Cairo lives on Cairo-time, which bounces between the stately peace of the ancients the city is famous for and the chaos of action, noise and movement that is the life-pulse of the modern city. To really visit Cairo you need to experience both ends of the scale: spend hours peacefully tracing Egypt's history in the Egyptian Museum, and hours negotiating the alleyways of goods and noise making up the bazaar, Khan-el-Khalili.
Many tour operators run four day tours of Cairo where they'll look after you, ferrying you though the craziest parts of town in air-conditioned mini-buses, but there are just as many day tours, or personal guides available if you want a bit more flexibility about what you see and how long you spend in each place – or of course you can go it alone.
This basic itinerary should give you an idea of what you could see if you had a week to spend in Cairo.
The Giza Plateau is only about 30 minutes drive out of Cairo, but you can also arrive via camel, horse or bus. You can also take the metro to Giza and the pyramids, just board a bus for "Al-Haram" at the Giza train station. A note about the Metro: The most challenging thing many visitors find using the Metro is that Egyptians are big on queuing, so you might have to be a bit more assertive about making it clear you want to buy tickets, but it's cheap and relatively clean and safe.
There are three large pyramids at Giza: The Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), the Pyramid of Khafre and that of Menakaure, but there are also numerous smaller pyramids which were built for the wives and children of the pharaohs. The Great Pyramid is the most substantial structure of the ancient world, and one of the most mysterious. Constructed from approximately 2.5 million limestone blocks weighing on average 2.6 tons each, its total mass represents more building material than is found in all the churches and cathedrals built in England – so it's a pretty impressive thing to behold. You can pay a fee and go inside the Great Pyramid, though some sources suggest you save your money for Djoser's step pyramid at Saqqara.
The Sphinx is another of Giza's treasures, it's not known exactly how old this ancient statue with its ravaged face is exactly, but it's thought to have spent most of the last 5,000 years covered in sand so it must be older than that even.
If you want to take a camel ride round the pyramids, as a lot of people do, you can find lots of camel stables located near the Sphinx. It's better to ask for a ride out into the desert behind the pyramids rather than just around the enclosure because the views are much better.
Spanning 3000 years of history from pre-dynastic Egypt to the Ptolemies, in165,000 artefacts, this museum is packed literally to the roof in some places with priceless ancient treasures. Those belonging to Tutankhamun's are some of the highlights - his death mask and the six, intricately decorated, golden coffins, that were slotted inside each other to hold his body, take pride of place in the main hall. Many of the other great Egyptian rulers reside alongside the boy king in the Royal Mummies Room: Ramses II, responsible for building the temples at Abu Simbel, Rameses III, who was a skilled warrior, and Queen Hatshepsut are among the nine mummies who rest here.
Don't leave without seeking out the tiny statue of Khufu – it's on the ground floor and is the only known statue of him. As you can imaging there's a lot to see here and it can get busy, so either plan to come back several times at the beginnings and ends of your days around Cairo or consider enlisting the services of one of the museum's professional guides.
This evening you might like to have dinner on the Nile? On some Nile dinner cruises there's even entertainment - belly dancing or belly dancing lessons for example...
Start at the Alabaster Mosque in the Citadel of Salah el-Din (or Saladin as he's known as in the west.), which is a fortress holding a complex of three mosques, one of them being the Mohammad Ali Mosque, or Alabaster Mosque. Impressive for it's architecture, the lower part is clad, inside and out, in alabaster as the name suggests, but limestone removed from the Great Pyramid of Giza has been used on the upper section. The mosque is still in use today as a holy building, but unlike other great mosques everyone who's willing to behave respectfully is welcome to visit. The other two mosques are the Mamluk an-Nasir Mohammed Mosque and the Ottoman Suleiman Pasha Mosque.
The citadel's location, on top of a limestone hill over looking Cairo, means it's a good place to go in the morning before the heat hazy and the pollution pick up. As well as the mosques, the citadel has a military museum.
The mosque and school of Sultan Hassan is Cairo's other great mosque; it is considered, in terms of style, the most cohesive and compact of all monuments in Cairo.
Finish your day of great architecture in a place of evolving architecture, Khan el-Khalli Bazaar, a fourteenth century Souq of about 900 stalls bundling out of tight alleyways where it's easy to get lost. This bazaar sells everything. But most notably for most visitors, it sells perfumes, jewellery, clothes, gold and silver, vases and rugs, and souvenirs and antiques and also has an entire section devoted to spices which perfume the air throughout the whole structure. You have to haggle: learning how to count in Arabic will help you procure what you want for the price you are willing to pay.
Have a coffee, mint tea or Cola at El Fishawy's coffee shop. Smoke a sheesha water pipe (try the "double apple" flavor) and watch the world go by. Again, you might need to come back a second time.
Memphis was the capital of ancient Egypt, but it's now best know for its vast necropolis – which proves how big the ancient city must have been – it would have been larger than any of the cities in Europe. Most of the interesting remains are near the town of Mit Rahina, including the remains of what was probably Egypt's grandest ever temple. You can see the Colossus of Ramses and the alabaster sphinx in the Memphis Museum.
One of Memphis's necropolises is Saqqara, which is where you can visit Egypt's oldest pyramid, the Pyramid of Djoser. Before being buried under pyramids, pharaohs were buried under rectangular tombs, and this pyramid is six tombs all stacked on top of each other, which is why it's also called 'the stepped pyramid'. This pyramid gets a lot less visitors than those on the Giza Plateau, but it lacks shade, so it's best to arrive in the afternoon when the long shadows make it even more atmospheric.
In Saqqara you can also visit the pyramids of Teti and Pepi and the impressively decorated Tomb of Mereruka. If you continue on to Dahshur you can see the step pyramids and 'true' pyramids alongside each other.On the way back to Cairo you could swing via Giza and watch the 'Pyramids Sound and Light Show'.
It's only three hours by train to Alexandria, where you can visit the Graeco-Roman Museum, the ruins of the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Roman amphitheatre with all its attendant statues, and of course the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which is the new Library of Alexandria: the walls of the main reading room are of granite mined in Aswan, carved with characters from 120 different human scripts.
The oasis of Fayoum isn't as famous a destination as Alexandria, but it was the main place of worship for the crocodile god, Sobek, and has some amazing examples of the ancient Egyptians ingenuity when it came to irrigation. The site, which is the ancient city of Crocodilopolis, which is basically the ruin of a great town, is littered with more than 200 wooden water wheels that spread the spring water around enough to successfully grow mangoes, dates, palms and even willows. Fayoum is also where some of the most famous Egyptian death masks were made and discovered, it has an excellent weekly market and the whole city is built around a canal.
Or visit some of Cairo's other sites: the Hanging Church, which is one of Cairo's most beautiful churches and is also the oldest in Egypt, Abu Serga, which is one of the places the Holy Family rested after they fled Israel and now has a 10th Century church on the site and the Islamic Ceramic Museum. Finish off by visiting Cairo Tower for a final photo opportunity and to look over all the sites that you've discovered.
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