I arrived into Cairo in the blazing Ramadan heat - normally I wouldn't advise going to Egypt during Ramadan however if you are prepared for things to be a little 'out of kilter' it shouldn't otherwise deter you from going. Egypt needs our support. Tourism has virtually dropped off since the 2011 Revolution. The Nile Valley is gloriously empty - not so good for business but incredibly lucky if, like me, you have already visited in the past amidst thousands of tourists.
A Hidden Gem...
Any tour of Egypt inevitably starts in Cairo - a city with bad press due to chronic traffic, pollution and rubbish. These things are true and unfortunately unavoidable, however if you're prepared to look beyond this and scrape the surface a little, there is so much to offer and some forward planning helps to navigate your way through the chaos!
My Top Five Sights to See in Cairo
So, you've picked your hotel, now for the sights and these are my top five in Cairo:
1. The Egyptian Museum - yes you might want to cry upon hearing there are more than 120,000 artifacts, poorly lit, in stifling conditions and badly signed but if you have a good guide, limit your visit to the afternoons when the crowds have thinned, and focus on what you're interested in then this is the most fantastic place to start any journey in Egypt - and a good introduction to all of the sights that follow on.
2. Ibn Tulum Mosque and the Gayer-Anderson Museum
This beautiful Mosque echoes those in Iraq where the founder Ibn Tulum came from. The Tulunid dynasty (AD 868-905) expanded Cairo - or Fustat as it was originally called - northwards, and one of the unusual aspects of the mosque is its unique minaret, which has a staircase spiraling around the outside and a concertina effect colonnade along the fortress walls that represents people side by side in prayer. Next door to the mosque is the Gayer-Anderson Museum that has some exquisite 17th-century architecture and a vast collection of furniture, carpets, curio, and other objects.
3. The Islamic Museum
If - like me - you are obsessed with pattern, calligraphy, tile work, inlaid woodwork, old weaponry and history then this is an exquisite museum well worth visiting. Not only is it beautifully curated but it's empty and you can move around the dynasties to include Fatamid through to Ottoman admiring the beautiful pieces on display.
4. The Pyramids
Because you can't not see them!
5. The Tent Makers souk
This little alleyway is renowned for tent making, tapestry and leather work. The kind of decoration is called Khayamiya - a type of decorative appliqué textile historically used to decorate tents across the Middle East. The street is called Khayamiya, it's a covered market far more atmospheric and I think, less touristy than Khan al Khalili.
Escaping The Chaos...
You have to be staying somewhere comfortable - a peaceful haven to return to after a tiring day of touring and there are a number of excellent hotels in the capital on offer. If you are after a sense of history and colonial elegance and you want to feel like an Orientalist, then I can highly recommend The Mena House. This hotel has a fabulous location overlooking the mighty Cheops ('the Daddy' Pyramid). General Montgomery's suite is kept as it was and Gertrude Bell and Lawrence also frequented the hotel whilst busy helping to carve up the Middle East. Go for a second floor Pyramid view which also overlooks the manicured gardens filled with palm trees and birdsong.
Another favorite of mine is the Villa Belle Époque - a hidden exotic gem deep within the heart of the Ma'adi district. This is a gorgeous property, each bedroom beautifully designed, a small pool and elegant restaurant. The metro is the best way to get into central Cairo as you could be stuck in traffic otherwise, so I would recommend this hotel as a place to come if you were staying in Cairo for four or five nights.
For modern luxury and comfort and fabulous views of the Nile, look no further than the Sofitel Cairo or The Four Seasons - both situated in down town Cairo these hotels are well located to be at the heart of the city and not too far from the main sights. It's really the views of the Nile, the boats and the city that make both of these hotels unbeatable.