Updated: Mar 1
So many places, so little time -- it’s the traveler’s routine woe once setting foot in a new city or country. And have you noticed that it doesn’t seem to matter if you’re there for two days or two weeks, there always seems to be something you didn’t get a chance to do?
Cairo is definitely going to be one of those places; it’s legit teeming with sights worth seeing and places worth exploring, and even locals such as myself have needed years to really uncover all that this city has to offer.
But since chances are you’re going to be tight on time, I tried to break down as best I could the sights that you *must* see in Cairo, the sights that you should try very hard to see, and the sights that you can skip if you just don’t have the time (that doesn’t mean that they’re not worth seeing though, don’t get it twisted!!!)
What You MUST SEE in Cairo:
The Great Pyramids of Giza and surrounding necropolis
This one is obviously a no-brainer. I mean, if you’re in Cairo and opt out of seeing the last standing Ancient Wonder of the World, then that’s a personal choice and I respect it. But why would you?!
Out of the 80+ pyramids (some sources cite that they’re 100+) found in Egypt, the Giza Pyramids are the most famous. The Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) is the largest Egyptian pyramid, and the only remaining wonder of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The sphinx is the largest monolith statue in the world, and is also located on the Giza Plateau. Here's 9 other pyramids (besides the Pyramids of Giza) you should see if you have extra time.
What you absolutely need to read before going: Visiting The Pyramids of Giza: A Local’s Guide To Everything You Need To Know
Cairo Museum (also known as the Egyptian Museum, or the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities)
Located in the famous Midan Tahrir, nowhere else in the world will you be able to see so many treasures in one place as the Cairo Museum. Established in 1835, the present neo-classical building was built in 1900. The museum’s collections exceed over 120,000 pieces, from the pre-historic era to the Roman-Greco period.
Local tip: the Grand Egyptian Museum is due to open later in 2022, which will be one of the largest museums in the world and right next door to the pyramids, so we'll update this as soon as it's open.
For more great museums in Cairo, check out our detailed list here.
Khan el Khalili & Moez Street
This sprawling souq is not just a bazaar where you can buy jewelry, antiques, handicrafts and souvenirs -- it’s also a piece of history, dating back to the 14th century when it was a large caravanserai, housing merchants and their wares. For a our full local's guide to Khan el Khalili, head here.
Khan el Khalili today is an integral part of Old Cairo, and the architecture and surrounding areas like Moez Street are reason enough to go (a UN study found that Moez Street has the highest concentration of medieval Islamic architectural treasures in the world). Here's our detailed local's guide to Moez Street.
Local tip: go at night and taking a shopping break to enjoy tea and shisha at Naguib Mahfouz Cafe or Fishawi Cafe.
While obviously a felucca isn’t a sight in and of itself, the Nile definitely is, and the best way to experience it and to get better perspective of the city in general, is while floating leisurely in a felucca.
A felucca is a small sailboat that you rent out by half hour or an hour, and you can just kick back and relax while the felucca ‘captain’ steers you through the calm waters. And that’s part of the eternal appeal of the Nile -- no matter the chaos happening around you, it’s easy to immerse yourself in the fact that you’re sailing down the lifeline of a 7000 year old civilization.
What you should try really, really hard to see:
Memphis & Saqqara
Located about 30 km outside Cairo, Saqqara (or Sakkara) is a vast burial ground, serving as a necropolis for Egypt’s ancient capital, Memphis. Memphis is now an open-air museum of sorts (check out the colossal statue of Ramses II while you're there), but it’s Saqqara where you’ll find the famous step pyramid of Djoser, dating even further back than the Pyramids of Giza. Saqqara also hosts an impressive number of ‘mastaba’ tombs.
Local tip: if you have extra time, go the full mile and travel a little further to Dahshur, where you can see other pyramids like the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid.
Islamic Cairo is home to some of the most beautiful mosques in the world, like Sultan Hassan, Al Rifai, and probably one of the most famous, Ibn Tulun. One of the largest and oldest mosques in Egypt, Ibn Tulun is built out of mudbrick and still surviving in its original form. It was built in 879 AD and features a beautiful outer courtyard, architectural lecterns and arcades, a 13th century fountain and a famous spiral minaret. For more free tourist attractions in Cairo, head here.
Local tip: while you’re in Islamic Cairo, make sure you check out the Gayer-Anderson Museum, one of the oldest and best-preserved homes from the medieval period.
Check out our article on the ten most beautiful mosques in Egypt.
Coptic Cairo is an area of Old Cairo established around 400 AD which served as a stronghold for Christianity in Egypt, and is home to beautiful sites like the Hanging Church, one of the oldest churches in Cairo. It’s dedicated to the Patron Saint of Egypt, St. George, and rests on the bastion of the Roman gate of the Babylon fortress.
There’s also the Coptic Museum, which holds approximately 15,000 pieces and contains the world's largest collection of Coptic artifacts and artwork. Displaying a rich mixture of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman traditions, the objects are grouped into different mediums, such as stonework, woodwork, metalwork, textiles and manuscripts.
For more beautiful churches, cathedrals and monasteries in Egypt, head here.
You may also like: Coptic Cairo - A Detailed Local's Guide
One of the world's greatest monuments to medieval warfare, as well as a highly visible landmark on Cairo's Eastern skyline, the Citadel houses a number of historical mosques (like the Muhammed Ali mosque pictured above) and museums. Built in 1176 by Salah El Din to protect the city from crusaders, the Citadel has been one of the most dominating architectural presences in Cairo for centuries.
Local tip: try to go on a Friday morning, when the traffic to the Citadel is the lightest.
What you can skip till next time:
Sound & Light Show at the Pyramids
Using the sphinx as the narrator of Egypt’s ancient history and the pyramids as a backdrop, the show is carried out in English, French, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Russian and plays three times a night, in three different languages. Call beforehand to check the time of the performance you would like to attend; private viewing times can also be arranged. It's kind of cheesy to be honest but you might like it if you're into its 1980s/1990s vibe.
Local tip: don’t forget, the desert can get a little cold in the evenings so be sure to pack something warm to wear.
This place is great if you have kids. Just outside of Cairo’s city center along the banks of the Nile, visitors can sail aboard barges down a network of canals to view recreations of Ancient Egyptian times. With a group of actors, accurate reproductions of buildings, clothing and lifestyle, the age of the Pharaohs is (kinda) brought to life.
If you’re into the kitsch, then be sure to take a picture there before you leave, dressed as a pharaoh! You can also tour the Dr. Ragab Papyrus Museum, the largest floating museum in the world where you can see firsthand the ancient Egyptian art of papyrus paper-making.
Standing at 187 meters, the Cairo tower allows visitors to witness some awesome views of the city. Located on the Gezira island of Zamalek, this granite lotus-inspired structure has views extending as far as the Muqattam hills and outskirts of the city where the Giza pyramids stand.
You might also like: Cairo Sightseeing For Free: 10 Awesome Sites That Don’t Cost Anything To Visit