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. Mosque of Ibn Tulun

    The Citadel

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

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  • 2. Tahrir Square

    Downtown

    After living in Paris, the 19th-century Khedive Isma’il embarked on a mission to create a European-style district in Cairo, both as a way to modernize...Read More

  • 3. Al-Azhar Mosque and University

    Islamic Cairo South

    Built in AD 970 by Fatimid caliph al-Mu'izz, al-Azhar is the oldest university in the world. Although the Fatimids were Shi'ite, the Sunni Mamluks who...Read More

  • 4. Bab al-Futuh

    Islamic Cairo North

    A small passage to the left as you enter al-Hakim Mosque leads to a stairway up to the roof, where you can access the so-called...Read More

  • 5. Bab al-Nasr

    Islamic Cairo North

    One of the few remaining examples of Islamic military architecture, the impressive Gate of Victory features exceptional craftsmanship and two 65-foot (20-meter) square towers. It...Read More

  • 6. Church of St. Barbara

    Old Cairo

    One of the largest and finest churches in Cairo was named after a young Nicodemian woman who was killed by her pagan father for converting....Read More

  • 7. Church of St. Sergius

    Old Cairo

    What's known in Arabic as Abu Serga is considered Cairo's oldest church, originally constructed in the 5th century. Though it was destroyed and rebuilt several...Read More

  • 8. Convent of St. George

    Old Cairo

    This church'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

  • 9. Fortress of Babylon

    Old Cairo

    The Babylon Fortress—which now encompasses the Coptic museum, six Coptic churches, and a convent—did not always stand at its current location. The Roman emperor Trajan...Read More

  • 10. Madrasa and Mausoleum of al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub

    Islamic Cairo North

    Though its facade is deceptively regular, this building marks a turning point in Cairo's architectural and political history. The last descendant of Salah al-Din to...Read More

  • 11. Mosque and Khanqah of Shaykhu

    The Citadel

    This mosque and khanqah (shrine) were built by the commander in chief of Sultan Hassan's forces. The khanqah has a central courtyard surrounded by three floors...Read More

  • 12. Mosque of al-Salih Tala'i

    Islamic Cairo South

    Built in 1160, one of the last Fatimid structures constructed outside the city walls is also one of Cairo's most elegant mosques. Like many others,...Read More

  • 13. Mosque of Amir al-Maridani

    Islamic Cairo South

    Featuring fine examples of virtually every decorative art in vogue during the 14th century, this mosque was built by a son-in-law of Sultan Nasir al-Muhammad...Read More

  • 14. Mosque of Sultan al-Mu'ayyad

    Islamic Cairo South

    Sultan al-Mu'ayyad was once imprisoned at this location under Sultan Faraj, and he suffered terribly during his imprisonment from fleas and lice. He swore that,...Read More

  • 15. Sayyidna al-Husayn Mosque

    Islamic Cairo North

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

  • 16. St. Mercurius Church

    Old Cairo

    Mercurius, or Abu Seifein (Of the Two Swords), is named for a Roman legionary who converted to Christianity after dreaming that an angel gave him...Read More

  • 17. The Hanging Church

    Old Cairo

    What's known in Arabic as al-Muallaqah (The Suspended Church) is consecrated to the Blessed Virgin. It sits atop a gatehouse of the Roman fortress, was...Read More

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  • 18. Ben Ezra Synagogue

    Old Cairo

    Originally the Church of Saint Michael, the synagogue is named after the 12th-century rabbi of Jerusalem who obtained permission to build a temple of worship...Read More

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