One of the largest cities in Africa and the Middle East, Egypt’s capital, Cairo, seems to sprawl forever along the banks of the Nile. While the Pyramids of Giza are undoubtedly its standout sight, the ‘City of a Thousand Minarets’ is packed with amazing tourist attractions.
Founded in the tenth century by the Fatimids, Cairo quickly grew into an important center of political and cultural life. Thanks to this, loads of age-old historic sights and amazing Islamic architecture are scattered all about the city. These include not just Saladin’s Citadel and the Great Sphinx but plenty of palaces, mosques and museums too.
If you get tired of sightseeing, immerse yourself in everyday life and get lost in the colourful Khan El-Khalili bazaar. There are also exciting day trips to take out in the surrounding desert and relaxing cruises to enjoy up and down the Nile. With so much things to do in Cairo, it is no wonder Arabs call the city ‘the Mother of the World’.
Map of Things to do in Cairo
23. Abdeen Palace
Once home to Egypt’s royal family, the exquisite Abdeen Palace is now the official residence and workplace of the country’s president. Its gigantic complex in Old Cairo contains several top-class museums and features some gorgeous architecture and gardens.
Built between 1863 and 1874, its two vast floors boast over 500 rooms, many of which are decadently decorated. Once past its enormous Neo-Classical facade, you can wander around stately suites home to colourful marble floors and glittering chandeliers. Intricately carved Islamic calligraphy and floral motifs only add to the palace’s lavish look and feel.
Visitors can also peruse extensive collections of silverware, weapons and extravagant items owned or gifted to its royal family and presidents. One of the most impressive palaces we’ve ever been, you can spend hours exploring its luxurious rooms and lush gardens.
22. Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hassan
Not far away, at the base of the Citadel, is the majestic Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hassan. A must-see sight when in Cairo, it is sure to dazzle with its sheer size, scale and splendor.
One of the finest examples of early Mamluk architecture in the world, the important mosque was completed back in 1363. Named after Sultan an-Nasir Hassan who commissioned it, the humongous building features lots of ornate details and decorations. Still in use today, it also contains his magnificent mausoleum chamber which is one of its main highlights.
Particularly arresting are its immense entrance portal, colossal central courtyard and all the amazing marble mosaics of its mihrab. For outstanding views of the mosque’s minarets and mighty dome, head up to the top of the Citadel alongside it.
21. Trip to Fayoum
If you want to escape the city for a bit, then the peaceful Fayoum is the perfect place to go. At the isolated oasis, you can either kick back and relax or enjoy some exhilarating activities and excursions amidst all its bleak beauty.
Set two hours drive southwest of Cairo, its desert landscapes, lake and wetlands have long attracted nature lovers. Here you can see flamingos and the fascinating fossils of prehistoric whales lying uncovered in the arid Wadi Al-Hitan.
Besides marveling at Wadi Elrayan’s wonderful waterfalls – the largest in Egypt – visitors can also explore some age-old historic sights. Its heavily eroded pyramids at Hawara and Lahun for instance are remarkably among the oldest in the country. After all the sightseeing in the Sahara, you can unwind in the artistic village of Tunis alongside the large lake.
20. Cairo Tower
Rising dramatically above the endless city below is one of its most distinctive landmarks: the iconic Cairo Tower. From its viewing platform, guests can enjoy phenomenal panoramas over the sprawling capital and shimmering Nile. Even the now tiny pyramids can be spied far off in the distance.
Erected in 1961, it reaches 187 meters in total, having once been the tallest structure on the continent. Its design draws inspiration from Ancient Egyptian architecture as its open lattice-work exterior looks somewhat like a pharaonic lotus plant.
One of the nation’s most well-known modern monuments, it occupies a prominent spot on Gezira Island, overlooking downtown. After taking the elevator to the top, peer down at its labyrinth-like streets and all the people bustling about below. There is also a fine revolving restaurant should you want a snack or drink while gazing out at the city stretching endlessly away to the horizon.
19. Museum of Islamic Arts
Yet another of the capital’s most popular and impressive cultural institutes is the Museum of Islamic Arts. Home to an astonishing collection of carpets and ceramics, coins, frescoes and textiles, it lies just around the corner from Abdeen Palace.
Founded in 1903, its extensive exhibits and artworks now occupy a palatial-like building on the edge of historic Cairo. Its huge halls display all kinds of incredible artifacts ranging from North Africa and Egypt to Andalusia, Iran and Arabia. These cover countless centuries and number around 100,000 astounding art pieces in total.
While some rooms focus on calligraphy and astronomy, others look instead at the Umayyad and Abbasid periods. Ornate old jewellery and illuminated Qurans are also on show next to masterfully crafted carpets and wood carvings. Although usually overlooked in favor of the Egyptian Museum, we almost preferred it as the collection was so vast and varied.
18. Cave Church
On the other side of Al-Azhar Park from the Islamic art museum is the absolutely captivating Cave Church. Nestled in the side of the Mukattam Hills, this off-the-beaten-path attraction is certainly not to be missed. This is because of its unique setting and unusual architecture.
The largest church in the Middle East, the cave’s atmospheric amphitheater can host around 20,000 people. Named after the Coptic saint, Simon the Tanner, its rows of seats make for quite the sight amidst all the craggy rock walls and ceilings. The church also has some nice murals and carvings of religious figures for you to see.
To get here, however, you have to take an eye-opening taxi ride through ‘Garbage City’ – one of Cairo’s poorest districts. If you don’t fancy navigating its rubbish-strewn streets yourself, you can always take a tour.
17. Trip to Memphis
Another easy day trip from Cairo is Memphis; one of the oldest and most important cities in Ancient Egypt. Lying at the mouth of the Nile River delta, its numerous ruins of old temples, palaces and pyramids are a treat to amble around.
Now little more than a village, it flourished for countless centuries as a commercial hub and religious center. Thanks to all the powerful dynasties based here, elaborate royal complexes and necropolis sprung up all around the city.
Scattered about its massive open-air museum are hundreds of statues, colossi and sphinxes to see. While some are pretty well-preserved, others are weathered beyond recognition with the Colossus of Rameses II being its undoubted highlight. The Pyramid of Djoser can also be found nearby as can the ginormous necropolis sites of Saqqara and Dahshur.
One of Cairo’s trendiest areas (and best football teams) is Zamalek. Occupying the northern third of Gezira Island, its upscale shops and outstanding restaurants are popular with locals and tourists alike. Its relaxed vibe also makes it a great place to stay if it’s your first time in town.
Very green in comparison to the rest of the capital, the wealthy residential area also boasts several influential cultural institutions. While the Cairo Opera House puts on brilliant ballets, operas and orchestra performances, the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art hosts interesting exhibits and installations.
As Zamalek has some of the city’s hippest dining spots, it’s a good idea to head here in the evening. Its cozy cafes and cool restaurants serve everything from traditional Egyptian and Italian dishes to Thai and Indian meals. After a show at the El Sawy Culture Wheel, you can enjoy good food while gazing over the gorgeous river.
15. National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC)
For those interested in history, a trip around the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization is an absolute must. Remarkably enough, its exhibits cover the entirety of Egypt’s past, taking you from prehistoric times right up to the present day.
Only inaugurated in 2021, its well-done displays occupy a spacious modern building, just a short distance southeast of the center. While new (well, old…) artifacts are still being added all the time, it already exhibits the Royal Mummies Collection. Among them are recognizable names such as Rameses II and Amenhotep I, both of whom ruled over Egypt millennia ago.
Aside from all its amazing mummies, there are around 50,000 sculptures, pots, textiles and tools for visitors to examine. These are divided into chronological and thematic sections. As such, while one part of the museum covers the Coptic, Medieval and Islamic periods, others look at beliefs, the state and society.
14. Coptic Museum
In contrast to the nearby NMEC, the top-class Coptic Museum focuses almost exclusively on the Christian community’s artifacts and artworks. The largest collection of its kind anywhere in the world, its many masterpieces and treasures are sure to dazzle guests.
Located in Coptic Cairo beside the Hanging Church, it was established in 1908 to preserve the religious group’s rich history, culture and heritage. On display is everything from ankhs and ancient manuscripts to superb stone carvings, pulpits and sculptures. Possibly its most precious possession, however, is a unique 1,600-year-old Coptic book of the Psalms of David.
Just as delightful is the design of the buildings, courtyards and gardens themselves. While walking around, you’ll therefore see fine architectural flourishes next to colourful flowerbeds and mosaic-clad fountains.
13. Khan El-Khalili
Loads of fun to explore, the labyrinth-like Khan El-Khalili is one of the largest and liveliest souks in the city. Lying right in the heart of Islamic Cairo, its mesmerizing mess of tiny lanes are a great spot to shop for spices and souvenirs or smoke some shisha.
Since being founded back in the Mamluk era, the exotic open-air bazaar has only continued to expand. Nowadays, roughly 1,500 small shops selling everything under the sun crowd its narrow streets.
Besides picking up some glittering jewellery or papyrus paintings, you can grab a coffee and watch the world go by. One of our favorite parts of Cairo, its charming, cluttered stalls and intoxicating ambience make it a must-visit for sure.
12. Al-Azhar Mosque
Just a short stroll from the bustling market is the scenic and serene Al-Azhar Mosque. One of the finest examples of Fatimid-era architecture, its central courtyard provides phenomenal views of the five majestic minarets rising around it.
Commissioned in 970, Cairo’s first mosque has long been a major center of Islamic learning. Still highly influential today, its complex impressively hosts the second oldest continuously run university in the entire world. Once past its beautiful Gate of the Barbers, you can visit its expansive prayer hall and marvelous marble mihrab.
As you amble about, you’ll notice various architectural styles dating to different parts of the capital’s past. This is because many of its rulers, including both the Mamluks and Ottomans, added their own elements and expanded the mosque several times.
If you want to see even more pyramids, then the desolate Dahshur is definitely the place to head. Much calmer and quieter than Giza, it sprawls across the Western Desert plateau, an hour’s drive south of the capital. An extremely important site, it was here that the Egyptians perfected their pyramid-building techniques.
At Dahshur, you can explore some of the biggest, oldest and best-preserved pyramids in the country. Built from 2613 to 2589 BC, these include both the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid. While the former is rather weirdly shaped, the latter is believed to be their first successful smooth-sided pyramid.
Towering above the desert, their striking silhouettes make for some fantastic photos. There is also the heavily eroded Black Pyramid and remaining rubble of the White Pyramid for you to wander around.
10. Al-Azhar Park
The green lungs of Cairo, Al-Azhar Park’s grounds and gardens are a lovely escape from the city’s endless urban expanse. Covering a large part of Historic Cairo, it has plenty of pretty paths, lawns and water features for visitors to meander about.
Once a 500-year-old rubbish dump, the whole area was thankfully transformed into a lush, landscaped park in 2005. Nowadays, perfectly manicured gardens and pristine walkways lie alongside colourful flowerbeds, fountains and viewpoints. There is also a fun playground for younger ones to enjoy.
A couple of super chill cafes and restaurants are also dotted about amidst all its magnificent greenery. After days spent exploring the city, the picturesque park provides some welcome respite from the constant noise and pollution. We almost couldn’t believe the contrast with the chaotic streets outside.
9. Mosque of Ibn Tulun
One of the oldest surviving mosques in Egypt and Africa, the ancient Ibn Tulun is a popular tourist attraction. Although quite simple to look at, there is something strangely elegant and arresting about its open courtyard and earthy colors.
Erected in 879 CE by the Abbasid governor of Egypt Ahmad ibn Tulun, it still has its original mihrab and minaret. Influenced by the Great Mosque of Samarra, its staircase winds its way around the outside of the tower. From atop the 40 meter-high minaret, guests can enjoy commanding views over the city around it.
Ambling about its arcades down below is just as pleasant as fragments of fading decorations can sometimes still be spied. A very peaceful place, the Mosque of Ibn Tulun is situated not all too far from the Citadel.
8. Hanging Church
Even older than Ibn Tulun is the atmospheric Hanging Church in the Coptic Quarter. One of the area’s standout sights, it is so named because it lies suspended above Babylon Fortress’ main gatehouse. Decorated with old icons and artworks, it can be visited at the same time as the Coptic Museum next door.
Although its nineteenth century facade and twin bell towers appear brand new, the church actually dates to the third century. To reach its charming little chapels and baptistery, guests have to clamber up a flight of 29 steep steps. Once inside, you’ll see fabulous pulpits, altars and icons beneath its barrel-vaulted roof.
While the land slowly rising around the Roman towers over the centuries has reduced the impact of its elevated position, the church still makes for a stunning sight.
7. Salah El-Din Citadel
Occupying a strategic spot at the foot of the Mukattam Hills is Cairo’s colossal citadel. Built by Saladin, its enormous fortifications, mosques and museums all make it a must-visit site. The huge complex also boasts some astounding architecture and incredible viewpoints.
Due to the increasing risk of Crusader attacks, the imposing citadel was completed in 1183, overlooking the capital below. While only its eastern outer walls and Ottoman-era gates now remain, the sprawling site still has a lot to see.
Its most famous landmark is the marvelous Mosque of Muhammad Ali which is modeled after Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Besides marveling at its fine minarets and snapping some photos, you can explore the even older Al-Nasir Muhammad and Sulayman Pasha mosques. While we found its carriage, police and military museums uninspiring, you could always rush through before heading on.
6. Trip to Saqqara
Other than Giza, the sun-scorched Saqqara is the main place people go to gaze at gigantic old pyramids. Set just an hour’s drive south of the center, the archaeological site is so vast, excavations are still taking place.
As it served as the necropolis for the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, countless tombs were constructed amidst its harsh, desert climes. The most famous and photographed is the Step Pyramid of Djoser. The oldest complete stone building complex in the world, it dates back to 2650 BC.
Once you’ve wrapped your head around just how old it is, you can visit some other massive monuments nearby. These include not just the Pyramid of Pepi II and Serrapeum of Saqqara but Mastaba of Ti’s remarkable reliefs too. You can see yet more interesting burial finds and statues of gods in the site’s superb Imhotep Museum.
5. Great Sphinx
One of the most iconic landmarks on Earth, the Great Sphinx has now guarded the Pyramids of Giza for well over four millennia. Absolutely unmissable, its hulking great form and unusual features have awed untold visitors across the ages.
Believed to date to the Old Kingdom, the mysterious monolith is impressively carved out of a single limestone block. It depicts the mythical sphinx creature which has the body of a lion and the head of a human. Although unconfirmed, its weathered image appears to represent the pharaoh Khafre after whom the nearby pyramid is named.
While the site around the Great Sphinx does get quite crowded, you’ll still find some space to take some photos. Guides are also on-hand if you want to learn about its fascinating past and how it came to lose its nose.
4. Islamic Cairo
Boasting many of the capital’s main sites, Islamic Cairo contains the Citadel, Khan El-Khalili and a myriad of amazing mosques. Spread across a sizeable part of the center, its mess of narrow streets and medieval structures are loads of fun to explore.
Now lying just to the east of downtown, the vibrant area was founded by the Fatimids in the tenth century. They built elaborate palaces from which to rule and important mosques such as al-Azhar and al-Hakim. Later on, Saladin erected the citadel here to protect the city from Crusaders.
Asides from enjoying its lively ambience and lovely architecture, you can get lost amidst all the souk’s shops and cafes. Here too you can pick up some spices and souvenirs or colourful carpets and glittering jewellery pieces.
3. Coptic Cairo
Another enthralling area for you to stroll around, are all the little church-filled lanes of Coptic Cairo. Packed with ancient historical sites and architectural treasures, it is much calmer and quieter than the rest of the city around it.
Part of Old Cairo, it has been a stronghold for the Christian community both before and after the Muslim conquest. While the Hanging Church understandably attracts the most attention, the fourth century Saint Sergius and Bacchus Church is the oldest. It is also thought to have been where Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus spent some time after fleeing King Herod and the Holy Land.
After checking out Coptic Cairo’s centuries-old churches, you can always visit the attractive Ben Ezra Synagogue nearby. There are also the remains of the Roman-era Babylon Fortress to see and the marvelous Coptic Museum to tour around.
2. Egyptian Museum
Not to be missed, the enormous Egyptian Museum displays a simply staggering collection of ancient antiquities. Crammed into every conceivable space are stupendous sculptures, stone reliefs and glimmering jewels for you to peruse. The star attraction however is definitely the gold funerary mask of Tutankhamun.
One of the world’s greatest museums, its distinctive pink palace-like building lines one side of Tahrir Square. Since being established in 1835, it has assembled over 120,000 artifacts, covering pre-dynastic times up til the Greco-Roman era. While it is rather poorly lit, labelled and laid out, seeing row upon row of huge stone statues and ancient carvings really is an unforgettable experience.
Many of its exhibits, however, will soon be moved into the as-yet-unopened Grand Egyptian Museum. The Royal Mummies Collection was also already transferred to the NMEC in 2020. Due to all this, it is a bit uncertain just what the museum will contain in the near future.
1. Pyramids of Giza
One of mankind’s most astonishing architectural achievements, the Pyramids of Giza rise dramatically on the capital’s southwestern outskirts. The undoubted highlight of everyone’s trip to Egypt, the striking structures were remarkably built between 2580 and 2510 BC.
Lying on the edge of the Western Desert, the three towering pyramids of Khafre, Khufu and Menkaure make for a truly spectacular sight. The largest and oldest of these is the Pyramid of Khufu which stands 137 meters-tall. It was built out of more than two million bricks with grand galleries and burial chambers being hidden away within.
Other than ogling at their incredible size and snapping some pics, you can take camel rides about the nearby desert. Seeing the pyramids stand out so majestically against all the arid landscapes around them is an experience that will certainly live long in the memory.