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Historic Cairo, the Citadel and other highlights of Egypt’s chaotic capital

by Flitter Fever
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Discover vibrant Cairo with its fascinating neighborhoods such as Historic Cairo and its friendly inhabitants. Cairo is home to app. 26 million people, 4 million cars with 71K taxis and there are no traffic rules. This results in lots of street noise, chaos and frequent accidents. Honking, yelling, dust, dirt, smog. Call to prayer echoes from the minarets’ speakers. Few will be spared this first impression of the largest city of Africa. Oh I did miss the Middle East! It’s all part of the Egyptian charm.

View on Sultan Hassan Mosque and Al Rifai Mosque in Cairo (photo credits Omar El Sharawy)
View on Sultan Hassan Mosque and Al Rifai Mosque (photo credits Omar El Sharawy)

Walking around with a local: “Egyptians are loud by default, we are born this way.”

Fusion

Not many cities have a history as long and diverse as Cairo. Nowadays, Cairo is a multicultural melting pot. Governmental and trade center of the country at the Nile, mix of oriental, traditional and modern. A fusion of different neighborhoods and suburbs. Despite its eventful past, it was only in the early 19th Century Ottoman governor Mohammed Ali revitalized Cairo and established the modern Egypt. Mohammed Ali was the King of Egypt between 1805 and 1848.

Two days

I would recommend to visit Cairo for an absolute minimum of two days:

  • Day 1: City center highlights (in this article)
  • Day 2: Pyramids and Memphis

To read about the pyramids near Cairo and Memphis, please check out my earlier article Gazing at the pyramids of Egypt for real – a childhood dream come true.

Egypt was the last country I visited before Corona hit Europe
Discover Historic Cairo

Cairo city center

Start the day early to avoid any potential crowds and heat (Apr-Nov). Also when you planned to visit the city center on your last day in Cairo, for example before taking the night train to Aswan, like we did.

Tahir Square forms the heart of Cairo. This large square with a big roundabout was the protesters’ stage during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, more widely known as the Arab Spring. This revolution led to the resignation of Mubarak as the President of Egypt, the death of more than 800 people, thousands of injuries and arrests. Tahir Square is also the location of the famous Egyptian Museum.

The distances mentioned in this article are taken from Tahir Square. In order of visiting. Just go the places by taxi and use a map; addresses in the Middle East are often like ‘Opposite McDonalds’, which are usually only understandable for locals.

The Citadel

At the foot of the Mokattam Mountains, Saleh el Din (Saladin) built a big fortress in Cairo in the early 13th Century. Saladin was an Islamic general famous for his attempts to reconquer Jerusalem in the 12th Century. An explosion ruined the majority of the fortress in 1824. Later Mohamed Ali built new palaces on the ruins, plus a big mosque, the Mohammed Ali Mosque, which is nowadays also known as the Alabaster Mosque. The walled area around the mosque is known as the Citadel of Cairo, full name Sala El Din Al Ayouby Citadel, located inside Al Azhar Park.

Mohammed Ali Mosque Cairo courtyard
Mohammed Ali Mosque courtyard

The Citadel consists of a number of sights.

  • Al Turfa Tower
  • Mosque of Mohammad Ali
  • Museum of Gawhara Palace
  • Mosque of Al Nasir Mohammad Ibn Qualaun
  • Al Muqattam Tower
  • Yusef’s Well
  • The National Military Museum (Feb-20 closed for renovation)
  • Museum of the Royal carriages
  • The Open Garden Museum
  • Mosque of Sulayman Pasha
  • Mosque of al-‘Azab
  • Police Museum
In front of the Mohammed Ali Mosque inside the Citadel

Sign outside The Citadel entrance gate to visit the National Military Museum in Cairo

However, several sights at the Citadel are in poor condition and closed. Basically the main reason to visit the Citadel is the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, which is the most interesting building and in the best condition maintenance wise. The courtyard is quite nice and inside the decorated ceiling and Arab lamps.

We found the dress code in the Mohammed Ali Mosque by far not as strict as in other mosques in Cairo that we visited. There seemed to be no-one checking for head scarfs, naked shoulders or too short pants or dress for example. Only you must take your shoes off at the door. 

  • Distance 6-7km depending on route (15-20 min by taxi)
  • Opening hours daily 08:00h – 17:00h, on Fridays mosque closed during prayers
  • Admission fee EGP 180 for foreigners, 50% off for students
The fruit man in Historic Cairo
Historic Cairo is full of these kind of hidden corners

Historic Cairo

Historic Cairo refers to one of the world’s oldest Islamic cities established in the 10th Century. Basically it is the Old Town of Cairo. This beautiful historical area breathes orient atmosphere with narrow streets with butchers, alive poultry, fresh fish and bakeries, mausoleums of sultans, hammams, mosques, coffee shops where locals hang out with shishas… Admire the minarets, fountains and decorates wooden doors, like the Facade of Hush Utay (7 A.D.). No wonder Historic Cairo is registered as UNESCO World Heritage Site. The day we walked around, a movie was shot here.

The heart of Historic Cairo is around Sharia Al Muizz Li Din Allah a.k.a. the shorter version El-Moez Street (al-Muizz). Get an all-in-one entrance ticket to get access to the 8/10 monuments listed below that require paid admission (see below). Most sites in Historic Cairo are from the Mamluk Era, including the most well-known Madrasa and Dome of Sultan Al-Nassir Mohammed Ibn Qalawun (1295-1303 A.D.), part of the Qalawun Complex. Many include not only a dome but also a school. The most remarkable sights of Historic Cairo are marked as pink stars in the map below.

  1. Complex of Qalawun Dome (1285)
  2. Madrasa of Al-Salih Ayyub Dome (1250)
  3. Madrasa of Al-Nasir Mohamed Dome (1304)
  4. Hammam Inal (1456)
  5. Madrasa of Barquq Dome (1386)
  6. Madrasa of Al-Kamil (1225)
  7. Quasr Bashtak Palace (1339)
  8. Mosque of Sulayman Agha Al Silihdar Mosque (1839)
  9. Maimonides Temple
  10. Sabil Kuttab of Khusraw Pasha fountain (1535)
Qalawun Complex in Historic Cairo
Qalawun Complex
Madrasa and Dome of Sultan Al-Nassir Mohammed Ibn Qalawun

Sometimes the names can be a bit confusing, for example one sign says the Mausoleum of As-Saleh Nagm Ad-Din Ayyub while the other says as per #2 above. Are they meant to be the same? I am not sure, sorry. In addition there are for example also the Mosque of Al Aqmar (1125) and the Egyptian Textile Museum. In total there are more than 500 monuments so lots to explore!

  • Distance 3-4km (15 min by taxi)
  • Open daily 09:00-17:00h (monuments)
  • Admission fee EGP 100 for foreigners, EGP 50 for students

How to get to Historic Cairo? Start from one of the northern gates, Bab Al Fotouh (al-Futuh) or Bab El Nasr, both at Al Banhawi. Bab means gate. Walk southwards. Or the other way around, whatever you prefer. You may walk as far as Zuwayla Gate (Bab Zuweila) with its remarkable two minarets dating back to 1092, located opposite the buzzling Tentmakers Market.

City of the Dead

The City of the Dead, also known as Cairo Necropolis, Qarafa or Al-Arafa, is a cemetery located around the edges of Historic Cairo. This was originally only a graveyard where people would come to remember their deceased loved ones, often hung around for days. The poverty in the 20st Century made people permanently move to the area and build a provisional house between the graves because they could not afford anything else. The Qait Bey Mosque is also located in this City of the Dead. This is where they keep the rock with a foot print that is said to be of Prophet Mohammed.

The poor side of Cairo graveyards and slum houses north of Bab Al Fotouh
City of the Dead Cairo

Al-Azhar Mosque

The Al-Azhar Mosque is right on the edge of Historic Cairo. Probably the best looking of all mosques in Cairo, especially the interior. This mosque reminded me a slightly of the Sheikh Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi (which is prettier) with its white shiny floors. The mosque fits up to 20.000 people and dates back to 972. The mosque is also home of the Al-Azhar University, the second oldest continuously run university in the world (after Fez in Morocco).

Al-Azhar Mosque Cairo courtyard

What makes this mosque remarkable are the twin minarets. As in any mosque, there are separate areas for men and women. The dress I was wearing that day, which reached just above my ankle and a legging underneath, was found to be ‘insufficient’. So they made me wear this stupid silk polka dot skirt on top of it, bummer! Shoes off. It is easy to reach the Al-Azhar mosque by foot or taxi. Take the underground walking tunnel if you come from the bazar on the other side of the street.

When we came out of the mosque, a group of men walked by carrying a coffin. According to the Sharia Islamic law, the body should be buried as soon as possible from the time of death, preferably within 24 hours. Muslim women often do not attend the burial and stay at home to prepare the food. Can you imagine not being allowed to attend the burial of your husband, father or brother?

  • Distance 4 km (15 min by taxi)
  • Open daily
  • Free admission
outside the Al-Azhar Mosque Cairo
Egyptian men carrying a coffin outside the Al-Azhar Mosque Cairo

Cairo goes by the nick name The City of a Thousand Minarets as the city is home to thousands of mosques.

Khan El-Khalili souk

Khan El-Khalili is the place to be for shopaholics, bargainers and culture lovers. This old Arab souk, medieval style oriental market, or outdoor shopping mall as you may want to call it, is a chain of shops and stalls offering spices, lamps, perfume, jewelry, souvenirs, toys, traditional clothes and shoes, lingerie, etc. As Lonely Planet describes so well, “the merchants of Khan Al Khalili are some of the greatest smooth-talkers you will ever meet”. They will ask where are you from, what is your name, etc. We got ourselves some cute little bottles with our choice of perfume, decorated as a bronze Arab tower.

Visit El Hanawy for fragrances and essential oils. Khedir Al Attar for spices. Get a coffee or tea somewhere, for example at El Fishawi. Smoke a shisha if you’d like to try. Watch the people walk by, consider your impulse purchases, get yourself something to eat and re-energize. The best time to shop at Khan El-Khalili is the second half of the afternoon or early evening. It’s usually rather quiet in the morning, but that’s possibly what you would prefer?

  • Distance 3.5 km (15 min by taxi)
  • Open daily 09:00h till midnight, Friday morning closed
  • Free admission (bring cash for purchases)
Khedr Al Attar spices market Cairo
Khan El-Khalili souk Cairo

Egyptian Museum

The Egyptian Museum is a must-do for anyone interested in Egyptian history, willing to pay the hefty entrance fee. Be careful when you book a full day guided tour, often the entrance fees are not included. The Egyptian Museum has an outstanding collection of Egyptian treasures and pieces of art, such as the golden mask of Tutankhamun, mummies including Ramses II, a 225 kilo golden coffin, jewelry, tools, etc.

  • Located at Tahir Square
  • Open Wed-Fri 09:00-17:00h, Sat-Sun 10:00-18:00h, Mon and Tue closed
  • Admission fee foreigners EGP 160 plus EGP 180 for the mummy hall, students 50% off
  • Book a knowledgeable guide in advance

In October 2020 the brand-new Grand Egyptian Museum is expected to open, which is being constructed along the road to Giza Pyramids. It will be big: 480.000 m².

Walk over the Nile in Cairo on a sunny morning

Cairo ranks among the cheapest cities in the world to live in, according to a recent study by Swiss Bank USB on 77 metropolitan areas.

Other things to do

Should you have more time, energy and/or other/more interests, there is lots more to explore in/around Cairo, some examples listed below. See also the map in this article.

  • Prince Mohamed Ali Palace (Al Manial Palace)
  • Sultan Hassan Mosque and other mosques
  • Coptic churches such as the Hanging Church
  • Coptic Museum
  • Cave Church
  • Museum of Islamic Art
  • Islamic Ceramics Museum
  • TV Tower
  • Carpet school of crafts
  • Pharaonic Village
  • Shopping
Shop in Historic Cairo
Cats Historic Cairo

Guided tour

Join a guided tour for (half) a day and get to see other things than you would on your own. Meet new people, especially when you travel solo (which I would not encourage for females here). Sustainable tourism includes providing work to locals. Even in many longer round trips, a day trip in the center of Cairo is excluded or optional.

In the need for internet in Egypt? Get portable Wi-Fi.

Map

This mobile friendly map includes most things mentioned in this article and more! It is smartphone friendly; you can use it easily via Google Maps. Click on the top left icon to open the menu. To customize the map to your interests, simply (un)select categories. Via Google Drive you can copy it to your folder of My Google Maps.

Where to stay in Cairo

Most upscale hotels in Cairo are located alongside the Nile, the lifeline of Egypt. My selection up-to-standard hotels in central Cairo that offer good value for money with room rates EUR 120-185 p/n incl. breakfast, Wi-Fi, private bathroom and pool access:

Alternatively, you could decide to stay near the pyramids to enjoy that view from your room, instead of the Nile. Check out my earlier article Gazing at the pyramids of Egypt for real – a childhood dream come true for accommodation suggestions in that area, which is about 25 km from Historic Cairo and the Citadel (35-40 min by taxi).

Kempinski Nile Hotel (photo credits booking.com)
Kempinski Nile Hotel
Sheraton Cairo Hotel & Casino room  (photo credits booking.com)
Sheraton Cairo Hotel & Casino

Where and what to eat in Cairo

Here are some of my tips for food in Cairo.

  • Try new things like pigeon or koshari, which is Egypt’s national dish, a mixture of Egyptian rice, lentils, macaroni and spicy tomato sauce.
  • If you are interested in a bit more luxurious dinner, with belly dancers and maybe clubbing later, the restaurants of five star hotels are the place to be, such as The Nile Ritz-Carlton and Fairmont Nile City. Check out the blue marked fork and knife icons in the map below for all suggestions. Contact the hotel/restaurant in advance for the latest information on belly dancing shows and table reservations. Some of these 5-star restaurants have nice rooftop bars with a view, and sometimes a nightclub too, where you can dance till dawn.
  • The Sheraton Cairo Hotel & Casino hotel has an excellent Italian restaurant called Gianni’s.
  • We had dinner outside at Seekh Mashwy with Nile river view. The food was quite nice, the service a bit low. Try the next door boat restaurant Sea Gull if you are into fish and other seafood. Take into account that at such places indoor (shisha) smoking is allowed.
  • Plan well in advance a dinner at a local’s house via the website EatWith.
  • Want to stay in for a night? Many fast food delivery options like burgers via UberEats.
  • Low budget traveler? You may like Kazaz all you crave with shawarma and other Middle Eastern food for very affordable prices, or try GAD (multiple locations).
Fresh fish for sale in Historic Cairo
Coffee bar in Historic Cairo

Do I need a visa for Egypt?

The answer to that question highly depends on your nationality, how long you wish to stay, what you plan to do (tourist or other), etc. Check for example the website of iVisa to learn whether you need a visa or not.

iVisa.com

How to get to Cairo

I guess you will have to take a flight first to Cairo International Airport (CAI), unless you stay in a beach place like Hurghada and take a tour from there? Check Skyscanner for flight possibilities. Cairo is easy to reach with the national airline Egypt Air, which has direct connections to many international airports worldwide, plus domestic connection flights to other airports in Egypt such as Luxor (LXR), Hurghada (HRG), etc. Other airlines such as Ukrainian Airlines may have cheaper rates (via Kiev).

Avoid the hustling taxi drivers at the arrivals hall by booking in advance a private transfer or shuttle from the airport to your accommodation of choice. Some offer immigration assistance as well.

Ukraine International airplane at Cairo airport
Taxi drivers waiting outside at Cairo International airport arrivals hall

Getting around

Depending a bit on the location of your accommodation, but most likely you will take a taxi or walk to the highlights of Cairo city center, such as Historic Cairo and the Citadel. Uber works very well here. Easily use the Uber app after a quick installation including entering your credit card details. The app shows when the taxi should arrive, the license plate number and color of the car. Sometimes a verification code is required towards the driver after you step in. No worries, it is pretty obvious how it works. Official taxis in Cairo work with cash and are mostly white with an orange license plate. Unfortunately seat belts do not always work here.

Be careful because Cairo has one of the world’s worst traffic. Every day about 20 Egyptians die in a traffic accident. There are no rules and often more cars drive beside next to each other than the number of lanes. Public transport such as bus is quite hard to understand if you cannot read Arabic, they are unreliable and lack air-conditioning and seat belts. The smaller mini-vans that drive around the city are used by locals, not tourists.

Flats and traffic on Nile Corniche in Cairo
Taxis and the Egyptian Museum seen from Tahir Square

Dutch & Belgian readers

This visit to Cairo was part of my recent round trip through Egypt with Dutch travel organization Djoser, my first group trip! And I really liked it. For more information check out the website of Djoser.

Read more

To read about the pyramids near Cairo and Memphis, please check out my earlier article Gazing at the pyramids of Egypt for real – a childhood dream come true.

This article contains affiliate links to support this website. For more information click here.

Have you ever been to Egypt or do you have plans to go? What do you think of Cairo? I hope this article was helpful for you. If you have a question or comment, please feel free to post one below.

Last Updated on 08/26/2020 by Flitter Fever

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