Exploring Cairo: How to be a tourist in your own city

Nadine Abou el Atta, Wednesday 4 Oct 2017

The contrast of the black pyramid with the clear blue sky, almost creates a white halo around it around it, visible to the named eye. (Photo: Nadine Abou el Atta)

Over the past two years I have become addicted to travelling, and I find a way to escape to the mountains, the desert, or the beach at least twice a month. But these trips have barely scratched the surface of the million hidden treasures this country has to offer. What this also means is that every month there are at least a couple of weekends where my passion is left to dwindle while I sit in traffic.

When we travel to a new city, no matter how small, we look for amazing places, but when in Cairo, our own home and one of the richest destinations in the world, we Cairenes spend our free time going on the same outings and meeting the same people.

But now that I am completely addicted to travel, I have started to look at my own home through fresh eyes, with a sense of discovery. Here are a few day trips that will make you too feel like an explorer discovering Cairo anew.



About 60 kilometres from central Cairo, the Dahshur area–which technically is part of Greater Cairo–is a completely different world. As we got closer to our destination, there were fewer and fewer cars on the roads, and instead palm trees became more and more visible. Driving through fields and past tall palm trees is, for a city resident, an incredibly relaxing–and foreign–sight.

Once you arrive, the police at the gate will check your ID, check the car to make sure you are not hiding any alcohol in the trunk (don’t ask why!), and let you in. Tickets for Egyptians are EGP 2 per person, but a ticket to enter with a car is EGP 80. In case you were wondering, a car is a must; the distance between the different pyramids is around three kilometres, not counting the distance to and from the gate. Without a car you will end up walking upwards of 10 kilometres.

The Dahshur complex contains three pyramids: red, white, and black (the bent pyramid). Roads in the area guide you first towards the red one, then the black, then to the white pyramid. Both of the latter two you can only view from the outside.

A word of advice: end your visit with the red pyramid. This will allow you to take your time exploring the internal construction, plus it is very humid inside the pyramid and you will sweat a lot, which will ruin any photos you take with the other two pyramids.

Having said that, the bent pyramid is the most impressive of the three. It is Egypt’s first smooth pyramid, built by Pharaoh Sneferu around 2,600 BC. It was first constructed at a 54-degree angle, before the course was changed midway to a 43-angle, giving it its distinctive shape.

There is something about this particular pyramid that feels grand, so make sure you take some time to sit under its shade and absorb its beauty. It’s hard to put my finger on what is special about this particular site, but when you get there you will know exactly what I mean. Try also to walk all the way around the pyramid, as the sides don’t all look like each other. We almost missed seeing one side that was very smooth from its tip all the way to the ground; it looked like a modern-day building.

Only a few metres away is the white pyramid. It is the smallest one in the area, and there are hints that it was also once smooth. These pyramids were part of a process of trial-and-error for the ancient Egyptians, and part of the fun of the trip is being able to look up close at that process of experimentation.

We ended our trip at the red pyramid, the only one of the three that visitors can enter. It is the third largest pyramid in Egypt at its current height of 105 metres, but reaching the centre is a much shorter journey than that of the Giza pyramids, and doesn’t require the same level of fitness. It is still steep, narrow, and not particularly well-ventilated, so make sure you’re ready for that (and dressed appropriately) before you go inside.

After scrambling through a narrow pathway (here’s something to think about while you’re in there—it is believed that the ancient Egyptians made the pathways narrow on purpose, to force anyone who entered to bow in respect) we arrived at the first room. It turned out to be the largest out of three chambers.

The internal architecture of the pyramid is fascinating, and impressive even by modern standards. The first room was perfectly square, with very smooth walls and a ceiling like two staircases meeting at their tips to form a pyramid; it was all very precise.

At the bottom of one of the walls there was a small pathway leading to the second room, which resembled the first to a great extent, with the exception of a wooden staircase, some yellow lights, and a corridor leading you to the third and final room, a much smaller space.

After finishing our time at Dahshur, our original plan was to head to nearby Sakkara, to see Egypt’s first-ever pyramid.

Sadly, we ran out of time and supplies of bottled water. However, it is definitely advisable to visit both Dahshur and Sakkara areas in the same trip, not only because they are close, but because you will then get the full effect of exploring Egypt’s earliest pyramids, and observing up-close how their builders refined their techniques to create ever-more majestic structures.


Zip-lining, rock-climbing, and adventure rope course in Mokattam

This is hands down the most fun adventure you can have in Cairo. Located right next to the Mokattam monastery, the place is managed by a very friendly Polish man named Mario. The only downside to this magnificent place is the route to get there; we had to drive through the entire garbage-gathering district, which means dealing with both the smell and the narrow streets. The residents are however very friendly and helpful, and the route itself is not over-complicated.

The adventure activity centre offers three different activities: an adventure rope court, zip-lining, and two different levels of rock-climbing, and all are carried out following international safety standards.

We began our day with a game on the adventure rope course. The course is composed of consecutive obstacles, such as using a series of U-shaped ropes to cross from one side of a space to the other, or a net suspended in the air which you have to walk through. The game is easier than it sounds, as all participants are secured with safety ropes, and any player can exit the game at any given time.

Second came the best part of the entire experience: zip-lining. There is no scenery, of course, but it was still magical! It was my first ever zip-lining experience, so needless to say when the observer asked me to squat on the edge of the building and jump, it was perhaps one of the most terrifying sentences I have ever heard in my life. However, the fear completely disappeared as I flew through the air like a bird. The line is about 500 metres long and the entire experience lasts about 30 seconds, not counting the time required to get on and off the zip-line.

Finally, we ended our day with rock climbing. Like the rope game, there are two levels, an easier artificial climbing wall, and a more difficult actual rock-climbing experience. We began with the more realistic rock-climbing wall, which is actually the side of the Mokattam mountain. We were secured with safety ropes, but we felt our upper-body strength was not quite up to the task and decided to gracefully opt for the kids’ version of the experience, which turned out to be significantly easier.

The whole experience was about three hours, and each activity costs around EGP 40, with the exception of the ropes, which cost EGP 50. Make sure you call ahead and book, giving the exact number of people who will be taking part.


High Ropes Team

 Rock climbing
Only one side of the ropes and rock climbing experience (Photo: Nadine Abou el Atta)

Religions Complex
A glimpse of the beautiful tombstones in the Greek Orthodox Cemetery (Photo: Nadine Abou el Atta)


The Religions’ Complex/Coptic Cairo

While well-known to tourists, for some reason I only discovered the magic of this place as an adult. Where else on earth can you visit a mosque, a church, and a synagogue in such a small area?

To enjoy the full experience, try to go during a week day, around 9am. I know it’s not an ideal option, but otherwise you will find the place very crowded. I went twice; the first time was mid-week and we were the only ones there, while the second time was a Friday, and we were joined by half of Cairo.

Generally speaking, the churches, the mosque, and the cemetery are open to the public at any time, while, the museum, the nunnery, and the synagogue open at 10am. Going at the right time allows you to enjoy the entire place before peak-heat hours.

The place includes too many treasures to cover in detail here, so consider the following more of an outline of what you can explore when you visit.

We began our day with a walk through the narrow pathways of the complex, reading the signs that explain some of the different sites. We chose to start with the small wooden church of Abu Serga, where the holy family spent a night during their time in Egypt. The place is quite small, yet holds many ancient documents as well as the remains of revered Christian figures.

The complex includes several other churches: the Church of St. Barbara, the Hanging Church, the Church of the Virgin Mary, the Greek Orthodox Church of St George, and a smaller Greek Orthodox church in a cemetery. Needless to say, the most famous and most visited in the area is the Hanging Church. Its entrance is inspired by Islamic architecture, while its interior mimics the design of a classic Egyptian church.

The most beautiful, at least in my opinion, was the Church of St George. The ceiling was covered in paintings of birds, stars, and had the image of Jesus at its centre. The walls were decorated with red marble and gold paint.

Continuing our journey back in time, we reached the Greek Orthodox cemetery. As you make your way from the Church of St George to the cemetery, you will pass by tiny caves where priests used to isolate themselves from the world and live only for prayer. The place houses generations of beautifully carved tombstones, some going back to the 1800s but still well-preserved and beautiful to look at.

Moving on we passed through tiny alleyways and ancient-looking streets to reach the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Photography is not allowed, which is a huge shame, given that the internal design was by far the most intriguing in the entire complex. The synagogue mixes Islamic architecture with Jewish symbols.

It is much smaller in size and less extravagant that the synagogue in Adly Street in Downtown Cairo, yet no less magical.

Before we left the complex we visited the Coptic museum, which traces the history of Christianity in Egypt from its beginnings. Although the museum is often described as holding around 8,000 artefacts, the number of items on display are far less in number.

After we exited the walls of the complex, we ended our journey with a trip to Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque. On entering, the white marble floors will mesmerize you, and you will feel yourself going back in time to the grand Islamic empire, where grand buildings included long shaded colonnades and were decorated with hundreds of lanterns.

Religions Complex
Beauty in its simplest forms can be experienced in the narrow streets of Old Cairo


The Citadel

As Egyptians, we have all been to the Citadel as children on the usual school trips. But the place is worth a look through adult eyes. The grandness of the main mosque alone is enough, yet the place continues to unfold its exquisite nature, through its panoramic area, the ancient alleys and walkways, and the interesting museum. The place takes you away, to a lost era of magnificence.

A word of advice: avoid going near Friday prayer time. The guards there are very patient and friendly but your time will be cut short as they scramble to empty the place for prayer.

Take your time exploring the corners of Mohamed Ali Mosque in the citadel, the details are awe inspiring. (Photo: Nadine Abou el Atta

One of the few shots we managed to capture in the forbidden Palace of Saad Halim. (Photo: Nadine Abou el Atta)

The hidden gems of Downtown Cairo

One of the main beauties of Egyptians is that we as a nation are late risers; this translates to empty streets on weekend mornings. 

To take advantage of this sense of calm, you can’t miss a morning coffee in Alfi Street, which is for pedestrians only. The cafes there don’t offer top-notch coffee, so bring your own and sit in the central square surrounded by historic buildings, and watch the people pass by.

While taking a walk to explore Downtown Cairo’s historic architecture, I came across the completely deserted and mesmerizing palace of Saad Halim Pasha. Every single part of the palace is covered in elaborate carvings of angels; from elaborate staircases to hallways, nothing was left without carvings. I could write pages on the magnificence of this place.

Entering the palace is pretty difficult, but we managed to access it for a brief duration, leaving no time to capture its beauty. The controversy over the current state of the building and its private owner is considerable; it is believed by some that it is being left without care until it is legal to tear down this incredible piece of history, but that is a topic for another time.

These amazing sites and adventures are merely a small sample of the treasures of this amazing city. Cairo is littered with historic mosques, ancient ruins, offbeat museums, splendid palaces, and exotic restaurants. If you grasp every opportunity to explore the endless magic that is Cairo, I guarantee it will make congested, stress-fuelled city life feel a lot more magical.


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