From designer boutiques and art galleries to hip eateries and historical gems, here are the best things to do in Zamalek.
Zamalek is hands-down my favorite district in Cairo. I always recommend it to friends as a great leafy neighbourhood to explore – and one of the best places to stay in Cairo.
Zamalek is packed with palaces along the Nile, quirky urban parks and lots of innovative restaurants and upscale boutiques with one-of-a-kind souvenirs.
It has a lively expat community and it’s a brilliant choice for solo female travelers who want to wander around undisturbed.
The locals in Zamalek are very used to foreigners and you’ll find lots of international brands here from Starbucks to Auntie’s Pretzels. But Zamalek isn’t exactly a tourist trap, either. Despite all the modern conveniences, it still retains its unique Egyptian character. So you can grab an authentic falafel (aka taamiya) breakfast here along with your iced latte.
As a long-time expat living in Egypt, I often head to Zamalek whenever I go out – whether that’s a weekend of bookstore browsing or a night out for drinks and live music. I prefer it to the crowded and traffic packed downtown, and to the sedately suburban Maadi.
Zamalek is also conveniently located just across the bridge from downtown, so you’re not far from tourist attractions like the Egyptian Museum. The pyramids are about an hour away.
Zamalek is an island in the middle of the Nile so you’ve got great views all around. The island is technically made up of two districts: Zamalek itself and the neighbouring district of Gezira (and this list includes both).
The 26th of July Corridor is the main pathway through this charming island. Start there for an exploratory wander through the neighbourhood.
Zamalek is perfect for a look at modern, middle-class Egyptian life. Head here for a night out to escape the kitschy tourist traps. Instead of a stale buffet with European belly dancers, catch an Egyptian rap concert, have a cocktail with sugar cane juice or explore some contemporary art.
Here’s my list of the best things to do in Zamalek – and my favorite haunts and hidden gems that I’ve found after a decade of living in Egypt.
1. Unwind in a grotto garden
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.
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.
Insider’s tip: Cairo Flea Market often hosts events at the Aquarium Grotto Garden where you can find unique treasures and handmade item from an array of vendors – along with food and live music. Check their Facebook page for upcoming events.
2. Have lunch in a palace
The Garden Promenade Cafe, inside the Cairo Marriott Hotel, is charming cafe is surrounded by lush gardens, Grecian statues and the ornate columns of the historic Gezira Palace.
The cafe is a gorgeous outdoor space to bask in the sun, savor a lazy brunch and people-watch. And it’s right at the base of the Gezira Palace – a shimmering, Oriental-style palace built especially for the opening of the Suez Canal.
Long rows of tables shaded by orange parasols and framed by well-manicured palms and greenery.
And there’s a short but sweet dessert menu for cheesecake and oriental pastries that go perfectly with coffee.
Insider’s tip: There’s a live jazz band every Wednesday and Sunday evening playing at the cafe. It’s the perfect spot to unwind after a long day of sightseeing.
3. Ride to the top of the Cairo Tower
Ride to the top of this massive concrete tower for unbeatable 360-degree views of Cairo and the Nile – you can even see the pyramids on a clear day.
The Cairo Tower was built in the late 1950s in the shape of a lotus plant. It’s now one of Cairo’s most recognizable landmarks.
The 187-metre concrete tower is perched on Gezira Island. It has an open-air observation deck with telescopes where you can see downtown, the Citadel and more. Go in the late afternoon for the clearest views.
Insider’s tip: For dinner with a gorgeous view, there’s the Revolving Gourmet restaurant at the summit offering international and oriental cuisine. There are also two cafes where you can have a snack and take in the panoramas.
4. Have an espresso at an antique cafe
Antique Khana is a cozy cafe filled with antiques, old lanterns and rococo furniture with tall windows offering leafy views of Zamalek.
It’s a great hang-out spot filled with charm and an eclectic collection of antique busts, teapots and other curiosities. If anything catches your eye, many of the antiques are for sale.
There’s a small menu with sandwiches, salads and snacks, and the occasional live music performance on weekends.
Insider’s tip: 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 before the show. Though there’s a cafe, museum and gallery inside the opera house complex to explore before the performance starts.
6. Sip a beer with a Nile rooftop view
The Nile Zamalek Hotel Rooftop is a lively and airy rooftop bar with breathtaking Nile views – and a great spot for cold beers and music.
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.
Insider’s tip: If you’re hungry, eat before you come. The menu at Rooftop is good for snacks but not much else.
7. Tour the Aisha Fahmy Palace
(photo courtesy Heba otefy, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
The Aisha Fahmy Palace is a beautiful Nile-side gem in the ornate Italianate style with stained glass windows, art exhibits and winding staircases.
This palace overlooking the Nile was designed by Italian architect Antonio Lasciac, the creator of many iconic buildings in downtown Cairo.
Head inside for brilliant rococo interiors, frescoed and silk-lined walls, fireplaces and a grand staircase topped with stained glass windows. And don’t miss the summer rooms with sweeping views of the Nile and the surrounding gardens.
The palace was built in 1907 for Egyptian aristocrat Ali Fahmy, King Farouk’s army chief and Aisha’s brother. Aisha bought the palace after her brother’s death and lived at various stages of her tumoltuous life.
The two-story palace boasts rooms bursting with textile art and oil paintings by European masters like Delacroix, Gauguin and Renoir. Upstairs, there are more rooms filled with antiques and a Japanese room with two gold-plated Buddha statues.
The palace has been fully restored and it’s now open to the public as a museum and art gallery that hosts temporary exhibits.
Hours: Open during the week (exact hours unclear), and closed Fridays.
Insider’s tip: Head up the nearby bridge after your visit for more Nile views and a stroll along the river.
8. Browse for Egyptology books
Diwan Bookstore is packed with titles that will enrich your Egyptian trip – from coffee table books on the pyramids to groundbreaking Arab novels and coloring books about mummies for children.
This cozy bookstore stocks lots of titles from the American University in Cairo Press, the region’s leading English-language publisher. AUC Press offers a reflection of Egypt to a global audience. And it has scholarly books, fiction, books to learn Arabic and volumes on Egypt and its history.
You’re sure to find something to spark your interest, whether that’s a photo album of Egyptian cotton plantations, a book on traditional Egyptian jewellery or a dive into the mind of pioneering Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy.
There’s also a great selection of English-language fiction, including YA, all the latest bestsellers, literary fiction and beach reads.
Insider’s tip: If you’re a bookworm, set aside a couple of hours to browse and have a drink and some pastries at the little cafe inside the shop.
9. Go antique shopping
Zamalek has dozens of great antique shops that are largely under the tourist radar.
But they’re great for an afternoon of browsing and hunting down the perfect unique keepsake from your Cairo trip.
You’ll find plenty of big oil paintings, rococco furniture and other impractical souvenirs that are impossible to pack in your luggage.
But you’ll also find out of print books on Egypt, old prints of Aswan, plates, vintage newspapers and other knick knacks. These all make great unexpected souvenirs and thoughtful gifts.
Here are some of my favorite antique shops:
Nostalgia Art Gallery specializes in 18th and 19th-century original lithographs and objets d’art. And you’ll find plenty of other treasures here from Syrian pottery to old postcards from Luxor and Ancient Egyptian prints. Address: 6 Zakareya Rizk, right behind the Marriott Hotel.
Noubi is a treasure trove overflowing with porcelain vases, rugs and old books. A few cabinets house smaller finds and trinkets that are always a pleasure to browse. Address: On the 26th of July Corridor. On Google Maps: 365F+JP
10. Unwind at an old Sufi cafe
Sufi Cafe is quirky and colorful with an array of different rooms, overflowing bookcases and comfortable couches packed with embroidered cushions.
Sufi Cafe has a distinctly Egyptian feel with its khayamiya pillows, kilim rugs, turquoise walls and paintings of whirling sufis.
The cafe is inside an old apartment and therefore it’s made up of various different rooms. Each room has its own distinct feel – whether that’s lanterns and deep orange walls or colorful cushions and wooden bookcases.
Insider’s tip: Sufi Cafe also boasts a collection of rare books and various works on Sufism and spirituality. You can peruse these over your coffee – and many are available for sale.
11. Dig into some Egyptian street food
Zooba is a colorful eatery that serves up all the Egyptian street food classics in a hip and fun atmosphere.
Head to this cozy eatery for a great intro to Egyptian cuisine. Everything’s made fresh with a menu that includes breakfast foods like falafel (aka taamiya), ful (fava bean sandwiches), and flavorful shakshouka.
With their trademark antique doors painted pastel blue, colorful chairs and oriental tiles, Zooba is also a really fun and photogenic lunch spot. It’s always buzzing and filled with locals so expect to wait a bit for a table.
Top your meal off with some classic rice pudding and wash it down with some hibiscus limeade.
Zooba’s menu has clear explanations of each dish, which is handy if you’re not familiar with Egyptian food. Zooba also does some great new takes on old classics like their colorful rosy-hued baladi bread made with beets.
There’s also a fridge with drinks, dips and fruits that’s perfect if you want to take some snacks back to your hotel.
And this little eatery has really taken off lately – Zooba won London’s Falafel Festival and recently opened a new branch in Manhattan.
Insider’s tip: Try a bowl of koshari – a carb lover’s dream and Egypt’s national dish. It’s packed with lentils and pasta and topped with tomato sauce, fried onions, garlic vinegar and chickpeas. And it’s vegan, too.
12. Shop for some authentic Egyptian souvenirs
Fair Trade Egypt has an incredible selection of ethical and handmade Egyptian crafts from wool rugs to ceramics to cotton scarves.
It’s one of my favorite spots in town to shop for Egyptian souvenirs and home decor. And you can rest assured that everything is made in Egypt – tags on many items tell the stories of the artisans.
Fair Trade Egypt is also a great option if you want to avoid the stress and haggling of Khan el Khalili and other touristy markets. All the prices here are clearly marked and there are no plastic, made-in-China dupes.
Stock up on some gorgeous Fayoumi pottery, which include earthy mugs and bowls with nature, bird and palm tree motifs.
Fair Trade Egypt also has a great selection of Akhmim, or hand-weaved linens, bedspreads, shawls and more. Akhmim are durable and brilliant to keep you cool in the summer and warm in winter.
The pieces at Fair Trade Egypt tend to be more modern and streamlined than some of the riotously colored offerings at the tourist souqs.
Zamalek has some of the best galleries in the city for an array of exhibits from landscapes of the Nile to contemporary mixed media and surrealist paintings.
And many of these galleries are within walking distance of each other, so you can spend an afternoon easily visiting a few.
Zamalek’s galleries range from pioneering spaces that have championed local artists for decades to new spaces that have just launched on the scene.
You can plan your own art walk around Zamalek – or just wander around and visit any galleries that you come across.
Head to the Baehler’s Mansion for a quick intro to the local art scene – these gorgeous buildings house two different galleries right across from each other. Yassin Gallery is a brand new space launched by a Cairo art scene veteran. And it has some brilliantly curated selections of cubist paintings and modernist bronze sculpture. Across the way, Al Masar Gallery is a seasoned pioneer of Egypt’s modern art movement with a well-rounded permanent collection of some modern classics.
Here are some more of my favorite galleries around Zamalek:
Safarkhan Art Gallery opened in 1968 and is Zamalek’s first-ever gallery. Past the mashrabiya doorways, this small space has long housed the pioneers of Egyptian modern art along with up-and-coming artists.
Picasso Art Gallery is another decades-old space that opened in 1970 as a venue for Egyptian art that spans across the generations. The bright and airy gallery houses some of the best contemporary art in the country. And they have a great story, too: the gallery’s founder launched his career at 14 years old when he began work at a frame maker’s workshop.
Zamalek Art Gallery has been a hub of contemporary Egyptian art for more than two decades. Their eclectic collection comes from across the Arab region – and they’re great promoters of young Egyptian artists, too.
14. Stroll along the Nile
Zamalek has a great corniche along the Nile where you can sit back at a waterfront cafe, have a stroll under the trees or just watch the river go by.
The strip of corniche near the Marriott is great for a long walk. And there are plenty of benches if you want to take a breather under the trees.
For an incredible meal with a view, head to the high-rise Sofitel Cairo Nile El Gezirah. This elegant hotel has several Nile-side restaurants with airy outdoor terraces that put you right alongide the water.
Head to La Palmeraie for great Moroccan food, drinks and shisha (but avoid weekend evenings unless you like loud music and belly dancers). For a more laid-back experience head to the Window On The Nile Lounge. Browse their great book collection over a light lunch with spectacular river views and the feluccas sailing by.
Where to stay in Zamalek:
Stay at the Cairo Marriott Hotel for sweeping views of the Nile right from your balcony. There’s also gorgeous dining and gardens at the historic Gezira Palace, an 1869 gem that’s now part of the hotel. It’s my absolute favorite hotel in Zamalek.
The Sofitel Cairo Nile El Gezirah is another gorgeous riverfront hotel with stunning Oriental-style dining right along the Nile. It’s technically in Gezirah right next to the Opera House and within walking distance from Zamalek.
How to get there: It’s best to navigate around Zamalek in an Uber. Though the island is small enough to walk across if you like exploring. Keep in mind that traffic is always slow on the 26th of July Corridor so it’s better to walk if you’re just heading down the street.
Nearby: Downtown Cairo is just across the river, and Gezira is on the other side of the island.
Watch my vlog on exploring the book shops, cafes and art galleries around Zamalek: