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Conrad Cairo, Egypt
Tel: 20 2 580 8000
Set on the east bank of the Nile opposite the northern tip of Zamalek island, this blocky white high-rise caters to the business crowd. The 617 rooms and suites are decorated in cookie-cutter international style—a tasteful mix of modern and neoclassical-repro pieces that do little to remind you you're in Egypt. Unless, that is, you look out the window. All the rooms technically enjoy Nile views, but those on lower levels and at the sides merely glimpse a sliver of water. The atrium, with its dramatic water sculpture and palm trees, is a cool, quiet place to relax; so are the hotel's six restaurants and bars. The fanciest dining option is Villa D'Este, where a chicly dressed dinner crowd enjoys upscale, candlelit Italian cuisine.
Nile Hilton, Egypt
Cairo 12344, Egypt
Tel: 20 2 578 0444
Built in 1959, this blue-and-white 430-room hotel on the Nile's east bank just north of Tahrir Square has a convivial ambience and an unbeatable location next to the Egyptian Museum. The grand lobby maintains a retro air of pharaonic kitsch; Nile-facing rooms have balconies perfect for sipping minibar beers while watching the sun slip behind palm trees, felucca sails, river bridges, and the flashing neon of Cairo's modern urban core. The new alfresco rooftop El Mojito bar (opened in 2007) and the Latex nightclub attract young Eastern and Western hipsters. Recently restored in a Belle Époque style, the glassed-in Rotisserie Belvedere serves French food and has impressive 360-degree city views. Car, horse cart, and pedestrian traffic along the Nile Corniche can get a bit noisy at night, but one of the hotel's enduring charms is to make guests feel the beating heart of Umm Al-Dunya, the city the Arabs call "mother of the world." Fitness fanatics will appreciate the in-house squash and tennis courts and the half-Olympic garden pool, ideal for cooling off after a hot day's sightseeing.
Cairo Marriott Hotel & Omar Khayyam Casino, Egypt
Cairo 11211, Egypt
Tel: 20 2 2728 3000
With 1,089 rooms, this Marriott on the Nile island of Zamalek is Cairo's largest hotel. The centerpiece of the property is a palace built for the French empress Eugénie's 1869 visit, when she came to inaugurate the Suez Canal. Sadly, you can't stay in the beautiful old structure, but you can wander through its gorgeously restored hallways, ballrooms, and mezzanines. You can also explore the palace's green, palm-studded gardens, home to a terrace café that's a popular local hangout. There are 14 bars and restaurants on site, including Egyptian Nights (serving regional fare) and JW's Steakhouse, but if you want to get out of the complex, several dining and drinking options are just a short walk away, in the upmarket residential district surrounding the property. Unfortunately, the guest rooms are housed in rather soulless modern buildings; furnishings were restored in 2007 in a red, green, and gold modern Egyptian Revival style in an attempt to evoke the historic palace setting.
See + Do
Sakkara was the main necropolis for Memphis, the capital of a united Upper and Lower Egypt. A 15-minute drive south from the Giza Plateau, past villages and tranquil green farmland, the complex contains 16 primitive pyramids predating the Great Pyramid, and more than 200 tombs and temples associated with the pharaohs and their servants. It's estimated that as many as 10,000 tombs still lie unexcavated; the tombs of King Tut's wet nurse, a royal butcher, and a royal surgeon buried with his scalpels are among the latest discoveries. Architecture buffs come here to see the world's oldest stone monument and original stairway to heaven: the Step Pyramid, built in 2650 B.C. for King Djoser by the deified architect Imhotep, to whom a new on-site museum, inaugurated in 2006, is dedicated. The tomb of the vizier Mereruka is worth visiting for its carved scenes of daily life in ancient Egypt, such as fishing, duck hunting, and tending for pet hyenas. The real gem, however, is the small tomb shared by Niankh-Khnum and Khnum-Hotep, manicurists to King Unas. It's unclear whether they were brothers or lovers; their house of the afterlife contains exquisite carved and painted scenes of cattle, wild animals, breast-feeding mothers, women baking breadand the two bare-chested men embracing. The Sakkara complex is far less crowded than the Giza Plateau, and it's easy to find an isolated spot where you feel you are alone in the desert with just wind and sand for company.
See + Do
The Pyramids, Egypt
There are actually more than 100 pyramids scattered along the west bank of the Nile across from Cairo—ancient Egyptian burials were always made on the western, sunset side of the river—but they all pale in comparison to Giza's three massive wonders. The smaller two pyramids, dedicated to Menkaure and Khafre, are respectively 203 and 471 feet high; they flank the 4,500-year-old Great Pyramid of Khufu (better known by his Greek name, Cheops), sole surviving Wonder of the Ancient World. The Great Pyramid's sheer numbers boggle the mind: It covers 13 acres, is 483 feet high, measures 760 feet along the base, and is made up of 2.3 million stone blocks. Every visitor should do the bent-over shuffle into the burial chamber deep in the heart of the Great Pyramid—it's just a small, bare stone room, but irresistible all the same. Access is limited, with just two sets of admission issued: 150 in the morning, 150 more in the afternoon. The best bet is to be at the main gate when it opens, then charge up the hill straight to the separate ticket office next to the Great Pyramid and get in line to buy early-afternoon entry (if you get a taxi here from your hotel, have the driver take you right up to the ticket booth inside, otherwise tour buses will beat you to it). Then you can spend the whole morning wandering the Giza plateau, checking out the extraordinary Sphinx, examining the other pyramids and necropolises, and shelling out a few dollars to jump up on a camel and be led across the sand so you can pose for the requisite photo against a backdrop of pyramids. The park is open daily 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (to 5 p.m. in September).
See + Do
Egyptian Museum, Egypt
Cairo 11557, Egypt
Tel: 20 2 579 6974
Built between 1897 and 1900, this museum is filled with the golden treasures of pharaohs, and archaeological finds tracing Egyptian civilization over more than 5,000 years. The crowds tend to beeline for the golden, lapis-encrusted mask of Tutankhamen and his other sumptuous funerary objects, which made such a splash when they were discovered by Howard Carter in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings. It would take weeks to see the museum's 120,000 objects, but don't miss the Palette of Narmer, a ceremonial tablet that symbolizes the original unification of Egypt more than five millennia ago; the royal mummies; and the Fayum portraits, hauntingly realistic depictions of the deceased discovered in Greco-Roman gravesites. The best time to visit is in the afternoon, after the crowds thin. Alternatively, go at opening time and head straight for the small room containing King Tut's mask, on the second floor. You'll have the space to yourself for a good 15 minutes because the tour groups will be stuck on the ground floor listening to their guides' orientation spiel.
Open daily 9 am to 7 pm.
See + Do
Coptic Museum and Old Cairo, Egypt
Tel: 20 2 363 9742
Situated in two early-20th-century buildings within the walled Roman fortress of Babylon, the Coptic Museum contains such artifacts as funeral stelae carved with Coptic inscriptions, manuscripts, icons, textiles, and examples of ivory, wood, pottery, and glass. A bridge between the art of ancient Egypt and the Islamic era, Coptic imagery often fuses deities and motifs from the Pharaonic and Roman eras. The museum's most moving objects are frescoes found in monastery prayer niches, for example, a sixth-century image of Jesus being suckled by Mary in an echo of the Egyptian goddess Isis suckling Osiris three millennia earlier.
Just down the street from the museum lies Old Cairo, the local name for the original Coptic quarter. A warren of Roman-era walls, narrow alleys, churches, and the restored Ben Ezra Synagogue, the neighborhood evokes the Cairo of a simpler, pre-skyscraper agenot to mention showcasing the quite striking environment (these days) of Jews, Arabs, and Christians living together in relative peace in a Middle Eastern city. Morning mass in the Coptic language is held in the churches of Old Cairo on Friday, Sunday, and religious holidays. The elaborate Hanging Church is a three-part basilica dating to the seventh century and has the most seating. Art and history lovers should head for the dark and gloomy fourth-century church of St. Sergius, which displays icons, silver chandeliers, and votives left by ancient pilgrims who visited the crypt where the holy family is said to have stayed during its flight into Egypt. To see the faith in action, go to St. George's Chapel. Set in a Mamluk-era palace, the chapel contains an ancient iron collar and chain associated with the saint (the story of Saint George and the dragon has origins in the pharaonic myth of Horus slaying Seth, a desert monster). Every day you'll see worshippers lining up to touch and kiss the relics, still believed to have healing properties.
Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm.
See + Do
The Citadel, Egypt
Saladin, an invader from Syria, built the Citadel in 1183 to protect Egypt from the Crusaders. Sitting atop its massive original foundations, the complex was remodeled after 1804 by the Ottoman viceroy Mohammed Ali, a conquering soldier from Albania. The Citadel is made up of more than a dozen buildings, mosques, and museums, all centered on the Mohammed Ali Mosque, the iconic pile of domes and tall minarets that dominates the city skyline. Nicknamed "the Alabaster Mosque" for its exterior stone sheathing, its interiors are done in a grand, ornate style more reminiscent of Istanbul than Egypt, with lofty ceilings and huge, low-hanging globe-lamp chandeliers. The Carriage Museum is the best place to get a sense of the lifestyle of the Mohammed Ali dynasty, which ended with the 1952 overthrow of King Farouk. There is also a jail, a museum of stolen antiquities, and a vast national military museum devoted mainly to the tanks and airplanes of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
See + Do
Cairo Opera, Egypt
Cairo 11211, Egypt
Tel: 20 2 739 0114
Don't just collapse into bed after a hot day visiting the Pyramids. Evening performances at the Cairo Opera House on Zamalek island feature international guest conductors, Egypt's national opera and ballet companies, and classical Arab music stars. The season, which runs September through June, includes an annual production of Aida, the Verdi opera originally commissioned to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal.
Performances held daily at 9 pm.