cairo hidden gems zamalek
|

15 Incredible Hidden Gems in Cairo (A Local’s Guide)

Sightseeing in Cairo is usually a rushed affair. There’s a lot to see and it’s often packed into a one-day itinerary that pushes tourists through the major sites.

And travelers often get stuck in tourist traps because there’s not much info about Cairo beyond the major attractions.

A friend of mine visiting from Britain signed up for a Nile cruise with dinner one night because it sounded like a good time. But after a stale buffet and a performance by an Eastern European belly dancer, she joked that she’d thought about jumping into the Nile.

And this kind of thing happens all too often. 

But if you want a well-rounded image of modern-day Cairo, then visit some hidden gems and get to know the city’s daily life.

Explore the Cairo of small museums, quirky bookshops, scenic parks and hip cafes.

I’m an expat living for over a decade in Cairo, and this is my ultimate guide to the Cairo I’ve discovered beyond the typical tourist itinerary.

It’s the city outside the oriental stereotypes and itineraries for the masses.

Here are the top must-see hidden gems in Cairo:

1. Live music venues

Darb 1718

Darb 1718

Cairo has a great music scene – whether you’re into authentic Egyptian folk music, smooth jazz ensembles or Pink Floyd cover bands.

A night of some Egyptian live music is one of the best things to do in Cairo at night. (and it sure beats belly dance dinner cruises).

Head to Makan Egyptian Center for Culture and Art for traditional music from across Egypt. This downtown venue hosts everything from Zar music (a music believed to heal women from unwanted spirits) to folkloric ensembles and mystical troupes.

El Sawy Culture Wheel in Zamalek has rock bands, rap music and lots of great local bands from Egyptian street favorites to cover bands.

And nothing beats Cairo Jazz Club for a night of cocktails, lively crowds on the dance floor and DJs playing all the best techno and dance music.

2. Garbage City

cave church cairo

Garbage City is a maligned neighborhood that’s home to the city’s trash collectors – most of whom are Coptic Christians. And it boasts some incredible hidden gems including a church nestled inside a cave and award-winning recycling initiatives.

The locals are some of the friendliest you’ll meet in Cairo. If you want real human interactions with Egyptians (and not just with souvenir salesmen) then you can’t do better than a day trip to Manshiyat Nasser (as it’s known locally).

Manshiyat Nasser recycles an astounding 80-90% of the garbage it collects from homes across greater Cairo, compared to 40% recycled in most Western countries.

garbage city cairo

Insider’s tip: Get a good tour guide who knows the district well – and who’ll take you around beyond the Cave Church.

Start at the Cave Church, the neighborhood’s best-known landmark. The enormous church is tucked deep inside a natural cave and holds up to 20,000 worshipers.

Don’t miss the breathtaking mural by Tunisian-French artist eL Seed right across the street. It spans across nearly 50 buildings and makes a powerful statement about the misconceptions surrounding this district.

Read 9 Incredible Things To Do In Garbage City, Cairo and An Ultimate Guide To The Cave Church, Cairo (By A Local) to plan your trip.

3. Nile Zamalek Hotel Roof Top, Zamalek

rooftop bar zamalek cairo

open 12pm to 1am | on the map

The Nile Zamalek is a two-star hotel with five-star views on its rooftop.

It’s often filled with expats and locals enjoying Nile views and beers in the sun.

It’s tattered around the edges with vintage beer posters and chandeliers made from beer bottles. But the atmosphere is great, especially in the summer when it’s breezy and cool.

Try Stella, an Egyptian lager, or Sakara Gold, a lighter beer perfect for summer afternoons. The menu is good for snacks but not much else.

The Nile Zamalek Hotel is on the island of Zamalek in a leafy residential neighborhood that I’d consider one of the prettiest in Cairo. It’s not close to any major tourist attractions. But I can’t recommend Zamalek enough for art galleries, vibrant cafes and modern yet authentic souvenirs.

The Nile corniche is nearby, so have a stroll along the river and browse Zamalek’s many antique shops and boutiques.

Read 14 Best Things To Do In Zamalek (A Local’s Guide) to plan your trip.

4. The City of the Dead

city of the dead cairo

city of the dead cairo

When I first visited Cairo, our tour guide spoke about The City of the Dead in hushed tones as we drove past. He dropped sexy keywords like “criminals in hiding” and “people living among the graves” – perhaps to make the tour more exciting.

Now I know better.

I love this place for MASQ, a cultural center that hosts concerts, workshops and events, and the murals and graffiti surrounding the Maq’ad. The mouse reappearing on different walls (here holding a Pharaonic cat by a chain, there with a can of spray paint) is the work of Polish graffiti artist Franek Mysza.

The neighborhood – a necropolis and a UNESCO heritage site – is full of architectural gems, splendid mosques from the Mamluk era, and graveyards amid modern apartment blocks.

It’s also a great place to shop for handmade and authentic crafts like glass-blown vases and cups, which the neighborhood is known for. Head to HodHod Glass right across from the Sultan Qaitbey Mosque for the best shopping.

Many taxi drivers have trouble down the winding streets of this off the beaten path destination. Your best bet is to take an Uber to the Qaytbay Mosque (here on the map) and start your walk there (MASQ and HodHod Glass are both next door).

Read 9 Things To Do In Cairo’s City Of The Dead to plan your trip.

5. Gayer-Anderson Museum, Sayida Zeinab

gayer anderson museum

gayer anderson museum

tickets: 60 EGP | open 9am to 5pm | on the map

The Gayer-Anderson Museum is a well-preserved residence from the 17th century full of artwork, furniture, antiquities and curiosities.

It was once the home of eccentric Irish Egyptologist Gayer-Anderson Pasha, who lived there in the 1930s and 40s.

The museum is an all-encompassing step back in time and a fascinating look at domestic life and architecture in medieval Cairo. There are dozens of rooms and curio to explore, from a haram room (used by the wives and children of the house) to a secret chamber used as a hiding place (for people or things).

Don’t miss the famous bronze Ancient Egyptian cat and the breezy courtyard.

The roof garden with its elaborate mashrabiyas was featured in the James Bond classic The Spy Who Loved Me. The rooftop also offers great views of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, another less-visited gem with a spiral minaret that’s just next door.

Read The Gayer-Anderson Museum: An Ultimate Guide to plan your trip.

6. Access Art Space, downtown

townhouse gallery cairo

townhouse gallery cairo

free | open 12pm to 9pm | on the map

Access Art Space has exhibits of modern art and sculpture, and a shop full of quirky souvenirs featuring imagery from Egyptian pop culture.

Outside there’s a colorful mural of Arabic calligraphy. And the gallery shop has handmade jewelry and original finds like stationary printed with old Arabic-language Mickey Mouse comics and Cairo’s classic metro tickets.

The gallery is a lively and bright space to see modern Egyptian art and browse some up-and-coming artists.

Relax with a shisha in the evening at one of the surrounding cafes.

Read 18 Incredible Things To Do In Downtown Cairo (A Local’s Guide) to plan your trip.

7. Said Halim Pasha Palace, downtown

said halim palace cairo

champlion palace cairo

free | on the map

This abandoned palace is a splendid example of Cairo’s fin de siecle opulence – now turned to dusty decay.

Walk around the building (which covers 1,800 square meters) to marvel at the crumbling regal architecture. The palace itself is closed, but you can see the whole building through the gate.

Insider’s tip: It’s about a 2-minute walk from Access Art Space, and a brief stroll from Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum.

It was built for the Ottoman statesman Said Halim Pasha by Slovanian-Italian architect Antonio Lasciac, the builder of palaces in Cairo and Istanbul.

The Said Halim Palace (aka Champlion Palace) was later turned into a boys’ school after nationalization.

It stands empty today but gets attention as a stop on local walking tours through downtown Cairo. The palace is surrounded by mechanics shops, street cafes and garages, and makes a surreal sight

Read 14 Must-See Buildings in Downtown Cairo to plan your trip.

8. Abdeen Palace Museum, downtown

abdeen palace cairo

abdeen palace

tickets: 100 EGP | open 9am to 3pmon the map

Abdeen Palace was built in 1863 for Egypt’s royal family and later served as the president’s residency.

It’s a sumptuous palace filled with paintings, clocks decorated with gold and millions of francs worth of Parisian furniture. Its 500 suites contain presidential gifts and royal treasures from the reigns of Egypt’s leaders.

The palace’s lower floors are a museum today, housing a vast silverware collection including royal porcelain and table services. There’s also an arms collection, and another collection devoted to the royal family.

And there are plenty of curiosities for history buffs, including a collection of presidential gifts given to Egyptian leaders and Hosni Mubarak, the last president to reside at the palace. The gifts include jewels and a Japanese model of a Samurai crown.

There’s also an odd collection of American buttons that King Farouk liked to collect, all pinned up on display.

Read The Abdeen Palace Museum: A Visitor’s Guide to plan your trip.

9. Al Horreya Cafe, downtown

cairo hidden gems

hidden gems in cairo

open 2pm to 5am | on the map

This run-down bar packs a weathered charm that’s popular with downtown locals, artists and expats.

There’s tea and coffee in the front of the cafe, where locals gather to play chess, and cold beers in the back section including favorite local lagers Stella and Sakara.

Insider tip: Head to Al-Yemeni Cafe nearby to stock up on some amazing ground coffee with cardamon. For fast food, there’s Gad a few doors down that serves great street food and falafel (aka ta’ameya).

NGO workers, locals and friends pack the bar on weekends. It’s a great spot in downtown to enjoy a cold beer – and it’s open until 5 am.

But tread lightly on humid summer days. The AC isn’t great though the beer is ice cold and the service is friendly.

Read 18 Incredible Things To Do In Downtown Cairo (A Local’s Guide) to plan your trip.

10. AUC Bookstore, downtown

auc bookstore cairo

auc bookstore cairo

open 10am to 6pm, except Fridays | on the map

This bookstore, attached to the American University in Cairo, offers an amazing selection of books on Egypt and the Arab world published by AUC Press. And it’s about a 10-minute walk from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir.

There’s everything from coffee table books on Egyptology to in-depth studies of Ancient Egypt and modern-day guides to Cairo.

Start here if you want to learn more about Egyptian culture – or if you want info on the places you’ll be visiting on your trip.

There are cookbooks filled with traditional Egyptian dishes, workbooks to help you learn Arabic and accounts of the January 25th uprising. There’s also a great selection of English-language books, whether you’re looking for the latest bestseller or a favorite classic.

And there’s a great selection of Arab literature in translation, too.

I recommend anything by Naguib Mahfouz to start. He’s the recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature and all his works are seeped in Egyptian life.

Read 18 Incredible Things To Do In Downtown Cairo (A Local’s Guide) to plan your trip.

11. Cairo Opera House, Zamalek

cairo hidden gems

cairo opera house

The small hall is a great alternative to the main hall’s grand ballets and opera.

Tickets are a real bargain, and the wood-paneled walls and 500-people capacity feels like a private concert.

The repertoire includes piano recitals, chamber music and cultural evenings of oriental and Egyptian music. It’s atmospheric, intimate and rarely packed.

Browse the schedule of performances on the opera house website, and get your tickets online. This means a trip to the box office well before the show. Though there’s a cafe, museum and gallery inside the opera house complex to pass the time.

After the performance, walk down the Kasr Al Nile Bridge towards downtown for some pretty views of the Nile River.

Read 14 Best Things To Do In Zamalek (A Local’s Guide) to plan your trip.

12. Azhar Park, Darb al-Ahmar

azhar park cairo

azhar park cairo

tickets: 40 EGP | open 9am to 10pm | on the map

Azhar Park is a perfect getaway from the bustle of the city.

This sprawling public park, adjacent to Islamic Cairo, boasts green rolling hills, water fountains and gardens. And it’s all build atop of what was once a mount of refuse and ruins.

There are rows of palm trees and a crystal lake. There’s also an observation point with binoculars and great views over Islamic Cairo and its historic minarets. A restored Ayyubid wall – built by Salah El Din some 800 years ago – stretches across one side of the park.

There are various snack stands throughout the park. For a more leisurely meal, head to the Lakeside Cafe for waterside dining.

Studio Misr is a fantastic restaurant with classic Egyptian decor and views of the nearby Cairo Citadel.

Azhar Park is 20 minutes by taxi from Islamic Cairo and Khan el Khalili. It’s also 15 minutes away (in the other direction) from the Cairo Citadel.

But avoid weekends and national holidays because it gets very packed and loud.

Read An Ultimate Guide To Al Azhar Park to plan your trip.

13. Nilometer, Rhoda Island

hidden gems in cairo

nilometer cairo

tickets: 100 EGP | open 9 am to 5 pm | on the map 

The Nilometer, built in 861 AD, once measured the flood levels of the Nile River.

It predicted famine, harvest or flood for the nation’s farmers. It served as a kind of giant ruler to measure water levels.

Today the Nilometer is one of Cairo’s oldest structures. You can view the full length of the grandiose column by descending a narrow winding stairway.

It’s topped by an elegant reconstructed dome (the French destroyed the original during their invasion of Egypt).

And it’s just next door is the Umm Kulthum Museum, where you’ll find curiosities from the life and times of the iconic Egyptian singer.

14. Aquarium Grotto Garden, Zamalek

Aquarium Grotto Garden

Aquarium Grotto Garden

tickets: 20 EGP | 9am to 5:30pm | on the map

The Aquarium Grotto Garden is a quiet park that 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.

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.

Read 14 Best Things To Do In Zamalek (A Local’s Guide) to plan your trip.

15. Khalil Museum

khalil museum cairo

khalil museum renoir

tickets: 30 EGP | open 10am to 3pm, except Fridays | on the map

The Khalil Museum is a museum inside a Nile-side palace that houses an Impressionist collection to rival European exhibits.

It’s not what you’d expect from a city known for historic mosques and Ancient Egyptian artifacts.

But it’s a true Cairo hidden gem with its vast collection of Impressionist paintings, porcelain and miniatures.

The Khalil Museum is a touching labor of love by an Egyptian politician and his French wife, brought together by their shared love of art. It’s a fascinating look into Egypt’s royal history. And it’s a rare chance to see masters like Monet and Renoir in a more intimate setting.

The museum contains a massive collection of Impressionists gathered by the couple over the years and amassed inside their Nile-side palace. But they never dreamed it would someday become a destination for art lovers.

Highlights include Rodin sculptures, Monet’s Water Lilies, several orientalist paintings of Egyptian landscapes and masterpieces by Gauguin, Degas, Pissarro and Renoir.

Read 12 Must-See Things At The Khalil Museum to plan your trip.

Explore hidden gems inside Islamic Cairo

Blue tiles fill the qibla wall of the Blue Mosque in Islamic Cairo.

Two images show a tour of Darb al Ahmar. On the left is Dee sitting inside a golf cart and smiling during a tour. On the right is Dee's hand holding the Darb al Ahmar touristic route ticket.

Al Darb al-Ahmar is a vibrant working-class neighborhood in Islamic Cairo that has both 1) splendid historical monuments and 2) an authentic, non-touristy atmosphere.

And it’s right next to Moez Street and Azhar Park, which means you can combine your Cairo sightseeing with some exploring off the beaten path.

Read Islamic Cairo: A Walking Tour (+ Must-See Hidden Gems) to plan your visit.

Unique things to do in Cairo

redefine egypt tour

From thrifting to visiting animal shelters to pottery classes, there’s a lot of unique and offbeat things to do in Cairo. And getting off the beaten path is a great way to meet locals and get some unforgettable experiences.

Read 10 Unique Things To Do In Cairo (A Local’s Guide!) to plan your trip.

More Resources

The Perfect One-Day Cairo Itinerary (A Local’s Guide!)

14 Best Things To Do In Zamalek, Cairo

9 Best Things To Do In Garbage City, Cairo