Top things to do in Cairo
It has a reputation for being smelly, chaotic and less than safe – but the Cairo I discovered was exciting, alluring and invigorating.
After spending a week at the Cairo International Film Festival, I stayed on a few days, didn’t want to leave and can’t wait to go back!
Here’s a guide to some of the top things to do in Cairo if you only have one day to get to know the city.
Start with breakfast in bed
With a big day ahead, keep breakfast low-key at your hotel. I stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo – a palatial oasis in the heart of the city, but wherever you’re calling home during your stay, enjoy the local breaky options of ful beans and falafel, fresh fruits, breads and of course, thick, dark Turkish-style coffee.
For the more adventurous, there are food carts all over town that offer very cheap eats. Try falafel, eggs, french fries and eggplant!
Enjoy a morning of magic at the Pyramids
This is what you came all the way to Egypt for: the majestic Pyramids of Giza.
Don’t feel like you have to buy everything or anything from the hawkers on the short stroll from the bus up to these wonders of the ancient world, as you’ll be at the markets later. But if you do, it’s all about negotiation. So either ignore the approaches (of which there’ll be many) or get amongst it.
Once you’ve had your fill of Pyramid selfies, 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. But if you’re straight and firm with them and agree a price prior to climbing on board, it’s well worth it.
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.
Lunch on local specialties
Egyptians have been feasting on pigeon since 3,000 BC, so be brave and try this local delicacy. They’re not wild, or one of the scavengers you see around the city. Pigeons sold as food have been raised on farms. It tastes like a cross between chicken and rabbit and is 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 in some classic cinema or beat the heat at the Egyptian Museum
To digest your food and enjoy some hawker downtime, catch an Egyptian film. Cairo is the ‘Hollywood of North Africa’ and the classic films are delightful, fun and will allow you to voyage into Cairo’s rich and dynamic past. The 1940s to 1960s are considered 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 staggering collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities (some 160,000 pieces!). The death mask of Tutankhamun is mind-blowing.
Bag a bargain at the ‘Khan’
Time to brave Khan el-Khalili. When it comes to top things to see and do in Cairo, this is a must. 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!
When it’s time for a refresher, 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.
Order an aperitif
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 with a trendy vibe.
Dine with the Sharifs
Still in Zamalek and there are plenty of great places to eat. Omar Sharif’s son Tarik has a terrific little Italian restaurant called La Trattoria, which offers great service, a relaxed ambience and tasty seafood. The fact that you don’t have to scream to have a conversation is a bonus.
Dance the night away
Get loose with the locals and shake your booty to Basheer, Cairokee or the local DJs at After 8 or 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 guides for details.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Cairo? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Ruby Boukabou is a travel, culture and food reporter based between Europe and Australia. Ruby 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’s probably tap dancing – and is a founding member of the Paris Tap Crew – which produces the monthly Paris Tap Jam. She’s also a member of jazz/world music group Le Shuffle Project – which records and performs in Paris and beyond.