its domes, in Ottoman style, are really wonderful.
- Viewpoint: the terrace of the Police Museum is an impressive viewpoint from which you can even see the pyramids of Giza. An essential visit.
- Sultan Hassan Mosque: its 8,000 square meters and a minaret that reaches 68 meters high, the mosque of the fourteenth century is one of the most important Islamic buildings in the world.
Joaquin's Traveller Tip
If you have traveled to Cairo in summer you should not miss the concerts that are organized inside the Citadel.
A great way to end the day: sound and light show at the pyramids
Unless you hire a tour that includes transportation to get to the pyramids area in the afternoon-evening, you will have to find a cab and negotiate the price of the ride. However, the experience is worth it.
With three different sessions starting at 19:30, you can book a tour to see the sound and light show of the pyramids is one of those experiences that everyone should experience sometime. Laser beams are projected onto the monuments and the sand creating a truly impressive effect.
At the same time, the voice of the Sphinx tells various facts about the history of Egypt and the construction of the pyramids.
Day 4: from the City of the Dead to discover the Cairo night, passing through the Islamic quarter
The last day of the trip, already with enough tiredness in the body, is not going to be too relaxed either. So, it will start with a visit that, I warn, is not for everyone, since the poverty that can be seen in the City of the Dead can impress more than one.
Then, nothing better than a long walk through the Islamic quarter to finish knowing another side of the city: its nightlife in one of its most affluent areas.
The impressive visit to the City of the Dead
Unlike other areas of Cairo, for this visit it is almost essential to hire a guided tour of the characteristics of the neighborhood. Although tourists have long since started visiting the City of the Dead, it is still best to enter with a guide to help make sure everything goes smoothly.
The City of the Dead is located in a cemetery, but a cemetery in which the only inhabitants are not the dead. Today, the living and the dead share the 7 square kilometers of this immense slum. The houses are small and often have sandy courtyards in which ancient tombs are located. Electricity and running water are conspicuous by their absence and the largest houses are those that take advantage of the large pantheons.
The arrival of tourism has, however, led to the opening of numerous cafes and stores where you can buy all kinds of items.
The best place to meet the inhabitants of Cairo: the Islamic quarter
After returning from the City of the Dead, still with the impression in the body, there is no better place to recover than the Islamic quarter of Cairo. In addition to the monuments that you will be able to see, this area is characterized by the life that bustles in its streets. Undoubtedly, the real heart of the city.
It is best to get lost in its streets, but to give you a slight idea of what you can see here are a few recommendations:
- Midan Al Hussein Square: it is located between the Al Azhar Mosque and the Sayyidna Al Hussein Mosque, the two most important mosques in the neighborhood. It is full of terraces where tourists and locals share space.
- Al Azhar Park: a real oasis in the middle of one of the most populated areas of the capital. If you have time, take a walk to see its fountains and fabulous vegetation.
- Tentmakers Bazaar: the perfect place if you want to buy carpets, covers or tapestries.
- Al Muizz Street: one kilometer long, this pedestrian street is one of the most atmospheric in the city. In it, in addition, you will see a large number of mosques and historic buildings.
- Madrasa and Mausoleum of Qalawun: one of the main monuments in the area.
Of course, these are just a small part of the attractions of the area, but it would be impossible to list them all. I encourage you to discover them during your walk and, from time to time, stop at a terrace for a drink.
Contemplate one of the holiest places of Islam: the Al Azhar Mosque
Founded in 970 AD, this mosque (which also has a university) is the religious center of Sunni Islam.
In the building you will notice the presence of several different architectural styles, which gives the whole a strange beauty.
Start discovering the soul of the city in Khan el Khalili.
Practically next to the Al Azhar Mosque is Khan el Khalili, more than just a large bazaar where tourists come to buy souvenirs. Thus, its labyrinthine alleys are the ideal place to contemplate the soul of the city, especially in the afternoon.
Do not worry too much about the time, as Khan el Khalili shows one of its best faces when dusk arrives.
- When you arrive, it's best to start wandering around looking at the stores. At a certain hour, traditional metal lanterns are lit, giving the area an even more spectacular atmosphere.
- During your walk don't miss some of the mosques built in the area, as well as the workshops where artisans work.
- When you get tired, find a seat at the Fishawi or Mirror Café, located on one side of the market.
- This is one of the most popular cafés in the city and a perfect place to relax for a while.
- Afterwards, the best thing to do is to return to Al-Muizz Street to look for a place to have dinner before retiring.