48 Hours In Egypt’s Historic Capital, Cairo: A First Timer’s Guide To Exploring The City

Cairo is a feeling that no photographs or documentaries can capture unless you experience it firsthand

by Tejashee Kashyap
48 Hours In Egypt’s Historic Capital, Cairo: A First Timer’s Guide To Exploring The City

There are melodic calls of merchants echoing through the alleys of Cairo’s ancient Khan al-Khalili Souq. “India, India!” “Kareena Kapoor” “Love Bollywood”–sellers were calling out, each vying for attention to their shops. I wandered deeper into the labyrinth’s enchanting embrace and mystery. You name it, the souq had everything–exotic spices, intricately woven carpets, shisha smoke and of course, the classical souvenirs of the Pyramids and cat figurines. One end of the labyrinth took me to a narrow alley of many lanterns, casting a soft glow upon the ancient walls. A sight that I hold closest to my heart–reflecting Egypt’s rich cultural heritage. 

For a first-time visitor, Cairo opened up as an exhilarating sensory overload and remains a bucket-list destination for many. For history enthusiasts, it’s like entering a portal where the past and present intertwine. But truly, nothing compares to seeing the pyramids or listening to the call of prayers along the Nile at dusk. Everything unfolds like a history book.

How To Reach Cairo?

Landing late evening at the sprawling Sphinx International Airport, the roads of modern Cairo are filled with electrifying energy. Towering skyscrapers, sleek cars, and wide bustling roads pulsated with life; it was easy to forget that beneath the veneer of modernity lies a city steeped in the sands of time. 

The roads of modern Cairo are filled with electrifying energy

Like many countries, if you are visiting Egypt from India, a visa is mandatory. The Egypt tourist visa for Indians takes about 5-7 working dates and costs around ₹2-3K. Travelling from Delhi to Cairo can take between 10-15 hours, with all of them being connected flights. However, it’s best to take a morning flight so that you land by late evening hours. I took a reasonable morning-hour flight (7.30 am) with Jazeera Airways that included a layover at Kuwait Airport. With plenty of time, head to the airport’s lounge for some R&R. But, I suggest exploring a world of luxury and indulgence at the renowned airport’s duty-free shopping destination. The promise of tax-free prices is alluring. 

After a good shopping spree, the next Jazeera flight from Kuwait to Cairo was a 3-hour long one. As you’re about to land, it is not a modern skyline that welcomes you. You witness the haunting beauty of Cairo’s ancient ruins, giving you a sense of wonder and awe. 

Day 1: Sojourn Into The Past With Pyramids, Museums

For more than 10,000 years, travellers, writers, and philosophers have been enthralled with this country. Now the streets are filled with honks, blazing motorcycles, and jostling pedestrians. The buildings and vintage cars seem to whisper secrets of ages gone by. 

The Egyptian Museum

Nestled on the edge of Tahrir Square, make your first stop at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Touted to be the largest museum in Africa, this oddly-pink-hued, domed museum houses the glittering treasures of Tutankhamun and other great pharaohs.

Here, you step back in time; surrounded by millennia-old artefacts of ancient Egypt. One of the highlights of the museum is its collection of royal mummies with annotations on the materials used to prepare each corpse. The most fascinating feature of the museum is Tutankhamun’s tomb, which is on exhibit with his bust, several intricate gold jewellery, trinkets, and other personal belongings. From statues and sculptures to hieroglyphic inscriptions, glimpses and stories of old Egypt come alive. On your way exit, visit its excellent gallery shop.

Head over for a quick lunch before you’re ready to be mesmerised by the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx. Stop by Molana Restaurant, a bustling Egyptian family eating place. The pita breads and kebabs steal the show. 

Pyramids & The Great Sphinx

When it comes to visiting the Pyramids, take ample time in your hand. As you approach, the anticipation builds up with each passing moment. The outline of the pyramids began to emerge on the horizon. The closer you get, the more awe-inspiring they become. Taking this trip with my best friends made it more surreal. We felt a chill down our spine when we first saw the Pyramids–clenching each other’s hands with that expression on our faces that said, “We have done it, we are looking at The Great Pyramids for real”

Discover the three pyramids at Giza designed for Khufu, Khafra, and Menkaure and the lesser pyramids close by for the queen consorts. But the experience of going inside one of the smaller Pyramids is an experience in itself. You can’t help but feel a sense of reverence for the pharaohs who were laid to rest within these hallowed halls. I was not just a visitor then–a part of history itself.  The way down inside is a tiny tunnel, so unless you’re very short, you’ll have to bend down into the burial chamber. However, claustrophobics take note. 

Catch the sunset of your lifetime at the Great Sphinx of Giza. One of the earliest massive sculptures in the world, this limestone statue with a lion’s body and a human’s head is still a mystery. The details of the statue are impeccable–the gentle curve of its paws, the intricate carving of its headdress, and the enigmatic smile that plays upon its lips.

As the final rays of sunlight slip below the horizon, it’s a breathtaking display of nature’s beauty. We absorbed the awe-inspiring spectacle of a desert sunset. While you’re at it, pose quickly for the infamous photo–leaning in close to plant a gentle kiss on the Great Sphinx.

Street-Food Pleasure

As the evening drew to a close, we headed out to savour local Egyptian cuisine for dinner. Exploring local cuisine is an adventure for the senses. The must-try is definitely Koshari,  a surprisingly wonderful mixture of several types of carbohydrates that will keep you full and energetic after all that sightseeing. It’s a hearty blend of rice, lentils, pasta, and spicy tomato sauce topped with caramelised onions and crispy chickpeas. 

Also Read: Cairo’s Oldest Museum Has Opened A New Wing, The Star There Is The Book Of Dead With 113 Spells

Day 2: Into The Heart Of Old Cairo

Often forgotten, Cairo served as a major Christian hub. The majority of Egyptian Christians are Coptic Christians, who originally called the old Coptic Quarter home. As you approach this historic district, the facades of contemporary buildings gradually give way to weathered stone walls, ornate minarets, narrow alleyways and crumbling half-done buildings. 

Old Cairo houses the famous Babylon Fortress which is home to several churches, a synagogue, museums and more. The narrow cobblestone street whispers tales of spiritual intrigue. The air becomes thick with the scent of incense and the sound of distant prayers. Most Coptic churches are dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary. History has it that Egypt was the place of refuge when the Holy Family (Abraham, Mary, and Jesus) was fleeing from Judea.

The Hanging Church

Head to the Hanging Church or the St. Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church is the most recognised site in the Coptic Quarter. Moreover, it’s an architectural marvel, built atop the gatehouse of ancient Babylon Fortress. Built around the 7th century, ascending 29 steps takes you to a huge room with a high vaulted ceiling. The interior is adorned with stunning examples of Coptic art and craftsmanship–colourful frescoes, a collection of exquisite artworks which depict scenes from the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints and intricately carved wooden screens. 

Next, as you walk out towards the Coptic Quarter street, you’ll see a flight of stairs on your right. It’s a downhill slope that looks like the entrance to a metro station. Simply glance above and you’ll see a list of all the well-known buildings. Welcome to the haven of narrow streets and ancient holy places. It’s a picturesque corridor with sunlight partially penetrating and lined with bookstores and jewellery stores.

Churches To Synagogues

If you are a history aficionado, take time to explore this alley; it is a half to full-day activity. From the Nunnery of St. George, Ben Ezra Synagogue to the Church Of Saint Barbara, there’s a lot to learn and see around here. However, you can proceed directly towards one of the oldest Coptic Christian churches in Egypt, Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church (also called Abu Serga) which takes you back to the 4th century. 

According to tradition, the church stands on the spot where the Holy Family sought refuge. The grounds of Abu Serga are a sacred realm. Ornate carvings adorn the entrance while weathered deep-coloured stone walls reflect centuries of history. 

Inside Abu Serga Church leading to a 10m-deep crypt

Inside the chapel, some steps lead you down into the Holy Family Cave, which is now a 10-meter-deep crypt. As you descend into the faint light, the very air itself is infused with the presence of the divine. There is a niche in the wall where the infant Jesus was rested, a well from which the Holy Family drank and an “Epiphany Tub” related to the Coptic Epiphany, which is the story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.

Citadel Of Cairo

As you move beyond Coptic Cairo to the Al-Hussain area, the heart of Islamic Cairo, you pass by the Citadel of Saladin along the dusty roads. It opens up panoramic views of the city as well as stunning Ottoman design. It was late afternoon when we headed to Egypt’s Islamic heritage site. The city bathed in the golden light of the Sun while the sky danced in the hues of orange and crimson. The road was lined with alabaster walls, soaring domes of the mosques, superb Cairo road views, and Pyramids poking up in the far distance. The entire vista was breathtaking, only amplifying the mysticism of Egypt. For a sheer moment, I found myself in a different era. 

Exploring Cairo can get hectic, and trying to fit everything in within 48 hours might be overwhelming. Although I didn’t enter the fortress, its commanding view with the ornate arches, and lush courtyard with palm trees doesn’t get missed.

Islamic Cairo

Straightaway, heading to one of Cairo’s earlier and main mosques, Al Azhar Mosque is just amidst bustling streets. With five majestic minarets, its breathtakingly beautiful marble central court is an otherworldly ambience. It was sunset time and the evening Azaan only made the atmosphere more divine. 

The popular Khan Al-Khalili is just a stroll away from the mosque. Before you enter, revise your art of bargaining to get the best deals; a practised culture in the bazaars of Cairo. Given the wide range of attractive goods and souvenirs, give yourself lots of time here. In case you decide to buy something, be prepared to bargain and reduce the price by at least 50%, if not more. After a shopping session, find your way to one of the eatery places, located before entering the market. Most of them are Cairo’s oldest cafes.

Cruising Through Nile

The Nile is not only one of the world’s longest rivers. The river is as mysterious as its native land, flowing from south to north, a rare in the globe. First off, there are over 200 cruises that traverse Cairo’s Nile. Most of the dinner cruise ships travel the length and width of the Nile. Most of the dinner cruises treat you to savoury mezze platters laden with hummus, falafel, and tabbouleh, to succulent grilled meats and freshly caught seafood. As the boat meanders its way along the river, it’s quite a sight to witness the city lights of Cairo twinkle in the distance. 

Egypt’s folk dance, Tanoura where a man dances wearing a colourful skirt with lights

Then there was Egypt’s folk dance, Tanoura. A man began spinning to the sounds of an Arabic song while wearing a colourful skirt with lights attached. After the end of his performance, the dancer walked from one table to the next to place a colourfully-lit hat-like thing over the audience’s heads. I later learned that some believe it represents the Almighty pouring blessings on the attendees. 

How To Get Around The City?

The metro is by far the least expensive method to move about Cairo and is well-connected. It’s frequently the quickest route, especially given the notoriously heavy traffic in the city. Otherwise, metered cabs like Uber are easily available around the city at all hours. Even, the rates are quite affordable. If possible,  go via a local travel operator. It is the easiest and most convenient method to explore the city, and they will take you around in their taxis with a guide.  

Cairo is a feeling that no photographs on the internet or documentaries can capture unless you experience it firsthand. There is so much to learn about the history and culture that has fascinated millions and simply, 48 hours is not enough. You can never get enough of Egypt!

Egyptians believe that treating cats with kindness brings blessings and good fortune


Cover image credits: Canva
Inside image credits: Tejashee Kashyap

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