The best way to get under this vast city’s skin is not through sightseeing—it’s through visiting ahwas coffee houses, roadside diners, and sidewalk cafés spanning downtown to maze-like Islamic and Coptic Cairo. In the past decade, I’ve also discovered the city’s two emerging culinary scenes: cool, independent eateries bringing a modern slant to classic Egyptian dishes, and a slew of swish, new rooftop hangouts. Here’s my itinerary for negotiating these culinary offerings in three rewarding days.
Pack a scarf of some sort to protect yourself against the unrelenting sun and dust.
If you only have time for one thing, make it people-watching over a rich Arabic coffee at one of Cairo’s friendly ahwas.
Devote day one to Cairo’s burgeoning line of homegrown restaurants, a marker of locals’ resurgent pride in everyday Egyptian fare. After a fava-beans-and-eggs breakfast at Felafela in the heart of downtown, absorb buzzy Tahrir Square—the epicenter of Egypt’s 2011 revolution—before navigating El Tahrir street to sip Wardet El Yaman’s ultra-rich coffee.
Peruse the royal mummies at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum (soon to relocate to Giza), working up an appetite before strolling another few blocks to Abou Tarek for some of Cairo’s best kushari—mounds of macaroni, chickpeas, rice, fried onions, and tomato-chilli sauce. Cap off the day with an evening food tour to get a local perspective on Cairo’s staples.
Earmark today for Cairo’s older, Islamic quarter. Down a sugarcane juice or sip on a mint tea before browsing the shops along dizzying, beautiful El Moez. Next-door Khan El-Khalili bazaar has alleyways pitted with hole-in-the-wall food spots, while the Naguib Mahfouz Café offers an escape from the hubbub with its 1930s atmosphere and delicious lemon coolers and mezze.
Return downtown by cab for Nile-view cocktails and dinner. The 5-star corniche hotels are worth the extra cost for their views; the Bar’Oro at Ritz-Carlton and Opia at Ramses Hilton are popular spots.
Use today to sample Cairo’s more eclectic and upscale food scenes, where chefs are busy giving old-school Egyptian fare a 21st-century twist. Explore the cosmopolitan Zamalek district on Gazeri Island, where side streets hide swanky Egyptian eateries, French fine dining spots, and pasta and sushi houses.
If Zamalek’s pricier venues are beyond budget, pick up trendy takes on Cairo’s street foods at Zooba, with specialities like pita stuffed with soft local cheese. Alternatively, complete your stay with a market tour and cooking class combo or dinner with a local family—both rich sources of ideas for recreating Cairo’s specialties back home.