Downtown Cairo is full of hidden gems that are often bypassed by locals and unexplored by tourists – and it’s probably nothing like you’d imagine.
When you think of Cairo, you may picture tall oriental arches, minarets and alleys packed with people, noise and spices. This is indeed what Khan el Khalili looks like – and for many tourists, it’s the first and last stop in this enormous city before moving on to Giza.
Egyptians and expats, on the other hand, go downtown for business. But on weekends the heart of Cairo isn’t the hangout it used to be in the 1960s and 70s. Many prefer the quieter suburbs, or the shopping centers and sporting clubs to unwind. Downtown is seen as crowded, hectic and noisy – and can take hours of traffic jams to navigate.
But these days, it’s making a comeback.
Downtown is seeing a revival – from cultural events like D-Caf that are often hosted in once-neglected spaces to trendy cafes that are drawing in younger generations into once-forgotten sidestreets.
Guided tours are held Friday mornings when the city is quiet, and when many are getting ready for the weekly prayers. This is the best time to see the city: when you don’t have to navigate crowds, and can focus on the architectural gems.
And downtown looks nothing like Khan el Khalili, or what many might expect.
While Egypt boasts a history going back thousands of years, downtown Cairo was designed and built in the late 19th century by Khedive Ismail, who commissioned top French and European architects to build a modern city centre. Today, many of downtown’s buildings look European, but contain oriental influences and unique touches that sets them apart from Western counterparts.
Here are my picks for where to begin exploring, and some of my favorite gems that you shouldn’t miss:
1. SAID HALIM PALACE:
Built for Said Halim Pasha (who never ended up living there) by architect Antonio Lasciac, the building was turned into the al-Nasriya School for Boys after nationalization. “The fact that the school was a palace made it unlike any other school,” said a man who once attended the school, interviewed in the book Discovering Downtown Cairo. “I remember you could feel the grandeur of the place as soon as you entered the large entrance court. … As children, we used to be really scared of the architecture of the palace once night fell, especially the basements.”
A Demerdache syrup advertisement in French and Arabic runs vertically along one of the building’s corners, recalling the area’s bygone status as an elite neighborhood. Nowadays the building is largely filled with offices, with only a few remaining residential spaces.
3. CINEMA RADIO:
Owing its name to New York’s famous Radio City Music Hall, the Cinema Radio originally hosted the city’s largest screen. Built in the 1930’s, the cinema in its glory days screened Egypt’s most prominent movies and was frequented by celebrities and socialites.
4. ASSICURAZIONI GENERALI:
Built by the Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali Trieste, the building was designed by one of the era’s more famous architects, Antonio Lasciac. The building’s crenellations are inspired by Islamic architecture while wooden elements enrich the facade’s composition.
5. EISH & MALH:
The owners of this Italian restaurant on Adly Street say they’re not part of the renewal and sprucing up of downtown — they just wanted a spot for great food in the city they call home. Events like Dinner & Jazz on Thursdays or Brunch & Jazz on Saturdays make this not only an eatery, but also a hangout for the community. My favourite are the movie nights when cinema classics and shorts from the Arab world are paired with courses that compliment the selections.
TO JOIN A WALKING TOUR:
If you want to explore this authentic heart of the city, I’d recommend joining an organized tour or hiring a guide.
The Cairo D-Tour sets off every Friday morning and is a brilliant way to see the different sides of downtown – from its urban history and art galleries, to its cafes and landmark cinemas. Led by an expert tour guide, it gives insight into the everyday lives of residents: their histories, hopes and worries.
Walk Like an Egyptian offers extensive tours of downtown Cairo held on Friday mornings, when traffic is light and the city is easy to explore. This tour group is dedicated to helping people explore the city’s hidden gems.
TO READ MORE:
If you can’t get to Cairo just yet, here’s how to learn more or plan your next trip:
Discovering Downtown Cairo: Architecture and Stories (Jovis, 2015) is an extensive guide focusing on the district and its 19th and 20th century heritage, which offers for the first time detailed plans of downtown’s most iconic, interesting or historic buildings, combined with the stories of their inhabitants. It also offers a window into the secret life of the buildings that people know well and those residents pass by in their daily routines. Arranged in chronological order, the book features 38 buildings as well as essays on topics like downtown’s publishing industry or politics and their impact on the district.
Vittoria Capresi, the co-editor of the book, spent four years in Cairo teaching and researching the city to compile the history behind the legendary buildings and shed light on some lesser-known treasures. Her insights are brilliant.
To get more background on downtown’s buildings, Al-Ismaelia has some great info on the history of downtown, where they’re currently working to restore many structures.
Local website Cairo Scene has a great list of 7 of the most beautiful buildings in downtown Cairo, while Scoop Empire has compiled 13 photos of downtown Cairo that serve as a reminder of its beauty. If you’re looking for more background on efforts to renovate the area, this is a great interview with a local city planner.
I’d love to hear from you. What are your favourite spots in downtown Cairo? And if you’ve never been, would you join a walking tour?