How to live like a Local in Cairo

After spending a carefree summer getting to know Egypt back in 2010, Lonely Planet Local Leah Bremer returned in 2017 to find dusty, ancient Cairo forever changed and yet exactly the same. Adapting to sunny life in the cultural nexus of north Africa and the Middle East took little time, and once she learned the importance of dodging sandstorms and giving street cats the right of way, she knew she could call Cairo home.

Ramadan lanterns in historical Khan Al Khalili Souq marketplace is one of the tourist magnets in Cairo, EgyptLanterns illuminate the markets of Cairo’s Khan Al Khalili © Orhan Cam / Shutterstock

When I have friends in town… I end a souq-soaked day of shopping at Khan Al Khalili with dinner, shisha and boat gazing at La Palmeraie, a Moroccan restaurant at the Sofitel. La Palmeraie has a panoramic view off the breezy south end of Zamalek island on the Nile, giving diners breathtaking sight of many of Cairo’s landmark waterfront buildings. The food is as authentic as the low-lit ambience, with steam from lamb and shrimp tagines caught in dancing lantern light. Start with the spicy selection of salads and end with a sweet, fruity shisha while your eyes flick back and forth between the passing party boats and the whirling belly dancer.

When I have a day off… I fuse the morning and afternoon on a couch at Left Bank, indulging in a Cairene breakfast of eggs, fuul (fava beans with mixed spices), falafel and feta cheese with tomatoes. Outside seating during cooler months lets you relax right next to the Nile while enjoying a refreshing lemon and mint juice or foamy cappuccino. But for a full long weekend, I head down to Al Fayoum to visit the pottery village, enjoy the mountain and lake views in Wadi Rayyan Protected Area, and camp under the bright desert sky for a quiet night of fresh air.

Kushari, an Egyptian dish of rice, macaroni and lentils mixed together, topped with a tomato-vinegar sauce; some add short pieces of spaghetti garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onionsKushari, a mixture of rice, macaroni and lentils topped with a tomato-vinegar sauce, is Egypt’s beloved national dish © Fanfo / Shutterstock

For cheap eats… I drop into Zööba, a contemporary Egyptian street food chain that serves their funky house take on classic dishes like crunchy taamia, overflowing fuul and can’t-miss kushari, a mix of pasta, rice and lentils that claims the title of Egypt’s national dish. For even cheaper street food, I grab a cob of grilled corn from a street cart vendor or elbow through the crowd of college kids swarming Saj & Shawermato fight for a famous chicken wrap. But in winter months, nothing beats the carts of baking sweet potatoes being rolled around every neighbourhood, complete with puffs of smoke emanating from the cart’s little chimney.

A typical evening involves… seeing what’s new on Sayed El Bakry, a small Zamalek side street, where trendy teenagers smoke shisha on plastic stools in the street and art students linger after class to see what’s on offer in the many galleries and jewellery shops. Hotspots within a five-minute radius include O’s Pasta, Abou El Sid for Egyptian fare, L’Aubergine for a more international palate, and Deals pub. When I’m dressed for it, I round off the night at Aperitivo for a smart cocktail before heading back to the corner of Sameh Ahmed Al Sayed to soak up a minty shisha.

View of the Pyramids of Giza from the bar at Mena House Hotel, Giza, Cairo, EgyptViews don’t get better than this, with a sunset drink at Mena House Hotel’s 139 Lounge Bar © Mena House Hotel

An unmissable experience is… lunch in Giza at Mena House’s 139 Lounge Bar & Terrace with the Pyramids of Giza up close and personal. A landmark of Ottoman rule with 40 acres of pools and immaculate landscaping, the luxury hotel’s guestlist boasts Frank Sinatra, Roger Moore and Charlton Heston. The vantage point from the terrace is nothing short of breathtaking, with the pyramids rising above the hotel trees, made all the better with the lounge’s international menu. With a full cocktail list, it’s also the perfect place for a sundowner. Egypt’s fussiest brides get hitched here for obvious reasons: who can beat a wedding album complete with the most ancient wonder in the world?

One thing I hate about Cairo is… if you are a ham, cheese or wine lover, Egypt rests on the wrong side of the Mediterranean. While certain shops like Uno Ambrogio on Brazil St will sometimes sell you a slice of bacon or mortadella alongside beer and liquor, the quality leaves me occasionally missing European supermarkets. Since the 2011 revolution, the cost of a decent bottle of foreign wine is unaffordable – when it’s even available – because of import prices. It’s common to see duty-free bags at bars or restaurants as most people would rather BYO than drink local wine.

Exterior of Egyptian Museum in Cairo, EgyptYou could fill an entire day (or more!) admiring the treasures at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum © Stuart Dee / robertharding / Getty Images

I could spend all day… at the Egyptian Museum downtown. The rose-coloured building is a Cairo institution that houses a veritable maze of antiquities. It’s not hard to lose track of time following sarcophagi through the ages, but lately the prime jewels of the museum, including King Tutankhamun’s mask, have been shuttled to Giza’s Grand Egyptian Museum, the construction of which is scheduled to finish in 2019. Once the Grand Egyptian Museum is opened with Egypt’s top treasures, the old museum downtown will see fewer tourists, but it will remain overstuffed with treasures of its own, and a visit will still be a wonderful way to ignore the day’s appointments.

For special celebrations, I always splurge at… the Four Seasons at Nile Plaza for cocktails at the bar and dinner at their world-class Chinese restaurant, 8, for dim sum and Peking duck. It always feels like at least three different servers are tending to your every need, whether it be another almond-coated crispy crab claw or a serving of savoury pak choi with shiitake mushrooms. From the scented towels to complimentary iced fruit tower at the end of a decedent meal, 8 keeps you blissfully floating above Cairo for an hour or two before descending back down into the cacophony of Corniche traffic.

Lonely Planet Local Leah Bremer with her dogs at Gezira Sporting Club, Cairo, EgyptLeah soaking up the sun at Gezira Sporting Club © Leah Bremer / Lonely Planet

When I am craving a bit of green… I walk my dog along Zamalek’s tree-lined streets to the Gezira Sporting Club. Aside from the designated dog area, there are two adjacent golf course holes that become an open park after the golfers clear out at sunset. Groups of friends sit in the grass drinking lemonade, women in yoga gear stretch under the many trees and dogs run around in a state of bliss. It’s the closest thing to serenity I’ve discovered here, and it’s in the heart of Cairo. Even though GSC is a members-only club, guests can obtain a day pass for US$10 and enjoy some green therapy.

I know I’m a Cairo-dweller because… I’ve woken up in my bed covered in sand after forgetting to close my window ahead of a sandstorm; I relish the quiet summer months when students and the upper crust are out of town; I wear a scarf and hat indoors throughout January and February when temperatures can reach a crisp 10°C but no one has central heating; and I consider fuul to be a heart-healthy breakfast.

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