Cairo - beyond the clichés

by Elaine Housby

OK, so everybody wants to see the pyramids, but when you're in Cairo, the largest city in Africa, shouldn't you be able to think of something else to do afterwards?

Don’t get me wrong, I think you should visit the pyramids. They’re one of those travel experiences that you just have to tick off your list. The Sphinx too. But I would advise you to think carefully before handing over an extra LE 100 to go inside the Great Pyramid, because to get to the central chamber you have to clamber along a ladder in a narrow tunnel, bent double. If, like me, you wimp out at the bottom of the ladder you will have wasted your money. Your guide is unlikely to tell you this until after you have paid it, and at this early stage of your visit you may not realise how many other great experiences you can have in Cairo for LE 100.

Another place you have to visit even though everybody else does too is the Egyptian Museum (LE 60). Just getting across the road to it is an adventure in itself. You can make it easier by hitting the right exit from Sadat metro station. It has an amazing number of wonderful objects packed into far less space with far less hype than at the British Museum. Cameras cannot be taken inside, so sadly you will not be able to take a photo of your own grinning mug next to the Tutankhamun mask.

Coptic Cairo

The taxi driver who took me from the airport to the hotel was a bit fed up with tourists not knowing anything about Cairo except that it has pyramids, and spent the whole journey lecturing me on the history of the city, with special emphasis on the role of the Christian and Jewish communities, because he was a Copt. Partly because I was interested by what he had told me, I made a point of visiting the Coptic area. This is easy to do as an independent traveller because it is right next to a metro station called Mari Girgis (which means St George).

The Coptic Museum (LE 60) is a good starting point. It is a beautiful shady building with carved wooden ceilings and lattice windows in a traditional style and contains many important art works which, because of the dry climate, are remarkably well preserved for their great age. Come out of the museum and follow the signs for the various churches. There are several very close together, and also an old synagogue. The church of St Sergius claims to be built over the cave where Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus sheltered while hiding in Egypt from Herod. You can peer down some steps into this cave, now the crypt of the church, but not go in, apparently because it gets flooded quite regularly. Whatever the truth of the legend, the church is certainly extremely old. The Greek cemetery is a lovely peaceful spot, a real respite from the noise of most of the city.

Turning to Muslim places of worship, the old mosques in the Citadel of Salah al-Din (LE 50) are exquisite and seem to be relatively neglected by Western visitors. From outside Muhammad Ali Mosque you have a fine view over the city. The Mosque and School of Sultan Hassan cost an extra LE 25 and are well worth it.

Shopping in Cairo

If you keep going away from the river past the museum, you are in the area known as Downtown. This is the main upmarket shopping area and, if you are spending Egyptian pounds, it is full of bargains. For example you can buy a very nice headscarf for those mosque visits for about £4. This area is particularly good for clothes and shoes, and the shops are arranged in the traditional clustering method, so that all the shoe shops are close together in Talaat Harb Street. These streets were built at the height of European influence in Egypt and are sometimes reminiscent of Paris. It is particularly pleasant to stroll around here at night when it is cooler. Don’t worry about closing time; the shops don’t ever seem to close.

Getting around Cairo

The Cairo metro system is excellent. It charges a flat fare of one pound and has separate carriages for women, so you feel safe. Unfortunately it does not go to everywhere you will probably want to visit, such as the Citadel, and if you do not have a tour bus laid on you will have to take taxis. Personally I think that people who get taken everywhere by tour bus miss out on a lot. It can be exhilarating to career through the terrifying traffic in an old banger with no seatbelts. Of course, it can also be a bit scary. There may be some argy-bargy over the fare. Agree a fare in advance and stick to it. If you are going to a tourist hotspot there will be a member of the Tourism Police hovering around who may be able to help. At all the popular sights you will be constantly pestered by people trying to sell you things. In the Downtown area there are also a lot of beggars, and it is a good idea to try to keep some small change to give to them.

Where to eat

There are loads of great places to eat in Cairo and it is a shame to spoil the experience by obsessing about the legendary Egyptian stomach upsets. The 5 star hotels are good to visit for dinner, and some of them have floating restaurants which glide sedately down the Nile. If it is important to you to be able to drink alcohol with your meal, check first whether they sell it, not all do. For a daytime meal the Citadel View Restaurant in Al-Azhar Park offers both great food and beautiful surroundings. Check out the park as a whole at and make a booking for lunch on (00202) 25109151. The Downtown area offers, at one end of the spectrum, McDonald’s and Café a l’Americaine, which is not all that American but does sell great banana splits, and at the other, traditional cafés selling local food very cheap. You may, though, have language difficulties in the latter and they are not very female friendly. Two places offering the perfect compromise of delicious traditional dishes in elegant surroundings with waiters who speak English are Felfella at 15 Hoda Shaarawa Street, just off Talaat Harb Street on the right as you walk up from the museum, and the Naguib Mahfouz Restaurant in the Khan al-Khalili, the old bazaar, which you will want to visit anyway. You will usually pay about LE 50 per person for a meal in places like these. Keep an eye on the price of drinks, a Coke can cost nearly as much as the food.

Where to stay

The problem with actually staying in one of the hotels along the Nile is that whichever one you choose your view will be mostly of all the others. For serious wow factor go for the Cairo Marriott Hotel & Omar Khayyam Casino, which is located in a former palace on the island of Zamalek. If you are slightly more adventurous there are many smaller, locally owned hotels in Downtown. The cheaper the price, the less likely there will be air conditioning.

We stayed at the Grand Hotel, situated at no.17, 26 July Street. You can make a booking on  (00202)  25757700. The reception staff are very helpful and speak English. It has a wonderful air of faded grandeur, with old-fashioned lifts, a lot of marble and lovely wooden floors. The rooms have en suite bathrooms, air conditioning and balconies. There is an excellent buffet breakfast catering for both local and foreign tastes. It does not sell alcohol on the premises but does not mind if you take some discreetly to your room. We paid about £30 per person per night. The only drawback to the fascinating location is the unbelievable racket from the street. The car horns never stop day or night. But this is an essential part of the Cairo experience, and after a couple of nights lying listening to the music playing in the shops, you may like me come to love the street symphony of this city of 20 million people.