Listen, Egypt is a country with a 7,000 year old civilization, 5,000+ year old modern cities, 1,000+ year old mosques, and some of the oldest functional monasteries in the world. And while our hotels might not be quite that old, they bear witness to many decades of modern Egyptian history -- and are still around to tell the tale.
1. Cairo Marriott Hotel & Omar Khayyam Casino
Location: Zamalek, Cairo
Original name: Palace Al Gezirah
This modern-day Zamalek favorite was built by Khedive Ismail over 150 years ago to be a guest palace for foreign royalty and other VIPs visiting during the Suez Canal’s inauguration celebrations.
Khedive Ismail decided to design the palace in the neoclassical style which was popular in Europe at the time. He signed on Austrian architect Julius Franz (later known as Franz Bey) and French architect De Curel Del Rosso, who had also designed the Abdeen Palace (for more awesome Cairo museums you need to check out, read our article here). The interiors were done by German architect Carl von Diebitsch.
Interesting story: the building’s own architect, Franz Bey, a man apparently not known for his modesty, said the Palace Al Gezirah was “the most beautiful building of modern Arabic style in its category”. Its first royal guests, the Prince and Princess of Wales, called the palace “uselessly extravagant” (lol).
The palace operated as the exclusive Gezirah Palace Hotel until it was seized by the government in 1879 for unpaid debt and acquired by the Egyptian Hotels Company. It was later nationalized in 1969 during the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and became the Omar Khayyam hotel, later to be taken over by Marriott International in the 1970s. They were the ones who undertook the project of adding two large Nile-facing towers to the palace.
The Cairo Marriott that stands today is still the same palace that housed Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, and hosted the wedding of Khedive Ismail’s son which lasted for 40 days; many of the original artwork and furniture can be found in the hotel’s reception rooms and lounges.
Cairo Marriott's website.
2. Marriott Mena House
Location: Giza Plateau, Greater Cairo
Original name: Mena House Family Hotel
1869 must have been a busy year for Khedive Ismail, because not only did he build the Gezirah Palace we spoke about above, but he also created the hunting lodge at the foot of the Pyramids which would later become the famous Mena House hotel.
When Empress Eugenie came to Cairo for the Suez Canal inauguration, it wasn’t enough that Khedive Ismail built a whole guest palace for her and other royalty to stay at; he also built a road that led from Cairo to the Great Pyramids of Giza, and built a royal hunting lodge for her to rest and have lunch at during her Pyramids trip.
The hunting lodge was then bought by a wealthy English couple on their honeymoon, Frederick and Jessie Head, because Frederick thought the air there to be beneficial (one living in modern-day Cairo can only laugh and/or cry at the irony). The couple enlarged the lodge into an estate and named it Mena House, after the first pharaoh of Egypt.
After Frederick died, the house was bought by another English couple and turned into a hotel in 1887 --- the “Mena House Family Hotel”. A swimming pool was added a few years later, becoming the first swimming pool in Egypt. The hotel changed hands several times throughout the years before its management was acquired by the Marriott.
Interesting story: tons of famous politicians, celebrities and royalty stayed at the Mena House over the years, including Frank Sinatra, who performed at a charity event at the Pyramids in 1979 and sang “Strangers on the Nile”.
Marriott Mena House's website.
3. Sofitel Winter Palace
Original name: Winter Palace Hotel
Interesting story: so, the official hotel website for the Sofitel Winter Palace states that the hotel opened in 1886, and they went so far as to literally name one of their restaurants ‘1886’ -- talk about doubling down. But apparently, according to historians, that’s false -- the hotel actually opened its doors in 1907, according to, among other things, the announcement of its opening in the Egyptian Gazette newspaper in 1907. Today’s modern management might have gotten its founding date confused with the Luxor Hotel, another historic hotel that used to be right next to the Winter Palace. Oops.
The Winter Palace Hotel was created by Cairo hoteliers in collaboration with Thomas Cook and Sons, and its construction was done by an Italian company. In January 1907, they celebrated its inauguration by a picnic at the Valley of the Kings.
What really put the Winter Palace on the map was Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Reporters, foreign press and interested visitors from all over the world poured into Luxor and the Winter Palace was used as Carter’s newsroom to keep everyone up to speed on the discovery.
Sofitel Winter Palace's website.
4. Windsor Hotel
Location: Downtown Cairo
Original name: Hotel Windsor-Maison Suisse
The Windsor in Downtown Cairo was built back in 1893 as part of a baths complex for the royal family, and its architecture is very reminiscent of the interior courtyards of the caravanserai Wekalet el Ghouri in Old Cairo, next to Khan el Khalili. People call it ‘colonial-era neo-Mamluk architecture’ which is a mouthful, but there you go.
Windsor is mainly known for being a British Officers Club during the First World War, and little has changed decor-wise since those days, albeit much older and more faded. Until now, their vintage ‘Barrel Lounge’ is popular with Downtown bar-hoppers -- it got its name due to the seats being made of old wooden barrels.
After its stint as the British Officers Club, Windsor was bought by a Swiss hotelier with plans to make it an annex of the world-famous Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo (RIP). It was named the Hotel Windsor-Maison Suisse until it was taken over in 1962 by the Doss family who still own and run it today.
Interesting story: the Windsor’s manually-operated wooden elevator (which is still in use today) is the oldest elevator in Egypt and one of the oldest operating elevators of its type in the world.
Windsor Hotel's website.
5. Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel
Original name: Cataract Hotel
This world-famous hotel was built in 1899 by Thomas Cook and Sons, after the Cairo-Aswan railway was built in 1898 and there was a sudden influx of visitors and and not enough hotels. They bought nine feddans from the government and hired architect Henri Favarger, the same architect who designed the Mena House.
It was an instant hit and quickly garnered a lot of famous guests over the years, including Tsar Nicholas II, Winston Churchill and Princess Diana. It became literally the stuff of ‘legends’ as its current name suggests, when Agatha Christie used it as the backdrop for her famous novel, Death on the Nile. The 1978 movie they made out of the book was shot there too (so was the famous Egyptian series ‘Grand Hotel’).
Interesting story: when the construction workers were leveling the ground to build the hotel, they came across 200 mummies buried there. The sad part is that they destroyed them with their shovels.
Sofitel Legend Old Cataract's website.
A full city guide to Aswan is here.
6. Paradise Inn Le Metropole
Original name: Le Metropole
Even though the hotel Le Metropole was built in the early 20th century by Greek and Italian architects, the history regarding the piece of land where the hotel was built is *much* older. Like, around 2,000 years older!
Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt who probably needs no introduction, built the Caesareum of Alexandria, a temple to honor her lover Julius Caesar. After her suicide, Roman emperor Augustus turned the Caesareum into his own cult temple, and brought over two obelisks from Heliopolis to adorn the exterior. Even though it was Augustus who had brought them over, they became known as ‘Cleopatra’s Needles’.
The temple later became a church in the 4th century AD, and was destroyed in 912 AD. Cleopatra’s Needles were given away in an economic and political move by Khedive Mohammed Ali in 1879 -- one obelisk now stands in Central Park, NYC, and the other on the Thames embankment in London.
The hotel that was built where the obelisks once stood is none other than Le Metropole, and instead of the Caesareum, there’s now a statue of Saad Zaghloul, a nationalist leader.
The hotel today is dated but still carries a lot of its original turn of the 20th century charm, as well as original paintings and antiques.
Interesting story: the Greek-Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy, who was one of the most prominent poets of the 1920s and 1930s, spent the last 25 years of his life in Le Metropole, writing poems. A suite in his name remains there until today.
Paradise Inn Le Metropole's website.
7. Paradise Inn Windsor Palace
Original name: Windsor Palace
This classic Alexandrian hotel is not at all related to the Windsor Hotel of Downtown Cairo -- apparently we just really like the name around here. When it was built in 1906, it was named after John Windsor, one of the ten partners in the new hotel. They thought 'Windsor Palace’ sounded aristocratic, which is the vibe they were aiming for.
The Windsor Palace was in quite the enviable location back 100 years ago -- it was close to the Ramleh train station and Alexandria’s old port harbor, as well as the shopping district and seaside promenades. Since it was right on the Mediterranean Sea, it was definitely more of a ‘resort hotel’ back in the day than it is now.
Like Le Metropole and The Windsor in Cairo, the current hotel that stands today has seen much better days, but holds on to its original paintings, antiques and choice furnishings, to give modern guests a feel of what the hotel was like back in its golden days.
Paradise Inn Windsor Palace's website.
8. Semiramis Intercontinental
Location: Garden City, Cairo
Original name: Semiramis
If you want to get technical, the Semiramis Intercontinental that stands today isn’t the same Semiramis that was built in 1907 -- that one got demolished in 1976 to make way for the current, modern hotel. But it’s the same location and bears the same name, so we’re going to consider it historical just the same.
The Semiramis was built by Swiss hoteliers and named for an ancient queen of Babylon, and was actually the very first hotel built on the Nile in Cairo -- most others were built in the Ezbakiya area or Downtown Cairo. It was four floors and had views of the pyramids, the Citadel, the Moqattam Hills, and obviously the Nile (this was before there was even a Nile Corniche!). The Semiramis was nicknamed ‘the queen of the Nile’.
Interesting story: T.E. Lawrence (you know, Lawrence of Arabia) stayed there in 1921 and wrote to his mother that the Semiramis was “very expensive and luxurious: horrible place: makes me Bolshevik.”
Rupyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, also stayed at the Semiramis several times, and wrote “The Swiss are the only people who have taken the trouble to master the art of hotel-keeping. Consequently, in the things that really matter – beds, baths, and victuals –they control Egypt”.
Semiramis Intercontinental's website.
9. Steigenberger Cecil Hotel
Original name: Cecil Hotel
The Cecil Hotel was originally a ‘romantic’ colonial-style hotel opened by a Jewish French-Egyptian family, the Metzgers, on the same square near the sea where Cleopatra’s Needles were (yes, the Cecil and Le Metropole are neighbors).
It was extremely popular in its heyday and hosted everyone from Umm Kalthoum to Josephine Baker and Al Capone. During World War II, it was used as headquarters for British Intelligence (not so romantic anymore, we guess).
The Metzger family were expelled from the country in 1957, and 50 years later in 2007 won a court case over ownership of the Cecil Hotel, which they then sold to the Egyptian government.
Interesting story: the Cecil Hotel is written about in Naguib Mahfouz’s famous novel Miramar, as well as Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.
Steigenberger Cecil Hotel's website.
10. Helnan Auberge
Original name: Auberge du Lac
Fayoum, about an hour and a half from Cairo, has always been known as a great nature retreat and break from the city. And that was probably what King Farouk had in mind when he built a hunting and fishing lodge in Fayoum in 1937. The lodge, which was built on the shores of Lake Qarun, was used as a base for his hunting expeditions and parties, and King Farouk built an old port there as well.
The lodge later became the Auberge du Lac Hotel, and the old port still stands. And while the hotel was always popular with hunting and fishing aficionados, it also was the setting for important political meetings, such as King Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud and Winston Churchill in 1945.
Interesting story: the Auberge was also the darling of the Egyptian film industry back in the day, and many Egyptian black-and-white (and regular) movies were shot there, like هذا هو الحب (That’s Love) in 1958, شمس لا تغيب (A Sun That Never Sets) in 1959, سر امرأة (A Woman’s Secret) in 1960, ست البنات (The Girl of All Girls) in 1961, and الكل عاوز يحب (Everyone Wants Love) in 1975, among many others.
Helnan, a Scandinavian hotel group, took over Auberge du Lac in the 1980s and renamed it Helnan Auberge.
Helnan Auberge's website.
11. Helnan Palestine Hotel
Original name: Palestine Hotel
This hotel located in the former royal palace of El Montaza in Alexandria was built in 6 months in 1964 under orders from President Gamal Abdel Nasser. He wanted to build a hotel specifically to house all the Arab royalty, heads of state and dignitaries who were flying to Alexandria to attend the second ever Arab League Summit, and needless to say, he wanted to provide the very best in luxury, comfort and views; he handpicked the location of the hotel himself.
It was at this summit that they formally approved the establishment of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (hence the name of the hotel).
El Montaza is 350 acres of gardens on the Mediterranean Sea, and was the summer palace of King Farouk; its ownership was transferred to the government in 1952. Helnan took over the Palestine Hotel’s management in 1987.
Interesting story: for the 2002 opening of the new Library of Alexandria, or Bibliotheca Alexandrina, presidents, royalty and celebrities flew in to attend and stayed at the Helnan Palestine, including Jacques Chirac, Sofia the Queen of Spain, and Rania the Queen of Jordan.
Helnan Palestine's website.