Cairo Calling: 8 Can’t-Miss Activities in Egypt’s Historic Capital
Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - Marvel at the Pyramids of Giza
No trip to Cairo is complete without a visit to the iconic Pyramids of Giza. Located just outside the city, this complex contains the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure - the last remaining wonders of the ancient world.
Built over 4,500 years ago during Egypt's Old Kingdom, the pyramids are staggering in their size and architectural precision. The Great Pyramid alone contains around 2.3 million stone blocks, each weighing over two tons. Just how the ancient Egyptians engineered these mammoth structures without modern machinery remains an enduring mystery.
Visiting the pyramids is an experience that will leave you awestruck. As you approach the site, the pyramids loom large on the horizon, their precise geometry juxtaposed against the desert backdrop. Up close, you can admire the sheer scale of the monuments and their intricate stonework. Peer inside the narrow passages of the pyramids, imagining the pharaohs that were laid to rest within.
In addition to the pyramids themselves, the surrounding complex contains other archaeological treasures. Don't miss the Solar Boat Museum near the Great Pyramid, which houses a remarkably intact cedar boat constructed for Khufu's journey to the afterlife. The panoramic view from the top of the Pyramids Viewpoint is also worth the climb.
While the pyramids are impressive on their own, hiring a guide can greatly enhance your experience. Knowledgeable guides will share fascinating details about the pyramids' construction, astronomy and symbolism. You'll gain insights you'd never discover on your own. Many travelers say their guide brought the monuments to life.
With Cairo's relentless traffic, organized tours make visiting the pyramids far easier. Reputable companies like Egypt Tailormade Tours handle all transportation and offer add-ons like camel rides, sound & light shows and even private film screenings under the stars. Viator also gets excellent reviews for their small group tours.
To beat the crowds and see the pyramids in the best light, aim for early morning or late afternoon visits during the cooler months. Sunset is particularly atmospheric as the pyramids glow golden against the sky.
What else is in this post?
- Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - Marvel at the Pyramids of Giza
- Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - Explore the Treasures of the Egyptian Museum
- Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - Stroll Through Historic Islamic Cairo
- Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - See the Sphinx Up Close
- Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - Cruise the Nile River
- Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - Shop at the Sprawling Khan el-Khalili Bazaar
- Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - Visit Coptic Cairo's Hanging Church
- Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - Dine on Traditional Egyptian Cuisine
Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - Explore the Treasures of the Egyptian Museum
After marveling at the Pyramids of Giza, your next stop in Cairo should be the Egyptian Museum. This storied institution contains the world's most extensive collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, granting you an up-close look at antiquities spanning over 5,000 years of pharaonic history.
Housing over 120,000 relics across two floors, the museum is frankly overwhelming in scope. You’ll want to focus on the highlights. Must-see items include the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb, discovered perfectly preserved in 1922. Gaze at the intricate golden funeral mask of the boy pharaoh, inlaid with lapis lazuli and other semi-precious stones. Nearby, you can view an astonishing array of sarcophagi, jewelry, sculptures and other burial objects.
King Tut's dazzling goods occupy much of the museum's ground floor. Upstairs, seek out artifacts from earlier dynasties, like the imposing statues of Ramesses II and Queen Nefertari. The Mummy Room contains remarkably well-preserved royal mummies, revealing the humanity behind the god-like pharaoh image.
While the Egyptian Museum boasts unparalleled riches, its dusty display cases and fading descriptive cards exude an old-fashioned vibe. Some say it's akin to raiding a cluttered attic brimming with treasures. But this only adds to the allure - it's a "greatest hits" of ancient Egypt, untouched by modern curatorial sensibilities.
Given the museum’s vastness, visiting with a guide helps you navigate the labyrinthine halls and gain context. Knowledgeable Egyptologists will highlight key artifacts tied to pharaohs and gods, elucidating how these objects illuminated the ancient Egyptians’ beliefs regarding the afterlife. You’ll come away with a richer understanding.
Allot several hours to explore the museum, arriving early to avoid the biggest crowds. Note that the Egyptian Museum will be superseded by the new Grand Egyptian Museum, currently slated to open later in 2023. But the old museum’s disorganized charm makes it worth a nostalgic visit while you still can.
Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - Stroll Through Historic Islamic Cairo
Beyond the ancient Egyptian sites, Cairo offers travelers the chance to step back in time to the city’s Islamic Golden Age. Historic Islamic Cairo (also called Old Cairo) is home to some of the world’s most stunning medieval architecture. Meandering the atmospheric lanes of this UNESCO World Heritage site transports you to the Cairo of 1,000 years ago when it was one of the Islamic world’s greatest metropolises.
The neighborhood’s centerpiece is the sprawling Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan, considered one of the finest examples of early Mamluk architecture. Completed in 1356 AD, the imposing structure features a towering entrance portal flanked by two minarets that still dominate Cairo’s skyline today. The mosque’s vast hypostyle hall amazes with its soaring arches and intricately carved stonework. Grab an audio guide to admire the scientific precision behind its design.
Nearby is the 9th century Ibn Tulun Mosque, famed for its unique spiral minaret said to have inspired the design of other Egyptian mosques. This earlier structure showcases the influence of Samarra styling, given its builder's Iraqi origins.
No tour of Historic Cairo is complete without exploring the labyrinthine Khan el-Khalili bazaar neighboring the mosques. The bustling market retains the old world charm and architecture of when it was founded in the 14th century. Lose yourself in this maze of skinny alleys lined with shops and stalls selling hand-crafted copperware, vibrant textiles, aromatic spices and more. It's the perfect place to pick up unique Egyptian souvenirs or simply sip tea and watch the street scenes.
To dive deeper into Islamic Cairo’s history, join a walking tour with a guide from a reputable company like Memphis Tours. An expert will regale you with tales of the Fatimids, Mamluks and Ottomans who controlled Cairo across the centuries. You'll gain vivid insights into medieval life that textbooks can't provide. Many travelers say their tour of Islamic Cairo was the trip highlight.
Be sure to also venture into the centuries-old Coptic Orthodox churches dotting the neighborhood. The Hanging Church built into Roman-era Babylon Fortress is the most famous, while the Church of St. Barbara represents one of the oldest Christian sites here. The churches' vivid murals and icons offer a glimpse into Coptic art rarely seen outside Egypt.
Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - See the Sphinx Up Close
Beyond the Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum, Cairo is home to another iconic ancient wonder that no visit would be complete without – the Great Sphinx. This instantly recognizable colossus presents travelers with the chance to admire one of history’s greatest monuments up close and personal.
Carved out of the Giza bedrock in 2500 BC, the Sphinx depicts a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion. Measuring a whopping 73 meters long and 20 meters tall, it is the planet’s largest monolith statue. That’s even bigger than a Boeing 737 wingtip to wingtip!
The Sphinx is oriented due east, with the pyramids as its backdrop. This placement reflects the ancient Egyptian belief that the Sphinx served as a solar guardian for the pyramids where the pharaohs were entombed. Its weathered visage has become an iconic symbol of antiquity and mystery.
Getting up close allows you to fully appreciate the Sphinx’s imposing size and study the level of detail in its facial features. Seeing the human aspects of its face really brings home that skilled ancient artisans carved this from stone using simple hand tools alone.
You can view the Sphinx from multiple vantage points. For dramatic views from above, climb up the sandy slopes of the surrounding enclosure walls. The Pyramids Viewpoint also provides prime elevated panoramas. Down below, you can stroll right up to the statue and even touch its gigantic paws!
Hiring a professional Egyptologist guide enriches the experience exponentially. An expert will explain how the Sphinx was excavated from the rock and highlight aspects of its erosion over millennia. You’ll gain insights into its role guarding pharaonic tombs as well as its connections to the gods Horus and Ra.
Seeing the Sphinx at sunrise or sunset provides a wholly unique atmosphere, with golden light illuminating its stone contours. These times also draw smaller crowds. Whenever visiting, be sure to walk all around the Sphinx and view it from different angles. The side views reveal details less visible head-on.
Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - Cruise the Nile River
Gliding along the mighty Nile offers an entirely different perspective on Egypt compared to land-based tours. A Nile River cruise allows you to relax aboard a floating hotel while witnessing ever-changing scenery and ancient ruins dotting the banks. Disembarking daily for guided excursions makes for a blend of adventure and leisure that reveals the diversity of sites upriver from Cairo.
For many travelers, cruising the Nile rates as a trip highlight that brings Egypt's history to life. Witnessing the majestic river flowing past temple complexes several millennia old evokes a sense of timelessness, continuity and wonder. The ships' small size provides an intimate gateway to remote antiquities not easily reached otherwise.
Most Nile cruises embark from Luxor and sail 130 miles north towards Dendera, Abydos and finally Cairo. Must-see stops include the temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor, and royal burial grounds like the Valley of the Kings. These excursions showcase Egypt's legendary architecture and artistry during its New Kingdom golden era over 3,000 years ago.
Several cruise reviewers rave about the insight gained thanks to the Egyptologists leading daily excursions. Having an expert interpret the hieroglyphics and symbolism makes these ruins far more meaningful. It brings deeper appreciation for Egyptian cosmology and funerary practices.
Beyond the major ruins, cruising allows you to experience rural villages and farming communities virtually unchanged for centuries. View camel caravans and fishermen in age-old boats drifting by - scenes evoking life in pharaonic times.
Nile cruises offer multiple advantages, but avoid the massive ships with 100+ rooms. Smaller vessels provide a more personalized, enriching experience of Egypt's living history as you float along this storied river. The 42-passenger Sonesta Star Goddess gets top reviews. Many also recommend Oberoi's luxury 20-room riverboat with private excursions.
Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - Shop at the Sprawling Khan el-Khalili Bazaar
No visit to Cairo is complete without getting lost in the sprawling Khan el-Khalili bazaar. This vibrant warren of market stalls and skinny alleys has barely changed since its founding in the 14th century. Meandering through the bazaar transports you back to Cairo's medieval heyday when traders flocked here along ancient caravan routes. The dazzling array of shops and goods for sale make it easy to spend hours exploring this quintessential Middle Eastern souk.
Khan el-Khalili today remains Cairo's biggest and most famous bazaar, attracting both tourists and locals alike. Once you enter the labyrinthine alleyways, be prepared for your senses to be overwhelmed. The clamor of shopkeepers enthusiastically hawking their wares mixes with the aroma of spices and perfumes wafting through the passages. Duck into nooks lined with glittering gold jewelry, brightly woven textiles and hand-carved woodwork for which Cairo's markets are famed.
When you need a break from the bustle, relax at one of the tea houses or coffee shops dotted throughout the bazaar. Sipping a hot glass of Egyptian tea is the perfect chance to people-watch and take in the market scenes. Don't be shy about haggling for a better deal if you have your eye on a particular souvenir. It's expected here!
Long-time visitors insist the best way to experience Khan el-Khalili is to get deliberately lost in its seemingly endless alleys. Wandering aimlessly lets you stumble upon hidden gems and hole-in-the-wall shops missed by tourists who make a beeline for the main thoroughfares. By exploring the outer edges beyond the central bazaar, you'll find the workshops actually producing the handicrafts on display. This offers a glimpse into Cairo's enduring traditional arts.
Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - Visit Coptic Cairo's Hanging Church
Tucked away in the winding lanes of Coptic Cairo lies one of the neighborhood's most captivating historic churches - the Hanging Church. This basilica built into Roman-era Babylon Fortress offers travelers a portal back to Christianity's roots in Egypt while showcasing distinctive architectural styles rarely found elsewhere.
Stepping inside the Hanging Church’s wooden doors, you’re immersed in a warm glow from sunlight filtering through alabaster panels. Intricate carvings and inlaid ivory plaques adorn the screens dividing the nave from the aisles. Elaborate wooden pews fill the space below soaring vaulted ceilings. Yet perhaps the church’s most striking feature is its namesake “hanging” southern apse suspended above the passageway below.
This unusual two-story layout resulted from the church being wedged into the fortress’s defensive towers when built around 690 AD. Engineers cleverly cantilevered the high altar and apse over the passage used by the Roman garrison. The elevated apse therefore appears suspended in mid-air, a photogenic oddity accentuated by elegant marble-clad columns flanking the altar.
Venturing upstairs reveals stunning iconography covering every surface in ornate frames and friezes. Inside the apse, floor-to-ceiling gilded carvings depict figures from the Old and New Testaments, including Abraham and the apostles. Seeing such elaborate religious artwork helps travelers grasp the significance of icons in Coptic worship. It’s among the most beautiful and best-preserved medieval Coptic art in Cairo.
While the Hanging Church captivates with its architecture and interior adornments, its history further enriches the experience. This is one of Cairo’s earliest Christian places of worship, with roots dating to the 3rd century AD. It remains the city’s most important Coptic Christian site and the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope.
Cairo Calling: 8 Can't-Miss Activities in Egypt's Historic Capital - Dine on Traditional Egyptian Cuisine
After exploring Cairo's iconic sites, reward yourself with the city's delectable traditional cuisine. Egypt's fertile Nile Valley has cultivated distinctive dishes over millennia, featuring vibrant spices, complex flavors and local ingredients. Sampling authentic fare grants delicious insight into Cairo's cultural heritage.
Topping many travelers' lists is kushari, Egypt's beloved national dish. This vegetarian meal centered on lentils, rice and pasta provides carb-loading energy perfect after long days sightseeing. The mix of textures and spices - cumin, coriander, garlic - delivers a flavor punch certain to banish any jet lag. Locals line up at Abou Tarek in Cairo's downtown for the kushari holy grail. Nearby Koshary El Tahrir also impresses foodies.
Seeking more exotic fare? Look no further than pigeon, a traditional Egyptian delicacy since pharaonic times. Grilled squab delivers a tender, juicy mouthfeel similar to quail. Afandi Al Emarat corner shop south of Cairo's Citadel nails the preparation, serving pigeons stuffed with rice or freekeh. The birds arrive fragrant with spices - the perfect adventurous bite.
Beyond the savory dishes, Cairo's desserts prove doubly delicious after a long day exploring. Om Ali gives rice pudding a decadent twist, blending nuts, raisins and coconut in creamy milk broth. The Felfela sweet shop whips up the definitive version. Or try basbousa, a semolina cake drenched in sugar syrup. The Dylan Hotel does basbousa proud according to many travelers.
While street food stalls abound, enjoying home-cooked Egyptian meals in family-run restaurants offers a more authentic experience. Top picks include Abou El Sid near the Cairo Tower and Abou Shakra in the Islamic quarter. Their hearty meals and unpretentious atmosphere capture old-school Cairo charm.
After dinner, cap off the night sipping tea or puffing fruit-flavored shisha at an ahwa cafe. These ubiquitous waterpipe bars epitomize leisurely Egyptian social life. Head to crowded Fishawy cafe in Khan el-Khalili bazaar for shisha with a side of people-watching.
Some tour companies like Memphis Tours excel at foodie excursions, whether an Egyptian cooking class or guided taste tests through bustling food markets. Their knowledgeable guides reveal insights into Egyptian cuisine's roots and guide you to hole-in-the-wall favorites. Reviews rave about trying dishes never discovered otherwise.