Egypt,  Travel

5 Must-See Buildings In Downtown Cairo

Downtown Cairo is full of hidden gems that are often bypassed by visitors. Here are my top picks for must-see architecture and historic buildings.

When you think of downtown Cairo, you may picture tall oriental arches, minarets and alleys packed with people, noise and spices. This is indeed what Khan el Khalili looks like. And for many tourists, it’s the first and last stop in this enormous city before moving on to Giza.

Egyptians and expats, on the other hand, go downtown for business. But on weekends the heart of Cairo isn’t the hangout it used to be in the 1960s and 70s. Many prefer to unwind in the quieter suburbs, shopping centers or sporting clubs.

Downtown is seen as crowded, hectic and noisy. And it can take hours of traffic jams to navigate. But these days, it’s making a comeback.

Downtown is seeing a revival from cultural events like D-Caf hosted in once-neglected spaces to trendy cafes that are drawing in younger generations into forgotten sidestreets.

Guided tours are held Friday mornings when the city is quiet and getting ready for prayers. It’s the best time to see these architectural gems without fighting the crowds.

downtown cairo architecture

Cairo’s modern history

While Egypt boasts a history going back thousands of years, downtown Cairo was designed and built in the late 19th century. Khedive Ismail commissioned top French and European architects to build a modern city centre. Today, many of downtown’s buildings look European, but contain oriental influences and unique touches that sets them apart from Western counterparts.

automobile club downtown cairo

Here are my picks for where to begin exploring:

1. SAID HALIM PALACE:

said halim palace downtown cairo

Built for Said Halim Pasha (who never moved in) by architect Antonio Lasciac, the building was turned into the al-Nasriya School for Boys after nationalization.

“The fact that the school was a palace made it unlike any other school,” said a former student, interviewed 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.”

2. AL-DEMERDACHIYYA:

Al Demerdachiyya downtown cairo

A Demerdache syrup advertisement in French and Arabic runs vertically along one of the building’s corners, recalling the area’s bygone status as an elite neighborhood. The building now contains mostly offices and a few remaining residential spaces.

3. CINEMA RADIO:

cinema radio downtown cairo

The Cinema Radio owes its name to New York’s famous Radio City Music Hall, and once contained the city’s largest screen. The cinema screened Egypt’s most prominent movies and attracted celebrities in its glory days.

4. ASSICURAZIONI GENERALI:

Assicurazioni Generali cairo downtown

Architect Antonio Lasciac drew inspiration from Islamic and European architecture for this intricate building, originally constructed for an Italian insurance company.

5. EISH & MALH:

Eish Malh downtown cairo cafe

The owners of this Italian restaurant on Adly Street say they’re not part of the renewal and sprucing up of downtown. They just wanted a spot for great food in their home city. Events like Dinner & Jazz make this both an eatery and local hangout.

My favourite are movie nights that combine cinema classics and regional shorts with courses that compliment the selections.

Walking Tours in Downtown Cairo:

If you want to explore this authentic heart of the city, join an organized tour or hire a guide.

The Cairo D-Tour sets off every Friday morning and is a brilliant way to see downtown from its cafes to landmark cinemas. Led by an expert tour guide, it gives insight into the everyday lives of residents, their histories, hopes and worries.

Mosaic Club, led by experienced tour guide Zein, regularly holds tours around Cairo and beyond. It’s best to check their Facebook page for upcoming events.

Walk Like an Egyptian offers extensive tours of downtown Cairo held on Friday mornings, when traffic is light and the city is easy to explore.

Read More About Downtown Cairo:

Here’s where to learn more or plan your next trip:

Discovering Downtown Cairo: Architecture and Stories (Jovis, 2015) is an extensive guide focusing on the district and its 19th and 20th century heritage. The book offers detailed plans of downtown’s most iconic, interesting or historic buildings, along with stories of the inhabitants. It’s also a window into the secret life of both well-known and bypassed buildings. The book also includes essays on topics like downtown’s publishing industry.

Co-editor Vittoria Capresi spent four years in Cairo researching the city to compile the history behind the legendary buildings and shed light on lesser-known treasures.

Vittoria Capresi downtown cairo walking tour

townhouse gallery downtown cairo

To explore more of the city, read my slow travel guide to Giza.

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downtown cairo pin

65 Comments

  • thewonderer86

    Fascinating. I loved Cairo, but don’t remember seeing any of these things. And I really love walking tours – they are a great way to get a feel for a city, get an idea of things you want to go back to, and maybe get some insider tips.

    • Dee

      Thank you! I didn’t see any of this either as a tourist, but now it’s definitely become one of my favourite parts of Cairo.

  • Green Global Trek

    Dee, what a treat to read your post on Cairo. We know so little about Egypt other than the history and the antiquities. The Italian Restaurant with its jazz is surely where we would park ourselves regularly for hours at a time. The architecture in the city is so well maintained from what we can see in your photos. Fascinating. Love the cinema too. Maybe one day we will get to visit.

    Peta & Ben

    • Dee

      Thanks, guys! I hope you’ll get to visit someday.. I didn’t get to see much of downtown as a tourist, but living here has given me more time to join these walking tours when the city is quiet and you can really see more.

  • Louise

    Wow, Cairo looks totally different than what I was imagining! Actually, I don’t even know what I imagined it to look like since all I ever see is photos of the pyramids! lol. I would love to do a walking tour!
    I really need to make it to Egypt – I’ve been fascinated with the country ever since I was a child.

    • Dee

      I hope you’ll get to visit soon, Louise! I love the ancient Egyptian heritage, but there’s definitely a lot of recent history to discover as well.

  • maryannniemczura

    When I traveled to larger cities, I remained two weeks on the first visit. The first day or two I took organized tours, purchased a map and spent the remaining time exploring on my own. Always glad I knew places well. I saw those tour busses with tourists pressed to windows with cameras. No thank you.

  • alibey

    Great post. My favorite spot is the El Horreya bar/cafe in Bab el Louk. It’s quite seedy, but absolutely priceless, if you are into people watching, and the architecture is pure Belle Epoque gone decrepit!

  • wanderessence1025

    Having spent a month in Cairo in July of 2007, this piece brings back wonderful memories. I am definitely a fan of slow lingering travel, although I can’t always do it that way. But living abroad definitely makes it more possible to sink into a place and explore all the nooks and crannies. I look forward to reading more, Dee. Thanks for following my blog. ?

    • Dee

      I’m glad you have such wonderful memories of Cairo! I love slow travel and exploring cities more in depth.. I think even if there’s not a lot of time, it makes for a more meaningful trip when you’re not rushing from one attraction to another.

      • wanderessence1025

        I agree 100%. I wish I could linger more when I travel, but often we have to rush through the sights. It’s only when I’ve lived in a place that I’ve been able to explore more in depth. 🙂 I’d love to go back to Cairo one day!

  • kagould17

    Great post. I have never been to Cairo and it is nice to see other parts of the city than what are shown on the news. A walking tour is one of the est ways to learn about a city. A view from a bus window seldom tells the full story.

    • Dee

      Thank you! I do love walking tours, and there’s some great ones lately going around Cairo and its hidden gems.. It’s such a good way to get lots of photos as well.

  • joanne koo

    Ive been to Cairo twice in the 1990s for a conference and 2010 as a tourist. Love the Cairo Museum. Makes us humble to think about what theyve achieved in the past. But our local guide didnt do justice to the Cairo architecture.

    In Singapore, our architecture is also uniquely adapted to our climate. It rains a lot compared to China or the West where the early immigrants came from.

    • Dee

      There’s so much history in Egypt that the more recent architecture often gets overlooked because of all the ancient Egyptian sites there are to explore.. It really does take a lot of time to explore everything!

      I’m happy you enjoyed the Egyptian Museum – it’s such a humbling experience.

  • graffitiguru

    This is so awesome, thanks for sharing! As soon as I’m able to visit Egypt, I’ll definitely stop back by here for the recommendations. ?

  • chinacassy

    I was just starting to plan a trip to Egypt and I’m so happy you stopped by to like my page, which led me to look at yours! I love walking tours. Thanks for the great info!

  • Jane Czajka

    I love Downtown Cairo especially Tahrir Square and The Qasr El Nil Bridge! I think my favourite building is actually Abu Tarek restaurant!!! The Koshary is just perfect!

    • Dee

      It’s such a lively part of the city, and I love the architecture there as well.. Though for koshari, I much prefer Tom & Basal ;D

  • Abel

    Very interesting post. I hope to have the oportunity to visit this extraordinary city maybe in 2 or 3 years! For me right now but I can’t!

  • The Year I Touched My Toes

    Hi Dee,

    I arrived in Cairo on Christmas Day 1985 with an old college friend. Melissa and I had planned our trip while in the final year of university while working away in the course’s art studios together. I am glad it bore fruit because the trip was to prove pivotal in my life’s course.

    We saw the then tourist sites of Cairo and I remember being impressed and surprised by the Islamic and Coptic museums and of course loved the Egyptian Museum. We loved the Khan el Khalili Bazaar. I remember visiting a very famous perfume/ oil shop (with all the beautiful glass bottles) with a very old charming man who had worked there for years. Being served by this older gentleman was quite the theatrical experience.

    Of course this was well before the internet and our guide book was one from the famous Shoestring series. My friend Melissa and I were travelling independently and I took the El Nil train First class down to Aswan and worked our back up. Some parents press and travel agent family friend had been putting the pressure for us ( two young women alone) to travel first class, because it wasn’t my style to travel that way. I remember we travelled back in the cheaper trains because it hadn’t been pre booked. I won out on that one.

    At the time the Achille Laura Affair had not long happened .A few people in our lives wanted us to cancel our trip but we went anyway. As it turn out fortunately for me. We met an Aussie expat girl working in Cairo on a few days break in Aswan. The next day through her we met an Italian Australia holidaying from Milan. Eighteen months later he became my husband. A few months later we travelled through North West Africa for three months. We have been married 32 years later this year. So we owe a lot to an expat living in Cairo. Maybe you can start a side line match making business. What do you think? Louise

    • Dee

      Hi Louise, that’s such a great story! Thank you for sharing.. I was just reading a bit more about your “Valentine Trainer” over on your blog and it’s such an inspiring example of shared interests making for a long and happy marriage where the couple grows together and inspires each other.

      I remember my first trip to Egypt was a bit of a whirlwind and I only really got a sample of what I’d get to explore later on, as an expat..

      The expat community here is still really supportive, sociable and close-knit, which makes life in Cairo a lot more enjoyable and smooth when you’re living here and don’t know the language. We also tend to be welcoming of guests or anyone passing through – you can let your daughter know to get in touch if she wants to grab coffee while she’s here.. Though I don’t know how good any of us are at matchmaking! 😀

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