Off the beaten path Cairo: markets and monuments not even the locals know



Description:

Cairo must be one of the most fascinating cities in the world: an exotic, chaotic assault on the senses, steeped in thousands of years of history.

Everybody knows about the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, and Khan al-Khalili, but there is so much more on offer. So much, in fact, that no single individual could know about all of the gems tucked away in Cairo’s winding maze of alleyways. This is especially true of Islamic Cairo, easily the most enthralling, and confusing, area in the whole of the city.

This guide will take you well off the beaten path (though it will pass through some more familiar areas), into markets where most locals will never venture, and past monuments long forgotten by the majority of people.

The best way to explore the hidden nooks and crannies of Cairo is to walk, walk, and walk some more. Getting lost is mandatory. Wander down alleyways, enter interesting-looking buildings, and talk to the locals. This guide will provide you with suggestions for getting off the beaten track, but ultimately, you must let serendipity be your guide.

Note it goes without saying that you will be venturing in to traditional areas, so conservative clothing is a must! Ideally, you will also need to find a map of Cairo.

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Author: Nicholas Rowlands


Day 1 - Cairo


You are going to walk from Downtown, all the way to the Khan al-Khalili area, so make sure you get an early start, have sufficient sun protection, and carry a bottle of water.

Start in Downtown Cairo and walk to Midan al-‘Ataba. There are loads of ways to do this, but here are a few possible routes.

You can walk from Midan Tahrir up Talaat Harb street. Go straight over Midan Talaat Harb (you will see the Yacoubian building to your right – setting for the modern novel and film of the same name) and keep going until you see ‘Adli street on your right. Walk down ‘Adli until you meet Midan al-Ubra. You will pass one of Cairo’s few remaining synagogues: an imposing, gun-metal grey brick structure that manages to look both futuristic and gothic at the same time. Cross over Midan al-Ubra and walk under the overpass. Turn right at the Central Post Office, and you are in Midan al-‘Ataba – check out the old-school fire engines parked here!

Alternatively, start in Midan Tahrir and walk east along Tahrir street until you get to Midan al-Gumhuriya and ‘Abdin Palace. Keep an eye out along the way for al-Horeya on the left hand side: you might want to grab a beer there later! Turn left on to al-Gumhuriya street and keep walking straight until you meet Midan al-Ubra, or immediately leave al-Gumhuriya to the right and take ‘Abd al-‘Aziz street to Midan al-‘Ataba. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz street is a manic street where lots of cut-price electronics are sold.

Pause for a second in Midan al-‘Ataba: ‘Ataba is one of the most exciting areas of Cairo – a series of interlinked markets where if you can name it, you can buy it, provided you can find it! It’s worth exploring the area: see if you can find the Paper Market on al-Geish Street (which sells not only paper, but also dyed leather and art materials). If you are hungry, there are plenty of street food stalls in the area selling fuul, falafel and shwarma – pick somewhere that is doing a brisk trade.

You are now going to take al-Muski street all the way to Khan al-Khalili. You’ll probably have to ask for directions to find the street, but that’s fine: it’s a famous street, and the locals will be more than willing to help. Al-Muski is a lively local market that starts out selling fireworks and household objects, and gradually transitions in to clothing and accessories, before phasing in to more touristy stuff towards the north of the street as you get closer to Khan al-Khalili.

Spend some time exploring the Khan: whilst most certainly on the beaten path, it’s a unique experience, and the banter with the vendors is second to none. Grab a Turkish coffee and a shisha pipe in al-Fishawi coffee shop, and if you haven’t eaten yet, take your lunch in Farahat or at the Egyptian Pancake House (again, it’s hardly unknown, but does good quality traditional feteers nonetheless).

Spend the afternoon exploring the area south of al-Azhar Mosque. Start by walking behind the mosque and checking out the Wikalet al-Ghouri: a beautifully restored medieval merchants’ hostel, that also hosts a free Sufi dancing show on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday evenings at 8 pm (get there early!) if you are up for it.

There is also an interesting fruit and veg market here, backing on to a maze of cramped alleys where dusty stalls sell even dustier books, and some craftsmen making mother of pearl boxes can be found. Don’t get lost, though, because you want to head back past the mosque, and turn left on to al-Mu’izz li-Din-Allah street to head south.

At the start of the street is the rest of the al-Ghouri complex – a restored mosque and madrassa, both of which can be visited. Keep going down the street, which used to be known as Cairo’s silk market. In the alleys to the right you will still find lots of carpet sellers, and even a small Tarboosh (Fez) souq.

This busy local market is a far cry from Khan al-Khalili, and is given over mainly to cheap clothes and household goods. Note all the bags of raw cotton dotting the street. Just before you reach Bab Zwayla (the southern medieval gate) you will see the ornamental Sabil (water fountain) of Mohamed Ali on the left.

You may want to turn right immediately after the gate, and walk the half a km or so to the Museum of Islamic Art. Make sure you double back and continue heading south, though, because you are about to enter Khyamiyya Street, or the Street of the Tentmakers. This is a fascinating covered market where craftsmen still make the traditional appliqué pavilions that are unique to Egypt. Although increasingly touristy, prices here are much lower than in the Khan, and the vendors are more than happy to chat about their work.

Keep going down the street, and it morphs into this incredible local food market: brightly coloured piles of fruits and vegetables fighting for space with buckets of offal, live chickens and rabbits. Make sure you keep your wits about you on this street: as crowded as it is, you still need to dodge the wheelbarrows, bikes, and even the occasional truck!

The market eventually spills out in to Mohamed ‘Ali street, famous for its musical instruments. If you turn right on to Mohamed ‘Ali street, you can walk up to Midan al-Khalq (and a second chance to visit the Museum of Islamic Art) and then head west via Sami al-Barudi street to get back to Downtown. Alternatively, you could just jump a taxi: you’ve certainly earned it!

In the evening, head down to Garden City. Just south of Downtown, Garden City is a pleasant maze of tranquil, tree-lined streets, and home to lots of government buildings and embassies. Take dinner either in Taboula (a quality Lebanese restaurant on Latin America street), or in Abu Shakra on Qasr al-Aini.

You are a short walk away from Makan. Situated next to Saad Zaghloul metro station, this centre is devoted to preserving traditional Egyptian culture and arts, especially music. Every Wednesday at 9.00 pm the mixed male and female Mazaher ensemble perform the Zar: a traditional type of African and Middle Eastern music used in healing rituals. Make the most of the opportunity to witness, and help support, this endangered tradition.


1

Abdeen Palace Museum

Location:

Moustafa Abdel Raziq Street
off Abdeen Square
11728 Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 2 391 0042


2

Attaba

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Location:

Attaba
Cairo,


3

al-Muski street

Location:

al-Muski Street
Cairo,


4

Khan el-Khalili Bazaar

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expert pick

Location:

Off Hussein Square
(Across from El Azhar Mosque)
11211 Cairo, Egypt


5

Al-Fishawi Coffee Shop

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Location:

El-Fishawi Alley
(Khan al-Khalili)
Cairo, Egypt


6

Al-Azhar Mosque

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Location:

Al-Azhar Street
Opposite El-Hussein Square
Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 (0)2 59 3893
fax: +20 (0)2 59 3893


7

Farahat

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Location:

126 Al-Azhar Street
Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 (0)2 2592 6595


8

Egyptian pancake house

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Location:

Midan Hussein
Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: 2024505871


9

Wikalet al-Ghouri

Location:

Muhammad 'Abduh Street
11211 Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 (0)2 2285 4509 (Tourist Information)
fax: +20 (0)2 2285 4363 (Tourist Information)


10

Mosque-Madrassa of al Ghouri

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Location:

In front of al Ghouri Mausoleum
Islamic Cairo
11728 Cairo, Egypt


11

Bab Zwayla

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Location:

Sharia al-Muizz el-Din Allah Street
Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 (0)2 391 3454 (Tourist Information)


12

Museum of Islamic Art

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Location:

Port Said Street
Port Saied Street
11211 Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 2 390 9930


13

Taboula

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Location:

1 Latin American Street
Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 (0)2 2792 5261
fax: +20 (0)2 3762 3534


14

Abou Shakra

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Location:

69 Kasr El Einy Street
Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: 20 (0)2 2531 6111, +20 (0)2 3531 6222
fax: +20 (0)2 2531 6222


15

Makan

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Location:

1 Saad Zaghloul St.
El Dawaween
11461 Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 (0)2 2792 0878


Day 2 - Cairo


Today you are going to explore the area north of Khan al-Khalili. Either walk there, or take a taxi to al-Azhar. Head north this time up al-Mu’izz li-Din-Allah street, to the west of the market. This street takes you past a series of stalls selling household goods and shisha spare parts, as well as the garlic market.

There are a load of beautiful Islamic monuments along this street that have been restored. Make sure you pop in to the Beit al-Souhaymi – a good example of 17th Century Ottoman architecture. Also make sure you visit the elegant al-Hakim mosque at the north end of the road.

Take your lunch at Zizo’s, a Cairo institution located opposite the northern gate. This spit and sawdust restaurant offers up the finest spicy sausage sandwiches in the whole of Egypt, no contest!

Once you’ve had your fill, continue east to the second of the northern gates, Bab al-Nasr. Head south down al-Gamaliya street towards Midan al-Hussein. About half-way down you will pass the Mosque of Gamal al-Din, and from here it’s a short walk to al-Husayn Mosque.

Spend the afternoon exploring the Northern Cemetery, also known as the City of the Dead. It’s a short walk east from Midan al-Husayn along al-Azhar Street: when you get to the top of the hill, walk under the overpass and enter the cemetery via any of the narrow roads that lead in amongst the tombs.

The City of the Dead is a cross between a slum and a huge cemetery, with the inhabitants living amongst the tombs. Many people live inside the tombs themselves - it was normal for tomb owners to 'employ' families as kind of caretakers – and, depending on exactly where you wander, it’s common to see sights such as washing lines strung up between headstones.

The whole area is a real maze, and there’s both a northern cemetery, where most of the inhabitants tend to live, and a southern cemetery, which is mainly old, spooky tombs. The area that’s easiest to explore is the northern cemetery, and it’s home to a number of mosques and mausoleums that can be visited. The one you really want to find is the Mosque of Quaitbey, which is considered by many to be the finest Mamluk monument in Cairo. The best way to get there is to ask for directions, and if you’ve entered the area from al-Azhar street, you shouldn’t be too far away.

Since the northern cemetery receives more visitors, most people feel comfortable enough walking round on their own, especially if you stick to the bigger streets. It’s important to be dressed conservatively, though, and not to blatantly flash signs of your wealth. It might be worth offering a couple of friendly kids some baksheesh to act as your unofficial guides.

All this said, you should leave the City of the Dead well before dark. Retrace your steps to the main road, Salah Salim, and turn left. You’ll see al-Azhar Park over the road on your right, which is a really pleasant place to wander round and relax for an hour or so. There are decent cafes and restaurants here if you need a spot of refreshment, and the people-watching is fantastic. Keep your eyes open for young lovers strolling amongst the flowers, coyly ‘holding hands’ by each grasping one end of a shared mobile phone! Al-Azhar park is one of the best places in Cairo to watch the sunset, as you hear the Call to Prayer from hundreds of mosques at the same time.

Grab some dinner somewhere Downtown or near your hotel, but remember you have an early start again tomorrow!


2

Beit Al Souhaymi

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expert pick

Location:

Darb al-Asfar Street
Around Bab el Futuh
Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 2 285 4509


3

Hakim Mosque (Al)

Location:

Al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah Street
Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 (0)2 285 4509 (Tourist Information)
fax: +20 (0)2 285 4363 (Tourist Information)


4

Bab el-Futuh

Location:

El Muizz El Din Allah Street
Facing Al-Banhawi Galal Street
Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 (0)2 391 3454 (Tourist Information)


5

Bab al-Nasr

Location:

Off Bab al-Wazir Street
Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 (0)2 285 4509 (Tourist Information)
fax: +20 (0)2 285 4363 (Tourist Information)


6

Al Hussein Mosque

expert pick

Location:

El-Hussein Square
Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 (0)2 285 4509 (Tourist Information)
fax: +20 (0)2 285 4363 (Tourist Information)


7

Zizo's

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Location:

1 Midan Bab al Futuh
Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: 2025926530


8

Qarafa, City of the Dead

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Location:

East of Cairo, Foot of Moqattam Cliff
El Khalifa
Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 2 285 4509


9

Mausoleum of Sultan Qaitbay

Location:

East of Cairo, Foot of Moqattam Cliff
El Khalifa, City of the Dead
Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 2 285 4509


10

Al Azhar Park

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Location:

Salah Salem Street
Al Darassa
11562 Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 2 510 3868 / +20 2 510 7378
fax: +20 2 512 1054


Day 3 - Cairo


Since the Friday Market burned down in June 2010, the best way to finish your Off the Beaten Path tour of Cairo is to explore Manshiyat Nasser. This is the area known as “Garbage City”, the slum settlement where most of Cairo’s garbage collectors, the Zabaleen, live.

Whilst it’s possible to grab a taxi there and have a wander, visiting the rock cut cathedral and NGO’s such as APE and Roh al-Shebab, you’ll probably take more from your visit if you can find someone to show you around and explain exactly how the Zabaleen collect, sort, re-use and recycle the majority of Cairo’s trash.

The Solar CITIES Urban Eco Tour is a walking tour through Manshiyat Nasser (and Darb al-Ahmar, in Islamic Cairo, if you so desire) on which you learn about a project where the local community has come together to build solar water heaters and biogas generators out of cheaply available recycled materials. It’s led by Hanna Fathy, one of the Zabaleen, and so as well as learning about the project itself, you’ll get a good insight into the daily lives of this Cairo community.

In the evening, try to eat dinner at Aboul Sid: it’s not off the beaten track, but it does do some of the best traditional food in Cairo, in opulent surroundings. Note that because the restaurant is so popular, it’s advisable to book in advance. Aboul Sid serves both alcohol and shisha pipes – so it’s the perfect place to reflect on the amazing sights you have witnessed over the last few days, in the city known as Umm al-Dounia, the Mother of the World.


1

Solar CITIES Urban Eco Tour

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expert pick

Location:

Fangari Hindi st, Manshiyat Nasser, Mogamma Zabaleen
Cairo,

Contact:

tel: +2 012 182 7315


5

Abou el Sid

expert pick

Location:

157, 26th of July Street, just down from Diwan book store
Cairo, Egypt

Contact:

tel: +20 (0)2 2735 9640 / +20 (0)10 100 8500
fax: +20 (0)2 3748 8109


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