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An Art Curator’s Guide to Exploring Egypt’s Largest Cities

A trip to Egypt is a feast for the senses with stops at the pyramids, world-class restaurants, and downtown shopping

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By Condé Nast Traveller Middle East | December 13, 2023 | Travel Leisure

From must-visit restaurants for local dishes to modern art galleries—and the best ways to experience the pyramids. Ask A Local is a new series where we ask clued-up insiders to share their top tips for the place they call home.

A visit to Cairo is a feast for the senses—from Giza’s dazzling array of pyramids and the soon-opening Grand Egyptian Museum, to the buzzing roadways and the intoxicating scents of downtown’s bazaars and street vendors. There's a reason many Cairenes refer to the city simply as Masr, the Arabic name for all of Egypt itself: this is the beating heart of the nation, embodying a plethora of religions, diasporas, and languages. As a result, the city of 10 million people can feel staggering if you don’t know where to begin, especially if you don’t know how to divvy up your time. The 4,600-year-old pyramids of Giza, for example, can take hours to reach in rush-hour traffic, but are certainly not to be missed—and neither are downtown's modern galleries, cafes, and museums.

Downtown Cairo, which used to be called Paris by the Nile, is where manya artists have most of their exhibitions. Image via Pexels.

Perhaps no one knows this better than Nadine Abdel Ghaffar, a French-Egyptian art director who curates exhibits in Cairo and lives in Giza. As the creator of Culturvator / Art’D Egypte, a women-led arts organization, Abdel Ghaffar regularly organizes exhibitions of contemporary art at heritage sites—including Forever Is Now, an annual art show at the Giza Necropolis, and a banner Dior fashion show at the pyramids that took place in December 2022.

“I’m very much into history, and it's an incredible energy [at the pyramids],” Abdel Ghaffar says of the third edition of the Giza exhibition, which took place this fall. “So you really need to take your time over it.” She advises doing a proper tour of the pyramids, but also experiencing Giza beyond the heritage site before moving on to downtown Cairo. Here’s how to do Giza justice beyond the pyramids—and the spots in Cairo that Abdel Ghaffar visits time and again.

Start with an overnight in Giza: breakfast, golf, and shopping

Any overnight in Giza should be spent sleeping beneath the pyramids, which is possible at the historic Mena House Hotel, a legendary stay that dates back to the 1860s. Image via Pexels.

While so many travelers make a day trip of the pyramids—having a quick meal at one of the vendors in the area and hightailing it out of Giza Governorate—the city is a destination in itself if you know where to eat and stay. Any overnight in Giza should be spent sleeping beneath the pyramids, which is possible at the historic Mena House Hotel, a legendary stay that dates back to the 1860s and is now a freshly restored Marriott. The gold-gilded lobby and spectacular balconies overlooking the pyramids are just a stone’s throw away from the Necropolis, where you’ll easily pass a half or whole day. The adjacent Sheikh Zayed City is a modern hub with lots of green spaces, dining, and activities to enjoy.

Once you’re checked in, Abdel Ghaffar advises beginning in the shadow of the city, between Sheikh Zayed and the pyramids, with a meal at Andrea, which has been a family-dining institution for three decades: “You can't go wrong; it's very typical Egyptian food and good value for [your] money,” she says of the restaurant, which also happens to be where she got married some years ago. “It's always an amazing experience, and it's very close to the pyramids.” Abdel Ghaffar recommends a breakfast of feteer, a flaky pastry topped with honey and nuts. For lunch or dinner, the traditional grilled quail, she says, is a must-try, and crowd-pleasers like mezze and grape leaves (mahshy) are perfect for sharing.

Also near the pyramids is Khufu’s restaurant, where visitors can taste traditional recipes with a side of the Necropolis. “The owner worked on recipes that are ancient Egyptian, but with a contemporary twist,” Abdel Ghaffar says. “So you have duck, because Ancient Egyptians didn't have chicken but they had duck, they had a lot of fish. It's incredible and you can enjoy a glass of wine, and you're literally a few meters away from the pyramids so it's a beautiful location.”

For an activity beyond the trekking you’ll do around the pyramids, Sheikh Zayed City also offers the Alegria Golf Course, a world-class golfing complex with 18 holes. For those who’d prefer to stay closer to the sites, there’s also one at Mena House. “In Giza you actually have beautiful golf courses, and the one at Mena House is one of the oldest golf courses here—you can play at the foot of the pyramids.”

Inside the modern Sheikh Zayed City, the Park Street shopping area has a mall with coffee shops and dining where Abdel Ghaffar recommends hitting cafes, boutiques, and restaurant Sachi for more upscale dining come dinnertime.

Truly experience the pyramids—all of them

Once you’re fueled and settled into Giza, Abdel Ghaffar recommends spending a whole day at the Giza Necropolis—but also to venture out to another pyramid complex in the area, Saqqara.

She recommends starting with the three main pyramids of Giza and spending enough time with them on a guided tour: Venture inside the structures and the Valley Temple to feel the energy of the spaces. It's also worth considering new ways to experience the complex, she says: skydiving, for instance, is the latest. Abdel Ghaffar says her favorite way to see the pyramids, temples, and giant sphinx, however, is via the traditional camel rides offered by local guides on-site. Soon though, electric buses will be running in the area for ease of access to the sites.

Venture inside the structures and the Valley Temple to feel the energy of the spaces. Image via Pexels.

“Something that people don’t do so much is the Valley Temple, which I like because but it’s not enough to just look at the pyramids—you have to see the whole procession, and the high priests would start from there for the whole [burial] process,” she says. Abdel Ghaffar also notes that the most intact of the pyramids—not to be neglected—is the smallest of the three.

You could spend a whole day at Giza trekking (or camel riding) between the ancient structures and viewing platforms, and going for coffee and lunch in view of them, but the area’s historic tombs go back even earlier in Saqqara, the nearby step pyramid complex that dates back 5,000 years and is beloved for its well-preserved colorful hieroglyphics (you won’t find any of those at the Giza complex). Saqqara is currently the site of an ongoing excavation: some of the oldest antiquities in the world are found nearly every week. Abdel Ghaffar recommends that visitors introduce themselves to the site by watching the Netflix documentary Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb.

Experience downtown Cairo for art—and “the real Egypt”

And of course, no trip to Cairo would be complete without experiencing the beating heart of the city, where Culturvator / Art D’Egypte regularly holds arts festivals and artist takeovers. An upcoming show in March will situate itself at the recently renovated Cairo Citadel in Historic Cairo with its view over the entire city. The exhibit will highlight the UNESCO World Heritage site’s 800-year history as the seat of Egyptian rulers via an exhibition of contemporary art and design showcasing over 100 artists. Past exhibitions here by Abdel Ghaffar have displayed pieces by heritage artists and designers, and taken place inside Darb 1718, a space where the city used to mint coins that's now an arts and event space. Another popular area for permanent art galleries is Zamalek.

Scenes in Bab Al Louq, Cairo Governorate, Egypt. Image via Pexels

"Downtown Cairo, which used to be called Paris by the Nile, is where we have most of our exhibitions," Abdel Ghaffar says. One of her favorite spots is Cinema Radio, an iconic Art Deco movie house and historic site that she says has “been remained the same since the 1930s” despite being a sleek new space for events, shops, and movie screenings. The cinema is the site of a regular exhibition of hers called Cairo International Art District, but is also the perfect place to go see an Egyptian film.

Coptic Cairo is home to stunning churches and the ruins of the Fortress of Babylon. Image via Unsplash.

And to fuel up between historic sites, cafes, and museums, Abdel Ghaffar says a plate of koshary—a vegetarian dish of lentils, pasta, tomato sauce, and fried onions—at famed Abu Tarek is a must. “It’s really, really filling and has everything in it, and it's super cheap. Also, the space is amazing, everything is very fresh, and the waiters are very friendly—it’s a must, to experience the real Egypt."

This story originally appeared on Conde Nast Traveller.