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 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

  • 2. 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

  • 3. 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

  • 4. 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

  • 5. 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

  • 6. Al-Ghuriyya

    Islamic Cairo South | Castle/Palace/Chateau

    This medieval landmark was the last great Mamluk architectural work before the Ottomans occupied Egypt. Built by Sultan al-Ghuri, who constructed...Read More

  • 7. Al-Rifa'i Mosque

    Sayyida Zaynab | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    Although it appears neo-Mamluk in style, this mosque was not commissioned until 1869, by the mother of Khedive Isma'il, the Princess Khushyar...Read More

  • 8. 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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  • 9. Chaar-Hachamaim Synagogue

    Downtown | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    This unusual concrete block with a subtle art nouveau floral motif is easily overlooked from the outside. This is one of Cairo's great treasures...Read More

  • 10. 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

  • 11. 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

  • 12. 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

  • 13. 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

  • 14. 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

  • 15. Deir al-Sourian (Syrian Monastery)

    Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    When you exit Deir Anba Bishoi, turn left, and a 10-minute walk brings you to Deir al-Sourian. Even if you have a car, it is worth walking:...Read More

  • 16. Deir Anba Bishoi

    Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    If only by virtue of its accessibility, Deir Anba Bishoi has become the busiest monastery in Wadi Natrun, but it remains one of the most charming...Read More

  • 17. 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

  • 18. 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

  • 19. Mosque and Madrasa of Barquq

    Islamic Cairo North | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    The first of the Circassian Mamluk Sultans, Barquq assumed power after a series of political intrigues that led to the downfall (and often deaths...Read More

  • 20. 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

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