10 Unique Things To Do In Cairo

No city is quite like Cairo. On every corner a different smell, sight and style, there are so many unique things to do in Cairo that you cannot find anywhere else. You could spend months here and still not see everything this amazing city has to offer. Most visitors stay for 3 or 4 days maximum and it never quite feels like enough!

Table of Contents

Introduction

Cairo is an assault on the senses. If it’s your first time visiting Cairo, we absolutely recommend checking out our first time visitor’s guide here. This gives you some helpful insights into what to expect, which you will need! Cairo is a city that rewards preparation. For example, knowing that the traffic can be very hectic in the afternoons is extremely useful when planning your days, as you want to make sure whatever you’re visiting is close to where you’ve just been.

Cairo separates itself neatly into multiple districts, most of which are recognised by their religion. In Islamic Cairo, you’ll find a plethora of beautiful mosques and Islamic markets. Coptic Cairo is better known for its iconic churches and the intriguing ‘Bin City’. Downtown Cairo by contrast, the more modern area of the city, is where you’ll find many of the museums and views of the river Nile. The itinerary you plan will completely depend on what it is you most want to see. If you need help planning your itinerary, we’ve put a handy 3 day guide together for you below.

There’s one thing of course that everybody wants to see in Cairo: the Pyramids. The irony is that they’re not actually in Cairo at all, but in Cairo’s sister city: Giza. For the best experience at the Pyramids, we highly recommend a stay in Giza itself, but (because of the traffic!), we’d definitely suggest staying in Cairo for the rest of your time in the city.

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The inner courtyard of a mosque in Cairo
There are so many mosques in Islamic Cairo

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Views over the concrete jungle that is Cairo
Views over Cairo

10 Unique things to do in Cairo

1. Mosque hopping in Islamic Cairo

Locals colloquially call Cairo the city of 1000 mosques, and 100s of them are in Islamic Cairo. Our tour guide, Rami (link here if you’d like to contact him) kindly gave us a tour of Islamic Cairo on our last day. We must have visited between 10 and 12 mosques and they all had something unique to offer. Our favourites were:

  • Al Azhar Mosque – we passed this mosque on the way somewhere else and it actually stopped us in our tracks! It’s really eye-catching and super beautiful
  • Mosque of Ibn Tulum – this is the oldest mosque in Islamic Cairo. From the minaret, you get beautiful views over the rest of the city.
  • Amr ibn Al As Mosque – the interior of this mosque is truly beautiful. It’s more of a traditional style than…
  • Sultan Hassan Mosque – inspired by Western and Eastern architecture, this mosque is a stunning blend of the two.

All of the mosques have different opening times, so it’s important to check in advance if there is a certain mosque you want to visit. Fridays, the Muslim holy day, are often busier than other days. Many of the mosques are also free to enter, since their main purpose is to be a religious establishment, not a tourist attraction.

If you’re looking to get the most out of Islamic Cairo, you can try this Viator Tour as well, which hits all the main sites! It takes you through Khan El Khalili and Al Fishawy cafe too, which we mention below.

How to remain respectful of culture when visiting mosques

Though many tourists choose to visit mosques in Islamic Cairo, it’s really important to remember that they are religious buildings and places of worship. They are incredibly significant to the people of the city. As tourists, we need to ensure we respect the rules and don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable.

Here are some ways you can stay respectful:

  • Cover your knees, shoulders, cleavage and midriff. This is especially important for women travellers, but even men should wear long trousers.
  • If travelling as part of a couple, do not display affection physically in a mosque. Even putting an arm around each other can be considered disrespectful
  • Remove your shoes. There will usually a space to stow them and it’s advisable to tip the attendants a small amount as thanks for looking after them for you.
  • Stay quiet – no shouting, running or loud, obnoxious behaviour. This is especially important for those travelling with children.
  • Ask before taking photos, as it’s restricted in certain mosques and in certain areas
A view of Muhammad Ali mosque. There is an apartment building in front of it.
You can see Muhammad Ali Mosque from every corner of the city

2. Muhammad Ali Mosque

Muhammad Ali Mosque is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It’s technically in Islamic Cairo, but definitely deserves a full visit in its own right. You could easily spend an hour or two here, and not be bored. Firstly, it’s not only a mosque, but a large complex, complete with the mosque itself, a museum and the citadel of Cairo. Consequently, there is an entry fee (200 EGP at the time of writing, around $7).

One of the nicest times of year to visit (and when we were there) is Ramadan when the mosque is completely lit up with lanterns for the festivities. The interior of the mosque truly is stunning, in particular the elaborate ceiling. As when visiting any mosques, visitors should observe the rules above as a sign of respect.

You will be able to see Muhammad Ali Mosque from most of the city, and it has some of the best views of the whole of Cairo. From here, we actually got our first view of the Pyramids (from a distance)!

Top tip: visit in the mornings when it’s not as busy and avoid Fridays. We left around 4pm, and it made it quite difficult to get out as the rest of town was also trying to leave at this time.

A market street in Islamic Cairo. There are purple and blue streamers between the buildings
Ramadan decorations in Cairo

3. Visit Al Fishawy – a 200 year old cafe!

Al Fishawy is the oldest cafe in Cairo, and has been running for over 200 years! It’s a favourite with locals and tourists alike and was apparently set up by one man in 1797, who began serving Turkish coffee to his friends in the evenings. Despite its fame, it’s usually easy to get a seat and the waiters are really efficient. They serve some delicious smoothies, teas, coffees and other hot drinks (all non-alcoholic). It’s also a great place to pass some time sitting people-watching.

What’s really sweet is they even have a small museum room, full of portraits of famous people who’ve visited. It’s on one of the most famous streets in the city (El Moez/Al Muizz Street), very close to….

4. The Markets in Khan el Khalili

The markets of Khan El Khalili are not only one of the most iconic parts of Cairo, but they’re also a great place to find some beautiful souvenirs. You will undoubtedly know them from the many pictures on social media, but it’s actually a fully functioning market, full of beautiful stalls and local traders. What draws your eye first of all are the many colourful lanterns, but you can find anything here.

The many stalls sell everything you can think of, from spices to copper, gold and souvenirs. Mind you, you do need to be a little careful, as the traders here will say anything to make a sale!

This is a great place for photographers and there are some beautiful stalls. People generally don’t mind you taking photos as long as you ask permission and stay respectful. We recommend, as always, not uploading to social media without consent and explanation of your platform size. It’s also always great to have a conversation with people you meet and try to make them feel more comfortable.

A stone cave. There is a church facade at the front of it with Christian iconography
The Cave Church

5. Coptic Cairo and the cave church

Coptic Cairo is a completely different vibe. Most of its inhabitants are Coptic Christians. Coptic Orthodox is a branch of Christianity whose members are mostly in Egypt, North Africa and the Middle East. Most of the churches in Coptic Cairo were built after the Muslim Conquest in the 7th Century AD. The history here is rich and complex, and it’s well worth spending a good amount of time here to take it all in.

There are many things to see and do in the area, which is enclosed and pedestrianised (but free to enter), including the Hanging Church, the Coptic Museum, and the Fortress of Babylon. Perhaps the most interesting thing to see in Coptic Cairo is the Cave Church. This is a church built directly into the side of a mountain and the architecture is really impressive.

It’s important to note that Coptic is an Orthodox faith and the dress code here is much the same as Islamic Cairo. Conservative dress code is encouraged; covered knees and shoulders, no low cut tops or midriffs showing. It isn’t really as strict, but it is really important, especially when entering churches.

Many different colours of bin bags in Manshiyat Nasser
Bin bags in Manshiyat Naser

6. Visit Manshiyat Naser

Just next to Coptic Cairo is the fascinating and so-called ‘Garbage City’. This is an absolutely fascinating area, with a very rich history. Understandably, the colloquial name is not one the residents love, so it’s better to refer to it by it’s proper name: Manshiyat Naser. For generations, Manshiyat Naser has been the recycling epicentre of the city. Its inhabitants come from long lines of waste collectors and they take on 85% of Cairo’s garbage. In a staggering effort, they manage to recycle around 90% of that, so it’s really impressive!

Although there are not many landmarks to see here, it’s absolutely worth taking a visit to learn more about these remarkable people and their practices. Like much of Egypt, it’s best to explore with a local guide, so we highly recommend this tour from Viator. The tour takes you through Manshiyat Naser and teaches you about the recycling practices, and then moves on to the Cave Church, so you can see everything in one go!

It’s a very interesting part of the city, which will give you a valuable and unique perspective.

The front of a pink museum building with flags on the top. There are people piling inside.
Egyptian Museum (EM)

7. The Egyptian Museum

The Egyptian Museum is one of the most fascinating things you can visit in Cairo. There are centuries’ worth of history crammed into every corner of this museum. This was a recommendation we had from every local we spoke to in the city. The one thing we would say is: make sure you leave enough time. This museum is so big that you could easily fill 3-4 hours here, and still not have seen everything. The one issue is it’s kind of higgledy piggledy, so it’s not easy to see everything.

We definitely advise starting off on the bottom floor, where we found the information was clearest, and make sure you get a map from the info desk! The upper floors had some fascinating exhibits too, especially sarcophagi. We personally chose to visit this one without a guide. The entrance fee (240 EGP or around $8 for tourists) isn’t too steep, but we were on a backpacker’s budget so we chose to avoid paying for extras if we could help it.

However, we did find that we were a bit confused by some of the exhibits and might have gained more from having a guide with us. You can arrange it on arrival to the museum as there are guides walking around, or you can pre-book here.

What was interesting is that many locals told us they preferred…

The NMEC (National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation). It's a sandstone building that looks very sleek and modern
The NMEC

8. The NMEC

The National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (a.k.a the NMEC) is a newer, and much smaller, museum in Cairo. We visited both and feel they’re very different to compare, though we did do a full breakdown in this post. To keep the explanation simple, the NMEC is more modern and much more compact. It has some fascinating exhibitions, the best of which is undoubtedly the room showcasing fully intact, preserved mummies, out of their sarcophagi. It’s a strange and eerie feeling to look upon the bodies and read their stories, and we spent a long time in this room. The details are impressive, and the history of course doesn’t disappoint.

As for the rest of the museum, it’s one or two rooms (when we visited, only the main room and the mummy display were open), and the information is fairly concise and digestible. Which one you visit will really depend on your preference of museum style. The EM is vast, expansive, wordy and sprawling. You can spend hours here and still not be back at the start, with no idea how to get back there. It’s a dream for most academics. The NMEC, by contrast, is probably better for those looking for a briefer insight or a short visit. Personally, we thought the NMEC would be better for families with children, but beware the mummies are a bit creepy!

Emma and Murray, a white heterosexual brunette couple are sitting on a balcony in front of the pyramids
Pyramid views

9. Obviously the Pyramids

I say obviously the Pyramids because, frankly, they need no introduction! Still, they are worth a mention here, even if you already know you should visit them, because they are amazing. Since you probably know this already, we’ll just give you some helpful tips, which made our visit a lot more enjoyable:

Top tips for visiting the Pyramids

Take a local guide

We went with Rami, a local guide, who can be contacted here. This is his direct contact and he is an amazing guide but very busy now as he’s getting a good name for himself! Rami got us into the Pyramids at 7am, as soon as they opened. We were the first car at the gate and didn’t have to wait at all! That’s actually our second tip:

Go as soon as they open

We were the first people in, except one other woman and had the entire complex to ourselves for about 20 minutes before everyone else got in. This honestly made the entire experience so much better. We didn’t have to queue to get in, we had the outside and inside of the Pyramids to ourselves and also it wasn’t too hot!

Which entrance should you use?

We went to the Pyramid of Khufu entrance and for some reason, on that day, everyone else was at the Sphinx entrance. The aim should be to prioritise the entrance where you want the quietest visit/photos. For us, we were more interested in taking great clear photos of the Pyramids, and didn’t mind the odd other person in our Sphinx shots. If you’d rather have clear shots of the Sphinx, head there instead.

For animals ethics reasons, please don’t ride the camels

There’s no need to ride the camels. They aren’t well taken care of and you can still get good shots of the Pyramids with camels in the picture without riding them. Note: if you do take a picture and don’t want to pay for it, take it from a distance, otherwise the owners will ask a fee. Personally-speaking, it looked like a lot of exploitation to us and we just didn’t want to support it.

If you’re claustrophobic, don’t go inside

Beware that the entrance is very small – it’s manageable and the way down isn’t long, but take note if you’re claustrophic! We actually visited Dahshur the day before and went into the Red Pyramid. This one is much, much narrower than Giza and we really didn’t enjoy it. I turned back half way down and came back up, and I wouldn’t even consider myself claustrophobic. I ran it too, I was so worried about being stuck if other people were coming down! In comparison, Giza is bearable and much wider and with shorter steps.

That being said, it still would be difficult if you are very claustrophobic, so try to judge your own comfort before going all the way down.

Stay in Giza

The guide we mentioned, Rami, actually has more than one guesthouse you can stay in, and both have great views of the Pyramids. This is great for two reasons! 1) you don’t need to get up quite as early to be there at opening time and 2) you’ll still be able to see the light show without hanging around Giza all day. The light show is at 7:30pm in summer and 6:30pm in winter. It’s as it sounds, the Pyramids are lit up with multi-coloured lights and it’s really magical.

From any Pyramid-view guesthouse, you’ll be able to see the show. We recommend staying in Downtown Cairo on days you’re not planning to visit the Pyramids, as it’s easier to get to everything else.

Find somewhere to stay in Giza below:

Emma and Murray are taking a selfie in front of the Cairo tower
The Cairo Tower

10. Cairo Tower

Cairo Tower is a nice add-on to any Cairo itinerary and a great thing to do in Cairo at night!

Located in downtown Cairo, it makes a beautiful viewpoint to look out over the city and gives some lovely views over the Nile. Like most attractions in Cairo, it costs around 200 EGP (at the time of writing) as a tourist and there is normally a queue. We went in the evening and got the night time views – if you want to be there for sunset, we’d suggest going around an hour before and trying to book your time slot around sunset.

After the tower, you can have a lovely stroll along the Nile.

Where To Eat In Cairo

Cairo has some amazing restaurants and plenty of choice! Here are some of our favourites in various areas:

Abou Tarek – various locations. Abou Tarek is a staple all over the city and serves one thing: koshari. Koshari is the national dish of Egypt and a must-try when visiting.

Oldish - a fun and modern restaurant in downtown Cairo with a varied menu. Great for brunch!

Old Cairo Restaurant and Cafe – this is a nice restaurant in Coptic Cairo, with a good menu and great prices. We liked it because it had a good range of thing Murray liked, as well as some good vegan options for me

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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