Today I take you on a very short trip to the Egyptian capital. Short, because I spent only 3 days over there and 3 days for a city like Cairo is almost nothing. In spite of that I wanted to share my experiences with you, because this trip made a huge impression on me. It was a city that did not fit at all with what I had imagined. The architecture, the food, the people … everything was very surprising.
I discovered Cairo at the end of March with a perfect weather. I have heard a lot about the sandstorms that come around every year in Egypt during this time, but I was lucky not to meet them.
You will see at the end of the article that I could not escape the temptation to visit the Pyramids of Giza, even though I had very little time. Giza is not Cairo, that’s for sure, but when you’re only half an hour away from the first wonder of the ancient world, you can’t miss the opportunity!
Apart from visiting the biggest attraction of Egypt (if not Africa), I will take you to see some of Cairo’s beautiful neighborhoods. We will start with the city center of Cairo, at the “El-Tahrir” square where there is, among other things, the Egyptian Museum. We will then go to the Coptic quarter, the citadel of Saladin, the trendy and festive district of Zamalak and of course on the banks of the Nile. If you are familiar with this blog a bit, you might know that all these wanderings will be accompanied by great food and I assure you that in Egypt, good food comes by easily.
Day 1 : Tahrir Square – Coptic Cairo – Garden City
During my trip to Cairo, I would get lost constantly. The main problem was, I think, that I would put too much trust in Google Maps. What I did not know is that all the streets and landmarks in a city like Cairo are not on this app and that the name of some is indicated only in Arabic alphabet. The second problem was probably my accent. I thought I could say the names of places to people on the street or to taxi drivers, but I was rarely understood. If there was one place that was never hard to find, it was Tahrir Square (or Mīdān At-Taḥrīr). This square was, I believe, the most central point of the city and the junction between several major avenues. Fortunately, I was staying 300m from this place. So every time I got lost, I took the subway or taxi to Tahrir Square and then I could find my way.
Breakfast at Oldish café
On my first morning in Cairo, I tried to find a place to have a typical Egyptian hot drink. It was close to Tahrir Square that I found one, at Café oldish. Located on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the café is hidden behind an oriental-style turquoise blue wooden door. After entering through the old door and we are in an inner courtyard decorated with small oriental ornaments and pretty plants.
This is where I first tasted Sahlab. Sahlab is a white, creamy and thick Egyptian beverage, which is normally made from a white flour called Salep. The salep is obtained from the dried tubers of a white orchid. This flour is mixed with hot milk. That’s the basis, well, I think so. The Sahlab I had at Oldish Coffee also contained almond powder, raisins and if I’m not mistaken, a pinch of cinnamon.
This is where I first tasted Sahlab. Sahlab is a white, creamy and thick Egyptian beverage, which is normally made from a white flour called Salep. The salep is obtained from the dried tubers of a white orchid. This flour is mixed with hot milk. That’s the basis, well, I think so.
The Sahlab I had at Oldish Coffee also contained almond powder, raisins and if I’m not mistaken, a pinch of cinnamon.
The Egyptian Museum is located on Tahrir Square and is the most important museum to visit when visiting Cairo, especially if you plan to visit the Pyramids later. Indeed what we see and learn in this museum is essential for understanding the history of the pyramids.
The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities consists of two floors; the ground floor, which exhibits heavier objects like coffins, gigantic statues and stone carvings. The objects of the ground floor are organized according to the historical periods which are: the Old Empire, the Intermediate Period, the New Empire, Third Intermediate Period, and the Greco-Roman Period.
The upper floor of the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities is where you’ll find all the gadgets, tools, funerary objects, smaller statues, papyrus, wooden coffins, jewelery and, most importantly, the tombs of Tut Ankh Amun.
If you intend to visit the museum, I strongly advise you to get a guide because museography here is not at all equal to the quality of the collection. We often think we know the history of Egypt but in reality facing all these amazing objects we realize that what we learned in school about ancient Egypt is only a small drop in an ocean of Egyptian knowledge.
Without wanting to spoil the whole museum I give you as an example a small interesting detail that I learned about the statues of pharaohs and their beard pieces. One can know by its form whether it was made during the life of the said Pharaoh or after his death.
After this long tour of the museum I did a very quick passage in the museum shop which seemed to be full of unnecessary items for tourists at first sight. In reality it was a very good place to find books about Egypt in languages other than Arabic. I hesitated a long time to buy one or two cookbooks and finally gave up. I regret it a little now. I had a big crush on “The Pharaoh’s Kitchen: Recipes from Ancient Egypt’s Enduring Food Traditions” and “Taste of Egypt: Home Cooking from the Middle East”.
Coptic Cairo: The christian quarter of Cairo
Cairo’s Coptic neighborhood, also known as “Old Cairo”, is the oldest district of the city. It is the heart of the Christian life of the city. The Christian religion was introduced by St. Mark around 45 AD and so a Coptic community began to develop (Coptic being a term specifically referring to the Christians of Egypt). The Coptic Quarter is best known for having a large number of churches on a very small perimeter. There is for example the Saint Serge church, the Sainte Barbara Church, St. Mary’s Church (also called Hanging Church) and the famous The Church of St. George.
At the entrance to the neighborhood, there is a police checkpoint with scans of luggage and personal searches. I say this because many people had advised against going there and I know that many tourists are reluctant to go to coptic Cairo for security reasons.
To fully understand this neighborhood and its history, the Coptic Museum is a good place to start. The museum gardens are peaceful and quiet with a nice wooden gazebo to take a break and contemplate the place.
What I liked the most about this museum was the mushrabiya. These are wooden boxes that cover the windows and function as a natural ventilation device. They are also very beautiful thanks to a very fine marquetry work.
The museum itself exhibits an extensive collection of Christian era artifacts (AD 300-1000) that connects ancient Egypt with the Islamic period. What I found particularly interesting were the works of art from the very beginning of the Christian period when we see biblical figures associated with the religious symbols of ancient Egypt, such as Jesus holding the Osiris key.
Dinner at Fasahet Somaya
On my way back from the Coptic quarter downtown, my belly was rumbling and I was looking for a place to eat a good local dish. But since I only had 3 days in Cairo I only wanted to test the best of the best. No question giving in to the first Shawarma I see ( even though I love Shwarma).
I had read everywhere on internet that Fasahat Somaya is a must go in Cairo. But I also read that the place is very limited (4 tables) and that the kitchen is open only between 17h and 19h. After weighing the pros and cons, I decided to go for it. This small restaurant is located in a small alley not far from El Tahrir Square. Upon arriving the waiter asked me to wait about twenty minutes. Fortunately, there was a teahouse in front of the restaurant with some chairs and a bench outside where you can have a mint tea or even a Shisha while waiting for your turn to get into the restaurant.
I barely had time to finish my tea as the waiter told me that a table was available. Entering the restaurant we can see the famous Somaya, a smiling burgundy hair cook, preparing her dishes all alone in her open kitchen. She offers 2-3 dishes to choose and a salad to go with it. Everything is good, fresh and light. We wanted to order a second round but the kitchen was already closing. If my trip to Cairo had been longer, I’ll go back, that’s for sure.
Before going to Cairo, when I was preparing my travel to-do list, I had in mind to go to a concert or a dance show. It was while researching on venues that I came across Room Art Space in the Garden City district. It is a cultural café where concerts are held from time to time. And by luck, a concert was planned the first night I was in Cairo.
Since I was walking around in Garden City night, I unfortunately could not take pictures (not good ones at least). The only thing I can tell you is that it is the most posh area of Cairo I’ve seen. It has beautiful colonial style buildings, most of which are in a better state of conservation than those in the city center. It is also a super secure place with police stations at the end of each street.
Garden City was a beautiful area but not very lively. I think for those planning to just visit the area it would be better to go during the day and admire the architecture. Otherwise in the evening there is the Room Art space and its café …
Day 2 : The citadel / Kahn-Al-Khalili
To start my second day in Cairo I went to one of Cairo’s most popular tourist attractions, the citadel of Saladin. The citadel is home to a number of museums and ancient mosques, located on a limestone hill.
The citadel is sometimes called the citadel of Mohamed Ali because it’s where the Mohamed Ali Pasha mosque is. This mosque was built between 1828 and 1848, perched on the top of the citadel. It is the flagship monument of the citadel and I can tell you that the interior is just as beautiful as the outside.
There are two other mosques at the citadel, the 14th century Al-Nasir Muhammad Qala’un Mosque of the Bahri Mameluk period and the Suleyman Pasha Mosque, the first of the Ottoman-style mosques in the Citadel.
By its position on the heights of the city, the citadel is also the perfect place to have a panoramic view of the city. The other popular feature of Saladin’s citadel is its cool breeze and lower temperature than the rest of the city.
Heading north of the citadel, and passing through Al Azhar Park, I arrived at Khan-Al-Khalili and its famous souk (market). It’s nice to walk around this place but you should know the great Souk of Cairo is mainly aimed at tourists. Stores usually sell souvenirs, antiques and jewelery, even though many traditional workshops continue to operate in the area, and the goldsmiths’ souk, for example, is still important to locals. I also visited the part with the spice sellers, which was my favorite. I left the spice market with a ton of dried camomile and cardamom. After my trip I used my camomiles to make a floral and springy cake.
In addition to the shops, there are several cafes, restaurants and street food vendors throughout the Khan-Al-Khalili souk. The cafes are generally small and fairly traditional, serving Turkish coffee, mint tea and shisha. One of the oldest and most famous cafés of this place is El-Fishawi. Some will even say that it is the most famous cafe in the Arab world! It seems that this 250-year-old café owes its fame to many celebrities, musicians and writers who came to spend their time there. The walls of the cafe are filled with pictures of all these personalities and the shelves are teeming with brick braques and memories of the past.
El-Fishawy is not only for tea or coffee but also super delicious falafel sandwiches and pickles … for breakfast!
Eating Koshary at Abou Tarek
Koshary is an emblematic Egyptian dish that has, for some unknown reason, not been reached its deserved international recognition. This means that you have to really seize the opportunity and have some when going to Egypt. In Cairo, the best Koshary you’ll find, is at Abu Tarek’s. And it is not the internet that says it, it is also the opinion of all the cariots that I could meet.
When we try to get to this restaurant, we are a little discouraged at first. The restaurant Abu Tarek is indeed in the middle of the mechanics districts. There are only mechanics everywhere. One after another. And then all of a sudden there is Abu Tarek. It’s a four-level restaurant that’s booming. On the ground floor people order to take away (mostly the mechanics of the neighborhood). There are so many people climbing the cash register, it looks like a Black Friday in an American mall. But I’d say they have good reasons. Abu Tarek’s Koshary is that good!
Having a table on the upper levels is not easy either. But you must not hesitate to ask people if you can share their table.
Day 3: Pyramids and Necropolis / Zamalak District
I spent the third day of my trip mainly visiting the Pharaonic sites around Cairo. The best known is of course Giza, where the great pyramid and the statue of the sphinx are. This site is also the closest to Cairo. But a few tens of kilometers further, we also have the necropolis sites of Saqqara and the pyramides of Dahshur, just as interesting.
Funeral complex of Djoser in Saqqara
The necropolis of Saqqara is about 30km south of Cairo. For those interested in Ancient Egypt, this is an important place. It the starting point of pyramid constructions in Egypt. The most remarkable monument of Saqqara is the step pyramid (or mastaba). This fake pyramid (fake because it wasn’t built like other pyramides) was made for the pharaoh Djeser around -2600.
There are many stories told about the step pyramides. According to my tour guide this mastaba was thought to be a true pyramid for a long time because its surface was entirely covered with limestone to give it the appearance of a pyramid. But one day, some Europeans tried to come in to steal precious objects. It was then that the limestone cover began to crumble to reveal below a multi-storey structure, and therefore not a real pyramid.
The pyramids of Dahshur
The pyramids of Dahshur form an ancient royal necropolis, located about 40 kilometers south of Cairo. The pyramids on this site were built from 2613 to 2589 BC.
Here we have the rhomboid pyramid and the red pyramid. According to my guide, the red pyramid is the most perfect of the Egyptian pyramids.
The story of these two pyramids is pretty funny I think. According to my guide, once again, Pharaoh Sneferu would have ordered the construction of a pyramid (the one that will become the rhomboid pyramid), but while it was half completed, he was afraid of not being able to see it finished before his death. He then asks his architects to reduce the angle of the pyramid so that it is finished faster. So the pyramide takes the form that you see above.
In the end, he finished the pyramid long before he died, so he thought he would start building a second one. And that came to be the red pyramid …
A few details: We first climb from the outside to the entrance (about 30 meters high) then we go down in the pyramid a very narrow slope (and not a staircase) which is not illuminated and has a ceiling height of about 1m20.
So to make it simple we have to descend the equivalent of 7 floors, being folded in two, in the dark.
With these conditions, once you arrive in the funeral chamber, you are well set in the mood. You will understand that people wouldn’t come down here to rest and have a cup of tea. The goal was to set up a dead man in its place and leave.
In Dahshur we can also see the pyramid of Amenemhat III, also called the Black Pyramid. Unfortunately this pyramid has been destroyed over time and it does not really look like a pyramid anymore.
I’m finally facing the Great Pyramid and its slightly smaller neighbor. These spectacular monuments overlooking the city of Giza, together with the sphinx, form one of the most famous destinations on the planet, and the only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world that still exists. We all have seen images of the great pyramide, but being in its presence is incomparable.
The size of these two pyramids is enough to make them worthy of the status of “wonders”. After all, it is estimated that the Great Pyramid alone is composed of more than 2.5 million stones. When it was completed in 2560 BC, it was the tallest building on the planet, and it remained so until the construction of the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1895!
There are so many stories about the construction of these monuments. We learn some versions at school, others in Hollywood movies and here in Egypt itself, we can tell you many others. Certainly all these stories about the pharaohs, the existence or not of slavery, and the motivations behind these constructions do not give us clear answers, but they keep the mystery around and let us work our imagination.
About the Sphinx and its broken nose for example, my tour guide explained that she has a different version for each type of tourist. To some she will say that it is the work of the French. To the French, she will say that it is the work of the Turkmen. To others she will say that it was the Muslims and so on … this way she never offends anyone. The reality is that no one knows why the Sphinx doesn’t have a nose!
Return to Cairo: Zamalek District
On my last evening in Cairo I visited the Gezirah (which simply means island) in the west parts of Cairo. This island was formed between two branches of the Nile which separate and rejoin a little further.
The district of Zamalak is on this island. It is one of Cairo’s most vibrant and lively neighbourhoods, with bars, ahwas (tea rooms), gourmet restaurants, eclectic art galleries, delicatessens, etc. Based on my 3-day observations, Zamalak seemed to be the heart of the city’s nightlife. In addition, there are many promenades and parks on the banks of the Nile. But do not be surprised when entering some of these parks, you are asked to pay.
What to eat in Cairo
On this blog we often finish our travel articles with a board of local foods. As this trip was way too short to find out what the typical Cairo ingredients were, I preferred to make a pastry board. Because pastries… well I had a little too much. There was one pastry shop right next to the apartment where I was staying. Every time I went out, the cheese rolls (Halwat El Jiban) and the different types of Baklavas kept tempting me.
They are not all 100% Egyptian pastries. Many are present in other Middle Eastern countries too. But even when you think you know some, the Egyptian versions can hide surprises.
The journey is already over 🙁 Now I can’t wait to get back to Egypt through my taste buds. Trying to make a good Koshary is already on my to-di list, and if I succeed, maybe one day I will be able to share the recipe here.
I hope this article can help you if you ever prepare for a trip to Cairo. Do not hesitate to ask me questions in the comments or to contradict me if you find false information.