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Cairo has been the jewel of the Middle East and Africa for thousands of years. In 2600 BCE, the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom chose the sandy plateau just above the Nile Delta for their ancient capital of Memphis – one of the world’s earliest urban settlements and Egypt’s capital until the beginning of the first century CE. The social upheavals of the Middle East affected Cairo in the 20th century. Modern political and economic centralization in the capital is driving thousands of rural Egyptians into the arms of the “Mother of the World” (Umm al-Dunya. as the medieval Arabs called Cairo), and she is struggling to cope with the needs of her growing brood. Places where pharaohs and kings once lounged now teem with barking street merchants and silver-tongued con artists. Amid the tangled web of unlabeled streets and the dizzying calls of hawkers, Cairenes frequent their favorite sheesha halls, navigate labyrinthine bazaars, and worship in hundreds of ancient mosques and churches (and some synagogues). Cairo intimidates most of those who pay the city only a perfunctory visit. But beyond the Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum, patience and a sense of adventure will help you enjoy the apparent insanity of a city that seems always on the verge of some great event.
At the center of it all is Tahrir Sw. (Midan Tahrir), one of the many central districts planned by British and French colonists. Local buses depart from here for every metropolitan destination. The three most important streets coming out of Tahrir Sq. are Qasr al-’Aini St., Qasr al-Nil St., and Tala’at Harb St. Qasr al-’Aini St.runs south from Tahrir Sq. and ends at Old Cairo (also known as Coptic Cairo), the historical and spiritual center of the Copts, Egypt’s Eastern Orthodox Christians. Qasr al-Nil St. begins in front of the Nile Hilton, cuts through Tala’at Harb Sq., and continues onto Mustafa Kamal Sq. Tala’at Harb St. runs from the northeast side of Tahrir Sq. through Tala’at Harb Sw. toward Orabi Sq. and 26 July St.
Centuries of history come together in the streets of Egypt’s capital, where the dusty ghosts of dynasties past fight to be remembered amid the emerging spirit of a metropolitan future. In Islamic Cairo, the devout prostrate themselves before some of the Muslim world’s most revered sites while small-time capitalists haggle in Khan al-Khalili, the ancient bazaar nearby. In the Cities of the Dead, mausolea and tombs coexist with a poor but vibrant community. Christian and Jewish minority communities are centered in the Coptic district of Old Cairo, and the remains of al-Fustat house the earliest Egyptian mosque. Modern Cairo rushes to embrace the future, while the city’s museums strain to weave together its four millennia of history.
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Sticking with the same old fuul and ta’aminyya will require only 50pt to amply fill your stomach. Fresh fruit juice, on sale anywhere you see bags of fruit hanging around a storefront, is one of the highlights of the Egyptians culinary experience. As long as the place looks clean and has running water behind the counter, it is probably safe to drink, though you should know that glasses are merely rinsed between customers. At places without waiters, pay first and then exchange your receipt for food.
Sit-down meals are relatively cheap by Western standard and are usually worth the small investment, as long as you choose wisely from the menu. Even at more expensive restaurants, you can create a handsome meal out of hummus, baba ghanoush (grilled eggplant dip), and salad. Fatir – a filo dough-like bread stuffed and topped with vegetables, meats, or sweets – is far tastier than the imitations of Italian pizza in town, and usually cheaper. There is both a sales tax on food and a service charge at sit-down restaurants. A minimum charge is common among more expensive restaurants. Additionally, a small tip is usually included in the order.
Vegetarians have an advantage, as Cairo’s veggie fare is cheaper and better -tasting than the poor-to-mediocre meat dishes found in most restaurants. Since cheap restaurants and street vendors often advertise vaguely labeled “meat” that could very well have been pulling a cart a few days before, even militant carnivores may discover a sudden empathy for animals.
As the sun sets on the Egyptian capital, sheesha smoke fills the air, strolling locals mill about the markets, and decked-out scenesters dance ‘til (almost) dawn at the discotheques dotting the side streets of the city. During Ramadan, Cairenes take to the streets around al-Azhar and Hussein St. along the corniche, and all over the bridges spanning the Nile. Starting around 10pm, there are street performances, magic shows, and general shenanigans and tomfoolery. Most cinemas also have midnight screenings during this month.
Cairenes love to relax, meet with friends, and contemplate the sweet mysteries of life. Much of this ruminating occurs in the ahwas (coffeehouses) that dot many street corners and alleys east of the Nile. A typical ahwa has gossipers in one corner, tawila (backgammon) players in another, and sheesha tobacco and Turkish coffee steam winding throughout. Sheesha tobacco is smoother and more delicious than cigarette shag and comes plain or flavored (apple is ubiquitous). Several spots downtown welcome foreigners, but with the intention of cheating them. Tactics include trying to charge for bottled water whether customers ask for it or not, telling them that their sheesha is “finished” after five minutes and needs to be replaced (a good sheesha withstands at least twenty minutes of dedicated smoking). Elsewhere, staff is usually honest, but women may feel uncomfortable in these house houses of male bonding. Try to determine the mood of the place before you sit down.
Cairo isn’t known for beer guzzling, but considering the strict Islamic prohibition against alcohol, it has a good number of bars. These fall into two categories: cheap places serving only Stella and catering to middle-aged Egyptian males, and livelier establishments filled with a combination of the young, the rich, and the expatriated.
The Cairene club scene is smaller, tamer, and less crowded than that of Beirut and Istanbul. The clubs on Pyramids Road in Giza overflow with Gulf and Arabs, but are extremely expensive. Elsewhere clubs are more affordable, but depending on the place, night, and mood of the bouncer, single men may have a hard time getting in. Always call to check on the latest rules, and wear something sleek, black, and non-denim to improve your chances.
Authentic belly dancing is a popular evening diversion for those who can afford it. For a low cover charge, you can watch a show at one of several inexpensive venues downtown. However, these are good only as a form of ironic entertainment and have more in common with a comedy club than anything else. A dancer will typically wander around the floor (sort of) in time with the blaring orchestra, and occasionally throw in one of the two or three moves in her repertoire. To divert attention from their ineptitude, dancers often drag spectators onto the floor, so sit away from the center if you’d rather watch the entertainment than become it. Avoid any appetizers placed at the table; these are not free and can add a zero to your bill if you’re not careful. These joints have little in common with clubs operated by five-star hotels. A five-star dancer has complete creative control over her performance and employs her own orchestra. Women will have no problem attending shows alone, and the Gulf Arabs who form most of the audiences regularly bring their families. Keep in mind that the quality of the performance depends most on the skill of the dancer; call ahead to check who is scheduled for a particular night.
Keep your soles out of sight – in or out of your shoes. Bottoms of feet resting anywhere but on the ground is disrespectful. Before entering mosques, remove shoes and have socks ready to wear. Women must cover their heads and arms, and stand behind men. Outside of mosques, women usually congregate with other females, lining up with other women to buy tickets and sitting at the front of buses and trains. For men, except in the most secular areas like Israel or downtown Beirut, speaking to unknown women is a breach of etiquette and should be avoided.
It is customary for Arabs to refuse the first invitation of an offering; tourists should do the same, as a genuine invitation will be repeated at least twice. If ever invited to a home but unable to attend, the householder will often press for a promise from you to visit in the future, usually for a meal. If you make such a promise, keep it. Failing to arrive will humiliate your host. It is also offensive to offer bakhsheesh to professionals, businessmen, or others who would consider themselves your equals.
Middle Eastern countries outlaw drugs, and in many places, alcohol and pork. If you need to drink in the presence of others, ask first. Explicit sexual material, like magazines, photographs, tapes, or records, is illegal and subject to confiscation.