Downtown Cairo, also known as Wust El Balad, is the commercial heart and the urban centre of Cairo. Before its construction in the late 19th century it was just a swamp and when the Nile would flood, it would transform into a lake where Cairenes went for boat rides.
The district is bordered by Islamic Cairo to the east, Boulaq and Shubra to the north, Old Cairo to the south and the Nile to the west. It is made up of several areas which are known as Bab el Louk, Abdeen, Mounira and Attaba.
The district is easily accessible by car and public transport; Cairo’s main train station, Ramsis, is located here from which trains depart to Alexandria, the Delta and southern Egypt all the way up to Aswan.
A little bit north of the train station is Turgoman bus station from where buses depart to various parts of Egypt including Sinai.
An important bus and microbus stop is Abdel Moneim Riad Square; from which you can reach any destination in town.
Downtown Cairo is known for its notorious traffic jams and it’s advised to go to the area using public transport or a taxi.
Downtown is also blessed with various metro lines: Sadat Station being the main one that connects to most other lines.
Downtown Cairo was designed on the orders of Khedive Ismail. After studying in Paris he became inspired by the architecture there and decided to bring it to Egypt. Most of the buildings in Downtown are built in various European styles.
With its broad streets and majestic buildings, Downtown Cairo soon became very popular among affluent Egyptians and expats.
A lot of buildings in the area are reminiscent of the expat community; such as the Greek club, the Italian club and the numerous shops with French and Jewish names.
Popular hangout spots at the time were Café Parisiana (underneath the Windsor hotel) and Groppi Café.
The latter is still there but unfortunately has deteriorated over time. Another landmark is Café Riche on Talaat Harb Street.
This café was very important during the 1919 uprising; protesters would hide in the basement where they would write political pamphlets and flyers.
When the police would raid the building the protesters would escape through the secret door hidden in the wall which is still there today.
Reportedly King Farouk spotted his second wife Queen Nariman at Café Riche; during that time the café was also popular among writers and artists such as Naguib Mahfouz and Taha Hussein.
Though most of the buildings are neglected and not well maintained they are still very impressive. Keep an eye out for all the details on the buildings such as the statues, busts and family-related signs.
An architectural highlight of the neighbourhood is Abdeen Palace; in the neighbouring are of Garden City many nice palaces can be found as well.
Downtown has a vibrant atmosphere that goes on 24-hours a day. During the day the streets are bustling with vendors selling everything from knock-off clothing brands, mobile phones, hair pieces and toys to books. Almost anything you can think of can be purchased in Downtown, the quality and authenticity however are disputable.
The art scene is very lively in this neighbourhood with lots of galleries and art centres such as Townhouse Gallery, Mashrabia Gallery, Mosireen, Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) and of course, the Egyptian Museum. Apart from those, there is also a lot of street art to be discovered in the area.
Culinary wise Downtown is a haven for all sorts of Egyptian food. Certain restaurants like Felfela are renowned and have been working for ages. Lately other restaurants have popped up such as The Swedish Table on Tahrir Square that specializes in Swedish cuisine; another highlight is Fas7at Someya, where you can get delicious homemade Egyptian food at a very reasonable price.
At night when the shops close down another part of Downtown comes to life.
Although the nightlife around here may be somewhat unrefined, it is something everyone should experience. There are over fifty baladi bars in this area where you can enjoy a beer and a shisha, and maybe even a little dance with a belly dancer.
Horreya and Stella bars are among the most famous, other venues like After Eight and Arabesque do well with the young crowd as well.
Famous cabarets include Shehrazade and Miami; rumour has it that Aristotle Onassis took Jacky O to the latter once – it was also popular among Egyptian royalties.
Famous belly dancers like Samia Gamal and Fifi Abdou graced the stage of Miami and it also hosted singers like Farid El Atrash; who performed there in their early days.
Downtown was known in the past as Cairo’s cultural and political centre.
People from all over the world came to Cairo for inspiration from the events this city hosted. This district made headlines last year when the revolution took place in January 2011.
Tahrir Square (Liberty Square) became the gathering point of protesters who successfully toppled the old regime. Despite the battles that went on long after the revolution, it seems that Downtown Cairo is not planning on going down anytime soon.
After all, it’s survived numerous years of neglect, earthquakes and uprisings.
Though Downtown has lost much of its glory during the past years, you can still find it if you search well enough.