The interior of the Maridani Mosque in Cairo's Al Darb Al Ahmar neighborhood shows an intricate qibla wall filled with mosaics and lines of arches and columns.
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Islamic Cairo: A Walking Tour (+ Must-See Hidden Gems)

Islamic Cairo is packed with historic mosques, lively souqs and gems from Egypt’s medieval past.

It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the 7th century. And it has one of the densest concentrations of architectural gems in the Islamic world.

It’s also a great spot to soak in some bustling atmosphere, dig into street food and people-watch. The gems of Islamic Cairo stand alongside local grocers, mechanics and snack stands where locals have lived and worked for centuries.

So where do you begin to explore this incredible district? 

Dee twirls in a long skirt at Azhar Park amid the columns of the Studio Masr Restaurant.

Two images show Darb al Ahmar in Cairo. On the left is a blue street sign that says Darb al Ahmar Street in English and Arabic. On the right is a narrow alley with a tuktuk running through it and a man on a bicycle carrying a huge tray of bread above his head.

Islamic Cairo is known for huge tourist attractions like the Khan el Khalili souq and Moez Street.

But it also has plenty of hidden gems. And getting off the beaten tourist path is easier than you think.

Al Darb al-Ahmar is a vibrant working-class neighborhood in Islamic Cairo that has both 1) splendid historical monuments and 2) an authentic, non-touristy atmosphere.

And it’s right next to Moez Street and Azhar Park, which means you can combine your Cairo sightseeing with some exploring off the beaten path.

I’m a long-time expat living for over a decade in Cairo, and this is my ultimate guide to Al Darb Al Ahmar.

It’s one of my favorite areas to explore for its friendly locals, Mamluk mosques and lively atmosphere.

What is Al Darb Al Ahmar?

A street in Al Darb Al Ahmar shows a historic building topped with a dome and a mural of local historic buildings painted in bright blues and yellows.

Al Darb Al Ahmar (“The Red Way”) is a historic neighborhood in the heart of Islamic Cairo that was first built in the 10th century. It was founded by the Fatimid Caliphate, a Shia empire originating in Tunisia.

But Al Darb Al Ahmar blossomed in the 14th century when Egypt was ruled by the Mamluk Sultanate, a largely Turkic people who fought as slave-soldiers before they rose to command an empire.

Mamluk amirs and elites expanded the city of Cairo and build near the Citadel, the seat of the sultan’s power. They competed to build lavish palaces, residencies and mosques along Al Darb Al Ahmar that would showcase their wealth and prestigious ranks.

And even today the neighborhood’s most splendid monuments date to this 14th-century heyday.

Dee wearing a colorful plaid shirt sits at the door of the Abu Hariba Mosque.

Two images show Al Darb Al Ahmar. On the left is the interior of a historic complex, and on the rights is a chair inside a colorful shop at the tentmakers' market.

The district was developed further under the Ottomans when Muhammad Ali gifted his loyal army officers plots of land in the area.

Today Al Darb Al Ahmar is a working-class neighborhood lined with mechanic shops and narrow streets where only tuk tuks fit through. Its historic monuments and mosques loom tall on streets vibrant with everyday life.

Modern-day renaissance

A man restores a part of an old wall at the Maridani Mosque in Darb al Ahmar, Cairo.

Countless old houses in Al Darb Al Ahmar were demolished and replaced with high-rise residential buildings as Cairo’s population boomed.

Many locals lamented the rise of modern, brightly-painted apartments built haphazardly alongside historic mosques. (Look out from Azhar Park onto the views of Al Darb Al Ahmar and you’ll see tall towers peaking out between historic domes and minarets).

But today there’s plenty of reasons for hope.

A view of Darb al Ahmar as seen from Azhar Park in Cairo shows beige and brown apartment blocks amid minarets and domes. The shot is framed by greenery and tree branches.

Today Al Darb Al Ahmar is witnessing several restoration projects that aim to put more landmarks on the tourist itinerary.

The restoration projects are the work of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, who’ve been rehabilitating the neighborhood for decades alongside Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and the European Union.

You’ll spot some ongoing restoration work at sites like Al Maridani (#5), which is open to visitors while conservationists polish off their work.

How to visit Al Darb Al Ahmar

A tour guide stands at the Ayyubid Wall in Cairo's Azhar Park explaining the wall's history.

Al Darb Al Ahmar is right alongside the Tentmakers Market and Azhar Park. And it’s easy to visit as part of your Islamic Cairo itinerary.

There’s a new touristic route packed with monuments that makes visiting Al Darb Al Ahmar easier than ever.

How to visit:

Two images show a tour of Darb al Ahmar. On the left is Dee sitting inside a golf cart and smiling during a tour. On the right is Dee's hand holding the Darb al Ahmar touristic route ticket.

  • Al Darb Al Ahmar has a list of monuments you can visit with a single “touristic route” ticket for 120 EGP. The ticket gives you entry to monuments like Khayer-bek, Al-Maridani Mosque and the Blue Mosque. You can buy this ticket at the Khayer-bek Complex.
  • Al Darb Al Ahmar also offers a bargain half-day tour that starts at Azhar Park and whisks you through the district’s essential sites on a golf cart with an expert tour guide. You can book this tour online (I booked mine on WhatsApp through their number).
  • Or you can explore Al Darb Al Ahmar on your own. Some monuments require the “touristic route” ticket (that you buy at the Khayer-bek Complex) while attractions like the Tentmakers Market are free. 

Where to start:

Two images show the tentmaker's market in Cairo. On the left a closeup of a man's needle sewing a cushion. On the right is a wall hanging with stitched birds and flowers.

The easiest way is to begin either at the Khayer-Bek Complex or at the Tentmakers Market.

  • If you start at Khayer-Bek, you can get your “touristic route” ticket there and do your walking tour. You’ll finish at the Tentmakers Market. From there, you can continue exploring Islamic Cairo with a walk up the famous Moez Street or shopping in Khan el Khalili.
  • If you start at the Tentmakers Market, you’ll finish inside Al Darb Al Ahmar. This is perfect if you want to try some street food or spend more time in the neighborhood. Just walk to a main street once you’re done to grab an Uber because the streets are narrow (it’s best to ask a local for the nearest big street).

Best things to see in Al Darb Al Ahmar:

1. Azhar Park

azhar park cairo

tickets: 40 EGP open 9am-10pm | on the map

Al Azhar Park boasts sweeping views over the Citadel and Al Darb Al Ahmar amid green rolling hills, sparkling fountains and beautiful landscaping.

Al Azhar Park is lush with blossoming hibiscus, frangipani trees and lawns for lounging in the grass. It’s also beautiful in the evening when the nearby Mosque of Muhammad Ali (at the Citadel) is illuminated and the upscale restaurants with city views come to life.

The guided half-day tours of Al Darb Al Ahmar start at Azhar Park – and it’s an idyllic setting to get an overview of the district. The tour begins with coffee at the Visitor’s Center and an introductory video about the history of the district.

azhar park

Al Azhar Park was build atop a mount of city rubble and ruins and transformed into one of Cairo’s rare green spaces. The $30 million-dollar project was a gift to the city from Aga Khan IV, a descendant of the city’s Fatimid caliphs who built much of Islamic Cairo.

The park is now a local favorite for family gatherings and picnics. Many of the landscape and architecture features are inspired by historic Islamic gardens.

Don’t miss the observation point atop the hill equipped with coin-operated binoculars. It has views over Islamic Cairo and its many historic minarets.

Citadel View Restaurant

azhar park

Citadel View Restaurant (aka Studio Misr) is a beautiful restaurant with views of the towering Mosque of Muhammad Ali – with lots of Egyptian classics on the menu.

The restaurant has a beautiful oriental-style seating area with mashrabiyas, tall columns, brass platters and mosaic fountains. There’s also a sunny terrace that overlooks the park lawns and the mosques in the distance.

2. Ayyubid Wall

The Ayyubid Wall in Cairo's Azhar Park rises up overlooking a cluster of residential homes, minarets and a dome.

seen from Al Azhar Park 

This newly discovered 1.5-kilometer wall was built by Salah al-Din to join the old Fatimid city with the Citadel and protect it from Crusaders.

Today the restored Ayyubid Wall runs along the back of Azhar Park, where the rolling green hills of the park meet the dense apartment blocks and minarets of Al Darb Al Ahmar.

You can spot some fortifications and gates of the Ayyubid Wall from Al Azhar Park.

But it’s best to take the guided tour for an in-depth look. You’ll be whizzed along a large stretch of the Ayyubid Wall in a golf cart. And you’ll see its various gates and towers on the rollicking ride.

The Ayyubid Wall in Azhar Park rises up over a cluster of domes and minarets.

The Ayyubid Wall was once buried under rubble on the grounds of a massive rubbish mound that dated back to medieval Cairo. But it was discovered during the construction of Azhar Park, when the historic rubble hill was cleared to build the park.

The Eastern City Wall was built across three different periods. And you can still see these layers of history today. Newer sections of the wall are pristine limestone while older sections are dark and crumbled mud brick.

Most of the Ayyubid Wall as it’s known today was built during the reign of Salah Al-Din, who used limestone to construct impressive fortifications and city gates to shield Cairo from invaders.

3. Khayer-bek Complex

The ornate dome and minaret of the Khayer-bek complex in Cairo built in honey-colored limestone.

tickets: touristic route ticket, 120 EGP | open 9am to 5pm | on the map

This splendid complex was built by Khayer-Bek, a Mamluk emir who famously betrayed his master Sultan al-Ghuri to the Ottomans during a battle near Aleppo.

Khayer-Bek was rewarded by the Ottomans after they took power and made him Egypt’s first viceroy. But his backstabbing also earned him the nickname “Khayen-bek,” or “the traitor.”

The Khayer-bek complex includes a beautifully-restored mosque which cannot be used for prayers because it doesn’t align towards Mecca (there are several theories as to why).

The threshold to the mosque is made with a block taken from a pharaonic building and contains a hieroglyph of Osiris. Inside are tall iwans and colorful stained glass windows.

Ornate arches, woodwork and colored glass windows inside the mosque of Khayer-bek in Islamic Cairo.

There’s a door beyond the mihrab that leads into the mausoleum, which contains an ornate mihrab and the marble tomb of Khayer-Bek (this time perfectly perpendicular to Mecca).

The tall and ornate mausoleum inside the Khayer-bek complex features striped arches and a tall domed ceiling.

The complex also contains a small sabil built to provide locals in medieval Cairo with fresh drinking water.

The ornate minaret was restored in 2002 after it suffered heavy damage in an 1884 earthquake. And it was one of the Aga Khan’s earliest projects in the district.

4. Aq Sunqor (The Blue Mosque)

Blue Mosque (Aqsunqur Mosque)

Blue tiles fill the qibla wall of the Blue Mosque in Islamic Cairo.

tickets: touristic route ticket, 120 EGP | open 9am to 5pm | on the map

Aq Sunqur Mosque is beloved for the blue tiles that line its qibla wall and the breezy courtyard filled with palms and oleander.

Built in 1347 by a Mamluk emir in a Syrian architectural style, Aq Sunqor is one of three blue mosques in the world.

But its famous blue tiles were actually added centuries later by the Ottomans, who restored the mosque and decorated it with blue and green Iznik tiles from Constantinople and Damascus.

The breathtaking tiles feature floral motifs including cypress trees, carnations and vases filled with tulips.

Aq Sunqur Mosque is simple and well-proportioned with an ornate facade that features intricate stonework and blue-grey marble.

Inside there’s an open courtyard enclosed by four arcades and a hypostyle plan that’s rare for Cairo mosques. It’s a calming space full of chirping birds – and well away from noisy street traffic.

A mausoleum inside the Blue Mosque in Cairo is filled with blue tiles, a prayer niche richly ornamented and a marble tomb.

Don’t miss the mausoleum of the Ottoman Prince Ibrahim Agha (above), who famously restored Aq Sunqor and filled it with blue tiles. It’s near the entrance of the mosque and can be opened by a custodian.

Ibrahim Agha’s mausoleum is likewise decorated with marble tiles from floor to ceiling and includes a beautiful Mamluk-style mihrab (prayer niche).

5. Al Maridani Mosque

A view of the ornate painted wooden ceiling of Al Maridani Mosque in Darb al Ahmar, Cairo, with arches supporting the roof.

Two images show the Al Maridani Mosque in Cairo. On the left are stripped arches bright in the sun alongside a palm tree in the courtyard of the mosque. On the right is the ornate and decorated mihrab.

tickets: touristic route ticket, 120 EGP | open 9am to 5pm | on the map

Al Maridani is one of the finest monuments of the 14th century – and it’s positively radiant after years of restoration work.

Established in 1340, Al Maridani is a real Mamluk treasure with a hypostyle plan, a richly decorated prayer niche and a 46-meter wall of mashrabiya.

It was one of the most extravagant and innovative mosques of its time with its octagonal minaret topped by a dome supported by slender columns.

But Al Maridani also suffered over a century of neglect and deterioration because of humidity and urban pollution. Parts of the wooden minbar were looted by thieves. And conservationists later painstakingly restored the geometric pieces (which are held together like interlocking puzzle pieces without glue or even a single nail).

Now the mosque is glowing and vibrant. And it’s not difficult to imagine how it looked in its heyday. The conservation work gives it the polish it likely had when it was first built.

Two images show Maridani Mosque in Islamic Cairo. On the left is the white minaret rising up above local residential buildings. On the right is the entrance in stripes of brick color and white framed by some greenery.

The mosque was built by Al Maridani, who was one of the son-in-laws of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad – just like Aqsunqur, the builder of the Blue Mosque. Al Maridani first worked as a cup bearer for the sultan at the tender age of 16. He later married one of the sultan’s daughters and became Cairo’s chief of police.

The luxuriousness of this mosque was made possible by Al Maridani’s fortune and generous patronage from the sultan himself, who let his son-in-law employ his finest master builder for the job.

Look up and don’t miss the eight capitals (the tops of the columns) around the dome that are from Ancient Egypt and were brought in from Upper Egypt.

6. Al-Salih Tala’i Mosque

islamic cairo hidden gems

free | on the map

Al-Salih Tala’i is Cairo’s last Fatimid mosque and was originally built to house the head of a Shia martyr.

The mosque is built on a raised platform with a base for shops that were once at street level and contributed to the mosque’s revenue.

But over the centuries the base sunk as the street level rose. And you can still see the vacant shops half-buried under the mosque’s walls – the mosque’s base is currently two meters below street level.

This simple and charming mosque has a breezy courtyard with rows of keel-shaped arches. It has calligraphy in stucco around the arches, wooden tie-beams and gorgeous stained-glass windows.

islamic cairo hidden gems

And Al-Salih Tala’i has a fascinating history. It was originally built as a shrine to house the head of Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad who was killed at the Battle of Karbaba and regarded as a martyr by Shias.

The head of Hussain was brought to Cairo from Palestine after it was threatened by Crusader attacks. But the relic was taken to a shrine (instead of Al-Salih Tala’i) that’s now inside the modern-day Hussein Mosque (near Moez Street).

Built just outside the Fatimid city walls, Al-Salih Tala’i is one of a few Fatimid mosques that had a minaret. Some scholars believe that other Fatimid mosques were built without minarets as a political statement against their Abbasid predecessors, who were known for their spiral minarets.

7. Khayamiya market

Khayamiya market

free | on the map

Known as the Street of the Tentmakers (Sharia al-Khayamiya), this covered market sells a colorful type of decorative applique textile known as khayamiya.

It’s also one of my favorite places to shop in medieval Cairo – it’s far less crowded and the vendors aren’t as pushy as their Khan el Khalili counterparts. They’ll generally give you a fair price from the start and there’s no need to haggle.

There are rugs, quilted pillow cases and wall hangings sold by the artisans themselves in their tiny, narrow shops.

Two images show the tentmaker's market in Cairo. On the left a man sits inside his shop sewing a colorful cushion. On the right is one of his finished products - a wall hanging with stitched birds and flowers on a dark blue background.

And you’ll often see the artisans at work hand-stitching cushion covers or bedspreads. Their needles tackle themes from Islamic calligraphy to Ancient Egypt, local folklore, fish, birds and verses from the Quran.

Sharia al-Khayamiya

The Qasaba that houses the khayamiya market is worth a look in itself. Built during Mamluk rule in 1650, it’s the only historic covered market in the city. Look above the shop facades and you’ll see the upper floor apartments built for the artisans.

There’s evidence that khayamiya dates back to Ancient Egypt. But this traditional craft is now endangered because of cheap imitations and factory-printed fabric.

8. Bab Zuweila

bab zuweila

tickets: 100 EGP | open 9am to 5pm | on the map

Bab Zuweila is one of the few remaining gates of the city wall that encircled 11th-century Cairo. It’s topped by two minarets that were added on by a Mamluk sultan in the 15th century.

And you can climb to the top for some great views of the old city.

The steep stairs are quite a workout. But it’s worth it for the sweeping views of Fatimid Cairo and the surrounding minarets. It’s especially magical during the call to prayer.

bab zuweila
The view from the top: rooftops strewn with satellite dishes and some of Cairo’s most historic minarets.

The towers of Bab Zuweila were once used to scope out approaching enemy troops.

The sultan also used the platform to watch Mecca-bound processions headed on the annual pilgrimage.

The gate also has a grisly history: the platform was used for executions. And severed heads were displayed on the tops of the walls as recently as 1811 after the Citadel massacre of the Mamluks by the Ottomans.

Exploring Moez Street

The tall minaret and dome of the Qalawun complex loom over a small sidestreet.

Moez is a kilometer-long street in Islamic Cairo lined with treasures of medieval architecture – from splendid mosques to historic homes and palaces.

It goes from the Tentmaker’s Market all the way to Bab Al Futuh, the medieval city gates.

Read Moez Street in Cairo: An Ultimate Local’s Guide for a list of all the must-see attractions – from the start of this famous street to the finish.

What to buy in Khan el Khalili

Rows of wooden mother of pearl boxes are lined up at a small shop in Khan el Khalili, Cairo.

Heading the Cairo’s historic souq? Read Best Things To Buy In Khan El Khalili (A Local’s Guide) for my ultimate list of must-haves.

More resources

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