Rich in history, heritage and culture, the Egyptian capital, Cairo is affectionately known as the “Mother of the World”. Habiba Azab tells us why…
With its bottleneck traffic, beguiling crowds and ancient tales, Cairo is chaos at its most magnificent, fascinating and captivating form. The fast-paced city’s constant buzz is the result of its 20 million strong inhabitants charming their way with their warm smiles and exceptional humour. As the locals say, if you love Cairo, it’ll definitely love you back.
The sprawling capital blends the best of old-world and new-world Egypt. Soaring minarets, historic mosques and some of the greatest architecture of medieval Islam can only be found in old Islamic Cairo. Meanwhile, a short cab ride away is the capital’s other centre of antiquity, Coptic Cairo. Home to some of the oldest churches and monasteries in the history of Christianity including the Hanging Church, which served as the seat of the Coptic Pope from the 7th to the 13th century. For a more modern outlook, Zamalek is a cosy neighbourhood with local art galleries and boutique gems hidden around every corner. Alternatively, Garden City is the place to go for felucca rides, whereas Downtown Cairo is the cultural hub of contemporary dance, music and art.
Cairo welcomes you with its mighty past and vivacious present. And although it can be an assault on the senses, if done right you can’t help but keep coming back for more.
From luxury abodes to boutiques boltholes, bed down in style
Once the hunting palace of Egyptian Khedive Isma’il Pasha, Marriott Mena House combines the charm of a bygone era with service fit for royalty. Rooms are lavishly furnished with exquisite rare antiques and handcrafted furniture, while The Sultan Lounge is a memorable place to start your evening – cocktails as the sun sets over the Great Pyramids is an Instagram-worthy moment to capture.
Boasting panoramic views of the Nile river, The Nile Ritz-Carlton lies at the heart of the city. Take a stroll back in time and stay in one of the 331 rooms overlooking the historical Egyptian museum, and then taste signature Arabian delicacies as the belly dancers sway.
Just around the corner, Four Seasons Cairo at The First Residence draws discerning travellers with its stylish design, colonial décor and opulent interiors. Set amid lush ancient zoological gardens, soak up the scenery on the open-deck pool followed by a soothing body treatment at the luxury spa, which offers direct views of the Nile.
Inspired by the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire, Le Riad Hotel De Charme is a quaint lodging tucked away in old town Cairo with only 17 suites to count. With its rich warm colours, Fatimid traditional prints and lovingly preserved paintings, each room evokes the romance of old times.
Villa Belle Époque is another boutique gem hidden on the quiet streets of Maadi. Conjuring up French summer vibes, this charming white-washed villa boasts 31 rooms, 13 of which are named after an Egyptian city combining contemporary and traditional designs to represent it.
Sizzling Street Food
For a truly authentic taste of the city, grab a bite at these top stop-offs
It’s no surprise that bustling Cairo is home to an extraordinary variety of rustic street fare; from buzzing street food stalls to eclectic local vendors, there’s something for every taste. You’ll know you’ve reached Kebdet El Prince when you find dozens of locals huddling up and impatiently waiting for their tables. Start off by ordering the heavenly molokhia with rice and tender waraet lahma, both local goodies that’ll leave you wanting more. Another authentic dish that every visitor should try at least once is Koshari; a unique mixture of rice, macaroni and lentils, all covered with a spicy tomato sauce, and Koshari El Tahrir has been ruling the roost for years. While strolling along the Corniche at night you’ll find stands in every nook and corner serving Hummus Sham. The warm and spicy drink is a very popular must-try made out of chickpeas, lemon, chili, along with spices of your choice.
Looking to take home a keepsake? Here are some must-haves
Incense: Intrinsic to the worship of the gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt, incense was used to ward off evil spirits. Choose between many shapes, types and fragrances to use in beautifully crafted burners.
Where to find it? Khan El Khalili Market
Papyrus scroll: Another item of ancient origin, Papyrus scrolls were man-made paper upon which Egyptians kept most of their important records. Of course, what you’ll find today are just replicas of the originals. However, with hieroglyphic alphabets and battle print scenes, they look just as real.
Where to find it? Egypt Papyrus Museum, Giza
Scarab beetle: Mostly made out of alabaster or granite, legend has it that Scarab beetles symbolize the Great Ra, the deity and leader of all Egyptian gods who created himself out of nothing. Ancient Egyptians believed that Ra was swallowed by the sky goddess Nut every evening as the sun dipped down only to be reborn every morning representing renewal and resurrection.
Where to find it? Khan El Khalili Market
Fez “Tarboush”: Worn by citizens and Pashas from 1805 until 1952, this cultural headgear became a symbol of modernity during the Ottoman Empire. For a true Bedouin look, wrap a white turban around your Fez.
Where to find it? Moez street
Old is gold
With a history that dates back to 1382, Khan El Khalili is one of the oldest flea markets in Egypt and by far the most popular. Bask in the city’s rich history and lose yourself in the winding alleyways of Islamic historical buildings while haggling for gorgeous antiques, handmade accessories, ornate perfume bottles and traditional clothing. Book addicts, meanwhile, should make a beeline to El Azbakeya Wall, a book market that was first introduced in the 19th century and displays more than 130 stalls overflowing with old, unique and used books. If you’re up for a splash of colour, Fokhareen Market is brimming with pottery gems you simply wouldn’t find anywhere else.
Admire the splendour of Islamic architecture in the City of a Thousand Minarets
Mosque of Muhammad Ali. Beautiful in its simplicity yet intricately designed, this masterpiece wows with its creative use of slim minarets, cascading domes, large chandeliers, Thuluth inscriptions and beautiful globe lamps.
Al Azhar Mosque. Considered a beacon of theological authority to the entire Islamic world, immerse yourself in a tale worth more than 1,000 years. With three minarets from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, the mosque blends different architectural styles while playing host to the world’s second-oldest university for the Sunni theology, Al Azhar University.
Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun. Still in its original mud brick form, this historical landmark is the oldest mosque in city. Lying in the heart of old Islamic Cairo, climb up the staircase of its minaret (which was uniquely built on the outside) and soak up a bird’s eye view of the old town.
Salma Ammar shares insider tips and tricks on exploring the city
“Tipping, known as baksheesh, is a huge part of the Egyptian culture. From waiters to bathroom attendants, you pretty much tip for anything and everything so make sure you save those smaller bills. Of course, a trip to Cairo is not complete until you’ve seen a show featuring the famous Sufi dancers. The plethora of twirling colours flowing all around is magical and better yet, free. Just head to the Al-Ghuri Mosque on Wednesday and Saturday nights at around 8pm for the dazzling show followed by a quick detour to one of the most authentic Egyptian culinary destinations, Fashet Sumaya.Hidden down a quiet lane in downtown Bab El Louk, here you can enjoy traditional home cooked meals served by Sumaya herself, the friendly owner of the establishment. Her perfectly seasoned lamb dish is a must-try.”
Home to one of the oldest civilizations in the world, Cairo is the land of myth, legend and deep-seated history, and no trip is complete without a stop at the Great Pyramids of Giza. The last of the ancient seven wonders of the world, the monumental tombs are relics of Egypt’s Old Kingdom built 4,500 years ago to withstand the test of time, deeming them one of the pure mysteries of the world. Beat the crowds by planning your trip in the early morning and don’t miss snapping the all-time classic photo of kissing the Sphinx. Make the Egyptian Museum your next stop and marvel at the beauty of more than 12,000 ancient antiques and artefacts on display, including royal mummies and the infamous gold mask of Tutankhamun. The City of the Dead is another must-see and a hidden gem that’s hauntingly beautiful. Known as Cairo’s Necropolis, the four-miles Islamic cemetery holds tombs of the world’s most notable Islamic figures and is largely inhabited by citizens living among the remains of their ancestors. With intricate shrines inscribed with phrases from the Qur’an, the city exudes a fascinating atmosphere of life and death, making it a truly unique experience.
Opposite page, from top: The traditional Egyptian dish Koshari; Papyrus scroll; Khan El Khalili Market, photo by Zeyad Abouzeid
This page from top: Muhammad Ali Mosque, photo by Hassan Mohamed; The Great Pyramids, photo by Zeyad Abouzeid
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