It’s easy to get lost in a city as old and significant as Cairo. As one of the largest cities in the world, and certainly one of the oldest, Cairo has millennia of history and culture to explore on your Egypt tour. It’s home to the pyramids and was one of the capitals of Islamic civilization during the Middle Ages. It also has one of the world’s best museums and sits along the world’s longest river. When the whole city is essentially an open-air museum, it can be hard to know what landmarks are essential.
That’s why we’ve put together the 10 essential things to do in Cairo. If you stick to our list, you’ll hit the highlights and know that you’ve seen some of the best historical and cultural sights in the entire world.
Marvel at the Great Pyramid of Giza
The pyramids should be at the top of the list of any Egypt tour. If you cross the river into Giza, you’ll reach the pyramids, which have been around for at least 4,500 years and were the burial monuments to the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. Chief among the pyramids within Cairo’s borders is the Great Pyramid of Giza, also know as the Pyramid of Cheops or Khufu, which is the only remnant of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure on the planet for over 3,800 years, and even today remains a towering icon that’ll leave you breathless. Nearby the Great Pyramid of Giza, you’ll also find the Pyramid of Khafre and Pyramid of Menkaure, as well as the Great Sphinx, which remains one of Ancient’s Egypt’s most enduring symbols.
Witness Sound and Light Bring the Pyramids to Life
While this is technically not a distinct landmark from the pyramids of Giza, it is a unique experience. Every evening at sundown, the pyramids host a Sound & Light show that brings the skyline to life and takes you on a journey through the ancient past. This hour-long show features a dazzling display of coloured lights that wash over the pyramids as well as a narration about life in Ancient Egypt. This Sound & Light Show offers you another chance to see the pyramids as well as an unforgettable combination of history and dazzling visuals.
Cruise along the Nile River
The Nile River is the longest river in the world, running 6,853km from the Mediterranean on the northern coast of Egypt all the way to Lake Victoria on the border between Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. The Nile has long fueled Cairo and been one of its most enduring icons. The best way to see the Nile on your Egypt tour is on a river cruise. A felucca ride allows you to experience the waters aboard a traditional Egyptian wooden sailboat and learn about the city’s history and culture. However, you can also opt for a dinner cruise, which allows you to feast on delicious Egyptian cuisine aboard the mighty waters of the river. Either way, you’ll experience the life source of Egypt and the heart of Cairo.
Examine Mummies at the Egyptian Museum
Although the British and French took many of the great treasures of Egypt back to their own countries during the 19th and 20th centuries, the Egyptian Museum in the centre of Cairo remains one of the best spots in the world to explore Ancient Egyptian artefacts. The museum is located on the corner of Tahrir Square, the city’s central plaza, so it’s easy to find. Once you enter, you’ll find over 100,000 artefacts taken from tombs, pyramids, and other ancient archaeological sites. You’ll see sarcophaguses, jewelry, and pottery, as well as the treasures of the tomb of King Tutankhamen, including his funeral mask. Perhaps even more enticing than these treasures are the mummified remains of ancient pharaohs. In the Mummy Room you can see various mummies and be enthralled (and potentially creeped out) by the ways ancient Egyptians treated their dead royalty. A trip to the Egyptian Museum is an absolute must-do and makes for a perfect pairing with a visit to the pyramids.
Visit Salah al-Din Citadel
This massive complex in the heart of Islamic Cairo is perhaps the most popular non-pyramid attraction in the city. Built by the great Islamic commander, Salah al-Din (Saladin), who retook Jerusalem at the end of the 12th century, the citadel was meant to be the main fortification at the heart of Islam’s newest capital. Within the citadel, you’ll find Mohammed Ali Mosque, the city’s largest mosque, as well as Gawhara Palace, which was home to the Ottoman General, Mohammed Ali, and features great sightlines of Coptic Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza. A visit to Salah al-Din Citadel is a great way to explore one of the high points of Islamic civilization and admire intricate architecture. You’ll also find the Al-Gawhara Palace Museum and Egyptian Military Museum within its walls.
Barter for Goods in Khan el-Khalili Souk
There are few things as authentically Egyptian as bartering for goods in a marketplace overflowing with spices, fabrics, and the incredible atmosphere of the old world. Khan el-Khailii souk is Cairo’s largest marketplace and the perfect spot to practice your bartering skills, on your Egypt vacation, and collect some trinkets to take home with you. As you travel through the narrow streets of the market and peruse the goods on display, you’ll get a great sense for the city’s atmosphere and find some of the best authentic Egyptian goods. Pro-tip: you are dead-set on bartering with the vendors, try to be assertive and aim for 20 percent lower than the suggested price.
Explore Memphis and Saqqara
Although these are technically two distinct landmarks of Ancient Egypt, I’m grouping them together because they’re located near to each other and both offer incredible insight into Egypt’s past. Memphis used to be the ancient capital of Egypt and is now home to stone temples, statues, and mud-brick gravesites dating back thousands of years. While many of these sites were picked over by archaeologists and invaders in the past, you’ll still find some fascinating sites in Memphis, such as the limestone statue of Pharaoh Ramses II. In nearby Saqqara, you’ll find more archaeological sites, such as the Step Pyramid of Djoser, which dates back to 2,500BC and was constructed by the infamous architect, Imhotep. While the pyramid was initially built as a tomb, it quickly became one of the most popular attractions in all of Egypt. Visitors have come to the Step Pyramid, as well as the crumbling tombs and pyramids nearby, for thousands of years.
Feast on a Signature Egyptian Dish
Egyptian food isn’t popular in the West, but it ought to be as it combines so many of the great flavours of Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. Egyptian dishes rely heavily on legumes and vegetables, as well as rice and beans, making them popular with vegetarians. As well, everything is heavily spiced, so each dish is intoxicatingly aromatic. While on an Egypt tour to Cairo, be sure to try one of the signature Egyptian dishes, such as ful medames or kushari. Ful medames is a dish of mashed fava beans cooked in olive oil and cumin and served along with bread. Kushari is a spiced dish of lentils and pasta that is served throughout the country. For a more familiar dish, you can try ta’ameya, which is essentially falafel, although made with fava beans instead of chickpeas. Whichever Egyptian dish you try, you’ll be treated to something delicious.
Admire Artistic Masterworks at the Museum of Islamic Art
The Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo is one of the best Islamic museums in the world. Inside its exhibits, you’ll find around 4,500 artefacts on display at any given time, which include medieval urns, intricate wooden artworks, and plaster statues. While you won’t see everything in the museum’s collection during one visit, the museum does hold more than 100,000 objects within its collection, which makes it the largest museum on Islamic Art in the entire world. Beyond the artefacts, perhaps most enticing are the ancient manuscripts of the Qur’an that are on display here. A visit to the Museum of Islamic Art lets you experience some of the artistic heights of the Islamic Empire.
Visit Al Azhar Mosque
Al-Azhar Mosque was the first mosque built in Cairo after it became the capital of the Fatimid Dynasty in the 10th century. If you visit, you’ll see some of the most impressive minarets in all of Cairo – a city often referred to as “the city of a thousand minarets.” You’ll also get to learn about the mosque’s university, which is the second-oldest continuously run university in the world, and one of the best institutions in the world for studying Sunni theology and Sharia law. You can visit the mosque every day from 8am to 4pm, although it does close to visitors during the hours of prayer. Even if you simply admire the outside of Al-Azhar Mosque, you’ll be treated to some of the best architecture in the entire city.
From pyramids to museums to the splendours of the Islamic Empire, there is so much to see and do on Egypt tours to Cairo. Our list of the 10 essential things do in Cairo will make sure you see some of the most popular sights and historical marvels to be found in this ancient city. As you walk through its ancient streets, it won’t take you long to see why Cairo has beguiled visitors for thousands of years. It’s truly a city where history comes alive.