The locals’ guide to Cairo

Chock-a-block with crowds, street sellers and bumper-to-bumper traffic, we get under the skin of The Mother of the World

THE FOOD SCENE

In-the-know foodie Osman Mohamed of @cairoeats shares his knowledge 

What’s your go-to restaurant in Cairo?

Osmanly, inside the Kempinski Hotel on the Nile, is gorgeous and a good place to take visitors. They serve a blend of Turkish and Egyptian foods, and the friendly service and beautiful surrounds usually impress everyone. Birdcage in the Semiramis InterContinental is another great spot and it’s where I take visitors who want to try something non-Arabic – they do amazing Thai food.

What’s the city’s best-kept foodie secret?

One of my favourites is Fashet Sumaya. It’s a tiny place, hidden away in an alleyway off Hoda Shaarawi Street, down a few steps – you’d hardly notice it. It’s run by just one woman, called Sumaya. Her food tastes just like home cooking. It’s a set menu but you won’t be disappointed.

The city’s most stylish restaurant?

It has to be Don Quichotte. This is in one of Cairo’s nicest areas and is really romantic. The food is inspired by French cuisine and it’s always bustling – make sure you book ahead as it’s very popular.

And the must-try local food?

There’s loads of street food and it’s super cheap. Try grilled corn, taamiya, pretzels, fiteer and freshly baked bread. The most iconic local dish is koshary – a mixture of pasta, lentils and tomato sauce. You can get it at loads of street stalls.

Tell us something only the locals know…

If you don’t have a car but want to try Cairo’s drive-thru shisha scene, taxi drivers are happy to take you.

Famous whirling dancers
Famous whirling dancers

 

CITY”S SECRETS

Private tour guide Ayman Ahmed on his city’s best bits

What’s the most exciting cultural aspect of the city?

There are so many things to see and you don’t want to miss out on anything, but I’ve found one thing that’s always a hit with visitors is the whirling dervish.

Is there anything visitors are surprised by when it comes to culture in Cairo?

I think, perhaps, the Egyptian culture of staying up very late and then getting up very early to go to work takes some getting used to, and the car horns. Cairo drivers are expressive with their horn – and the rhythm of their honking dictates what they mean. For example, four short bursts followed by a longer one means the same as ‘look where you’re going’. It’s a whole other language.

The best area in Cairo for exploring?

It has to be El Moez Street. Check out the historic mosques and houses dating back to 900AD. Afterwards, downtown Cairo is the place to head to explore cafés and teahouses.

What about hidden gems?

Not really hidden, but definitely a gem, the Complex of Qalawun is a massive place that was built by Sultan Al Nasir Muhammed Ibn Qalawun in the 1280s. There’s a mosque, mausoleum and hospital in typical Mameluke architecture; the mausoleum has been called one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Cairo.

Formal Specters by Mohammed-Ezz-Eldin
Formal Specters by Mohammed-Ezz-Eldin

 

CULTURAL GEMS

Egyptian artist Aya Mostafa on the city’s cultural highlights 

What would you recommend visitors do while in town?

Probably visit the Egyptian Museum. Not only is it ancient – it was built in 1891 – it’s also located at Tahrir Square so has been embroiled in the political fabric of the country. It’s huge and will take you a long time to discover all its gifts, but make sure you see Tutankhamun’s treasures. Also wander the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar, a treasure trove of trinkets, crafts and tea, and a great place to chat to locals.

Tell us a bit about the art scene in the city…

It’s flourishing, with a whole host of contemporary galleries like 6Cairo and the Karim Frances Contemporary Gallery. Throughout the year there are plenty of exhibitions to check out, too.

Are there any emerging local artists we should keep an eye out for?

Yes, too many. Probably my favourite at the moment is Mohamed Ezz Eldin, a conceptual photographer who captures truly beautiful shots.

Is there anything you find visitors to Cairo are surprised by?

I think people are surprised by the variety of things on offer and the friendly attitude of the Egyptian people. You can see things like traditional whirling dancers or crafts being handmade in local markets, but there’s also an amazing contemporary art and music scene. Most people in Cairo have a totally liberal attitude and even though they may want to talk to you a lot, they will usually all be super friendly.

Anything else you think we should know?

As clichéd as you might think it is, you should still go and see the pyramids – the icon of Cairo. Don’t take one of the horse tours to the top as they aren’t the safest things, and you’ll get better pictures wandering around on foot anyway.

Treasures in-Khan-el-Khalili
Treasures in-Khan-el-Khalili