Cairo has long reigned as one of the world's most historic cities and will soon display its fascinating antiquities at the state-of-the-art Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) — opening in full in late 2023. Here are some ideas for how to spend one perfect day in the Egyptian capital.
It has a reputation for being smelly, chaotic and less than safe — but the Cairo I discovered was exciting, alluring, and invigorating.
For a city that largely depends on tourism, Cairo’s fortunes have waxed and waned over the past two decades due to political and civil unrest. However, visitor confidence seems to be returning. After attending the Cairo International Film Festival, I stayed on for a day or two to look around — and now I can’t wait to go back! In addition to the city’s many intriguing heritage sites, there’s a strong contemporary cultural scene to explore.
Here are some ideas for how to spend 24 hours in Cairo.
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Start with breakfast in bed
You have a big day ahead, so enjoy a relaxed breakfast at your hotel. The menu will probably feature ful beans and falafel, fresh fruits, delicious breads, and of course, thick, dark Turkish-style coffee. For the more adventurous foodie, there are food carts all over town that offer very cheap eats. Try falafel, eggs, eggplant, and french fries!
Spend a morning at the Pyramids
Your first stop of the day is what you came all the way to Egypt for — the majestic Pyramids of Giza, which were built around 2500 BC. Don’t feel you have to buy everything or anything from the hawkers on the short stroll from the bus or taxi station up to these wonders of the ancient world, as you’ll be heading to the markets later. However, if you do decide to shop, it’s all about negotiation. Either ignore the approaches (of which there’ll be many) or start haggling!
Once you’ve had your fill of Pyramid selfies, it’s time for a camel ride. Be aware that the herder may suddenly hike the price once you’re in the saddle and a virtual hostage. Be firm with them and agree a price prior to climbing on board. By the way, camel riding lessons are not part of the service. You just have to suss it out en route, but lean forward on the uphill and back on the down; and be prepared for a sudden little trot every now and then. Finish living out your Lawrence of Arabia fantasies, then head to the Great Sphinx of Giza to sit and contemplate rather than snap and run.
Lunch on local specialties
Egyptians have been feasting on pigeon since 3,000 BC, so be brave and try this local delicacy. They’re not the scavengers you see flapping around the city. Pigeons sold for human consumption have been raised on farms. They taste like a cross between chicken and rabbit, and come stuffed with rice. Also try mulukhiyah — a delicious and vitamin-rich green garlicky soup, and kushari — the famous rice, pasta and bean staple.
Abu El Sid, just opposite the Marriott hotel, is a good restaurant all-rounder. There are several of these traditional dining rooms across the city, which serve delicious authentic cuisine priced mid way between the food carts and chic hotel bistros.
See some classic cinema or visit the Egyptian Museum
Take a break from the heat and hawkers by catching a flick. Cairo is the Hollywood of North Africa and its classic films are a delight. They provide a window into the city’s rich heritage. The 1940s to 1960s are considered to be the golden age of Egyptian film. Head to an Art Deco cinema like the Metro, which opened in 1940.
You can also beat the heat at the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square — home to a vast collection of Egyptian antiquities (around 160,000 pieces!). The death mask of Tutankhamun is a must-see.
Bag a bargain at the ‘Khan’
It’s time to brave the Khan el-Khalili bazaar. This very busy souk, inspired by the Cairo of times past, is in the Islamic centre of the city. While you may sometimes feel like a walking dollar sign, chill out and enjoy the ride. Decide your budget before you circle in on something you actually want and prepare to haggle with the best. You can find lotus perfumes, hand-made leather bags, musical instruments, shawls, jewellery, and even glow-in-the-dark papyrus!
If you need a break, stop and order a mint tea at a popular café and listen to the music of the old men jamming and the street sellers pitching, mixed in with the call to prayer from the neighbouring mosques.
Sip a well-earned aperitif
Enjoy a well-earned aperitif at Aperitivo Bar at La Bodega in the well-to-do neighbourhood of Zamalek in Western Cairo. They do a mean martini.
Dine on Italian with a Hollywood connection
There are plenty of great places to eat in Zamalek. Popular Italian restaurant La Trattoria was once owned by Hollywood actor Omar Sharif’s son Tarek, and offers great service and a relaxed ambience. The fact that you don’t have to scream to have a conversation is a bonus!
Enjoy great live music
It might come as something of a surprise to learn that Cairo has a vibrant jazz music scene. Cut loose and shake your booty at the Cairo Jazz Club, which has an intimate feel and is open seven nights a week. It actually host live acts from a range of musical genres — so even if you’re not a jazz fan, go anyway! The annual Cairo Jazz Festival is held in late October/early November.
Browse our range of Egypt tours and experiences here.
Do you have any tips for how to spend 24 hours in Cairo? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Ruby Boukabou is a travel, culture, and food writer based between Europe and Australia, and has written for The Age, The Australian, Qantas, Issimo, The Diplomat, Paris Voice, and Inside Film. She has also produced culture and travel stories for the ABC, SBS, and Screen Australia. Ruby’s books — The Art Lover’s Guide to Paris and The Architecture Lover’s Guide to Paris (White Owl Books) — are available in bookshops and to order online.