Cairo is the hub and gateway to Egypt for international travelers. However, most visitors take a fleeting trip to the Pyramids of nearby Giza before sailing away on the Nile or heading to the desert. There are a lot of fun things to do in Cairo if you decide to pause for a few days. The bustling metropolis offers a unique combination of tradition and modernism and makes for a delightful destination at the beginning or end of your Egyptian adventure.
While the rest of Egypt lends itself to traveling with a guide, Cairo can be a DIY adventure for indie travelers who are itching to get out on their own. You can also supplement certain outings by hiring a guide on the spot as we did in Coptic Cairo to get the most access to knowledge and otherwise hidden sections of attractions. I would recommend spending at least four days in the city to allow cover the highlights as well as leave enough room for meanderings. If you have more time, you can even explore the suburbs of Nasr City or Zamalek for a deeper dive into modern-day living in the region.
Read on for my recommendations of top things to do in Cairo, Egypt to make the most of your time in the country. There are museums to explore, places of worship to admire, and, of course, the still-standing wonder of the ancient world. And remember to save the handy map at the end for reference.
1. Marvel at the Pyramids of Giza
Every first-time visitor’s fantasy of Egypt starts with the pyramids and rightfully so. One look at the three pyramids in the city of Giza will assure you that some places are worth all the hype. The pyramids were built for pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure from the 4th dynasty. Of these, the pyramid of Khufu is the highest at 481.4 feet and remains the only permanent landmark on the list of seven wonders of the ancient world.
If you’ve imagined the pyramids situated in the secluded desert based on its pictures, you may be underwhelmed by the location of Giza Plateau in the middle of the bustling city. The area is an easy train or bus ride away from Cairo or you can arrange private transportation with a guide.
Historians continue to chip away at the question of why and how the pyramids were built. The fact that these massive structures were constructed without modern machinery is incredible in its own right. These grand tombs are believed to be a gateway for pharaohs, who acted as a bridge between the gods and humans, into the afterlife. They were created by a highly organized workforce (not slaves), and potentially included some seasonal workers like farmers during the flooding season on the Nile.
You may have seen countless pictures of the pyramids and think you have an idea of how massive it is. But it is only when standing next to a singular pyramid block reaching almost up to your chest that the scale of this monument truly sinks in. Climbing the pyramids is dangerous and currently prohibited so please respect the rules. A limited area near the base may be accessible with steps leading inside the pyramid.
Once you are done examining the pyramids from up close, take some time to step further away on a camel ride or on foot to get the quintessential pyramid pictures. Here you’ll see people raising their arms or leaning in weird poses while being egged on by guides with cameras. Camera positioning tricks then create photos that look like you’re picking up the pyramids with your fingers or resting on their slope. After a fair amount of resistance, we also gave in to some cheesy shots with our guide.
2. Pose with the Great Sphinx
Another important stop on the Giza Plateau is the colossal Abu al-Hol, meaning Father of Terror, popularly known as the Great Sphinx. The statue was carved from a single piece of limestone and stands 240 feet long and 66 feet tall. It has a long lion’s body capped by a man’s head wearing a royal headdress.
The statue is believed to depict the 4th dynasty Pharoah Khafre of one of the nearby pyramids and was created during his reign. The signs of human and natural deterioration are evident in the Sphinx of today. The body is eroding from the inside, the nose is missing and a part of the beard sits in the faraway British Museum.
3. Stand in the historic Tahrir Square
Tahrir Square or Midan Tahrir is one of the most famous public town squares in the world. It was the center of the Egyptian revolution in 2011 that subsequently led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. But the square being a gathering place for political demonstrations is not a new phenomenon. It has been central to the political activity in the country throughout the 20th century, starting with the Egyptian revolution against British occupation in 1919 which led to the rechristening of the name to Tahrir, meaning Liberation, from the original name Ismailia.
Today, it is an important stop to reminisce the history of the place and get an unencumbered view of the surroundings. This circular public square is located in the heart of downtown with seven roads carrying traffic away from it in all directions. It is surrounded by hotels and government buildings like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Arab League Headquarters, and Mogamma.
4. Learn ancient history at the Egyptian Museum
You can spend an entire day or even two at the Egyptian Museum and still leave without seeing everything. Such is the scale and enormity of the collection on display here. The museum is overwhelming and impressive in the same breath. The best way to see the two-floored museum is not by trying to see each and every piece but by strolling around and spending time with the artifacts that pique your interest.
The building is teeming with antiquities and many of them are not enclosed in glass containers. While this ad-hoc arrangement might feel chaotic, it is also a powerful reminder of how much history and its tangible relics are contained in this single nation.
The open Atrium on the ground floor and Tutankhamun Galleries and Mummy Room (charged extra) on the first floor are some of the highlights here. Walk amidst the dazzling golden sarcophagi and gilded wooden shrines of Tutankhamun. See the colorful, affectionate group statue of the dwarf Seneb and his family. Crane your necks to see the largest known ancient Egyptian family statue of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiye, and their three daughters procured from the same temple as Colossi of Memnon along Nile’s West Bank.
5. Understand the history of Christianity in Coptic Cairo
Islam may be most prominently associated with Egypt but Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of the country’s population. These Christians, called Copts, belong to the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria which is an Oriental Orthodox Christian church.
A section of Old Cairo, referred to as Coptic Cairo, is home to this indigenous Christian community. Churches, cemeteries, a museum, and even a synagogue are waiting to be explored in the place where Romans once established a fortress called Babylon-in-Egypt.
The attractions of Coptic Cairo probably deserve a post of their own but here’s a summary of the main spots. The most popular destination is the Hanging Church named such since it was built suspended over the Water Gate of Roman Babylon. Take your time to examine the colorful mosaic of biblical scenes in the courtyard before entering. The church is designed like an upturned Noah’s Ark with its wooden interiors and barrel-vaulted ceilings. You can also look through the glass in a section of the floor to see the original Roman gatehouse.
The Church of St. Sergius nearby is believed to be built over a cave where Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are sheltered to avoid persecution and a guide can help you retrace their steps.
The round Church of St. George is breathtaking in its grandeur. Jesus looks down from its tranquil blue dome, sunlight streams through the stained glass windows, gold inlays accentuate the walls, and silver cross and candlesticks glisten on the altar. The Greek Orthodox and Coptic Cemetary next to the Church of St. George is a very unique burial site with small chapels, crypts, raised graves, and angel statues. The area also houses Ben Ezra Synagogue which is the country’s oldest synagogue. It is located near the spring where Moses is believed to be found and Mary drew water for baby Jesus.
6. Shop in the city markets
The markets of Cairo are a great place for snagging souvenirs, marveling at intricate designs, and simply people-watching. Khan al-Khalili may have become infamous as a tourist magnet but this traditional bazaar is still worth a visit, even if a quick one. The densely clustered shops sell everything from jewelry to camel replicas to textiles.
But you don’t have to limit your shopping excursions to Khan al-Khalili. While it was nice to check out Khan al-Khalili, my husband and I enjoyed ourselves, even more, when wandering around in the restaurant and shopping streets of our hotel neighborhood near the Nasir train station. We sipped on sugarcane juice, dug into the sumptuous Egyptian koshari, and navigated language barriers to buy nutty, sweet goulash.
7. Find tranquility in Ibn Tulun Mosque
This mosque is the oldest intact Islamic monument in Cairo still in active use as well as one of the oldest in Africa. The earthy brown exterior and interiors of this traditional Islamic-style mosque are easy on the eyes. The simple geometry of the structure features a combination of angles and curves. The high walls around the large square courtyard are topped with crenellations and contain arched doorways. The doorways are decorated with intricate floral and geometric designs.
As you step into the courtyard, your eyes are drawn toward the elongated dome of the sabil at its center. There are Arabic carvings along the interior of the dome followed by arched patterns, some of which are carved open as windows to let the sunlight in. The floor is dominated by the remnants of the sabil or water kiosk added at the end of the thirteenth century in lieu of the original water fountain.
The minaret with its spiral outer staircase and the pointed arch is a critical feature of the mosque. Don’t miss the view from its top which is accessible from the outer courtyard. You’ll be rewarded abundantly with the best views of the mosque from high above plus incredible views of the sprawling metropolis including the Citadel in the distance.
At the entrance, you will receive cloth coverings to wear over your shoes inside the mosque. Women should also plan on covering their heads with a scarf and wearing full-length garments for a mosque visit.
8. Get a bird’s-eye view from the Citadel terrace
The Salah El Din Citadel located in the Mokattam hills on the eastern edge of the city is a prominent stop on the Cairo sightseeing itinerary. There is something for everyone in this large complex that was home to Egypt’s rulers for almost 700 years from the 13th to 19th centuries. The UNESCO world heritage site houses three mosques of distinct styles, palaces converted into museums and two terraces offering sweeping views of the city.
The towering Mohammed Ali Pasha Mosque and its neighboring Mosque of Al Nasir Muhammad are in the southern part of the Citadel whereas the Mosque of Suleiman Pasha sits at the edge of the northern enclosure.
Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty and the first sultan of both Egypt and Syria, began the Citadel construction in 1176 as a fortress against the Crusaders. Over the years, it was occupied or expanded by Mamluks, Napoleon’s French expedition troops, and finally the Ottomans. Older structures suffered deterioration or demolition and newer structures were erected. It became a military station in later years when the British Army barracked during WWII and a small footprint of Egyptian soldiers remains at present.
The views of the sprawling metropolitan capital city from the terrace are simply stunning. Stepping away from the narrow streets of bazaars for this high-level view offers a unique perspective on the size and scale of this ancient yet modern-day city. Neutral-colored mid-rise buildings stretch out in all directions punctuated by mosque domes and minarets. On a clear day, you can even see the pyramids of Giza in the distance.
9. Admire the ornate Mohammed Ali Pasha Mosque
The dominating structure of the Citadel is the ornate Mosque of Mohammed Ali Pasha built in memory of his oldest son Tusun Pasha in the first half of the nineteenth century. The stacked domes bear a striking resemblance to Turkey’s Blue Mosque after which it was modeled. The once off-white alabaster courtyard or sahn and its structures may have turned brownish but they still radiate the opulence of the Ottoman times.
The courtyard consists of a beautiful octagonal ablutions fountain with a marble dome under an outer wooden dome and awning. There is also a copper clock tower gifted by King Louis-Philippe of France in gratitude for the Pharaonic obelisk in Place de la Concorde in Paris. The dark carpeted interior is dimly lit up by a stream of twinkling chandeliers and golden overlays along intricately crafted domes. The Ottoman ruler’s marble tomb is also located inside the mosque near the entrance to the right.
10. Explore the ancient Al Nasir Muhammad Mosque
Next to the towering mosque of Mohammed Ali is the unassuming mosque of the Mamluk Sultan Al Nasir Muhammad Ibn Qala’un. Mamluks were non-Arab slave soldiers or freed slaves serving the Arab dynasties. It is also the Citadel’s only surviving Mamluk structure and draws influences from multiple architectural styles.
A green dome and earthy brown courtyard hallways welcome you inside this sparse and often uncrowded mosque. A noteworthy architectural detail in this mosque is the ornamented vaulted ceilings called muqarnas. The building is distinguished by two minarets influenced by an eastern Islamic style as opposed to the single minaret mosques of Cairo. The ornate minbar or pulpit is a central feature of the mosque created with wood, inlaid with ivory and mother‑of‑pearl, and inscribed with King Farouk’s name.
11. Walk amidst tanks at National Military Museum
The National History Museum at the Citadel is worth a quick visit at least from the outside if you’re in the area. The museum showcases the evolution of weaponry and military clothing in the country over the years. There is an open-air viewing area lined with several tanks and aircrafts used in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War that can be viewed from close quarters. The building walls surrounding these are replete with carvings of battle scenes and depictions of Egypt’s rebuilding.
Map of attractions
And that concludes my roundup of the 11 best things to do in Cairo. While I create these recommendation lists for ease of organization and recollection, I highly encourage you to use these lists as suggestions and see which attractions resonate the most with your interests.
I love slow travel and some of my favorite memories in Cairo stemmed from local wanderings in our hotel neighborhood or during our attraction excursions. Hearing a Hindi Bollywood song by a local school girl in the middle of Coptic Cairo, receiving hugs and kisses from the girls and their teacher, walking alongside families strolling down the shopping streets in the evenings, squeezing into crowded restaurants for a mouth-watering koshari, and being mistaken for a Misri, or Egyptian, by our regular sugarcane seller are some of my fondest travel memories. Such memories cannot be made with a checklist in hand. For that, you need to allow the structure of these recommendations to create room for serendipity.
Over to you – have you been to Cairo? I’d love to hear about your favorite places and activities in the city. If not, would you like to visit now? Let me know in the comments below!
Do not miss the following:
Cairo Nile cruise.
Sultan Hasan Mosque.
Sakkara historic complex with rural tour.
Thank you Ahmad Ullah for the suggestions!