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.
The Alaa El Habashi Rare Books Library is tucked inside a restored 17th-century villa in Historic Cairo – and it houses hundreds of art, architecture and history books that you can browse by appointment.
Nestled in the historic Darb al-Ahmar district, just steps away from the Khayamiya market, this gorgeous library was created by architect Alaa El Habashi. It includes hundreds of volumes that El Habashi gathered from various book markets and collections across Cairo.
The library is inside Bayt Yakan, a restored 17th-century villa that El Habashi restored with his wife Ola Said, who’s also an architect. It was the couple’s years-long dream to restore a house in Islamic Cairo. And in 2009, they finally signed the deal on Bayt Yakan, which was being used by a nearby butcher at the time.
The library aims to preserve the legacy of Egyptian architecture and to create a space where today’s Egyptian architects can access their own history outside of the Western narrative.
How to plan it:
Book an appointment and spend a few hours browsing this gorgeous library. Don’t miss the gorgeous hand-painted late Baroque ceiling inside.
And wander around the gorgeous courtyard and Bayt Yakan itself with its Mamluk-style details, vaulted rooms and mashrabiyas.
There’s also a small cafe right at the Bayt Yakan entrance that’s great for watching the daily life inside this hidden gem district.
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:
This quiet park in Zamalek boasts underground grottoes, unique plant life and a cave filled with (harmless) shrieking bats.
Established in 1867, it was once a romantic rendezvous point for couples and a shooting location for old-time films. It was inspired by Italian garden design and served as a playground for Egyptian royalty.
Today, the Aquarium Grotto Garden is a green oasis in the bustling city. And though there are no more aquariums, the garden contains an odd assortment of mummified fish and sea snakes displayed in sealed jars.
There are passages and walkways made with real lime that are great for wandering. These structures dot the lush landscape and look like dripping candle wax with their bubbles and textures.
The Aquarium Grotto Garden is a popular family picnic spot on weekend. But I recommend it on weekdays when it’s quieter.
Come in the afternoon and you’ll spot fine arts students sketching the landscape. Have a coffee in the small seating area and stroll through the collection of exotic trees from Madagascar, Australia and Thailand.
8. Descend down the Nilometer
This ancient instrument that once measured the level of the Nile River (and predicted droughts and floods) is a hidden gem on the tip of Rhoda Island.
And you can view the full length of this grandiose column by descending a narrow winding stairway all the way to the bottom.
The Nilometer was built in 861 and it’s one of Cairo’s oldest structures. It’s topped by an elegant reconstructed dome (the French destroyed the original during their invasion of Egypt).
Before the Aswan Dam managed the mighty river, the Nilometer predicted the water levels. Only priests were allowed to access the mysterious instrument. And it was one of the mysteries of the Ancient Egyptian priesthood.
Don’t miss the kufic inscriptions on the upper reaches of the well. They’re the oldest Arabic inscriptions recorded in Egypt.
And take a minute to wander the grounds. The Nilometer is surrounded by greenery and has beautiful views of the Nile.
A guard will accompany you to the Nilometer as it’s usually kept shut between visits.
9. Hike the Cairo desert
Just a short ride from the Cairo suburbs, the Wadi Degla Protectorate is a deep valley surrounded by limestone cliffs and dotted with ancient fossils.
Hike this rugged landscape and stop for a BBQ picnic at this natural wonder that’s just a 20-minute taxi from Maadi.
You’ll find fossils, patches of petrified wood and seashells in this valley which was underwater in ancient times.
Climb to a summit for sweeping views of the city, seemingly miles away.
Wadi Degla is home to a wide array of migrant birds, plants and wildlife including deer, mountain rabbits, red foxes and Egyptian turtles.
Trails for hikers of all levels criss-cross Wadi Degla, including the main 10.5-kilometer trail that starts at the gate. But arrive early as the protectorate closes at 6 pm. And keep in mind that mobile coverage is poor to nonexistent.