There's a charm about Zamalek – the island – in the middle of the chaos that is Cairo. Even with all the usual 'big crowds, loud noise' syndrome that's become synonymous with Egypt's capital, there's a bohemian feel to this part of town which over time has become a melting pot of people from all walks of life.
As one of Cairo's most affluent districts with its rich history reflected in the myriad of art-deco styled architecture, galleries, boutiques and cultural spots, it definitely packs a punch for its size. It's said Zamalek can and should host some 450,000 residents but it's now allegedly home to nearly 1.5 million inhabitants loosely made up of expats and locals in addition to those who drift in and out on a daily basis for whatever reasons. Foreign correspondents have their favoured bars, the older gentry have their chosen places which they've been frequenting for decades while the younger, fashion-conscience crowd will indulge in bar crawls.
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One of the beauties of Zamalek is the walking opportunities offered - a luxury in a city like Cairo. The incessant car horns are still there and you will need incredible traffic navigation skills but one's also more than likely to discover hidden galleries and boutiques, cafes that are fashioned like a quirky aunt's living room, pop up eateries that less then a month ago were nothing but a dream in someone's head and restaurants with spectacular Nile views.
What strikes you the most is the fusion of old and new, the trendy with the classics, resulting in a hodgepodge that complements one another. Boutiques like L’Oiseau Du Nil, Turath and L’Atelier, to name a few, are renowned for housing the works of local artisans and designers who delve into Egypt's rich cultural background and come up with new styles and shapes. The decoupage technique has seen a renaissance with items stripped and redesigned using Islamic mosaic styles with Arabic proverbs and quotes adding a Middle Eastern feel to the finished product.
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When it comes to culinary delights this island is heaven. Most cuisines and taste buds catered for, but the latest gastronomic trend is that of Egyptian street food elevated to a more upscale and funky setting. No food carts for this part of the city but instead local dishes available in eateries such as Zooba, Cairo Kitchen, Abou Sid and Ammu Hawawshy. The 'ahwa (local coffee shop) is a must in any Cairo neighbourhood and Zamalek is no different, you'll either spot shisha specialised ones like Wel3a or something like Ahwak Salon de Thé – a shisha, 'ahwa and afternoon tea and pastries spot all rolled into one.
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There is plenty to see and do in Zamalek, each alley and side street leads to the discovery of something new; from restaurants that have greeted punters since 1922 to establishments like El Sawy Culture Wheel, which in a few years has become a cultural hub playing host to music gigs, poetry readings and political seminars by the likes of acclaimed author Alaa El Aswany.
This small, crowded island with the waters of the Nile River as its backdrop is absurdly unique and yet very Egyptian at the same time.