Best Things To Do in Cairo
Some visitors are satisfied with a tour of the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx, but there is so much more to this city. If it's ancient ruins that draw you to Egypt's capital, carve out some time for the archeological sites of Dahshur, Memphis and Saqqara. For a dose of Egypt's religious past, explore Salah El-Din Citadel and the historic Islamic Cairo and Coptic Cairo neighborhoods. Further insight into Egypt's past can be gained at the Egyptian Museum. When you're in need of a break from Cairo's historic locales, relax in Al Azhar Park or barter for goods at a Khan El-Khalili bazaar. And as dusk sets in over Cairo's sandy terrain, witness the monuments glow in the orange light of the setting sun as you enjoy a felucca ride on the Nile.
Updated June 10, 2019
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This neighborhood in southern Cairo is the oldest part of the city, with twisting alleyways and ancient churches that are several centuries older than the ornate mosques of Islamic Cairo. According to legend, it was St. Mark who introduced Christianity to Egypt, and it was here that Africa's first Christian church – the Coptic Church of Egypt – thrived. To learn more about Coptic Cairo's rich history, check out neighborhood attractions like the Coptic Museum and the ninth-century Hanging Church, which are housed within an ancient Babylonian fortress. You'll also find significant Jewish and Islamic locales here, including the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-Aas – the oldest mosque in Africa – and Ben Ezra Synagogue – the alleged site where the pharaoh's daugher found Moses floating in his basket.
Past visitors said visiting Coptic Cairo is a must, even if you're not religious. History lovers will appreciate the area's abundance of historic sights, while architecture buffs will enjoy gazing at the neighborhood's beautiful mosaics and woodwork. Plus, Coptic Cairo's narrow alleys are lined with street vendors selling a variety of goods.
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This sprawling neighborhood in eastern Cairo encompasses a labyrinth of twisting alleyways and a spattering of awe-inspiring architecture. The atmosphere here will take some getting used to: The streets are crowded, noisy and littered with animal droppings. But if you take the time to adjust to Islamic Cairo's chaotic environment, you won't regret making the trek.
You'll find a number of top attractions here, including Khan El-Khalili's bazaar and the Salah El-Din Citadel. According to past visitors, no matter where you wander in the area, you'll stumble upon archeological treasures and architectural gems. To see Islamic Cairo's sights, get out and walk or tag along on an organized bus tour. Bus tours – like those offered by Memphis Tours and Egypt Tailor Made Tours – include local guides, so if you want to learn more about the neighborhood's history, this is the best way to get around.
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Cairo's most popular attraction, the Pyramids of Giza, draw thousands of visitors every year. As one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, these pyramids have stood the test of time, remaining intact for roughly 4,500 years. You'll find three primary pyramids, the best known being the Great Pyramid of Khufu – named after the Fourth Dynasty pharaoh buried there. Khafre, Khufu's son, lies entombed in the nearby Pyramid of Khafre. The third structure, the Pyramid of Menkaure, stands as the smallest of the Pyramids of Giza and was constructed by Khafre's successor to the throne, Menkaure.
You are welcome to explore the pyramids and the adjacent Great Sphinx after purchasing a Giza Plateau ticket. However, keep in mind that only 300 tickets are sold per day and additional fees apply for entering the pyramids. If you plan on visiting in the winter or want to beat Cairo's notorious heat, consider arriving early in the morning when plenty of tickets are still available and temperatures are a bit more comfortable.
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One of Cairo's must-see attractions is the Great Sphinx, the world's oldest monumental sculpture. Situated by the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Sphinx impresses with its size – it measures 66 feet high and 234 feet long – and unique appearance. The monument depicts a part pharaoh, part lion being, but archeologists are not sure who the figure is modeled after or when it was built. Two temples, one from the Old Kingdom and another from the New Kingdom, sit next to the sphinx.
Past travelers said the best way to see the Great Sphinx is to sign up for a bus tour. Some prearranged tours – including those offered by Memphis Tours and Love Egypt Tours – will give you special access to select areas of the site, plus admissions fees are included in tour rates. You'll also gain more insight about the monument than you would without a guide. If you'd rather have a quintessential Egyptian experience, pay extra to explore the area by camel.
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The best way to follow up your trip to the pyramids is by visiting the Egyptian Museum. This massive facility contains more than 100,000 artifacts from ancient Egypt, including sarcophagi, jewelry and pottery. It would take almost a year to explore the museum in its entirety. To save you some time, we recommend sticking to a few notable galleries. The main attraction here is the Tutankhamun exhibit, which features treasures from King Tut's tomb, including his golden funeral mask. And although it costs an additional 100 Egyptian pounds (or $11) to enter, the Mummy Room should be high on your list of museum must-sees.
Though the Egyptian Museum's fees are a bit steep, recent visitors said the impressive collections more than justify the property's prices. If you want to take photos inside, bring extra cash since travelers with cameras are charged an additional 50 Egyptian pounds ($6). Also, this museum does not have air conditioning, so plan to visit early in the morning.
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You'll need to devote a whole day to the Salah El-Din Citadel, which is quite possibly the most popular non-pyramid attraction in Cairo. This massive fortress located in Islamic Cairo was constructed in the late 1100s by Salah al-Din, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty and an opponent of those involved in the Christian Crusades. Within its walls lies a trove of worthwhile attractions: The Mohamed Ali Mosque is the most visited site by far, but you should spend time exploring the other two mosques as well. The structure also houses several museums. Save some time for Gawhara Palace, which former Ottoman army commander Mohamed Ali built for his last wife.
While recent visitors praise the number of things to do here, most recommend taking some time to stop and enjoy the view. You can see much of Coptic Cairo and, on a clear day, the Pyramids of Giza from the fortress. Also, remember to cover up like you would when visiting other Islamic sites.
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For the best taste of Cairo's vibrant, chaotic personality, make a beeline to Khan El-Khalili. Overflowing into the narrow streets of Islamic Cairo, this bustling market serves as the go-to place for authentic Egyptian souvenirs. Its labyrinth of alleyways houses a treasure trove of Egyptian jewelry, hookah pipes and spices.
A visit to Khan El-Khalili will certainly test your bargaining skills: Prepare for vendors to bombard you, and always assume that prices are marked up. Aim to knock the starting price down by at least 20%, and if you're facing a stubborn opponent, don't hesitate to walk away. Also, it's easy to lose track of young children at this market, so it's best to come without kids. And if you're on a tight schedule or aren't the best with directions, consider visiting Khan El-Khalili via a bus tour. Tours start at $60 and are available through companies like Egypt Tailor Made Tours and Emo Tours Egypt.
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Sandwiched between Giza and Dahshur in southern Cairo and surrounded by palm trees, this archaeological site houses the Step Pyramid of Djoser, Egypt's oldest stone pyramid. The Step Pyramid dates back to the Third Dynasty (2649 to 2575 B.C.) and was constructed for the pharaoh Djoser by the now infamous architect Imhotep. Originally built as a tomb, the Step Pyramid has drawn tourists for millennia, as evidenced by the graffiti adorning its walls.
While the Step Pyramid is a definite must-see, Saqqara is home to several other worthwhile sites, including a number of tombs and a few crumbling pyramids. Recent visitors recommended wearing sneakers since the area is sandy. And if you want to enjoy comfortable temperatures while exploring the site, avoid visiting during the summer.
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Flanking the eastern edge of Islamic Cairo is Al Azhar Park, one of Cairo's largest parks. Formerly a garbage dump, Al Azhar Park now features an array of fountains, manicured gardens, recreation areas and restaurants.
For many visitors, the highlight of this public space is the Ayyubid wall, which was constructed by the founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty, Salah El-Din, more than 800 years ago. Nature lovers will also appreciate the wide selection of international flora found here. To avoid crowds, previous travelers recommended visiting between Sunday and Thursday.
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While the Pyramids of Giza steal most of the limelight, travelers looking to experience ancient Egypt without competing with crowds head to Dahshur. Located about 23 miles south of central Cairo, this archaeological site contains five pyramids dating as far back as 2575 B.C. There are three pyramids that stand out: the Red, Bent and Black pyramids. The Red Pyramid (also known as the North Pyramid) can be recognized by its pinkish hue. Although it's much smaller than the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Giza, the Red Pyramid is just as significant because it was ancient Egypt's first attempt at building a true pyramid. The Bent Pyramid earned its name from its unique shape, which demonstrates the transition from the old-fashioned step-style pyramid to a true pyramid. The Black Pyramid was created several hundred years after its neighbors with mud brick and limestone. Long after its construction, the limestone was plundered and repurposed, leaving only the dark-colored facade that gave the Black Pyramid its name.
Although you can only enter the Red Pyramid, recent visitors recommended exploring Dahshur. Though these are some of Cairo's smallest pyramids, their unique exteriors rival the pyramids found in Giza. Plus, you'll find fewer crowds and cheaper entrance fees here.
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First founded in A.D. 969, Cairo is considered a very young capital by Egyptian standards. Before the founding of Cairo, the ancient city of Memphis reigned supreme. Neighboring Saqqara along the Nile River, the ruins of Memphis (which was founded in 2925 B.C. by quasi-mythical ruler Menes) was the first imperial city on earth. All that remains of its former glory are the scattered ruins of stone temples, lingering statues and mud-brick necropolises. Some of the highlights here include a large limestone statue of Ramses II and a giant alabaster sphinx, both of which once guarded the entrance to the Temple of Ptah, Memphis' patron deity.
Recent visitors said that exploring the ancient capital was a must. However, the site is small since most of the ruins were ransacked before excavations began, so it's best to group a Memphis visit with a tour of Saqqara. Several tour companies, including Memphis Tours and Emo Tours Egypt, offer excursions to both locales for around $100.
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