Cairo beyond the pyramids: The ultimate itinerary
Pharaohs’ treasures, Roman ruins, medieval mosques—see it all in this timeless city.
Lining the banks of the Nile River, Cairo is a fusion of ancient. Churches are built atop Roman ruins and skyscrapers rise behind medieval monuments. Egypt's capital is best known for preserving the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but the city contains infinite treasures beyond the Pyramids of Giza.
Discover early Christian history in Coptic Cairo, browse the world’s largest collection of pharaonic antiquities, and sip on Egyptian-style coffee in the bustling Khan El-Khalili souk. While ancient temples and intricate tombs await farther south in Luxor and Aswan, here’s why you should pause in Cairo before your journey onward.
Day 1: Nile views
9:30 a.m. Start your trip with a stroll in Zamalek, the glamorous northern part of the Gezira island on the Nile. Dotted with elegant townhouses, Zamalek houses embassies from all over the world. Away from the chaos, its tree-lined streets march to the beat of a gentler drum. Begin your day at Left Bank, a chic, riverside café that offers a smattering of indulgent menu options, including the traditional Cairene breakfast. The hearty spread consists of slabs of feta cheese sprinkled with tomatoes, accompanied by local staples like falafel and fulmedames, a flavorful fava bean dish. Two eggs cooked in any style round up this morning meal against the backdrop of the Nile.
3 p.m. Calling the Cairo Tower a tourist trap is harsh but accurate. Go anyway because it’s the best way to get a bird’s-eye view of the city. Enjoy the refreshing breeze on its towering terrace and take in the view of the Nile. The quiet afternoon hour is a relief from the flow of tourists, who often come in the evening to see Cairo Tower bejeweled with colorful lights. The café located just under the terrace is a promising spot for a light meal, coffee, and a changing panorama of Cairo as the sun sets.
7 p.m. The most prominent structure in the National Culture Centre, the Cairo Opera House, is a well-appointed performance venue. Visitors can don their formal finery and enjoy performances by Cairo’s finest music groups in a main auditorium that seats 1,200. The elegant room is split across four levels, tailor-made for opera and ballet performances by touring global groups. Don’t miss the thoughtfully curated Museum of Modern Egyptian Art which displays the works of local artists across mediums: painting, sculpture, and other mixed media. The museum is closed on Mondays and Fridays.
Day 2: Spiritual sojourn
8:30 a.m. When visiting the architectural stronghold of Christianity in Egypt, hiring a quality guide is essential for getting the most out of the experience. Outfits such as Walk like an Egyptian, among others, provide well-informed, English-speaking guides for historical sights across Cairo. Start by gazing at the Roman ruins, as your guide walks you through the empire’s time in the city. Head to the Hanging Church, named for its vivid location above a gate leading into the Roman Empire’s Babylon Fortress. After climbing 29 steps visitors enter a grand room to marvel at ornate walls, carved pillars, and benches under a high-vaulted roof. Proceed to Saint Sergius and Bacchus Church, which sports a brick-exposed interior, believed to be built at the spot where the holy family rested after their Egyptian excursion. Its most curious feature is a 10-foot-deep crypt, revered for its reputation as a resting place for Mary, Joseph, and infant Jesus.
Classic images are classic for good reason. With a single camel dwarfed by the sheer scale of the pyramids, this precisely composed shot evokes a sense of romance and nostalgia for travel’s golden age.
While the main attractions of Coptic Cairo are its churches, there is also a small, sepia-toned market underneath the main street, featuring a jewelry shop and well-priced books about Egyptian architecture and history.
3 p.m. Built during the Mamluk period, the massive Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan was an ambitious attempt for the 14th century. The mosque was thoughtfully designed to include the four schools of Sunni thought—Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanafi, and Hanbali—in enclaves inside its 118-foot-high walls. Commissioned under the patronage of Sultan an-Nasir Hasan at a steep cost, this structure remains incomplete. It never fulfilled its purpose of holding his body, which was not found after his assassination. However, the Sultan gave Egypt one of its grandest mosques, still among the largest in the world. Its architecture features the decorative chinoiserie style, right next to an ornate entrance indicating Egypt’s trade ties with China more than 600 years ago. The curious egg-shaped dome is made of wood. Past the entrance, lamps hang from the mammoth ceiling, with the mosque’s tallest point being a 223-foot-tall minaret.
5 p.m. Wind down with a stop at Al-Azhar Park, Cairo’s greenest urban attraction. The gated park was originally a landfill, and was transformed into a park in 2005 under an initiative by Agha Khan IV, the 49th Imam of Nizari Ismailism. Sprawling over 74 acres of central city land, it is a veritable oasis among the urban hustle of Cairo.
Bordered by a 12th-century wall from the Ayyubid Dynasty, the gardens in the park follow traditional Islamic architecture, with prominent waterways and walkways gently dividing the green space into cozier enclaves. A variety of food courts and restaurants overlook wide views of the city, including the historic Mosque of Muhammad Ali on the western horizon. You’ll find the park filled with yoga classes, couples sitting by fish ponds, and children playing by the fountains. Visit an hour before sunset to bask in the golden light and watch the city transform.
Day 3: Tutankhamun’s gold
11 a.m. The world’s largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is a must visit—preferably with an Egyptologist in tow. Guides are usually found by the ticket counter, and can be hired on an hourly basis. Inside, the grand ground floor features a collection of New Kingdom (1550–1069 B.C.) objects, including a variety of traditional coffins arranged by style, withering scrolls of papyrus, and coins from across kingdoms and cultures, mainly Islamic, Greek, and Roman. The first floor houses two rooms of mummies, arranged with notes on ingredients used in the processing of each body. The most intriguing attraction at the museum is Tutankhamun’s tomb, displayed alongside his bust, a series of complex gold coffins, gold trinkets, objects, and jewelry.
The museum’s treasures will eventually be relocated to the new Grand Egyptian Museum, scheduled to open in 2020 on the Giza Plateau.
2 p.m. Cairo’s largest and most vibrant tourist souk, Khan El-Khalili, offers a promising collection of shops. Known for its semiprecious and precious jewelry, the marketplace has trinkets of every color and price. Originally built as a mausoleum for the Fatimid caliphs, the structure underwent many changes over time, and was eventually remodeled in the 16th century by Sultan al-Ghuri. Inspired by the Ottoman style, it closely resembles a Turkish bazaar.
Drop by the hundred-year-old café Fishawi for its Egyptian-style coffee and sepia-steeped ambience. The shop is has served local and international celebrities alike, including Egyptian Nobel Laureate author Naguib Mahfouz and Will Smith. An ideal order would include mint tea or the hibiscus-based karkade, Egypt’s national drink, with a shisha on the side. You will probably need the shisha after all the bargaining at the souk. Fun fact: Most of the shops at the bazaar decide their own timing.
6 p.m. Dubbed the “world’s largest open-air museum of Islamic monuments,” Muizz Street comes into its own after sunset. Located a short walk north of Khan El-Khalili, this bustling walk is flanked by some of Egypt’s oldest and grandest structures. A stroll can unveil architecture from dynasties that have ruled the city in different eras—from the Fatimid dynasty in A.D. 970 to the more recent Pasha rule, of which famed emperor Muhammad Ali was the most prominent. Home to the Qalawun Complex, it also houses a spectacular mausoleum and impressive Mamluk architecture, including a minaret within a dome.
At night, the entire street lights up. Enjoy traditional Egyptian street food like shish taouk, hamammahshi (Egyptian braised pigeon), and mahshi (stuffed grape leaves), against the rich backdrop. Remember to go with a history book or guide.
- Nat Geo Expeditions