Cairo is big. The largest city in the middle east. 10 – 20 million people depending on who you ask. Yet most tourists only stay here 2 days. 3 days tops. Huge mistake. Cairo is like an onion. Once you get past the pyramids and the garbage there are layers and layers of places to go, treasures to explore and things to learn. Here are 5.
Walking tour of the City of the Dead
The first tombs and mausoleums were built outside the city in what was then desert by the early Muslim conquerors around 650 AD. Subsequent rulers and Egyptian elite kept adding their dead creating what today is a dense 4-mile-long necropolis. A lot of money and effort has been put into commemorating ancestors in a lavish long-lasting way. However, what started as a place to bury the dead is now inhabited by the living… some are care takers, some want to be near their ancestors, others are looking for a cheap place to live. Often referred to as a slum, The City of the Dead is also an easy, weird historic place to walk in a city that isn’t known for strolling. “Walk like an Egyptian” offers fabulous informed guided tours.
Go shopping at the First Mall
I cannot believe I am recommending a mall but three of my favorite shops are here. They are all Egyptian, all headed by women, and all selling beautiful things. Azza Fahmy sells modern, distinctive, one of a kind craftsman-made jewelry. Each piece tells a story. Her inspiration is based in history, but the jewelry is completely modern. Tanis sells fabulous hand printed customizable fabric. They tap into Egypt’s rich textile history as well as more modern sources for the wide variety of designs on cottons, silks and linen. The Tanis team can turn any of their incredible textiles into curtains, pillows, table cloths and napkins in just a few days… bring your measurements. Heba Linens sells the most exquisite Egyptian cotton embroidered bedding that every bride in the Gulf hopes to receive as part of her wedding loot.
Listen to music at Naguib Mahfouz Café
An oasis from the hustle, noise and salesmen of Khan el Khalili Bazaar, this café restaurant has a hustle all its own. Decorated in nineteenth century Arab style this local hot spot is dedicated to the Nobel Prize winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz. His books document the social and political history of ordinary people. There is a more formal dining area where you can get proper meals of traditional food. But I recommend sitting in the front area where the musicians play and more casual snacks and great juices are served. the local crowd is welcoming. The night I was there everyone sang along, clapped, smoked shisha, asked us where were from, then smiled and made space for us at their tables. We had a blast. They do not serve any alcohol. Didn’t miss it at all.
The Museum of Egyptian Antiques
Ok, this one is not at all off the beaten track. Like the pyramids, everyone comes here… to see King Tut’s treasure. Except its moving. To the new Grand Egyptian Museum. Rumor has it all his stuff will be there by early 2019. Visit this old gem anyway. It was built in 1902. State of the art at the time, it now feels wonderfully old fashioned. You can visit mummies, see ancient tools and marvel at giant statues. Not all signs have been updated to reflect new scholastic research. Makes you laugh, feel smart and realize how much there is still to learn.
See the sculpture garden at the Adam Henein Museum
Adam Henein is amongst Egypt’s most prominent modern sculptors. In 2014 he gifted this museum to the country. The museum houses a stunning collection of his work, including paintings, in an architecturally wonderful contemporary space. He himself lives in a small, shockingly modest room en route to the lovely outdoor sculpture garden. The center piece is his “life boat”, a collection of sculptures on a sculpted traditional Nile boat that symbolize important events from his life. Look through the tiny peep hole to discover the small treasure which is a memorial to his deceased wife. If you get the chance, attend one of the cultural events he hosts to promote local musicians and performers. Only a few minutes away is the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre. The pair make a wonderful half day excursion.