Cairo is not exactly the most beautiful city in the Middle East. It hasn’t got the glitz of Dubai, the international flair of Beirut or the magic of the Marrakech medina. On the contrary, Cairo can be hot, dusty, noisy and exhausting. In one word, Cairo can be CRAZY. It is therefore no surprise that most people, when they’ve done the Pyramids and seen the Egyptian Museum, leave the city as soon as possible and move on to the far more relaxing Luxor or Aswan. But while Cairo can indeed be a little overwhelming, it is also a vibrant and surprising place, with an exciting young crowd that is putting its cultural, culinary and artistic stamp on the city. So, if you have done the Pyramids, and seen the Museum, but you find yourself having a few days in the city, what does the ideal Cairo weekend look like?
For a great start to your weekend a delicious breakfast is compulsory. The indigenous Cairenes traditionally break their fast with bean sandwiches (fuul) or spicy scrambled eggs (shahshouka), and if you want to go native you can get a perfect Egyptian breakfast at the busy Arabica Café (20, Sharia al-Marashly ) in Zamalek. If you prefer a more continental-style breakfast with your morning latte, you should head to Munch and Bagel (2, Taha Hussein Street), also in Zamalek. This tiny, no smoking café has the best bagels in town, with lots of options and toppings to choose from, and it also serves filter coffee (perfect for those who are yet quite used to the super strong Turkish coffee).
With breakfast covered, you are now ready to hit the souks. The major bazaar Khan el Kahlili (near Al-Azhar Mosque, Midan Hussein) might be a firm fixture on the tourist trail, but it nevertheless is an experience that cannot be missed. You can find lots of precious and not-so-precious Egyptian artefacts and crafts here, but the real deal is to be found, surprisingly, on the first floors of this souk. Among many of the shops you can find narrow stairs leading up to a second storey and it is on this floor that the traders of Khan el-Khalili do their business. If you are interested in the crafts and hand work that goes into the muski-glass or pearl inlay boxes that you can buy downstairs, you should definitely make your way up to this floor. Most vendors and traders are most happy to show you their little workshops, and equally important, you will find a much better deal on the products here than in the shops.
If you want a break from the frantic bargaining and haggling, you can find some (relative) quiet in the most famous café of the Khan: El-Fishawi (no specific address, but in an alley off Midan Hussein, just ask around, everybody knows the place). While it is a tourist hotspot, this centuries-old cafe is also frequented by the traders and shopkeepers themselves, which makes for an interestingly mixed crowd. It is the perfect place to relax for a moment with a book or the paper, so order a coffee, a fresh juice or an aromatic sheesha, sit outside in the narrow alley and watch the world (and the many watch-sellers) go by. If you are hungry as well as thirsty or if you are a big literary fan, you can have lunch at the Mahfouz-café (5, Sharia El Baddistan), a little oriental-style oasis of peace in the bustling Khan. Named in honour of the great literary master himself in his day, you can opt for a quick bite of salads, mezze and fresh bread, or go for the full works with hot lentil soup, grilled meat or stuffed pigeon.
When you are revitalised and ready to take on the city again, it is time for a dose of art. The complete opposite of the ancient statues and dusty death masks of the Egyptian Museum, the much lesser known Modern Art Museum (in the Opera Complex, Gezira Exhibition Grounds) in Zamalek showcases a collection of the finest 20th and 21st Egyptian Art. The works of artists like Mahmoud Said and Mahmoud Mukhtar not only depict Egyptian life as it was in days gone by, but the modern pieces also more than often display a hidden political message, demonstrating the Egyptian political engagement in times when political criticism was even less accepted then in Mubarak’s time.
When it is time for dinner, you should go and explore the traditional Oriental cuisine at Abu el-Sid( 48, Giza Street, apt 83). This restaurant has branches in Beirut and Marbella but started out here in Cairo and serves the most amazing Egyptian food. The setting is a mix of vibrant colours and French oriental furnishings and some nights you can enjoy live traditional Egyptian music. If you are not in the mood for the local cuisine, there are plenty of other dining options, including the great revolving restaurant at the top floor of theGrand Hyatt hotel in Garden City (Corniche el Nile). Serving classic French food, you can enjoy the sunset view and see the city in a whole different light.
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If you are not feeling like doing anything cultural, you could always, of course, go furniture shopping. Cairo has a large number of amazing furniture and accessory shops, selling both young designer items and antiques. One of the best interior decorating shops is Loft (12, Sayed El Bakry Street), a veritable treasure trove in Zamalek that sells oriental antique furniture as well as smaller items, and work by young Egyptian designers. If you’re looking for clothes rather than furniture, head to Eelements (3, Amman Square) in Dokki. Selling lifestyle accessories and clothing, this shop showcases up and coming Egyptian labels that also appeal to an international audience.
When you are tired of gallery-hopping or shopping for souvenirs, it is time for lunch. Go to Sufi, a relatively new lunch spot annex bookshop in Zamalek. Serving a small menu of salads, sandwiches or pasta dishes, you can sit in either the green “Arabic room”(with Arabic Literature) or the orange “English room” (featuring - you guessed it - English language titles). If lunch is too much but you are only looking for a little pick-me-up, then Mandarine Koueider (17, Shagaret El Dor Street) is the place. This famous ice cream parlour serves the most delicious ice cream and sweet pastries in Cairo, and has an amazing selection of flavours. Locals still argue about which one is the best, but all agree that Koueider’s yoghurt and berry combination is a must.
After lunch, if you feel like a little exercise or relaxation, head for theNile Country Club. For LE40 a day you can access the swimming pool and rent a cabana for some much needed shelter. The pool is adequately sized and not too crowded (especially not on week days) so you can do your laps in peace. If you feel more like a hike than a swim, you should go toAl-Azhar Park (entrance on Sharia Saleh Salem). This is where many Cairenes go on a summer evening, and you will find many young couples and families enjoying the lush green surroundings. The park boasts several café’s and an amazing restaurant,Citadel View, where you can enjoy a quiet drink, or have dinner and mingle with Cairo’s trendy jet set.
Another lovely dinner option would be Sequoia(53, Abou El Feda Street), on the very edge of Zamalek island. This glamorous lounge-style restaurant has both indoor and open-air seating, and amazing views over the river. Frequented by expats and trendy locals alike, this Cairo hotspot serves both international and Egyptian cuisine in very fashionable surroundings. In summer, the breeze from the river, the amazing views, the peace and quiet, and not to mention the delicious food make this place a little slice of heaven.
If, at the end of your weekend, you are up for a little après-dinner entertainment, Cairo will not disappoint you. There are plenty of good bars and nightclubs to choose from, and contrary to popular belief, many of them do serve alcohol. A great place for an after-dinner drink (or a pre-clubbing drink, depending on your plans) is Amici (20,Taha Hussein Street, New President Hotel) in Zamalek. At Amici, they take their cocktails very seriously, and the staff are experts at mixing the perfect one for you. Just choose from the extensive menu, or let yourself be surprised and ask the bartender to whip you up something exotic.
Finally, if after cocktails, you still haven’t had enough, you can end your weekend in style at the most popular (if a little camp) after-hours club in town: Bamboo (Trianon Boat, 23 Nil Street). Situated one of the many floating entertainment-palaces that line the banks of the Nile, this club is open until 6AM, and attracts the after-hours crowd when they are forced to leave the other clubs. What this place lacks in glamour it certainly makes up for in craziness. From the odd safari-themed décor, to the strangely old fashioned music, this place is more reminiscent of an over-crowded 80’s high-school party than of the trendy late night club it is promoting itself to be.
However, after two long days of culture, art and fine dining, a little crazy after-party might just be a fitting ending to your weekend in Cairo.