The great pyramids of Giza are firmly on almost everyone’s bucket list, but Cairo itself is not usually considered as a city trip destination. The capital of Egypt has plenty to offer however, and it’s easy to fill a couple of days between marvellous museums and vibrant Islamic city life. This 3 day guide will give you an idea where to start!
- day 1 : Egyptian Museum & Islamic Cairo
- day 2 : Museum of Civilisation, Citadel & Zamelek
- day 3 : Pyramids of Giza & Saqqara
General Cairo travel tips
When to visit Cairo? Anytime from October to April.
How many days should you spend in Cairo? You’ll need at least 3 days if you want to see the city, museums and pyramids properly, but you can easily fill a day more. The days in this itinerary are interchangeable. There can be a lot of haze in Cairo, try to pick the clearest day for your tour of the pyramids.
Do I need a guide to visit Cairo? No. Although a good guide could give you lots of interesting information, it’s absolutely safe and easy enough to go around on your own. Uber works perfectly and is very cheap. It is worth having a guide and especially a driver for your day at the pyramids, as you’ll need to drive off a bit to get the best views.
Where to stay in Cairo? Stay at any of the big hotels chains, but avoid the dilapidated and maze-like Marriot Omar Khayyam. Both Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton have good Nile views and decent restaurants, I did not see the rooms at the Sofitel but it has a great location on the tip of Zamelek island and is the only one directly on the Nile without a heavily trafficked road in between. You could also consider staying one night at the Marriott Mena House in Giza. Rooms are nothing special, but the view of, and being conveniently close to, the pyramids makes up for that.
Day 1 : Old Cairo
Start with the grand classic of Cairo: the Egyptian Museum. Dusty and anything but self-explanatory but full of charm, this museum built in 1901 is a real treasure trove. Highlights include the death mask and other artefacts from the tomb of Tutankhamun, but there is so much more to see! Be aware however that the royal mummies have been relocated to the new Museum of Egyptian Civilisation, and other objects will surely move to the soon-to-open Grand Egyptian Museum near the Giza pyramid complex. But do go to the old museum while you can! Hopefully it will not be abandoned but in some way restored to its former glory because this is a real icon of art history.
In front of the Egyptian Museum lies Tahrir Square. A name familiar to all since the Arab spring, there is (no doubt deliberately) nothing to see here but lots of traffic. If you dare to cross the busy roads, check out the nearby shop of Oum El Dounia which has a nice selection of crafts, homeware, scarves and (mostly French) books. It’s a bit hidden on the 1st floor of the building.
Spend the afternoon exploring so-called Islamic Cairo, the historic centre of the city. The most well-known sight here is Khan el-Khalili souk. It might be true that most of the items sold here are made in China, but this place is by no means only for foreign tourists and is a real pleasure to wander around. Shops open around noon, and some of them are closed on Sundays. If you have the time, consider going twice, once in the morning to have a quiet view of the architecture and once in the evening for the lively atmosphere.
More than the shopping, what makes Islamic Cairo worth a visit is the dense concentration of islamic architecture from the Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman eras. The most monumental part is al-Muizz Street. It is lined with dozens of historic landmarks including mosques, tombs, madrasas and hammams.
Make sure to drop by the stunning Sabil Kuttab, a Mamluk-style public water dispensary (sabil) and elementary Quran school (kuttab), now a shop. Ask to be shown the kuttab on the first floor for a great view over Muizz Street.
The go-to option for lunch around here is the Naguib Mahfouz coffee shop. The place looks nice and the food is alright, but it is pretty touristy. More fun is the Egyptian Pancake House right at the entrance to the souk (123 al-Azhar). The locals swear by the pizza, but I recommend the fetir, traditional savoury (or sweet) pancakes.
Next, cross al-Azhar Street via the pedestrian underpass to the Mosque of al-Azhar. Founded in 970 AD, this is one of Cairo’s oldest mosques, and the oldest university in the world (tied with the Qarawiyyin in Fez). Today it is still the foremost center of Sunni Islamic learning. Visitors are welcome, just make sure to take off your shoes and, if you’re a woman, cover your hair.
The little streets behind the mosque show a more authentic souk, mainly selling edibles. The historic bookbinder Abd El Zahar is worth a look (it is the only one with glass doors in a row of copycat “bookbinders”). Continuing you will stumble upon several beautifully restored Ottoman-era residences. It seems to be a work in progress, but you can already visit some of the houses. Buy your tickets at Zeinab Khatoon.
Also check out the Wikala of Al Ghuri nearby, an old caravanserai which now showcases a supposedly very interesting Sufi dance show (every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 7.30pm, we were not fortunate enough to be there on the right day).
For dinner head to Taboula, for tasty Lebanese food in a cosy setting. The problem in Cairo seems to be that good local food can only be had in very casual streetside settings. Fancier restaurants cater either solely to tourist (with corresponding loss of taste) or to affluent locals who seem to prefer western cuisine (badly executed according to me). On my next visit to Cairo I absolutely want to try Kebdet el Prince. It’s a bit further away and you have to feel a little adventurous, but locals and celebrities alike seem to think this is the best Egyptian home style food.
Day 2 : Modern Cairo
Another day, another museum. The recently opened Museum of Egyptian Civilisation gives a succinct overview of Egyptian history, with a rather focused selection of artefacts and a little more explanation than the old Egyptian Museum. The highlight of a visit here, however, are the 22 royal mummies. Incredibly well-preserved and very well presented, it is truly awe-inspiring to come face to face with 4000 year-old historical figures (photography is not allowed). There has been some debate as to whether it is respectful to show them off like this, but I’d say they’ve reached their goal of “eternal” life. If, like us, you’re planning on visiting Luxor, coming here before you go is highly recommended.
Next, check out the Citadel of Saladin with its mosques and museums. On a clear day you’ll have a great view of the city. Not far from here is the also worthwhile Mosque of Ibn Tulun, the oldest mosque in Cairo that is still in its original form.
Get back to modern-day Egypt and head to the trendy neigborhood of Zamelek. Have lunch at Zooba, for a fresh and healthy(er) interpretation of traditional Egyptian food. Spend the next couple of hours strolling through Zamalek and checking out the shops (which are a real mix of fancy and not-so-fancy, and not always easy to find). Don’t miss delightful Loft Gallery, which has an eclectic selection of antiques and bric-a-brac, and a very cool cafe (both on the first floor). Other worthwhile shops include Caravanserai and l’Oiseau du Nil. If looking for a western-style coffee shop you can go to one of two popular neighbours Cake Cafe and Holm Cafe, but if you’re craving something sweet I recommend you head to Mandarine Koueider. Their large selection of arab pastries is simply superb.
Finish your day with sunset drinks right by the Nile in the garden of the Sofitel. The food at the hotel’s Kebabgy restaurant is quite good, and has the same tranquil setting by the river. For something different, take a short Uber ride to the Four Seasons hotel and dine at 8, their Chinese restaurant.
Day 3 : pyramids of Giza & Saqqara
Plan at least half a day to visit the pyramids with private transportation. They look exactly as you imagine, but seeing them in person you can’t help but be impressed by their massive size. Start with the Giza complex. You’ve probably read it already, and it’s true: it’s best to go early to avoid crowds. Friday and Saturday see a lot of Egyptian visitors on top of foreign tourists. Fortunately, most of the crowd stops on one side, so if you drive to the back you can have great views of the pyramids against a Cairo city backdrop with only the occasional camel.
Study a bit of the history before going, so once there you can just wander around, enjoy it, and take lots of pictures. It is possible to enter the pyramids (Khufu’s requires a special ticket) but it’s a rather claustrophobic affair and there’s not much to see. Better have this experience at the (albeit much smaller) pyramid of Teti in Saqqara, where you might have it all to yourself.
The Grand Egyptian Museum is supposed to open soon and will probably add a few hours to your Giza trip. Who knows, they might even open a decent restaurant, but for now there is not much choice. The nearby Marriot Mena House hotel might be your best bet, or try 9 Pyramids Lounge, not for the food but for the great view. (There is a famous but nameless falafel place in Saqqara that your guide/driver might know about, highly recommended!).
When you’ve seen all you wanted to see at Giza, drive on to the Saqqara necropolis. This area near what used to be the ancient city of Memphis is where the first pyramids were built. Surrounded by date palms and green fields it would be rather bucolic, were it not for the trash that lies everywhere.
There are numerous pyramids spread around Saqqara, most not very well preserved. The main sight is the impressive Step Pyramid of Djoser, Egypt’s oldest pyramid. Nearby are several interesting tombs with well-preserved hieroglyphics. The most elaborate and colourful is the tomb of Kagemni. Next door you can descend into the pyramid of Teti mentioned before.
If the weather is good, the best way to finish your Cairo trip is with a felukka ride on the Nile. Popular with locals and tourists alike, maybe get some takeaway and make a picnic of it. Drinking alcohol may be frowned upon, so always check.
Three days is enough to get a feel for Cairo, but there is of course much more to see, like Coptic Cairo, with its hanging church and Al Fustat souk. And if you want to make more than a city trip out of it, stay tuned for my 2 day guide to Luxor! Are you traveling to Cairo or have you been? I would love to hear your opinion and tips!