Cairo

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. The Egyptian Antiquities Museum

    Downtown | Museum/Gallery

    On the north end of Maydan Tahrir, this huge neoclassical building is home to the world's largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts....Read More

  • 2. Banque Misr

    Downtown | Notable Building

    Colonial Cairo emulated the French, was run by the British, and was built largely by Italians. Yet for all that colonial layering, its profoundly...Read More

  • 3. Chaar-Hachamaim Synagogue

    Downtown | Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    This unusual concrete block with a subtle art nouveau floral motif is easily overlooked from the outside. This is one of Cairo's great treasures...Read More

  • 4. Groppi

    Downtown | Restaurant

    On the western edge of Maydan Tala'at Harb, recognizable by the gorgeous mosaic decorating the entrance, Groppi was once the chocolatier to...Read More

  • 5. L'Orientaliste

    Downtown | Store/Mall

    This small, unostentatious bookstore is one of the world's premier sources for antique maps and out-of-print books with Middle Eastern themes...Read More

  • 6. Old Red-Light District

    Historic District/Site

    Although the area around Shar'a Clot Bey is now rather conservative, at one time in the 20th century it was lined with brothels and bars, and...Read More

  • 7. Stephenson Pharmacy

    Store/Mall

    The antique, ground-floor Stephenson Pharmacy is not to be missed. It was once one of the best in the city (according to the 1929 Baedeker's...Read More

  • 8. Trieste

    Downtown | Notable Building

    Designed by the architect of the Banque Misr but even more intriguing, this 1910 building is rich in Islamic sculptural elements. Long neglected...Read More

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