Egypt is full of postcard sites, stunning landscapes, and romantic holiday destinations. Its capital city is a cultural juggernaut but also an overwhelming megacity. Cairo has everything, and you shouldn’t skip it on your Egyptian adventure. On this basis, here are the top places to visit in Cairo, Egypt.
Welcome to Cairo: a Fascinating, Bustling, and Chaotic Megacity
Cairo is today the second-largest city in Africa with over 21 million inhabitants and the economic center of Egypt.
The city has its origins in the ancient settlement of Memphis, now located around 24 kilometers (15 miles) southwest of modern Cairo. Memphis was the capital of the Ancient Egyptian kingdom around 4,000 years ago when King Menes united Upper and Lower Egypt.
The city itself was established in the 10th century by the Fatimid Caliphate, who ruled over Egypt after conquering the region. The following period gave rise to many prominent Islamic landmarks, including the Al-Azhar Mosque.
In the 12th century, Saladin – known for capturing Jerusalem from the Crusaders, became the first Sultan of Egypt. Saladin’s reign had a lasting influence on Egypt, and some of his buildings – including Cairo Citadel – are still visible today. Throughout the Middle Ages, Cairo flourished as a center of the Muslim world. In the 16th century, the Ottomans took over Egypt and added their touches to Cairo’s multi-layered cityscape.
In the 19th century, Muhammed Ali Pasha (an Albanian-Ottoman governor) founded the modern Egyptian state and resisted Napoleonic rule. Starting in 1882, the British occupied Egypt, and it became a de-facto colony, even after its independence in 1922.
Like all foreign occupations, British rule left its mark on Cairo, with imperial buildings and railway stations complementing Cairo’s diverse architecture. The Egyptian Revolution in 1952 under the legendary Colonel Nasser led to the departure of the British, and Cairo continued to evolve into the largest city in the Arab world throughout the 20th century.
In 2011, Cairo’s streets once again erupted in revolution, when Egypt was one of the players of the Arab Spring movement. The situation remained unstable for several years but has since calmed down.
Today, Cairo is so overcrowded and congested that several new agglomerations emerged around the Egyptian capital. As such, the cities of New Cairo and the New Administrative Capital should reduce the pressure on the megacity, but the effects of these projects aren’t visible yet.
Cairo’s traffic is insane, and many of the city’s neighborhoods are falling apart. Nevertheless, visiting Cairo is a must on your Egyptian journey, as it showcases the country’s multifaceted history and culture.
Finally, Giza – home to the last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World and the brand-new Grand Egyptian Museum – is only a short drive away, catering for excellent day trip options.
The Top Places to Visit in Cairo
You’ll find the top tourist attractions and fun places to go in Cairo all over the megacity. As such, it’s best to plan your itinerary by area. The following are the most unmissable places to see in Cairo, Egypt.
The Egyptian Museum
Most tourists come to Egypt to see ruin sites, and the Egyptian Museum is the perfect place to brush up on ancient history before heading to the temples.
You’ll find a vast collection of statues, mummies, and artifacts here, showcasing some of the best ancient Egyptian art that the colonists didn’t steal.
The Egyptian Museum is undoubtedly among the best things to do in downtown Cairo, but there are a few things to know before visiting it. First, the museum has little to no signs. Consequently, unless you’re an expert on ancient Egyptian history, you might need a guide, but don’t fall for the scammers outside. Book a professional guide in advance to have the best possible experience.
Aside from that, it’s essential to know that many antiquities will soon be transferred to the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, opening in late 2021.
The top places to visit in Cairo undoubtedly also include the city’s authentic core.
In broad terms, Cairo’s Islamic history began after the Muslim conquest of the region in the 7th century. In this context, the area today known as “Islamic Cairo” is home to various monuments, mosques, and markets from this period.
In this neighborhood, you can visit Khan el-Khalili, one of the most authentic and buzzing souqs in Cairo, the City of the Dead (Cairo Necropolis), and the stunning 9th-century Mosque of Ibn Tulun. Be aware that this area is crowded and relatively untouristy, so expect a lot of touting and have your wits about you.
Finally, the city’s historic heart is also home to the next top attraction in Cairo: Saladin’s Fortress.
Saladin’s Fortress (Cairo Citadel)
Exploring the various complexes of Saladin’s 12th-century fortress is among the most fun things to do in Cairo.
The fortress’ original construction dates from 1183, but several buildings were added over time. Today, Cairo Citadel houses the Military Museum, fortifications, and several mosques – including Muhammad Ali Pasha Mosque, the largest mosque in Egypt.
The complex is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. With its vast range of buildings, Cairo Citadel demonstrates both Islamic military architecture and Ottoman engineering.
Together with Islamic Cairo, Saladin’s Citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage site. To top it all off, the citadel’s panoramic terrace is one of the best places to get a feel for the sheer size of the megacity.
When it comes to the top places to visit in Cairo, the Al-Azhar Mosque is one of the most impressive historic sites within the megacity’s boundaries.
Built during the Fatimid rule in 972, it was the first mosque in Cairo. The building has seen lots of redevelopments throughout the centuries – helping it regain its former glory.
Today, the mosque can accommodate up to 20,000 people and has become one of the most well-known symbols of Islamic Egypt.
Cairo Tower & Zamalek
The top places to visit in Cairo for photographers definitely include Cairo Tower. The free-standing concrete structure is the tallest building in Egypt and North Africa at 187m (614 ft). The views are breathtaking, especially at sunset. Be aware that ticket prices go up if you’re carrying a camera.
The tower stands in Zamalek, one of the best areas to stay in Cairo for tourists. You’ll find lots of great restaurants, international hotel chains, and entertainment venues here.
Egypt’s Christian heritage goes back many centuries, and Coptic Cairo is the epicenter.
Christians believe that the Holy Family visited the area during the Flight into Egypt (a story from the Gospel of Matthew), making Coptic Cairo a significant part of early Christian history.
Today, Coptic Cairo is home to various well-preserved churches and religious sites, including the 3rd-century Hanging Church, the Roman Fortress of Babylon, and the 10th-century Greek Church of St. George. Next to those, you’ll find the Coptic Museum, one of the best places to learn about Egypt’s Christian history.
As Egypt has a sizable Christian minority (around 10% of the population in 2021), the Coptic neighborhood is one of the top places to visit in Cairo if you want to admire the country’s diversity.
Where to Stay in Cairo, Egypt
Two areas in central Cairo offer lots of options when it comes to accommodation.
First, Zamalek is home to most of the city’s international luxury hotel chains – as well as some budget-friendly options. Situated on a Nile island, the area offers a mix of tourist compounds, luxurious recreation activities for locals, and high-end residential neighborhoods. If you’re visiting Cairo for the first time, Zamalek is arguably the best option.
If you want to be closer to Cairo’s bustling heart, Garden City is another option. The quiet neighborhood is full of grand 20th-century mansions and embassies. You’ll find some of Cairo’s most luxurious hotels here, but also Airbnbs and smaller guest houses.
Finally, New Cairo is an alternative if you don’t mind being far away from the center. The area is much less chaotic than downtown Cairo and has various resort-style hotels.
Top Places to Visit in Cairo – Know Before You Go
- How many days should you spend in Cairo? Depending on how much you want to visit, two to three days should be enough. Bump that up by one day for the Pyramids and Saqqara.
- Cairo’s infamous traffic makes getting around a challenge. There is a metro, but it only covers a few routes. In a nutshell, public transportation options are limited, so Uber and Careem are the best choices. Taxis are often unreliable, and you’ll have to negotiate for ages before getting an acceptable price.
- Cairo is safer than you might think, but there are underlying dangers to be aware of. Always watch your belongings and apply common sense, especially outside of Zamalek. Be careful with taxis and stay away from demonstrations. Those principles should suffice to have a safe and trouble-free visit.
- Be aware that many parts of Cairo are conservative. Dress down and respect Islamic etiquette when venturing into more local neighborhoods.