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. 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

  • 2. 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

  • 3. Ben Ezra Synagogue

    Old Cairo | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

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

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  • 4. Church of Saint Barbara

    Old Cairo | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    Named for a young Nicodemian woman who was killed by her pagan father for converting, the church was originally dedicated to Sts. Cyrus and...Read More

  • 5. Church of Saint Mercurius

    Old Cairo | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    Yet another Roman legionary, Mercurius, or Abu Sayfayn ("of the two swords"), dreamed one night that an angel gave him a glowing sword and ordered...Read More

  • 6. 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

  • 7. Complex of Amir Shaykhu

    The Citadel | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    Flanking Shar'a Saliba, this mosque and khanqah were built by the commander in chief of Sultan Hassan's forces and form a well-integrated whole...Read More

  • 8. 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

  • 9. 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

  • 10. Mosque and Tomb of Qijmas al-Ishaqi

    Islamic Cairo South | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    Restored in the early part of the 20th century, this complex was one of the jewels of Mamluk architecture. Its decorated facade reflects the...Read More

  • 11. Mosque of Altunbugha al-Maridani

    Islamic Cairo South | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

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

  • 12. Mosque of Mu'ayyad Shaykh

    Islamic Cairo South | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    The Sultan Mu'ayyad chose this site because he was once imprisoned at this location. During his captivity, he swore that he would build a mosque...Read More

  • 13. Mosque of Wazir al-Salih Tala'i

    Islamic Cairo South | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    Built in 1160, this is one of the last Fatimid structures constructed outside the city walls, and is also one of the most elegant mosques in...Read More

  • 14. The Hanging Church

    Old Cairo | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    Known in Arabic as al-Muallaqah ("the suspended"), the church is consecrated to the Blessed Virgin. Originally built in the 9th century—and...Read More

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