Cairo Travel Guide: Detailed Itinerary, Best Transport Options, and City Attractions

Cairo | Introduction

Cairo is the capital of Egypt and one of the largest cities in Africa, located on the eastern bank of the Nile River. It is renowned as the "City of a Thousand Minarets" because of its numerous mosques, churches, and historical monuments. In the downtown area of Cairo, one can observe the profound imprints of different eras and cultures of Egypt.

The history of Egypt is long and storied. The commonly accepted end of Ancient Egypt's 32 dynasties is marked by its annexation by the Roman Empire in 30 BC. The subsequent historical progression can be divided into the Coptic era spanning nearly seven centuries, nine centuries of Islamic rule, followed by three hundred years under Ottoman rule. This led to the Mohammed Ali Dynasty which ruled for over 200 years, and it was not until 1952 that Egypt was free from decades of British colonialism. Modern Egypt became an independent nation in 1952, and after going through a revolution, transitioned from a monarchy to the current republican period. In the long expanse of Egyptian history, modern Egypt as a country still seems as youthful as an infant in swaddling clothes.

Cairo is a crossroads of multiple dynasties and cultures, gathering a rich and complex historical essence since ancient Egypt. Cairo's prosperity roughly began during the Roman and Byzantine periods of Egypt, and it truly became a metropolis during the Islamic era. In 969 AD, during the Fatimid dynasty, Cairo was established as the capital. To this day, Cairo remains the political, economic, and cultural center of Egypt, becoming a metropolis that blends ancient relics with modern prosperity.

Cairo and its surroundings are home to countless world-renowned attractions. From the nearby ancient Egyptian civilization landmarks like the Giza Pyramid Complex, Saqqara, and Dahshur areas, to the city's own Egyptian Museum, the magnificent mosques and the Khan El-Khalili Bazaar in Islamic Cairo, and the ancient churches in Coptic Cairo, these are all must-visit destinations. If you visit Egypt, besides the pyramids and tombs of ancient Egyptian civilization, you should definitely spend a few days in Cairo to gain a deeper understanding of Egypt's history after the end of the New Kingdom.

Cairo | Transportation

Airport transportation

Cairo International Airport is the largest airport in Egypt, located about 22 kilometers east of the city center. To get to downtown Cairo or other nearby cities such as Giza, I recommend arranging airport transfers in advance. Many hotels in Cairo and Giza offer airport transfer services, and booking in advance ensures a smooth arrival at your accommodation. If this service is not available, you can also book transfers online.

If it's your first time in Egypt, you might feel a bit out of place when you come out of Cairo Airport. Like other famous tourist spots in Egypt, the area outside Cairo Airport is filled with aggressive taxi drivers trying to solicit business. If you are unprepared, dealing with them, whether you plan to haggle or refuse their services, can be quite exhausting, especially with the jet lag. If you are confident in your ability to say no, you might also consider using Uber or airport buses, which are relatively inexpensive options.

Transportation within the city

The downtown area of Cairo is one of the few cities where transportation is relatively easy for foreigners. Within the city, it is recommended to use the metro, Uber, and walking.

Uber is very popular in Cairo and also very cheap. The Uber drivers we encountered in Cairo were very nice, and it felt like there wasn't too much need to worry about safety. The only point to note is that Egyptian license plates do not use Arabic numerals, but rather Egyptian numerals. If you plan to use Uber, it's best to prepare a number reference chart in advance (Wikipedia has one). Since there are many cars in downtown Cairo and most drivers don't speak English, you will need to identify the license plate yourself before getting in the car.

The Cairo Metro is one of the oldest metro systems in Africa and the Arab world. Cairo has three main lines, and the fares are quite affordable. Compared to Uber, the most significant advantage of the metro is that it can avoid the busy city traffic. If the destination is close enough to a metro station, I prefer taking the metro. Tickets can be purchased at the ticket windows or automatic ticket machines at any metro station. The fare is calculated based on the travel distance, usually ranging from 3 to 7 Egyptian pounds. It's recommended to have small bills ready for ticket purchases, although the machines do provide change. After entering the station, you need to pass through security checks and then follow the signs inside the station to find the appropriate line and direction. The Cairo Metro has separate carriages for men and women; female passengers can choose the dedicated women-only carriages, which are usually located in the first two or the last carriage of the train.

In certain areas, such as Zamalek and Islamic Cairo, walking is an excellent way to explore the local scenery and experience the city's atmosphere. These areas are relatively safe and have a high concentration of attractions, making them ideal for sightseeing on foot.

Transportation to Suburban Attractions

Traveling to Giza

The journey from downtown Cairo to Giza takes about 40 to 90 minutes by car. For independent travelers, the recommended ways to go from Cairo to the Giza pyramids are either by hiring a car or taking an Uber, or directly joining a half-day or full-day tour departing from Cairo. I personally used Uber for my round trips between Giza and Cairo, with a one-way trip costing approximately 120 EGP.

Day tour to the Pyramid of Giza from Cairo

Cairo - Giza private transportation

Traveling to Saqqara, Dahshur, Memphis

It is relatively difficult to visit attractions such as Saqqara, Dahshur, and Memphis using public transportation or Uber. On one hand, the distance is quite far, and you also need to take a vehicle to move between attractions. The more common methods are usually to hire a car or join a day tour that departs from Cairo.

Day Trip to Saqqara

Cairo | Accommodations

The lodging options in the Cairo city area are very diverse. For general tourists, the more popular areas are near El Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo or the Zamalek district. The advantage of staying near Tahrir Square is its proximity to the main attractions in the city center, especially the nearby Egyptian Museum, with many sights within walking distance. On the other hand, the Zamalek district is located on an island in the Nile River, making it a premium area in Cairo with numerous luxury hotels, elegant surroundings, many high-end restaurants, and cafes. It has a rich cultural atmosphere and is more suitable for travelers who prefer a quieter environment.

Find a stay in Cairo

Accommodation Review | Madina Hostel

This time we stayed at the Madina Hostel in downtown Cairo, which is very close to El Tahrir Square and just a five-minute walk to the Egyptian Museum. This youth hostel is greatly favored by backpackers, with very enthusiastic staff and comprehensive services. The hostel is located on the tenth floor of an old building. The only drawback is that you need to take a somewhat intimidating old elevator to go upstairs. The elevator door must be manually closed, otherwise, the elevator won't move.

Due to work requirements, we stayed in a private room. The room was very large and quite comfortable, with their own small balconies offering views of downtown Cairo.

The public area is quite cozy, and free breakfast is provided in the morning.

Cairo | Downtown Attractions & Itinerary Planning

Cairo, with its rich history, has an abundance of attractions, making it nearly impossible to see everything in just a few days. Therefore, I would recommend dividing the main attractions into several regions based on their geographical locations, and then deciding how much time you would like to spend in each area according to your personal interests. If we roughly categorize the attractions in central Cairo into the following areas:

  • Area 1: Attractions near downtown close to El Tahrir Square include the Egyptian Museum and Abdeen Palace, both located on either side of El Tahrir Square. You can reach this area by taking the metro to Sadat Station. You will need at least one day to explore.
  • Area 2: Zamalek is a high-end residential and cultural arts district located on an island in the Nile River in downtown Cairo. Major attractions include the Cairo Tower and the Cairo Opera House. You can spend half a day here.
  • Area 3: Islamic Cairo, also known as the Cairo Old Town, includes notable landmarks such as the Al-Azhar Mosque and the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar. The entire Islamic Cairo area is home to many famous mosques, and it is recommended to spend at least a full day here.
  • Area 4: Coptic Cairo, an important center for early Christian culture in Egypt, is located to the south of the city center. The Hanging Church and the Coptic Museum are must-visit attractions in this area. If you plan to quickly visit, it will take at least half a day.

Cairo's historical sites are incredibly abundant. For visitors who will only be in Cairo for one or two days, it is advisable to consider visiting just two to three out of the four major areas. If you are on a one-day trip to Cairo, you can actually walk from downtown all the way to Islamic Cairo. However, if possible, I would also recommend not missing out on Coptic Cairo, as the early Christian history in Cairo is also very precious.

Area 1 | Attractions Near El Tahrir Square

El Tahrir Square

El Tahrir Square is one of the most iconic and symbolic locations in modern Egyptian history. The square was renamed after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, and in Arabic, its name means "liberation," symbolizing the country's liberation from colonial rule. The square is surrounded by many important buildings and landmarks, including government institutions, embassies, and hotels, making the area around the square one of the busiest in Cairo.

The Egyptian Museum

Located in downtown Cairo, the Egyptian Museum is one of the most famous museums in the world, housing over 120,000 artifacts from ancient Egypt. Officially opened in 1902, the museum was designed by French architect Marcel Dourgnon. The architectural style blends classical and neoclassical elements, making the building itself a historic monument. The exhibits in the museum cover various periods of ancient Egyptian history, from the early dynasties to the Greco-Roman era. Among the most renowned artifacts are the treasures of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, including the well-preserved golden mask, throne, jewelry, and various burial items discovered by archaeologist Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings in 1922.

The Egyptian Museum has a lot to offer, and I'm in the following postsThe article is featured in the

Abdin Palace

Abdin Palace is one of the most famous and historically significant palaces in Egypt. Built in the mid-19th century, it is an important heritage site of the Muhammad Ali Dynasty. The palace served as the main residence and administrative center for the royal family until the abdication of the last king, Farouk I. It has witnessed many significant events in Egypt's recent history. To visit, you must cross the street to the ticket office to purchase a ticket, as there is currently no option for online booking. Additionally, if you plan to bring a mobile phone with you, even if you do not intend to take photos, you are required to purchase a mobile phone ticket.

When the palace was constructed, the architectural style combined European and Islamic elements to showcase Egypt's modernization and its connection with Europe. The interior and exterior of the palace are lavishly decorated, reflecting the luxurious style of the late 19th century. The palace was designed by a French architect and meticulously crafted by artisans from Italy, France, and Turkey. Now functioning as a museum, the palace's interior displays the royal family's private collections, weaponry, exquisite silverware, and important historical documents. Here, visitors can still witness the grandeur of royalty, including a magnificent sword bought by King Farouk I for a thousand pounds during World War II, a time when the populace was suffering.

Area 2 | Zamalek

The Zamalek area is located on an island in the Nile River in the center of Cairo, and it is one of the most elegant and affluent districts in Cairo, boasting many beautiful buildings and green spaces. Zamalek is the cultural hub of Cairo, home to numerous museums and galleries, the Cairo Opera House, and other cultural landmarks. It also features many high-end restaurants, cafes, and boutique shops.

Zamalek's main landmark is the Cairo Tower. If you are interested in a panoramic view of Cairo, this 187-meter tall tower offers an excellent 360-degree view of the city.

Cairo, Cairo 27

Area 3 | Islamic Cairo

Islamic Cairo represents the mainstream culture of the city of Cairo, as it was during the Islamic period that this city truly became a major metropolis. The streets are filled with medieval mosques, bazaars, and ancient buildings. In fact, it is worthwhile to take a stroll along the streets of Islamic Cairo, listening to the mingling sounds of mosque bells, the clamor of the bazaars, and the prayers, to feel the rich historical atmosphere and cultural depth.

Islamic Cairo has numerous renowned attractions, ranging from the 9th-century Ibn Tulun Mosque to the 19th-century Muhammad Ali Mosque. It is usually not enough time to visit them all at once. If you have more than one day, consider dividing the area into northern and southern parts. The northern area can be planned around landmarks such as the Al-Azhar Mosque, Khan el-Khalili market, and the Museum of Islamic Art, while the southern part can focus on major sights like the Citadel of Saladin and the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan, spending half a day to a full day on each side.

Islamic Cairo is rich in content. I have detailed it in this article.

Region 4 | Coptic Cairo

Coptic Cairo is located south of downtown Cairo and predates Islamic Cairo, tracing back to the Roman era when Cairo was already a significant settlement but had not yet been established as a capital. Initially, the Persians built the defensive structures of the Babylon Fortress here. Over time, the Babylon Fortress became an important enclave for Coptic Christians. Several early Christian churches and monasteries were established within the fortress.

Coptic culture is very special and deserves more time to be understood. The monuments preserved in Coptic Cairo differ greatly from the commonly seen Christian styles in Europe and America. The architectural styles incorporate elements of ancient Roman, Byzantine, and Coptic art. Major attractions include the famous Hanging Church, Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church, and the Coptic Museum, among others.

Coptic Cairo is rich in content, and I will introduce it in a dedicated article later. If you are interested in more details, please follow us on FB, IG to receive updates or subscribe to our newsletter.

Cairo | Suburban Attractions

Outside downtown Cairo, the suburban areas also host more world-famous ancient Egyptian civilization relics.

Pyramids of Giza

The Giza Pyramid Complex is one of the most famous ancient sites in the world, located about 20 kilometers southwest of the center of Cairo. Most people come to Egypt for the first time specifically to visit the Giza Pyramid Complex. It features three magnificent pyramids: the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure.

Day tour to the Pyramid of Giza from Cairo

Cairo - Giza private transportation

Saqqara is located about 30 kilometers from downtown Cairo and is another famous ancient Egyptian site. It is home to the world's first pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Djoser, and many other ancient tombs and ruins, which can be visited as a large open-air museum.

Saqqara Saqqara

SakalaLocated about 30 kilometers from the center of Cairo is another famous ancient Egyptian site. It is home to the Step Pyramid of Djoser, the first pyramid in the world, as well as many other tombs and ruins that can be visited as a large open-air museum.

Day Trip to Saqqara

Dahshur is located about 40 kilometers south of Cairo. The Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid here date back earlier than the Giza pyramid complex and are representative works from the early period of the Fourth Dynasty of ancient Egypt. The Red Pyramid is the first true smooth-sided pyramid of ancient Egypt.

Dahshur

DaschleLocated about 40 kilometers south of Cairo, the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid here date a bit earlier than the Giza Pyramid Complex and are representative of the early Fourth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, with the Red Pyramid being the first true smooth pyramid of Ancient Egypt.

Dahshur private car or guided tours

Dahshur is rich in content; I have a more detailed introduction in this article.

Memphis

Memphis was the capital of the First Dynasty period in ancient Egypt and holds an extremely important place in ancient Egyptian history. It is located approximately 25 kilometers from the center of Cairo and is home to the famous statue of Ramses II. It is suitable to be arranged in the same day's itinerary along with Saqqara.

Day Trip to Saqqara

Further reading



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