Cairo is the bustling capital of Egypt and it’s one of the most fascinating places on Earth. As the gateway to the Great Pyramids of Giza, and home to many inspiring museums, it’s no wonder it’s one of the world’s most popular cities to visit.
But when it comes to deciding on what to do in Cairo, it can get overwhelming. The sheer number of Cairo attractions can make deciding which ones to visit a difficult task.
To help you out, we interviewed Giulia Cimarosti, who has previously lived in Cairo and is a regular visitor, who has shared with us all the top things to do in Cairo for a first time visit.
Giulia not only shares with us her insider tips on what to do in Cairo, Egypt, but she also shares the best places to eat, stay, drink, and explore. Let’s see what she says…
- Is Cairo Worth Visiting?
- What to do in Cairo
- 1. Visit Al Azhar Park for Sunset
- 2. Visit the Cairo Citadel of Saladin
- 3. Take a Felucca Ride on the Nile
- 4. Visit the Famous Pyramids of Giza
- 5. Wander Around Downtown Cairo
- 6. Eat Delicious Egyptian Food
- 7. Watch a Sufi Dance in Bayt el Harawi
- 8. Hunt for Treasures in Khan el Khalili Bazaar
- 9. Experience Ramadan in Cairo
- 10. Take a Day Trip to Quieter Pyramids
- 11. Take a Trip to the Beaches
- 12. Take a Trip to El Fayoum
- 13. Visit Mokattam Mountain
- 14. Visit “Garbage City”
- 15. Visit the Grand Egyptian Museum
- 16. See the Royal Mummies at The Egyptian Museum
- 17. Wander Over to Gezira Island
- 18. Visit the Ben Ezra Synagogue
- 19. Visit the Coptic Museum
- Getting Around Cairo
- Best time of year to visit Cairo
- Where to stay in Cairo Egypt
- Final Thoughts on What to Do in Cairo
- More North Africa Travel Tips
Is Cairo Worth Visiting?
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 Great Egyptian Museum, and a few more touristic spots are all the visitors 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.
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!
No one can say that Cairo is not an adventure, and for the adventurous traveller, for that reason I would say it’s definitely worth visiting.
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 undoubtedly these top attractions in Cairo.
1. Visit Al Azhar Park for Sunset
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.
Located on the Mokattam Hills, it is one of the largest parks in Cairo and offers a wide range of activities and attractions such Bab El-Wazir Cemetery and City Of The Dead cemetery.
It also has some nice fountains, pools, and play areas for children. Its vast green lawns are perfect for picnics or taking leisurely strolls.
This park is a rather fancy and clean, which I believe is the perfect place for a soft introduction to the city.
2. Visit the Cairo Citadel of Saladin
Another “easy” thing to do in Cairo is visit the Citadel, a place with no cars where you can wander and take beautiful photos of Cairo from above.
Located on a hill in the heart of Cairo, it offers stunning views of the city and beyond. The Citadel itself is a testament to its rich history, with remnants from various empires, including Mamluk and Ottoman periods.
Inside the Citadel, you can explore several exciting landmarks such as mosques, palaces, and charnel houses.
When visiting the Citadel, you should take time to explore the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, which is considered to be among the most beautiful architectural masterpieces in Egypt.
Adorning its walls are intricately carved designs made from marble and alabaster stone that demonstrate traditional Islamic artistry.
Another area worth exploring is Salah El-Din’s Street where you can find many souvenir shops selling traditional items such as leather bags and hats that make for excellent gifts or memories of your trip!
3. Take a Felucca Ride on the Nile
It might sound touristy but it’s very typical, so I would invite you on a felucca ride on the Nile at sunset, to relax and enjoy the views and the rare silence.
Taking a felucca ride allows you to feel the gentle breeze and calming waters of the river, and the views along the banks are breathtaking, with lush vegetation, ancient monuments and stunning Islamic architecture.
You can observe local life as you cruise along, watch fisherman casting their nets and sailing boats trading goods.
At night the Nile transforms into a magical place; you can see stars glittering above you and hear the distant sound of drums from locals celebrating at river-side cafes. As your felucca sails further away from the city, it’s just you and nature’s wonders surrounding you.
If you’re unfamiliar with feluccas, they are shallow boats powered by wind or sail, making them perfect for navigating through narrow channels while avoiding sandbanks in this great river that is filled with history. Being on a felucca adds to the overall atmosphere of being in such an amazing city like Cairo.
4. Visit the Famous Pyramids of Giza
Visiting the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx is of course a must. The Great Pyramids of Giza are one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and have become a symbol of Egypt’s ancient culture and heritage.
Located on the west bank of the Nile River, this UNESCO World Heritage Site are some of the most impressive monuments ever built by man.
The oldest pyramid on the Giza plateau, known as the Pyramid of Khufu, is thought to have been commissioned by the 4th-Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu in the 26th century, and is estimated to contain more than 2.3 million stones. It is also the largest pyramid in Egypt and stands at an impressive 139 meters tall.
The other two pyramids, known as the Pyramid of Khafre and Pyramid of Menkaure, were constructed between 2558 BCE and 2510 BCE.
Inside each pyramid there exists a grand burial chamber lined with polished granite flooring, hieroglyphs that tell stories about ancient life, and narrow shafts that lead to additional tunnels or secret chambers.
Visiting the Great Pyramids is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many people so don’t miss this number one attraction in Cairo!
5. Wander Around Downtown Cairo
Some neighborhoods are as big as cities so it’s not easy to simply wander the neighborhoods. I heard that the neighborhood of Maadi alone has something like 2 million people!
But if you want to walk around and simply take in the neighborhoods, 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”, or “Old 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.
6. Eat Delicious Egyptian Food
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.
The typical Egyptian breakfast is called “foul”. It’s made with a bean paste and vegetables, served in a typical flat bread bun.
You should also make sure to try:
- 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.
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.
7. Watch a Sufi Dance in Bayt el Harawi
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 other things to do in Cairo at night, 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.
8. Hunt for Treasures in Khan el Khalili Bazaar
When it comes to shopping, there is no better place than Cairo. With bustling souk markets and bazaars, you’ll find everything from textiles, spices, lamps, ceramics, silverware and more.
For souvenirs, 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 7-storied 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.
9. Experience Ramadan in Cairo
Visiting Cairo during Ramadan may not be for everyone but there are certain advantages when visiting during the Holy Month.
As most of you may 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 the day of Holy Month – respect the people who are fasting.
What’s great about Ramadan is that restaurants are quiet in the day time, people tend to not visit tourist attractions because they want to stay indoors and conserve their energy, and people are overall more friendly because of the nature of gift-giving and reflection that comes with Ramadan.
However, it can also be difficult to find accommodation, especially during the first night and the last three nights of Eid.
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 sheep 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!
10. Take a Day Trip to Quieter Pyramids
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 full day:
The pyramids of Saqqara, Dahshur and Memphis: did you know that there are many more pyramids in Egypt other than the Giza ones?
Before the Pyramids of Giza, there were some smaller pyramids built to try and get the design right.
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, also known as the bent pyramid, was the ancient capital of Egypt, and Saqqara is where the famous “Step Pyramid of Djoser” is located, together with its temple and many beautifully decorated tombs.
11. Take a Trip to the Beaches
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.
12. Take a Trip to El Fayoum
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 al Hitan (the valley of the whales) and Wadi al 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!
13. Visit Mokattam Mountain
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.
For some more beautiful views over Cairo you can enjoy sitting on the edge of the flat Mokattam 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.
14. Visit “Garbage City”
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.
15. Visit the Grand Egyptian Museum
Learn about Ancient Egypt and the Egyptians at the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is expected to open in 2023, but the exact date has not been confirmed yet.
The Grand Egyptian Museum will house artifacts from ancient Egypt, spanning over 5000 years of history.
It will contain artifacts from the world-famous Tutankhamun pharaohs’ tombs, including sculptures, treasures, jewelry, and hieroglyphics.
The museum is expected to be one of the most complete and largest museums on Ancient Egyptian history in the world, and will be the perfect place to gain insight into Ancient Egyptian culture while learning more about its history.
16. See the Royal Mummies at The Egyptian Museum
Another museum in Cairo not to miss is the Egyptian Museum, not to be confused with the Grand Egyptian Museum – confusing, I know!
The Egyptian Museum is an incredibly enriching and educational experience. This museum contains artifacts from ancient Egypt, including the royal mummies, statues and reliefs depicting ancient Egyptian gods, and many other items from Ancient Egypt.
Not only is the collection vast, it provides a captivating insight into historical events, culture and traditions.
Learn about the religions, customs, beliefs and lifestyles of this influential civilization.
17. Wander Over to Gezira Island
Gezira Island is located in the Nile River and sits in the very center of Cairo, home to the Zamalek district. It’s home to many iconic landmarks in Cairo, such as the Cairo Tower and Cairo Opera House.
Visitors can marvel at the grandeur of The Pyramids of Giza from the top of Cairo Tower and explore the beautiful gardens and art galleries.
18. Visit the Ben Ezra Synagogue
For Christians visiting Cairo, or those interested in Christian history, will enjoy visiting the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which is said to be built on the spot where moses washed up in a basket among the reeds.
The Ben Ezra Synagogue was first built in the 9th century AD and has been beautifully maintained over the centuries.
It still stands as a testament to Jewish culture and heritage, with its stunning architecture and interior design.
Not only is it an extraordinary historical site, but it’s also a pilgrimage site for Jews for generations.
19. Visit the Coptic Museum
Another important religious site in Cairo is the Coptic Museum, which houses an extensive collection of artifacts and artworks from ancient Egypt and other countries, offering a unique insight into the culture, history, and coptic christian religion of the region.
It has over 1,600 items on display including stone, wood and metal works, icons, frescoes, textiles and ceramics from all over the region.
The museum also features some displays dedicated to Christian art and architecture as it relates to the Coptic Church.
While here, visitors can view stunning pieces such as ornate wall paintings, intricate mosaic floors and spectacular stained glass windows.
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.
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.
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. You can also scroll through the list below.
Final Thoughts on What to Do in Cairo
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.
We hope this guide helped you plan what to do in Cairo and gave you inspiration for some attractions to add to your itinerary.
BIO: Giulia Cimarosti is Italian by birth, but 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!
Tours of Cairo
Before you go, make sure to check out some tours of Cairo and plan in advance. This will help you maximise your time and avoid spending time in long queues.
Tours of Egypt
If you don’t want to travel to Egypt as an independent traveler, G Adventures offer guided tours. We partner with G Adventures for their commitment to the supporting the environment and conserving local cultures.
More North Africa Travel Tips
Planning to visit other parts of Northern Africa? Then you may find these other guides helpful.
Do you have any tips on what to do in Cairo? Please share in the comments below.