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.
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.
Here are my picks for where to begin exploring:
1. 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.”
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:
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:
Architect Antonio Lasciac drew inspiration from Islamic and European architecture for this intricate building, originally constructed for an Italian insurance company.
5. EISH & MALH:
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.