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It’s so easy to fall in love with a city when the history is as unique as Cairo’s. The crowds here may make Manhattan look like a ghost town, but it’s a small price to pay to experience the energy of the city Egyptians know as Umm ad Dunya – ‘the Mother of the World’. Use our guide to discover modern-day Cairo as you’ve never seen it before.
There is probably no other city in the world where modern architecture is topped by such a magnificent 4,000-year-old complex of royal pyramids, temples and causeways. Any trip to the Egyptian capital must start with these majestic creations. They go from Menakaure, the smallest pyramid, to Khafre, the second largest, to Khufu, better known as the Great Pyramid of Giza. To avoid the smog, head down in the afternoon.
A short drive to the city side of the Giza plateau takes you to the feet of the Sphinx, another enigmatic symbol of ancient Egypt. An aged marvel, the reclining lion with a human head sits proudly on the Nile‘s west bank. For thousands of years, the mysterious Sphinx has been looming over Giza, guarding the only remaining of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. It has greatly inspired the imaginations of emperors, poets, artists, scholars and travelers for centuries, and remains a truly enigmatic feature of Cairo.
Stretched for one mile, this side of Cairo is the oldest place of settlement and religious worship in the region, combining Islamic, Christian and Jewish histories. Taking in the warren of narrow streets, you will find yourself at a cultural and religious crossroads. Discover the Amr Mosque, the first one to be built in Cairo, the Ben Ezra Synagogue, dating back to the 9th century, as well as some of the world’s oldest churches, such as the Church of St. Gergius, or the Hanging Church of the Virgin Mary, erected in the 4th century.
Next we stop by this famed 4th-century church. It takes its name from the fact that it appears suspended, as it was built on the ruins of two old towers remaining from an old fortress, the Fortress of Babylon. The church is quite rustic, which is understandable considering its age, and has heavy doors, inlaid with ebony and ivory, and marble pillars. Its historical importance is due to the fact that it became the residence of the Coptic patriarchs of Alexandria, as well as having been the place to host many synods that determined when Easter should be celebrated.
This 187 meter-high tower is Cairo’s second most famous landmark after the Pyramids. Commissioned in 1961 as a stylized lotus plant, the tower’s 360-degree views are best enjoyed late in the morning, after the smog of the city below burns off. Visitors can also book a table at the Sky Garden cafe, which sits one floor down from the observation deck and offers some great dinner-time panoramas.
Cairo Tower, Zamalek, Cairo Governorate, Egypt, +20 2 27365112
No trip to Cairo is complete without a trip on the mighty Nile. You can choose between floating restaurants and nightclubs and cruise boats, but nothing really compares with a relaxing and rewarding river experience on board a felucca. Come dusk, when the call to prayer echoes around Cairo, board one of these traditional sailing boats and experience the marvelous serenity only the Nile can offer. Sailing down the same river Cleopatra did so many centuries ago is a real treat.