With the Egyptian Museum, Khan El-Kalili and Tahir Square all minutes away, Downtown Cairo is the perfect base to explore what the ancient city of Cairo has to offer, writes Demola Ojo
Cairo is a vast city with a population close to 20 million. As one of the largest cities in both Africa and the Middle East, it could be tricky deciding where to stay to get the best touristic experience.
While it certainly isn’t the most glamorous part of a city that that has seen new upscale settlements spring up in recent times, Downtown Cairo is the commercial heart of modern Cairo.
It is a central and convenient location to access other parts of the city; New Cairo, Nasr City, Giza, nearby Gezira Island and more.
Apart from five-star hotels, there are many smaller hotels, apartments, retail outlets, restaurants and tour companies that would be of interest to the traveller.
The district’s central location makes it a natural “jumping off point” for exploration of the city.
Conceived in the 1800s by Ismail the Magnificent who wanted a city modelled on Paris, the architecture of the city is a dusty version of 19th century Paris. However, if there was ever a place where the interiors contrast sharply with first impressions (in a good way), it is Downtown Cairo.
Downtown is popular with Egyptians and international tourists especially, for good reason. Apart from easy access to other parts of Cairo, it has a few interesting spots within minutes from each other.
Tahir Square, where Egyptians gathered in the revolution that brought an end to the regime of former long-serving President Hosni Mubarak, is minutes away from most hotels and would be a nice walk away, barring the scorching sun.
The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, known commonly as the Egyptian Museum is at Tahir Square.
Visiting the museum is not only one of the essential things to do in Downtown Cairo, but also in all of Egypt. The distinctly pink building houses one of the world’s most important collections of ancient artefacts, with more than 100,000 pieces dating to thousands of years B.C.
To walk around the museum is to embark on an adventure through time.
Impressively large statues, sarcophagi and royal mummies are some of the attractions that transport one thousands of years into the past, with the highlight being the glittering treasures of Tutankhamun, including his stunning gold death mask that he was wearing when found.
Within the museum is the world’s biggest collection of royal mummies, including those of acclaimed ancient Pharaohs like Amenhotep, Thutmose and Ramses.
It is hard to believe that some of the mummies are close to five thousand years old, especially when you see Ramses with some of his hair intact.
Other valuable attractions at the museum include the funerary mask of Yuya, a mannequin of Tutankhamun, jars used by the ancient Egyptians during mummification to store the internal organs of their owner, a mural showing Ramses II, sandals worn by the ancients, jewellery, pottery and more.
The Royal Mummy Chamber and the Gold Room where Tutankhamun’s treasures are displayed are a “must-see” when visiting the museum, even though they come at an extra charge.
(An interesting observation is that Nigerians pay the same fee as Egyptians which is way less – sometimes up to four times – than what foreigners pay. It was a good feeling gaining an advantage over others with a Nigerian passport in a foreign country.)
There are guides within the museum that charge extra, and while the museum is easily navigated solo, you may need someone to tell you the stories and point you to the important stuff.
The mask of Tutankhamun is a gold death mask of the 18th-dynasty ancient Egyptian Pharaoh who reigned between1332–1323 BC, mostly as a teenager. The mask was discovered in 1925 and is one of the most well known works of art in the world.
Bearing the likeness of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife, it weighs over 10 kilograms, and is decorated with semi-precious stones.
According to Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves, the mask is “not only the quintessential image from Tutankhamun’s tomb, it is perhaps the best-known object from ancient Egypt itself.”
A trip to Cairo is not complete without getting uniquely Egyptian products. Khan el Khalili, a local Egyptian market dating back to the 16th century is the recommended place for souvenirs, antiques, jewellery and more. Loud, crowded and colourful, the energy is similar to that of some popular markets in Lagos.
When it was originally built in the 14th century, Khan el-Khalili was a souk where traders from diverse regions gathered to sell their goods. In ancient times, the bazaar was known for the sale of cotton and precious jewellery items. Today it is a chaotic bazaar with local traders selling those same goods and a lot more. It is also a major tourist attraction.
There are distinctive areas for spice and jewellery worth visiting. Deeper into the market there are gold vendors and antique shops full of interesting pieces.
There are also fabric shops and carpet vendors and sellers of just about anything you might desire, from authentic oriental incense to emblematic papyrus paintings.
Even if you are not looking to buy, something will surely catch your eye as you take a walk through this bustling market. Cairenes are always looking to sell you something and are very persuasive. The good news for a Nigerian is that your haggling skills can be brought to bear.
It is much easier to visit the market with a local who speaks English as Arabic is the language predominantly spoken here, and in much of Cairo.
Downtown Cairo truly never sleeps. It is busy enough during the day but after dark it takes on a new life. This is when locals and tourists come out to eat, shop and play.
The nightlife is for everyone it seems. It is not unusual to see a group of female expatriates joining in the board games at cafes, or kids taking a walk with a guardian and sometimes with their peers.
Shisha with tea or coffee is a popular pastime, as is snacking on the ubiquitous chicken wrap. A range of delicious fresh juice is also readily available and very affordable everywhere from the roadside cafe to the five-star hotel. This writer caught the bug and alternated between mango and strawberry.
It isn’t all about food and drinks. You can soak up the late night atmosphere by simply taking a walk through the crowded (and safe) streets until well past midnight.
For a more memorable experience, you can set out for the banks of the famous Nile River. From Tahir Square, you’re only a few steps from the Nile’s blue waters. The peaceful river promenade is a great spot to take evening strolls or seat on benches by the waterside.
There you can let your mind wander, perhaps to thoughts of taking a Nile cruise, or planning your itinerary for the next day.
This could be to explore the other side of the bridge and visit Gezira Island, a neighbourhood popular with expats and where you’ll find Cairo Tower, or further out towards Giza to see the world famous pyramids.