CAIRO (Reuters Life!) - Pairing an ancient pharaonic legacy with a cosmopolitan buzz that has made it a cultural hub of the Middle East, Egypt’s 5,000-year-old capital is a study in contrasts.
Cairo, where Oriental bazaars with traditional handicrafts nestle beside neon malls displaying the world’s top fashion labels and where overcrowded slums border lavish neighborhoods, has long captured the imagination of adventurous travelers.
Dubbed “the city of a thousand minarets,” the Cairo skyline is pierced with countless domes and minarets of mosques that overlook its frenetic, congested streets.
It has also been called “Paris on the Nile,” a home to relics of colonial-era architecture inspired by France and ranging in style from neo-baroque to art deco.
A chaotic, crowded metropolis teeming with traffic, Cairo elicits all but indifference from its visitors. It is a glorious beacon of history and culture, interweaving influences from Turkish, French and British colonial rule.
In modern times the city has become an anchor for film, music and pop culture embraced across the Arab world.
Egypt’s weekend days are Friday and Saturday, just enough time to get a glimpse of its capital’s many faces.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors to Cairo get the most out of a short stay.
8 a.m. - The early hours before the call to Jumu‘ah (Friday) noon prayers are the quietest of the Cairene week. Locals sleep in and the normally overwhelming traffic is temporarily subdued.
Kick off your visit with a trip to the peerless Giza pyramids on the western edge of Cairo. Make sure you book a tour guide before you go and, if you decide on a horse or camel ride, haggle over price beforehand. You may also have to haggle as you try to get off the ride.
1 p.m. - Lunch and a beer at the century-old Cafe Riche in the downtown Cairo neighborhood. Its basement was a meeting point for resistance members during the 1919 Revolution against British occupation. Decades later, the cafe became the favorite haunt of Egyptian Nobel laureate, the writer Naguib Mahfouz. It is now a popular hangout for many of the city’s intellectuals. Sometimes, Cafe Riche hosts an accordion player on Fridays.
3 p.m. - While in downtown Cairo, amble through its 19th and early 20th century boulevards and buildings. The neighborhood, once home to Cairo’s elite, has been sullied by years of neglect, but remains home to French-inspired architectural gems built during the reign of Ottoman ruler Khedeve Ismail.
Downtown offers culture buffs an interesting shopping experience. Sherif street is home to Lehnert & Landrock, a bookshop selling replica photographs of Egypt and North Africa taken by Austrian Rudolf Lehnert and German Ernst Landrock at the turn of the 20th century.
For rare books, lithographs, maps and other collectables on Egypt, drop by L‘Orientaliste (www.orientalecairo.com) on Kasr El Nil Street.
The area’s streets are studded with little shops selling antiques, papyrus paper, perfume oils and other curios.
6 p.m. - Sail into the sunset on a felucca, Egypt’s traditional wooden sailboat, and enjoy a tranquil moment on the Nile. A felucca can be rented for less than $20 an hour. A good place to board one is on the riverside boulevard, the Corniche, in front of The Four Seasons Nile Plaza hotel or further down in the Maadi neighborhood.
7 p.m. - Haven’t had enough of the mighty Nile? Then dinner at Seqouia (www.sequoiaonline.net), an open-air restaurant right on the Nile in the Zamalek district, is a must. Built like a modern tent with a white marquee, canopies and upholstery, Sequoia serves Mediterranean cuisine including traditional Egyptian dishes, as well as sushi and water pipes.
9 p.m. - Just a 10-minute walk from Seqouia is the glitzy Aperitivo, a bistro-lounge that opened last year. Adorned with crystal chandeliers, leather upholstery and funky artwork, it’s the ideal venue to sip creative cocktails and experience the glamorous side of Cairo.
11 p.m. - Still feeling energetic? Take a taxi to downtown’s Arabesque, a recently refurbished Oriental-style bar-turned-dancing-hotspot churning out Western and Arabic tunes, now a popular hangout for Cairo’s young crowd. A belly-dancer performs there every Friday. The venue gets crowded on weekends, so book at least a week in advance.
Midnight - Wrap up the night at After 8 (www.after8cairo.com), a bar right next door to Arabesque where you can tap your feet to live music and a DJ well into the wee hours of the night. Whatever time of the night or early morning you finish, you’ll always be able hail a taxi on Cairo’s street to get back to your hotel.
9 a.m. - Depending on how long the evening lasted, you’ll decide whether you can brave a long morning trek to explore Egypt’s religious heritage. Most tour companies offer a half-day guided tour of Islamic Cairo, the Coptic quarter and Ben Ezra, the oldest synagogue in Egypt.
A good starting point is Coptic Cairo, home to the intricately designed Hanging Church, which is said to have been originally built in the 3rd or 4th century A.D. on the site of a Roman fortress. In the 11th century, the church became the official residence of the Coptic Pope.
The district is also home to Ben Ezra synagogue. Originally built in the 4th century as a church, it was turned into a synagogue five centuries later. Legend has it the synagogue was built near the spot where Pharaoh’s daughter found baby Moses.
11 a.m. - Islamic Cairo is just a short drive from the Coptic quarters and is brimming with mosques and other monuments. Begin a tour of the area with Ibn Tulun mosque, named after the founder of the Tulun dynasty that ruled Egypt in the late 9th century, and Al-Rifai mosque, now the burial spot of Egypt’s King Farouk and Iran’s Mohamed Reza Shah Pahlavi.
A must-see in Islamic Cairo is the renowned Citadel, a 12th-century bastion built by Ayyubid ruler Salahuddin to protect Egypt against the Crusaders. Also there is a grand mosque built by Muhammad Ali Pasha, Egypt’s Ottoman ruler throughout the first half of the 19th century.
2 p.m. - Stroll around the gardens and fountains of Al-Azhar park (www.alazharpark.com). The park, transformed from a garbage dump to a lush urban oasis, houses a 12th century Ayyubid wall built during the Salahuddin era.
Arguably the greenest spot in Cairo, you can grab a bite at its Studio Misr restaurant, which overlooks the Citadel and the park’s verdant hills and offers a variety of local dishes.
4 p.m. - Splurge at Khan El Khalili, a vast bazaar selling traditional souvenirs including home ornaments, jewelry, garments, spices and water pipes. Vendors hike up prices for tourists, so make sure you’ve honed your bargaining skills.
Sip a warm cup of mint tea and puff on a hubbly bubbly (water pipe) at the Khan’s El Fishawi cafe, which claims it hasn’t closed its doors since it first opened in the late 1700s.
7 p.m. - Sneak around the corner from Khan El Khalili to Wikalat Al Ghouri, a restored 16th century Mamluk warehouse, where you can sit back and enjoy a Sufi whirling dervish dance performance. The shows are free on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. They start at 8:30 p.m., but it’s best to arrive early to get a good seat.
9 p.m. - After the long busy day, treat yourself to delicious sushi and Far Eastern fusion cuisine at Asia bar (www.bluenileboat.com.eg/asia-bar.html), located on Zamalek’s moored Blue Nile boat. The upscale restaurant-bar features an in-house DJ spinning excellent tunes to chill out by. Book at least a day ahead.
Writing by Shaimaa Fayed; editing by Missy Ryan and Paul Casciato