The site of the city has been occupied for millennia, although it was only in the 10th century AD that the walled city emerged as the capital of an empire. Following its heyday in the middle ages, Cairo experienced both invasions and degeneration until the late 1800s when a new European-style city was built next to the old one. Today, it’s the biggest city in Africa.

Unanticipated population growth in the 20th century necessitated the construction of new suburbs to accommodate the vast number of residents, called Cairenes. Curiously, many of Cairo’s apartment blocks appear perpetually unfinished. However, by purposely not completing the exterior of their buildings, owners and tenants manage to avoid certain taxes that are levied on completed homes. This is a typical bureaucratic loophole that ensures Cairo’s overall facade retains a part-finished look that isn’t at odds with the crumbling appearance of the nearby pyramids. In sharp contrast are the numerous beautiful and well-maintained mosques located across the city. Two of the best (the Al Azhar and the Hussein mosques) are practically side by side and conveniently adjacent to one of the popular shopping areas.

Shopping – Cairo style
A visit to Cairo would be incomplete without a stroll around the souks (market areas). Here you can wander down pavements congested with people and slow-moving donkey carts as well as explore alleyways lined with countless stalls selling everything from spare motor parts to perfume. Be prepared to haggle for your goods; it’s all part of the Middle Eastern experience.

Basically, the seller begins with a hugely inflated price which the buyer then proceeds to bargain down by 40%-60% before leaving feeling happy he’s just scored a bargain. The stall owner is usually equally happy knowing he’s still managed to overcharge you by 40% or 50%.

Getting around
In such a sprawling city, it pays to take a taxi. These dilapidated vehicles race around at breakneck speed ignoring local pedestrians, livestock and non-functioning traffic lights. The dusty, perpetually broken contraptions that belong in a museum but remain uselessly attached to dashboards are the meters. And that guy with the toothy grin who doesn’t speak English, has one hand on his mobile and the other fiddling with the non-functioning radio is the driver. Agree on a price beforehand and close your eyes if you’re easily frightened.

Sights to behold

The pyramids of Giza
A 20-minute drive out of town, these are the most spectacular blocks of stone you’ll ever see.

The Egyptian Museum
Home to a mind-boggling collection of artefacts including an entire room displaying the treasures found in Tutankhamun’s tomb and one for the Royal mummies.

The Saladin Citadel
Built in 1183 from limestone removed from the pyramids, the citadel is located on a hilltop with worthy views over the city. It’s also the site of the Mohammed Ali mosque.

Scores points for: Bargain shopping in souks
Loses points for: Incessant haggling