Delve into what Cairo, the city of a thousand minarets and 21 million people, has to offer from the comfort of your own home. Explore Cairo’s numerous Pharaonic wonders, places of worship, museums, galleries; or dive into Egypt’s rich culinary, musical, literary, and cinematic culture.
With settlements dating back millennia under different names and rulers, Cairo now exists as a patchwork of different times, peoples, faiths, and cultures. Although the Great Pyramids of Giza often define the city in the eyes of non-Egyptians, Cairo has much more to offer. From Islamic Cairo’s medieval labyrinthine streets to beautiful early churches, centuries-old synagogues, ostentatious palaces, and Downtown’s grand nineteenth-century boulevards, Cairo never ceases to surprise.
Cairo also boasts delicious food in both high-end restaurants and from the street, a lively café culture, a uniquely Egyptian bar scene, world-class museums, boundary-pushing art galleries, and impressive fashion boutiques, leaving no shortage of activities for visitors.
While you may not be able to enjoy Cairo’s year-round sun and great weather or the cacophony of car horns from home, in lieu of cranking up the heater and banging on some pots, below are plenty of other aspects of Cairo for you to explore and enjoy right now.
Cairo’s Pharaonic Sights
We’ll just get right to it: No trip to Cairo is complete without the Great Pyramids of Giza. Try visiting the pyramids from home in 360 degrees, have a look inside or check out the tomb of Queen Meresankh III with this virtual tour—you’ll have the added benefit of avoiding the crowds and heat.
You should also check out Saqqara and Dashur, home to smaller but arguably more impressive Pharaonic sights. Take a “walk” around and inside the Unas Pyramid or the columns of the Djoser Pyramid complex, and have a peek inside the spectacularly decorated tombs of Mehu, Ti, Wahty, and Niankh-khnun & Khnumhotep.
Cairo’s Religious Sights
If it’s Islamic, Christian, and Jewish heritage you’re looking for, head into the heart of Islamic Cairo and explore the Mosque and Madrassa of Sultan Barquq for an in-depth virtual experience. On a much grander scale, it’s hard to not be impressed by the Muhammed Ali Pasha Mosque perched on the citadel overlooking the city or the elaborately decorated Alfath Mosque.
It’s also worth visiting the Ben Ezra Synagogue, said to be built on the site where baby Moses was found. Cairo is also full to the brim of stunning churches, chapels, and monasteries, like the Abu Serga Church, but none more so than the Red Monastery in Sohag, a city south of Cairo well worth the day trip when you do eventually come for a visit.
Cairo Street Tours
If you want to stretch your legs a little at home, take a book-led tour of Cairo’s most fascinating district beautifully illustrated and described by the author. If you enjoyed strolling through Islamic Cairo, you’ll also love to peruse Cairo’s many beautiful doorways via the Doors of Cairo Instagram account.
Cairo held the world’s attention in 2011 as the people rose up to overthrow Hosni Mubarak’s oppressive 30-year rule. At the time, Cairo was awash with impressive revolutionary graffiti. Take a look back at this period of hope and righteous anger expressed in paint with these two archives of the revolution, here and here, though not much of the art survives to this day.
Take a stroll around the Egyptian museum, but be warned, it’s said that if you spend a minute with every item in the museum, it would take you three months. Some highlights: Take a look at a statue of King Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti, an unusually relatable figurine of a porter wearing a backpack, a goose-shaped vase found at the base of a pyramid, a beautifully detailed statue of Hathor, and the gold necklace of Psusennes I. The government is in the process of building a brand new facility with hypermodern architecture to showcase the vast collection, but plans have been delayed to 2021 due to the coronavirus.
Museum of Islamic Art
Another museum, but one off the radar for many tourists, is the Museum of Islamic Art, arguably the world’s best Islamic art museum. Tour their superb collection of ceramics, textiles, paintings, jewelry, and engravings, or watch guided tours of a beautifully ornate door, a key to the Ka’aba, fascinating wood engravings, and a portable mihrab to point towards Mecca for prayer.
Situated next to the Mosque of Ibn Tulun is a beautiful Mamluk-era building adorned with objects faithful to the period, now home to the Gayer-Anderson Museum (take a 3D tour here).
The Coptic Museum is also well-deserving of any visit to Cairo and hosts a great selection of Christian art and artifacts from over the centuries, displayed in an incredible building of winding passageways. 3D tour of the Coptic Museum here.
Learn Egyptian Arabic from Home
Learning a few phrases in Egyptian Arabic will go a long way. Unlike some other countries, Egypt is a great place to have a go at trying a new language, and however much you mangle the sounds, it will be met with enthusiasm and undeserved compliments. Once you’ve mastered a few phrases, why not give the Arabic alphabet a go and try to write your name, and if you’re feeling creative, try writing it out as finely crafted Arabic calligraphy. You can also write your name in hieroglyphs.
Cairo’s Music Scene
A night at the Cairo Opera House is truly something special. Verdi’s Opera Aida from 1871, a story of forbidden love in Old Kingdom Egypt, is a classic Egyptian opera. You can also catch Umm Kalthoum, a mid-century Egyptian singer-songwriter loved throughout the Arab world for her incredible voice and touching lyrics, in concert. The classic hour-long piece Enta Oumry is hauntingly beautiful and you can catch her most recent performance beyond the grave performed via hologram. If you liked Om Kalthoum, check out Shadia, Faiza Ahmed, and the King of Arab Music Abdel Halim Hafez.
There’s nothing quite like the bellydance bar culture in Cairo. Experience the magic with Samia Gamal, known as the queen of Egyptian belly dance, with Taheya Karyoka not far behind. No belly dance is complete without a great drummer, so see if you can follow any of these drumming rhythms to play along.
With feel-good lyrics and danceable beats, it’s hard not to like Egyptian Pop music. Give Amr Diab a go with his iconic Nour El Ein or his classic Tamally Maak. The incredibly talented Mohammed Mounir is also an important part of Egypt’s musical culture.
Cairo also has an exciting underground music scene, none more controversial than the mahraganat genre, which includes the infection rhythms of electro-dance mixed with traditional shaabi music. Give this gem, often blasting through the speakers of Cairene taxis, a try.
Books About Cairo
From the times of the original Library of Alexandria, despite a few ups and downs, books and their authors have played an important role in the country. Cairenes are big readers and fiercely proud of their literary figures. While a visit to the brilliant Soor Al-Azbekeya book market might have to wait for another day, there’s plenty of novels based in Cairo to dive into.
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa-Al-Aswany
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa-Al-Aswany is a beautiful portrayal of contemporary Cairene society in all its intricacies that is a must-read for anyone taking a trip to Cairo. Through the residents of the Yacoubian Building, we see the changing nature of class, gender, sexuality, and faith in Egypt following the revolution of 1952. There’s also a good film adaptation for those who don’t have time to get through the book. Al-Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Egypt is also a contemporary Egyptian classic.
Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz
If you have the time, Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy is a great insight into Cairo from the late-1910s until the mid-1940s. The novels follow the protagonist and his family through three generations, bringing questions of faith, the changing role of women in society, and the course of social progress into sharp focus. The three novels are long, but you will be rewarded for the time you put into these.
Taxi by Khaled Al-Khamissi
This collection of short stories as told by Cairiene taxi drivers is a great insight into Cairo and its people. While funny at times and sad at others, the book is engaging throughout.
City of Love and Ashes by Yusuf Idris
Idris tells the story of a young revolutionary in his struggle against the British occupation and his love for a fellow revolutionary. In this pivotal moment in modern Egyptian history, Idris draws a beautiful portrait of the city and country on the brink of independence.
Cairo: The City Victorious by Max Rodenbeck
For an engaging history of the city, look no further than Max Rodenbeck’s Cairo: The City Victorious. This well-written book detailing Cairo’s often tumultuous history through twists and turns is great for anyone trying to make sense of this fascinating city.
Once the envy of much of the world, the Egyptian film industry has produced some classics, and despite having suffered a recent setback in quality, Egypt is reclaiming its status with a new exciting wave of independent filmmakers. While not many of the classics from Egypt’s golden age of cinema are subtitled or available online, and as such, not included in this list, you can still enjoy the fantastic film posters of the period.
Arguably Egypt’s best director, Youssef Chahine has created some incredibly forward-thinking and daring cinema, none more so than Cairo Station in 1958. Set in Cairo’s Ramses Station, the story follows an intellectually disabled newsstand worker, whose love for a cold drink seller quickly turns into a dangerous obsession. The film, which somehow still seems relevant today, addresses inequality, gender issues, and cultural differences in Egyptian society.
The Land, another classic by Youssef Chahine, details the struggles of 1930s Egyptian farmers against oppressive landowners. This touching and thoughtful film still speaks to many Egyptians today.
This critically-acclaimed documentary is an impressive and thought-provoking telling of Egypt’s 2011 revolution centred around Tahrir Square. The Square raises many important questions as protestors’ optimism and defiance clash with harsh political realities.
Cook Like an Egyptian
Although not as well-known for its culinary culture as its Arab neighbours, Egyptian food is wonderful—and surprisingly easy to make. Jump in the kitchen and easily spruce up some classic Egyptian dishes for you and your loved ones.
For a classic Egyptian breakfast, foul is a staple dish of stewed and spiced fava beans that is irresistible if done well.
Egypt’s version of falafel, known as tameya, is also a great dish you can easily fry up. Unlike the rest of the Middle East, and even many parts of Egypt, Cairene falafel is made with fava beans instead of chickpeas and is slowly but surely being recognized as the king of falafels.
For something a little heavier, koshari is a nightmare for those avoiding carbs and a dream for the taste buds. A blend of several types of pasta, rice, noodles, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions, tomato sauce, and the all-important chilli sauce, koshari will give you energy for days.
On the sweeter side, basbousa is an easy-to-make delicacy with coconut, semolina, yoghurt, honey, and a whole lot of butter.
Another classic is Om Ali, an Egyptian version of bread pudding topped with pistachios.
If you’re looking for ancient Egyptian cuisine, try fried tiger nut cakes from a 3500-year-old recipe found in a tomb in Luxor (“tiger nuts” are not actually nuts but a form of edible tubers), a lentil dish from the third century AD, and this medieval beef and apple recipe known as The Tuffahiyya. If this has your taste buds tingling, check out these recipes from the world’s oldest cookbook, written in ancient Egypt on papyrus from the Ptolemaic-era.