If you’re spending some time in the Egyptian capital, then there are certain things you have to see and do. The Pyramids of Giza are the obvious attraction. But there’s also the Egyptian Museum (and soon-to-open Grand Egyptian Museum), and the ancient necropolis of Saqqara, to name just a few. Maybe you’re visiting Cairo on one of our tours and have some free time. Or perhaps you’ve just found yourself at a loose end in the city and are wondering how else to spend your time now that you’ve ticked off all these main attractions.
Cairo is a very affordable city to visit, and you’ll find entrance fees at many attractions are hardly more than a few dollars. If you are travelling to Egypt on a budget and would like to supplement your sightseeing with a few cheap or even free day trips, then read on; here’s our guide to the best free things to do in Cairo.
#1 Browse the Khan el-Khalili bazaar
No trip to Cairo is complete without a wander through the Khan el-Khalili bazaar. It’s Cairo’s most famous souq and an ideal place to shop for souvenirs for friends and family back home. The bazaar also remains home to many traditional craft workshops, as has been the case for hundreds of years. Whether you’re shopping for silver trinkets, Egyptian textiles, spices, or Mohamed Salah football shirts, you’ve come to the right place. Vendors can be a bit over-enthusiastic, but a polite decline is normally enough if you aren’t interested in a shop’s wares. The bazaar has expanded over the years and now spills out into many of the surrounding streets. There are many coffee shops here too, serving Arabic coffee and shisha.
#2 Head to El Moez Street
Escape the tourist traps and discover the “real Cairo” by wandering along El Moez Street. It’s in Islamic Cairo, the oldest part of the city that is still surrounded by the historic city walls. This part of the city is home to many beautiful mosques including El Hakim and the sprawling Sultan Qalawun complex with its impressive madrasa and mausoleum. If you don’t mind spending a few pennies, make sure to grab a cup of sugar cane juice from one of the vendors here. It’s refreshingly sweet! This part of Cairo feels the most authentic, and it’s easy to fall in love with the city here.
#3 Learn some local history in Tahrir Square
If you recognize the name Tahrir Square, it’s because not too long ago it was making global headlines around the world. The square was the focal point for the protests which erupted as part of the Egyptian Arab Spring in 2011. These protests eventually helped to force the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. More recently, in April 2021, the square witnessed a huge parade, as several mummies of the country’s famous pharaohs were moved from the Egyptian Museum, which sits at one side of the square, to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. The square itself is very pretty, with trees, shrubs, and statues to admire.
#4 Take in the Cave Church of Saint Simon
Carved into the side of a mountain, with intricate reliefs of bible scenes and a seating capacity of more than 17,000, the Cave Church of Saint Simon has to be seen to be believed. This rock-cut church is still used for services today and is usually busy with tourists and Egyptian schoolchildren alike!
Entry is free, but the catch is that only one road travels to the church. This passes through the so-called Garbage City, an area focusing heavily on rubbish collection and recycling. It is a deprived part of the city and can be a bit of a shock for visitors driving through. The Coptic Christian residents here, known as Zabbaleen, were the ones who dug the church out in the 1970s. And it is incredible to know that as much as 90% of the rubbish processed in this part of Cairo is recycled, which is a far higher percentage than many Western countries manage.
#5 Visit the Mosque of Ibn Tulun
If you’d like to enter one of Cairo’s mosques without paying an entry fee, then the Mosque of Ibn Tulun is the one we recommend. Located in Islamic Cairo, it is the largest mosque in the city in terms of land area. It’s also one of the oldest mosques in the whole of Egypt, having been completed in around 884 AD. The iconic minaret twists skywards from a rectangular base. It is well worth a climb if you don’t mind the stairs – the view is terrific. Ahmad ibn Tulun was the son of a slave, rising to rule Egypt in the 9th century. But the Tulunid dynasty only lasted for 37 years before being overthrown. In fact, the only reason history remembers it at all is because of the survival of this single building.
#6 Relax in Al-Azhar Park
Cairo is an assault on the senses. It is a wonderful city, but it can sometimes feel a bit hectic! If you’re craving some green space and a peaceful stroll then one of the best free things to do in Cairo is to pay a visit to Al-Azhar Park. It’s only three kilometres from the city centre and was designed on land that had lain derelict for more than 200 years. It is inspired by historic Islamic gardens and boasts lawns, trees, fountains, a lake, and even an open-air theatre. Al-Azhar Park is listed as one of the world’s sixty great public spaces by the Project for Public Spaces. It’s the perfect antidote to the busy city.
#7 People watch with a coffee
Ok so it’s not free, but a coffee isn’t going to cost you very much! Cairo has a great coffee scene, with numerous cafés and street vendors meaning you’re never far from a hot drink. Egyptian coffee is different from that which you’ll find in Europe and North America. It’s more similar to Arabic and Turkish coffee. Finely ground coffee is mixed with sugar and water and left to settle for a few minutes. It isn’t filtered, so don’t gulp the last few drops or you’ll find yourself choking on very strong coffee granules! If you’ve got a spare afternoon and the sun is out (which it normally is!), you can do far worse than settling in a café on the edge of one of Cairo’s beautiful squares and watching the world go by.
#8 Cross the Nile
We strongly recommend booking a Nile felucca cruise during your stay in Egypt, especially if you are heading south to Aswan or Luxor. But if you’re operating on a budget and would just like to get a good look at the world’s most famous river, then you’ll want to walk across Qasr El Nil Bridge. It was the first bridge to ever span the Nile. And although it was replaced in 1931, it’s still an amazing experience to walk across, with the breeze rushing through your hair. The bridge links Tahrir Square to Gezira Island. The island is also home to Cairo Tower, the tallest concrete structure in the whole of Egypt. You can climb the tower for panoramic views over the city, for a small fee.
If you join us on a group tour in Egypt then you’ll get to explore Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, and much more besides. Our tours visit all the highlights of the country, including the Pyramids of Giza. And some of the places mentioned in this article, including El Moez Street and the Cave Church of St Simon, are visited on our Backstreets of Cairo add-on. This can be added to all of our group tours starting in Cairo. And whichever tour you choose, there will be free time for you to head out and explore independently too!