THE first thing that pops into everyone’s mind when talking about Cairo, Egypt is the Great Pyramids of Giza. As one of the wonders of the world, the ancient monument is the ultimate reason why tourists from all over the world flock to this capital of Egypt.

However, as many other travellers would agree, there is much more to Cairo than just the pyramids. For those seeking a more spiritual retreat in the land of the prophets, here are the top five things to do when traveling around Cairo.

  1. Nile River Cruise

The historic river, which is mentioned in the Qur’an along with Moses and Ramses the Pharaoh, spans about 6,670 km (or 4,160 miles) in length and is dubbed the longest river in Africa and in the world.

While taking in the beauty of the Nile, a local friend said that the river is sacred to them because they believe Nile is the source of life in Egypt – it has provided water, food, transport and fertile soil to Egyptians for centuries. As one of the oldest civilisations in the world, this belief of the ‘Nile as life’ has been passed down from one generation to the next.

The Nile River will surely brings peace and tranquility to visitors. Photo: Billah Hasan

One can take a cheap and relaxing river cruise on a traditional Egyptian felucca (sailboat), which most backpackers will opt for. The perfect way for all stress and worries to drift away! We sailed off half an hour before sunset, excellent timing as we watched the sun slowly sink into the horizon. We’d definitely recommend you take the river cruise at this time of the day!

A spiritual retreat: 5 reasons why Cairo captivated us
One of the felucca harbours in the Zamalek district of Egypt. Photo: Billah Hasan
Silhouette of Cairo’s cityscape prior sunset at the Nile River. Photo: Billah Hasan

Alternatively, there are also night river cruise tours available for tourists, mostly concentrated in the Zamalek district. Apart from immersing yourself in the beauty of Nile at night, you will also enjoy well-prepared meals on board along with traditional Egyptian entertainment.

A spiritual retreat: 5 reasons why Cairo captivated us
Cairo’s night lights from onboard of a cruise ship. Photo: Billah Hasan
  1. Old Mosques and Mausoleums Tour

Stepping into the first mosque ever built in Egypt and the entire African continent, Mosque Amr ibn al-Aas (also known as the Mosque of Amr), is great insight into how Islam first came to Egypt.

A spiritual retreat: 5 reasons why Cairo captivated us
The signage of Amr ibn Al-Aas Mosque. Photo: Billah Hasan

Located in Fustat (Old Cairo), the mosque was originally built in 641-642 AD and the site was chosen by Amr Al As (the first Arab conqueror of Egypt by the order of Caliph Umar), after conquering Alexandria. The mosque became a major centre for religious learning and for 600 years has attracted important religious figures from around the world, including Imam Al-Shafi’ie, the founder of one of the four major schools of Islamic law in the 8th century. The mosque is still in use and is packed during Friday prayers.

Mosque Amr ibn Al-Aas is the first mosque built in Egypt and the entire continent of Africa. The style was similar to that of the first mosque in Medina and was expanded and renovated over the years. Photo: Billah Hasan

Another mosque worth visiting is the second-oldest mosque in Cairo, Ahmad Ibn Tulun Mosque. Built in 876 AD, it still survives in its original form and the layout is modelled after the grand cities of Persia and the Byzantine Empire. If you have time, climb up the 40-metre minaret and view the bustling Al-Saliba Street of Cairo from the top!

The main court of Ibn Tulun Mosque, Cairo. Picture: Billah Hasan

One of the mausoleums we visited was the mausoleum of Imam Al-Shafi’ie located in Al-Qarafa Al-Sughra (the Small Cemetery), Cairo. Personally, we were overwhelmed by a wave of emotion as we entered the mausoleum and offered prayers. May we all be gathered with the righteous ones and attain Jannah when the Day of Judgment comes.

This signage can be seen upon entering the front gate of Imam Al-Shafi’ie mausoleum. Photo: Billah Hasan
Photo: Billah Hasan
  1. Citadel

The Citadel has got to be one of the most visited Islamic monuments in Egypt and it was built by Salah Al-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin) in 1176 AD.

Other than the pyramids, tourists will definitely visit the Citadel as part of their itinerary when traveling around Cairo. Photo: Billah Hasan

According to Egypt’s Supreme Council on Antiquities, the Citadel was the seat of government for almost seven centuries; the Ayyubids (1171-1250 AD), Mamluks (1250-1516 AD), Ottomans (1516-1798 AD) and Muhammad ‘Ali Family (1798-1952 AD). It was also seen as a real and symbolic barrier between the rulers and the ruled.

There are a number of museums for visitors to explore within the vicinity. The beautiful interior and architecture of the Ali Pasha Mosque inside the Citadel is also said to be similar to that of the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) in Istanbul, Turkey. Definitely Instagram-worthy!

A spiritual retreat: 5 reasons why Cairo captivated us
Taking the opportunity to perform the Tahiyyat al-Masjid and Asar prayers in the Ali Pasha Mosque of the Citadel. Photo: Billah Hasan
  1. Khan El Khalili

If you enjoy people watching and doing some souvenir shopping, you won’t mind getting yourself lost at the famous Khan El Khalili, a major bazaar district in Cairo. It is believed that it was first established in 1400 AD and the labyrinth of shops makes it one of the world’s best shopping experiences!

A spiritual retreat: 5 reasons why Cairo captivated us
One of the alleys in Khan el Khalili where shops offer unique antiques for tourists who are keen on get them as souvenirs for family and friends back at home. Photo: Billah Hasan
A spiritual retreat: 5 reasons why Cairo captivated us
Another alley in Khan el Khalili selling garments. Photo: Billah Hasan

Not only souvenirs, antiques and jewellery, but visitors can also enjoy the syrupy traditional local coffee and sweet tea.

A spiritual retreat: 5 reasons why Cairo captivated us
A lady selling traditional flatbread to one of the visitors in Khan el Khalili. Photo: Billah Hasan
A spiritual retreat: 5 reasons why Cairo captivated us
Some of the cafes at Khan el Khalili where visitors can enjoy a cup of hot tea, coffee and other beverages. Photo: Billah Hasan
  1. Al-Mokattam

The spectacular view overlooking the whole city of Cairo at Al-Mokattam not only makes it famous among locals but also tourists alike. It is not a surprise that it is a well-known location to view sunrise and sunset, but Cairo’s city lights at night also make it a very romantic place. There are a number of cafes that serve hot tea, coffee and cold beverages to drink while enjoying the view.

The author posing for a photo-op near the cliff of Al-Mokattam at night (coincidently with full moon!), overlooking beautiful city light of Cairo at night. Photo: Billah Hasan


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A former journalist and currently a freelance writer, volunteer/youth worker at NGOs based in Brunei. He is also an advocate for HIV/AIDS, self empowerment and human rights. To connect and share your stories with Billah, email him at