Over the years, I’ve made several stopovers in Cairo, usually on route to the Arabian Gulf. My first trip to the massive and mesmeric city was enough to make it a favorite vacation haunt.
Every time I visit, I’m still hypnotized by its dusty daylight, crowded cafés, and musty ancient and medieval treasures—from Tutankhamun’s gold mask to the looming Citadel. And for me, part of the city’s enduring appeal is its near-impenetrable streets and traffic, which ensure that nearly every journey brings wrong turns and fresh discoveries. To help you experience Cairo’s best, here’s my itinerary for first-time visitors.
Cairo is fiercely hot, so start your sightseeing early, especially in shadeless Giza.
If you only have time for one thing, make it riding a camel around Giza’s Pyramids for widescreen views of the millennia-old tombs against modern Cairo.
Visiting Giza’s Pyramids first is sensible; having covered the essentials, you can be more flexible with sightseeing later. Book a guide to ferry you through both Giza’s sprawl and the ancient history of these 4,500-year-old pharaonic tombs and their guard-like Sphinx. Consider a tour that includes a camel ride on the plateau.
Later, head downtown to Cairo’s Egyptian Museum (soon to relocate to Giza). This hallowed institution houses everything from Tutankhamun’s funerary treasures to royal mummies, many haphazardly displayed—a huge part of its charm, in my opinion.
Start at Coptic Cairo, the hub of Egypt’s Coptic branch of Christianity. If you’re ready for the hot and crowded metro system, catch a train to Mar Girgis station, a few steps from the peaceful compound. Sights include the Hanging Church built on the remnants of the Roman-period Babylon Fortress, the Ben Ezra Synagogue, and St. Sergius Church, which swirls with bible stories.
The easiest way to cover Islamic Cairo is on a private tour, viewing highlights like the Citadel’s Alabaster Mosque, Sultan Hassan Mosque, and Museum of Islamic Art. Some circuits also feature the nearby, often-overlooked Garbage City, a dilapidated area where huge piles of trash are recycled by locals.
A short drive away is El Moez, one of Cairo’s oldest streets, crowded with shops, mosques, and grand Ottoman mansions. Absorb the commotion before ducking into the adjacent Khan El-Khalili bazaar to scour its handicraft stalls. Lastly, join a Nile dinner cruise to enjoy an open buffet, belly-dance shows, and glittering city views—a touristy but fun way to conclude your visit.