The River Nile flows from south to north through Cairo, splitting the city in two. Almost slap bang in the middle is the island of Zamalek, with Downtown and Shubra to the east, and Imbaba, Mohandiseen and Dokki to the west.
Zamalek is more properly known as Gezira (the "island"), although most people refer to it as Zamalek. It is a large island, about 4 km long and 1 km wide. Although somewhat vulnerable until the Aswan Dam was built in the early 20th Century, today Zamalek is one of the most important areas of Cairo, and two of the main bridges in the city pass over it.
The south half of the island is very green. The southern tip is home to the super-posh Sofitel El Gezirah Hotel, the Nadi al-Qahira Sporting Club, and the Mahmoud Mukhtar Sculpture Museum. Just north of here is the Cairo Opera House Complex, beside the Opera Metro station. As well as the Opera House, this complex houses the Planetarium, and the Museum of Modern Islamic Art.
Moving slightly further north again, is the Nadi al-Ahli sporting club, the Teachers Club, the Anglo-American Hospital and – of most interest to foreign visitors – the Cairo Tower. Stretching north of here, and covering a fair chunk of the whole of the island, is the Gezira Sporting Club, Nadi al-Gezira. This exclusive club was established by the British in the early 20th Century, and was famous for its horse racing and polo. These days it is still reserved for the (Egyptian) elite, who spend their leisure time playing golf and tennis, and hobnobbing with the great and good.
Although the roads are admittedly quite busy, and the Gezira Club off limits for non-members, this area of Cairo is still a pleasant place to wander around, and greener than anywhere else in the city. The Fish Garden, to the north west of the Gezira Club, is another relaxing place to get away from the hustle and bustle of Cairo, though it has certainly seen better days!
The northern half of the island is the area that is properly referred to as Zamalek. This is a posh, fashionable and westernised residential district, that contains lots of embassies, hotels, restaurants and bars, and boutique shopping.
The main action centres around 26th July Street, which runs directly under the 15th May Bridge. At the east end is the sumptous Cairo Marriott hotel, and restaurants and bars such as La Bodega, Deals, Abou el Sid, Maison Thomas and L'Aubergine. There is also a fantastic book shop called Diwan. At the far west end is al-Sawy Culture Wheel, a local cultural centre that hosts regular concerts, exhibitions and other workshops, and that – unusually for Egypt – is entirely no smoking!
The streets running off 26th July contain numerous other restaurants, bars, galleries and shops. Of particular note is Fair Trade Egypt, which is tucked away on Yehia Ibrahim Street.
Although you can never really escape the fumes and noise of central Cairo, the streets of Zamalek are some of nicest in the city to wander around and enjoy a spot of window shopping!