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. But 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 into downtown for business. And 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 the weekend starts. It’s the best time to see these architectural gems without the crowds.
Cairo’s modern history
Egypt boasts a history going back thousands of years. But 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 that set them apart from Western counterparts.
Here are my picks for where to begin exploring:
1. The Egyptian Museum
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 worth seeing.
But if you’re an architecture lover, the building itself is also worth notice.
It’s a stand-out in Tahrir Square with its salmon-colored facade adorned with white ornamentation 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 permanent, bigger museum with proper ventilation and lighting.
An international competition was held in 1895 for proposals that combine aesthetics with function.
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 down 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 and was the region’s first national museum – and the first purpose-built museum in Africa.
Through the museum
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 – or a waiter on break – 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.
The museum has a basement used for storage, built with intersecting vaults designed to carry the load of the colossal statues displayed above.
The two main floors offer a staggering collection going from pre-dynastic times through the Greco-Roman period.
A dome that lets in natural light greets you past the entrance. This space is made to recall ancient Egyptian temples with its soft flow of light – and the focal point is a huge statue of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiy.
The museum’s double-height rooms, with mezzanines and a glass ceiling, illuminate the two-floor building with an airy feel that never feels cramped even amid the massive collection 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.
Established: 1902 Architect: Marcel Dourgnon On Google Maps: The Egyptian Museum, 26XM+2C Qasr El Nil
2. Said Halim Palace
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.”
3. The Al-Demerdachiyya Building
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.
4. Baehler Passage
The Baehler Passage is full or ornate arches and shops that were once home to premium boutiques, haberdasheries, fine lingerie and high-end men’s wear.
5. Cinema Radio
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.
6. The Assicurazioni Generali building
Architect Antonio Lasciac drew inspiration from Islamic and European architecture for this intricate building, originally constructed for an Italian insurance company.
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.
8. Immobilia Building
This modernist marvel, built from 1938-40, boasts 18 floors and stands 70 metres high. It was Cairo’s first high-rise and sparked its share of controversy it its day.
9. Shurbagi Building
Built by two brothers from Wales, the Shurbagi Building was once a line of shops, then it became an insurance company before it was bought and restored by a real estate company.
10. Egyptian Diplomatic Club
Once known as the Mohamed Ali Club, this building was an exclusive club for Cairo’s elites.
Today it hosts gatherings and conferences for the city’s diplomatic community.
11. St. Joseph’s Church
Dating back to 1909, this Florentine-style church was once the main place of worship for Cairo’s community of Italian immigrants.
12. 33 Sherif Street
Built in 1913 in a Neo Baroque style, this building at 33 Sherif Street is one of the oldest and most ornate in downtown.
It’s also a great example of the restoration efforts happening in the area.
The building was renovated in 2016 and has since served as a backdrop for filmmakers and artists. It’s also home to several bank chains and a branch of the La Poire Cafe.
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 and plan your next trip:
This 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.