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 | Notable Building

    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. Coptic Museum

    Old Cairo | Museum/Gallery

    Housing the world's largest collection of Coptic Christian artwork, this museum provides a link between ancient and Islamic Egypt. Remember...Read More

    View Tours and Activities
  • 3. Great Sphinx

    Giza | Ruins

    Carved from the living rock of the pyramids plateau during the 4th Dynasty, the enigmatic limestone Sphinx is attached to Pharaoh Khafre's funerary...Read More

  • 4. 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

  • 5. 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

  • 6. Pyramid Plateau

    Giza | Ruins

    Three 4th-Dynasty pyramids dominate the skyline of the desert plateau to the southwest of Cairo. The largest is that of Pharaoh Khufu (Greek...Read More

  • 7. Sayyidna al-Husayn Mosque

    Islamic Cairo North | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    One of the holiest sites in Egypt, the mosque was originally built by the Fatimids in the 12th century as a shrine and is said to contain the...Read More

  • 8. Step Pyramid

    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

  • 9. The Citadel

    The Citadel | Castle/Palace

    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

  • 10. The Egyptian Antiquities Museum

    Downtown | Museum/Gallery

    On the north end of Maydan Tahrir, this huge neoclassical building is home to the world's largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts....Read More

  • 11. 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

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