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
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 a trendy art gallery, 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.
Rumours 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 rumours 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, 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.”
Established: 1900 Architect: Antonio Lasciac On Google Maps: Champlion Palace or Palace of Prince Said Pasha Halim, 362Q+35 Qasr El Nil
3. The Al-Demerdachiyya Building
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 neighbourhood that once housed cinemas, theaters and cafes.
The seven-story building now contains mostly offices and a few residential units.
And while it’s not exactly a stand-out when seen from the street – it blends into the belle epoque style architecture of downtown – it has a great central court with tall floors packed with curved balconies.
If you’re in the neighbourhood, the doorman will likely let you peak inside the courtyard.
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 that was 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.
Established: 1929 Architect: Leon Nafilyan On Google Maps: 26XQ+7M Abdeen
5. Cinema Radio
The Cinema Radio once housed the city’s largest screen where Egypt’s most prominent films premiered to an audience of glittering celebrities.
The facade is lined with vertical pillars and 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.
The cinema was divided into two smaller theaters in the 1970s. After its showings came to a halt in the 2000s, Cinema Radio was acquired by Al Ismaelia for Real Estate Development in 2009 with plans to revive its legacy.
Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef famously used the venue for his controversial satirical news show in 2011 (filmed in front of a live audience).
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 available for rent.
Past the massive neon sight, a short passage leads into a courtyard and the cinema’s front doors. Inside, the theatres feel luxurious with dinner table seating and plush red velvet curtains.
Cinema Radio is awaiting its transformation into a multi-purpose entertainment venue that’s set to include a theatrical nightclub reviving Egypt’s 1950s to 70s, dining and cafes.
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, intricate balconies, arched windows, wooden elements 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.
Established: 1911 Architect: Antonio Lasciac On Google Maps: 26XR+7G Abdeen
7. Eish & Malh cafe
Eish & Malh is a hip Italian Restaurant and cafe that’s part of the recent revitalization and refresh of downtown.
The owners say they wanted a spot for great food in their home city. And Eish & Malh (Arabic for “bread and salt”) is brilliant for an afternoon espresso or thin crust pizza.
And though it’s not technically an iconic downtown building, I’d recommend it as a wonderful spot to unwind. It’s also a great example of how a grey downtown space can be given new life.
Eish & Malh regularly hosts fun and original events like Dinner & Jazz that make it both an eatery and a favorite local hangout. They host dinners with oud and regular live music – it’s worth checking their Facebook page for upcoming events.
And Eish & Malh is right at the Kodak Passageway, a once drab alleyway that’s been transformed into a pop-up gallery space and pedestrian walkway.
The Kodak Passageway features benches, greenery and some original art deco lighting. It’s definitely worth a stroll and a browse inside the boutiques and old staircases.
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.
Established: 1940 Architects: Gaston Rossi and Max Edrei On Google Maps: 26XR+GR Abdeen
9. Shurbagi Building (aka Davies Bryan Building)
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 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 blending 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.
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.
Established: 1912 Architect: Robert Williams On Google Maps: 362V+8R Abdeen
10. Egyptian Diplomatic Club
This gleaming neo-classical gem is an exclusive club for the city’s elites, where the diplomatic community gathers amid luxurious antiques under a sumptous 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, for whom the club was originally named.
After the 1952 revolution, the state transformed the club into a venue for the diplomatic circle. However it still retains its regal decor and nostalgic atmosphere.
Today it hosts gatherings and conferences for diplomats.
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.
Established: 1909 Architects: Aristide Leonori On Google Maps:26XV+4G Abdeen
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 facade is a gorgeous pastel blue with ornate white flourishes and detailing. The five-floor building sits on the corner of Sherif Street and Abdel Khalek Tharwat, and boasts a rooftop overlooking the city.
The building was renovated in 2016 by Al Ismaelia and has since served as a backdrop for photoshoots and films. It’s also home to several bank chains.
Best of all, there’s a branch of the Egyptian pastry chain La Poire on the ground floor. It’s a beautiful spot to take a breather from sightseeing with some oriental sweets or a slice of chocolate cake.
This beautiful orange ochre building, with its Venetian-style windows, is the crowning glory of downtown’s Mustafa Kamel Square.
It was built in 1897 by architect Antonio Lasciac in an Italian NeoRenaissance style.
The Suares Building was the residence of banker Raphael Suares from 1844-1906.
The building was also used to host the Italian social club Circolo del Risotto (The Risotto Club).
Established: 1897 Architect: Antonio Lasciac On Google Maps:26XV+QM Abdeen
14. Talaat Harb Square
Talaat Harb Square is filled with shops, ornate balconies and buzzing traffic. It’s a real taste of downtown’s French neoclassical architecture and vibrant atmosphere.
This square boasts a statue in the center of its namesake Egyptian entrepreneur Talaat Harb, founder of the country’s first Egyptian bank. It’s one of the city’s most iconic squares and always clogged with honking traffic. Historically it’s been the site of numerous demonstrations.
There’s plenty of good shopping for bookworms: browse the Madbouly Bookshop and Shorouk Bookstore for a great selection of English-language titles and books about Egypt. And stop at Sindbad for a glass of mango or sugar cane juice.
Talaat Harb Square is also home to legendary tearoom Groppi’s, though the iconic chocolatier has been under renovation for years.
The square branches out into 6 different streets, including downtown’s most famous shopping destination Talaat Harb Street (home of dozens of shoe and clothing stores). If you start at the square and walk down Talaat Harb Street, you’ll arrive at Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum.
The historic Kasr el Nil Bridge is another must-see in downtown for great Nile views and Khedive history.
The bridge connects downtown’s Tahrir Square to Gezira Island and the Cairo Opera House.
It’s clogged with traffic during the day, and popular in the evenings for young people and Egyptian couples. It’s always vibrant with street vendors selling roasted nuts and the blaring music of party boats passing along the river.
The Kasr el Nil Bridge dates to 1931. It was constructed by Dorman Long & Co. Ltd with hardware and equipment imported from Britain. Some 3,700 tons of steel from Yorkshire were used during construction.
King Fuad I laid the first stone and the new structure replaced the first bridge to span the Nile.
The Kasr el Nil bridge boasts four famous large bronze lion statues (two at each entrance), designed by French sculptor Henri Alfred Jacquemart.
The lions were made in France and transported to Cairo via Alexandria. They were first intended for the Giza Zoo, but ended up adorning the bridge instead.
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.
Sail on a felucca
An invigorating sail along the river in downtown Cairo is a great way to take in the city lights along the peaceful Nile waters.
You can also bring your own food on board for an evening meal, or get a group of friends for dinner with a view.
A felucca is a small traditional wooden sailboat used in the Mediterranean region. You can rent them (crewed by a local sailor) at hourly rates from a few spots around the Kasr el Nil Bridge.
There’s also another spot for felucca rentals in the quieter suburb of Maadi, near the Grand Cafe, that’s better for nature and distant views of downtown.
Neon party boats blasting loud music are also widely popular. But I recommend the calmer and wind-powered felucca.
You can book a felucca sail online from a travel agency. Or just head to the Kasr el Nil bridge to the felucca stands and negotiate your own rate with the captain.
With a bit more planning, you can also book a longer felucca sail around the ancient Egyptian monuments in Upper Egypt. I once took a three-day sail from Aswan on a felucca and it was the experience of a lifetime.
For a more luxurious experience, book a dahabeya – a two-masted sailboat that’s bigger than a felucca. Travel agencies all offer such sailing experiences.
Downtown Cairo restaurants
It seems all tour guides takes their groups to this popular downtown eatery. And they’ve got a point.
Felfela is a historic restaurant dating back to 1959 that oozes charm. There’s plenty of seating, and lots of ambience amid the draping vines and chirping birds.
The food is good (but not great) and the menu has a wide selection of all the Egyptian classics including ful, falafel and lots of vegetarian options. There’s beer on the menu too – perfect for a leisurely lunch.
This adorable eatery has a cozy atmosphere and great traditional food from the Egyptian kitchen. You’ll also find pizza, Middle Eastern dishes and great coffee amid a relaxed atmosphere.
Oldish is popular with a younger crowd and students from the nearby AUC campus. You’ll also spot some great murals nearby from the city’s revolutionary past.
Downtown has lots of incredible street food.
For a taste of koshari, Egypt’s incredible (and vegan) national dish that combines pasta, lentils, tomato sauce, fried onions and more, head to the overrated but reliable Koshary Abou Tarek or the very decent Koshari al-Tahrir.
Head to Gad for delicious ful and falafel sandwiches, shakshouka, lentil soup and more.
For more luxury dining, you’ll want to head to suburbs like Heliopolis or New Cairo, which boast some of the city’s finest restaurants.
But if you want an excellent meal without leaving downtown then head to the Nile Ritz-Carlton in Tahrir Square. This hotel boasts the excellent Italian restaurant Vivo, and Culina – a Mediterranean restaurant with some Egyptian dishes on the menu.
Read more about Downtown Cairo
Here’s where to learn more and plan your next trip:
Discovering Downtown Cairo: Architecture and Stories (Jovis, 2015)
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 and historic buildings. There are also lots of anecdotes from local residents.
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.