- As a city of more than 20 million people, Cairo is the most populous city in the Middle East. It has a reputation as a busy, crowded, and polluted city with few reasons for tourists to visit.
- Business Insider international correspondent Harrison Jacobs and producer Annie Zheng visited Cairo in December expecting it to be little more than a stopover before visiting Egypt’s bucket-list attractions like the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, and the temples of Luxor and Karnak.
- After spending two weeks exploring the Cairo’s interesting food, vibrant culture, and nonstop energy, they fell in love with the city. Future visitors ought to make time to explore the Egypt of today, not just the Egypt of 5,000 years ago.
As a city of more than 20 million people, Cairo is the most populous city in the Middle East and the second most populous in Africa. It feels like it.
Every highway, road, and alleyway is clogged with cars and motorbikes spewing fumes into the air. The honking never stops: long honks, short beeps, and everything in between. The cars, and their drivers, are in every kind of conversation imaginable. Other noises proliferate, from street-side shouts to the rumble of construction.
While those elements likely drive most tourists out of the city as fast as they come in, visitors willing to brave Cairo’s idiosyncrasies will find a colourful city full of mad energy. The alleyways teem with shops, restaurants, and cafes and around every corner there’s another Egyptian cracking a joke either with or at you.
Though Egypt’s tourism industry, and economy at large, has taken a major hit since the 2011 Arab Spring Revolution, a new entrepreneurial generation is making the city its own, opening new restaurant concepts and starting new businesses.
I (Harrison, here!) spent two weeks in the city in December, along with my travel partner and Business Insider’s international producer, Annie Zheng.
Here’s what it was like to visit Cairo.
Let’s get this out of the way: Cairo is not an easy city. It’s loud, rambunctious, crowded, and colourful. The traffic is legendary. I experienced it for the first time on my trip from the airport, which took close to two hours to drive 14 miles.
We booked a room at The New President Hotel in the embassy-populated, moderately wealthy island of Zamalek. Considered one of the greenest parts of the city, Zamalek has tree-lined streets, views of the Nile, and is a short drive over the bridge to downtown. It’s slightly quieter (though not by much) which makes it an ideal home base for newcomers.
The Culture Trip’s Sinead Schenk has great recommendations for Zamalek here»
With an expansive menu, quality food, and good prices, Crave is one of the most popular restaurants among locals and foreigners. It was so good — and so close to my hotel in Zamalek — that I ate dinner there three nights in a row. One memorable dish is prawns wrapped in crispy fried konafa, an Arab noodle pastry.
Source: Crave Zamalek
With tourists few and far between since the 2011 Revolution (and most that do visit heading straight to the Pyramids), Zamalek is a great place to watch and take part in Cairo life. One morning, I took a walk through the neighbourhood to find students walking or peeking out of buses to school, shop owners sipping Turkish coffee on stools on the footpath, and street vendors selling everything from newspapers to fruit.
It takes a little while to get used to Cairo’s hectic rhythms. Even in Zamalek, ostensibly a quieter part of the city, honking and shouting is constant. But perhaps more than most other cities I’ve visited, Cairo is accessible to newcomers who are open to what the city has to offer. Egyptians I met were constantly recommending new restaurants, cafes, bookstores, and events to check out.
The next day, I bee-lined to Zooba for lunch. Opened in 2012 by Egyptian-American founder Chris Khalifa and chef Moustafa El Refaey, Zooba is known for its refined, elevated spins on Egyptian street food classics. The fast-casual restaurant is a favourite among Cairenes. Zooba is opening a New York City branch later this year.
Zooba was so fresh and tasty that I ended up eating there two days in a row. On my first visit, I ordered the koshari, a staple food of lentils, macaroni, chickpeas, pasta, and spicy tomato sauce. It sound weird, but the spicy mix of textures works. On my second visit, I ordered a variety of dips and baladi, an Egyptian pita-like bread.
Zamalek is the hub of cultural life in Cairo. The island is packed with bars, jazz and music clubs, art galleries, cafes, and the Cairo Tower, Egypt’s most important modern landmark and the fourth-tallest building in the world.
Zamalek has many interesting cafes tucked into its dense city streets. One of my favourites was Sufi Bookstore. Located down an alleyway and decorated with polished wood furniture and ornate lamps, Sufi looks like the turn-of-the-century living room of an Egyptian academic. Even when the cafe isn’t putting on a performance or talk, the tables are packed with hip Cairenes meeting friends, reading, or working.
Source: Sufi Bookstore
Cairo is a city lived on the street. At any time of day, you’ll find Cairenes smoking hookah in the open patio of a cafe or friends catching up on a footpath. If I was ever lost on the street, there was always a friendly old man in a galabeya to assist.
The commotion doesn’t stop at night. Even deep into the evening hours, throngs of people were walking (or motorcycling) down Zamalek’s narrow streets. It makes the neighbourhood an exhilarating, if nerve-racking, place to explore.
But those who do are rewarded. A few blocks from Sufi, we stumbled upon Fair Trade Egypt, a boutique that sells artisanal products from all over Egypt. Opened in 1998, the shop sells textiles, pottery, leather goods, and more from 34 different groups of artisans. For those tired of haggling, Fair Trade offers a fixed-price option where you can be sure the money is going to a good place. We ended up buying earrings and scarves as gifts for friends.
Source: Fair Trade Egypt
Our next stop was Diwan. Founded in 2002 by sisters Hind and Nadia Wassef, Diwan is more of a traditional bookstore, featuring titles in Arabic and English. It has since developed into a chain with 13 locations, but the flagship is in Zamalek. The staff offer a curated collection of books with recommendations, which led me to discover “Friendly Fire,” a book of short stories about modern Cairo by Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany.
For dinner, we headed to Abou El Sid, a restaurant that serves solid Egyptian fare in a colourful setting. Hidden behind large unmarked iron doors in a dusty, old house and decorated with plush red cushions and ornate lamps, it evokes old world glamour without pandering to nostalgia. Mind the smoke — every dinner party seemed festooned in a cloud of hookah and cigarettes — but the atmosphere is worth it.
The next day, we decided to explore Cairo’s art scene. Zamalek is home to a number of galleries, including SafarKhan, Picasso, Al Masar, and Zamalek Art Gallery. The Gezira Art Center is a good place to start. The building houses a rotating series of exhibitions by different galleries and outside is a sculpture garden sometimes used to host events. A helpful gallery attendant gave me a list of her favourite galleries to check out.
I was in town during the 40th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival. Featuring a diverse slate of films from all over the world and held at the Cairo Opera House in Zamalek, among other venues, the film festival was great window into Cairene culture. Young Cairenes were hanging out, eating and drinking, and cycling between the theatres.
Unlike Sundance or Cannes, it felt very accessible. I bought tickets on the day to see Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda, the first film written and directed by a Saudi Arabian woman. The film, which came out in 2013, was a powerful portrayal of what it’s like to grow up a young girl who refuses to conform to Saudi Arabia’s gender norms.
After several days in Zamalek, it was time for a new vibe. We gathered our things and headed to downtown. The streets around Taalat Harb, one of the main squares, are filled with clothing boutiques, antiques shops, and restaurants. It’s the bustling heart of the city.
The main thoroughfare in downtown is Taalat Harb street, which connects Tahrir Square with Taalat Harb Square. The street is excellent place to take in the French neoclassical architecture that once earned the city the nickname “the Paris of the Nile.” These days, the buildings are a bit worse for wear, but there remains a majesty to walking among them.
We decided to stay at Dahab Hostel nearby. While Cairo doesn’t have many hostels, Dahab is considered the best. The staff is friendly and helpful, they offer tours all over the country, and the hostel attracts a diverse, international crowd that spans college-age backpackers to holidaying Europeans.
Dahab is located on the roof of a building. The rooms are situated around an open, plant-filled courtyard, and a terrace above provides an even more spectacular view of the city. It’s a no-frills place, but it’s every easy to make friends with other guests. There’s no shortage of people to strike up a chance conversation, grab a few drinks at the bar nearby, or to go out sightseeing with.
Source: Dahab Hostel
We went for a late lunch at Kazaz, a popular local eatery known for having the best shawarma sandwiches in downtown. If you just happened to be walking by, the constant crowd in front of the door waiting for takeout orders gives away how good and cheap it is. We got a table inside and ordered Egyptian classics like lentil soup and fattah, a dish of meat served over rice, crispy bread, and tomato sauce.
Two nights a week, the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo opens for night hours. Tickets cost a little more than daytime hours, but we figured it would be worth it. Aside from a couple groups of school kids, the museum was completely empty. The mummy rooms — which require an extra ticket — were so quiet we were convinced the mummified ancient royals would spring back to life.
With over a hundred thousand artifacts dating over 5,000 years, the Egypt Museum has more than any person could see in half a dozen visits. A entire room is dedicated to the treasures in Tutankhamun’s tomb while another shows off mummified crocodiles and dogs. The artifacts are housed in wooden cases with yellowing (sometimes inaccurate) identifying cards or stacked up next each other like a warehouse. You can’t get much closer to Egyptian history.
The next time I plan to visit Cairo will be after the Grand Egyptian Museum opens in 2020. Built in the shadow of the pyramids in Giza for $US1 billion, the new museum will be the largest archaeological museum in the world. It will have a whopping 50,000 artifacts spanning pre-historic times through Greco-Roman history on display.
Source: The Art Newspaper
The post-revolution years have birthed a new spirit of entrepreneurialism, Egyptian friends told me. A powerful example is Somaya Elaasuoty, who opened Fas’hat Somaya, a tiny restaurant in downtown Cairo, after cooking for thousands of protesters during the Tahrir Square protests. Elaasuoty serves a changing menu of Egyptian classics using only her memory to guide her. I treated myself one night to a delicious variety of stews and pickled veggies.
The next day, it was time to check out one of Cairo’s biggest attractions, aside from the Pyramids: the Khan Al Khalili market. Dating back to the 14th century, the souk is a medieval market brought to life. But in contrast to similar markets across the world, it is still very much in use by locals.
Source: Lonely Planet
When we walked even a few blocks away from the entrance, we found ourselves in a labyrinth of quiet alleyways where Cairenes were going about their business. We still had to avoid the touts’ calls telling us we could look at their shop “for free,” but it was all part of the charm.
The shops closest to the entrance ply nonsense like stuffed-animal camels and pyramid keychains. The further you head off the tourist route, the more shops there are selling specialised goods like carpets, gold, and spices.
The shop or workshop owners in the less trafficked areas were very friendly. We met Ayman Al Kabbany, an Egyptian whose family has run a carpet shop in the souk for decades. Kabbany and his team make, repair, and sell exquisite carpets from Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. The one on the wall is a 150-year-old Turkish carpet that sells for over $US1,000.
As we travel with only carry-on suitcases, there wasn’t a whole lot we could buy besides tchotkes. But we are already planning a return trip in a couple years to outfit our apartment with all the brass lamps, carpets, and handmade furniture we can afford … which might be a lot, considering how good the prices were (provided you know how to bargain).
For now, we had to stick to buying snacks. This seller offered up bags of fresh nuts and seeds for less than a dollar a pop. He had a great sense of humour, posing for a few photos.
In the textile souk, shop owners don’t even bother selling souvenir shirts. Everything there is catered to local Cairenes looking to refresh their wardrobes. Because cars cant fit in the narrow alleyways, porters carry huge shipments of products on dollies they force through the packed crowd. You have to watch out for them, because they won’t watch out for you.
Khan Al Khalili is a good place to try out street foods. There are tons of restaurants, cafes, and bakeries tucked into back alleys and corners of the market. Bakers walk up and down rows carrying crates of fresh baladi bread. At seemingly random points, the baker would set the crate down and sell bags of the bread to nearby restaurant owners. When we tried to buy one piece of bread, he looked at us like we were crazy.
Navigating the language barrier is a difficulty outside the shops catering to tourists. It took a lot of pointing and gesturing to order this tameya, Egypt’s version of falafel made with fava beans. Crispy and fresh out of the fryer, the tameya were worth the hassle.
As it got closer to nighttime, the market grew more packed. By the time we tried to leave, the main thoroughfare was packed. Walking through was like trying to push through a concert crowd. Between the crowd, the setting sun, and the labyrinth of alleyways that Google is no help in navigating, getting out of the market was a nerve-racking experience.
Khan Al-Khalili is located in the historic heart of Islamic Cairo. Nearby are a number of famous mosques, the most famous of which are Al-Hussein Mosque next door and the Al-Azhar Mosque across the street. While we didn’t go inside Al-Hussein, we made the trip over to Al-Azhar, considered the most important mosque in the city. Dating back to 970 C.E., the mosque features architectural flourishes from the Mamluk and Ottoman Empires, among other eras, and the world’s second-oldest university.
On our last weekend in town, we attended the RiseUp Summit, a tech and entrepreneurship conference held in Cairo each December. Abdelhameed Sharara told us that he founded RiseUp to be a hub for the city and the Middle East’s nascent startup scene, to help entrepreneurs solve long-festering problems in the region and prevent brain drain.
Source: RiseUp Summit
We met Abdallah Hussein, and Mostafa El Kholy, the founders of Fyonka, a ride-hailing service that connects female drivers with female riders. “[RiseUp] gave us the confidence to go for it,” Hussein said, adding that during last year’s conference, there was a crowd of interested attendees waiting to talk to them about the company.
For dinner on one of our last nights in town, we headed to Pomodoro. Ignore the Italian name — Pomodoro is the place Cairenes go for a seafood feast. There’s always a line that could take you an hour or more to get seated, but it’s worth it for the heaping plates of freshly-steamed crab, prawns, calamari, and clams.
That night, an Egyptian friend invited us to an event called House Sessions. Held by top Egyptian event organiser Nacelle Grooves — who is behind an upcoming Red Hot Chilli Peppers concert held at the Pyramids of Giza — House Sessions is an energetic all-night electronic music party. It was held at Capital Club Cairo, a swanky place at the top of a building with sweeping views of the skyline.
On our last day, we headed to Coptic Cairo, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city. Housed within a maze of ancient streets, the area has the city’s oldest church, synagogue, and mosque.
Coptic Cairo is a place filled with monuments dedicated to the lore of the Abrahamic religions. Ben Ezra Synagogue is built on the place where baby Moses is believed to have been found while the Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church is built on where the holy family is believed to have hid in Egypt. It’s worth exploring.
Source The Culture Trip
Even after two weeks in the city, we were still discovering new places. On our last night, we found Room Art Space, a restaurant, cafe, and event center that has become a cultural hub for artsy Cairenes. On any given night, the space puts on jazz concerts, acoustic sets, film screenings, open mics, and talent shows.
Source: Room Art Cafe
Unfortunately, on the night we visited, there was no event happening. It’s now another reason for us to go back.
Before getting to Cairo, we had viewed the city as a stopover for tourists heading to Egypt’s fantastic ancient sights. But after spending two weeks exploring the city’s food, culture, and nonstop energy, we would tell future visitors to make time to explore the Egypt of today, not just the Egypt of 5,000 years ago.
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