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 a lot more to downtown Cairo than just the Egyptian Museum.
I’m a long-time expat living for a decade in Cairo and I love downtown for its chic cafes and historic architecture.
Though it’s definitely an underrated district that many tourists pass by.
But if you set aside a few hours for a downtown Cairo walking tour, you’ll be amazed at the architectural gems, art galleries and hip eateries it has to offer.
A walk through downtown Cairo gives you a glimpse of modern-day Egyptian life that goes beyond the Ancient Egyptian and Islamic tourist sites.
So 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 neighborhood.
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 even 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 National Museum of Egyptian Civilization 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 to take photos is an additional 50 EGP.
Hours: Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm.
On Google Maps: 26XM+4CH
How to get there: Take an Uber or Careem straight to the museum. Or take the metro and get off at the Sadat station that’s 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.
2. Take a walking tour
Explore this authentic heart of the city and hire a tour guide to dive into Cairo architectural gems, culture and history.
Or plan your own itinerary and take a few hours to explore some downtown cafes and landmark cinemas.
Use this list of downtown’s most gorgeous buildings (with maps) to plan your visit.
3. Sail on a felucca
An invigorating sail along the Nile in downtown Cairo is a great way to take in the city lights along the peaceful waters.
Bring some take-out on board for an evening meal, or get a group of friends together 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 a spot for felucca rentals in the quieter suburb of Maadi, near the Grand Cafe, that’s better for nature and faraway views of downtown.
Neon party boats blasting loud music are also widely popular. But I recommend the calmer and wind-powered felucca.
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.
You can also book a longer felucca sail around the ancient Egyptian monuments around Luxor and Aswan. 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
Felfela is one of the rare places in Cairo where you can get both Egyptian classics like falafel and some cold beer.
A lot of tour guides take their groups to this popular downtown eatery, but Felfela still retains its old-time Cairo charm.
Felfela is a historic restaurant dating back to 1959. There’s plenty of seating, and lots of ambiance amid the draping vines and chirping birds.
The menu offers a wide selection of Egyptian food including ful, falafel and lots of vegetarian options.
There’s local beer on the menu too – try the light lager Stella.
And grab a spot at a breezy table underneath a partially-screened rooftop. It’s perfect on a hot summer day.
5. Grab some street food
Downtown has lots of incredible street food.
Dig into some 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 tasty Koshari al-Tahrir.
Head to the Egyptian chain Gad for delicious ful and falafel sandwiches, shakshouka, lentil soup and more.
For more luxury dining, head to the Nile Ritz-Carlton in Tahrir Square. This hotel boasts the excellent Italian restaurant Vivo and Mediterranean eatery Culina with some Egyptian dishes on the menu too.
6. Browse the paintings at Access Art Space
Access Art Space has exhibits of modern art and a shop full of quirky souvenirs featuring imagery from Egyptian pop culture.
Outside there’s a colorful mural of Arabic calligraphy and a popular shisha cafe.
Inside, the gallery shop has handmade jewelry and quirky souvenirs 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.
There are occasional artist talks and events, so check their Facebook page for the latest.
Relax with a shisha in the evening at one of the surrounding cafes.
Need to know:
Hours: Saturday to Wednesday from 12 – 9 pm.
On Google Maps: 26XP+JX Qasr El Nil
How to get there: Take an Uber straight there, or the metro to the Sadat station.
Nearby: Access is about a 15-minute walk from Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum. It’s also about a 2-minute walk from the Said Halim Pasha Palace (#6 on this list).
7. Peak inside an abandoned palace
This abandoned palace is a splendid example of Cairo’s fin de siecle opulence now turned into 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.
The palace 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:
On Google Maps: 362Q+35 Qasr El Nil
How to get there: Said Halim Pasha is called “Champlion Palace” on Google Maps – so type that location into Uber. Or take the metro to the Sadat station and it’s about a 15-minute walk.
Nearby: It’s about a 2-minute walk from Access Art Space, and a brief stroll from Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum.
8. Unwind at Oldish
This adorable eatery is an 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.
You’ll find pizza, a good mix of international dishes and great juices and iced coffees on the menu. They also have great vegetarian options, too.
Try the oriental breakfast with fresh juice and falafel. Or indulge in some local Egyptian favorites like stuffed vine leaves and lemon mint juice.
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.
9. Tour the Abdeen Palace Museum
Head to the sumptuous Abdeen Palace to browse a collection of curiosities, paintings, gold clocks and millions of francs worth of Parisian furniture.
Abdeen Palace was built in 1863 for Egypt’s royal family and later served as the president’s residency.
Its 500 suites contain presidential gifts and royal treasures from the reigns of Egypt’s leaders.
The palace’s lower floors are now a museum housing a vast silverware collection, royal porcelain and table services.
Don’t miss the arms collection and the exhibit devoted to the royal family.
And there’s plenty for history buffs, including a collection of presidential gifts given to Egyptian leaders including 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 election and cartoon buttons that King Farouk liked to collect, all pinned up on display.
Need to know:
Tickets: 100 EGP.
Hours: From 9 am to 3 pm, everyday except Friday. The entrance is on a small street on the side of the palace – but the ticket booth is across the street from the entrance.
On Google Maps: 26VX+64 Abdeen
How to get there: Take an Uber or the metro to the Mohamed Naguib station and it’s a short walk from there.
Nearby: Abdeen Palace is about a 20-minute walk from Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum.
10. Have a beer at Al Horreya Cafe
Grab an Egyptian beer at this run-down yet charming bar that’s always lively 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 including favorite 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.
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.
Need to know:
Hours: Opening hours are 2 pm to 5 am.
On Google Maps: 26WR+34 Abdeen
How to get there: Take an Uber or the metro to the Sadat station and it’s a short walk to Bab al-Louq, the square where you’ll find the bar. On Google Maps the place is called “Al Horreya Cafe.”
Nearby: The Egyptian Museum is about a 15-minute walk away.
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 visit 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.
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 has a good but far smaller selection.
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 Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz to start. Pick up his masterpiece Children of Gebelawi or try Adrift on the Nile and Cairo Modern for slimmer and lighter reads.
Need to know:
Hours: Open from 10 am to 6 pm 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.
On Google Maps: 26VP+4P Abdeen
How to get there: Take an Uber or the metro to the Sadat station and it’s right there.
Nearby: The Egyptian Museum is right on the other side of Tahrir Square, about a 5-minute walk away.
12. Stroll through Baehler Passage
Established: 1929 | Architect: Leon Nafilyan | on the map
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.
Today, a stroll through the Baehler Passage offers a taste of fin de siecle Paris amid the bustle of downtown Cairo.
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.
13. Feel the history at Cinema Radio
Established: 1948 | Architects: Max Edrei and Garo Balyan | on the map
Head to Cinema Radio to get a glimpse of Egypt’s glorious film-making history – and stop for some coffee and shopping in the revitalized courtyard.
The Cinema Radio once housed the city’s largest screen where Egypt’s most prominent films premiered to an audience of glittering celebrities.
The facade is lined with pillars topped with red neon lights that advertise the name of the cinema.
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.
After its showings came to a halt in the 2000s, Cinema Radio was acquired by real estate company Al Ismaelia and revitalized to glory.
Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef famously used the venue for his controversial late-night satirical news show in 2011.
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 for rent.
Past the massive neon sight, a short passage leads into a courtyard and the cinema’s front doors.
Stop for a coffee at the chic cafe Sip, and head next door to Diwan bookstore to stock up on Egyptology albums and Arab lit in translation.
14. Dig into some oriental sweets at Cafe Corniche
Don’t miss Cafe Corniche for oriental sweets and decor inspired by the Egyptian cafes of yesteryear.
With its copper lanterns and wooded paneling, Cafe Corniche is a great spot to dive into some traditional desserts like basbousa and baklava.
Tucked inside the Intercontinental Cairo Semiramis, this 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.
Cafe Corniche overlooks some greenery along the hotel’s front drive.
For Nile views, head to the seating area just behind reception where there’s a desert stand, coffee and occasional piano music with tables overlooking downtown and the Nile.
The ice cream and sorbets are delicious. For a light lunch, try the cheese sambousek and lentil soup.
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.
15. Visit the Assicurazioni Generali building
Established: 1911 | Architect: Antonio Lasciac | on the map
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 intricate balconies, arched windows 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.
16. Shop at Talaat Harb Square
Talaat Harb Square is a real taste of downtown’s French neoclassical architecture and vibrant atmosphere filled with shops, ornate balconies and buzzing traffic.
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 also 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 on Egypt. And stop at Sindbad (above) for a glass of sugar cane juice.
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 directly at Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum.
17. Walk across the Kasr el Nil Bridge
Established: 1933 | Designer: Ralph Anthony Freeman | on the map
The historic Kasr el Nil Bridge is a downtown must-see 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 out on romantic strolls. 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.
18. Grab a pizza at Eish & Malh
Eish & Malh is a hip Italian eatery and cafe inside an old restored building in downtown – and they 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 was 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.
Try the Margherita or Frutti Di Mare pizza for that classic Neopolitan goodness alongside your favorite coffee order.
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. Take a stroll through the boutiques and old apartment buildings with winding staircases.
Downtown Cairo has a lot to offer for architecture and history lovers.
Add it to your Cairo itinerary to experience a more authentic and modern-day look at the city that goes beyond the well-known Ancient Egyptian and Islamic landmarks.
I would love to hear from you. What are your favorite things to do in downtown Cairo?
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