From thrifting to visiting animal shelters to pottery classes, here are the best unique and unusual things to do in Cairo.
For many tourists, Cairo means the pyramids, medieval souqs and minarets.
But the best experiences are often off the beaten path. They’ll get you in touch with the local culture and give you an authentic look at Cairo life.
Though it’s not always easy to find these out-of-the-box adventures. Most guide books focus on Cairo’s famous tourist attractions – and there are plenty of those.
But if you’re looking for something really original to do in Cairo, then this is my ultimate guide.
I’m an expat living for a decade in Cairo and I’ve been lucky to experience the city off the beaten path.
And I’d definitely recommend adding some of those more quirky activities to your Cairo sightseeing itinerary.
Here are my picks for the best unique things to do in Cairo – and how to plan your trip.
1. Go thrifting at a historic market
The centuries-old Wekala market is a bustling spot in downtown Cairo with rows and rows of used clothing – and some incredible hidden gems.
You’ll find all the usual fast fashion labels alongside some unique European and local brands – including a good selection of maxi dresses from Egypt and across the region with traditional prints and embroidery. If you’re patient you’ll even score the occasional high fashion find (like Kenzo or Galiano) tucked between the racks.
Wekala is right underneath the massive 26th of July bridge (which goes across the Nile into Zamalek) and the area is surrounded by old apartments with wooden shudders, historic mosques and the Royal Chariots Museum.
It’s a great spot to experience a lively Cairo shopping district – and all the prices are clearly market so you don’t have to haggle.
All prices are marked in Arabic numerals, so use this as reference:
Wekala has a centuries-old history that dates back to the 1880s. It was once the center of a thriving date market. In Arabic it’s called Wekala el Balah, or “the market of dates”.
Today it’s in the working-class district of Boulaq right across the river from the upscale Zamalek neighbourhood. One Egyptian film famously features a woman from Boulaq. She has her love interest drop her off in Zamalek and then walks home across the bridge to Boulaq, so he won’t know where she really lives.
Is Wekala dangerous? Definitely not. But it does get packed so be mindful of your surroundings and keep your belongings secure.
How to plan it:
Take an Uber to the base of the 26th of July bridge in Boulaq. Most drivers will know if you tell them “Wekala.”
But it’s better to have a drop-off point to type into Google. So use this mosque right across the street or the Royal Chariots Museum as your destination. Once you’re there, head to the street Bolak Al Gadida – it’s the market’s main thouroughfare and you’ll find tons of shops there.
Artist and YouTuber Noran Elbannan organizes the occasional trip to Wekala if you want some company – and she’s a fun and reliable guide through the market. Get in touch with her on Instagram about upcoming trips.
2. Explore the City of the Dead
This misunderstood district is full of architectural gems, splendid mosques from the Mamluk era and graveyards amid modern apartment blocks.
It’s shrouded in some spooky stereotypes, but it’s a great place to shop for handmade souvenirs, explore medieval mosques and see some brilliant murals.
The City of the Dead is an Islamic necropolis that’s an 8-kilometer stretch of tombs and mausoleums.
Its residents began to arrive in the 1950s when renewal projects forced them out of central Cairo into the suburbs. Today it doesn’t look much different today than other Cairo districts. There are tall apartment blocks, vegetable markets, schools, workshops and post offices.
But there’s a vibe in the City of the Dead that you won’t find elsewhere. It’s quiet compared to most of Cairo and the locals are friendly.
Start at MASQ, a cultural center that hosts concerts, workshops and Sultan’s fairs. Check their Facebook page for upcoming events. And don’t miss the murals surrounding the Maq’ad and the workshops where you can watch glassblowers at work and buy handicrafts like vases, Christmas ornaments and cups.
Walk down El Souq Street and you’ll spot an elaborate Mamluk archway peaking out from modern apartment blocks. The street is lined with historic mosques and domes.
The City of the Dead is a UNESCO heritage site with some 30 Mamluk monuments. It also includes Ottoman and 19th century tombs of historic value that are largely unknown.
See the Egyptian stock exchange on a sidestreet lined with potted plants. Have a cappuccino at Eish & Malh for a look at an old restored building. And take a peek inside the Yacoubian Building, the setting for Alaa Al-Aswany’s infamous novel depicting homosexuality.
Walk through the city’s famous squares like Tahrir and Talaat Harb, and tour the heritage sites and old cinemas that made Egyptian films famous in the Arab world.
A walking tour of downtown Cairo offer you insights into buzy, modern Cairo life. Indulge in some street food, stop at the local bar Horryia for a beer or browse some hip galleries with contemporary Egyptian art.
How to plan it:
Cairo D-Tour holds free guided walks every Friday morning through downtown.
From Nile sunsets to old leafy villas, Cairo has some incredible studios for a yoga session with a view.
Take a break from your sightseeing with some yoga or meditation on a terrace surrounded by leafy palms. Or take a daytrip and go on a yoga retreat to explore Egyptian gems like Saqqara in a laid-back, zen vibe.
How to plan it:
Yoga With Amr is my favorite go-to for retreats that mix the serenity of yoga with the wonder of travel. Amr organizes retreats to locations like the pyramids of Saqqara (a day trip from Cairo). He also offers longer retreats to stunning destinations like the Siwa Oasis (above) and the Sinai mountains. Check Amr’s Facebook page for upcoming retreats, and read about his yoga retreat in Siwa.
Nestled in an old Zamalek villa that’s bursting with lush greenery, Nun Center is an oasis in the city. From yoga and meditation to massage treatments and a shop selling organic products, Nun Center is part studio and part Cairo health hub.
Just on the outskirts of Cairo, Ardi Dahshur is a gorgeous space for yoga retreats. It has a swimming pool surrounded by palms and beautiful rooms with domed ceilings.
Osana in Maadi has a studio with a tree growing right through it, plenty of leafy outdoor yoga space and a wholefood cafe. It’s also very family-friendly with fun workshops and activities for kids.
5. Visit a rural island – in the middle of the city
Dahab Island is a rural oasis in the middle of bustling Cairo with idyllic fiends of green onions and papyrus plants growing along the Nile.
The island doesn’t have much infrastructure like restaurants or hotels, but there’s a great cafe for amazing sunsets and a relaxed, rural vibe that’s a world away from the city – yet just a short boat ride from mainland Cairo.
Spend a day wandering this island with its humble homes and fields of greens for an extraordinary look at a seldom-seen side of Cairo.
There’s even a Dahab Island Palace that hosts wedding, and the occasional dinner event or yoga retreat.
How to plan it:
Dahab Island is a bit tricky to visit. The locals are very friendly but they can be a bit weary of outsiders too. They’re no strangers to the local headlines – they’re sitting on some very expensive real estate that’s been the target of developers.
But if you do manage to visit, they are also extremely welcoming and kind.
Though getting there isn’t easy. I visited Dahab Island with Redefine Egypt – a small community that offers walking tours around Cairo and trips off the beaten path. They go to the island sometimes but not very regularly.
Your best bet is to go with an Egyptian friend or an open-minded tour guide. If you know a little Arabic, you can just go on your own.
Head to the El Monieb Bus Station, and from there get directions to the felucca (traditional sailboat) station that serves as a water taxi taking people to and from the island.
6. Spend a day at an animal shelter
If you’re an animal lover, spend a day at a Cairo animal shelter that takes in the city’s lovable street dogs and stray cats. You can volunteer, make a donation or even adopt your new best friend.
Many of the city’s animal shelters are on the outskirts of Cairo in Saqqara, where land is plentiful and cheap for these sanctuaries. Saqqara is also known for its pyramids so you can pair a visit to the shelter with some sightseeing.
Street dogs and cats face a difficult plight in Cairo – many consider them dirty or dangerous. And sometimes there are even campaigns to poison street dogs to reduce their numbers.
A visit to an animal shelter offers a heartwarming chance to bond with these animals – and the people fighting to protect them.
How to plan it:
Meow Tours (above) offers trips to local shelters around Cairo and walking tours to feed the stray cats and dogs that are so common in the city. Check their social media for upcoming events.
To arrange your own visit, here are some of the best animal shelters around Cairo: