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The History Buff Trip To Cairo: 5 Must-See Modern Historical Sites

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5 months ago

Most Cairo tour guides pass through Cairo’s top tourist sites in a classic 3-day Cairo itinerary: Khan el-Khalili, the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum and a Nile River Cruise. Don’t get me wrong, I love all these Cairo must-see attractions. But as you plan your trip to Cairo, try to squeeze in some time for Cairo’s top modern historical sites!

Bustling Cairo, at the heart of a regional powerhouse and a hub of pan-Arabism, is home to a wealth of modern historical sites that go far beyond the typical Cairo city tour.

Egyptian soldier in military clothes
The smiling guards at Cairo’s Unknown Soldier Memorial

If you think you know Cairo inside-out, or if this is your first time in Egypt, I can guarantee that no Cairo tour guide will bring you to my top modern historical sites in Cairo!

1. Café Riche 

Café Riche is an iconic institution, a Cairo must-visit site for any trip to Cairo. For me, Café Riche is easily the number 1 modern historical site to visit in Cairo.

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

While the cuisine may not win Cairo’s best restaurant, ordering a drink here is a rite of passage!  

black and white photo inside old vintage cafe in cairo

Since its inauguration in 1908, Café Riche has been the backdrop to countless pivotal moments in Egypt’s history. It served as a rendezvous point for luminaries such as King Farouk and Presidents Nasser and Sadat.  

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

Even Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz found inspiration within its walls, authoring the ‘Karnak Café’ based on the cafe’s ambiance. The legendary Umm Kulthum graced the stage here weekly. From Café Riche, Umm Kulthum enchanted audiences across the Arab world.  

Café Riche could be my favorite spot in Cairo. Some of my loveliest afternoons in Cairo were spent with my book and a cup of tea at Cafe Riche.

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

During the Arab Spring, the cafe’s basement became a hidden meeting place for student leaders, where strategies for protests were plotted. If you look carefully, you will notice the blocked-off staircase heading down!   

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

Local tip: Don’t forget to explore the second room, adorned with captivating black-and-white photographs.  

With a prime Downtown Cairo location, you will be able to pop by Café Riche even on the most tight 3-day Cairo itinerary.

2. Nasser Museum 

The Nasser Museum pays homage to one of Egypt’s most influential figures, President Gamal Abdel Nasser.  

Bust of Gamal Abdul Nasser at the entrance to the Nasser Museum, Cairo
Entrance of the Nasser Museum, Cairo

Renowned for his pivotal role in the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, Nasser’s imprint on Egypt’s modern history is hard to capture. In my opinion, if you want to understand modern Egypt, you need to understand Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Medals awarded to Nasser from various African states
Medals awarded to Nasser from various African states

No Cairo city tour will cover the Nasser Museum. However, if you are interested in modern Egypt, the Nasser museum offers an immersive journey into the life, achievements, and turbulent times of Egypt’s most iconic leader since Ramses II.  

portrait of gamal abdel nasser in cairo

I recommend dedicating an hour or two during your trip to Cairo to delve into the treasure trove of artefacts, documents, and memorabilia.

If you prefer to take public transport, the Nasser Museum is about a 25-minute walk from Hammamet El Kobba metro station. 

Historic military hat of Gamal Abdul Nasser
The military hat of Nasser (Nasser Museum, Cairo)

3. The Panorama October Museum 

Next on my top 5 modern historical sites in Cairo is easily the most bizarre attraction in Cairo.

Bronze statue of a military raft crossing the Suez Canal at the October War Panorama
A bronze re-enactment of Egyptian soldiers crossing the Suez Canal

On the road from Cairo Airport to Tahrir Square, the October Museum stands as an obscure testament to Egypt’s participation in the 1973 October War against Israel.  

bronze relief in october war panorama in cairo

This North Korean built and designed sound and light production commemorates Egypt’s questionable victory in 1973. I might let you do the Wikipedia reading for this one…

an israeli tank in cairo at the panorama museum

While the shows and many exhibits are in Arabic, I still recommend a visit to this truly bizarre museum. I visited North Korea in 2014 and I can tell you that the murals, mosaics and sound and light show here are in typical North Korean fashion!

sound and light show on museum building with bronze boat in water in cairo
The bizarre sound and light show at the Panorama October Museum

In my opinion, the Panorama October Museum is one of the best spots to experience and understand Egypt’s modern history narrative during your trip to Cairo.

military plane in museum

Local tip: Get your Cairo hotel to dial ahead about the scheduled sound and light shows, which occur several times a day (+20224022317).

And don’t forget your passport!  

north korean signature on cairo museum relief panel of soldier
If you look closely you can see the original North Korean signatures on the prints and reliefs. Did you know within North Korea they refer to themselves as either the DPRK or just Korea?

If you are coming from Tahrir Square, you can take the metro to Fair Zone metro station, from where the Panorama is only a 7 minute walk.  

an art installation depicting Egyptian-Israeli battles in the 1973 Yom Kippur War
An artistic depiction of Egyptian-Israeli battles in the 1973 October War (October Panorama Museum, Cairo)

4. Al-Rifa’i Mosque: the Shah’s grave 

The Al-Rifa’i Mosque is a magnificent architectural marvel in old Cairo. Built during the late 19th century, this grand mosque was built for the tomb of Khushyar Hanim, a prominent Egyptian noble woman.

interior hanging lantern in mosque in cairo

Over the years, the Al-Rifa’i Mosque’s significance expanded to include the tombs of the Egyptian royal family, including Kings Fuad I and Farouk.  

beautiful interior of mosque with gold and hanging lanterns in cairo egypt

If you are a modern history nerd like me, you will be interested in the Al-Rafa’i Mosque as the burial spot of a notable figure in the 20th century.  

Grave of the last Shah of Iran at the Al-Rifai Mosque, Cairo. The inclusion of the Shah gives this historic mosque has a modern historical character.
Tomb of the last Shah of Iran at the Al-Rifai Mosque, Cairo

Local tip: Keep an eye open for the pre-revolutionary flag of Iran!   

After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, sought asylum in Egypt, where he lived until his passing in 1980.

Seljuk-era mosque in market
One of my favorite things about Cairo is the way Seljuk-era monuments are just hidden within everyday life

5. Monument to the Unknown Soldier Memorial 

Most countries have an Unknown Soldier Memorial. But in Egypt, the memorial tells a story of modern Egypt.  

Unknown Soldier Memorial in Cairo, Egypt. This top 5 modern historical site in Cairo is shaped like a pyramid overlaid in Arabic.
The modern pyramid which stands over the Unknown Soldier Memorial in Cairo, Egypt

With Arabic script carved into the tall pyramid-like structure, Cairo’s Unknown Soldier Memorial symbolizes a unique fusion of Egypt’s modern wartime identity. With Arabic script, the memorial merges Egypt’s Arabic culture with the Pharaonic architectural canvas of the pyramid.

egypt pyramid with arabic calligraphy in cairo

This monument also serves as the final resting place of former President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981 after signing a peace deal with Israel.  

mosaic of wartime victory in cairo

As a public monument, the Unknown Soldier Memorial is also one of the best free things to do in Cairo!  

Local tip: If you ask nicely, the friendly (and slightly bored) guards will gladly smile for a photo!  

soldier in cairo egypt with smile

The memorial can be a bit tricky to locate, but it is on El-Nasr Rd, Al Estad, Nasr City

Now that you have my top modern historical sites in Cairo, I hope you are able to explore Cairo beyond the typical 3-day Cairo itinerary!

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