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Best Things To Do in Cairo

Egypt, enigmatic land of the pharaohs and cradle of civilizations: the trip that everyone should make at least once in a lifetime.

Isabel Catalán

Isabel Catalán

12 min read

Best Things To Do in Cairo

Aerial view of the pyramids in Cairo | ©Dario Morandotti

It is a destination steeped in history in which there is so much to see that it is impossible to get bored, because it is full of pyramids, temples, museums and fascinating places. Let me tell you about the must-see places:

1. Tour Cairo with an expert guide

Old Cairo Muslim Building| ©Jorge Láscar
Old Cairo Muslim Building| ©Jorge Láscar

The capital of Egypt is a chaotic city full of contrasts that leaves travelers who visit it for the first time speechless. Bustling and dynamic, Cairo is one of the most genuine places you will ever visit.

Enter its streets and mingle with the locals to discover the soul of this city. Admire the views of Cairo from its Alabaster Mosque, bargain in the souks to take home that bargain you've had your eye on, try some traditional dishes, stroll through Tahrir Square, familiarize yourself with ancient Egypt by visiting the Egyptian Museum in Cairo before heading to the Giza plateau, where some of the country's icons await you.

If there is one place in the city where time seems to stand still, it is the area known as Old Cairo, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It is a small area compared to the total extension of the city but it is full of history and retains all its charm, amazing tourists with its narrow streets full of life.

Some of the main tourist attractions in Old Cairo are the Citadel of Saladin, the Ibn Tulum Mosque and Al-Muizz Street, where you will find interesting medieval architectural treasures. Cairo is a city that never sleeps and you will see activity in its streets no matter what time it is. Dare to experience it with a complete guided tour of Cairo!

Book a tour of Cairo

Excursions around Cairo

If you also have several days to visit Cairo, I recommend that you dedicate some of them to visit some essential points that are no less interesting for being outside the city. I tell you what are the best destinations:

Book an excursion to Cairo surroundings

2. Get culturized at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Egyptian Museum in Cairo| ©Warren LeMay
Egyptian Museum in Cairo| ©Warren LeMay

Located near Tahrir Square, in a majestic neoclassical building opened in 1902, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo houses a very important collection on ancient Egypt that makes it the second most visited tourist attraction in the city after the pyramids of Giza.

Since it opened its doors, its collections have been gradually expanding with the incessant discovery of new pieces and the recovery of many that were plundered during the wars or that were in museums and private collections abroad.

Paintings, statues, reliefs, mummies, coins, jewelry and funerary elements are some of the precious objects in its vast collection, consisting of some 150,000 items of which only about 136,000 are currently on display due to lack of space in its facilities. That is why the Great Egyptian Museum is under construction, which will complement the current one, to become the largest archaeological museum in the world. It is expected to be inaugurated soon.

During a visit to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo you can not miss the room of Tutankhamun, where the treasures found in his tomb and his famous death mask are exposed, as well as the mummy room, where the mummified remains of important pharaohs and priests rest. Although you can not take pictures, I assure you that it is an image that will not be erased from your retina.

Book a guided visit to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

3. See the pyramids of Giza

The pyramids of Giza| ©Hipses
The pyramids of Giza| ©Hipses

The thrill of seeing the pyramids of Giza, the only one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world that survives today, is comparable to no other travel experience. That is why it is so advisable to take a trip to Egypt to have the opportunity to see them in person by taking a tour of the famous pyramids.

Located 18 kilometers from Cairo on the Giza plateau, the pyramids are funerary constructions that were built under the orders of pharaohs of different dynasties. The three main pyramids of Giza are Cheops, Chephren and Mykerinos although there are many other smaller pyramids.

Although the precise date of construction of these pyramids is not known, it is estimated that work began around 2500 BC. To admire them from the Giza plateau is a marvel but to see them inside is to take this experience to another level, a unique memory!

Book a tour of the Pyramids of G iza

4. Admire the Great Sphinx of Giza

Great Sphinx of Giza| ©Ali Yousri
Great Sphinx of Giza| ©Ali Yousri

Next to the pyramids we find another of the emblems of Egypt, the great sphinx of Giza that watches undaunted the passing of time.

It is a sculpture of more than 20 meters high with a lion's body and human head that represents the union of strength and intelligence for the ancient Egyptians. Its construction is attributed to the pharaoh Chephren, son of Cheops and father of Mycerinos, around 2,500 BC to be the guardian of the tomb of the sovereign.

The sphinx of Giza is part of the funerary complex that includes the pyramid, the valley temple and the causeway that connects them. It has often been theorized about the disappearance of his nose and Napoleon was blamed for its wear, however this hypothesis was dismantled when drawings made by a traveler before the birth of the military man were found.

Even so, the head of the Sphinx of Giza is better preserved than its body due to the hardness of the stone on which it was erected. However, the fact that the body was buried under the sand for most of its history helped to protect it from the erosion of the desert.

Book a tour of the Pyramids of Giza

5. Visit Memphis and Saqqara

Colossus of Ramses II, Memphis| ©a rancid amoeba
Colossus of Ramses II, Memphis| ©a rancid amoeba

If you are a fan of Egyptology, you should add an excursion to Memphis and Saqqara to your trip to Egypt for a more complete and global experience of ancient Egypt. They are located just 30 kilometers from Cairo and since ancient times, they have always been linked by the activities that took place in their territories.

During its more than 3,000 years of history, Memphis was an important political and religious center where the pharaohs were crowned and the god Ptah was worshipped. The city was founded around 3100 BC by the first pharaoh of Egypt named Narmer and was the first capital of the country since its unification until 2040 BC when Thebes replaced it in that role.

From then on, Memphis began its decline until centuries later it was abandoned and today there is hardly any trace of that splendid city. In Memphis you can visit an interesting open-air museum where several of the vestiges of the country are preserved as the colossus of Ramses II and the alabaster sphinx, which by its features is attributed to Queen Hatshepsut.

The second part of this exciting excursion is the visit to the ruins of Saqqara, which was the most important necropolis of Memphis from the first dynasty to the Christian era where the first pharaohs were buried. Here is located the step pyramid of Zoser, the first pyramid in the world, which would begin the era of splendor of Egyptian civilization.

6. Go shopping at Khan El Khalili Bazaar

Spice store in the Khan El Khalili bazaar.| ©Dan
Spice store in the Khan El Khalili bazaar.| ©Dan

One of the coolest and most authentic things to do in Cairo is to go shopping in the city's markets because it allows you to mingle with the locals and get to know the most authentic side of the Egyptian capital. The most popular bazaar in the country and probably in the Middle East is Khan El Khalili, located in the epicenter of Islamic Cairo, in a walled area with medieval air that will leave you pleasantly surprised.

Its origin dates back to the fourteenth century, when the Mamluk monarch Djaharks el-Khalili built on the ruins of an ancient Fatimid cemetery a resting place for merchants. Since then the bazaar has changed a lot although its essence remains intact.

More than 900 stalls make up this bazaar where you will find practically everything: perfumes, jewelry, fabrics, belly dancing costumes, handicrafts, colorful lamps, spices or musical instruments. Stroll through its narrow streets in search of the perfect souvenir and dare to put your bargaining skills to good use.

It's not easy at first, but little by little you'll get the hang of it. With practice you will leave Khan El Khalili being an expert in the field, which you will surely appreciate for future trips to other markets in the world. Once you finish your shopping day, if you have a sweet tooth I recommend you to complete your visit to this impressive souk in Cairo with a tea and some traditional sweets sold in some cafes in Khan el Khalili.

Perhaps the most famous is El Fishawi, also known as the Mirror Café because it is decorated with several of them. It is open all day and has not closed its doors since 1769. Intellectuals and writers such as Naguib Mahfuz, the first author in Arabic to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, have passed through here. Sitting here to watch the bustle of people is a real spectacle in the Khan el Khalili souk. A perfect end to an unforgettable day in the streets of Cairo.

7. Visit the Saladin Citadel

Saladin Citadel| ©Jorge Láscar
Saladin Citadel| ©Jorge Láscar

Another of the sites of tourist interest in Islamic Cairo is the Citadel of Saladin, a medieval fortification built by this Muslim conqueror in the eleventh century to protect the city from enemy raids. One of the best things to do and see in Cairo is to visit this spectacular military construction of great walls and defensive towers that was so effective in its purpose, which was used as the seat of the Egyptian government until the nineteenth century.

Once upon a time the citadel was a small city within a city that was inhabited by ten thousand people. Inside you can see some sites of interest such as the Gawhara Palace, the military museum and the carriage museum as well as several important mosques such as the Sultan Hassan Mosque, the Al Rifa'i Mosque and the Ibn Tulun Mosque.

Another major attraction of the Saladin Citadel in Cairo are the privileged views from the heights. Do not forget your camera because here you will have many corners to photograph.

8. Enter the Alabaster Mosque

The Alabaster Mosque| ©Jorge Láscar
The Alabaster Mosque| ©Jorge Láscar

Inside the Citadel of Saladin, on top of Mount Muqatam, is the Alabaster Mosque which is visible from anywhere in Old Cairo. It was built in the nineteenth century in the style of Ottoman mosques commissioned by Muhammad Ali, in memory of his eldest deceased son and at the time was the largest mosque. It is one of the most frequented by travelers because it has an exceptional location and is one of the most beautiful.

To access remember to dress respectfully. Once inside you can contemplate its extensive prayer hall decorated with mosaics and precious stones, the many lamps that decorate the temple, the carpets for prayer, the tomb of Muhammad Ali in white marble and painted flowers as well as the pulpit and the tribune, both alabaster and white marble.

In the western part of the mosque is the courtyard with the ablutions fountain. Also here there is a small square tower on which rests a clock given by Louis Philippe of France in 1846 in exchange for the obelisk that was placed in the Parisian Place de la Concorde.

9. Climb the Cairo Tower

The Cairo Tower seen from the Nile River.| ©annemarieangelo
The Cairo Tower seen from the Nile River.| ©annemarieangelo

Cairo does not have too many viewpoints from which to contemplate the skyline but if it is one of the plans you want to do on your visit, along with the aforementioned Saladin Citadel we can also mention the Cairo Tower, in the district of Zamalek, especially to enjoy the sunset.

It is a stylized telecommunications tower of 187 meters high designed in granite and inspired by the figure of the lotus flower. Did you know that for a decade it was the highest in Africa? If you have time, take the opportunity to dine at the tower's revolving restaurant, which gently scrolls to offer different views of the city and the Nile River to customers, and stay until nightfall to see Cairo Tower illuminated.

You should also not miss the experience of cruising the Nile River like an authentic Egyptian of the time, for that I suggest you visit this post on the best Nile cruises from Cairo.

10. Walk around Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square| ©Terrazzo
Tahrir Square| ©Terrazzo

Tahrir Square or Liberation Square is next to the Egyptian Museum and is the political epicenter of Cairo. This is where the events of the Arab Spring took place in 2011 that culminated in the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. In the square you can see the statue and mosque in honor of political leader Omar Makram and in the surrounding area there are government offices, stores and institutional headquarters.

11. Discover Spiritual Cairo

Old Cairo| ©Francisco Anzola
Old Cairo| ©Francisco Anzola

From time immemorial Egypt has been a deeply spiritual country, whether in the time of the pharaohs or in our days.

Through an excursion to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the pyramids of Giza or the necropolis of Saqqara, as travelers we can delve into the conception of the afterlife of ancient Egypt while a tour of the mosques of the city will bring us closer to the religious vision of the Islamic world. Some of the temples you can visit are the Alabaster Mosque, the Sultan Hassan Mosque, the Al Rifa'i Mosque and the Ibn Tulun Mosque, among others.

On the other hand, the Coptic quarter of Cairo is the area where it is believed that the Holy Family lived during their exile in Egypt according to the Gospel. Strolling through its streets you can discover interesting places such as the Coptic museum, the church of St. George, the church of St. Sergius or the church of St. Barbara.

In the area of Old Cairo on the remains of one of the towers of the Roman fortress of Babylon rises the Coptic Hanging Church, which has become one of the most visited monuments of the capital.

Just behind this Coptic Christian temple stands the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which was a church until 882 A.D. when it was sold to the Jewish community in order to pay the high taxes that the Muslim rulers demanded at that time. Since then it has been a place of great prestige and reference for the Jewish religion.

The city is a melting pot of religions and cultures so an excursion to see its spiritual side is a highly recommended activity to do in Cairo. You will love it!

Tips for traveling to Cairo

The capital of Egypt is a city full of life but also chaotic. That's why I recommend you to think in advance about your arrival transfers from Cairo airport.

Once there, a tour of Cairo is the best way to explore this immense city and all the legendary treasures it preserves without missing a single detail. If you are planning a trip to Egypt, I advise you to take a look at the best Cairo tours and excursions you can do during your visit.

Decide the date of your trip

Although any month of the year is good to know the charms of this city, I tell you which are the months that receive more visits and everything you can do in each of them:

If you take advantage of your Christmas vacations to travel to the legendary city, you can read this post with the best Christmas plans in the Egyptian capital.

How much time do I need to know Cairo?

Depending on the time you have available for your visit you will have to concentrate more or less the main Cairo attractions. I leave you the best guides depending on the days of your trip: