Living in a city that seems to grow and change everyday, it’s easy to forget the rich history that is embodied in the buildings and streets of central Cairo.
Cairo’s downtown was built by Khedive Ismail, who strove to create a “new city that was European, modern, and easy to secure. This meant wide boulevards centered around spacious squares and grand buildings modeled after Europe’s architectural masterworks. This was in stark contrast to the twisting alleys and narrow streets found Cairo’s ancient Islamic city.
This is Cairo’s “Tale of Two Cities -an analogy that remains appropriate today as endless expansion continues and the popularity of new neighborhoods and satellite cities replaces the appeal of downtown life.
Downtown’s glamorous past is something that everyone acknowledges but few have experienced; the area’s glory may have long since faded, but it remains a fascinating place to visit for locals and tourists alike.
Due to the area’s one-way streets and many instances of interesting architecture, a walking tour is the best way to appreciate the myriad sights there.
A great route begins at an easily identifiable landmark: the old campus of the American University in Cairo – itself an institution whose buildings are about to join the rest of downtown’s architectural marvels in the history books.
Beginning in front of AUC’s Greek campus on Youssef El Guindy Street, walk down the street towards the Bustan Center. Continuing down Youssef El Guindy, passing by craftsmen making woven chairs and couches, you will arrive at the intersection with Hoda Shaarawi Street.
Besides boasting lovely architecture, this area is known for its fabulous selection of antiques – here, upper-class Zamalekites can often be found mixing with downtown regulars as they search for old treasures in crammed shops.
Turning left and walking up Hoda Shaarawi towards Talaat Harb, Bustan café will be on your left. This quaint coffeehouse in an alley is popular with locals and expat downtowners alike, and will be filled with an eclectic mix of people at any time of the day. Sit and have a shisha and enjoy some prime people-watching, or continue up the alley to Talaat Harb Street.
Historic Café Riche is nestled up between Bustan alley and Talaat Harb Street. Pop in for a look at the café’s portrait hall, featuring shots of famous Egyptians such as Naguib Mahfouz, Om Kolthoum and Ahmed Amin who frequented the café over the years.
Downstairs, Café Riche’s political history comes alive – visitors can see the old printing press that was used to create nationalist literature and the secret passageway that helped smuggle activists in and out of hiding.
Hang out in Riche for a bit and you re bound to meet some interesting people – many of Cairo’s top contemporary writers are patrons, and visiting scholars, writers and artists make for a captivating crowd at this landmark.
Across the street from Café Riche is the legendary Groppi – Cairo’s original chocolaterie and patisserie. Groppi’s pastries may no longer be the best in Cairo, but the aristocratic architecture of the place makes it easy to imagine the appeal it held for elite Cairo of old.
If you turn left past Groppi onto Mahmoud Bassiouni Street and take the second right onto Champollion, you will pass by one of downtown’s most beautiful, and most neglected landmarks. This is the Mansouria Girls’ School: an abandoned building that has, nevertheless, managed to maintain its dignity over the years.
While the building and its grounds have been granted protection as historic monuments, nothing has been done to bring them back to their former glory, so visitors must be content to look and imagine from the street.
At the end of the street is the Townhouse Gallery. An excellent example of the recent gentrification that has been taking place on a small scale in downtown, the Townhouse has managed to integrate itself seamlessly into the neighborhood. Gallery visitors can be seen sitting in the coffeehouse with alley residents enjoying a shisha under artistic light and banner arrangements put up by the gallery. This is one of the rare places where the diversity of downtown can be truly enjoyed.
The Townhouse’s exhibits are some of Cairo’s best, and the gallery’s gift shop, which boasts crafts and jewelry from all over Egypt, offers a refreshing change from the endless papyrus and perfume shops that offer the only other options for souvenirs.
Across Talaat Harb Square, turn onto the pedestrian thoroughfare of Sherifain Street, and you will be immediately struck by the architecture of the historic Cosmopolitan Hotel. Designed by Italian architect Alphonse Sasso and built in 1928, this building is one of the most beautiful examples of belle-époque architecture in Cairo.
Further up the pedestrian walk, is Egypt’s stock exchange, El Borsa. Newly renovated, El Borsa is a quintessential example of the architectural treasures to be found in the area. During the day, visitors can enter the rejuvenated building for a tour, but if you go after hours, it’s best to stop for a quick look and head along to the stylish Borsa Café for a street-side coffee break.
If you need more than coffee at this point in the afternoon, continue down Sherifain Street past the Mobil station to Mahmoud Mazloom Street. At the intersection with Hoda Shaarawi Street is a classic: Le Bistro. While not necessarily a true French dining experience, Le Bistro’s typical downtown shabby chic atmosphere and excellent steak frites make it worth a stop.
A walking tour of historic downtown concludes with a final stroll past Falaki Square, down Bustan Street back to the American University in Cairo, where walkers will get into their cars and head back out to the fringes of the city, far away from the Cairo of days past.