The capital of one of the world’s most glorious empires, Cairo is a large metropolis located on the banks of the Nile River. Characterized by Roman, Arabic and Ottoman architecture, it is known for its unparalleled ancient monuments, luxury hotels, desert heat and notorious traffic. Like most cities, Cairo is a place of contrasts where centuries of history collide with the present.
Things have been tough in the past decade from the Arab Spring uprisings, counter-revolutions and the Covid pandemic, but a city that has stood for 1,000 years has seen its ups and downs before. And next month, in November 2022, the world’s most anticipated new archaeological museum is set to open in Giza. If you’re planning a trip, here’s what you can’t miss in Cairo. Discover the best places to visit, eat and sleep in Egypt’s bustling capital.
Visit the Pyramids
The pyramids are some of the most recognizable images in the world. Although ancient Egypt had over 100 pyramids, the most famous are located in Giza, a 30-minute drive west of Cairo. Built as grand tombs for the pharaohs during Egypt’s Old Kingdom (2700 – 2200 BC), they are the only remaining wonder of the ancient world and an amazing feat of human ingenuity to admire in real life. Visitors can explore three pyramids at Giza, built for Khufu, Khafra and Menkaure, and smaller pyramids for queen consorts nearby.
Hidden beneath the desert sands for thousands of years, the Great Sphinx of Giza is another attraction. A limestone statue with the head of a man and a lion, it is one of the oldest monumental sculptures in the world and is still shrouded in mystery. Egyptologists believe it was created by Pharaoh Khafre around 2500 BC. and that his nose was deliberately cut off sometime between the 3rd-10th century AD. (although the reasons are still unknown).
The upcoming opening of the Great Egyptian Museum at the foot of the pyramids in Giza will be an additional reason to plan a visit to Egypt. Designed to be the largest archaeological museum in the world, it will house over 45,000 objects, including the complete collection of relics discovered in the tomb of King Tutankhamun (which will be transferred from the Egyptian Museum).
Taste local cuisine
Although Egyptian cuisine does not have the global recognition of other Middle Eastern countries, the country has a rich culinary heritage that shares familiar flavors with its neighbors to the east and west. Dishes like hummus, baba ganoush and baklava are ubiquitous, although Egypt has its own spin on classics like falafel, locally called “taameya” made with fava beans instead of chickpeas, and tagine served with béchamel for extra flavor and comfort.
Stop by Zööba, a trendy restaurant serving Egypt’s most popular street food, has half a dozen locations around Cairo (along with franchises in New York and Saudi Arabia). We are part of the cozy enclave in Zamalek, a beautiful residential neighborhood on an island in the Nile. The show is stolen by the Taameya sandwiches, filled with fried fava patties, pickled salad and creamy tahina dressing.
Another Egyptian must-try is koshari, a surprisingly tasty concoction that contains a variety of carbohydrates to keep you energized for all your sightseeing. This simple, hearty dish features pasta noodles, rice, and lentils with a flavorful tomato sauce infused with chili, garlic vinegar, and fried onions. As a food and travel writer who lived in Italy, I was skeptical, but the end result is tastier than it looks. This specialty is also accidentally vegan and very affordable at EGP 30 (less than $2). Try this dish at Abou Tarek, which has been serving Cairo foodies for decades and was also visited by Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations in 2008.
Admire Ancient Art
Egypt has been attracting visitors for its legendary art and culture for millennia, and the best collection of ancient antiquities can be found at the Egyptian Museum. Dating back to 1902 and located right in Tahrir Square, this neoclassical building traces the history of ancient Egypt to more than 120,000 treasures, including gilded death masks, elaborately painted coffins, stone statues, ancient jewelry and more. Visitors should not confuse this museum with others in the capital.
Some of the highlights of the Egyptian Museum, including 20 royal mummies of kings and queens, were transferred to the National Museum of Egyptian Culture (NMEC) in 2021. And the priceless contents found inside Tutankhamun’s tomb — which include his famous death mask and two coffins — will soon be transferred to the new Great Egyptian Museum (GEM).
Wake Up To Nile Views
Fairmont Nile City is an oasis away from the busy streets of the capital, at the northern end of Cairo’s Corniche, with magnificent views of the Nile and the elegant island of Zamalek. A glamorous retreat with an Art Deco aesthetic, the hotel features 542 rooms and suites, along with the capital’s only 360-degree swimming pool at 25u floor. If you look behind the skyscrapers on the horizon, you can even see the pyramids from up here.
For the ultimate in pampering, it’s worth upgrading to a Fairmont Gold room for perks like private check-in and access to the exclusive Fairmont Gold Lounge. This stylish lounge serves an elaborate breakfast each morning to a small selection of guests, along with complimentary high tea and a pre-dinner buffet of traditional Egyptian recipes and international dishes.
The food may be tempting, but you’ll want to save room to dine at Fairmont Nile City’s numerous restaurants. Choices include Italian favorites at L’Uliveto, pan-Asian dishes at Saigon and a taste of sumptuous oriental dishes accompanied by live music and Bab El Nil belly dancers. But it’s hard to compete with the hotel’s newest opening, Gingko, a leafy Mediterranean-Asian bistro set on an outdoor terrace overlooking the Nile. Here you can enjoy saffron sea scallops served with caramelized peaches and sip a spicy passion martini while the sun sets, bathing the entire city in a golden glow.
Shop for souvenirs
As a center of trade for thousands of years, the Egyptians have perfected their craftsmanship and the art of negotiation. The culture is known for its haggling, a skill visitors can practice in the country’s many markets and bazaars. The popular Khan Al-Khalili, located in the heart of Islamic Cairo, dates back to 1382. Stroll down El-Moez Street, past mosques and minarets to peruse stalls with colorful spices, woven tapestries and marble miniatures of Egyptian pyramids. Go to El Fishawy Café, which has been serving tea and coffee for over 200 years, or take a seat at Umm Kalthoum Café, an installation filled with photographs of the beloved ‘Voice of Egypt’ – an icon active between the 1920s -70s.
For more trendy design items, head to Zamalek Market, a craft fair and farmers market held on Zamalek Island every Saturday from 10:00am. to 4:00 p.m. First launched in 2017, this pop-up features local makers selling home decor, fashion accessories and natural skincare alongside freshly baked treats and seasonal produce. Makra, a range of natural clay pots made according to the ancient Egyptian tradition, is worth picking up for preparing stews and tagines at home.
Immerse yourself in art and culture in the four seasons
In the beautiful Garden City, on the banks of the river, the Four Seasons at Nile Plaza is an elegant oasis strategically located for exploring the capital. Surrounded by embassies, upscale restaurants and cafes, it is a short drive from the Egyptian Museum and Zamalek Island, home to Cairo’s 20u The Opera House of the century and the iconic Cairo Tower at 613 feet (187 meters) high and covered with 8 million mosaics.
The property has 365 rooms (including 100 spacious suites with private balconies), three swimming pools and a world-class spa. With impeccable modern design and luxurious furnishings, it is an elegant hotel that prides itself on its artistic and cultural offerings. Upon entering the grand lobby, you can admire the hotel’s staggering art collection of 200 works by Farouk Hosny, an abstract painter and Minister of Culture of Egypt between 1987-2011. The Four Seasons at Nile Plaza also supports the local Tawasol Foundation, a local NGO with a performing arts and skills development program that helps promote social inclusion and preserve Egyptian handicrafts.
The property offers a myriad of dining options in beautifully decorated spaces. Egyptian Zitouni serves a rich buffet of local specialties, while 8 brings Cantonese dishes to the capital. There are two Italian restaurants for guests to enjoy Mediterranean cuisine during their stay: Riviera, inspired by coastal cuisine and Bullona, an elegant, sexy restaurant with contemporary Italian artwork and lit by hundreds of candles every night.