12 Must-See Hidden Gems in Cairo (A Local’s Guide)
Get off the beaten path and discover the city beyond the stereotypes. Here are my picks for the best must-see hidden gems in Cairo.
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 without any depth.
Do you think travel broadens the mind? A friend once told me about a couple she knew who visited Cairo and still insisted that all Egyptians ride camels. Apparently this couple flew in at night, went straight to Giza for a day and then flew to Luxor, none the wiser.
Independent travellers get stuck in tourist traps because there’s not much info online 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.
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.
This is the Cairo of small museums, quirky bookshops, scenic parks and hip galleries. It’s the Cairo I’ve gotten to know in my 7 years (and counting) of living here as an expat.
It’s the city outside the oriental stereotypes and the budget itineraries for the masses. The city you’ll show on Instagram and get DMs saying, “I didn’t know they had that in Egypt.”
Here are the top must-see hidden gems in Cairo:
1. Darb 1718, Old Cairo
Darb is a culture center that offers exhibits of contemporary Egyptian art in the heart of Old Cairo.
When the weather’s nice, there are rooftop concerts by anyone from Pink Floyd cover bands to Egyptian folk-inspired jazz. In the summers there are films and movie festivals in the small garden where you can sit back on bean bags and catch some subtitled masterpieces.
Fustat was Egypt’s first capital known for its pottery. And Darb offers ceramic workshops where you can learn this ancient craft. It’s an artsy hotspot in a neighborhood filled with mechanics workshops and shisha cafes.
Need to know:
The basics: Sign up for the workshops on Darb’s website and check their Facebook page for upcoming events.
Within walking distance: Darb is in Old Cairo, about a 5-minute walk from famous landmarks like the Hanging Church, the Coptic Museum, the Church of St.George and the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As. It’s a perfect artsy addition to your sightseeing itinerary in Fustat.
How to get there: Darb is a 5-minute walk from the Mar Girgis metrostation, or find it on Google Maps (263J+7P Old Cairo).
Insider tip: Browse the pottery workshops around Darb to find some sleek and colorful pottery or watch the potters at work.
2. Nile Zamalek Hotel Roof Top, Zamalek
The Nile Zamalek is a two-star hotel with five-star views on its rooftop.
It’s often filled with Zamalek 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.
Within walking distance: The Nile Zamalek Hotel is on the island of Zamalek in a leafy residential neighbourhood 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, Instagrammable cafes and modern yet authentic souvenirs.
How to get there: There are no metro stations in Zamalek, but you can find the hotel in Google Maps (367F+49 Zamalek).
Insider tip: The Nile corniche is nearby, so have a stroll along the river and browse Zamalek’s many antique shops and boutiques.
3. The City of the Dead
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 amongst 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 neighbourhood – 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 neighbourhood is known for.
Need to know:
The basics: Check the culture center MASQ’s Facebook page for upcoming events and concerts. For glass-blown souvenirs, head to HodHod Glass right across from the Sultan Qaitbey Mosque.
Within walking distance: The City of the Dead is a sprawling neighbourhood near the famous Khan el Khalili market and Islamic Cairo, which are both a 30-minute taxi ride away.
How to get there: 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 destination “Sultan Al-Ashraf Qaytbay Mosque and Mausoleum.” This famous mosque is a great starting point for a walking tour – and MASQ and HodHod Glass are both next door. Find it on Google Maps (27VG+H2 El Gamaliya).
Insider tip: This neighbourhood doesn’t have many sit-down restaurants. Load up on snacks and drinks from its many kiosks, and head to Khan el Khalili for a more leisurely dinner.
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 dating back to the Mamluk period (1631 A.D). 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 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.
Need to know:
The basics: Opening hours are from 9 am to 4 pm daily.
Within walking distance: The Mosque of Ibn Tulun is adjacent to the museum and makes a great companion destination to round off an afternoon of sightseeing. Aside from that, the museum is in the working-class neighbourhood of Sayida Zeinab where you’ll find many workshops, tall apartment blocks and bustling cafes. It’s a slice of real Egyptian life.
How to get there: It’s best to take an Uber. Find the museum on Google Maps (27H2+87 El-Sayeda Zainab).
Insider tip: There’s no air conditioning inside the museum, so plan accordingly if you’re visiting in the summer (arrive early, bring plenty of iced water).
5. Access Art Space (formerly Townhouse Gallery), downtown
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 jewellery 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.
Need to know:
The basics: There are occasional artist talks and events, so check their Facebook page for the latest.
Within walking distance: Access is about a 15-minute walk from Tahrir Squareand the Egyptian Museum. It’s also about a 2-minute walk from the Said Halim Pasha Palace (#6 on this list, see below).
How to get there: Take an Uber or the metro to the Sadat station. Find the gallery on Google Maps (26XQ+93 Qasr El Nil) under its old name “Townhouse.”
Insider tip: Places like the Access shop are great for original and interesting souvenirs.
6. Said Halim Pasha Palace, downtown
This abandoned palace is a splendid example of Cairo’s fin de siecle opulence – now turned to dusty decay.
It’s closed but the guard doesn’t mind if visitors take photos through the gate. Walk around the building (which covers 1,800 square meters) to marvel at the crumbling regal architecture.
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.
Need to know:
The basics: The palace is surrounded by mechanics shops, street cafes and garages, and makes a surreal sight.
Within walking distance: It’s about a 2-minute walk from Access Art Space, and a brief stroll from Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum.
How to get there: Said Halim Pasha is called “Champlion Palace” on Google Maps (362Q+35 Qasr El Nil) – so type that into Uber. Or take the metro to the Sadat station and it’s about a 15-minute walk.
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, which King Farouk liked to collect, all pinned up on display.
Need to know:
The basics: Opening hours are from 9am to 3pm, everyday except Friday. The entrance is on a small street on the side of the palace – and the ticket booth is across the street from the entrance.
Within walking distance: Abdeen Palace is about a 20-minute walk from Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum.
How to get there: Take the metro to the Mohamed Naguib station and it’s a short walk from there. Or see the location on Google Maps (26VX+64 Abdeen).
Insider tip: The palace includes some beautiful gardens that are great for wandering.
8. Al Horreya Cafe, downtown
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 favourite local lagers Stella and Sakara.
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 a.m. But tread lightly on humid summer days. The AC isn’t great though the beer is ice cold and the service is friendly.
Need to know:
The basics: Opening hours are 2 pm to 5 am.
Within walking distance: The Egyptian Museum is about a 15-minute walk away.
How to get there: Take the metro to the Sadatstation and it’s a short walk to Bab al-Louq, the square where you’ll find the bar. On Google Maps (26WR+34 Abdeen) it’s called “Al Horreya Cafe.”
Insider tip: There’s a shop nearby called Al-Yemeni Cafe where you can stock up on some amazing ground coffee with cardamon. For fast food, there’s Gad a few doors down that serves sandwiches with falafel (called “ta’ameya in Egypt) and other street food.
9. AUC Bookstore, downtown
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.
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. Though a lot of it is hit-and-miss if you’re unfamiliar with Egyptian lit. I highly recommend anything by Naguib Mahfouz to get you started. Mahfouz is the recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature and all his works are seeped in Egyptian life. I’d consider Children of Gebelawi his masterpiece, but also try Adrift on the Nile or Cairo Modern for lighter reads.
Need to know:
The basics: The AUC Press bookstore is open from 10am to 6pm daily except Fridays, and you need a valid photo ID to enter. It’s located inside the American University in Cairo’s campus in Tahrir Square. Although the entrance is on the side at Sheikh Rihan Street.
Within walking distance: The Egyptian Museum is right on the other side of Tahrir Square, about a 5-minute walk away.
How to get there: Take the metro to the Sadatstation and it’s right there. Or find it on Google Maps (26VP+4P Abdeen).
Insider tip: If you’re heading to the Egyptian Museum at Tahrir Square, then stop by the AUC Press bookstore afterwards to stock up on Egyptology books. The museum’s bookshop isn’t recommended – it’s filled with kitschy souvenirs and a tiny selection of books.
10. Cairo Opera House small hall, Zamalek
The small hall is a great alternative to the main hall’s grand ballets and opera.
Tickets are a real bargain, and the wood-panelled 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.
Need to know:
The basics: You can browse the schedule of performances on the opera house website, but tickets are not available for sale 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.
Within walking distance: The Egyptian Museumis about a 15-minute taxi ride away.
How to get there: Take the metro to the Operastation, or find it on Google Maps (26RF+WF Zamalek).
Insider tip: After the performance, walk down the Kasr Al Nile Bridge towards downtown for some pretty views of the Nile River.
11. Al Azhar Park, Darb al-Ahmar
Al 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.
Need to know:
The basics: The park is open daily from 9am to 10pm.
Within walking distance: 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.
How to get there: Find it on Google Maps (27R7+8V El-Darb El-Ahmar).
Insider tip: Avoid weekends and national holidays, unless you like noisy crowds and family picnics.
(photos of me by Mika Elgendi)
12. Nilometer, Rhoda Island
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).
Need to know:
The basics: Opening hours are from 9am to 3:45pm.
Within walking distance: Just next door is the Manasterly Palace (also a beautiful concert venue), and the Umm Kulthum Museum, where you’ll find curiosities from the life and times of the iconic Egyptian singer.
How to get there: Take an Uber or find it on Google Maps (264F+QX Old Cairo).
Insider tip: The Nilometer is surrounded by greenery and has beautiful views of the Nile River.