Downtown Cairo (also known as wust al-balad – the "centre of town") was built in the mid 19th Century as part of Khedive Ismail's attempts to modernise the city. It was designed by a team of European architects, and modelled on the boulevards of Paris.
These days, the rows of palm trees have all but disappeared, the sophisticated building facades droop under the weight of the unkind years, and people don't so much promenade as wade through the car fumes and crowds. Downtown Cairo is a curious mix of business district, shopping centre, residential area and – of course – traffic jam.
Downtown is marked at the south-western edge by Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square), a chaotic and intimidating merry-go-round of traffic. If you can cross the road here, you can cross it anywhere in Cairo! At the south end of the square is the Mugamma building, a soviet-looking monstrosity that houses legions of Government bureaucracy at its most unfathomable. (It's here that you will need to go for your visa extension, should you need one. Good luck!) Past this, Qasr al-Aini street leads down to the embassies of Garden City.
To the west of the square is the Arab League building, and above that the Nile Hotel, situated on the Cornice and looking out over the Nile. To the north-west of the square is the world-famous Egyptian Museum, home to the treasures of Tutankhamen.
The main thoroughfare through Downtown is Talaat Harb Street, angling to the north-east from Midan Tahrir. The streets leading off from here are a jumble of travel agents, banks, shoe and clothing stores, malls, fast food stalls, juice bars and cafes.
Towards the east, Downtown shades into the Ataba market area, and then the area known as Islamic Cairo. One of the coolest things to do in Downtown is to walk all the way from here to Khan al-Khalili, and watch how the character of the city changes.
While there aren't many tourist attractions as such, other than the Egyptian Museum, Downtown is still a fascinating area to wander around. You will find a number of contemporary art galleries, such as the Townhouse Gallery and the Mashrabia Gallery, and the Yacoubian Building (made famous in the 2002 novel by Alaa el-Aswany) sits on one corner of Midan Talaat Harb.
As well as western fast food such as McDonald's and Hardee's, you'll find shwarma stands and koshary houses. Felfela and Abou Tarek are two particularly famous Egyptian fast food joints.
Downtown is also a drinkers paradise. There are seedy bars, many of which have bellydancing shows, tucked away in the side streets to the north, and more respectable joints such as the Greek Club, Estoril and After Eight. Don't miss the Odeon – a 24 hour rooftop bar – or al-Horeya, a chaotic coffee shop that happens to serve beer!
Finally, Downtown is home to Cairo's largest selection of budget hotels, such as the Lialy Hostel on Midan Talaat Harb, as well as one of its finest boutique hotels, Talisman.
It's easy to visit Downtown, even if you aren't staying there. Sadat Metro station is in Midan Tahrir, Mohamed Naguib Metro is to the east, and Nasser Metro station to the north. And of course, you always have the taxis!