Cairo

Cairo is big: just how big you'll see on the drive in from the airport, which sometimes takes so long you'll think you're driving to Aswan. And what you see on the way into town, amazingly, is only half of it—Cairo's west-bank sister city, Giza, stretches to the Pyramids, miles from Downtown. But if you are the sort of person who instinctively navigates by compass points, exploring Cairo will be a breeze because the Nile works like a giant north–south needle running through the center of the city. If not, you might find the city bewildering at first.

Taxi drivers generally know only major streets and landmarks, and often pedestrians are unsure of the name of the street they stand on—when they do know, it's as often by the old names as the postindependence ones—but they'll gladly steer you in the wrong direction in an effort to be helpful. Just go with the flow and try to think of every wrong turn as a chance for discovery.

Thankfully, too, you don't have to conquer all of Cairo to get the most out of it. Much of the city was built in the 1960s, and the new areas hold relatively little historical or cultural interest. The older districts, with the exception of Giza's pyramids, are all on the east bank and easily accessible by taxi or Metro. These districts become relatively straightforward targets for a day's exploration on foot.

Old Cairo, on the east bank a couple miles south of most of current-day Cairo, was the city's first district. Just north of it is Fustat, the site of the 7th-century Arab settlement. East of that is the Citadel. North of the Citadel is the medieval walled district of al-Qahira that gave the city its name. It is better known as Islamic Cairo. West of that is the colonial district. Known as Downtown, it is one of several—including Ma'adi, Garden City, Heliopolis, and Zamalek—laid out by Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries. (The west-bank districts of Mohandiseen and Doqqi, by comparison, have only sprouted up since the revolution in 1952.) The most interesting sights are in the older districts; the newer ones have the highest concentrations of hotels, restaurants, and shops.

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  • 1. Bab Zuwayla

    Islamic Cairo South | Building/Architectural Site

    Built in 1092, this is one of three remaining gates of Fatimid Cairo. It was named after members of the Fatimid army who hailed from a North...Read More

  • 2. Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hassan

    The Citadel | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    Built between 1356 and 1363 by the Mamluk ruler Sultan Hassan, this is one of the largest Islamic religious buildings in the world. Historians...Read More

  • 3. Mosque of Ibn Tulun

    The Citadel | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    This huge congregational mosque was built in 879 by Ahmad Ibn Tulun with the intention of accommodating his entire army during Friday prayers...Read More

  • 4. Step Pyramid

    Archaeological Site/Ruins

    The pyramid complex was built in the 3rd Dynasty (2649–2575 BC) for the pharaoh Djoser by his architect Imhotep, and it has been undergoing...Read More

  • 5. The Citadel

    The Citadel | Castle/Palace/Chateau

    Until Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi arrived in Cairo in 1168, local rulers had overlooked the strategic value of the hill above the city. Within a...Read More

  • 6. Wikala of al-Ghuri

    Islamic Cairo South | Arts/Performance Venue

    This handsome building with its strong, square lines seems almost modern, save for the ablaq masonry, a clear indicator of its Mamluk origin...Read More

  • 7. Abu Sir

    Archaeological Site/Ruins

    Abu Sir is the site of four pyramids—three of which are obvious, the fourth one less so—all dating to the 5th Dynasty (2465–2323 BC), as well...Read More

  • 8. Al-Azhar Mosque and University

    Islamic Cairo South | Educational Institution

    Originally built in AD 970 by the conquering Fatimid caliph al-Mu'iz, al-Azhar is the oldest university in the world. Although the Fatimids...Read More

  • 9. Bab al-Futuh

    Islamic Cairo North | Building/Architectural Site

    To the left, inside the entrance to the Mosque of al-Hakim is a small passageway that leads to a stairway up to the roof of the mosque. From...Read More

  • 10. Bab al-Nasr

    Islamic Cairo North | Building/Architectural Site

    This gate is similar to Bab al-Futuh, except that two square towers flank it. On one of the towers is the inscription: "tour corbin," a memento...Read More

  • 11. Banque Misr

    Downtown | Building/Architectural Site

    Colonial Cairo emulated the French, was run by the British, and was built largely by Italians. Yet for all that colonial layering, its profoundly...Read More

  • 12. Bayt al-Suhaymi

    Islamic Cairo North | House/Mansion/Villa

    Considered the best example of domestic Islamic architecture in Cairo, this coolly luxurious 16th-century merchant's house is huge (more than...Read More

  • 13. Church of Saint Sergius

    Old Cairo | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    Known in Arabic as 'Abu Serga , this church is dedicated to two Roman officers, Sergius and Bacchus, who were martyred in Syria in 303. It...Read More

  • 14. Complex of Qalaun

    Islamic Cairo North | Memorial/Monument/Tomb

    One of the early Mamluk rulers of Egypt, Mansur Qalaun was originally a Tartar (Mongol) brought to Egypt as a slave. Mamluks (literally, "those...Read More

  • 15. Convent of Saint George

    Old Cairo | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    This convent's namesake holds a special place in the hearts of Copts. The remains of this Roman legionary who was martyred in Asia were brought...Read More

  • 16. Dahshur

    Archaeological Site/Ruins

    Named for the pinkish limestone of which it is made, the Red (North) Pyramid belonged to the 4th-Dynasty pharaoh Sneferu (2575–2551 BC), father...Read More

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  • 17. Madrasa and Mausoleum of Sultan al-Salih al-Ayyubi

    Islamic Cairo North | Memorial/Monument/Tomb

    Although it does not appear to be very significant from the street, this building occupies an important place in Cairo's history as a point...Read More

  • 18. Madrasa of al-Nasir Muhammad

    Islamic Cairo North | Educational Institution

    Considered the greatest Mamluk sultan, al-Nasir ruled on three different occasions, for a total of 42 years (AD 1293–1340). It was during al...Read More

  • 19. Madrasa of Sarghatmish

    The Citadel | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    Completed in 1356 by the emir who succeeded Shaykhu, Sarghatmish was probably designed by the same architect who designed Sultan Hassan. The...Read More

  • 20. Madrasa of Sultan al-Zahir Baybars I

    Islamic Cairo North | Building/Architectural Site

    Al-Zahir Baybars' reign (1260–77) marked the real beginning of the Mamluk state, due in large part to his skills as a commander, administrator...Read More

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