7am: First light in the desert
Sunrise happens slightly before 7am during Cairo’s winter peak season. Visitor access to the Pyramids of Giza site — a nine-mile trip west from downtown Cairo — starts at 8am throughout the year. The potential pre-dawn start gives you more time and room to fully experience the awe of these 4,500-year-old monuments, and their watchful companion, the Great Sphinx. An estimated 2.3 million stone blocks make up the Great Pyramid itself, the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
11am: In search of civilisation
The Grand Egyptian Museum — when it opens — will be an easy follow-on from the pyramids in Giza. For now, you’ll need to return to central Cairo and the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Fustat. Its subterranean hall is the star exhibit in an explanation of Egyptian culture, from pre-history to the 19th century. If the number of exhibits is low, displays are excellent. Don’t overlook the Textiles Hall. Afterwards, go to the nearby Fustat Traditional Crafts Centre to see artisans at work and visit its excellent gallery-shop.
1pm: Coptic Cairo
It’s often forgotten that Cairo was a wellspring of Christianity — they say the Holy Family’s flight from Herod ended in a cave that’s now a pilgrimage site beneath Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church. No sight in the Coptic quarter is more celebrated than the Hanging Church, propped above a gateway of the Roman-era Fortress of Babylon, hence the name. Pair it with a visit to the Coptic Museum, a fascinating stew of Ancient Egyptian, Roman and early Christian iconography.
3pm: A late lunch
Koshary is Cairo’s favourite food on the go, a genre-defying mix of pasta, fried rice and brown lentils, garnished with fried onions and chickpeas, and served with a spicy tomato sauce. Though it sounds like something from a student’s kitchen, it’s surprisingly tasty. Abou Tarek, on the corner of Maarouf and Champollion streets, serves nothing else — which is why it’s always packed with diners. It’s a short walk afterwards to Tahrir Square and the original Egyptian Museum, its antiquities a must-see if the Grand Egyptian Museum is yet to open.
5pm: A stroll through time
As temperatures ease, head through Bab al-Futuh, the northern gateway to the 11th-century walled city of the ruling caliphs. The United Nations called pedestrianised Al Moez street just beyond it ‘the greatest concentration of medieval architectural treasure of the Islamic world’. With marvels such as the Al Asmar Mosque, El Seheimy house and the Madrasa-Mausoleum of Qalawun, it has a point. Yet the joy of Al Moez is it remains (just) a shopping street, too.
6pm: Culture shop
Plunge into Cairo’s most famous souk. Yes, Khan el-Khalili is touristy but to explore its labyrinthine alleys divided by medieval arches is to glimpse the Cairo that has beguiled visitors for centuries. It’s a head-spinning magical array of stuff you never knew you wanted, from minor treasures to Made-in-China tat, all illuminated by light that changes from soft dusk to gaudy strip-light.
8pm: street smart
If there’s time, head past monumental Al Azhar Mosque to Bab Zuweila, the southern gateway of Al Qahirah. What appears a dead end beyond is Cairo’s last covered souk, Al Khayamiya. It’s known as the Street of the Tentmakers because of its artisans producing hand-sewn fabric formerly used for tents, wall-hangings, bedspreads and cushion covers.
10pm: A nightcap
Refresh yourself after a long day with three options. For historical colour return to Khan el-Khalili’s Naguib Mahfouz Café, where waiters wear tarboosh hats and musicians play. For bohemian boozing near Tahrir Square, try El Horreya, an enjoyably rickety cafe-bar of 1930s’ vintage where ceilings are high and the Egyptian beer Stella is cold(ish). Or ascend to the 36th-floor cocktail lounge of the Ramses Hilton, Opia. Expect smart, pricey cocktails and Nile views.
Steppes Travel offers an 11-day Egypt package including three nights in Cairo, staying in Marriott Mena House, with expert guides and private transfers for £6,025 per person, excluding flights. It also includes a Nile cruise plus two nights in Aswan.
This story was created with the support of the Egypt Tourist Authority.
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