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Plan Your Trip: A Downtown Cairo One Day Tour

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5 months ago

By now it’s no secret that I am slightly obsessed with Cairo. While most Cairo city tours flock to the pyramids, the bustling streets of Downtown Cairo (or Wasat Al-Balad as the locals call it) show the glory of Egypt’s more recent past. To help you plan a trip to Cairo, here is my guide for Downtown Cairo: One Day Tour.

For those looking for free things to do in Cairo, there’s nothing cheaper than a neighborhood stroll. But I would definitely recommend splurging on a fresh pomegranate juice (you will need to keep reading for my favourite place for Cairo’s freshest juice!) 

in this article on downtown cairo in a one day tour, we share architectural gems
The backroads of Downtown Cairo are full of art deco architecture, golden hues and friendly smiles

Most of this neighborhood was built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with Tahrir Square, Garden City and the Nile in the West and the winding alleyways of Islamic Cairo to the East. 

Where to stay in Downtown Cairo

In my opinion, Downtown Cairo is also one of the best areas to stay in Cairo. I’ve listed the best below – for all budgets! Base yourself in one of these for your day in Downtown Cairo.

HotelBudget ($=US$30)Best for
Zayed Hotel$$Zamalek’s rooftop bars
Paradise Boutique Hotel$Modern and simple
Amin Hotel$$Downtown Cairo
Le Riad Hotel de Charme$$$$Historic vibes
Atlas International Hotels$Museums
The Nile Ritz-Carlton Hotel$$$$$Views of the Nile
Hotel Grand Royal$Character and charm
Santana Hotel Cairo$Across the Nile
Cairo Inn$$Cairo rawness

10 am: Tahrir Square 

Whether you have only one day in Cairo or three days in Cairo, your Cairo itinerary will likely start and finish in Tahrir Square, a name synonymous with pivotal change in Egypt’s recent history.  

horse carriage in cairo
If Cairo’s traffic becomes too much of a headache – get on a horse!

Local tip: If you want to get some photos, try to be discreet with your mobile. If you pull out a big DSLR camera, the plain-clothed policeman will be right on your case!  

Even on my busiest days in Cairo, I would always try to come take a seat in Tahrir Square. Soaking in the ambiance, I encourage everyone visiting Cairo to take a moment at Tahrir Square. While the Arab Spring may have started in Tunisia, many suggest it was the historic series of pro-democracy protests in Cairo which really galvanized the Middle East and North Africa in 2011.  

egyptian soldier in cairo with hat and sash

If you pay close attention, you will see how Tahrir Square today is designed to avoid any sort of major protest

11 am: Café Riche 

Your next stop is my favorite cafe in Cairo: Cafe Riche.

Cafe riche in Cairo from street in downtown
Cafe Riche is nestled in the heart of Downtown Cairo

But Café Riche isn’t your ordinary latte spot. Since its founding in 1908, this Cairo landmark has been a meeting place for Egypt’s political and cultural elite, counting King Farouk and Presidents Nasser and Sadat among its regular patrons.  

A waiter in traditional clothes at the iconic Cafe Riche in Cairo
A young waiter in the timeless dress of Cairo’s iconic Cafe Riche

The food at Café Riche may not earn Michelin stars and I recommend sticking with hot (or cold drinks). Café Riche does serve alcoholic drinks too, just ask one of the waiters in their photogenic Ottoman outfits what they have in store.

photo of umm kulthum in cafe riche cairo
The famous Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthum

As recently as the Arab Spring, young revolutionaries came to Café Riche to discuss their plans – often hiding in the basement.  

The black and white framed photos of Egyptian intellectuals at Cafe Riche, Cairo
Don’t forget to take some time to learn the stories of Egypt’s artists, authors, poets and revolutionaries (Café Riche, Cairo)

Local tip: Be sure to explore the second room, adorned with captivating photographs, for a deeper immersion into the who’s who of Egyptian intellectual life.  

For more must-see Cairo sites where no Cairo tour guide will take you, check out my top hidden gems of modern Cairo.

12 pm: Taamiya time

For lunch, you’re going to have some of the best Egyptian food in Cairo!  

aish baladi egyptian bread fresh

Felfela is a Cairo favourite. Don’t let the grubby facade deter you: Felfela offers some of Cairo’s best food. 

a selection of egyptian foods including taamiya and eggplant
You will want to make sure you are ordering food like a local!

The system is pretty straightforward. First, you choose what you want and pay at the front of the store. Second, collect your meal tickets, and then, finally, continue to the back of the store to pick up your order.  

mahshi in cairo egypt
Another popular Egyptian food is mahshi – or stuffed vegetables

Some of my favourite Egyptian dishes include Felfela’s foul and taamiya iskandrini (Alexandria-style stuffed falafel balls!). In Egypt, hummus and other condiments don’t normally come inside your falafel sandwich. My solution? Order an additional serving of fried eggplant and tahini to DIY!  

Local tip: Felfela is one of the best breakfast restaurants in Cairo – the perfect spot to pick up a quick omelette sandwich.

man selling pillow case in khan el khalili market cairo

Felfela doubles as one of the best vegetarian restaurants in Cairo, with so many meat-free and plant-based options!

1 pm: The heart of Downtown Cairo

Take a leisurely stroll through Talaat el-Harb, the main thoroughfare of downtown Cairo and one of the top free things to do in Cairo.  

downtown cairo chaos
The chaos of Downtown Cairo

Only a decade ago, this part of the city witnessed neglect and decay, but today, it stands as a shining example of urban revitalization in Downtown Cairo.  

Local tip: Don’t miss the juice stand on the corner of Qasr el Nile and Talaat el-Harb. In my opinion, this is the best juice in Cairo. Do yourself a favour and order a cup of pomegranate juice (raman in Arabic).

the best refreshment on a hot Cairo one day tour - fresh pomegrante
Fresh pomegranates for sale in Downtown Cairo

And if you’re craving something sweet, the Hulwani Bakery has some of Cairo’s best desserts. As always, my Downtown Cairo One Day Tour revolves around food

2 pm: A step back in time  

In my opinion, you can’t really cover all of Downtown Cairo in a One Day Tour. After lunch, I recommend spending a few hours exploring the main arteries of downtown Cairo: Qasr el Nile and Talaat el-Harb. These main streets ooze the confidence of post-colonial Cairo with a stunning display of grand architectural styles.  

This bread is called eish baladi (literally meaning ‘life of the country’)

Take a peak at the bold Cinema Radio and Cinema Metro, some of my favorite examples of Art Deco architecture in Cairo. Walking in the lobbies of these elegant cinemas is a Cairo must-see on any Downtown Cairo One Day Tour. In these architectural gems you will be instantly transported back in time to the golden-era of Egyptian cinema.  

the distinctive architecture of cairo
The confidence of Downtown Cairo

Another highlight of downtown Cairo is the Sha’ar Hashamayim Synagogue, a testament to Cairo’s historic diversity and status as one of the best cities for architecture in the Middle East. This Cairo synagogue blends neo-Pharaonic architectural style with Jewish tradition. Arranging a visit can be difficult, but enquire with the less-than-friendly security guards and, if you’re lucky, they will make some calls!  

shar hashamiyam synagogue - cairo
The unique Neo-Pharaonic Shar HaShamayim Synagogue – one of Cairo’s last standing Jewish structures

If, like me, you had some trouble with the guards, Eish & Malh cafe across the road offers one of the best breakfast restaurants in Cairo with lovely open views over the synagogue.  

baked eggs for brunch, with a view over Cairo's sha'ar hashamayim synagogue
Brunch at Eish & Malh, overlooking the historic Sha’ar Hashamayim Synagogue

Local tip: If you are looking for Cairo’s literary scene, don’t miss the collection of English titles at the Lehnert and Landrock Bookshop.  

green car against villa in garden city
If you are looking for a more lazy afternoon after the chaos of Downtown Cairo, consider our afternoon in Garden City itinerary

4 pm: Rest and recharge

I find Downtown Cairo both exhilarating and exhausting. If you are looking for a little relaxation and recharge, check out the rooftop art café at Kemet Art Gallery. This spot is definitely a local secret, with a homey vibe and creative Bohemian atmosphere.

You won’t find another tourist here. Rather, Kemet Art Gallery is full of young students and couples sipping Turkish coffee or fresh mango juice.

young couples in cairo drinking tea and coffee at Kemet Art Gallery
Young couples enjoying the afternoon sun at the rooftop café of Kemet Art Gallery.

Local tip: There are no street signs and you will need to enter a very residential looking building and head to the top floor.

5 pm: Cairo’s best ice cream 

If you’re visiting during summer, or you’re like me and don’t need an excuse, it’s time for the best ice cream in Cairo.  

The legendary Bet el-Abd.  While there may be a short wait, the experience is worth it.  

Don’t fall for the line by the ice cream stand. Do as the locals do and head directly inside. Once inside, purchase tickets for your desired number of scoops at the cashier. Next, head back outside and give your receipt to the ice cream scooper outside. I always recommend the Oreo flavor.  

If you only take one tip from me, make sure Bet el-Abd is a feature of your Cairo trip.  

knafeh in jordan
In my opinion, Egyptian desserts give a real challenge to the more famous sweets of Jordan and Syria!

6:30 pm: The best koshary in Cairo 

Koshary is one of the top 5 dishes you must try in Egypt and Abu Torek has the best koshary in Cairo.  

A sensory journey, Koshary combines: pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, and a symphony of spices. 

layers of noodles, chickpeas and fried onions make up koshary - the unique egyptian dish
Don’t believe me? Ask anyone you meet in Egypt where you can find the best Koshary in Cairo

Koshary is a testament to Egypt’s longstanding tradition of culinary fusion. The dish’s origins trace back to the 19th century when Egypt was under British rule. This period saw Indian and Middle Eastern flavors began to merge with local Egyptian ingredients.  

umm ali in cairo
If you have space for dessert, don’t miss Egypt’s legendary Umm Ali

Abu Torek is often very busy and, like me, you may find it very overwhelming. I recommend avoiding the headache of the ground floor, acting like a local and going straight upstairs. Here, the restaurant is more manageable and one of the friendly waiters there will take care of you!   

Local tip: Have your camera ready. The Koshary is served like a true Egyptian tele-drama!  

8:30 pm: Nile river cruise  

As the sun sets, that doesn’t mean your Downtown Cairo One Day Tour is over!

Cairo Tower over the Nile
Cairo Tower watches over a tributary of the Nile

Next up, it’s time for an enchanting Nile River cruise. This will probably be just a short walk from your Cairo hotel (okay, I will let you freshen up before!).  

qasr el nile bridge with van and cairo tower

The route to the boat docks passes the grand lions guarding the Qasr el Nile Bridge. This area gets very lively and is easily one of Cairo’s best places to visit at night.  

a boat or falucca on the nile river by cairo
A falucca on the Nile River

Once you arrive at the Rod Garden Faraj / Nile Boat Trip Station, lots of vendors will bug you for a ticket. Boats here are the cheapest in Cairo. After finding the right fit (I’m kidding, the vendors are all equally annoying!), you are all set for 30-40 minute voyage on the Nile.

cairo tower overlooking nile with falucca boats

Make sure your local SIM is set up, as you will need Google translate on hand to assist with price negotiations.

If this all sounds a little overwhelming and complicated (don’t worry, I get it), why not take an organized Cairo Nile Dinner Cruise?

If boats aren’t your thing, the Nile Corniche and Qasr el Nile Bridge provide a bustling yet secure environment for a leisurely evening walk, complete with tea from street vendors. 

10:30 pm: Carlton Roof Garden 

The night is young. Next, head back into town for the Carlton Roof Garden, Cairo’s best rooftop bar.  

After passing through the vintage dark wood lobby of the Carlton Hotel, make your way up through the atmospheric old-school elevator. Order yourself a bottle of Egyptian beer (my recommendation is Sakara Gold) and enjoy the crisp air of Cairo after dark.  

Travel tip: The Carlton Roof Garden normally have a minimum spend per person. As of February 2024, it was 100 EGP a person. Best to ask your waiter before taking a table!

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