Cairo…this sprawling, historic, ancient city is most visitors’ first stop on a trip through Egypt. The Pyramids of Giza and the Egyptian Museum top the list for most, but there is a lot more to see and do in this city. To help you plan your visit, here are the best things to do in Cairo.
Not everything on this list is located in Cairo. Several places are located in or near Giza (such as the Pyramids of Giza and Saqqara). I am including them in this article, even though they are not technically located in Cairo, because most people visit these places while staying in Cairo.
Interesting Facts About Cairo
Cairo is the capital of Egypt. Over nine million people call Cairo home, with an additional 10 million living just outside of the city. This entire metropolitan area is the largest in Africa and the Middle East.
It is located on the Nile River, right where the desert transitions into the Nile delta. Giza sits on the west bank of the Nile River, just 5 km southwest of Cairo, so these two cities seem to blend into one another.
Cairo is called “the city of a thousand minarets,” for its predominance of Islamic architecture. Most people who live in Cairo are Muslim, however, about 10% of the population are Christians who belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Cairo has a hot desert climate. Rainfall is rare but most likely to occur during the winter months. During the summer, daytime highs typically reach 35°C (95°F) with high humidity, due to Cairo’s location near the Mediterranean Sea. It is much more pleasant to visit Cairo in the winter, with daytime highs of 20°C (68°F).
Best Things to do in Cairo
The Pyramids of Giza
For many people, the Pyramids of Giza not only top the to-do list in Cairo, but they are also the biggest tourist attraction in Egypt.
The Great Pyramid of Giza is the last intact ancient Wonder of the World. This pyramid, along with the others that sit on the Giza Plateau, form one of the most recognizable sights in the world.
A visit here typically lasts at least two hours. Go inside the Great Pyramid, take selfies with the Great Sphinx, visit the panoramic viewpoints of the pyramids, see the Solar Boat, and if you like, go for a camel ride.
Planning Your Visit
2020 Price List for the Giza Plateau
Giza Plateau Entrance Ticket: 200 EGP per adult, 100 EGP per student (with valid ID)
Entrance Ticket to the Great Pyramid: 400 EGP
Entrance Ticket to the Pyramid of Khafre: 100 EGP
Entrance Ticket to the Pyramid of Menkaure: 100 EGP
Solar Boat: 100 EGP
Combination Ticket (Giza Plateau, Solar Boat & Great Pyramid): 600 EGP
Tripod: 20 EGP
The Egyptian Museum contains the world’s largest collection of Egyptian artifacts. Highlights of a visit include seeing the solid gold mask and the golden sarcophagi of Tutankhamun, the Royal Mummies room, and a mind-blowing number of statues, jewelry, and treasures.
A visit here typically lasts two hours. The Egyptian Museum is located on Tahrir Square in Cairo. To get here, we recommend hiring a driver and guide, but you can also use Uber, taxis, or public transportation. It takes roughly 30 minutes to travel between the Giza Plateau and the Egyptian Museum.
Important Note: The Grand Egyptian Museum is expected to open in 2021, although this date seems to change frequently. Once open, it will replace the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square. The Grand Egyptian Museum is massive…it’s so big that our guide, Laila, joked that you would need a tuk-tuk to see all of it. This museum is also conveniently located next to the Giza Plateau, so it will be very easy to combine these two sites without needing to navigate the streets of Cairo.
Planning Your Visit
Cost: 200 EGP adults, 100 EGP student with valid ID
Camera Ticket: 50 EGP
Hours: 9 am to 5 pm
Islamic Cairo is the historic heart of Cairo. This area contains one of the largest collections of historic architecture in the Islamic world. Numerous mosques, madrassas, fortifications, and tombs date from the Islamic era of Egypt (639 to the early 16th century), making Cairo one of the world’s oldest Islamic cities.
In 1979, Islamic Cairo became a World Cultural Heritage Site.
Islamic Cairo is packed with things to see and do. It’s a fairly large area, located near the city center. You could spend days wandering the labyrinth of streets in Islamic Cairo, but for most visitors, just seeing the highlights is sufficient.
Top things to do in Islamic Cairo include:
- Salah El-Din Citadel
- Al-Muizz li-Din Allah al-Fatima Street
- Bab Zuweila
- Khan el-Khalili
- Ibn Tulun Mosque
- Al-Azhar Mosque: one of Cairo’s oldest mosques
- Museum of Islamic Art
- Al-Azhar Park
- Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan
- Al-Rifa’i Mosque
If you want to visit everything on this list, it takes a full day. And what a memorable day it will be. Islamic Cairo can feel chaotic and overwhelming, but the sights, the food, and the people make this the most interesting part of Cairo, in my opinion.
Salah El Din Citadel
From its strategic position on the Mokattam hills in central Cairo sits the Citadel of Saladin. For almost 700 years (from the 13th to 19th centuries), this was the seat of government in Egypt. In 1976, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As you move around Cairo, you will see the Citadel from almost everywhere, because of its prominent location on the Mokattam hills.
The main attraction is the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. The mosque was completed in 1857, in memory of Tusun Pasha, Muhammad Ali’s oldest son. It is modeled after the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
This mosque is also called the “Alabaster Mosque.” Alabaster covers the interior of the mosque as well as the courtyard.
The clock tower in the courtyard was given to Egypt by King Louis Philippe of France in 1845. In return, the obelisk that originally stood at the entrance of Luxor Temple now stands in Place de la Concorde in Paris.
While at the Citadel, make sure you visit Gawhara Terrace for one of the best views over the city. From here, you have a great view over historic Cairo, Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan, and Al-Rifa’i Mosque. On a clear day, you will be able to see the Pyramids of Giza.
Planning Your Visit
Cost: 180 EGP adults; 90 EGP student with valid ID
Camera Ticket: None, you are permitted to take photos with a camera at no extra charge
Shoe Covers: 5 EGP; before entering the Muhammad Ali Mosque, you will need to remove your shoes. You can take them with you (free) or pay 5 EGP to keep your shoes on but wear shoe covers
Scarf: Women need to bring a scarf to cover their head
Hours: 9 am to 5 pm
Al-Muizz li-Din Allah al-Fatima Street
This is a very important street with a very long name. Called al-Muizz for short, this is one of the oldest streets in Cairo. It runs north-south through Islamic Cairo and it contains some of the most important monuments of historic Cairo.
This street is roughly 1 km long, running from Bab Zuweila in the south to Bab al-Futuh in the north. It is a busy, congested, noisy street and for some visitors it can feel overwhelming. Along this short stretch of road are an astonishing number of madrassas, mosques, shops, markets, and hammams.
Pro Travel Tip: A madrassa is a Muslim school, college or university that is often part of a mosque. A hammam is a middle eastern type of steam bath for cleansing the body.
Just south of Bab Zuweila and al-Muizz street is the Tent Makers Market. On this 300-meter street, small shops sell colorful textiles and handmade blankets, cushions, bed covers, and tents. Continue the walk south to visit a produce market and numerous small shops in Islamic Cairo.
Walking al-Muizz was one of our favorite experiences in Cairo. It can be sensory overload, in a good way, in my opinion. Yes, it’s noisy and chaotic, but the people are friendly, the street food is delicious, and to walk down one of the oldest streets in Cairo is an unforgettable experience.
Climb the Minaret at Bab Zuweila
Bab Zuweila is the southern gate on the walls of Fatimid Cairo. It dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries and it is one of the last remaining gates of the Old City of Cairo.
Walk up several flights of stairs for a nice view from the terrace on top of the gate.
For a spectacular view of historic Cairo and al-Muizz street, you can climb both of the minarets.
Overlooking Sultan al-Muayyad Mosque
Pro Travel Tip: A very narrow, spiral staircase winds its way up to the top of the minaret. Without any windows, it is almost total darkness for a short part of the climb, so make sure you bring a flashlight (the flashlight on your phone is sufficient). To step out onto the ledge, you will have to climb up one last narrow metal narrow staircase, step over a gap, and then climb over a waist-high wall. Skip the minaret climb if you suffer from claustrophobia or are not nimble enough to climb over the wall. Young kids should also skip this climb.
Cost: 40 EGP adults; 20 EGP students with valid ID
Khan el-Khalili is the famous shopping market in Islamic Cairo. It sits just off of al-Muizz street.
I was really looking forward to Khan el-Khalili, but it was a disappointment. This market is filled with touristy souvenirs, and according to our guide Laila, most of what is for sale comes from China. I think it’s worth a quick visit, but al-Muizz street, the tent market, and the side streets off of al-Muizz are much more interesting.
Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan and Al-Rifa’i Mosque
These two mosques sit side by side and can easily be visited together.
Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan is an enormous mosque that sits near the base of the Citadel. It was built between 1356 and 1363 during the Mamluk period.
Next door is Al-Rifa’i Mosque. It was constructed between 1869 and 1912 and commissioned by Lady Khushiar Hanim to expand and replace the existing shrine of the medieval Islamic saint Ahmed al-Rifa’i. Briefly, this mosque was the resting place of Reza Shah of Iran, who died in exile in 1944. His body was returned to Iran after World War II. The burial chamber is now occupied by his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who died in Cairo in 1980.
Planning Your Visit
Cost: 80 EGP (includes both mosques); 40 EGP student
Camera Ticket: none necessary: photos are permitted with a camera at no extra charge
Tip for Shoes: At both mosques you will leave your shoes with an attendant. Our guide recommended leaving a 10 – 20 EGP tip at each mosque when retrieving your shoes.
Scarf: Women will need to cover their head with a scarf to enter the mosques.
Al-Azhar is a quiet green space that sits in the center of Cairo. This is a great place to go for a walk and escape the chaos and congestion of the busy city streets.
Coptic Cairo is located in Old Cairo in the southern part of the city. The first settlements here date back to the 6th century BC. Many of the places to visit here originate from Egypt’s Christian past, but you can also visit a synagogue and the first mosque built in Africa.
All of the sites in Coptic Cairo are free to visit with the exception of the Coptic Museum.
The Hanging Church
The Hanging Church, also called Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. It is named for its position above a gatehouse of the Babylon Fortress, the Roman Fortress in Coptic Cairo. This is the most famous church in Coptic Cairo.
Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus
This is believed to be the place where the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary, and Jesus Christ) sheltered at the end of their journey into Egypt. The interior of the church is beautiful, with detailed woodworking and tilework.
Ben Ezra Synagogue
This synagogue started off as a church. In 882, it was sold and converted into synagogue. It has been rebuilt and remodeled several times in the past 1000 years. It is said that this is where the baby Moses was found.
Mosque of Amr Ibn al-As
This is the first mosque built in Egypt and Africa. It was built in 641 to 642 AD.
This museum is home to the world’s largest collection of Coptic art work. Tickets cost 40 EGP.
The Monastery of Saint Simon, also known as the Cave Church, is located in the Mokattam hills of Cairo. This church can hold up to 20,000 people, making it the largest church in the Middle East.
The main church, the one that holds 20,000 people, is the summer church. There is a smaller church with a ceiling that is used in the winter months when rain is more likely.
The Cave Church is free to visit.
To get to the Cave Church, you will have to drive through Garbage City. Yes, you read that correctly…Garbage City.
Garbage City is named for the large number of garbage collectors who live here. Called the Zabbaleen, these are the descendants of farmers who migrated to Cairo from Upper Egypt in the 1940’s, fleeing poverty and poor harvests. They settled in the Mokattam hills and began sorting trash as a way to make money. Over the years, their population has grown to at least 30,000 people, an entire community that sorts trash for a living. The majority of the Zabbaleen are Coptic Christians.
An extremely narrow, dusty road winds its way through Garbage City to the Cave Church. This is a busy place, as trucks filled with trash arrive from all parts of the city. Rubber, metal, paper, and plastic are all sorted and packaged together, to later be sent to China and other places to be used in the manufacturing of new materials.
It may be a hard, dirty, unhealthy way of life, but everything has value and gets recycled and reused. In fact, I read that over 90% of the trash is recycled, a much higher average than what most western recycling companies produce.
Walk Across the Nile River on the Qasr El Nil Bridge
This is the first bridge to span the Nile River in Cairo. It connects Tahrir Square with Gezira Island.
For the best view over Cairo, visit the Cairo Tower. Located on Gezira Island in Zamelek, you have 360° views over the city. On a clear day, you can see the Pyramids of Giza.
You can dine at the Sky Window Café or grab a table at the 360 Revolving Restaurant. The 360 Revolving Restaurant has a minimum purchase of 250 EGP per person.
Important Note: You will be asked to leave any food or snacks in the guardhouse at the base of the tower.
Cost: 200 EGP
Hours: 9 am to midnight
Day Trip to Dahshur, Memphis & Saqqara
A visit to Dahshur, Memphis and Saqqara is one of Egypt’s best history lessons.
Dahshur is an ancient, royal necropolis that is located 30 km south of Giza and 40 km south of Cairo.
Dahshur is where the ancient Egyptians perfected their pyramid-constructing skills. It is here that several of the first pyramids were built and it took a few tries to get things right. Visit the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid, the precursors to the Pyramids of Giza.
Memphis was the first capital city of Egypt. A visit here is quick with a tour of the open-air museum.
Saqqara was the necropolis for the city of Memphis. It is here that you can see the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser and the oldest complete stone building complex in the world.
Step Pyramid of Djoser
A day trip to Dahshur, Memphis and Saqqara takes five to six hours, including transportation time from Cairo or Giza. It’s easiest to do this on a tour, but you can do this independently and hire a taxi.
For full details, read our article How to Plan Your Day Trip to Dahshur, Memphis and Saqqara.
Cairo – On a Map
How to Use This Map: Click the icons on the map to get more information about each point of interest. Click the star next to the title of the map to add this map to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.
How Much Time Do You Need in Cairo?
To visit everything on this list, you need a bare minimum of three days, and these will be three very busy days.
With one day in Cairo, I recommend visiting the Pyramids of Giza and the Egyptian Museum.
With two days in Cairo, add on the day trip to Dahshur, Memphis and Saqqara and either visit Coptic Cairo or several of the sites in Islamic Cairo (al-Muizz Street, the Citadel, and Khan el-Khalili).
With three full days in Cairo, you can do everything on this list, just get an early start each day and it really helps to have a guide and driver to help make the most of your time.
How to Get Around Cairo
The easiest way to get around Cairo is with a guide and private driver. However, you can get around independently and travel by taxi, bus, or metro. For a great article on how to use the public transportation network in Cairo, click here.
Cairo Metro Sign
Do You Need to Hire a Guide for Cairo?
Hiring a guide and driver has many benefits in Cairo: your transportation is taken care of, you get to visit the sites with a knowledgeable guide, and you get to learn a lot about the local culture and customs.
We hired Egypt Tailor Made, not only for our tour of Cairo, but also for the remainder of our time in Egypt.
Laila was our guide in Cairo and we highly recommend her. She speaks excellent English, kept us well fed with falafel, and has a wealth of knowledge about Egypt.
The Cairo Pass gives you free entry to the sites in Cairo, Giza, Dahshur, Saqqara, and Mit Rahina. These sites include the Egyptian Museum, the Museum of Islamic Art, the Coptic Museum, Saladin Citadel, all sites on the Giza Plateau, all sites at Saqqara, the Red and Bent Pyramids in Dahshur, and the sites in Historic Cairo.
The Cairo Pass costs $100 USD or 90 euros. It is valid for 5 days.
Points of sale for the Cairo Pass include the Egyptian Museum, the Giza Plateau, and Saladin Citadel. It is also available at the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities office at 3 El-Adel Abubakr St. in Zamelak, Cairo.
You will need your passport, two black and white photocopies of your main passport page, and two passport photos. Students will need a valid student identification card. To purchase the Cairo Pass, you will pay with US dollars or euros and these need to be crisp, new bills, in perfect condition.
Is the Cairo Pass Worth It?
For most people, the answer is no. To make it worth the $100 USD, you need to visit A LOT of sites in Cairo and Giza, OR plan on more than one visit to the Giza Plateau and/or the Egyptian Museum.
I added it up and it costs $100 USD to visit these sites: the inclusive ticket to the Egyptian Museum, the inclusive ticket to the Giza Plateau, Saladin Citadel, Bab Zuweila, the Coptic Museum, the Islamic Art Museum, the Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara, the pyramids in Dahshur, and the Memphis open-air museum. If you visit all of these, you will just break even with the cost of the Cairo Pass.
If you don’t plan on visiting all of these sites while in Cairo, the Cairo Pass is not worth it.
However, with the Cairo Pass, you can visit the Giza Plateau and the Egyptian Museum multiple times. These are the biggest ticket items in Cairo. One visit to the Giza Plateau, if you purchase the inclusive ticket (which allows you to go inside the Khufu Boat Museum and the Great Pyramid) costs 600 EGP (roughly $39 USD). If you think you will go twice, you will pay $80 (for two inclusive tickets).
If you purchase the Cairo Pass, you get a 50% discount on the Luxor Pass, which could be worth it for some people. Learn more in our article about the Luxor Pass.
Where to Stay in Cairo
Marriott Mena House. This is where we stayed and it was fantastic. It was 8 pm and dark by the time we arrived at the hotel, but what a thrilling experience to see the Great Pyramid from our balcony. Breakfast is a buffet with endless choices of food (it’s one of the best hotel breakfasts we have had yet). Plus, you can sit outside and stare up at the Great Pyramid over a cup of coffee.
Pyramids View Inn. This small hotel offers views of the Sphinx and the pyramids. The view from the rooftop terrace is amazing and this is a great place to watch the Sound and Light Show, without joining the crowds.
Panorama Pyramids Inn. This hotel sits right next to the Pyramids View Inn, so the view is similar. This hotel also has a rooftop terrace and some rooms have views of the Sphinx and the pyramids.
Pyramids Guest House. This is yet another hotel that boats amazing views of the Pyramids of Giza. Prior guests rave about the views and helpful staff.
The Nile Ritz-Carlton. If you have dreams of staying in a Ritz-Carlton without spending a small fortune, Cairo is the place to do it. This hotel is located right on Tahrir Square so it is just a short walk to the Egyptian Museum (until the Grand Egyptian Museum opens) and the Cairo Tower.
If you have any questions about these things to do in Cairo, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information for Your Trip to Egypt:
- Itinerary: 10 Day Egypt Itinerary: Cairo, Luxor, Aswan & Abu Simbel
- Luxor: 15 Best Things to do in Luxor, Egypt
- Luxor: Complete Guide to the West Bank of Luxor
- Valley of the Kings: Best Tombs to Visit in the Valley of the Kings
- Egypt Budget: How Much Does It Cost to Visit Egypt?
- Abu Simbel: Abu Simbel: Everything You Need to Know to Plan Your Visit
Read all of our articles about Egypt in our Egypt Destination Guide.
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