Cairo: Welcome to the city of 1,000 minarets

You had better get on with your neighbour if you live in Cairo. One of the world's greatest cities, it has a population of 17 million (and counting) and one of the highest population densities. It's not a genteel place, nor is it clean or organised, but Cairenes are unfailingly polite and their city is always an intense, fascinating experience.

You had better get on with your neighbour if you live in Cairo. One of the world's greatest cities, it has a population of 17 million (and counting) and one of the highest population densities. It's not a genteel place, nor is it clean or organised, but Cairenes are unfailingly polite and their city is always an intense, fascinating experience.

History is the obvious big draw here - not only were Egyptians the pioneers of mummification but they also gave the world the first doctors, dentists, sculptors, make-up artists and enemas (of which more later). At present, Cairo is also relatively unaffected by tensions elsewhere in the Middle East, but you can still expect to see soldiers everywhere.

Why go?

Four and a half thousand years of history is just four and half hours' flying time away. Few will need reminding of Cairo's key attractions: the great Pyramids of Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus; the Sphinx; and the Egyptian Museum. The Giza Pyramids are visible from Cairo, as is the city from the Pyramids, sweltering under an overcoat of smog. First-time visitors may find the city overwhelming, but Cairo is a welcoming and relaxed introduction to the Middle East.

Why now?

The best weather is during March and April when the warmth is relieved by breezes, but visit before the end of May when the summer sun hits the city with a vengeance and even die-hard residents head up the coast to Alexandria if they can. But the clinching reason to go now is that the Sphinx is, for the moment (and surely not for long), free from scaffolding.

A note of caution for animal-lovers and vegetarians: you should avoid Cairo around 6 March as it is the Eid Al-Addha feast, an Islamic festival which every family celebrates by slaughtering a sheep or goat. It is also a particularly stressful time for the police, who have to cope with the mayhem caused by hundreds of thousands of animals penned (in the loosest sense of the word) in households and streets.

The mission

Disciplined sightseers can do Cairo in a long weekend, although it would probably take a whole lifetime to get to know the city.

If you spend just one day at the astonishing Egyptian Museum, which houses more than 100,000 artefacts, you will hardly scratch its surface; but you should see the fabulous Tutankhamun Galleries. The sheer quantity of gold and the workmanship makes you wonder about what was looted from tombs of Pharaohs far greater than young Tutankhamun. Don't miss the Royal Mummy Room, in which the bodies of some of the most significant kings and queens who ruled between 1552BC and 1069BC are displayed. Because of the silence, the temperature and the low lighting, this room is tomb-like itself.

Shake off the morbidity with a look at Pharaonic inventions. Preservation techniques obviously took some time to perfect: tombs have been found containing a total of four million mummified ibises (it is believed that the ibis inspired the enema through its own habit of cleaning its bowels with its beak).

Another day should be spent, of course, at the world's oldest attraction, the Pyramids. Minibuses shuttle to and from Giza Plateau and it is easy to organise a day trip through your hotel. Take lots of water, a sun hat and a camera.

Also, make time to explore the streets of Cairo and you'll witness some remarkable sights such as the mosques of Islamic Cairo, pick-up trucks streaming through the city spraying insecticide, and the few remaining members of Cairo's Jewish community making their way to prayer under armed guard.

Remember this

Cairo's dreadful pollution is doing the same sort of damage to the Sphinx as lead-based cosmetics did to the complexions of 18th-century women. But when every ancient motorcycle, car and bus belches black fumes - and industrial emissions are notoriously unregulated - there seems to be no solution in sight.

The traffic itself is ludicrously daunting, and is almost a high-speed contact sport. When traffic lights were introduced, they were regarded as rather smart street decor; when the police started cracking down on the flouting of seatbelt laws, drivers simply bought fake clip-on belts at the roadside rather than spend money on genuine ones.

Egyptian architecture is not just about the Pyramids: Cairo is justifiably dubbed "the city of 1,000 minarets". These have the edge on mosque domes for elegance and beauty, but unfortunately both are eclipsed by ugly, utilitarian buildings. You will also notice a huge number of seemingly unfinished homes - this is because "unaccomplished" buildings are not taxed and Cairenes are never slow to spot a loophole.

Eating out

Despite the legacy of numerous epicurean cultures, it is fair to say that Egyptians are not the world's greatest gourmets. The best parts of Egyptian cuisine can be traced to Lebanon, the worst parts to any Egyptian chef who tries his hand at a classic French sauce. Egyptian staples - felafel, kofta and kebabs - are available everywhere, and are pretty variable, although bread with hummus or tahina (a thinner paste made from sesame seeds) is always a reliable snack.

Papillon on 26th of July Street, Mohandiseen (tel: 00 2 02 347 1672), serves superb, moderately priced Lebanese food, while Bodega, also on 26th July Street (tel: 00 2 02 340 6761), does continental cuisine well. If you are returning from a day out at the Pyramids, stop at Restaurant Andrea at 59-60 Canal Marioutieh (tel: 00 2 02 383 1133), which serves good mezzes and full Egyptian meals. Abu el Siid is another recommended Egyptian restaurant.

The Cairo Meridien Hotel has the most established belly-dancing show at its Belle Epoque nightclub (tel: 00 2 02 362 1717) while Oberoi's Golden Pharaoh cruise ship on the Nile (tel: 00 2 02 570 1000) offers evening meals to the accompaniment of belly-dancing.

Where to stay

The Four Seasons at 35 Giza Street (tel: 00 2 02 573 1212), which opened last year, overlooks the Nile and the Botanical and Zoological Gardens (although nuclear test sites look livelier). The rooftop swimming pool is a real treat, and every toxin in your body can be kneaded out at the excellent Spa and Wellness Centre, which even offers a "Nefertiti" facial treatment.

A more economical choice is the Garden City House (tel: 00 2 02 354 4969) with b&b and en-suite bath from about £20 per night. But all levels of accommodation are easily available in the city.

What to buy

Khan al-Khalili bazaar is a sort of seventh heaven for lovers of kitsch souvenirs and ornaments: inlaid mother-of-pearl boxes are a speciality, as are stuffed camels, onyx cats, alabaster pyramids and painted papyrus. Resist it all, or at least haggle the price down to a fraction of the inflated asking price.

Instead, seek out the Spice Market deep in Khan al-Khalili's maze of ever-decreasing alleys. You'll know you are getting close when you see huge sacks of dried chilli peppers - and then suddenly you will be immersed in a shadowy world of intense aromas and hessian sacks of curious bits and bobs. Saffron is a genuine bargain (ask for the deep red variety, which is much finer than the golden stuff displayed at the front of the stall) and try not to confuse myrrh with frankincense. The exchange rate is currently about £1 to E£5.

Getting about

It is a good idea to hire a guide for at least one day - someone such as Bassam El Shammaa (tel: 00 2 02 417 5334), part-time lecturer, guide and Egyptologist. Aside from the trip to Pyramids, taxis are convenient and cheap as long as a price is pre-agreed, since meters are rarely used.

Getting there

British Airways (tel: 0845 7733377; net: www.britishairways.com) has direct flights to Cairo from Heathrow once a day. Return flights during March cost from £309.

Further information

The Egyptian State Tourist Board is in Piccadilly, London (tel: 020-7493 5283) or log on to the Foreign Office website for the latest travel advice (net: www.fco.gov.uk/travel).

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