Cairo, Egypt: Top 10 things to do for tourists

I WANT TO SOAK UP ANCIENT HISTORY

The 4500-year-old Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, used to sit on the outskirts of Cairo, but the sprawling city now encircles its home on the Giza Plateau. Visit early in the day and, if you can cope with heat and confined spaces, take the unnervingly narrow tunnel that leads to the burial chamber of the pharaoh King Khufu. When it eventually opens, hopefully this year, the much anticipated Grand Egyptian Museum will be an essential part of this experience. Saqqara, home to the world's oldest step pyramid, is about 25 kilometres to the south-east and its authoritative little museum is worth a visit. Travel a further 10 kilometres into the desert and you'll find the royal necropolis at Dahshur, with its Red, Bent and Black pyramids. An open-air museum between Saqqara and Dahshur remembers the ancient capital of Memphis. Here, you'll find Egypt's second-largest sphinx and a colossus of Ramses II, which is lying on its back, giving you a sense of just how big it is. Urban Adventures offers several guided tours of these sites. See urbanadventures.com

I WANT TO EXPLORE ON FOOT

Amble down Mu'izz li-Din Allah, often shortened to Al-Muizz, which has been Cairo's heartline for a millennium. Thanks to a public works program it now looks quite regal and is hard to miss. Dusk is the best time to visit, when its medieval Mamluk-era palaces are awash with coloured lights and lend a fairytale air to the busy thoroughfare. Set aside half a day to discover its cafes, caravanserais, historic houses and mosques including Al-Hakim, its oldest, which dates from 1013 AD.

I WANT TO EAT STREET FOOD

Moreish Middle Eastern staples such as kofta, kebab and falafel are a big part of Egyptian cuisine. The local version of falafel is called ta'ameya and is made with fava beans instead of chick peas. Koshary, however, is a dish that Egypt can really call its own. It's a carb bomb that involves macaroni, rice, vermicelli and chickpeas piled into a bowl and topped with crispy fried lentils and onion chips. Douse it in lemony vinegar, chilli and tomato sauce, and dig in. Koshary Abou Tarek (at the corner of Maarouf and Champollion streets in Downtown Cairo) is a perennial favourite and a small dish of koshary costs about 50¢. My favourite, however, is Koshary Hend (5 El-Tharwa Street, Heliopolis). If you fancy Sphinx views with your kebab then upmarket Abou Shakra, a 70-year-old Egyptian restaurant chain, is a good choice.  The breakfast of champions in Egypt is ful: mashed fava beans scooped up with a "cat's ear" – a twist of flat bread. See aboushakra.net

I WANT A QUICKIE NILE CRUISE

Peace in this mad city can be found in an unexpected place, its epicentre. More specifically, on a felucca in the middle of the Nile as the sun sets over the city. Choose from a traditional sailboat or, if you want to cover more ground, opt for a motorised boat. Beware: they can be seriously loud and smelly. Most feluccas go out for an hour. You'll find rough signs for them on the docks in front of the Grand Nile Hotel (the old Grand Hyatt). Raucous Egyptian shaabi music blaring from your felucca's sound system is optional.

I WANT TO HIT THE TOWN

Cairo is a late-night town and locals like to spend their evenings at the cafes, from the downbeat to the dazzling, that line the banks of the River Nile. Try upmarket, open-air Lebanese restaurant Hayda, near Giza Zoo, rooftop Crimson Cairo or Nox Bar atop the Ritz-Carlton. The long-running Cairo Jazz Club is always a safe bet, popular with locals and expats, while Moon Deck on the Blue Nile Boat is the current pick of the cabaret boats that host nightly belly dancing shows. Ladies, wear heels or face eviction – yes, really. See facebook.com/HaydaEG; facebook.com/CrimsonCairocairojazzclub.comfacebook.com/BlueNileBoat

I WANT TO HAGGLE

Fantasising about narrow alleyways softly lit with ornate Arabian lanterns and precious gems? Khan al-Khalili, Cairo's labyrinthine market, has been wheeling and dealing in perfumes and gold, spices and dreams for 700 years. This is the place to snap up your King Tut coffee mug, Nefertiti statue and a belly dancer's outfit. Good (authentic) buys include leather sandals, brass lampshades, Egypt's signature jewellery boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl and, if you're knowledgeable, 22 carat gold and jewellery set with semi-precious stones. Finish with a short, sugared Turkish coffee or a minty tea in Fishawy Cafe, which (allegedly) served coffee to Napoleon, and hasn't closed its doors – day or night – in 250 years.

I WANT TO SMOKE SHISHA

There are two things to remember when smoking shisha (the Egyptian name for the hookah or water pipe): it won't alter your consciousness and, yes, it contains nicotine. Choose the flavour for your tobacco: double-apple is the standard, with mint and lemon a firm favourite, but you can also go wild with mango, strawberries and cream or even chocolate. Each summer sees a new, fashionable flavour touch down. Almost all shisha cafes offer disposable mouthpieces and tubes, to maintain hygiene. Tip the shisha boy to keep the coals a-glowing. Cairo's street cafes are mostly men-only affairs, while most five-star hotels have serene shisha gardens. Accompany with fresh mango juice.

I WANT AN ADVENTURE

One of my most memorable travel experiences is a wild horse ride around the Pyramids of Giza by the light of the full moon. I survived, but now stick to early morning rides, preferably on Fridays, while the rest of the city sleeps. The Giza plateau is sandy desert and mostly desolate, save for the occasional black goat-hair tent where a nonchalant boy will sell you cold drinks or hot tea. You could opt for a more sedate camel ride (they'll tie on your Arabian scarf, gratis) or take a horse-drawn careta (carriage), which will shade you from the hot sun. Choose your ride well, and please pay the extra for animals that are well cared-for; try AB stables.

I WANT TO SEE EGYPT ON HIGH

With 20 million people swarming around Cairo, you need to elevate yourself to get the full picture. For a small fee, you can climb to the roof of the Qalawun complex on Al-Moez Street or Sultan Al-Ghuri mosque on Al-Azhar Street for spectacular city views. Time your visit for just before sunset so you can hear the call to prayer from a hundred muezzins. For a larger fee and a more sanitised experience, shoot to the top of the 187-metre-high Cairo Tower in Zamalek, where you can have your photo taken with a man in faux-pharaonic dress. Yes, it does have a revolving restaurant.

Advertisement

I WANT TO SHOP ETHICALLY

In Cairo, it is possible to buy beautiful, ethically-produced handicrafts made by some of Egypt's poorest people. Make a beeline for Fair Trade Egypt (1st floor, 27 Sharia Yehia Ibrahim, Zamalek) or visit the trove that is Oum El Dounia in Downtown Cairo. Souq al-Fustat, just beside Coptic Cairo, has workspaces for a range of artists. If you find yourself in one of Cairo's contemporary malls, keep an eye out for Nefertari, which makes soaps and lotions using traditional Egyptian ingredients (think milk and honey). The souq kheemiyya (Tentmaker's Market) is one of the few remaining caravanserai's in Cairo; buy their beautiful cushions and throws in Egypt's brightly coloured traditional applique. See oumeldounia.com  nefertaribodycare.com

I WANT THE FACTS

POPULATION

19.8 million

LOCATION

Egypt's vast capital is three hours from the hubs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, five hours from London or Moscow and 3½ hours from Rome. There are no direct flights from Australia but Emirates and Etihad both fly into Cairo regularly. If you're not on an organised tour, always book a pick-up or use Uber – never take unsolicited transport from the airport. See egyptair.com

CLIMATE

This desert town is bone dry. April and May or mid-September to November are the best times to visit. Daytime temperatures above 40 degrees are common in summer (June to August) while February and March are characterised by the khamaseen, a hot wind from the deserts of North Africa that can last up to 50 days.

ARCHITECTURE

The Giza Pyramids are an unsurpassed feat of architecture and construction but you'll also find plenty of British-colonial influence in Cairo's neo-classic public buildings, including the Egyptian Museum. When it finally opens, the new design statement will be the Grand Egyptian Museum by Dublin-based Heneghan Peng Architects, rumoured to be partially open, by appointment, from mid-2019. See gem.gov.eg

ACCOMMODATION

Pricey, yes, but the Nile Ritz-Carlton is right on the river in downtown Cairo, beside the Egyptian Museum. For pyramids views, the grand dame, Marriot Mena House, is unbeatable and its older Palace wing oozes history. See ritzcarlton.commarriott.com.au

TOUR

Abercrombie & Kent's four-day Cairo Stopover covers the key sights, including the pyramids, museums,  historic Islamic Cairo district and pulsating Khan al-Khalili souq. Its knowledgeable local guides can go further, into the Coptic Christian sites and out to Saqqara, Dahshur and Memphis. See abercrombiekent.com.au

MORE

traveller.com.au/cairo

Belinda Jackson was a guest of Abercrombie & Kent and the Nile Ritz-Carlton.

Comments