weekend away - Cairo
Written by Jon Jensen Illustration by Adam Oliver
Ancient and modern worlds converge in Cairo, the largest city in both Africa and the Middle East. Experience old-world charm and cosmopolitan chic along the banks of the Nile River.
It’s easy to be completely overwhelmed by the chaos of Cairo. With over 20 million residents living and working in overcrowded neighbourhoods, and narrow streets continually clogged with honking drivers, the cacophonous din of the city is constant, even long into the night. Long summer days are made even muggier by a thick layer of dark haze that hangs above the sprawl.
But step back and take a closer look and you’ll find a charming, easily accessible modern city with a thriving arts scene, booming nightlife, and luxurious hotels with world-class dining options. A stroll through any of Cairo’s enclaves will feel more rural than megacity, full of smiling, friendly faces and some of the most generous people in the world.
Most tourists head straight for the desert plateau at Giza to see the 5,000-year-old Great Pyramid and nearby Sphinx. But don’t miss the stunning views at the less-visited step pyramid of Saqqara, the oldest manmade structure in the world, and only a short drive from downtown.
For a view of more recent history, head to Cairo’s old Islamic quarter near the Khan el-Khalili souk, a 14th-century Ottoman market. Get lost as you stroll through the maze-like alleyways of shops selling spices, silver, and other touristy souvenirs. Across the street, the Al-Azhar mosque, one of the most famous in all of Islam, is well worth a stop. Al-Azhar is the seat of the oldest university in the world.
To escape the heat and crowds, hire a felucca, or Nile River sailboat, and waste the day away sailing down the slow-moving river. The lush, tree-lined Zamalek neighbourhood is located on a Nile island, and it too offers a reprieve from Cairo’s traffic and noise. Zamalek is home to dozens of art galleries, boutique shopping, and several 5-star restaurants, the best of which may be Abu el-Sid with its traditional Egyptian cuisine.
No visit to Cairo is complete without watching a sunset. Al-Azhar Park, built on the site of a former trash heap, offers stunning panoramas of the pyramids on a clear day.
After dark, the ‘city that never sleeps’ is increasingly becoming known for its vivacious nightlife. Dance the night away at the posh Absolute, a nightclub with heart-pounding bass beats just a stone’s throw from the Nile. Or check out live Oriental fusion music at the low-key but smoky Cairo Jazz Club in the Mohandeseen neighbourhood.
There are thousands of ahwas, or coffee houses, throughout Cairo. On every street corner you’ll find Egyptian men drinking tea, cardamom-spiced Turkish coffee, and playing backgammon at an ahwa. The most famous of all is El-Fishawy, an alleyway ahwa located in the Khan el-Khalili. El-Fishawy’s claim to fame is that their doors have not shut in over 200 years.
Located in Bab el-Khalk is the newly renovated Museum of Islamic Art. The museum houses a growing collection of over 100,000 ancient metal works, Oriental carpets, and Qur'an. New lighting and modern display casings in each of the 24 halls make it the most impressive museum in all of Egypt.
The days of bumbling around in Cairo’s ubiquitous black-and-white jalopies are finally coming to a close. Last year, local officials in Cairo required drivers to switch to brand-new, white-chequered taxicabs. Thousands of the air-conditioned taxis have already hit the streets. And fully-functioning meters means no more bargaining for fares.
Where to stay
The Marriott Cairo Hotel & Omar Khayyam Casino is one luxury option, built around an historic palace originally designed for guests coming to celebrate the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869. The Marriott is centrally located in the Zamalek area, but drinking mint tea in the hotel’s garden courtyard feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Cairo.
Cairo’s Semiramis Intercontinental is another 5-star option just a few minutes’ walk from the best shopping and nightlife in the city centre. The elegant Semiramis has several world-class restaurants, but the Bird Cage on the second floor serves up the best Thai food in all of Cairo.