The capital of one of the world’s most glorious empires, Cairo is a sprawling metropolis set along the banks of the Nile River. Characterized by Roman, Arab and Ottoman architecture, it is known for its unparalleled ancient monuments, luxurious hotels, desert heat, and notorious traffic. Like most cities, Cairo is a place of contrasts where centuries of history collide with the present day.
Things have been difficult in the past decade since the Arab Spring uprisings, counter revolutions and covid pandemic, but a city that has stood for 1,000 years has seen ups and downs before. And next month in November 2022, the world’s most awaited new archeology museum is slated to open in Giza. If you’re planning a trip, here’s what you can’t miss in Cairo. Discover the best places to visit, eat and sleep in Egypt’s bustling capital.
Visit The Pyramids
The pyramids are some of the recognizable icons in the world. Although ancient Egypt had over 100 pyramids, the most famous are located in Giza, a 30-minute drive west from Cairo. Built as grandiose tombs for the pharaohs during Egypt’s Old Kingdom (2700 – 2200 BC), they are the only remaining wonder of the ancient world and an awe-inspiring feat of human ingenuity to marvel in real life. Visitors can explore three pyramids in Giza, built for Khufu, Khafra and Menkaure, and smaller pyramids for the queen consorts located nearby.
Hidden away under desert sand for thousands of years, the Great Sphinx of Giza is another highlight. A limestone statue featuring the head of a human and a lion, it is one of the world’s oldest monumental sculptures and still shrouded in mystery. Egyptologists believe it was created by Pharaoh Khafre around 2500 BC and that its nose was broken off intentionally sometime between the 3rd-10th centuries AD (though reasons are still unknown).
The imminent opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum at the foot of the pyramids in Giza will be an extra reason to plan a visit to Egypt. Designed to be the largest archeological museum in the world, it will include over 45,000 artifacts, including the full collection of relics discovered in King Tutankhamun’s tomb (which will be relocated from the Egyptian Museum).
Taste Local Cuisine
Although Egyptian cuisine doesn’t have the global recognition of other Middle Eastern countries, the country has a rich gastronomic heritage that shares familiar flavors with its neighbors to the east and west. Dishes like hummus, baba ganoush and baklava are ubiquitous, though Egypt has its own spin on classics like falafel, locally named “taameya” made with fava beans instead of chickpeas, and tagines served with béchamel for added flavor and comfort.
Stop by Zööba, a hip eatery serving Egypt’s most popular street foods, has half a dozen locations around Cairo (along with franchises in New York City and Saudi Arabia) . We’re partial to the cozy enclave in Zamalek, a pretty residential neighborhood set on an island in the Nile. The Taameya sandwiches, stuffed with deep-fried fava bean patties, pickled salad and creamy tahina dressing, steal the show.
Another Egyptian must-try is koshari, a surprisingly tasty mélange that features a variety of carbohydrates to keep you energized for all your sightseeing. This simple, filling staple features pasta noodles, rice and lentils with a flavorful tomato sauce infused with chili, garlic vinegar and fried onions. As a food and travel writer living in Italy, I was skeptical, but the end result is more delicious than it looks. This specialty is also accidentally vegan and very affordable at 30 EGP (less than $2). Try this dish at Abou Tarek which has been serving Cairo’s foodies for decades and was also visited by Anthony Bourdain in No Reservations back in 2008.
Admire Ancient Art
Egypt has attracted visitors for its legendary art and culture for millennia, and the best collection of ancient antiquities lies in the Egyptian Museum. Dating back to 1902 and located right in Tahrir Square, this neoclassical building traces the history of ancient Egypt in over 120,000 treasures including gilded funerary masks, intricately painted coffins, stone statues, ancient jewelry and more. Visitors should not confuse this museum with others in the capital.
Some of the Egyptian Museum’s highlights, including 20 royal mummies of kings and queens, were moved to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC) back in 2021. And the priceless contents found inside Tutankhamun’s tomb — which include his famous death mask and two coffins — will be moved to the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) soon.
Wake Up To Nile Views
Situated on the northern end of Cairo’s corniche, offering mesmerizing views of the Nile and the posh Zamalek Island, Fairmont Nile City is an oasis away from the bustling streets of the capital. A glitzy refuge with an art deco aesthetic, the hotel has 542 guest rooms and suites, along with the capital’s only 360-degree pool on the 25th floor. If you look off behind the skyscrapers in the skyline, you can even glimpse the pyramids from up here.
For the ultimate pampering, it’s worth upgrading to a Fairmont Gold room for perks including private check-in and access to the exclusive Fairmont Gold Lounge. This swanky lounge serves an elaborate breakfast each morning for a small selection of guests, along with complimentary high tea and a pre-dinner buffet featuring traditional Egyptian recipes and international dishes.
The food may be tantalizing but you’ll want to save room to dine at the Fairmont Nile City’s numerous restaurants. Choices include Italian favorites at L’Uliveto, pan-Asian fare at Saigon, and a taste of upscale oriental dishes accompanied by live music and belly dancers Bab El Nil. But it’s hard to compete with the hotel’s newest opening, Gingko, a leafy Mediterranean-Asian bistro located on an outdoor terrace overlooking the Nile. Here you can enjoy saffron-infused sea scallops served with caramelized peaches and sip on a spicy passion martini while the sun sets, bathing the whole city in a golden glow.
Shop For Souvenirs
As a center of trade for thousands of years, Egyptians have honed their craftsmanship and the art of negotiation. The culture is known for its haggling, a skill visitors can practice in the country’s many markets and bazaars. The popular Khan Al-Khalili, located in the heart of Islamic Cairo, dates back to 1382. Stroll down El-Moez Street past mosques and minarets to peruse stands with colorful spices, woven tapestries and marble miniatures of Egyptian pyramids. Make your way over to El Fishawy Café which has been serving tea and coffee for over 200 years, or pull up a seat at Umm Kalthoum café, an establishment lined with photos of the beloved “Voice of Egypt” — an icon active between the 1920s -70s.
For more contemporary design wares, head over to Zamalek Market, an artisan fair and farmer’s market that takes place on the island of Zamalek every Saturday from 10:00am-4:00pm. First launched in 2017, this pop-up features local makers selling home décor, fashion accessories and natural skincare along freshly baked treats and seasonal produce. Makra, a line of natural clay pots made according to ancient Egyptian tradition, are worth picking up to prepare stews and tagines back at home.
Soak In Art & Culture At The Four Seasons
Located in the pretty Garden City on the banks of the river, the Four Seasons at Nile Plaza is an elegant oasis located in a strategic position to explore the capital. Surrounded by embassies, posh restaurants and cafes, it’s a short drive to the Egyptian Museum and Zamalek Island, home to Cairo’s 20th century Opera House and the iconic Cairo Tower standing 613 ft tall (187 m) and covered in 8 million mosaics.
The property has 365 rooms (including 100 spacious suites featuring private balconies), three swimming pools, and a world-class spa. With impeccable modern design and luxurious furnishings, it’s an elegant hotel that prides itself on its artistic and cultural offerings. As soon as you step into the grand lobby, you can admire the hotel’s stirring in-house art collection with 200 works by Farouk Hosny, an abstract painter and Minister of Culture of Egypt between 1987-2011. The Four Seasons at Nile Plaza also supports the local Tawasol foundation, a local NGO with a performing arts and skills-building program that helps to foster social integration and maintaining Egyptian crafts.
The property offers a myriad of dining options in beautifully decorated spaces. The Egyptian Zitouni serves a sumptuous buffet of local specialties, while 8 brings Cantonese dishes to the capital. There are two Italian restaurants for guests to enjoy Mediterranean cuisine during their stay: Riviera, inspired by coastal cuisine, and Bullona, a sleek, sexy restaurant featuring contemporary Italian artworks and illuminated by hundreds of candles each evening.