Alo (Hello) and welcome to my birthplace, the capital of Egypt and the largest city in the Arab world and Africa. More than six million people call this metropolitan sprawl, a collision of ancient and modern spread over 453 square kilometres, home, along with a further 10 million in outlying districts. Think of my city and usually the first thing that springs to mind is our wonderful Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the most famous structures on the list of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It is indeed a magnificent sight and should be on any travel itinerary for a visit here, along with the Sphinx. But there is so much more to Cairo, from markets to museums, just waiting to be discovered. Of course, the city and the country have been through a difficult period of late but the spirit of Cairo has not been diminished. In fact, if anything Egyptians are more proud of their city than ever. There is so much to be explored. Did you know, for instance, that Cairo’s nickname is ‘the city of a thousand minarets’ for its preponderance of Islamic architecture? We also have the oldest and largest film and music industries in the Arab world, not to mention the second oldest institution of higher learning, al-Azhar University. On top of that, Cairo has long been the centre of the region’s political and cultural life. It’s also dripping in rich history of Ancient
Egypt – as it was founded in the 10th century, that’s a lot of history. Cairo to me is a beautiful, vibrant city bustling with life from old markets to skyscrapers and smart restaurants. But then again, I’m biased. Go see for yourself.
My Favourite Place: The Pyramids at Giza are the real must see of Cairo. This is the place where you want to go first. The Great Pyramid is the oldest and largest of the three, standing 146.5 metres. Egyptologists believe it was built as a tomb for Pharaoh Khufu. It took between 10-20 years to complete and is quite a feat of engineering, even by today’s standards. Often overcrowded, they can disappoint when you see the buildings around them when you were expecting the desert but they are still impressive for their size and age. Entering the Pyramids is allowed but it can be a very claustrophobic experience. Be sure to watch the sunset from any nearby rooftop.
Highlights: Khan el Khalili is a large typical market covering a vast area in a part of the city called ‘Islamic Cairo.’ Not only can you buy souvenirs as well as spices, handcrafts and fabrics here, but the area also offers a lot more: belly dancing and free Sufi dance shows in the beautiful venue of Wikalat al-Ghouri and a whole renovated street called Bab el Fatouh with plenty of beautifully decorated little mosques. The Citadel is another landmark. It’s also a chance to escape the clogged roads as the area surrounded by the ancient walls is closed to traffic. Do make time to also visit the Mohammed Ali Mosque. Also on my list is Cairo Tower, which was built in 1961. Its design is unique, recalling the lotus flower shape. From the top terrace you can have a sweeping 360° view over Cairo and also eat something in its revolving restaurant. Cairo Tower is on an island called Zamalek, so you will be surrounded by the Nile, with its feluccas and floating restaurants that make it almost as trafficked as a street. I suggest you to try the felucca (traditional wooden sailing boat) ride as well. It’s cheap and so relaxing.
Lowlights: Like many other big cities, Cairo suffers from high levels of pollution and traffic. The driving can be pretty hairy at the best of times. In the summer, the heat can be suffocating. Watch out too for unscrupulous traders who try to take advantage of tourists with inflated prices. Female travellers should dress conservatively to deflect unwanted attention from local men. As for the recent troubles, be sensible – although things are calming down. Some foreign offices, for instance, have just announced a relaxation on travel advice to Egypt, meaning there are now less restrictions against travelling to Cairo and the Giza Pyramids.
Souvenirs: Lots of tourists want to leave Cairo with a miniature model of the pyramids or sphinx, and a toy camel in their suitcase. By all means do the same but I also recommend gold jewellery (cheaper than Western countries) and carpet bags. Remember to haggle; it’s half the fun of shopping! If you have some extra cash you might consider browsing in the antique shops too.
Where to stay: If you’re looking for budget crash pads, Cairo is your place. It’s stuffed full of them, with some exceptionally good ones. Finding mid-range gems, however, is much harder. For those with big bank accounts, the impressive hotels lining the banks of the Nile won’t disappoint. The Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at First Residence is one of the city’s most luxurious, while the Grand Nile Tower has by far the best terrace by the Nile and a huge rooftop pool. Talisman Hotel De Charme is one of the only real boutique hotels in the city. At the other end, try the Luna Hotel.