An Insider’s Guide to Downtown Cairo
To really scratch beneath the surface in Cairo, you'll need to try as much local food as possible | © travelpixs / Alamy Stock Photo
The official centre of Cairo, the downtown district is a shared meeting point for Cairenes of every age and socioeconomic background. Built in the late 19th century, Downtown Cairo is still home to architectural gems from Egypt’s ‘belle epoque’ and streets designed with pedestrians in mind, though the area has become a lot more crowded, especially among the city’s younger citizens, who head there to eat, shop and visit art spaces and cinemas.
Wherever you look in Downtown Cairo, you’ll probably find a restaurant (or three) – Egyptians love their food, and the centre of town offers it in abundance: from cheap and cheerful chains to independent holes-in-the-wall that have been kept in the family for generations. As millennials and Gen Zers begin to revive Downtown Cairo with their presence, you’ll also find some gourmet gems…if you look hard enough.
Restaurant, Egyptian, $$$
What once started as four-table hole-in-the-wall feeding those in the know home-cooked Egyptian classics, Fas’het Somaya (and its namesake owner/chef Somaya) quickly catapulted to iconic status. Having moved to a more formal, modern space a couple of years ago, the restaurant has a different menu every day and shuts when their stock runs out. Go here for a meal akin to an Egyptian mother’s and discover local delicacies made with love.
Eish + Malh
Restaurant, Italian, Contemporary, Fast Food
With floor-to-ceiling windows and a location a stone’s throw from many of Downtown Cairo’s architectural landmarks, Eish + Malh serves Mediterranean-inspired dishes with a big emphasis on local ingredients and flavours. A popular breakfast and brunch spot, don’t leave before trying their homemade ice cream with unique seasonal flavours like lavender, caramelized fig and nigella seeds.
Restaurant, Pizzeria, Italian, $$$
Opened in 2017 by a father and son who moved back to Cairo from Rome – hence the fusion name of the restaurant – CaiRoma is unassumingly tucked away in an alley off the busy Bustan Street. A tiny eatery of about six tables, with a few more outdoors on the alleyway, this hidden gem has already been touted as probably the most authentic Italian in the city. Serving up hot pizzas and an array of pastas, it’s perfect for a quick yet filling meal.
Koshary Abou Tarek
Restaurant, Egyptian, $$$
One cannot visit Egypt without trying the unofficial national dish, koshary: a carb-loaded concoction made typically of two types of pasta and rice, topped with chickpeas, lentils, caramalised onions, tomato and spicy sauce to taste. One of the best places to eat koshary in Cairo has to be Koshary Abou Tarek. Take a seat, choose your size and make sure you’re wearing elasticated trousers for the feast ahead.
Bellies En Route
If you’re short on time but high in hunger, contact Bellies En Route – two bona fide foodies who organise and lead food tours in Downtown Cairo. With around seven stops on their itinerary, it’s a food-filled day that also provides you insight on the neighbourhood’s culinary and historic landmarks and is a good way to get yourself geographically oriented with the area.
Historically a meeting place for the upper crust and intellectual class alike, it’s no surprise that there are several spots to have a drink in Downtown Cairo. Don’t expect mixology and million-dollar interiors, though. The charm of downtown watering holes is the wear and tear on the historic spaces and the no-frills experiences that allow you to focus on people watching and good conversations.
Bar, Cafe, Coffee, Tea , Beer
Cairo’s streets are populated with local cafés, known as ahwas, where you’ll find groups of guys and young people congregated over tea and shisha at all times of the day. While El Horreya off Bab El Louq Square appears to be another one of these ahwas, a closer look will reveal that one half serves tea and coffee, while on the other side you’ll find people almost exclusively drinking beer. Perfect for a quick pint, this shabby-yet-cosy space is a popular spot among millennials and the middle-aged alike.
Bistro, Restaurant, Bar, Egyptian
On Hoda Shaarawy Street you’ll find two side-by-side signs reading Le Bistro; the right door is the entrance to a quaint restaurant and the left is a snug, dim bar where you can have a real conversation without being drowned out by music. Serving a whole range of local beers and wines, as well as international brands of liquors, choose your tipple and order whole deep-fried sardines, cheese and tomato dip, and sautéed liver for an authentic Egyptian bar experience.
Carlton Hotel Rooftop
Bar, Beer, Wine, $$$
You’ll think you’ve stepped back in time to 1940s Cairo as soon as you enter the lobby of the now-rundown Carlton Hotel on 26th July Street. Hit the elevator button for the eighth floor for a relaxed rooftop with sweeping views of the city and a cheap and basic offering of local beers and wines. While pop ballads play consistently at this bar, it’s still quiet enough to converse, and they serve shisha too.
Though they call themselves a tapas bar, Carol is place to go for drinks first and foremost. A slender corridor-shaped establishment on Kasr El Nil Street, Carol is a newcomer to the Downtown Cairo’s bar scene but has been treated with care, retaining the old-school charm that the neighbourhood is known for. Wine bottles line the walls for Instagram-worthy backdrops but be warned, this popular spot fills up fast – get there before 7pm to secure a table or seat at the bar, or make a reservation.
Downtown Cairo just oozes culture. From historic buildings once occupied by Egypt’s most prominent poets, activists and artists to galleries, performance spaces and street art, the downtown district is always buzzing.
Downtown Cairo Walking Tour
Dubbed the ‘D-Tour’, this weekly guided tour takes place on Friday mornings before the usual hustle and bustle of Downtown Cairo begins to bubble. Lead by an architectural historian, this morning meander will take you through neighbourhood’s beginnings right through to today’s renovations and revival efforts, with stops at iconic buildings, historic restaurants and modern art spaces. Bring your camera or make sure your phone is well charged for this unique experience.
Tucked away between car-part stores and mechanics, Townhouse Gallery on Champillion Street occupies a stunning warehouse space filled with various exhibitions throughout the year. Thanks to its large space, you’ll find an emphasis on interactive and installation art, as well as various workshops and seminars. Keep up to date with their schedule on their Facebook page to find out what’s on now.
Egyptian theatre is experiencing a renaissance as of late, and as such, you’ll always find something on in Downtown Cairo’s long-standing theatres. Next door to Townhouse Gallery on Champillion Street, Rawabet Theatre specialises in experimental theatre, as well as contemporary dance where language won’t be a barrier to your enjoyment.
Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art
Established in the 1970s, Mashrabia Gallery is a contemporary art gallery with a focus on up-and-coming Egyptian artists who are often provocative with their pieces. With something on almost every week, you shouldn’t miss this unique art space to get in touch with Egypt’s flourishing visual arts scene.
These recommendations were updated on March 13, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.