by Laila Gohar
While Egypt continues to make headlines for a revolution which led to the ouster of a nearly 30-year-old political regime, the sprawling megacity has a thriving underground scene that beats and buzzes with energy around the clock. The city—once a cultural hub for the region—is a marriage of old a new, with pharaonic treasures and ancient world heritage sites existing alongside medieval architecture and towering modern structures. Below, you’ll find a handful of unique places and activities—from sipping cocktails at cosmopolitan bars to sailing wooden boats—in the metropolis nestled along the banks of the Nile.
If you’re looking to get a feel for the old Cairo, a city once known as the Paris of the East, head to the Greek Club. The bar and restaurant located in historical downtown Cairo has not changed much since its inception at the turn of the 20th century. Step out onto the grandiose balcony which hangs over historical medieval building for a breathtaking view of the city, or onto the outdoor garden, open during summer months. The restaurant’s menu includes traditional Greek and Egyptian specialties. Don’t miss the fried calamari and moussaka, before hitting the bar. Befriend the bartenders and you’re almost guaranteed free ouzo all night.
For a taste of contemporary Cairo, head to Bar D’O, a bar located inside the President Hotel. The New York-inspired cocktail lounge has a warehouse feel, with exposed brick walls and paneled ceiling beams. Here, Cairo’s cool crowd sips on mojitos made with fresh, fragrant Mediterranean mint mixed by Egypt’s leading mixologists.
To check out both emerging artists and established Egypt talent, stop by TownHouse—an independent non-profit art space. The gallery hosts various exhibitions, in addition to sponsoring events such as PhotoCairo, the first festival in Egypt exclusively dedicated to photography and video, and Al Nitaq Festival, an annual city-wide art fair. TownHouse is a good starting point if you’re looking for contemporary art, as gallery staff will happily guide you in the direction of other compelling events occurring all over town.
Zooba is a one-stop shop for local fast food with an eclectic touch. The one-year-old restaurant has a quirky, charming atmosphere and serves Egyptian specialities (such as fava beans, hummus and pastrami) in addition to offering prepackaged take-out meals, fruit juices, jams and other house-made products. Don’t miss the koshary; a typically Egyptian dish made of mix of rice, brown lentils, pasta, tomato sauce, and fried onions served with chili and spices.
El Horreya Café
Once a watering hole which felt like a decaying downtown living room for left-wing luminaries and intellectuals, El Horreya (which translates to “freedom” in Arabic) has become a mélange of old and new. While the modest, cafeteria-style bar recently got a facelift, the original staff remains and serve the same three drinks: strong Egyptian tea, gritty Turkish coffee, and variety of local beers.
Soliman Pasha Juice Stand
Not much can compete with an ice-cold, fresh fruit juice in the scorching Cairo sun. Soliman Pasha is a tiny fruit stand that will quench your thirst in a big way. Each of the fresh juices— whether it’s sugarcane juice, orange or fakhfafakhina (the house special, a combination of mixed fruit)—are all under a dollar each.
Located in Zamalek, an island in the heart of Cairo, La Bodega is a reliable French bistro where Cairenes flock for local red wine at the bar, or a bite to eat before a night on the town. The restaurant is housed in a building which was constructed in the early ’20s, and the interior is decorated to match the architecture. Walls are lined with oil, copper and gold murals by Egyptian artists as well as those from abroad.
A stone’s throw from Tahrir Square, down a few narrow alleyways sits Café Riche; a café that was once the chosen destination for Cairo’s intelligentsia—from artists to politicians—during the Belle Époque. Founded in 1908, Riche has always been at the heart of the revolution. Some believe that in 1952 then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser plotted to overthrow the king at Café Rich. Today, the historic wood-paneled café is populated with young and old revolutionaries looking for a coffee or a beer—served with a side of nostalgia.
Felucca On The Nile
Lined up on the banks of the Nile are Feluccas, traditions wooden sailing boats available for hire. An hour will set you back around $5 and includes a cruise down the river, perfect for catching a breeze on a sweltering summer day and watching the sun set between the the pyramids and minarets. No beverages are provided on the boats, but customers are encouraged to bring their own. As a famous Egyptian proverb goes, “Once you drink from the Nile, you are destined to return.”