From incredible museums to Nile views and hidden gems, here’s my ultimate guide to the best things to do in downtown Cairo.
There’s so much more to downtown Cairo than the Egyptian Museum!
I’m an expat who’s spent nearly a decade exploring Cairo and I love downtown for its chic cafes and historic villas.
Here’s my ultimate local’s guide to the best things to do in downtown Cairo – and how to take your own walking tour of this unforgettable district.
1. Tour the Egyptian Museum
The Egyptian Museum houses an incredible collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts that totals some 120,000 items. Every corner of this dusty museum is crammed with curiosities. And I still make new discoveries after years of visits.
Also known as The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, this salmon-colored behemoth in Tahrir Square holds the world’s largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities. And it’s still very much worth seeing – even with the new museum opened up.
Built in 1901 by a French architect, the museum also has a nice outdoor garden that pays tribute to famous Egyptologists.
Insider’s tip: When you’re done at the museum, stop by the nearby AUC Press bookstore. It has a much larger collection of books on Egyptology than the museum shop.
The ground floor holds an extensive collection of larger works including statues and reliefs. It’s arranged chronologically in a clockwise layout from the pre-dynastic to the Greco-Roman period. There are also artifacts from the New Kingdom, including a colossal statue of Amenhotep III and Tiye that’s the ground floor’s centerpiece.
The first floor contains smaller artifacts like papyri, coins, textiles and a staggering collection of wooden sarcophagi. There are entire rooms with sarcophagi stacked in wooden display cases one of top of another.
Don’t miss: the complete burials of Yuya and Thuya and the statues of the great kings Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, the builders of the pyramids. The Tanis collection is nearly as rich and ornate as the findings from Tutankhamun’s tomb. It includes silver coffins, gold masks, royal sarcophagi and jewelry.
Set aside at least a few hours to wander this museum. And hire a tour guide to get the most from your visit. The museum is not always labelled well and confusing to navigate for first-timers.
Need to know:
Tickets: Entry is 200 EGP per adult, and 100 EGP for students (with valid ID). A camera ticket (if you want to take photos) is an additional 50 EGP.
How to get there: Take an Uber or Careem, or get off at the Sadat metro station right across from the museum. The area is always busy with traffic, and the main museum gates are just past a security station.
Nearby: This museum is right in Tahrir Square, the heart of downtown Cairo, and there’s lots to do nearby. Take in the architecture of downtown Cairo and walk down the vibrant shopping street of Talaat Harb. Or stroll along the Nile Corniche (a 10-minute walk away) and walk across the Qasr el Nil bridge for great views of downtown. There are also felucca boats at the bridge to hire by the hour for a calming sail down the Nile.
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.
3. 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.
4. Have lunch at Felfela
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.
5. Grab some street food
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.
6. Browse the paintings at Access Art Space
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.
7. Peak inside an abandoned palace
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.
This adorable eatery is a little oasis in downtown with its funky decor, lively outdoor patio and a menu with some great Egyptian classics.
Indulge in some comfort food in an easygoing venue that’s popular with locals, young people and students from the nearby American University in Cairo.
Head to the brick-lined patio filled with comfy bamboo chairs. This cheery outdoor space has colorful potted plants and traditional window shudders painted in pastels. It’s a fun and quirky cafe with a great ambiance – and a good place to try some Egyptian classics along with your favorite coffee order. They also have great vegetarian options, too.
You’ll also find pizza, a good mix of international dishes and great juices and iced coffees.
Recommended: Try the oriental breakfast with fresh juice and falafel. Or indulge in some local Egyptian favorites like stuffed vine leaves and lemon mint juice.
Nearby: Oldish is right off Tahrir Square and walking distance from the Egyptian Museum. There are some great murals nearby from the city’s revolutionary times. And don’t miss the great bookstore inside the AUC campus, right next door.
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.
10. Have a beer at Al Horreya Cafe
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.
11. Stock up on Egyptology books at AUC Bookstore
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.
12. Stroll through Baehler Passage
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
13. Feel the history at 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.
Vertical pillars line the facade, topped with 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 dining, cafes and a theatrical nightclub reviving Egypt’s 1950s.
14. Dig into some oriental sweets at Cafe Corniche
Cafe Corniche is inspired by the Egyptian cafes of yesteryear with its copper lanterns and wood paneling – and it’s an incredible spot to dive into some traditional desserts.
Tucked inside the Intercontinental Cairo Semiramis, this small and cozy cafe is perfect for a light lunch – and some tasty desserts. They have a good sandwich menu too and some tempting ice cream options.
Sip on a Turkish coffee and browse the local papers amid this cafe’s old-world charm and friendly service. Indulge in some syrupy oriental sweets that go perfectly with a strong brew. It’s especially magical during Ramadan when the cafe makes all the holiday favorites from scratch, including konafa and basbousa.
Cafe Corniche overlooks some greenery along the hotel’s front drive. For Nile views, head to the section just behind reception where there’s a desert stand, coffee, the occasional piano music and tables with views of the river and downtown.
Recommended: The ice cream and sorbets are delicious. For a light lunch, try the cheese sambousek and lentil soup.
Nearby: Cafe Corniche is just off Tahrir Square and a short walk from the Egyptian Museum. Head to the Qasr el Nil bridge (across the street) for more views of the river and the downtown traffic.
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
16. Shop at 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 was 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.
Eish & Malh is a hip Italian eatery and cafe inside an old restored building in downtown – and they often host some great live music events too.
The cafe is part of the recent revitalization of downtown Cairo. And Eish & Malh (Arabic for bread and salt) is brilliant for an afternoon espresso and thin crust pizza.
It’s also an example of how a grey downtown space is given new life.
Their enormous arched windows have views of an old synagogue across the street. And they’re great for people-watching along this vibrant stretch of downtown. The colorful and funky decor includes some creative murals and red vases with sunflowers.
Eish & Malh regularly hosts fun events like Dinner & Oud that make it a great spot to catch some traditional music. There’s also Brunch & Jazz for a laidback weekend vibe. Check their Facebook page for upcoming events – especially around popular holidays and Ramadan.
Recommended: Try the Margherita or Frutti Di Mare pizza for that classic Neopolitan goodness alongside your favorite coffee order.
Nearby: 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 has benches, lots of greenery and some original art deco lighting. It’s worth a stroll through the boutiques and old apartment buildings with winding staircases.