Cairo is big: just how big you'll see on the drive in from the airport, which sometimes takes so long you'll think you're driving to Aswan. And what you see on the way into town, amazingly, is only half of it—Cairo's west-bank sister city, Giza, stretches to the Pyramids, miles from Downtown. But if you are the sort of person who instinctively navigates by compass points, exploring Cairo will be a breeze because the Nile works like a giant north–south needle running through the center of the city. If not, you might find the city bewildering at first.

Taxi drivers generally know only major streets and landmarks, and often pedestrians are unsure of the name of the street they stand on—when they do know, it's as often by the old names as the postindependence ones—but they'll gladly steer you in the wrong direction in an effort to be helpful. Just go with the flow and try to think of every wrong turn as a chance for discovery.

Thankfully, too, you don't have to conquer all of Cairo to get the most out of it. Much of the city was built in the 1960s, and the new areas hold relatively little historical or cultural interest. The older districts, with the exception of Giza's pyramids, are all on the east bank and easily accessible by taxi or Metro. These districts become relatively straightforward targets for a day's exploration on foot.

Old Cairo, on the east bank a couple miles south of most of current-day Cairo, was the city's first district. Just north of it is Fustat, the site of the 7th-century Arab settlement. East of that is the Citadel. North of the Citadel is the medieval walled district of al-Qahira that gave the city its name. It is better known as Islamic Cairo. West of that is the colonial district. Known as Downtown, it is one of several—including Ma'adi, Garden City, Heliopolis, and Zamalek—laid out by Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries. (The west-bank districts of Mohandiseen and Doqqi, by comparison, have only sprouted up since the revolution in 1952.) The most interesting sights are in the older districts; the newer ones have the highest concentrations of hotels, restaurants, and shops.

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  • 1. Bab Zuweila

    Islamic Cairo South

    The last remaining southern gate of Fatimid Cairo was built in 1092 and is named after members of the Fatimid army who hailed from a...Read More

  • 2. Coptic Museum

    Old Cairo

    Opened in 1910 and home to the world's largest collection of Coptic antiquities, this museum traces Coptic history from its beginnings to its full rise,...Read More

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  • 3. Giza Plateau


    You've seen Giza's iconic superstructures in books or films, but nothing prepares you for the breathtaking, in-real-life magnetism of the pyramids. The 4th-Dynasty tombs of...Read More

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  • 4. Great Sphinx Of Giza


    Carved from an outcropping of limestone bedrock on the Giza Plateau during the 4th Dynasty, this colossal statue of a recumbent Sphinx—a mythological creature generally...Read More

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  • 5. Imhotep Museum

    Named after the architect of the Djoser step pyramid, this relatively small but superb museum brings Saqqara to life, with well-lit artifacts and exhibits that...Read More

  • 6. Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hassan

    The Citadel

    Constructed between 1356 and 1363 by the Mamluk ruler Sultan Hassan, this is one of the world's largest Islamic religious buildings. Some historians believe it...Read More

  • 7. Mosque of Ibn Tulun

    The Citadel

    This huge congregational mosque was built in 879 by Ahmad Ibn Tulun with the intention of accommodating his entire army during Friday prayers. He was...Read More

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  • 8. Museum of Islamic Art

    Islamic Cairo South

    Often overlooked, this is one of the finest museums in Cairo, displaying a rare and comprehensive collection of Islamic art and antiquities. You can see...Read More

  • 9. National Museum of Egyptian Civilization

    Old Cairo

    Egypt’s first museum to focus on all its different civilizations truly takes you on a trip through history. The collections are designed to tell a...Read More

  • 10. Prince Mohammed Ali Palace

    Rodah Island

    Built between 1900 and 1929 by Prince Mohammed Ali, King Farouk’s uncle, the interiors of this palace are influenced by Ottoman, Moorish, Persian, and European...Read More

  • 11. Step Pyramid of Djoser

    The quest for immortality is tangible at what is considered Egypt's first pyramid, so old that it was a great attraction even in antiquity: as...Read More

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  • 12. Tahrir Square


    After living in Paris, the 19th-century Khedive Isma’il embarked on a mission to create a European-style district in Cairo, both as a way to modernize...Read More

  • 13. The Citadel

    The Citadel

    Local rulers had long overlooked the strategic value of the hill above the city, but, within a few years of his arrival in 1168, Salah...Read More

  • 14. The Egyptian Museum


    This huge neoclassical building, a Downtown landmark on the north end of Tahrir Square, was masterfully designed by French architect Marcel Dourgnon. It opened in...Read More

  • 15. The Grand Egyptian Museum


    One of the most ambitious architectural designs in the new millennium is a fitting home for the mother lode of ancient artifacts excavated in Egypt...Read More

  • 16. Tomb of Queen Meresankh III


    Just east and in the shadow of the Great Pyramid is the tomb of Khafre’s wife and the granddaughter of Khufu, Queen Meresankh III. The...Read More

  • 17. Tunis Village

    This small village overlooking Qarun Lake is often referred to as Eastern Switzerland. Evelyne Porret, a Swiss potter, moved to the village in the 1980s...Read More

  • 18. Wadi al-Hitan

    There are no grandiose temples or legends of conquests here. Instead, you stand in the desert expanse alongside 40-million-year-old whale skeletons. Wadi al-Hitan, or Valley...Read More

  • 19. Workers' Town and Cemetery


    In the 1980s, the discovery of the workers' town and cemetery in the southeastern area of the Giza Plateau confirmed that construction of the pyramids...Read More

  • 20. Abdeen Palace Museum


    Designed by French architect Léon Rousseau, this massive palace was commissioned by Khedive Isma’il to serve as the official government headquarters in place of the...Read More

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