It has a reputation for being smelly, chaotic and less than safe — but the Cairo I discovered was exciting, alluring and invigorating.
After attending the Cairo International Film Festival, I stayed on for a day or two to explore — and now I can’t wait to go back!
Here are some ideas for how to spend 24 hours in Cairo.
You have a big day ahead, so enjoy a relaxed breakfast at your hotel. The menu will probably feature ful beans and falafel, fresh fruits, delicious breads and of course, thick, dark Turkish-style coffee.
For the more adventurous foodie, there are food carts all over town that offer very cheap eats. Try falafel, eggs, eggplant and french fries!
Your first stop of the day is what you came all the way to Egypt for — the majestic Pyramids of Giza, which were built around 2500 BC. Don’t feel you have to buy everything or anything from the hawkers on the short stroll from the bus or taxi station up to these wonders of the ancient world, as you’ll be heading to the markets later. However, if you do decide to shop, it’s all about negotiation. Either ignore the approaches (of which there’ll be many) or start haggling!
Once you’ve had your fill of Pyramid selfies, it’s time for a camel ride. Be aware that the herder may suddenly hike the price once you’re in the saddle and a virtual hostage. Be firm with them and agree a price prior to climbing on board. By the way, camel riding lessons are not part of the service. You just have to suss it out en route, but lean forward on the uphill and back on the down; and be prepared for a sudden little trot every now and then.
Finish living out your Lawrence of Arabia fantasies, then head to the Great Sphinx of Giza to sit and contemplate, rather than snap and run.
Egyptians have been feasting on pigeon since 3,000 BC, so be brave and try this local delicacy. They’re not the scavengers you see flapping around the city. Pigeons sold as food have been raised on farms. They taste like a cross between chicken and rabbit, and come stuffed with rice.
Also try mulukhiyah — a delicious and vitamin-rich green garlicky soup, and kushari — the famous rice, pasta and bean staple. Abu El Sid Restaurant, just opposite the Marriott, is a good option. There are several of these traditional dining rooms around Cairo, with delicious authentic cuisine and prices mid way between the food carts and chic hotel bistros.
Take a break from the heat and hawkers by catching a flick. Cairo is the Hollywood of North Africa and its classic films are a delight. They provide a window into the city’s rich heritage. The 1940s to 1960s are considered to be the golden age of Egyptian film. Head to an Art Deco cinema like the Metro, which opened in 1940.
The other option to beat the heat (well, sort of) is the Egyptian Museum — home to a vast collection of Egyptian antiquities (some 160,000 pieces). The death mask of Tutankhamun is a must-see.
It’s time to brave the Khan el-Khalili bazaar. This very busy souk, inspired by the Cairo of times past, is in the Islamic centre of the city. While you may sometimes feel like a walking dollar sign, chill out and enjoy the ride. Decide your budget before you circle in on something you actually want and prepare to haggle with the best. You can find lotus perfumes, hand-made leather bags, musical instruments, shawls, jewellery and even glow-in-the-dark papyrus!
If you need a break, stop and order a mint tea at a popular café and listen to the music of the old men jamming and the street sellers pitching, mixed in with the call to prayer from the neighbouring mosques.
Enjoy a well-earned aperitif at Aperitivo Bar at La Bodega in the well-to-do neighbourhood of Zamalek in Western Cairo. They do a mean martini.
There are plenty of great places to eat in Zamalek. Omar Sharif’s son Tarik has a terrific little Italian restaurant called La Trattoria, which offers great service and a relaxed ambience. The fact that you don’t have to scream to have a conversation is a bonus.
Cut loose with the locals and shake your booty to the mixes of local DJs at After 8 or the Cairo Jazz Club.
Cairo-based Australian jazz singer Michelle Rounds runs the Cairo Jazz Festival and performs around town throughout the year — including at the Cairo Jazz Club. Check local gig guides for details.
Ruby travelled as a guest of the Cairo International Film Festival.
Do you have any tips for how to spend 24 hours in Cairo? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Ruby Boukabou is a travel, culture and food writer based between Europe and Australia. She has written for The Age, The Australian, Qantas, Issimo, The Diplomat, Paris Voice and Inside Film. She has also produced culture and travel stories for the ABC, SBS and Screen Australia. When Ruby’s not writing, she is probably tap dancing. She is a founding member of the Paris Tap Crew (which produces the monthly Paris Tap Jam) and a member of jazz/world music group Le Shuffle Project.