Cairo, Egypt: An Introductory Travel Guide

Cairo, Egypt: An Introductory Travel Guide
••• Cairo Skyline.  Audun Bakke Andersen/ Getty Images

Romantically known as the City of a Thousand Minarets, the Egyptian capital is a place of extremes filled with ancient landmarks, snarling traffic, ornate mosques and glittering modern skyscrapers. Cairo's greater metropolitan area is the second-largest in Africa, providing a home for more than 20 million people - a sea of humanity that contributes to the city's chaos while also providing its heartbeat.

Filled with conflicting sights, sounds and smells, many visitors find Cairo's frenetic energy overwhelming; but for those with a sense of humor and a certain amount of patience, it harbors a treasure trove of experiences that cannot be replicated anywhere else. 

A Brief History

Although Cairo is a relatively modern capital (by Egyptian standards, at least), the city's history is linked to that of Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt's Old Kingdom. Now located approximately 30 kilometers south of Cairo city center, Memphis' origins date back more than 2,000 years. Cairo itself was founded in 969 AD to serve as the new capital of the Fatimid dynasty, eventually incorporating the older capitals of Fustat, al-Askar and al-Qatta'i. During the 12th century, the Fatimid dynasty fell to Saladin, the first Sultan of Egypt. 

Over the following centuries, Cairo's rulership passed from the Sultans to the Mamluks, followed by the Ottomans, the French and the British.

Following a period of massive expansion in the first half of the 19th century, Cairo's residents revolted against the British in 1952 and successfully regained the city's independence. In 2011, Cairo was the focal point for protests demanding the overthrow of dictatorial president Hosni Mubarak, who later resigned in February 2011.

Current president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has announced plans to unveil a new administrative capital east of Cairo in 2019. 

Cairo Neighborhoods

Cairo is a vast city whose boundaries are difficult to define. Many of its neighborhoods (including satellite Nasr City with its shiny shopping malls, and embassy enclave Maadi) are technically outside the city limits. Similarly, everything west of the River Nile is part of the city of Giza, although western suburbs like Mohandiseen, Dokki and Agouza are still considered by many to be part of Cairo. The main tourist neighborhoods include Downtown, Islamic Cairo and Coptic Cairo, while affluent Heliopolis and the island of Zamalek are both known for their restaurants, nightlife and upmarket hotels. 

Designed in the mid-19th century by a team of European architects, chaotic Downtown is home to the Egyptian Museum and modern political landmarks like Tahrir Square. Islamic Cairo represents the part of the city built by its Fatimid founders. It is a labyrinthine maze of mosques, souks and breathtakingly beautiful Islamic monuments, all of which echo to the sound of countless muezzins calling the faithful to prayer. The oldest neighborhood is Coptic Cairo, the site of the Roman settlement of Babylon.

Dating back to the 6th century BC, it is famous for its historic Christian monuments. 

Top Attractions

Egyptian Museum

Located just off Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Museum is home to an incredible collection of artifacts relating to Egypt's history, from the prehistoric era to the rule of the Romans. The vast majority of these artifacts date back to the time of the pharaohs, and as such the museum makes a great first stop for anyone planning to visit Egypt's iconic ancient sights. Highlights include the museum's collection of New Kingdom royal mummies and treasures retrieved from the tomb of boy king Tutankhamun. 

Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar

Cairo is a shopper's paradise, and there are a hundred different souks and bazaars to explore. The most famous of these is Khan Al-Khalili, a sprawling market in the heart of Islamic Cairo that dates back to the 14th century.

Here, wares range from tourist souvenirs to silver jewelry and exotic spices, all sold amidst the cacophony of vendors advertising their products or haggling over prices with their customers. When you need a break, stop for a shisha pipe or a cup of traditional tea at one of the market's many cafés. 

Al-Azhar Mosque

Commissioned by a Fatimid caliph in 970 AD, Al-Azhar Mosque was the first of Cairo's many mosques. Today, it is renowned as a place of Muslim worship and learning, and also houses the famous Al-Azhar University. Open to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, visitors can admire the stunning architecture of the mosque's white marble courtyard and its ornate prayer hall. Many aspects of the current structure were added overtime, giving a visual overview of Islamic architecture through the ages. 

The Hanging Church

At the heart of Coptic Cairo lies the Hanging Church. The current building dates back to the 7th century, and is one of the oldest Christian churches in Egypt. It gets its name from its location atop the gatehouse of the Roman Babylon Fortress, which gives it the appearance of being suspended in mid-air. The interior of the church is even more impressive, with highlights including the timbered ceiling (intended to resemble Noah's Ark), its marble-columned pulpit and its collection of religious icons.

Cairo Day Trips

No visit to Cairo would be complete without a day trip to the Pyramids of Giza, perhaps the most famous ancient sight in all of Egypt. Located approximately 20 kilometers west of the city center, the Giza pyramid complex comprises the Pyramid of Khafre, the Pyramid of Menkaure and the Great Pyramid of Khufu. The latter is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World - and the only one that still stands today. All three pyramids are guarded by the Sphinx and date back approximately 4,500 years. 

Another rewarding day trip destination is Saqqara, the necropolis of ancient Memphis. Saqqara is also home to several pyramids, amongst them the world-famous Pyramid of Djoser. Built during the Third Dynasty (approximately 4,700 years ago), the pyramid's step-like structure is considered to have been the prototype for the later pyramids styles seen at Giza. After visiting the ancient sights at Giza and Saqqara, consider taking a break from the fast pace of Cairo city life with a cruise on the Nile in a traditional felucca. 

When to Go

Cairo is a year-round destination; however, Egypt's weather makes some seasons more comfortable than others. Generally speaking, the climate in Cairo is hot and humid, with temperatures in the height of summer (June to August) frequently exceeding 95ºF/ 35ºC. Most visitors prefer to travel from late fall to early spring, when temperatures average around the 86ºF/ 20ºC mark. However, budget-conscious travelers should be aware that December is peak tourist season in Egypt, and prices for accommodation and tours can increase dramatically. 

Getting There & Around

As the second-largest airport in Africa, Cairo International Airport (CAI) is the main point of entry for visitors to the city. It is located 20 kilometers northeast of the city center, and transport options into town include taxis, public buses, private London Cabs and Uber. Most nationalities require a visa to visit Egypt. Some (including British, EU, Australian, Canadian and United States citizens) can purchase one upon arrival at any port of entry.

Once you reach Cairo center, there are several public transport options to choose from, including taxis, micro-buses, river taxis and public buses. Perhaps the quickest and most affordable option is the Cairo metro, which, although often crowded, offers the major benefit of escaping the city's notoriously congested road network. Privately operated taxi services like Uber and Careem offer a worthy alternative to public transport. 

Where to Stay

Like every major city, Cairo boasts a wealth of accommodation options to suit every imaginable budget and taste. Top tips when choosing your hotel include checking the reviews of previous guests on a trusted site like TripAdvisor; and narrowing your search according to neighborhood. If being close to the airport is a priority, consider one of the smart hotels in Heliopolis. If sightseeing is the main purpose of your visit, a west-bank option within easy reach of the Giza pyramid complex would be a better choice. In this article, we look at a few of the best hotels in Cairo.