It’s endlessly fascinating for art and culture, though it’s often overlooked by visitors.
Egypt boasts a history going back thousands of years.
But downtown Cairo was actually designed and built entirely in the late 19th century.
Khedive Ismail commissioned top French and European architects to build a modern city center that would rival the world’s glitziest capitals.
And many downtown Cairo buildings look European with oriental influences that set them apart from their Western counterparts.
So where do you begin to explore this bustling and underrated district?
Here are my top picks for the best buildings to see in downtown Cairo:
1. The Egyptian Museum
Established: 1902 | Architect: Marcel Dourgnon | on the map
The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square holds the world’s largest collection of Ancient Egyptian treasures.
And even with the opening of two new museums in Cairo, this old downtown gem boasts a stunning collection that’s still very much worth seeing.
But if you’re an architecture lover, the building itself is worth notice.
It’s a stand-out in Tahrir Square with its salmon-colored facade with white details and Ancient Egyptian motifs.
The interior is airy with wide arches and tall windows.
It has a breezy feel that makes the museum’s massive collection – housed in weathered, wooden displays – feel far less claustrophobic.
A long history
Ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha first began to store antiquities in the Azbakiya district in an effort to stop their illegal trade and smuggling.
Years later, Khedive Abbas I built a museum on the banks of the Nile that later suffered irreparable damage during a high flood in 1878. All the antiquities were moved to a palace in Giza.
But as more excavations continued, Egyptologists began to push for a bigger, permanent museum with proper ventilation and lighting.
Officials held an international competition in 1895 for proposals that combine function and aesthetics.
French architect Marcel Dourgnon beat some 100 other entries and won the competition with his stunning Beaux Arts, neoclassical design.
The foundations of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir were laid in 1897.
And some 5,000 boxes of artifacts were moved from the palace in Giza to their new home.
The museum was inaugurated in 1902 as the region’s first national museum – and Africa’s first purpose-built museum.
A grand entrance
A garden with a pool full of papyrus and lotus greets you past the gates.
Ancient Egyptian statues line the museum’s exterior. They spill out and fill even the outdoor cafe, where you’ll find a stray cat lounging at their base.
The museum’s main entrance is flanked by two columns and sculptures of the goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt. The museum’s portal is adorned with the head of Hathor, the mother goddess.
But this facade also reflects the Western imperialism of its time.
The Egyptian goddesses are done in the Greek style, and there are inscriptions in Latin. For years, there were only busts of European Egyptologists.
Inside the museum
The two main floors offer a staggering collection going from pre-dynastic times through the Greco-Roman period.
The space recalls ancient Egyptian temples with its soft light.
A dome that lets in natural light greets you past the entrance.
A huge statue of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiy is the striking focal point.
The museum’s double-height rooms, with mezzanines and a glass ceiling, illuminate the two-floor building.
They have an airy feel that never feels cramped even with their massive collections and the thick tourist crowds.
Dourgnon’s ingenious use of natural lighting likely gave him an edge over his competition and swayed the jury in their final choice.
And the ventilation system is a life-saver on a summer day.
The museum is hot but never stuffy as the hallways allow the flow of the summer breeze.
The museum also has a basement used for storage, built with intersecting vaults designed to carry the load of the colossal statues displayed above.
2. Said Halim Palace
Established: 1900 | Architect: Antonio Lasciac | on the map
This beautifully decrepit palace was originally built for Said Halim Pasha, though the Ottoman statesman never actually moved in.
It stands empty today as a relic of Cairo’s glamorous past.
The palace stands behind locked gates on a sidestreet in downtown, near the trendy gallery Access Art Space, a shisha cafe and rows of auto mechanics. And it’s worth the 15-minute walk from Tahrir Square – even if you can only take photos through the gates.
Built by Italian architect Antonio Lasciac, the palace stretches across 1,800 square meters that include a garden and elaborate facades. The two-story building has three arched entrance doors framed by palm trees.
The facade is embellished with crowned female heads, bare-breasted angels and floral motifs. Built in a grandiose style with materials imported from Italy, the palace was meant to showcase Said Halim Pasha’s wealth and importance.
Inside, there’s a double staircase to the upper floor, tall dramatic windows, Art Nouveau tiles and a fireplace. Though you can only see the interiors in photos online.
An eerie past
This decadent palace was confiscated by the British during World War I, then transformed into the al-Nasriya School for Boys after nationalization.
Rumors surround this abandoned palace. It was said Said Halim Pasha’s wife refused to move in because it was near a working class district.
And the students kept the rumors going. Some were afraid of the palace at night, others told of buried bodies in the basements.
“The fact that the school was a palace made it unlike any other school,” said a former student in Discovering Downtown Cairo. “You could feel the grandeur of the place as soon as you entered the large entrance court. … As children, we used to be really scared of the architecture of the palace once night fell, especially the basements.”
3. The Al-Demerdachiyya Building
Established: 1928 | Architect: George Parcq | on the map
This massive square building gets its name from a Demerdache syrup ad that runs vertically along one of its corners in French and Arabic.
Built in 1928 by French architect Georges Parcq, it recalls the district’s bygone status as an elite neighborhood that once housed cinemas, theaters and cafes.
The seven-story building now contains mostly offices and a few residential units.
It’s not exactly a stand-out when seen from the street. And it surprisingly blends into the belle epoque style architecture of downtown.
The building also has a great central court with tall floors packed with curved balconies.
If you’re in the neighborhood, the doorman will likely let you peak inside the courtyard.
4. Baehler Passage
Established: 1929 | Architect: Leon Nafilyan | on the map
The Baehler Passage is an Art Deco shopping arcade with ornate arches and rows of tiny shops.
In its heyday, it housed haberdasheries, fine lingerie, high-end men’s wear and exclusive boutiques.
The building had rigid rules about merchandise display and decor, and was the shopping destination for the city’s elite.
The Baehler Passage is part of the larger Baehler Building, a massive triangular apartment complex built by Swiss entrepreneur Charles Baehler.
Interestingly, this plot of land in the heart of downtown once housed the Hotel Savoy and later became the headquarters of the British Army in 1908.
The building contains 130 deluxe apartments while the ground floor is divided into 72 different shops.
Today, a stroll through the Baehler Passage offers a taste of fin de siecle Paris amid the bustle of downtown Cairo.
5. Cinema Radio
Established: 1948 | Architects: Max Edrei and Garo Balyan | on the map
The Cinema Radio once housed the city’s largest screen where Egypt’s most prominent films premiered to an audience of glittering celebrities.
Vertical pillars line the facade, topped with a central pillar where the cinema’s name once shone in neon lights.
One of Cairo’s most iconic buildings, Cinema Radio owes its name and marquee design to New York’s famous Radio City Music Hall.
Legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum once sang on its stage, and the cinema was one of several legendary deco venues during Egypt’s “golden age” of cinema.
It was known across the Arab world as a movie powerhouse.
After its showings came to a halt in the 2000s, Cinema Radio was acquired by real estate company Al Ismaelia and revived to its former glory.
Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef famously used the venue for his controversial late-night satirical news show in 2011.
Nowadays Cinema Radio is a popular stop along tours of downtown. It also hosts occasional screenings and cultural events, and has office and retail spaces for rent.
Past the massive neon sight, a short passage leads into a courtyard and the cinema’s front doors.
Stop for a cappuccino at the hip cafe Sip, right alongside the entrance to the theater.
And don’t miss the Diwan bookstore next door for a great selection of Egyptology books and Arab novels in translation.
6. The Assicurazioni Generali building
Established: 1911 | Architect: Antonio Lasciac | on the map
Architect Antonio Lasciac drew inspiration from Islamic and European architecture for this intricate building, originally constructed for the Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali.
It was a prosperous era for the insurance company and they set up their main offices on the building’s ground floor as they expanded into the region.
Lasciac, one of the city’s most well-known architects at the time, tackled this prestigious commission by drawing from Arab and Italian architecture influences.
The facade is adorned with crenellations, balconies, arched windows and a two-story mashrabiya.
The company’s name is inscribed in Italian and Arabic in green and gold mosaics.
The building is a great example of neo-Islamic or neo-Mamluk architecture with its blend of modern and traditional features.
Today it contains shops at street level with residential units and offices on the upper floors.
7. Immobilia Building
Established: 1940 | Architects: Gaston Rossi and Max Edrei | on the map
The Immobilia Building was Cairo’s first sky-scraper and a one-time prestigious address for the country’s actors, singers and artists.
It’s now an iconic staple of downtown Cairo with its curvy balconies and geometric lines.
The modernist marvel boasts 18 floors and stands 70 metres high.
But it sparked controversy in its day as an obscenely tall monstrosity. Built from 1938-40, the Immobilia Building broke away from the traditional architecture commonly seen in downtown.
Built to host offices and apartments, the Immobilia Building has shops on the ground floor and luxury apartments on the top floor with spacious terraces and sweeping views of the city.
In its time it offered top of the line comforts and high-end technology. It also boasted the city’s first underground garage with a capacity of up to 100 cars.
8. Shurbagi Building (aka Davies Bryan Building)
Established: 1912 | Architect: Robert Williams | on the map
This striking red brick building was built by a Welshman to house his massive clothing store. It was a showstopper for its time and a fashionable destination for high-end shopping.
Today the building is an iconic part of downtown with its wide, burgundy facade (made of polished red granite imported from Aberdeen).
The building was eventually bought by the Syrian Shurbagi family who painted their name over the entrance.
It’s currently owned by Al Ismaelia, a real estate company who’ve transformed the building into a stunning set for films, photo shoots and music videos.
The first two floors are adorned with pointed arches and floral motifs. The entire facade is richly adorned with tower-like features, balconies, windows and columns.
It’s an effortless blend of medieval and Belle Epoque styles. And you can still make out shields, roses, thistles, shamrocks and leeks in the stucco.
The building is topped by a pair of medieval-style towers that reflect Welsh architecture.
And there are several more details that link to the brothers’ Welsh heritage.
The ground level features an emblem framed by floral moldings that says “truth against the world” in Welsh.
Another emblem contains the logo of the annual Welsh festival Gorsedd of the Bards.
9. Egyptian Diplomatic Club
Established: 1908 | Architect: Alexander Mercel | on the map
This gleaming neo-classical gem is an exclusive club for the city’s elites, where the diplomatic community gathers amid luxurious antiques under a sumptuous chandelier.
Inside, there are saloons, grand staircases, Aubusson saloons and gilded walls. The club also boasts a collection of orientalist oil paintings featuring scenes from 19th century Egypt.
The Diplomatic Club was once known as the Mohamed Ali Club, an exclusive gathering place for Cairo’s elites.
It was originally built for Egyptian royals and elites as an alternative to the mainly British Khedival Club (where British occupiers were said to look down on Egyptian members).
The club traces its beginnings to 1907, when the Egyptian royal family commissioned a French architect to design an elite gathering place.
A painting of King Fouad I, the club’s founder and first president, still hangs on the ground floor.
There’s also a painting of Mohamed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt, after whom the club was originally named.
After the 1952 revolution, the state transformed the club into a venue for the diplomatic circle. And it still retains its regal decor and nostalgic atmosphere.
Today it hosts gatherings and conferences for diplomats.
10. St. Joseph’s Church
Established: 1909 | Architects: Aristide Leonori | on the map
Dating back to 1909, this Florentine-style church was once the main place of worship for Cairo’s community of Italian immigrants.
The church of Saint Joseph was built in a Romanesque style in 1909 by architect Aristide Leonori for the city’s Italian and French communities.
Much of Cairo’s European Catholics left the country in the 1950s and 60s. But St. Joseph’s Church still conducts small services in Arabic, French and Italian.
The interior is rich and ornate, with wooden benches, tall columns and stained glass windows. It’s a cool and quiet spot in the bustle of downtown.