If you're looking for a relaxing city break, it's best to look elsewhere – but if you're game for a dizzying whirl through millennia, then few can rival the Egyptian capital, writes MARY FITZGERALD
THERE ARE FEW cities that combine the beguiling with the maddening so much as Cairo, the sprawling metropolis Egyptians refer to affectionately as Umm ad-Dunya, Arabic for Mother of the World. If you're looking for a relaxing city break, it's best to look elsewhere, but if you're game for a dizzying whirl through millennia – from the pyramids of Giza to the citadels of medieval Islam and on to the flyovers and skyscrapers of Africa's largest city – then few can rival Cairo.
Too many treat the Egyptian capital as little more than a glorified pit stop, ticking off the must-see pyramids and museums before swiftly moving on to upper Egypt’s fabled archaeological sites or the Red Sea resorts. But those prepared to spend a little more time adjusting to Cairo’s admittedly often manic rhythms and exploring this, the other city that never sleeps, will not be disappointed.
To walk Cairo’s choked streets is to tramp through a vast living museum, from the vestiges of pharaonic Egypt to the remnants of those – Persians, Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, Mamluks, Turks, French and British – that followed. All left their footprints on this cacophonous city on the Nile, where Africa and the Middle East meet.
Haussmann-esque boulevards and pungent alleys lead to age-old mosques, atmospheric Coptic churches, Saladin's imposing citadel, and faded reminders of Cairo's Belle Epoque, a time when its grand cafes were frequented by a cosmopolitan elite of Egyptians, Europeans, Jews and Armenians.
But Cairo is also a thrusting Arab capital, straining at the seams as it struggles to negotiate a path between tradition and modernity, the sacred and the profane. This “city of a thousand minarets” is where the be-suited mandarins of the Arab League have their headquarters. Many of the bazaars in old Cairo contain centuries-old family businesses, while marble shopping malls catering for Egypt’s rich have sprouted on its hinterland.
For older generations, the city is synonymous with a rich literary heritage – an Arab adage holds that books are written in Cairo, published in Beirut, and read in Baghdad – but younger Arabs look to Umm ad-Dunyafor less high-brow entertainment.
Dotted around its periphery are the studio lots that make Egypt the Hollywood of the Arabic-speaking world, its actors celebrated from Algiers to Damascus. Cairo also plays host to many of the surgically- enhanced Arab pop stars whose raunchy videos play 24/7 on regional equivalents of MTV.
Expect the unexpected in this city with many faces. During one stint in Cairo some years ago, I spent my mornings talking to clerics at Al Azhar, a venerable seat of learning that is the closest thing to a Vatican in Sunni Islam, or sitting in the dusty offices of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood; and meeting former militants in some of the city’s most impoverished quarters.
My evenings – played out at chichi riverside restaurants and cafes or, on one memorable occasion, a much prized entree to the lively private salon held by Egypt’s Nobel literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz – seemed a world away.
Noisy, polluted and overcrowded, Cairo is not for the faint-hearted. Its frenetic pace and mass of infuriating contradictions can sometimes appear overwhelming. If it all gets too much and you feel you can no longer take the clamour, dust and exhaust fumes, do as the locals do and slip inside a cafe for tea or a long, cold glass of karkadey, a refreshing ruby-coloured drink made from dried hibiscus petals.
SO WHERE TO begin? No better place than the Giza plateau on Cairo’s southwest fringe, where the pyramids – the only surviving wonder of the ancient world – rise out of the sands. Many first-time visitors are a little disappointed to see that urban sprawl has crept right up to the pyramids and the enigmatic Sphinx. But any tutting over the nearby fast-food joints vanishes when you enter the cavernous, empty burial chamber inside the pyramid of Khufu (aka Cheops) which, at 137m high, is the largest and oldest of the three pyramids.
Mark Twain visited Giza in 1866, and “suffered torture that no pen can describe from the hungry appeals for baksheesh”. Little has changed since, whether at the pyramids or other tourist sites where scores of touts and sham caretakers swarm. While you should only give if you want to, it is worth remembering that many Cairenes depend on tourist tips to eke out what is often a precarious survival.
Take a taxi back to Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square) in downtown Cairo – taxis are cheap and plentiful, but be prepared for creaking vehicles, often with a novel take on air conditioning (windows that cannot be rolled up) or missing door handles – to explore the gargantuan red sandstone Egyptian Museum, whose elegant exterior belies the ramshackle nature of the collection inside.
Only a fraction – 120,000 artefacts – of the museum’s catalogue is on display, including most of the treasures found at the Valley of the Kings and the mummies of more than 10 rulers of ancient Egypt. It is impossible to do the rambling museum justice in one visit, but make sure to catch the 6,000-year-old Narmer palette, which depicts the bloody unification of upper and lower Egypt, on your way to the biggest draw – the lapis lazuli-encrusted gold funerary mask of the teenage pharaoh Tutankhamun. The Tutankhamun rooms also house golden catafalques, ceremonial chariots, scarabs, jewellery and other items discovered by Howard Carter in 1921. Much of the collection is destined for transfer to a new museum – which will straddle an area the size of 11 football pitches – currently under construction in Giza.
Before fleeing the chaotic traffic of Midan Tahrir, take a look at one of Cairo’s quirkier landmarks – the colossal Stalinist-style Mogamma building, a gift from the Soviet Union in the 1950s and still the biggest public administration building in Africa. How much work is done by the 18,000 civil servants stationed on the Mogamma’s 14 floors is the subject of many jokes – I’ve seen staff knitting, playing chess and even sleeping in the dreary offices that spring from its endless corridors.
Leave 20th-century Cairo behind, and delve into the labyrinthine backstreets of what was, in medieval times, the Islamic world’s vibrant centre of gravity. The mosques, madrassas, mausoleums, hammams and other structures that remain now comprise a Unesco World Heritage site, and reward a leisurely stroll. Female visitors should pack a light scarf to drape over their heads when entering mosques, and both men and women will be more warmly received if arms and legs are covered.
Be sure to nip inside the mosque and university complex of Al-Azhar, founded in AD 975, where students of many nationalities continue to wrestle with the intricacies of Koranic exegesis and Islamic jurisprudence. One of the best views of the city can be found from the minaret of the beautiful 9th-century Ibn Tulun mosque nearby, where scenes from the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Mewere shot.
The old city is also home to the churches that make up what is known as Coptic Cairo, including St Mary the Virgin or the Hanging Church. A church has stood on the site since the 7th century – elements of the current structure date to the 11th century. The distinctive Coptic iconography found inside includes early Christian portrayals of St George slaying the dragon.
FINDING A PLACE far from the madding crowd can be quite a challenge in Cairo, where even in affluent districts congested streets sometimes give the impression that everyone lives on top of each other. Some respite from the never-ending hubbub – during the heat of high summer Cairo can often seem busier at 4am than at midday – and sweeping views of the city can be found in the grounds of Saladin’s citadel, perched on hills to the east. The complex also contains the stunning Mohammed Ali mosque which dates back to Ottoman times.
Cairo abounds with tacky tourist “experiences” and paraphernalia – exorbitantly priced camel rides in Giza, dubious belly-dancing performances and a multitude of Chinese-made “souvenirs” from garish statues of Ramses to fake papyrus scrolls.
But there is one Cairo experience that deserves its place on almost every package tour itinerary – a slow ride down the Nile on a felucca, the traditional Egyptian sailing boat. For a longer and more tranquil trip, leave behind the felucca owners touting for business near downtown hotels, and head 10km south to the suburb of Maadi (reachable on Cairo’s cheap as chips metro) ahead of sunset. Hire a felucca from the port, then sit back and relax as the sun dips below the horizon and the din of the city gives way to the gentle lapping of water and the flapping of sails. It will probably be the closest you get to silence in the Mother of the World.
Where to go, where to stay, where to eat
5 places to stay
Mena House Oberoi Hotel. Pyramids Road, Giza, 00-20-233-773222, oberoihotels.com. The grande dame of Cairo hotels, stay here if you want to breakfast with a view of the pyramids – only 700m away. The sumptuously decorated 130-year-old Mena House is steeped in history. Former guests include TE Lawrence, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and Frank Sinatra. Doubles from €170.
Le Riad. 114 Muiz Li Din Allah Street, 00-20-227-876074, leriad-hoteldecharme.com. One of several boutique hotels that have sprung up in recent years, Le Riad is located in Cairo’s medieval Islamic quarter. The Franco-Syrian owners have decorated its 17 elegant suites with themes ranging from Mamluk to Ottoman. Suites from €240.
Hotel Longchamps. 21 Ismail Mohamed Street, Zamalek, 00-20-22735-2311, hotellongchamps.com. Popular with long-stay guests including Egyptologists and journalists, the homely Longchamps is well located in Zamalek, a buzzy Nile island full of cafes, restaurants, galleries and some of the best shopping in Cairo. Doubles from €58.
Windsor Hotel. 19 Alfi Bey Street, Downtown, 00-20-225-915810, windsorcairo.com. History buffs will appreciate this rather faded Cairo landmark which once housed the British Officers club. Centrally located, the Windsor is a good budget option, though some rooms have seen better days. The colonial era Barrel Bar is a popular meeting place. Doubles from €50.
Dahab. 26 Mahmoud Bassiouni Street, Downtown, 00-20-225-799104, dahabhostel.com. If you’re on a very tight budget, there are lots of no-frills places in downtown Cairo. The Dahab is one of the best. Shady terraces dotted with whitewashed rooftop huts. Lots of backpackers. Doubles with private showers cost about €8.
5 places to eat
Abou El Sid. 157 26th July Street, Zamalek, 00-20-227-359640, abouelsid.com. Kitschy Oriental décor and a menu of regional favourites, including molokhia, a garlicky rabbit stew with greens, draw a fashionable crowd of Cairenes and foreigners alike. Start with dinner here before moving on to Zamalek’s many trendy cafes and bars.
Abou Tarek. 16 Champollion Street, Downtown, 00-20-225-775935, aboutarek.com. You can’t leave Cairo without trying koshari, a flavoursome mix of rice, lentils, and macaroni doused in spicy tomato sauce. It’s the closest thing Egypt has to a national dish and Abou Tarek has been serving up some of the best since the 1950s.
Maison Thomas. 26th of July Street, Zamalek, 00-20-227-357057. Perfect for lunch, this tiny restaurant has been serving Zamalek residents since 1922. Hungry Cairenes flock to Maison Thomas round the clock (it is open 24 hours) for salads, sandwiches and its renowned pizzas. Also popular for breakfast.
Café Riche. 17 Talaat Harb Street, Downtown, 00-20-223-918873. One of Cairo’s most storied coffee houses, Café Riche was the former haunt of the city’s artists, writers and revolutionaries. Check out the old photographs of those who once made up its raffish clientele.
Felfela. 15 Hoda Sharaawi Street, Downtown, 00-20-223-922751. A Cairo institution and one of the best places to sample Egyptian staples including taamiya (the local name for falafel) and fuul (stewed fava beans usually eaten for breakfast).
5 places to go
The Pyramids. No photograph can compare with seeing the Pyramids of Giza up close, and if you go at dawn you will have them to yourself. Later in the day you should be prepared for an army of touts hawking horse and camel rides. If you have time, take a day trip to Saqqara, about 25km from Cairo, to see the famous Step Pyramid.
The Egyptian Museum. One of the most fascinating collections in the world, though the museum’s layout and display style leave much to be desired. If you can only fit in one visit, highlights include the Tutankhamun galleries, the Royal Mummy Room, and the 6,000-year-old Narmer palette. Come early to beat the crowds.
Islamic Cairo. The ghosts of Saladin’s forces and the Mamluks among others haunt the mosques, madrassas, and hammams that dot this district of narrow streets and pungent alleyways, designated a World Heritage site by Unesco. Appropriate dress is recommended – men and women should cover arms and legs, and women should pack a headscarf for entering mosques.
Khan el Khalili. Get lost in the warren of alleys that make up Cairo’s most famous bazaar, which dates back to the 14th century. Avoid the piles of tourist tat and instead hunt out exquisite brassware, glass and jewellery, as well as spices and heady perfumes based on essential oils and resins. A good place to hone your haggling skills.
Fishawi’s, Khan el Khalili bazaar. This atmospheric centuries-old cafe is where Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz hung out when he was writing his Cairo Trilogy in the 1950s. Have a mint tea or karkadey, a hibiscus infusion served hot or cold. Best to come here later at night (it’s open 24 hours) when the hordes of tourists give way to a more local crowd.
Zamalek. Spend a morning exploring the boutiques and designer stores dotted around this Nile island which is home to Ireland’s ambassador to Egypt. Make sure to visit Diwan bookshop (159 26th of July Street) for Ottoman-era images of Cairene life; Makan (4 Sharia Ismail Mohammed) for homeware that mixes traditional design with a contemporary aesthetic; and the Alef Gallery (14 Mohamed Anis Street) for furniture and fabrics including Egyptian cotton (shoe designer Christian Louboutin is said to be a fan).
In the Islamic quarter, Kheiymiya Street is lined with former tentmakers who, due to the decline in demand for their craft, now use traditional appliqué skills to produce beautiful wall-hangings, bedspreads and cushion covers. Perfect for souvenirs or gifts. The street is near Bab Zweila, and within walking distance of Khan el Khalili.
Sequoia. 53 Abou El Feda Street, Zamalek, 00-20-227-350014, sequoiaonline.net. If you want to see Cairo’s beautiful people at play, this hip outdoor lounge and restaurant is the place. Eat mezze, drink cocktails or smoke shisha under billowy white canopies overlooking the Nile.
What to read
The Cairo Trilogyby Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz tells the story of an Egyptian family in the first half of the 20th century. For a more up-to-date slice of fictional Cairene life, try The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany (you can see the real Yacoubian Building at 34 Talaat Harb Street). For an absorbing sweep of Cairo's colourful history, Max Rodenbeck's Cairo: The City Victorious is recommended.
British Airways (ba.com) flies to Cairo via London Heathrow, Turkish Airlines (turkish airlines.com) flies via Istanbul and Etihad (etihadairways.com) flies via Abu Dhabi.