15 Top Tourist Attractions in Cairo & Easy Day Trips
Cairo is one of the world’s great megacities. As beautiful as it is crazy, and as rich in historic finery as it is half dilapidated, Cairo tends to be a city that travelers love and hate in equal measures. Its sheer noise, pollution, and confounding traffic are an assault on your senses, but look beyond the modern hubbub, and you’ll find a history that spans centuries. Full of vigor, Cairo is where you really get a feel for Egyptian street life. No trip to Egypt is complete without a stay in the city Arabs call Umm al-Dunya (The Mother of the World).
1. Pyramids of Giza
The Pyramids of Giza are Cairo’s number one half-day trip and a must-do attraction on everyone’s itinerary. Right on the edge of the city, these fourth dynasty funerary temples have been wowing travelers for centuries and continue to be one of the country’s major highlights. Despite the heat, the dust, and the tourist hustle, you can’t miss a trip here.
The Pyramid of Cheops (also called the Great Pyramid or Pyramid of Khufu) is the largest pyramid of the Giza group, and its interior of narrow passages can be explored, although there isn’t much to see, except a plain tomb chamber with an empty sarcophagus. Directly behind the Great Pyramid is the Solar Boat Museum, which displays one of the ceremonial solar barques unearthed in the area that has been painstakingly restored to its original glory. Further south on the plateau is the Pyramid of Chephren (also known as the Pyramid of Khefre), which has an internal tunnel area that can be entered, and the smaller Pyramid of Mycerinus (Pyramid of Menkaure). Guarding these mortuary temples is the lion-bodied and pharaoh-faced Sphinx; one of the ancient world’s iconic monuments.
The pyramid plateau is on the edge of Giza’s suburban sprawl, roughly 13 kilometers southwest of the central city.
Address: Al-Ahram Street, Giza
2. The Egyptian Museum
The absolutely staggering collection of antiquities displayed in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum makes it one of the world’s great museums. You would need a lifetime to see everything on show. The museum was founded in 1857 by French Egyptologist August Mariette and moved to its current home – in the distinctive powder-pink mansion in Downtown Cairo – in 1897. Yes, the collection is poorly labeled and not well set out due to limits of space (and only a fraction of its total holdings are actually on display), but you still can’t help being impressed by the sheer majesty of the exhibits.
If you’re pressed for time, make a beeline straight for the Tutankhamun Galleries. The treasures displayed here were all found in the tomb of Tutankhamun; son-in-law and successor of Amenophis IV (later Akhenaten), who died at the age of 18. The tomb, discovered by Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, contained the largest and richest assemblage of grave goods ever found intact in an Egyptian tomb. Highlights include Tutankhamun’s death mask and sarcophagi (Room 3), the pharaoh’s lion throne (Room 35) and his fascinating wardrobe collection (Room 9). Afterwards, don’t miss a wander through the Egyptian Jewellery collection (Room 4), which contains more bling than you’ll ever see again in one lifetime, and finish off by viewing the Royal Mummies Collection (Room 56 & 46) where you can say hello to Hatshepsut, Tuthmosis II, Ramses II, and Seti I in person.
The Egyptian Museum sits right beside Midan Tahrir, the central square of Downtown Cairo. The easiest way to arrive here is to take the Cairo Metro to Sadat station (on Midan Tahrir) and follow the exit signs to the museum.
Location: Midan al-Tahrir, Downtown
3. Al-Azhar Mosque
Al-Azhar Mosque is the finest building of Cairo’s Fatimid era, and one of the city’s earliest surviving mosques, completed in AD 972. It’s also one of the world’s oldest universities; Caliph El-Aziz bestowed it with the status of university in AD 988 (the other university vying for “oldest” status is in Fes) and today, Al-Azhar University is still the leading theological center of the Islamic world.
The main entrance is the Gate of the Barbers on the northwest side of the building, adjoining the neo-Arab facade built by Abbas II. Leave your shoes at the entrance and walk into the central courtyard. To your right is the El-Taibarsiya Medrese, which has a mihrab (prayer niche) dating from 1309. From the central courtyard, you get the best views of the mosque’s five minarets, which cap the building. Across the courtyard is the main prayer hall, spanning a vast 3,000 square meters. The front half is part of the original building, while the rear half was added by Abd el-Rahman.
Al-Azhar Mosque is right in the heart of the Islamic Cairo district and easy to reach by taxi. Al-Azhar Street runs east from Midan Ataba in the downtown area right to the square where the mosque sits.
Address: Al-Azhar Street, Islamic Cairo District
4. Old Cairo (Coptic Cairo)
This small church-filled cluster of twisty laneways lies within the walls of Old Babylon where the Roman Emperor Trajan first built a fortress along the Nile. Parts of the Roman towers still preside over the main street.
The Coptic Museum here contains a wealth of information on Egypt’s early Christian period and is home to one of Egypt’s finest collections of Coptic art. Next door, the 9th-century Hanging Church contains some beautiful examples of Coptic architecture. Founded in the 4th century, the church was originally built over the Roman gate towers (hence the name) and was substantially rebuilt during the 9th century.
For many Christian travelers though, the real highlight of a visit to this district is the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus where local legend says the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus, and family sheltered during King Herod’s massacre of male babies. Further into the quarter, you come to the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which is said to be built near the spot where the baby Moses was found in the reeds. Just outside the quarter, you can also visit the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-As; the first mosque built in Egypt.
Coptic Cairo is easiest reached by taking the Cairo Metro to Mar Girgis station.
Location: Sharia Mar Girgis, south of Downtown
5. Khan el-Khalili (Souq Quarter)
Khan el-Khalili is one of the world’s great shopping experiences. This Middle Eastern souq (bazaar) is a labyrinthine collection of skinny alleyways established as a shopping district in AD 1400 that still rings with the clang of metal workers and silversmiths. The main streets have long ago given themselves over completely to the tourist trade (with plenty of cheap papyrus pictures and plastic pyramids on display), but divert off the main drag into the surrounding alleyways, and the tiny stores and cluttered workshops are some of the best places to pick up traditional products in Egypt. Here you’ll find everything from antiques and gorgeous metal lampshades to locally woven textiles. While here stop in at Cairo’s most famous coffee shop, Fishawis, where syrupy Arabic coffee and sweet tea are dished out to tourists and local merchants alike at a rapid-fire pace.
For shoppers, the main souq road is Al-Muski Street (called Gawhar al-Qaid Street at its eastern end). The gold and silver workshops mostly congregate just north of this street’s intersection with Al-Muizz Li-Din Allah Street, while the spice market section is just to the south. The market is hemmed in on its eastern side by the Neo-Gothic bulk of the Sayyidna el-Husein Mosque, built in 1792 to honor the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson.
The entry to the Khan el-Khalili area is across the road from Al-Azhar Mosque.
Location: Off Al-Azhar Street, Islamic Cairo District
6. The Citadel
In a commanding location at the foot of the Mokattam Hills, Cairo’s citadel was built by Saladin in 1176. The original structure he laid out has long disappeared except for the eastern outer walls, but a legacy of rulers has made their own additions here. The Mosque of Muhammad Ali is the most famous monument and the main reason for visiting. Nicknamed the “Alabaster Mosque,” its white stone and tall, disproportionately slender minarets are one of Cairo’s great landmarks. The other big reason to come up here are the views across the city; head to the Gawhara Terrace for the best panorama in town.
Just to the northeast of the Muhammad Ali Mosque is the El-Nasir Mosque, built in 1318-35 by Mohammed el-Nasir. A collection of rather half-hearted museums (the Police Museum, National Military Museum, and Carriage Museum) take up some of the other buildings on site and are more worthwhile viewing for the architecture of the actual buildings rather than the exhibits themselves.
You can walk to the citadel area from Bab Zuweila, if you’re feeling energetic, by heading along Khayyamiyya Street. The walk takes about 30 minutes.
Location: Off Midan Salah-ad-Din, Islamic Cairo District
7. Sultan Hassan Mosque
One of the finest examples of Mamluk architecture in the world, Sultan Hassan Mosque is a vision of Arabic artistry with an abundance of stalactite detailing and intricate arabesque features. It was built in 1356-63 for the Sultan Hassan el-Nasir.
The exterior, with its large areas of stone, is reminiscent of an ancient Egyptian temple. The massive main doorway at the north corner is almost 26 meters high, and the minaret at the south corner is the tallest in Cairo at 81.5 meters.
The main doorway leads into a domed vestibule, beyond which are a small antechamber and a corridor leading into the ornate open Court centered around an ablution fountain. From here, an iron door leads into the sultan’s mausoleum where the stalactitic pendentives of the original dome still survive. In the center of the chamber is the sultan’s simple sarcophagus.
Directly facing the Sultan Hassan Mosque is the El-Rifai Mosque, built in 1912 to house the tomb of Khedive Ismail and constructed to replicate its older next door neighbor. The ex Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980) is also buried here.
Both mosques prominently sit on Midan Salah ad-Din, directly below Cairo’s Citadel.
Location: Midan Salah-ad-Din, Islamic Cairo District
8. Bab Zuweila
Of all the Islamic Cairo district’s gates, Bab Zuweila is the most interesting. You can climb to the top of this medieval era relic (built in the 11th century) for some amazing rooftop views over Islamic Cairo. The gate itself has two minarets and is the last southern gate of the old town still standing. Right next door is the red-and-white stonework of the Sheikh al-Mu’ayyad Mosque and a few steps further away is the fascinating artisan stalls of the Street of the Tentmakers where Egypt’s bright fabric used for weddings and other special occasions is sold in bulk.
Address: Al-Muiz li-Din Allah Street, Islamic Cairo District
9. Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street
The northern section of Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street is rimmed by fine Mamluk buildings that have been painstakingly restored to their former glory. The Madrassa of as-Salih Ayyub, built in 1247, is a showcase of the tranquil simplicity of Islamic architecture. While directly across the road from the madrassa is the knock-dead gorgeous Madrassa of Qalaun; rightly considered one of the Mamluk period’s greatest architectural triumphs. It was completed in 1293 by Qalaun’s son Muhammad al-Nasir and has an interior packed to the brim with intricate tile work, fine marble, mother-of-pearl mosaics, and stained glass windows. Qalaun’s madrassa also functioned as a hospital when it first opened.
A little further north is the younger (built in 1309) Madrassa of an-Nasr Mohammed with plenty of ornate detailing to admire, before you come to the fabulous Egyptian Textile Museum with a collection that spans the Pharaonic era right up to the Islamic period.
Address: Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street, Islamic Cairo District
10. Ibn Tulun Mosque
The second oldest mosque still standing in Cairo, Ibn Tulun Mosque, was built between AD 876 and 879 and modeled on the Kaaba in Mecca (Saudi Arabia). At the time it was built, it was the largest mosque in existence. The Main Court’s colonnades have plentiful surviving fragments of intricate frieze work on display and open onto a series of narrow-fronted halls. The main prayer hall (on the southern side of the court) still holds onto fragments of its older decoration of carved stucco and wood, and the mihrab here has remnants of its original gold mosaic decoration.
On the mosque’s northern side is the 40-meter-high minaret with a fine horseshoe arch over the entrance and a spiral staircase swirling through the interior. It is modeled on the minarets of the Great Mosque of Samarra on the Tigris. If you climb the 173 steps up to its upper platform there are superb views extending over the sea of houses to the north, and to the Mokattam Hills in the east.
It’s an easy stroll from the Sultan Hassan Mosque to the Ibn Tulun Mosque walking straight down Al-Saliba Street.
Address: Al-Saliba Street
Built over what was essentially a medieval rubbish dump, Al-Azhar Park is the green lungs of the old district. It was opened in 2005 and provides a much needed respite to the overcrowded chaos of Cairo’s street hustle. Inside, the gloriously manicured gardens are a lovely place for an evening stroll, especially as the views over the entire old city are gorgeous from here at sunset. There are also a couple of good restaurants on site, so it’s the perfect spot to put your feet up after a long day of sightseeing. If you come on the weekend, the park is packed full of local families escaping the surrounding roar of traffic that cocoons the rest of Cairo.
Al-Azhar Park is most easily visited by taking a taxi, but if you’re already in the Islamic Cairo district and it’s not too hot, you can turn east onto Darb al-Ahmar Street from Bab Zuweila and walk to the lower park entrance.
Address: Salah Salem Street
The Nile island of Gezira is home to the district of Zamalek and the majority of Cairo’s arty boutiques and hipster restaurants. Dating from the mid 19th century, the entire area has a distinctly European feel to its architecture with wide boulevards rimmed by Jacaranda trees and splendidly ornate Belle Époque mansions (many of which are now home to various embassies).
Zamalek is Cairo’s top dining destination, but the southern tip of Gezira also has a clutch of art galleries to explore. The Palace of Arts is housed in the Nile Grand Hall on the former Gezira Fair Grounds, and features a schedule of rotating exhibitions in its galleries. Nearby is the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, which has a fine collection of 20th-century Egyptian art including works by Mahmoud Said and Mahmoud Mukhtar. Much of the southern section of Gezira is taken up by the exclusive tennis courts and riding stables of the Gezira Sports Club, but towering above all the lush greenery is the 187-meter-high Cairo Tower, built in 1961 by President Nasser. A trip up the observation deck at sunset to see dusk settle over the city is a must.
13. Roda Island
Lovely Roda Island – just south of Gezira Island – is home to Monastirli Palace, once the residence of an Ottoman pasha. Inside the palace gardens, right at the island’s southern tip, is Cairo’s Nilometer – that was used to measure the ebb and flow of the Nile and predict the annual flood heights. Unlike the Nilometers you’ll see in Upper Egypt (such as the surviving Nilometer on Elephantine Island in Aswan), this one is a much later construction; built in AD 861. Outside the palace, Roda Island’s streets are fun to wander and still have some dilapidated mansion architecture of the early 20th century.
The north end of the island holds the gorgeously ornate Manyal Palace, built in 1805-18 in the time of Mohammed Ali. It has unfortunately been closed for extensive – and seemingly never ending – restoration work for the past several years.
14. Mosque of Al-Hakim
Caliph Al-Hakim is one of the most fascinating rulers of Egypt. This Fatimid leader was renowned for his terrifying rule over the land, which included frequent murders of his royal household staff, nightly patrols of the streets of his city dressed incognito on a donkey to make sure his subjects were behaving themselves, and issuing bizarre rulings across the country (such as banning the eating of the Egyptian mallow-leaf called molokheya because only he wanted to be able to consume it).
His mosque, finished in AD 1013, has functioned over the centuries as a madrassa, Crusader fortress, and mental hospital and was completely restored in the 1980s. The minarets here are the most interesting architectural elements. They were originally round, and their present square casing and domed top sections (resembling an Arab incense burner) date from their rebuilding after Cairo’s 1303 earthquake.
The mosque sits in between two of the old city district’s most important gates. Bab el-Futuh (Gate of Conquests) on the mosque’s western side and Bab el-Nasr (Gate of Victory) to the east are similar in form to ancient Roman town gates and were both built in 1087.
You can walk between Al-Azhar Mosque and the Mosque of Al-Hakim by following Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah Street all the way north.
Address: Al-Galal Street, Islamic Cairo District
15. Downtown Cairo
If you want to capture a sense of late 19th-century Cairo when the city was nicknamed the “Paris of the East” take a stroll through the downtown district with your gaze diverted up at the car-exhaust blackened architecture rather than on the bedlam at street level. The entire area is chock-a-block stuffed with gorgeous, but crumbling Belle Époque buildings that must have looked staggeringly glamorous when they were first built. Some of the best remnants are around Midan Talaat Harb.
On the western edge of Downtown, on Al-Gumhuriya Street is 19th-century Abdin Palace, once the home of Egypt’s last khedives. Today, the former private apartments of the king are open as a museum and contain a bizarre collection of pictures, tapestries, and gifts that have been given to Egypt’s presidents by visiting dignitaries.
Downtown Cairo is easily navigated on foot – if you don’t mind dodging traffic as you cross the roads.