As one of the most architecturally diverse capitals in the world, Cairo features a huge array of building designs from Islamic to Coptic and European. A trip to the capital is an adventure into the layered history of Egypt; every alleyway, minaret, and corner holds a unique story, beckoning visitors to dig deeper. Whether you’re lured by the crumbling medieval city walls or the lux modern highrises, there’s something for every design-lover to discover in Cairo, and our design guide to Cairo will help you find it.
Known as the ‘city of one thousand minarets’, Cairo is home to an overwhelming number of unique mosques. With the sounds of one thousand calls to prayer filling the dusty capital, one could explore the mosques in Cairo for years. Ranging from humble, modern religious hubs to extravagant ninth century architecture, here are the mosques you can’t miss.
As the oldest mosque in Cairo, Mosque of Ibn Tulun is one of the capital’s most impressive sites. Dating back to the ninth century, the mystical red brick building stands in all of its glory at the center of Old Cairo, drawing in swarms of tourists. Lined with three outer courtyards, the design is a tribute to the Abbasid architecture of Iraq. As Africa’s longest surviving mosque in original form, this is a great place to start your Cairo mosque tour.
Al Hussein Mosque plays a huge part in Cairo’s history, and is home to the oldest intact version of the Holy Quran. Renowned for being one of Egypt’s holiest Islamic sites, legend has it that the head of Hussein – the grandson of the prophet Muhammed – lies here. Built in 1154, it offers one of the most unique glimpses into Islamic architecture in Egypt.
Completed in 1359, the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan is regarded as one of the finest examples of early architectural grandeur of the early-Mamluk era in Cairo. Featuring an intricately laid mosaic courtyard and an extravagant, towering, egg-shaped dome, this is a mosque you can’t miss if you’re lured by tedious, impressive architecture.
Portraying intricate Ottoman style architecture, Aqsunqur Mosque is one of the most beautifully designed in Cairo. With Iznik tiles in the shape of cypress trees and bold blue and green mosaics, this mosque, built during the Ottoman rule, also contains the mausoleum of its founder, Shams El-Din Aqsunqur.
Finally, known for its timeless design, the Qalawun Complex is one of Cairo’s hidden gems. Featuring a mosque, a mausoleum, a school, and a hospital, it was completed in just over a year in 1280. After India’s Taj Mahal, it’s known as the second most beautiful mausoleum in the world.
Coptic Cairo is an old region of Cairo that was the hub of Christianity until Islamic rule. Home to an amazing range of buildings from cathedrals to synagogues and monasteries, it’s one of the best places to soak up unique Cairo architecture at the crux of all three Abrahamic religions. Built both before and during the Islamic era, here are the best sites to see in Coptic Cairo.
The Hanging Church is the most renowned of all churches in Cairo, dating back to the third century. Named for its construction on top of the Babylon Fortress gate, the church bears great spiritual significance for those of all faiths – it was even the official residence for the Pope in 1407. As one of the earliest constructions in Coptic Cairo, it’s a great place to get a feel for this type of architecture.
According to folklore, The Ben Ezra Synagogue was where baby Moses was found. As the oldest Jewish temple in Cairo, it’s a unique site that is of great importance to contemporary Jewish history. Fitted with marble and geometric Turkish tiles, the ground floor is dedicated to men, with the women’s gallery above.
The Babylon Fortress, built in the 6th century BC by the Persians, is a huge complex perched on the cliffs near the Nile River. Strategically placed next to the Pharaonic Canal that connected the Nile to the Red Sea, this is one of Cairo’s best examples of architecture built to defend.
Other Design Delights
Combining all architectural styles seamlessly, Cairo is home to a number of diverse landmarks and sites, leaving nothing to the imagination.
As one of Cairo’s most impressive sites, Cairo Tower stands tall at 614 feet. The view from the top is worth the climb, but the lattice-work design of the building is impressive in itself. The shape of the tower pays tribute to a pharaonic lotus plant, bringing to light one of the most iconic symbols of ancient Egypt. Featuring 16 floors, it’s considered one of Cairo’s architectural gems.
Built to house a grand office and retail complex, Stone Towers was designed by world renowned architect Zaha Hadid in 2009. Showcasing inspiration from the texture and styles of ancient Egyptian stonework, the complex is a must-see for architecture and design buffs.
Abdeen Palace is an architectural delight, constructed in 1863 with trimmings from Italian, Turkish, French and Oriental design. Most of the decor is lined with gold, symbolic of its history as Cairo’s center of governance from 1872 to 1952.
As a beloved cultural hub of the Middle East, Cairo Opera House is one of the best examples of postmodern architecture in the capital. Designed originally in 1869, it was burnt down and rebuilt in 1988 with the help of a Japanese architect. It’s one of the best places to engage in the arts and culture scene in Cairo, and features a concert hall, a museum, and an open-air theatre.
As one of Cairo’s most bedazzling sites, Wikala of Al Ghouri is a performing arts center in the medieval center of Cairo. Built in 1504 CE, it’s one of the most well-preserved buildings of its kind. The Wikala was used in Ottoman times as an inn for travelers along the popular trade routes, and has now been transformed into a conservation center for Egyptian handicrafts and culture.
Standing tall, bold, and pink, the Egyptian Museum is home to the most extensive array of ancient Egyptian relics in the world. Designed in the early 20th century by French architect Marcel Dourgnon, the interior design of this extravagant building is also worth a visit.