The Top 10 Best-Kept Secrets of Cairo

Photo of Megan O'Hara
9 February 2017

Home to the Great Pyramid of Giza, the world’s only remaining classic wonder, as well as a rich history which stretches back to 3000BC, it is no wonder that Cairo is an attractive African metropolis constantly drawing the crowds. And for those wishing to explore the city off the beaten path, the vivacious Egyptian capital is home to a thriving hidden scene of cozy bookshops, colorful markets, authentic Arabic restaurants and compelling art galleries. Here’s ten of the best alternative things to do and see in Cairo, Egypt.

Cairo fruit market I | © Tinou Bao/Flickr

El Sawy Culture Wheel

An all-purpose private culture center, The El Sawy Culture Wheel offers daily seminars, talks and performances in every discipline of the arts, from dance to music, even puppetry. The center was established in 2003 by Mohamed El-Sawy in honor of his father, the celebrated Egyptian writer Abdel Moneim El-Sawy. A prominent figure in the local community, El-Sawy was once a minister of culture in Egypt, and the Culture Wheel aims to continue his legacy by showcasing the talents of local and international performers and intellectuals. Visitors to the center can enjoy musical concerts, sculpture and painting exhibitions and dance and puppet performances, as well as a number of other activities which are as interesting as they are multifarious. Check out the wheel’s website to see their ever-changing program of events, and visit here to witness something truly unique whilst in the capital.

El Sawy Culture Wheel, 26 July Street, Cairo, Egypt. +202 010 099 999 5

Lehnert and Landrock Bookshop

A neighborhood institution, the Lehnert and Landrock Bookshop was founded over 90 years ago by its namesakes Rudolf Lehnert and Ernst Landrock, two celebrated travel writers and photographers from Austria and Germany. Before World War I, the pair travelled around creating beautiful Oriental photographs and glass plates showing images of their mutual passion for North Africa and the Middle East. Enjoying a fascinating history, the bookshop is now home to one of the largest selections of English, French and German books in the city. With a stock of books on subjects ranging from Egyptian history to children’s literature, visitors can spend hours wandering around the ramshackle shelves and exploring. The shop features a small gallery in the back which exhibits the wonderful work of its founders. These nostalgic and mysterious photographs tell a compelling story of the Arab world gone by, and interestingly, this is the only gallery of its kind in the world.

Lehnert and Landrock, 44 Sherif Street, Cairo, Egypt. +20 2 23927606

Fashet Sumaya

Open from only 5-7pm every evening, this quaint, three-tabled restaurant is just the right amount of exclusive, and is one of the most authentic Egyptian culinary destinations in Cairo. Hidden down a quiet lane in downtown Bab El Louk, diners here can enjoy traditional home cooked meals served by Sumaya herself, the friendly owner of the establishment. The simple set menu is an extravaganza of Arabic cuisine, from perfectly seasoned rosemary chicken to tender lamb and onion dishes which melt in the mouth. So intimate that it is impossible to not chat to fellow diners, Fashet Sumaya is a true taste of Arab hospitality and society, and is an enjoyable, original culinary experience in the city.

Fashet Sumuya, 19 Youssef El Gendy Street, Cairo, Egypt.

Khan el Khalili Bazaar

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The Khan el Khalili souk in Cairo has been in business since the 14th century
The Khan el Khalili souk in Cairo has been in business since the 14th century | © Alfredo Garcia Saz / Alamy Stock Photo
A stroll through Cairo’s most varied souk is a walk which engages all of the senses, with the smell of exotic spices wafting through the stalls and the intricate stained glass lamps casting a kaleidoscope of light onto the streets. Originally the site of the Saffron Tomb Mausoleum, the burial ground of the Fatimad caliphs, this bazaar exudes a true Aladdin’s cave atmosphere and is a hub of ancient architecture and mysterious treasures. Here local vendors sell a variety of wonders, from clothing to hookah pipes and regional foodstuffs, making it the best place to pick up authentic souvenirs. Visitors should be sure to haggle, with bartering being a local tradition of which a failure to take part is considered almost disrespectful.

Birqash Camel Market

Market, Bazaar
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Birqash Camel Market
Birqash Camel Market | © Eoqha/Flickr
Situated in Birqash, a village just 35km outside of Cairo, this camel market guarantees to give tourists an authentic experience of Egyptian rural life, both good and bad. With camel meat being one of the most eaten and desired foods in the country, hundreds of animals are bought and sold in this boisterous market every week, a spectacle which is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Loud, energetic and bustling with people and animals, the market is a jumble of trading, shouting and energy, and is sure to be a memorable experience. With camels having been traded at Birqash for hundreds of years, the market is an important part of Egypt’s heritage, and is a place to sample the true daily life of its people.

The World’s Best Burger

Given this impressive title by TIME magazine, Lucille’s is a must-visit burger restaurant in the heart of Cairo. Famed for its succulent beef burgers and fresh, local ingredients, the establishment was founded by Lucille, who prides herself on the first-rate quality of her cuisine. With a staff who refer to each other as ‘family’, a team who truly care about upholding the restaurant’s flawless reputation, Cairo diners can enjoy all homemade products here, from sauces and dressings to beef patties ground in-house. Serving up American style pancakes at breakfast and moving through to Mexican and American dishes in the evening, those who choose not to taste the world famous burgers are still well catered for here. With its cozy and modern interior and laid-back homely atmosphere, Lucille’s is the restaurant the locals flock to.

Lucille’s, 40 Road 9, Maadi, Cairo, Egypt. +20 2 23592778

Islamic Cairo

Islamic Cairo is an area in the center of the city that tells a compelling story of Egypt’s past, starting from its conquering by the Arab Muslims in 641. Where previously Alexandria was the country’s capital, the conquerers established their economic and political center instead in Cairo, building many impressive mosques including the notable Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun. This graceful demonstration of Islamic architecture still remains mostly in its original mud brick form in the heart of Islamic Cairo, with its original spiralling minaret being one of the city’s most important symbols and landmarks. Walk around this UNESCO world heritage site for some of the best sightseeing on offer, and view some of the authentic hammams, souks, sculptures and fountains of the past, as well as the campus of one of the world’s oldest universities, Al-Azhar University. Established in 970 by the Fatimad Caliphate, the university is renowned as being one of the most prestigious Islamic colleges in the world.

Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun | © Khowaga/Flickr

Darb 1718

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A contemporary art gallery and exhibition center, Darb 1718 was founded by Moataz Nasr, the famous Egyptian artist and activist who was an integral part of the 1977 ‘Bread Revolution’. This non-profit organization prides itself on showcasing the work of innovative up-and-coming artists. It also provides a number of arts education programmes, and raises awareness of pressing contemporary issues, including the Arab Uprising and the January 25 Revolution. Dedicated to inspiring social change through art, the gallery’s visitors can view works from exciting artists from all over the world, including Ahmed Nabil and Berry Bickle. The space is bright, airy and minimalistic, designed to emphasise the idiosyncrasies of the individual collections on show. The works explore a number of thought-provoking international topics, from colonization to modern Egyptian politics.

The City of the Dead

Also known as Cairo Necropolis, this Islamic cemetery stretches over an impressive area of four miles, with entire streets dedicated to the tombs of civilizations of the past. A largely inhabited area where people live amongst the remains of their ancestors, this historic region exudes a unique atmosphere which combines life and death in a truly fascinating way. The Necropolis includes the tombs and shrines of some of the Islamic world’s most notable figures, including Al Husayn, son of the prophet Mohammed, and the descendants of Amr ibn al-‘As, the military commander who led the Muslim Conquest of Egypt. With intricate shrines inscribed with phrases from the Qur’an, exploring the City of the Dead promises to be an unforgettable experience.

The City of the Dead, 7 El Bab El Sharqy Street, Cairo, Egypt.

Kunst Gallery and Café

This cozy downtown cafe, bookshop and art gallery is one of the best places to escape the hustle and bustle of Cairo and find some much needed quietude and respite in the capital. Named after the German word for ‘art’, the cafe is a hub of literature, painting and photography that just so happens to serve some of the best coffee in town. Here guests can settle down at a table with a reviving cappuccino and enjoy an English book on Egypt’s ancient history, or brush up on some Arabic with the vast array of native book choices on offer. Occasionally offering film screenings and small exhibitions showcasing the work of local artists, Kunst is a coffee and culture lover’s dream, featuring a refreshingly minimalistic interior and laid-back outlook.

Kunst Gallery and Café, 28 Sherif Basha Street, Cairo, Egypt. +20 2 23912600

By Megan O’Hara

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