Best known for the three Pyramids of Giza, the city of Cairo has much more to offer outside of the Giza plateau. With millennia of history that span through all civilisations, a day visiting Cairo will give you the chance to discover some of the most relevant civilisations in the history of mankind.
My full day visit included the Egyptian Museum, the Citadel of Saladin with the majestic Mosque of Muhammad Ali, Coptic Cairo to enjoy the beautiful Hanging Church, and the labyrinthine Kahn el-Khalili bazaar. I finished the day by enjoying a breathtaking sunset and the sound and light show in the Pyramids of Giza.
Have a look to find out what to expect from this chaotic yet emblematic city!
how to get to Cairo
My Cairo city tour took place during the last day of my Essential Egypt tour with Travel Talk Tours, which lasted for a total of 9 days and covered the main highlights of Egypt from north to south. You can find the entire itinerary in my post Essential Egypt in 9 days: itinerary, arrival and first impressions of Cairo.
If you’re not visiting with a group and need to get from the airport to the city, as usual in Egypt, a taxi or Uber will your best option. There aren’t set rates and the price will depend on where you go and your bargain skills, but it shouldn’t cost you more than 150 Egyptian pounds (approx. €8).
If you prefer to use public transport, there are CTA city buses that depart from Terminal 1 and will leave you in downtown Cairo. They cost only 5 Egyptian pounds (approx. €0.25) and the journey takes 75 minutes.
There are also shuttles that run every 30 minutes and include stops in the Giza area. They cost 35 Egyptian pounds (approx. €2) and the journey takes 45m.
History of Cairo
The city of Cairo originated over 4,000 years ago, 24km southwest of the city in a settlement then called Memphis, when the ruler at the time united Upper and Lower Egypt.
What we know today as Cairo was established in the 10th century by the Fatimids, who started constructing many of the landmarks of the city. Cairo became a key part of the east-west spice route, with Khan el-Khalili becoming one of the main centres of trade.
It was in the 12th century that Saladin, the first Sultan of Egypt, ordered the construction of multiple important buildings, including the Citadel of Saladin. When the Mamaluks took over the city in the 13th century, Cairo became one of the main centres of Islamic learning.
The city started its decline in the 16th century when it was occupied by the Ottomans, who set Constantinople was their new capital. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Muhammad Ali Pasha founded the modern Egyptian state, building multiple boulevards and plazas inspired by the constructions of Paris.
The British occupied Egypt from 1882 until its independence in 1922 but kept dominating the country until the Egyptian revolution of 1952. During this time, Cairo became a modern metropolis and the largest city of the Islamic world.
The country gained worldwide attention in 2011 during the Arab Spring, when millions or protested gathered in Tahrir Square forcing the dictator Hosni Mubarak to resign. The political situation is still unstable nowadays after a military coup in 2013, but Egypt is slowly recovering and tourists are visiting this fascinating country once again.
I had arrived in Egypt a few hours before my tour officially started, so I had already had some time to enjoy the city of Cairo during my first day Egypt. Unfortunately, my experience wasn’t the best, as my phone stopped working and I couldn’t visit most of the places that I had in mind. However, my Essential Egypt tour included a full day visiting the Egyptian capital, so I still had another chance to see all the highlights that this chaotic place had to offer.
After a week visiting different temples and learning about Egyptian history, our first stop was the home of one of the most extensive collections of ancient Egyptian antiquities: the Egyptian Museum of Cairo.
The current building was built in 1901 by an Italian construction company and has an impressive collection of over 120,000 items. The museum has an entrance fee of 60 Egyptian pounds (approx. €3), and there is an additional ticket of 100 Egyptian pounds (approx. €5) if you want to visit the Mummies rooms.
After buying our tickets and getting a set of headphones to hear better our guide in the busy interior, we started our journey across thousands of years of Egyptian history.
The first room in the museum belongs to the Old Kingdom which goes approximately from 2650 to 2100 BC. Known as “The Age of the Pyramids”, the Old Kingdom spanned Dynasties 3 through 8. The capital remained in the Memphis area, where it had been founded during the Early Dynastic Period, and the administration based there became increasingly more centralised. The cult centre of the sun god, Ra, who was extremely important during this era, was located east of Memphis and Heliopolis.
Some of the most important pieces of this exhibition include a Statue of Zoser, found inside the temple to the north of his step Pyramid, as well as the statue of Menkaure, Hathor and a goddess, one of the four triads that were found ion the Valley Temple of Menkaure, at Giza. The Diorite statue of King Chephren, builder of the second Pyramid, is also one of the pieces with the best state of preservation.
One of the highlights of the museum is the statue of Rahotep and his wife Nofret. Rahotep was the High Priest of Heliopolis and King’s son, while Nofret was an acquaintance of the king. The vivid feeling conveyed by the two figures, as well as the remarkable preservation of the painted surfaces, make these two statues among the best examples of art that reached perfection and expresses itself with a minimum of extraneous details.
In that same room, you can find the statue of a scribe sitting crossed-legged, holding an open papyrus-roll soon his knees, as well as a statuette of King Cheops, found in Abydos in 1903.
We then continued discovering the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom, which expanded from approximately 2100 to 1650 BC. The highlights include the limestone statues portraying King Senosert I.
In the late Old Kingdom, the authority of the central government began to break down and provincial governments gained in independence. The Memphite rulers remained the normal kings of a united Egypt through Dynasties 7 and 9, but the social order was collapsing. The 1st Intermediate Period was an era of war and turmoil, with local rulers jockeying for power. Without the patronage of a royal centre, art became provincial and the idealised forms of the Old Kingdom were modified by innovative new styles.
The 11th Dynasty was based at Thebes, current day Luxor, and for several generations shared power with rulers from the north. In 2030 B.C., the Theban ruler Mentuhotep II united the country and inaugurated the Middle Kingdom. Moving the administrative capital back north, these kings tried to recreate and even surpass the glories of the past, and even buried themselves beneath pyramids.
But the largest and most surprising exhibitions are kept for the New Kingdom, that went from 1650 to 1070 BC. Toward the end of the Middle Kingdom, Western Asiatic people began to settle in the Delta. As the power of the 13th Dynasty waned, more of these foreigners took over Lower Egypt.
The New Kingdom pharaohs secured Egypt’s borders by reconquering Nubia, which had gained its independence at the end of the Middle Kingdom, and expanding Egypt’s control northward, turning much of Syria-Palestine into vassal states. This immense empire served both to protect the borders of Egypt and to secure its trade routes. The Pharaohs embarked ono extensive building programmes for the glory of the god and king, constructing temples and erecting statues throughout the Nile Valley, and even into upper Nubia.
In this section, you can visit many of the treasures found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, including his famous mask, impressive wooden coffins where his mummy was placed, as well as an extensive collection of jewellery and artefacts made in gold. The exhibition is truly fascinating, but unfortunately, photography is strictly forbidden inside.
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo also houses different types of statues of Queen Hatshepsut, including sphinxes and kneeling statues which show the pharaoh presenting offerings to the gods.
Hatshepsut is famous for being the first woman to become pharaoh in Egypt. She married her half-brother Neferure, heir to the throne. However, he was still very young when his father died, and Hatshepsut crowned herself as king. In art, she is typically represented as a man, wearing full royal regalia.
The Egyptian Museum includes a room that contains a number of mummies of kings and royal family members of the New Kingdom. It has an additional ticket of 150 Egyptian pounds (approx. €8), which is almost double the price to access the museum itself.
If you have at least some interest in Egyptian history, I’d say that the room is a must. Going all the way to Egypt and missing the mummies of some of the most important kins in their history would be an absolute pity. Photography is forbidden in this exhibition.
That said, there are plenty of mummies to see in the museum that are included in the general entrance. In fact, the second floor of the museum is pretty much filled with mummies from different periods of time. There is also a big collection of animal mummies. The Ancient Egyptians mummified animals as well as humans, and there are four different types ono animal mummies: first, pets buried with their owners, second, victual or food mummies that would provide sustenance for the owner through eternity, third, sacred animals, and fourth, votive offerings.
The most impressive area of the Museum, both for the beautiful architecture and the immense statues located there, is the main hall. Right in the middle, you can find the colossal statue of Amenhotep III and Tiye, a monolith statue of the 18th dynasty. It is the biggest dyad ever built.
I was quite surprised that many of the statues in the main hall were covered in plastic as if the museum was going under renovation, which wasn’t really the case. Overall, I fund that many of the items in the museum were kept in very poor conditions, such a pity for such invaluable items! Hopefully, this will change with the construction of the new Egyptian Museum next to the pyramids.
We spent a good two hours inside the Egyptian Museum before we headed to our next destination, the Coptic neighbourhood of Cairo.
On the way, we could sight the Cairo Tower. At 187m high, this free-standing concrete tower is the tallest building in the country and one of the most recognisable symbols of the city of Cairo. The tower was designed to remind of a pharaonic lotus plant, the symbol of Ancient Egypt. At the top, you can find an observation deck as well as a rotating restaurant with amazing views of the city.
We reached Coptic Cairo after about 20 minutes. This name is given to a part of old Cairo known for its Christian tradition, as it was a big stronghold for Christianity in the country until the Islamic expansion. It still houses multiple churches and a big Christian minority. All the main monuments of the neighbourhood are free of charge.
The first place of interest in Coptic Cairo is the ruins of the Fortress of Babylon, an ancient fortress in the Nile Delta.
Babylon was a settlement in what today is Old Cairo that dates back to the 664 BC. The name was given, according to the Greek geographer Strabo, by some Babylonians who had taken refuge there from ancient Mesopotamia. The settlement occupied a position of great strategic importance at the head of the Nile Valley, as well as at a natural crossing point of the Nile via de island of Roda and the conflux of a number of important east-west trade routes.
In 112 AD, the Roman emperor Trajan shifted the head of the Red Sea canal to Babylon and built a massive stone harbour around the entrance to the canal. Almost 200 years later, Emperor Diocletian secured this important strategic location by constructing the massive fortress of Babylon. After the Arab Conquest of Egypt in 641, the new capital was founded around the nucleus of this former fortress.
Another beautiful example of Christian architecture is the Monastery and Church of St. George. This Greek Orthodox church was originally built in the 10th century but the current building belongs to the 20th century, when it was rebuilt after a fire.
Contrary to many of the many religious buildings in Coptic Cairo, the Church of St. George still serves as an active church and is currently used as the official seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria.
Just next to the fortress you will find the Hanging Church. Founded in the 3rd century, it is one of the oldest churches in Egypt, belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. It has been renovated multiple times, with its façade being constructed only on the 13th century.
The name comes from the fact that it is located right above a gatehouse of Babylon Fortress, with its nave suspended over a passage. Today the hanging effect cannot be appreciated as much as before since the ground level has risen over 9 meters during the centuries due too the accumulation of trash and dust. However, originally the church stood out above its surroundings above the walls of the fortress.
The church is richly decorated and constitutes one of the most beautiful buildings of Coptic Cairo. The interior, covered in bone and ivory designs, represent the geometric and organic forms that can be found in Islamic art.
The ornate interior is covered in bone and ivory inlaid designs that seem influenced by the geometric and organic forms that characterise Islamic art. During my visit, I couldn’t but stare open-mouthed at the detailed design!
Citadel of Saladin
Located 15 minutes away from Coptic Cairo on the Mokattam Hills, the highest area of Cairo, stands the imposing Citadel of Saladin. It has an entrance fee of 50 Egyptian pounds (approx. €2.5)
The Citadel is the largest fortification the Middle East and North Africa. Constructed in 1176 by the Ottoman leader Saladin, it was used as a defence against the Crusaders. The walls that we can appreciate today are the original construction. In addition to beautiful mosques, the citadel hosts several museums, including the Military and Police Museums, the Islamic Museum and the History of Egypt Museum.
The most important building in the complex is the Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha, also known as the Alabaster Mosque.
With a dome raising 52 high and two twin minarets of 84 meters, the mosque is one of the most important symbols of Cairo and can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. The inside and outside of the building are decorated with beautiful alabaster, which is why it is also called the Alabaster Mosque.
The mosque was commissioned in 1830 by Muhammad Ali Pasha, an Ottoman commander that is today considered the founder of modern Egypt. The building only took 14 years to get constructed, but Muhammed Ali did not live to see it completed. His remains were buried on a tomb right next to the entrance of the mosque.
The Citadel offers incredible panoramic views of Cairo, although they are a bit overshadowed by the huge levels of pollution.
Khan el-Khalili bazaar
We headed next to Khan el-Khalili bazaar, one of the main shopping areas of Cairo. I had already visited the bazaar during my first day in Cairo (read my post for more information about the bazaar and surrounding area), but it was a public holiday that day and the area was pretty dead.
My second visit was completely different; this time all shops were open, with and hundreds of tourist and locals blocking the narrow streets.
If you’re not interested in shopping, the entire Islamic neighbourhood that surrounds the bazaar has some amazing monuments that are worth a visit. These include the Sultan Qalawun Complex, the Mosque of al-Hakim, Al-Hussein Mosque or Al-Azhar Mosque.
Light and Sound Show at the Pyramids
With the day coming to its end and after spending enough time in Khan el-Khalili bazaar to do some shopping, visiting the area and enjoying a traditional tea, we headed back to the Oasis Pyramid Hotel.
Before putting an end to our Essential Egypt tour, we were offered an optional visit to see the Light and Sound show at the pyramids. It had a cost of €20, and I decided to go for it.
We arrived at the end of the day, so I was lucky enough to enjoy an incredible sunset with the Sphinx and the three pyramids on the background.
The show itself show takes place right in front of the Sphinx, in an open area where they have set up hundreds of chairs. The show is quite touristy and not as impressive as sit sounds, it consists of projections over the Sphinx and the pyramids that tell the story of the three pharaohs buried there. The show actually got a bit tedious towards the end, and to be honest, the best part was seeing the sunset.
If you have some extra time to spend and want to enjoy the beautiful views at dawn, you might enjoy the entire experience. I don’t regret doing it, but I wouldn’t go again.
Unfortunately, my Essential Egypt tour with Travel Talk Tours had ended. After going back to the hotel and having a few drinks near the swimming pool to say goodbye to each other, most of the group would be leaving very early the next day. My experience with Travel Talk Tours was beyond fantastic, and if you’re looking for a reputable company to visit Egypt, they are definitely your best choice.
For me, my time in Egypt hadn’t ended quite yet. I still had a full day before going back home and decided to book a day trip to Alexandria from Cairo with Egypt Day Tours. After having visited so many ancient sites, this modern Mediterranean city was a refreshing change!
Travel Talk Tours were kind enough to sponsor part of my trip, but as usual, all opinions are my own.