There’s so much to see in Cairo, from Ancient Egyptian treasures to Islamic architecture, that fitting everything into one day seems impossible. First-time visitors often say they didn’t get to see everything on their wish list. I’ve been living in Cairo for nearly 7 years and I’m still making new discoveries.
But if you set some priorities you can get a good sampling of Cairo’s gems even if you’ve only got 24 hours. The trick is to avoid the tourist traps and eliminate similar attractions to narrow things down to just a few.
My first trip to Cairo, almost a decade ago, was a whirlwind tour that often felt rushed. And I’ve seen friends coming through for a few days in Cairo and then regret wasting their time on a kitsch Nile dinner cruise.
Here’s what I’d recommend based on my years of sightseeing around the city:
The Giza pyramid complex
If you only have a short time in Cairo, the Giza pyramid complex should be your top priority. I’ve yet to hear anyone that hasn’t been awestruck by their first visit to these ancient wonders. And even after all these years in Cairo, I still can’t resist snapping photos from my Uber anytime I’m in the area.
Though Giza isn’t technically in Cairo. The necropolis is about 10 miles from downtown and you should allow an hour and a half to get there.
If you’re coming in summer, I’d recommend getting to the plateau as early as possible in the morning to avoid the day’s heat.
Take an Uber or Careem (with a local SIM card) and avoid the local white taxis, which can sometimes overcharge or meander en route.
And hire a guide! They will save you time at the plateau because there’s a lot to see besides the pyramids and the Sphinx – including the Solar Boat Museum and the interior of the Pyramid of Chephre. If you want to visit these additional sites, a guide will steer you there quicker and you’ll get more history from their knowledge.
But more importantly, a guide will ward off the zealous camel and horse ride salesmen, the security guards, vendors, other tour guides and anyone else who’s likely to hassle you. Many visitors have said how draining and exhausting it is to visit the pyramids as a solo traveller and as a prime target for anyone looking for a tip. A tour guide will save you all of that trouble.
You should allow 2 or 3 hours for visiting the plateau and dress comfortably in the summer. Thin and loose linen works best, while jeans or a tight t-shirt are nightmares in the humidity.
There are two entrances to the plateau. One is directly in front of the Sphinx, and the other is on a hill near the Great Pyramid. I would recommend entering at the second entrance and then making your way down towards the Sphinx.
The complex includes Khufu’s Pyramid, known as the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is the biggest and oldest of the three pyramids and the only site of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that’s still intact.
There are two smaller pyramids called Khafre and Menkaure, and three even smaller pyramids that are tombs of Khufu’s wives and sisters.
The Sphinx is another famous landmark: an enormous limestone statue with the body of a lion and a human’s head.
The Solar Boat Museum is also on-site and contains the enormous Khufu solar ship, a vessel probably built for Khufu and found at the foot of his pyramid meant for his use in the afterlife. It’s a small museum that’s mainly taken up by the ship but it’s definitely worth a stop.
And although photos of Giza often make it appear like the pyramids are in the middle of the desert, in reality, they’re surrounded by the busy neighborhood of Giza. If you want that effect, you’ll have to frame your photos and position yourself in spots where the surrounding apartment blocks – or the roads inside the plateau – aren’t visible in your shots.
After a morning of sightseeing, you’ll be ready for lunch. In Giza, I recommend the Pizza Hut across from the Sphinx as a bargain choice. It’s reliable and good food with what’s probably the best view you’ll ever get at a pizza joint.
For a more elegant experience, have a cocktail and lunch at the nearby Marriott Mena House, a luxury hotel with sweeping views of the pyramids.
For more tips on how to experience the pyramids without the hassle, read A Slow Travel Guide to Giza.
Khan el Khalili, Islamic Cairo and Moez Street
Once you finish at the pyramids, take the rest of your afternoon to explore the winding maze of narrow alleys, cafes and spice vendors that is Khan el Khalili – Cairo’s old market – and the historic Moez Street.
Dating back to the 14th century, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this part of the city is called Islamic Cairo. And it’s packed with masterpieces of medieval Islamic architecture and some of the most beautiful mosques in the country.
Start at Al Azhar Mosque. It’s both a gorgeous masterpiece that’s been recently renovated and an easy drop-off point for any Uber driver.
Founded in 970, it’s now regarded as the highest authority in the Islamic world for the study of Sunni theology. Inside, the open-air courtyard is paved in white marble and surrounded by Mamluk-era minarets.
Cross Azhar Street and have a tea with mint at El-Fishawi cafe, one of the city’s oldest cafes and the famed hangout of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz. It’s an old cafe packed in a narrow alley that’s always lively with musicians, groups of friends smoking shisha and vendors offering souvenirs.
And don’t miss Bab al-Ghuri, a gate in Khan el-Khalili that’s filled with shops selling colorful lamps. At night the colorful lights illuminate the historic walls and the spot has earned Instagram fame with its picture-perfect arches.
I’d also recommend hiring a tour guide for Islamic Cairo if you’re interested in visiting the district’s most important sites without losing time, getting lost, or missing out on all the history.
There are just too many mosques and historic sites to pack into one visit, so narrow it down to a few – or have a walk and explore whatever catches your interest. Here are some of my favorites that you shouldn’t miss:
The Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Barquq
One of the city’s greatest architectural feats from the Mamluk era, this religious complex has a stunning courtyard with a richly decorated interior.
This historic Ottoman house is an example of how a wealthy merchant lived in medieval Cairo. Built in 1648, the house is known for its fine mashrabiya in the windows, the marble floor work, and wood furniture. It’s on a narrow lane just off Moez Street and you’ll need a ticket to enter.
This unique mosque, named after a Fatimid caliph infamous for his strange laws, was used throughout its long history as a prison, a fortress for Napoleon and a school.
After all of that history, leave a bit of time to wander and browse for souvenirs.
Ranging from the kitsch to the handmade, you’ll find anything from spices and alabaster figurines to pottery, lamps and khayamiya (a beautiful type of applique used to make pillowcases or wall hangings).
A Felucca Ride and Downtown Cairo
To wind down and rest your feet in the evening, head to downtown Cairo and hire a traditional felucca sailboat for a trip down the Nile River. If you walk around the Qasr el Nil bridge towards the Four Seasons Nile Plaza, you can find a few boats and negotiate a rate.
For a quieter experience, head to the nearby leafy suburb of Maadi near the TGI Fridays and you can get a felucca down a greener, more serene stretch of the river.
Packing in everything you’d love to see in Cairo into a single day can feel overwhelming. It’s a huge and bustling city, and there’s a lot to experience.
But with some wise planning – and a good guide or two – you can get a fair sampling of this vibrant city in just a short time.
BIO: Dee Nowak is a travel writer and photographer living in Cairo, Egypt. She loves slow travel and exploring off the beaten path. She’s also a minimalist who writes about slowing down in a big city.