Looking for tips on what to do in Cairo?
As part of our city guides series, we interviewed Giulia Cimarosti who has previously lived in Cairo for 9 months and visited another 8 times.
Giulia shares with us her insider tips on what to do in Cairo for those looking for the best places to see, eat, stay, drink, and explore.
Why Visit Cairo?
Cairo has always been included in package tours for basically any trip to Egypt, but what’s usually shown is not the city itself. Only the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, and a few more touristic spots are all the tourists get to see.
Too many times I hear people saying they’ve been to Egypt but all they did was go to a beach resort and spend not more than a week there.
It might be beautiful but it’s definitely not an authentic Egyptian experience!
In my opinion, one can’t say he’s been to Egypt without spending some time in Cairo: this really takes people into the hectic Egyptian life, together with its many contrasts and real culture, food, habits.
In Cairo you can find one thing and its opposite: luxury and poverty, culture and illiteracy, beauty and ugliness, the friendliest people on Earth and the most dishonest ones, and so on.
It’s up to you to find the right path!
Two days never look the same when you live in Cairo. If you have to go from A to B you’ll definitely have to face challenges and find a different solution every day and this is what makes it so exciting!
What to do in Cairo
To answer this question, I must ask myself “where would I take you if you visited me in Cairo?” – and the answer is:
On the same day you arrive, I would take you out for dinner at Al Azhar Park just before sunset, to show you the city from above and the sun going down on the Pyramids.
This is a rather fancy and clean place that I believe is the perfect place for a soft approach to the city.
Another “easy” thing to do is visiting the Citadel, a place with no cars where you can wander and take beautiful photos of Cairo from above.
I would get lost with you down in the narrow alleys and up on the roofs of mosques of Islamic Cairo.
It might sound touristy but it’s very typical instead: I would invite you on a felucca ride on the Nile at sunset, to relax and enjoy the views and the rare silence.
I was almost forgetting the most famous things! Visiting the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx is of course a must.
Best Neighborhoods to Explore in Cairo
Some neighborhoods are as big as cities so it’s not easy to answer this question.
I heard that the neighborhood of Maadi alone has something like 2 millions people!
Anyway I must say my favorite one is Downtown (Wust el Balad). I instantly fell in love with the area the first time I saw it from the window of a bus, on a “Cairo by night” tour.
This is where the Egyptian Museum and Tahrir Square are located, just to name the most famous things.
The next time I went back to this area I was on my own and I must say I was intimidated by its chaos and people staring at me. But now I wouldn’t live anywhere else!
Something very interesting to visit in Cairo is the so-called “Coptic Cairo”, an area where you can visit churches, Christian graveyards, and the famous Hanging Church.
It’s such an unexpected atmosphere, it almost feels like being in another city.
Where to Eat in Cairo
In Cairo, there is definitely a lot of choice when it comes to food!
For very cheap meals, try the Felfela takeaway for falafel and foul – you can eat a “taameya” (falafel sandwich) for about 1.50 EGP: 0,25 USD.
If you like koshary (a typical mix of rice, pasta, lentils, meat, and spices) don’t miss Abou Tarek, just behind Tahrir Square. It’s super cheap and you can’t get anything more typical than that!
For a fancy dinner with a beautiful view, don’t miss the Restaurant at Al Azhar Park.
I also have to mention my favorite Italian restaurant in Cairo: it’s called “La Bodega” and even if it’s pricey in local terms (about $30 per meal) the food is delicious and with a very good service.
Last but not least, Cairenes love fast foods!
So don’t feel guilty if you want to hit Pizza Hut, McDonald’s or the more local Hardee’s – it’s normal habit in Cairo, and if you feel lazy there’s a website called Otlob.com where you can order nearly any kind of food – from Chinese to McDonald’s, to Yemenite – 24/7.
You can’t visit Cairo without eating
The typical Egyptian breakfast: “foul”. It’s made with a bean paste and vegetables, served in a typical flat bread bun.
Taameya: the falafel sandwich named above, usually sold in the same places where they sell foul.
Koshary is maybe the most typical thing. Very cheap and it fills you up for hours! It’s a mix of rice, noodles, pasta, lentils and chickpeas.
Shawerma: also called “kebab” by someone, but this is the Egyptian version! It’s made with either lamb or chicken meat, peppers and a lot of spices. So tasty!
Something very typical that I didn’t dare trying is the stuffed pigeon.
Sahlab is a tepid milk cream that is served with fruits, chocolate, coconut or whatever you ask for. It’s freshly made to order.
Also, don’t miss the “mahshy” – vegetables stuffed with meat, rice and more vegetables.
Best place for a night on the town in Cairo
If you want to breathe the atmosphere of Islamic Cairo, don’t miss Bayt el Harawi at night, where you can watch free shows such as sufi dance and tannoura (whirling dervish), concerts with typical Middle Eastern instruments, etc.
For partying, there are some nice clubs such as Buddha Bar, Stiletto, Purple and countless new clubs that keep opening. Most of them are located on docked boats on the Nile, so the location alone makes the outing worth it.
Also, sitting for hours in an “ahwa”, the Egyptian name for a cafe (basically chairs on the streets) chatting, smoking shisha and playing board games is something very typical.
Where to stay in Cairo Egypt
I usually stay in apartments, as it’s overall cheaper than any budget accommodation. Word of mouth is definitely the best way to find the right sublet for you.
There are also some very cheap hostels in downtown but of course, you can’t expect much luxury.
If alcohol is important for you, check if it’s served in the hotel you choose before confirming your reservation.
For more places to stay in Cairo choose from the largest range of hotels, apartments, and guesthouses with our partner Booking.com. You get free cancelation on most rooms, and in most cases you only pay when you stay.
Markets and Shopping in Cairo
It really depends on what you want to buy and how much you want to spend!
For souvenirs and bed linen I would definitely go to the famous Khan el Khalili market. It’s beautiful and even if the main roads became way too touristy you can always explore the backstreets to find the best deals.
If you want to go shopping and you like branded clothing etc, you can’t miss the City Stars mall, a seven-storeyed building with shops, movie theaters, restaurants and a souq reproduction.
For cheap clothing I always choose Downtown with its colorful and huge windows. Last time I bought 2 pairs of jeans and spent something like €12.
Another thing I like about these shops is that literally everything they have is shown in the windows so you can have a look from the outside and enter the shop only if you are interested and when you already chose what you want.
Festivals and Events in Cairo?
I would say the main “event” is the Ramadan, even if it’s not a festival but a religious event.
As most of you know, this is the Holy Month when people fast until sunset, there are special praying sessions and everyone has to act well, donate to charity, spend time with their families and in general live without committing sins.
After sunset though, the city looks completely different.
The streets are lightened with colorful lights, people gather to eat together, the music is in the air. It’s definitely very interesting to witness the Ramadan, but remember that it’s not polite to eat and drink in public during those days – respect the people who are fasting.
Also, most clubs (and companies in general) stay closed during the Holy Month so if your aim is partying well that’s not the best time of the year!
On the other hand Ramadan is a great time to enjoy the city without too much traffic as many people take vacations and travel outside of Cairo.
There are many religious feasts throughout the year, but one that I think is worth mentioning is the Eid el Adha – this is the feast when people slaughter cows and sheeps in the streets.
And if you don’t like the sight of blood then you can definitely avoid it, or take advantage to have a short trip outside of Cairo.
Other than religious festivities, the major national holidays are the Sinai Liberation Day (April 25th), Labour Day (May 1st), Revolution Day (July 23rd, with reference to the 1953 Revolution), Armed Forces Day (October 6th), and of course the National January 25th Revolution Day!
Getting around Cairo
Public transportation in Cairo includes taxis, metro, buses and microbuses.
I wouldn’t recommend moving around by bus and microbus to a newcomer – it’s not easy to figure out their destination because it’s either written in Arabic or there’s nothing written on the bus itself: someone peeking from the bus door just screams the destination to the people in the street so if you don’t speak the language is quite hard.
After some time you can figure out the routes of buses and microbuses also by asking to locals so that you can finally try this adventure and explore the city in the cheapest possible way.
The metro is easy to use, there are separate cars for men and women (that is: women can ride men’s cars – at their own risk – but men can’t access the women’s ones) and it’s clean enough.
Unfortunately, the metro doesn’t reach all areas of Cairo yet, but it’s very cheap (1 EGP per ride = 12 Euro cents) and it makes you avoid traffic, so sometimes you can use a combination of metro and taxi to move quicker.
The easiest way to move around Cairo is definitely by taxi, but there are 3 kinds of taxis and you have to know the differences.
Black taxi are the oldest ones, usually without air conditioned and always without a meter. If you go for a black taxi you have to agree on a price before getting on the car, or your trip will end with a taxi driver asking for an outrageous amount of money, especially if you look like a tourist or it’s obvious that you don’t know where you’re going.
Another option is to ask nothing, act like you know exactly what you’re doing and when the ride is over give the money to the driver and walk away. Of course in this case, you have to know roughly how much the ride is worth.
An easier option is the white taxi. These are newer and nicer, and the main difference is that they have a meter so you won’t have to haggle for the price. Just be careful, sometimes the taxi drivers modify their meters to get more money or turn off the meter to ask you the money they want. Try to avoid these!
The third kind of taxi is the yellow one. This is the one you call and make a reservation for, so you never really need it unless for instance you have a flight at a certain time and want a reliable service to pick you up, be on time and take you to the airport. They also have fixed rates.
Finding WiFi in CAori
Cairo is very WiFi friendly!
You can find a network nearly everywhere. I remember when I used to work an hour away from my flat, when I took the taxi back home I could connect to the networks of factories on the way. So I could surf the net while in the traffic.
Even the simplest cafes usually have a free connection available so all you have to do is sit at a table, smoke a shisha and enjoy the wifi while sipping a typical Egyptian tea.
Best time of year to visit Cairo
I would say anytime but summer (May to September).
Winter can get pretty cold in Cairo too, so if your accommodation doesn’t have a heating, which is very likely if it’s a budget hotel or hostel, it can get tough.
On winter I would recommend going south and visiting Luxor, Abu Simbel, Marsa Alam and the other locations in Upper Egypt, where the temperatures keep very warm throughout the year.
Another thing you might want to consider is Ramadan – since most clubs, shops, and companies are closed during this month, it is definitely interesting but there won’t be much to do.
Favorite Side-trip from Cairo
I love Cairo because in a 2 hours range you can go from the sea to the desert! I will list 3 beautiful side trips that you can have in one day:
The pyramids of Saqqara, Dahshur and Memphis: did you know that there are many more pyramids in Egypt other than the Giza ones?
Dahshur has 3 pyramids and is much less touristy than Giza.
You can enter the “Red Pyramid” and you won’t find any crowd or tout around it. Memphis was the ancient capital of Egypt, and Saqqara is where the famous “Step Pyramid” is located, together with its temple.
If you want to go to the sea, Ein El Sokhna is the closest beach resort to Cairo. You can get there in about 2 hours, driving east. There is no coral reef or anything, and the place is not too crowded as Sharm El Sheikh, so it’s very quiet and simple.
Another option is driving north to the so-called “North Coast”, on the Mediterranean Sea. There are some beautiful beach resorts up there, such as Marsa Matrouh for example.
Last but not least, at just about 2 hours driving south of Cairo you can get to the oasis of El Fayoum with its lovely towns, lake and pottery factories.
Just outside of the oasis there is the beautiful desert of Wadi el Hitan (the valley of the whales) and Wadi el Rayan, where you can ride beautiful dunes, camp and see the fossils of sea plants and fish that used to live there when the desert was once an ocean… how fascinating!
Best “insiders” tip for Cairo
There’s a “drive through” version of nearly anything in Cairo: you can stop by a kiosk and get your drinks, food, ice-cream or even shisha directly on your car.
This is something very typical and fun! Ask your Egyptian friends to take you to some of these places and you’ll definitely have a good laugh together with yummy meals.
Fruit juices are sold at kiosks on the streets and are as cheap as refreshing. In Egypt I ate the tastier fruit ever, and no I have never been sick.
For some more beautiful views over Cairo you can enjoy sitting on the edge of the flat Moqattam mountain, overlooking the city. They also serve drinks and shisha up there, but the cafes tend to be a bit too pricey if compared to other places in Downtown.
An experience that I recommend to everyone is visiting the so-called “Garbage City”, an area where people literally live in the garbage, spending their lives separating the trash and selling the different materials to make a living out of it.
It goes without saying, Garbage City is a very poor area. It’s a Christian neighborhood and after you cross it all (a strong experience itself) you are “rewarded” by the magnificent view of the Cave Churches.
I know there are people that would never dare going to Garbage City, but I also believe that in order to fully understand where we are, we can’t only see the beautiful sides of the places we visit.
I love Cairo because
I love Cairo because it’s impossible to get bored when you’re there.
It’s a safe and incredibly lively city.
People here are friendly and helpful, and I met some of my best friends during my stay in Cairo.
I love Cairo because it’s an affordable place to live in.
It’s a city where you can find anything you want, and if you are stressed by its hectic life you can reach the peace of the desert or the sea in just a couple of hours.
I love Cairo because even in the worst traffic you sometimes spot the pyramids on the horizon, or you find yourself crossing one of the countless bridges on the Nile, and you are therefore constantly reminded of the magnificent history of this place, and you can’t help feeling a profound awe, reverence, and respect towards it.
Plan Your Trip to Cairo
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Flights to Cairo
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Car Rental in Cairo
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BIO – Giulia Cimarosti – I am Italian by birth, but I still have to find my “home”. I guess I found it in Egypt, but I want to go on exploring the world and see it all before settling down! Well, I change my plans almost on a daily basis, so I have no idea where I’ll end up, and I’m fine with it!
Do you have any tips on what to do in Cairo?
Please share in the comments below.