The best things to do in Cairo
As one of the largest cities in the world, Cairo is a bustling metropolis where daily modern life constantly intersects with millennia of history.
Beyond the main sights of Ancient Egypt, there are lots of things to see in Cairo, including grand Islamic sights and vibrant local streets.
On the western edge of Cairo, the Pyramids of Giza rise like beacons in the desert. Gazing out from them to the west, the desolate desert dominates the landscape, a dry sandy expanse depicting how Egypt would once have been.
But to the east of the pyramids, an enormous urban centre has grown over the years, with the city’s beacons the minarets of mosques in the historic centre and the modern skyscrapers along the Nile.
Amongst the sprawling city – the sixth largest in the world by some measures – are layers of history. For visitors, the best things to do in Cairo take you through this story, tracing millennia of civilisations.
Many tourists visit Cairo simply as the starting point of a tour of Egypt. The only Cairo attractions they may see might be the Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum. And while those are clearly the most iconic sights in Cairo, there is of course so much more to discover.
Artefacts from Ancient Egypt through to modern times have been carefully collected and put on display in the city’s museums, offering a virtual journey through the whole country.
The intricate art and architecture of Islamic Cairo is amongst the most beautiful in the world, with more than 600 historic buildings collectively recognised as a World Heritage Site.
The streets of Cairo allow you to explore daily life – with the smells of the souqs, the tastes of the local food, and the sounds of musical performances.
Along with visiting the main sights, I spend much of my time in the city just wandering around different neighbourhoods. I think one of the best things to do in Cairo is get away from the tourist areas and let the real city envelop you, and I found these areas to be much more relaxing than those throbbing with touts.
Spending a few days in Cairo lets you see this side of it, beyond the obvious ancient landmarks. Plus, that gives you time for some trips out of the city itself, into the desert or nearby archaeological sites.
To help you plan your time here, I’ve put together a list of the best things to do in Cairo. As you’ll see, there are plenty of layers to uncover.
If you’re short of time, there are certainly a few things to see in Cairo that should be at the top of your list. And you’ll probably know a couple of these places already – after all, one of them is among the world’s most famous landmarks.
Pyramids of Giza
I do wonder if anyone visits Cairo for the first time and doesn’t go to see Pyramids of Giza. I hope not, because this is one of the most famous sights in the world – and for good reason.
Across the large plateau, it’s the three main pyramids that immediately draw your eye. The largest of them, the Pyramid of Khufu, is about 150 metres high and is constructed with 2.3 million huge stone blocks. The other two are just as impressive in their own ways.
At the end of a causeway running down from the second-largest, the Pyramid of Khafre, stands the Sphinx, another of the site’s icons and a highlight in itself.
Rather than tell you more about the pyramids now, I’m going to suggest you read my story about visiting the Pyramids of Giza, where I’ve got lots more details.
I would also recommend taking a tour when you do go to see the site. Although it’s easy enough to visit independently, you’ll get so much more from a guide who can give you all the stories about these ancient wonders.
If you’re just looking for a visit to the main sights, I would recommend this excellent guided tour. Or there are some other options here:
Grand Egyptian Museum
For decades, the most-visited sight in Cairo after the Giza Pyramids was the Egyptian Museum (officially known as the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities). Although it had an incredible collection of thousands of items, including the finds of Tutankhamun’s tomb, they were all crammed into a small old building.
That’s all changed now, with the brand new Grand Egyptian Museum. This vast building has been beset with delays but it’s been worth the wait, with the collection now housed in the world’s largest archaeological museum.
As well as the complete Tutankhamun collection (definitely a highlight), there are more than 13,000 other items on display, including a huge statue of Ramses II, the 42-metre boat buried beside the Great Pyramid, and much more.
The location of the Grand Egyptian Museum is also much more convenient than the old one. It’s on the Giza plateau, in a direct line with the pyramids, making it easy to see both Cairo sights on the same day.
Note: The Grand Egyptian Museum is due to open in November 2022
Citadel of Cairo
While we may associate Cairo with the Giza Pyramids, there wasn’t really a city here when the pharaohs were building their tombs (although the ancient capital of Memphis wasn’t too far away). And, although there was a Roman base here from the fourth century AD, followed by several Muslim settlements, it wasn’t really until 969 that Cairo was officially ‘founded’.
What followed was many centuries of rule by different Islamic dynasties, each leaving their own mark on the city. A large historic area known as Islamic Cairo is now a World Heritage Site, and I’ll tell you more about that shortly.
But of everything in that area, the most important sight is the Citadel of Cairo, a large fortified complex on a hill that was the seat of government in Egypt for nearly 700 years. Built in the 12th century, it had two subsequent major renovations to make it what you see today.
The site, also known as the Saladin Citadel, is quite large and has several things to see. The most interesting are the three mosques – with the oldest being the Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque, and the most spectacular the Mosque of Muhammad Ali.
There are also a few museums in the citadel, including the Al-Gawhara Palace Museum inside the opulent palace built in 1814. Plus you’ll get excellent views of the city from the main terrace.
Although Cairo is a predominately Islamic city, and has been for more than a millennium, there’s always been a Christian presence as well. Historically, it’s centred around an area called Coptic Cairo, where it’s said that Jesus and his parents passed through briefly.
The first churches in Coptic Cairo were built as early as the 4th century, although most of them are from after the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the 7th century. These days, the district is enclosed by walls and facades of buildings, meaning there are just several distinct entrances.
Within the maze of narrow streets, there’s plenty of heritage to explore, and I’ve got a more detailed story about the things to see in Coptic Cairo.
But some of the highlights worth mentioning are the Fortress of Babylon, the Hanging Church, Abu Serga (the oldest church in Egypt, built in the 4th century), and the Coptic Museum.
I think you’ll get a lot more of an insight with a local guide, and there’s this great tour of Coptic Cairo that also includes some of Islamic Cairo.
The depth of Egypt’s history is undeniable, from the centuries of the ancient civilisation, to the great dynasties that came subsequently in the post-Roman world. Many of the treasures and artefacts from all these periods are collected in Cairo’s best museums.
Until the Grand Egyptian Museum came along, the old Egyptian Museum was one of the most visited attractions in Cairo – and Egypt! It has a collection of more than 120,000 items, although only a fraction was ever on display.
And that was the problem with the museum. It couldn’t ever do justice to its priceless collection of artefacts. And, although the building (constructed in 1901) is relatively large, it still felt cramped and crowd congestion was a big problem.
I always liked the atmosphere of wandering through what felt like a bit of a warehouse, as if you were an explorer or an archaeologist yourself, having to find your way through the various rooms and never knowing what may be in the next. But it certainly wasn’t a modern museum experience.
It’s not clear exactly what the old Egyptian Museum will look like when the new one opens, because many of its top pieces have been moved to the modern space. But curators say they’ll be able to do more with less because the institution will have more of a specific focus.
National Museum of Egyptian Civilization
While the Egyptian Museums (old and grand) focus on the Ancient World, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization covers the entirety of human history in the country.
Starting with Palaeolithic times before leading into Ancient Egypt, it then covers the Romans, Byzantines, various Islamic periods, right up to modern day.
There are more than 50,000 artefacts on display in the large modern building (it was only officially opened in 2021) including 22 mummies that were moved from the old Egyptian Museum in a large parade through the city.
As far as a retelling of Egyptian history goes, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization is the most comprehensive in the country and this is likely to become one of Cairo’s best attractions.
Museum of Islamic Art
Another of Cairo’s best museums is the Museum of Islamic Art, with a precious collection of artworks from across the Islamic world on display in a building based on Muslim architecture.
Although it has about 100,000 objects, only about 5,000 are on display, with rare woodwork and plaster artefacts some of the most significant items. Another highlight are rare manuscripts of the Koran with calligraphy in silver ink.
With a convenient downtown location, it’s easy enough to visit the Museum of Islamic Art. Many tourists skip it because they want to focus on Ancient Egypt, but it’s a grand space that won’t disappoint.
Abdeen Palace Museum
Just a short stroll from the Museum of Islamic Art is the Abdeen Palace Museum, worth visiting for both the building itself, and what it contains.
Abdeen Palace, built in 1863, was one of the official residences of the Egyptian Royal Family that ruled from the 19th to the mid-20th century. A huge construction that is reminiscent of European palaces of the time, it still has official functions for the President of Egypt.
A large part of the palace is now taken up by five museums – the War Museum, Presidential Gifts Museum, Royal Museum, Historical Documents Museum, and Silverware Museum. A visit gives you access to all of these, as well as being able to see some of the palace’s ceremonial rooms.
Earlier, I told you about the Citadel of Cairo, the political centre of the city for centuries during successive Muslim dynasties. But it’s not the only important landmark from that time!
In fact, a large part of old Cairo has been protected as a World Heritage Site called Islamic Cairo, and it includes more than 600 significant buildings!
If you’re interested in learning more about the history and getting a deeper look at the neighbourhoods, I would suggest this full-day tour, or one of these other great options:
If you would prefer to explore independently, I think it’s best just to concentrate on a few of these highlights, which are among the best things to do in Cairo.
Sultan Hassan Mosque
This monumental mosque opened in 1363 is considered to be one of the finest examples of early Mamluk architecture in Cairo, partly because of its enormous size and partly because it used quite innovate architectural elements.
From the Sultan Hassan Mosque’s huge and ornate entrance portal, it feels like a bit of a maze to walk through a bending medieval corridor to get to the main attraction – the central courtyard. With an ablutions fountain in the centre and a tall iwan on each side, there’s lots of detail to absorb in this tranquil spot.
Off to the sides, are more chambers and rooms connected to the madrasas and other parts of the mosque complex. You certainly don’t want to rush your visit here because there’s lots to see.
Right next to the Sultan Hassan Mosque is another huge place of worship, the Al-Rifa’i Mosque, which was completed in 1912 and was designed to complement the iconic sight next to it.
Although it uses similar Mamluk styles, it also incorporates elements like Ancient Egyptian columns. The main mosque area is enclosed, unlike the courtyard of its neighbour, creating an enormous cavernous space.
The Al-Rifa’i Mosque is the royal mausoleum of the family of Muhammad Ali (the founder of modern Egypt, not the boxer) and so is considered one of the city’s most important landmarks.
Ibn Tulun Mosque
The largest mosque in terms of area, Ibn Tulun Mosque is also the oldest mosque in Cairo in its original form, completed in 879. It’s a very different design to the other two, I’ve mentioned, though.
Rather than feeling like a building, it is a large open courtyard bathed in light, with arcades on all four sides leading to the main rooms. The scale of the complex is breathtaking and it’s a bit eerie how quiet it can be.
There’s lots of detail to admire, including decorations from carved stucco and wood. The spiral minaret is also a really important element.
The remainder of the wall that surrounded the old city is another important part of the Islamic Cairo site and one of the most iconic parts of it is the western gate called Bab Zuweila.
What makes the gate so interesting are the two minarets that rise up from it, their different levels each with a different shape until they become a bulb at the top.
There’s a small museum which is vaguely interesting but the real attraction is the view from the top, which offers a fantastic perspective of the old city – which would have had a very similar layout to what you still see today.
Amongst all the heritage in Cairo, it can sometimes be easy to forget that contemporary life is going on amongst the museums and historical sights. While not a lot of Cairo’s architecture is ‘modern’ in the way that Tokyo or New York is, look beyond the buildings and you’ll find plenty of local experiences.
One of the best things to do in Cairo – like in many North African cities – is head to some of its souks (markets). These bustling shopping centres are full of sounds and smells, with vibrant displays where you can find some souvenirs or taste the local food.
The most famous souk in Cairo is Khan el-Khalili, which was founded in the 14th century and has been a commercial centre for hundreds of years. It’s become a bit touristy these days, but that doesn’t take away from its charm, with very photogenic collections of colourful lamps.
A more local experience is Souq Al Goma, a large ramshackle gathering with all sorts of weird and wonderful things for sale. For more niche souks, Al Azbakeya sells books (both new and used), while Wekalet Al Balah is known for its imported clothes.
If you’re interested in a local guide showing you all the highlights (and helping with the shopping) there’s this good private tour.
Once you get to know Egyptian food, I think you’ll come to love it. Falafel, shawarma, and kofta make for delicious street meals, and the light desserts always hit the spot after a meal.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I always advocate taking a food tour in a new city, because it’s a great way to learn about the best types of places to eat (and we all need to do that, right?), and guides usually impart a whole lot more local knowledge than just where to eat and drink.
Cairo’s dining scene is so much fun, particularly in the busy local restaurants, so I would recommend this Cairo food tour to get your bearings and taste some of the authentic cuisine.
Cairo’s Al-Azhar Park is more than just a pocket of green in a rather dense urban centre, it’s also a focal point for recreation in the city. Visiting Al-Azhar Park is not just a chance for you to find a bit of nature, it’ll get your right amongst the locals.
The expansive parklands have various gardens, fountains, and a lake. There are also some archaeological elements, particularly old city gates.
The restaurants attract crowds during meal times, but you’ll also see local families gathering on the grass for picnics. There are often events in the evenings and, although you’ll easily find pockets to relax, it’s quite a lively place outside of the hottest hours of the day.
Across a bridge from the downtown of Cairo, you’ll find a large island in the Nile known as Zamalek. This is one of the city’s most fashionable neighbourhoods, with plenty of things to do showcasing the modern cosmopolitan side of Cairo.
One of the most obvious landmarks is Cairo Tower, a 187-metre-high structure with a revolving restaurant at the top near its lotus flower design. Across the road is the Cairo Opera house, with several art galleries surrounding it.
The northern part of the island is more densely developed and you’ll find lots of trendy restaurants, boutique shops, bars, and cafes. Although you may not have come to Egypt looking for these things, I find it an interesting contrast to the other main Cairo sights.
Cairo can seem quite overwhelming at first, with its hectic traffic and twisted street plan. There’s no obvious tourist zone, with Cairo’s main attractions spread out across the city, and a public transport system that can be difficult to use if you don’t speak the local language (although taxis and Ubers are easier).
This is a city where I think you’ll benefit from taking some tours, and there are some good options that show you different sides of the city – and even some of the sights in the surrounding area.
Something nice about the various city tours of Cairo is that they all offer something a bit different. Rather than just taking you to exactly the same sights, there are tours that mix and match the attractions, so you can usually find one that suits your interests.
The advantage of using a guide to go to multiple sights is that they’ll take care of all the transport (which can be a hassle independently) and you’ll get time in transit to learn more about the city generally.
A good option to see the highlights is this excellent guided tour that includes the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, and Khan el-Khalili souq.
And here are a few other options I’ve chosen, which show different parts of Cairo:
The majestic Nile River runs through the centre of Cairo and you’re bound to cross it several times while you’re in the city. But rather than just admire it from a distance, why not get on the water on experience it up close.
One of the most popular activities on the Nile is a cruise, and this dinner cruise will take you along the river at night, with a buffet dinner and live entertainment with belly dancers and Arabic songs.
To see the Nile during the day – and for something a bit more local – another option is to take a ride on one of the small traditional boats known as a felucca. This felucca ride can be done at various times during the day, including at sunset.
Like most cities, Cairo feels like a different place at night, when the streets are filled with evening diners, markets are bustling, and businesses closed during the heat open up to visitors.
Of course, you can wander the streets yourself at night, but you’ll miss much of the local atmosphere if you don’t know exactly where to go and understand what’s happening around you.
That’s why I would certainly recommend this night tour of Cairo with a local guide who will share legends and anecdotes about the city and show you some of the hidden places in the streets of the old neighbourhoods.
For something a bit more adventurous, you might want to consider heading out of Cairo for the day to explore the desert around the city. There are heaps of fun activities in the dunes, and personally I found it a refreshing break from the sights of the city.
This is hard to do by yourself, so I would recommend this desert safari tour that includes some dune-bashing in a 4×4, a sandboarding session, and even a camel ride (plus stops at some really pretty photo opportunities).
If you’re traveling around Egypt for a week or two, you’re bound to see lots of desert, but there aren’t always convenient opportunities to do activities like this, so Cairo is a great place to do it.
Although there are plenty of things to do in Cairo, there are also some fantastic attractions that can be easily reached from the city. Whether it’s a half-day trip or a full-day excursion, it’s worth considering whether any of these places are of interest to you.
I think the most important sight near Cairo is Saqqara, about an hour’s drive south of the city centre. It’s an incredible archaeological area that is part of the same World Heritage Site as the Giza Pyramids.
Saqqara was the ancient burial ground of the Egyptian pharaohs before they built the pyramids at Giza. It’s here you’ll find the Pyramid of Djoser, considered to be the oldest pyramid in the world and a precursor to the more famous ones about 15 kilometres away.
The pyramids and tombs here were built more than 4,500 years ago but they are in remarkably good condition. The Pyramid of Djoser still stands tall, parts of the temples in the complex can be walked through, and when you go down into the tombs, you’ll be amazed at how bright and colourful the wall paintings still are.
I’ve written a whole story about visiting Saqqara from Cairo, but the easiest way to get there is with a tour (most of which also include the Giza Pyramids and other parts of ancient Memphis). I would recommend this tour of Saqqara and Giza, or there are some more similar options here:
This is not what you expect to find in Egypt. In some ways, it’s not what you expect to find anywhere, because Whale Valley is a really special place! It’s here that you can see ancient fossilised skeletons of whale… that have feet!
Whale Valley (also known as Wadi Al-Hitan) has an incredible selection of fossils on display in the desert of the basilosaurus, a 20-metre-long carnivore that had legs, proving the evolution of whales from land-dwelling mammals into marine creatures.
Not many tourists come out here so you’ll be able to walk through the sand without the crowds and get up close to these skeletons that are about 40 million years old. I’ve got a whole story about what it’s like to visit Egypt’s Whale Valley.
It’s hard to reach Wadi Al-Hitan without a car, so a good option is to take a tour. The only options are private trips so it can be a bit expensive but this guided tour is the cheapest (and will be less per person if you’re in a group).
It may seem strange suggesting that you leave one city to go to another, but Alexandria is only 200 kilometres away and it’s possible to visit as a day trip, if you’re not planning to go otherwise (although it does deserve more time).
Famous for its ancient library, the modern library at Alexandria is still an incredible building and a highlight of the city. There’s also lots of other historical sights, including the fortress, catacombs, and Roman archaeological sites.
But Alexandria is also a charming city just for its atmosphere, with its coastal environment giving it a fun and fresh vibe, with lots of places to eat and drink. There’s a good reason this is a popular holiday destination for Egyptians.
There’s a direct train you can take from Cairo to Alexandria, or this full-day tour is the most convenient way to get there and be taken to all the main attractions.