Heliopolis is an underrated Cairo district that boasts unique architecture, a fascinating history and charming shopping arcades and cafes.
Heliopolis is a real Cairo hidden gem with its opulent palaces, upscale boutiques and lively cafes.
The Hindu-inspired Baron Empain Palace is its most well-known landmark. But there’s lots more to discover in this affluent district.
As a long-time expat in Cairo, I highly recommend Heliopolis if you’re looking to get off the beaten tourist path and explore a unique architectural gem. It’s one of my favorite spots to wander through columned arcades, shop for designer home decor and unwind with mango ice cream and Turkish coffee.
A glorious past
Heliopolis was founded in 1905 by Belgian industrialist Edouard Empain and Nubar Pasha. It was originally build as an escape for the rich on a stretch of desert miles away from Cairo. And it boasted broad avenues, luxurious hotels, golf courses and racetracks.
It also birthed a unique architectural style that sets Heliopolis apart from other districts. This blend of Egyptian, Moorish, Persian and European elements is such an original aesthetic that you won’t find anywhere else.
And while Heliopolis’ luxurious heyday of racing and golf is now history, its charm and glorious architecture remain.
Heliopolis is a great district to explore, have lunch at one of the many cozy cafes and visit some historic churches (there are lots of various Christian denominations).
Head to the Korba section of Heliopolis to start your tour – it’s where you’ll find all the historic buildings, quiet streets and historic restaurants.
Don’t miss the Cathedral of Our Lady of Heliopolis in Ahram Square built in the Byzantine revival style – with the remains of the Baron Empain buried in a crypt underneath.
Have a drink at L’Amphytrion, a bar I love for its faded glamour, cold beer and real 1960s flavor.
And check the initiative Heliopolis Heritage for upcoming events, walking tours, exhibits and more.
How to get there:
Take an Uber to Korba or the metro to El Ahram station. Heliopolis has large sections that are modern or super crowded, so you’ll want to head for the Korba district.
Nearby:Historic Cairo and downtown are both about a 45-minutes taxi ride away. Though Heliopolis is very convenient if you’re looking for a place to stay that’s close to the airport.
Best things to do in Heliopolis:
1. Explore the Baron Empain Palace
This strange and fantastical mansion inspired by a Hindu temple is surrounded by many urban legends. And it’s finally been restored and open to the public.
Filled with a cacophony of deities, elephants and Roman statues, this architectural smorgasbord was built in 1910 by French architect Alexandre Marcel. It was designed for Belgian industrialist Baron Empain, a wealthy entrepreneur who founded Heliopolis.
Today the Baron Empain Palace has been completely transformed and restored. Its intricate facade shines in the Heliopolis sun – and the palace often hosts concerts and local events.
The palace is surrounded by lush gardens and statues. There are also two vintage cars, including a 1945 Rolls Royce, parked on the grounds.
The interior has ornate ceilings, chandeliers and a stunning spiral staircase. There are an extensive exhibit inside (in Arabic and English) all about Empain and the history of Heliopolis.
For an additional ticket, you can climb up the winding staircase to the rooftop for panoramic views of Korba and the Heliopolis district. It’s especially magical at sunset.
A cafe on the lawn serves sandwiches and drinks.
Empain was also an amateur Egyptologist. And the palace once boasted pyramid views until modern-day apartment blocks took over. Today the rooftop has sweeping views of Korba.
But after the baron’s death, the palace became shrouded in mystery. Rumors said a secret underground tunnel linked the palace to the baron’s crypt in the cathedral. More sinister tales said it’s haunted by the ghosts of the baron’s wife and daughter, both suspected suicides.
More recently – in the years that the palace stood abandoned – rumors said it was used by satanists for animal sacrifices (though more likely Egyptian metalheads just partying).
Plan your visit:
Tickets: 100 EGP per adult and 50 EGP for students. You’ll need a separate 50-pound ticket for the rooftop and another 50-pound ticket if you’re bringing a camera. All tickets are sold at the entrance – on the street on the left of the palace.
How to get there: Take an Uber to the Baron Empain Palace or the metro to the Kolleyet El Banat station, about a 10-minute walk from the palace.
2. Shop for authentic Egyptian handicrafts
Head to Fair Trade Egypt for a great selection of authentic Egyptian souvenirs – all handmade by artisans from across the country.
It’s not always easy to find Egyptian souvenirs that aren’t made in China. But this Heliopolis hidden gem has a wide array of beautiful pieces that you’ll actually use.
Nestled on a leafy residential street, Fair Trade Egypt stocks colorful rugs, beautiful Egyptian cotton sheets, jewelry, alabaster, Bedouin embroidery, rustic pottery from Fayoum and more.
And since it’s all certified fair trade, you know the craftsmen are paid fairly for their work – which is critical in keeping these traditional crafts alive.
All prices are clearly marked so there’s no haggling and hustle like at Cairo’s tourist souqs. And the sales people are genuinely helpful and will tell you the stories behind the pieces – from how they’re made to the artisans behind them.
The shop is about a 20-minute ride from the airport so it’s also a great last-minute stop to stock up on souvenirs and gifts for your loved ones back home.
And most of the products are made by women in projects that help to develop local communities. The shop works with some 43 artisans groups from 13 governorates – so you’re sure to find something you’ll love.
Don’t miss the array of colorful and rustic Fayoum pottery painted with palm trees, birds, and patterns of paint strokes.
Browse the gorgeous Kilim rugs and wall hangings – Fair Trade Egypt artisans often take traditional patterns and give them a contemporary twist.
There’s also a great selection of brass and silver-plated jewelry, including Ancient Egyptian-themed necklaces and bracelets that are more modern and streamlined than their souq equivalents.
How to get there: The shop is at 25 Ibrahim Salem Street and it’s best to take an Uber straight there. The shop is about a 15-minute walk from the Kolleyet El Banat metro station.
3. Dig into a buffet of Egyptian cuisine
Head to the open buffet at the Baron Hotel to sample a wide range of Egyptian dishes and mouthwatering classics – all alongside beautiful views of the palace.
Dig into pickled veggies, kofta, stuffed grape leaves (mahshy) and desert like basbousa in this smorgasboard of Egyptian foods that offers a sweeping survey of regional dishes.
The hotel’s Egyptian Buffet is a great way to dip into lots of different foods – and find some new favorites. And if you’re a meat lover, you’ll love the selection of homestyle baked lamb and chicken.
Held every Friday, the buffet offers authentic dishes that are served as they would be in an Egyptian home.
And it’s all accompanied by live oud music by a musician who strums wistful oriental classics.
Try the molokhiya, a stew made with chopped jute mallow that originates in Ancient Egypt. It has a very characteristic slimy or oozy texture that’s definitely an experience to try!
Don’t miss the selection of deserts, including classics like konafa. There are also lesser-known treats like Om Ali, Egypt’s national desert made of pastry blended with pistachios, coconut flakes and raisins then doused with cream.
Sip on some classic oriental drinks alongside your meal, including hibiscus and sobia – a starchy, coconut-flavored milky drink that’s especially popular during Ramadan.
Need to know:
Hours: The Egyptian Buffet is held every Friday at the La Terrace Restaurant inside the Baron Hotel Cairo from 1pm to 4pm. It costs 450 EGP per person, with everything included.
How to get there: Take an Uber to Baron Hotel Cairo or the metro to the Kolleyet El Banat station, about a 15-minute walk away. The Baron Hotel is about a 5-minute walk from the Baron Empain Hotel so you can easily combine lunch at the buffet with sightseeing at the palace in the afternoon.
4. Stop and smell the roses at Florabel
This flower shop in the heart of Korba is run by an Armenian family for four generations and counting – and it’s a real testament to the neighborhood’s heritage and diversity.
Founded in 1943, Florabel was built from the ground up by a spirited man named Gregory. His wife Nevart, a mother of 3, took over after Gregory passed away. And she created the upscale florist that her husband once dreamed about.
Today Florabel is run by Natasha, an energetic marketing graduate who never saw herself working in the family business. She’s now passionate about the shop and doesn’t see herself doing anything else.
On a busy Thursday before Mother’s Day, Natasha preps for a photo shoot and manages her team of floral designers inbetween cups from her vast collection of green tea.
“We’re really known for our window displays and we have people who pass by just to see what we’ve been doing lately,” she says.
Florabel caters to businesses and corporations as well as to generations of devoted local families. They supply their clients with gorgeous floral arrangements ” throughout their saddest or happiest moments, equally.”
A unique style
The retail shop, nursery and workshop occupy an entire ground floor of a historic building on Baghdad Street. Inside, there are marble floors, a sparkling chandelier and a resident black-and-white cat named Katakito.
Florabel’s style ranges from contemporary to eclectic and the floral designers each have their own style.
The designers create unique floral arrangements every morning so there’s always something new on the shelves. And customers can design their own arrangement or order a ready-made bouquet from Florabel’s website.
Florabel was the first shop in Egypt to use exotic flowers unknown in the region. Today they have suppliers in countries like Thailand and Kenya – and they grow a variety of uncommon flowers inside their own nursery.
How to get there: The shop is at 19 Baghdad Street, steps away from Korba Square. It’s about a 15-minute walk from the El Ahram metro station.
5. Dip into some fondue at Le Chantilly
This nostalgic eatery has mouthwatering pastries, tempting European classics and an airy open terrace that’s a real Heliopolis hidden gem.
Unwind with a cappuccino and buttery croissant in the terrace at this decades-old icon in the heart of Korba.
Or tuck into a plate of spaghetti and a bottle of local Stella lager at a cozy indoor table.
The quiet, dimly-lit interior is paneled with dark wood and decorated with landscapes of the Swiss Alps and illustrations of rustic milkmaids. And the fondue on the menu justifies the restaurant’s Swiss connection.
Arrive early to sample an authentic Egyptian breakfast of ful (fava beans) and falafel served with warm baladi flat bread. Le Chantilly also does a great bowl of koshari, Egypt’s (vegan) national dish, packed with pasta, lentils and more.
If you’re vegetarian, Le Chantilly has an entire veggie-friendly menu that’s one of the best selections of vegan food in the city.
This meatless menu (called siyyami) caters to Heliopolis’ sizeable Coptic Orthodox community who fast throughout the year by obstaining from meat. And this makes Le Chantilly a brilliant choice for veggie comfort food, hearty plates of pasta and fresh salads.
Le Chantilly has a devoted local clientele who’ve been lunching here for generations, ever since the restaurant’s heyday in the 1980s.
Walk in on a weekday afternoon and you’ll find local office workers on their lunch breaks, a classy elderly couple digging into their salads and a retiree perusing the Al Ahram newspaper over his pastry and cappuccino.
With its unchanging menu and homemade pastries, this family-friendly eatery is an old-school favorite that still draws in new clients today.
How to get there: Le Chantilly is steps away from Korba Square and a 15-minute walk from the El Ahram metro station.
6. Sip on a coffee with a view
This bohemian chic bistro is perched on a balcony overlooking historic Heliopolis – and it’s packed with antiques and curiosities that feel like an enchanted attic.
Tree Trunk has a cozy interior where feathers, bamboo lights and mandala murals abound. It’s full of personality – and a great spot to unwind as you explore the less-visited but fascinating district of Korba.
The breezy balcony is lined with the columns and arches typical of Heliopolis architecture.
And there’s an extensive menu, too. Tree Trunk is technically a bistro with burgers, pizza and pasta on the menu. Though it’s also my favorite spot in Heliopolis to sit back with a coffee.
Recommended: There’s a great breakfast menu and lots of vegetarian and vegan options too.