Cairo is one of the world's great megacities. As beautiful as it is crazy, and as rich in historic finery as it is half dilapidated, Cairo tends to be a city that travelers love and hate in equal measures. Its sheer noise, pollution, and confounding traffic are an assault on your senses, but look beyond the modern hubbub, and you'll find a history that spans centuries. Full of vigor, Cairo is where you really get a feel for Egyptian street life. No trip to Egypt is complete without a stay in the city Arabs call Umm al-Dunya (The Mother of the World).
The Pyramid of Cheops (also called the Great Pyramid or Pyramid of Khufu) is the largest pyramid of the Giza group, and its interior of narrow passages can be explored, although there isn't much to see, except a plain tomb chamber with an empty sarcophagus. Directly behind the Great Pyramid is the Solar Boat Museum, which displays one of the ceremonial solar barques unearthed in the area that has been painstakingly restored to its original glory. Further south on the plateau is the Pyramid of Chephren (also known as the Pyramid of Khefre), which has an internal tunnel area that can be entered, and the smaller Pyramid of Mycerinus (Pyramid of Menkaure). Guarding these mortuary temples is the lion-bodied and pharaoh-faced Sphinx; one of the ancient world's iconic monuments.
The pyramid plateau is on the edge of Giza's suburban sprawl, roughly 13 kilometers southwest of the central city.
Address: Al-Ahram Street, Giza
If you're pressed for time, make a beeline straight for the Tutankhamun Galleries. The treasures displayed here were all found in the tomb of Tutankhamun; son-in-law and successor of Amenophis IV (later Akhenaten), who died at the age of 18. The tomb, discovered by Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, contained the largest and richest assemblage of grave goods ever found intact in an Egyptian tomb. Highlights include Tutankhamun's death mask and sarcophagi (Room 3), the pharaoh's lion throne (Room 35) and his fascinating wardrobe collection (Room 9). Afterwards, don't miss a wander through the Egyptian Jewellery collection (Room 4), which contains more bling than you'll ever see again in one lifetime, and finish off by viewing the Royal Mummies Collection (Room 56 & 46) where you can say hello to Hatshepsut, Tuthmosis II, Ramses II, and Seti I in person.
The Egyptian Museum sits right beside Midan Tahrir, the central square of Downtown Cairo. The easiest way to arrive here is to take the Cairo Metro to Sadat station (on Midan Tahrir) and follow the exit signs to the museum.
Location: Midan al-Tahrir, Downtown
The main entrance is the Gate of the Barbers on the northwest side of the building, adjoining the neo-Arab facade built by Abbas II. Leave your shoes at the entrance and walk into the central courtyard. To your right is the El-Taibarsiya Medrese, which has a mihrab (prayer niche) dating from 1309. From the central courtyard, you get the best views of the mosque's five minarets, which cap the building. Across the courtyard is the main prayer hall, spanning a vast 3,000 square meters. The front half is part of the original building, while the rear half was added by Abd el-Rahman.
Al-Azhar Mosque is right in the heart of the Islamic Cairo district and easy to reach by taxi. Al-Azhar Street runs east from Midan Ataba in the downtown area right to the square where the mosque sits.
Address: Al-Azhar Street, Islamic Cairo District
The Coptic Museum here contains a wealth of information on Egypt's early Christian period and is home to one of Egypt's finest collections of Coptic art. Next door, the 9th-century Hanging Church contains some beautiful examples of Coptic architecture. Founded in the 4th century, the church was originally built over the Roman gate towers (hence the name) and was substantially rebuilt during the 9th century.
For many Christian travelers though, the real highlight of a visit to this district is the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus where local legend says the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus, and family sheltered during King Herod's massacre of male babies. Further into the quarter, you come to the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which is said to be built near the spot where the baby Moses was found in the reeds. Just outside the quarter, you can also visit the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-As; the first mosque built in Egypt.
Coptic Cairo is easiest reached by taking the Cairo Metro to Mar Girgis station.
Location: Sharia Mar Girgis, south of Downtown
For shoppers, the main souq road is Al-Muski Street (called Gawhar al-Qaid Street at its eastern end). The gold and silver workshops mostly congregate just north of this street's intersection with Al-Muizz Li-Din Allah Street, while the spice market section is just to the south. The market is hemmed in on its eastern side by the Neo-Gothic bulk of the Sayyidna el-Husein Mosque, built in 1792 to honor the Prophet Muhammad's grandson.
The entry to the Khan el-Khalili area is across the road from Al-Azhar Mosque.
Location: Off Al-Azhar Street, Islamic Cairo District
Just to the northeast of the Muhammad Ali Mosque is the El-Nasir Mosque, built in 1318-35 by Mohammed el-Nasir. A collection of rather half-hearted museums (the Police Museum, National Military Museum, and Carriage Museum) take up some of the other buildings on site and are more worthwhile viewing for the architecture of the actual buildings rather than the exhibits themselves.
You can walk to the citadel area from Bab Zuweila, if you're feeling energetic, by heading along Khayyamiyya Street. The walk takes about 30 minutes.
Location: Off Midan Salah-ad-Din, Islamic Cairo District
The exterior, with its large areas of stone, is reminiscent of an ancient Egyptian temple. The massive main doorway at the north corner is almost 26 meters high, and the minaret at the south corner is the tallest in Cairo at 81.5 meters.
The main doorway leads into a domed vestibule, beyond which are a small antechamber and a corridor leading into the ornate open Court centered around an ablution fountain. From here, an iron door leads into the sultan's mausoleum where the stalactitic pendentives of the original dome still survive. In the center of the chamber is the sultan's simple sarcophagus.
Directly facing the Sultan Hassan Mosque is the El-Rifai Mosque, built in 1912 to house the tomb of Khedive Ismail and constructed to replicate its older next door neighbor. The ex Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980) is also buried here.
Both mosques prominently sit on Midan Salah ad-Din, directly below Cairo's Citadel.
Location: Midan Salah-ad-Din, Islamic Cairo District
Address: Al-Muiz li-Din Allah Street, Islamic Cairo District
A little further north is the younger (built in 1309) Madrassa of an-Nasr Mohammedwith plenty of ornate detailing to admire, before you come to the fabulous Egyptian Textile Museum with a collection that spans the Pharaonic era right up to the Islamic period.
Address: Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street, Islamic Cairo District
On the mosque's northern side is the 40-meter-high minaret with a fine horseshoe arch over the entrance and a spiral staircase swirling through the interior. It is modeled on the minarets of the Great Mosque of Samarra on the Tigris. If you climb the 173 steps up to its upper platform there are superb views extending over the sea of houses to the north, and to the Mokattam Hills in the east.
It's an easy stroll from the Sultan Hassan Mosque to the Ibn Tulun Mosque walking straight down Al-Saliba Street.
Address: Al-Saliba Street
Al-Azhar Park is most easily visited by taking a taxi, but if you're already in the Islamic Cairo district and it's not too hot, you can turn east onto Darb al-Ahmar Street from Bab Zuweila and walk to the lower park entrance.
Address: Salah Salem Street
Zamalek is Cairo's top dining destination, but the southern tip of Gezira also has a clutch of art galleries to explore. The Palace of Arts is housed in the Nile Grand Hall on the former Gezira Fair Grounds, and features a schedule of rotating exhibitions in its galleries. Nearby is the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, which has a fine collection of 20th-century Egyptian art including works by Mahmoud Said and Mahmoud Mukhtar. Much of the southern section of Gezira is taken up by the exclusive tennis courts and riding stables of the Gezira Sports Club, but towering above all the lush greenery is the 187-meter-high Cairo Tower, built in 1961 by President Nasser. A trip up the observation deck at sunset to see dusk settle over the city is a must.
The north end of the island holds the gorgeously ornate Manyal Palace, built in 1805-18 in the time of Mohammed Ali. It has unfortunately been closed for extensive - and seemingly never ending - restoration work for the past several years.
His mosque, finished in AD 1013, has functioned over the centuries as a madrassa, Crusader fortress, and mental hospital and was completely restored in the 1980s. The minarets here are the most interesting architectural elements. They were originally round, and their present square casing and domed top sections (resembling an Arab incense burner) date from their rebuilding after Cairo's 1303 earthquake.
The mosque sits in between two of the old city district's most important gates. Bab el-Futuh (Gate of Conquests) on the mosque's western side and Bab el-Nasr (Gate of Victory) to the east are similar in form to ancient Roman town gates and were both built in 1087.
You can walk between Al-Azhar Mosque and the Mosque of Al-Hakim by following Al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah Street all the way north.
Address: Al-Galal Street, Islamic Cairo District
On the western edge of Downtown, on Al-Gumhuriya Street is 19th-century Abdin Palace, once the home of Egypt's last khedives. Today, the former private apartments of the king are open as a museum and contain a bizarre collection of pictures, tapestries, and gifts that have been given to Egypt's presidents by visiting dignitaries.
Downtown Cairo is easily navigated on foot - if you don't mind dodging traffic as you cross the roads.
Location: 30 kms south of Cairo
The remains of ancient Tanis, capital of the Tanite kings of the 21st and 22nd dynasties, lie in the northeast of the Nile Delta region, still partly buried under the ridge of the hills. The excavated remains are not as substantial as other sites, but are full of interest for the archaeologically inclined. The Temple Precinct is completely destroyed with only scattered fragments left in place, but the royal necropolis, with its empty tombs, in the temple area is interesting to visit.
Location: 143 kms northeast of Cairo
Location: 112 kms south of Cairo
Not to be confused with the Cairo suburb of the same name, ancient Heliopolis was the Egyptian town of Yuno (known in the Greek period as Heliopolis), which is one of the oldest cities in Egypt and, from the Old Kingdom onwards, the spiritual center of the entire country. It's a site really only for the most enthusiastic of amateur archaeologists as there are only scanty remnants left of the town and of the Temple of Re-Harakhty that once stood here. Most of the stones were repurposed over the centuries to build Cairo. All that remains of the temple is a solitary obelisk, made of red Aswan granite, standing 20 meters high.
In the desert, some five kilometers east of the obelisk, is the Necropolis of Heliopolis, dating from the Middle and New Kingdoms. A notable feature of the Middle Kingdom tombs was the large numbers of weapons found as grave goods.
Near Heliopolis is El-Matariya Church with the so-called Virgin's Tree. This sycamore was planted in 1672, replacing an older tree where, according to local legend, the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus rested during their flight into Egypt. The little garden where the tree stands is watered from a spring, said to have been called into being by the infant Jesus. The spring yields good fresh water, whereas the water of all the other springs in the area is slightly brackish. The legend of the Virgin's tree links up with an older cult; for the ancient Egyptians venerated a tree in Heliopolis beneath which Isis was believed to have suckled the infant Horus.
Location: El-Matariya suburb, 13 kms northeast from Downtown Cairo