Try as one might, it’s quite difficult to be able to claim to know the city of Cairo thoroughly, regardless of how long one lives here.
There are too many neighbourhoods, ever changing, sprawled across the seemingly infinite area that composes Cairo. Assorted alleyways, avenues and narrow streets can lead you from one adventure to another across the neighbourhoods of Giza, Abasseya, Zamalek or Old Fatimid Cairo. Whatever it is one might be in search of, whether it’s visiting old Islamic sites, listening to some music played on a oud, an exhibition of contemporary Egyptian art, or a meal with a view of the Nile there’s something to be enjoyed by everyone here in Cairo.
Attempting to explore the city of Cairo in one day is ambitious, yet ultimately it can be done if only to get a taste and feel for the myriad of offerings the city has to present.
It’s best to start your day early. Aiming to leave your home or hotel by 7am to get to the Giza Pyramids by 8am is necessary so as to avoid one of Cairo’s ghastliest traffic jams on Haram Street on your way back downtown.
Enjoy walking around the pyramids for an hour or so - don’t linger too much, but promise yourself you’ll return for a properly organised tour of the pyramids, or else a ride on horseback during sunset. Both experiences are worth the time and trouble of making it out to Giza again and testing your skills at bartering with the men who hire out horses and camels to visitors.
If you’d like to stop for a cup of tea or quick breakfast, the old Mena House Oberoi is right by the foot of the Pyramids. Built in 1869 as a hunting lodge for King Isma’il Pasha, it has since been converted into one of Egypt’s grandest hotels, bearing witness to historic events and historic guests. The interiors are fashioned in an Orientalist manner, some pomp and circumstance abound in the long hallways and dining rooms, but regardless, it’s well worth a quick visit.
Head back into town and visit the Saladin Citadel. Once a medieval fortification, the complex has expanded on its current location perching over the city since it was first built in 1183. Fantastic views from above of Fatimid Cairo, the centre of Islamic Cairo with Al Azhar Mosque and the Khan il Khalili bazaar below, make for great pictures. You can explore the Mohamed Ali Mosque or walk around the various courtyards.
The noise of the city below is dim, and one can clearly make out Al Azhar park to the right. It will perhaps be your last moment of serenity and calm before exploring the charmingly chaotic Khan il Khalili bazaar.
Catch a cab to Khan il Khalili and if shopping is on your mind, the rule is always to barter with the vendors for the best price. Bartering, as tiring as it can be, can be half the fun. Brass lanterns, copper ornaments, hand blown tableware and other trinkets make for great gifts and easy home decorating additions, but the beauty and fun of the bazaar is to walk around with eyes open.
Ask for directions to El Fishawy Café and recuperate for a short while. Though not the café at which Egyptian writer and Nobel Laureate once sat daily to observe characters and gather stories for his writings, it would have been a very similar experience to Naguib Mahfouzs’ who lived in the neighbourhood Gamalayya, adjacent to the bazaar.
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At El Fishawy, waiting staff brusquely make space for you amongst the tourists and locals sipping on tea, gathering chairs and setting up a squat copper topped table to perch your tea or hibiscus juice on it. Once seated make sure to look above: taxidermied stuffed crocodiles, large gilded mirrors and various characters passing through make El Fishawy a bizarre and entertaining experience. You can smoke a hookah pipe as you people watch or else save your shisha for dinner time.
From El Fishawy, ask for directions to El Muizz street. One of the oldest streets in Cairo, it is dense with Islamic monuments along its one kilometre stretch stretching from Bab El Futuh to Bab Zuweila, two historic gates that once guarded a Mamluk-era city of palaces and homes.
Having recently undergone extensive renovations, El Muizz street, a strictly pedestrian zone, is now an open air museum rivalling Luxor or Rome. The present blends into the past on this street of grand mosques, old houses and schools where once Koran was taught, and small shops sell spices and assorted bazaar wares. If any of the mosques are open, walk inside, and again, look up. The craftsmanship and work executed on the walls and ceilings are exquisite, and it’s easy to lose track of time admiring the craftsmanship and art of calligraphy engraved in stone and wood, and fine stucco borders.
Walk to a main street and hail a cab to the island of Zamalek. An affluent neighbourhood, Cairenes familiar with New York will explain that Zamalek is to Cairo what Manhattan is to New York City. A neighbourhood with galleries, restaurants and residential areas, there’s much to do and see in Zamalek on any given evening.
Check out Safar Khan Art Gallery, a gallery run by a mother and daughter team who have a fine eye for great artwork. Showing and representing established Egyptian artists as well as young up and coming artists, Safar Khan is worth a visit to get a feel for how the art scene in Egypt is.
It would probably be time for dinner, so head to Sequoia, a restaurant and dining experience that is uniquely Cairene. Located on the southern tip of the island of Zamalek, Sequoia is part lounge and part restaurant, all set outdoors with seating directly on the Nile. The 270˚ view of the neighbourhoods of Imbaba and Beaulac, and the Imbaba bridge, are calming.
What makes Sequoia so special is the simplicity of both its dining interior design concepts: unwind and enjoy dinner under the white canopies which hang over Sequoia. The setting is relaxing and candles are lit to add a warm glow to the canopies and overall setting.
The menu is a mélange of Egyptian and international mezzes, appetizers and dishes. Alcohol is served, as is shisha, and the quality of the food and service is very good. It’s a great place to people watch as well, everyone comes to Sequoia for the food, the setting, and of course, a lot of laughs and a bit of gossip.
Safar Khan Gallery: 6 Brazil Street, Zamalek, Cairo. Telephone: (002) 0123-127-002
Sequoia: 53 Abou El Feda Street, Zamalek, Cairo. Telephone: (02) 2735-0014, (002) 0100-366-7000
This article was originally published in Kalimat