On a visit to Cairo, as well as the usual tourist places, take a trip to Heliopolis, a suburb to the north-east of the city. It was built in the early 20th Century by a Belgian and hence has some fantastic European-style architecture (and his own palace, which is a wonderful Taj Mahal-esque structure). Within the district is the centre of Heliopolis, El Korba, whose Bagdhad Street has some amazing colonnade type arches running along in front of the shops; you could almost be in Venice's St Mark's Square! (or somewhere similar..)
Helipolis has a large, wealthy Christian community of a range of different denominations, something you will notice by the proliferation of churches there. It has a nice feel to it with a number of cafes, bars and one of the British club's branches is here. One of the two British Council offices is also in Heliopolis which means there is a small-ish community of British teachers in the area too.
Pop up there and spend half a day especially if you're interested in architecture, churches and an alternative tourist experience. The Presidential Palace and a number of official government buildings are in Heliopolis as well, should you be interested in that.
Just mention Heliopolis (Arabic: Masr Gadida) to any taxi driver, they will know it. It should take about 20 mins from Downtown, much longer at busy times.
Often overlooked in favour of Giza, Saqqara is a far more varied archaeological site, and is much less crowded, both with tourists and the tat-hawkers that tend to go with them.
Here, you get to see the earliest pyramid – the so-called ‘Step Pyramid’, which is still impressive in size and is set in a partly-restored ‘complex’ of buildings. Various other pyramids in more or less romantically-ruinous states are scattered around the site, together with some of the most wonderfully decorated private tombs in Egypt.
With these, though, as with lots of sites in Egypt, it’s almost impossible to say what will be open and what won’t, because that information seems to change rather haphazardly. Get here under your own steam by a taxi from Cairo to make sure you can wander around the many acres of ruins without worrying about getting back on to a coach.
One thing not to miss is the pyramid of Unas – start at his pyramid and then walk down its ‘causeway’, which has private tombs built all around it.
Giza can be a nightmare. Its atmosphere has been ruined by the road, the coaches, the thousands of tourists and a seemingly equal number of Egyptians offering tacky souvenirs and camel rides at inflated prices. This is no coincidence however, it being the site at which the pharaohs of the Fourth Dynasty at last nailed the art of pyramid building.
One of their predecessors, Sneferu, did much of the ground work however. He erected two monuments of his own at the much quieter site of Dahshur, a few miles south of Giza.
The earlier of the two is the ‘bent’ pyramid, so-named because the king’s architect got his sums wrong and had to change the angle of incline halfway up. The second, the ‘red’ pyramid was an unqualified success: a straight sided pyramid, smaller only than the great pyramid itself.
The interior of the red pyramid with its corbel vaulted ceiling is well worth a look, and the bent-pyramid preserves much of the outer casing that was stripped from the Giza pyramids centuries ago. The lack of tourists gives you a chance to take in the immensity of these monuments.
Although you kind of have to go to Giza, I highly recommend seeing Dahshur as well – it’s what Giza ought to be like.
There is a long chain of 87 pyramids running from El-Lahun (near El Faiyum) in the south to Giza in the north. At both Dahshur and Saqqara you can see pyramids to the north and to the south and so get a better idea of the extent of these monuments.
At Dahshur there is the Red Pyramid with its three corbelled rooms and the Bent or Rhomboid Pyramid. Halfway through building it, they changed the slope so it looks bent as the name suggests.
At Saqqara, the Step pyramid with its courtyard and surviving temples gives a much better idea of the way a funerary complex was more than just a tomb. It was a whole collection of buildings for the worship of the gods as well as the preparation of the Pharaoh's body.
These sites are best appreciated with a good guide or guidebook and a small group so you have plenty of time to explore and see the whole thing.
Dahshur is 40 miles south of Cairo.
Saqqara is roughly 25km south of Cairo.
Ask your hotel to hire a car and driver for the day and you can visit both sites.
The ancient Egyptians didn't have the arch so they used corbelling to create large spaces inside the Pyramids. Only a limited number are allowed in any of the Giza pyramids on any one day and you have to get there first thing to queue but it is well worth it.
The long Gallery is in the Great Pyramid and is some 60 feet long and slopes upward. It has been created by slightly overlapping stones as they go up to create a long-toothed triangular space. It is amazing.
If you haven't the time or patience to queue for tickets, the Red Pyramid at the Dahshur Pyramid has three much smaller corbelled rooms which are truly amazing.
Giza is approximately 20km southwest of Cairo.
Dahshur is approximately 40km south of Cairo.
Sultan Hassan Mosque is an amazing piece of Mamluk architecture and a must for anybody visiting Cairo. Bab al-Shariah is a place I visited with my friend's family. Native Egyptians live and work there amid the hustle and bustle and there are all kinds of shops with merchandise at affordable prices.
Sultan Hasan Mosque is near the citadel. Bab al-Shariah is near the Al-Azhar and Al-Hussein mosques
It's actually possible to escape the crowds and the noise in Cairo, although you have to put up with a lot of both on the way. I would recommend Beit el-Suhaymi, a wonderful, labyrinthine Islamic house-turned-museum where you can really picture how the large families used to live.
Before or afterwards take a stroll around the north of Khan al-Khalili market. Away from the hassle of the market stalls you see a bit of real innercity life. I am female and, being there on my own, I didn't feel hassled at all in this part. Be sure to respect their dress code though.
Another tip is go to the Mosque of Sulayman Pasha when at the Citadel. Around the Citadel itself, in particular the Muhammad Ali mosque, was very busy, but the simpler, smaller mosque felt like a peaceful oasis and has lovely mosaics.
Beit el-Suhaymi, Khan al-Khalili market and the Citadel are all located within the city centre.
Definitely check out the mosque and university of Al Azhar. Al Azhar is the oldest Islamic university of the Islamic world, and a beautiful building.
The market of Khan Khalili is great to visit, but closed certain days, so try and find out when. It's got lots of different things; be sure not to get cornered by sales people. If you wander far beyond the main strip, you'll find a local Cairene food market and its fascinating to walk through it, really lots of fun.
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