Exploring Egyptian history is as captivating as it is, well let’s be honest, overwhelming.
From the Pharaonic eras to the Roman and Coptic periods, then Egypt after Islamisation and rolling into the modern Egyptian renaissance of the 19th century and up to the outbreak of the glorious revival in music, art, literature, and cinema in the 20th century, let alone two grand revolutions firing almost a hundred years apart. History is pouring everywhere.
In every corner and under every rock, you cannot help but stumble upon stories that make up the beauty of this country and the warmth of its people. One can simply never get enough of Egypt.
That being said, a trip to Egypt must be carefully planned. There are so many places one can visit but there are also so many others one should not miss. One way to plan a good trip is to decide what theme it will take.
For instance, would you like to enjoy some quality beach time? Maybe go snorkelling, diving, or swimming with the dolphins? Yes? Then you would better visit Egypt in spring or autumn and head directly to the east coast. Egypt has some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world that guarantee you a unique, unforgettable vacation.
Or maybe you would rather enjoy a vacation with lots of historical sightseeing? Then you should visit Luxor and Aswan in the south. The two famous cities will match your passion for history and amaze you with mesmerising, fascinating monuments that are still brightly colourful even after thousands of years. Wintertime is perfect for visiting such places to enjoy warm, sunny, rarely-cloudy-or-rainy Egypt.
Yet, if you are coming straight ahead to Cairo, then you have made it to the big boss as the capital city in and of itself is pretty gripping; it might not leave you with enough time to think about anything else.
Everybody knows, for instance, that visiting the Great Pyramids of Giza is just as indispensable as getting that entry stamp on your passport, add to that eating mouth-watering local dishes, taking a boat ride in the Nile, and buying antiques from Cairo’s maze-like bazaar Khan al-Kahlili. All of these are activities common to tourists who are making it to Egypt for the first time.
However, while there are tens of amazingly beautiful and diverse historical attractions in Cairo that are definitely worth visiting, museums are a whole different thing.
Egypt’s Grand Museums
In Cairo specifically, there are a tremendous number of museums of all categories, sizes, and architectural designs displaying hundreds of collections of diverse items, figures, monuments, statues, and everything that might cross your mind.
Take for example the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. It is the first museum ever built in Egypt. It contained over a hundred thousand Pharaonic items from every corner of the country. The palace that hosts these displays is a high-walled spacious beautifully designed red building standing in the middle of Cairo since its construction in the early 19th century.
Such a museum used to be the largest and the most famous across the country until the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization or the NMEC grabbed the attention of the world at its grand opening on the 6th of April 2020 with The Pharaohs’ Golden Parade.
Millions of people from all around the world watched in awe as 22 royal Egyptian mummies of Pharaonic kings and queens were moved from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to their new home in the NMEC in the other part of the city which came to be the new favourite for everyone and currently the largest museum in Egypt with an area of 490,000 square metres.
Just reading the reviews tourists wrote about the museum and seeing the photos they took of its collections is thrilling enough to pack up and get on the next flight to Cairo.
After such a successful opening of the NMEC, Egyptians currently await in agony and ecstasy the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum that oversees the Pyramids of Giza. This is a huge project that has been under construction for many years and promises a totally different level of showing off the majesty of Egyptian history.
That being said, that new grand museum should have been opened a couple of years ago but many pop-ups had it delayed on top of which was the coronavirus pandemic. According to the officials, the museum will hopefully open its gates to visitors in the second half of 2022 and probably another magnificent ceremony will accompany that.
On the other hand, and similar to how false social stereotypes can get tourists to miss out on connecting at a friendly level with the Egyptians and discovering their kindness, hospitality, and their great sense of humour, so do the big famous museums and tourist attractions.
In other words, visiting such highly distinguished sites, though preferable, may sometimes stop tourists from exploring the small cosy places by taking up most of their trip time.
That is to say, leaving out some room for free walks and strolls around Cairo is a great way to leverage your vacation if you stumble upon some hidden gems that can truly make your Egyptian experience even more extraordinarily spectacular and unique.
But we know that your time in Egypt is more or less limited anyways so we at connollycove.com have got you covered in adding extra loads of joy to your journey to the city.
Four Hidden Gems in Cairo
Although most of the following museums were recently renewed and are now in perfect condition and despite the fact that they contain collections of valuable items, monuments, and actual masterpieces, not many people visit them.
In fact, so many Egyptians are not familiar with a lot of distinct museums that hide in the busy streets of Cairo. They pass by them every single day without even knowing they actually exist.
And how, for God’s sake, would they know about them if the only attention those museums got was some short reports aired on satellite channels in the afternoons when everyone is usually at school or work?!
Anyways, here we give you some marvellous Cairene hidden gems that you should not miss visiting.
1. The Museum of Egyptian National Railways
What? A museum of train cars?
If you happen to travel from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan in the south or to Alexandria in the north by train from Ramses Station, make sure you free up some time before your trip to stop by the first interesting place we have on the list.
Located right inside Ramses Railway Station is the fantastic museum that tells the history of one of the earliest established railways in the world and the first-ever in Africa and the Middle East. Urged by King Foad I of Egypt, the Museum of Egyptian Railways was founded in 1933, taking only three months for the construction work to be completed.
The current building is relatively large with two floors that contain hundreds of figures of old Egyptian trains, engine parts, rail tracks, and many other train components that every locomotive mechanic should be familiar with.
In addition, there are many models of train cars of different types that include sleeping cars, buffet cars, passenger and even elite and royal train cars. In fact, there are two life-size royal train cars on the first floor which King Foud I used to travel on.
There is also a collection of photographs of the old Cairo rail station, tickets, and even some conductors’ cross bags!
All the displayed items are associated with labels explaining the rail technology and how it was developed over the centuries. They also give lots of information about the development of the rail system in Egypt and the different stages of its extension.
The construction of the Egyptian rail system was a requisite project to facilitate transit between India and the United Kingdom. At the time, ships used to sail from India through the Indian Ocean, enter the Red Sea from the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, and then sail north until they reach the tip of the Gulf of Suez. After that, ships would get transported by land to Cairo and then to the port of Alexandria where they would sail again through the Mediterranean Sea to reach the UK. Just the description of it is weary!
Building a railway from Suez to Alexandria would then hugely ease the transport and save so much time and money. That is why the construction work of the Egyptian rail started as early as 1834. Unfortunately and for some reason, often a political one, the project was interrupted shortly after.
After almost two decades, the project was resumed. The building and development of the Egyptian railways continued during the second half of the 19th century and for the most part of the 20th century.
In the museum, and along with the figures on display, you can see the real official papers of laws, contracts, agreements, and orders signed by the Khedive back in the mid-1800s that document the resumption of the project.
Currently, the museum is in perfect condition as it has been recently renovated but sadly never crowded for many people are quite oblivious to its existence despite the fact that thousands of them travel by train from that very station every single day.
The entry fee to the museum is only 5 EGP ($ 0.27) for Egyptians so it might be a little over that for tourists. But in general, it will not be expensive at all. Photography is also allowed at an extra fee.
So if you are in Cairo and travelling by train, spare only 30 minutes before or after your journey for a nice never-to-forget visit to the Museum of Egyptian Railways, just make sure you get there before 2:00 pm!
2. The Museum of Muhammad Abdul Wahab
Abdul Wahab, the greatest Egyptian composer of all time.
It is said that there are four things tourists should do to get directly to the heart of the Egyptian culture: eat Foul and Falafel for breakfast and Koshary for lunch, drink mint tea, see the Pyramids, and watch a match for the Egyptian national team at the final of the Africa Cup of Nations—although they have been runner-ups for the past two competitions, the Egyptian national team did win the cup three times in a row in 2006, 2008, and 2010 and is holding a total of seven titles, surpassing every other African team.
Well, I would add one more thing to this Egypt-exploration checklist: listen to a song by Om Kulthom composed by Muhammad Abdul Wahab. Though you might not really make sense of the lyrics if you do not understand Arabic, there is no way you cannot relish the mellow tones that will run directly through your heart.
Muhammad Abdul Wahab is by far the greatest Egyptian composer of all time. He lived a long artistically prolific life, pouring his endless talent and great musical sensations into songs that are meant to live forever.
Abdul Wahab composed a tremendous number of romantic as well as patriotic songs. His influence crossed Egypt to the rest of the Arab world not only because of his uniquely remarkable music but also because he composed the national anthems of Tunisia, Libya, and the United Arab Emirates.
One can get a glimpse of Abdu Wahab’s artistic life by visiting his museum. Located on Ramses Street right beside al-Helal Hospital and only 1.4 km away from the Museum of Egyptian National Railways. In fact, Abdul Wahab’s Museum actually exists inside the Institute of Arab Music.
The museum is pretty small, taking only two internally connected halls which you can tour in under 30 minutes if you stop to read every single label and stare at the collections and less than that if you just look quickly.
Among the displayed items are a number of Abdul Wahab’s very own musical instruments which he used to compose his famous songs. There you can see in perfect condition his oud—that is a Middle Eastern plucked string pear-shaped instrument—as well as his very distinct keyboard and sound recorder.
In addition, there are many of Abdul Wahab’s personal items including his desk, diaries, music notes and song lyrics in his handwriting, national ID, diplomatic passport, and even the suit he put on in his first movie ‘The White Rose’ of 1933 besides many many medals and ribbons.
The museum is quite distinct and definitely worth a visit. The entry fee is pretty cheap and photography is allowed for free. You can visit the Museum of Muhammad Abdul Wahab from Sunday to Thursday between 9:00 am to 3:00 pm; yet; you might want to check if there is any difference due to the Covid-19 restrictions.
3. The Egyptian Geological Museum
Moon rocks in Cairo? You must be kidding!
There are surely less famous places to visit around Cairo, some of which we are trying to list in this article. However, there are also other incredibly unpopular but fascinating places that make great trips. But again, almost nobody knows about them. One example is the Geological Museum in Maadi.
No, you do not need to be a geology nerd to enjoy a visit to this buried treasure but you will surely learn so much about the Earth if you go there. All you need is to hop into an Uber and head directly to Maadi neighbourhood in Cairo, precisely the Geological Museum. Despite the museum being unpopular with people as a place to visit, many of them ironically know it stands there but rather use it as a reference to describe directions!
Anyways, once you get in there, you have to be prepared to go some million years back in time. Once you step inside, you will first be welcomed by a large skeleton of a dinosaur bowing in respect for those who are paying him and his brothers inside a visit.
Like in the entrance, there are a number of dinosaur skeletons kept in glass boxes. These were originally found in Fayyoum, a city located near the eastern desert of Egypt. The museum contains an incredibly large number of fossils and rocks of all sizes, kinds, colours, origins, and names that were either found in Egypt or given as gifts to the museum by Egyptian and foreign geologists.
Interestingly, there is a small section of the museum dedicated to space. A part of it explains the layers of the Earth and those of other planets. In a glass box, there are parts of the asteroid that hit the Earth and fell in the Egyptian eastern desert around 5000 years ago. It was not until 2010 when the asteroid was discovered by Google Earth.
Just right beside that, one will come across a strangely-looking box which is what makes this museum rather terrific. In that box, there is a small dark rock kept in what seems like an acrylic ball along with a small example of the old Egyptian flag and a note. The note, which was signed by Richard Nixon (himself), the 37th American president, reads:
‘This flag of your nation was carried to the moon aboard Spacecraft America during the Apollo 17 mission, December 7-19, 1972. Presented to the people of the Arab Republic of Egypt from the people of the United States of America.’
Turns out, the small dark rock is actually a moonstone gifted to Egypt by the United States in the 1970s. Though such a thing was, as far as I know, not really publicly announced, the real story comes as follows.
During the Apollo 17 mission, astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt started an initiative to spread peace and harmony among the people of the world. During his moonwalk, Cernan picked up a moon rock which was later broken down into fragments and gifted to all the countries of the world as well as all the American states. These rocks were called goodwill moon rocks. In addition, all countries’ flags were taken to the moon during that mission.
Isn’t that amazing?
The Geological Museum only has a slightly big hall divided by the display cabinets into three sections, leaving narrow corridors between them to walk through. Though it might look a little old and it seems it has not undergone any renovation in quite a long time, the collections are in very good condition.
The museum is open from Sunday to Thursday from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm. The entry fee is quite cheap and photography is allowed for free. So if you are in Cairo, make sure you stop by and hop into the time machine of the Egyptian Geological Museum.
4. The Zoological Museum
What? Mummified animals?
The Giza Zoo, whose opening dates back to 1891, was the first zoo in the Middle East covering a total area of 323,749 m². Though it might not be in very good condition nowadays, surprisingly it is very popular with people, especially families who love to spend weekends, Eids, and public holidays in the park. The big green open area and very cheap tickets provide access to recreation, relaxation, and some well-earned quality time.
In spite of that, there is a fantastic hidden gem right inside of the Zoo but, again, many people are not aware it exists. That is the Zoological Museum.
Being over a century old, the museum was opened in 1914 and underwent renovation several times, the last of which was in 2015 after the museum had been closed for almost 18 years. Maybe that is why many people do know about it.
Comprising three floors, the Zoological Museum has an amazing architectural design made of just one long, relatively wide pathway that allows visitors to view all the displayed items until they find themselves at the exit door.
Each floor is categorised differently by the species it displays. Right in the middle of the first floor, there is a large skeleton of a giraffe as well as those of many other animals. In the cabinets around, there are tens of mummified mammals. The second floor has a great collection of reptiles and the third displays birds and butterflies of all colours and sizes.
There are also figures and items related to the history of the Giza Zoo and photographs that document the royal visits to the park.
Almost all items have informative labels written both in Arabic and English. On the walls, there are large texts elaborating on the animals on every floor.
Those innumerable diverse beautiful mummified animals might require a couple of hours to explore for you will not really help but gaze at their beauty. The museum is open all week long except for Tuesday—the Zoo itself takes Tuesday off—from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. Photography is allowed for free.
And the list goes on and on…
There are so many ways to experience Egypt but the best of them will show you what this country, its culture, and its people are really like. In addition to the glorious dazzling famous tourist attractions, going for the hidden gems can make your trip even more delightful.
Among the tens of the hidden gems in Cairo, we choose four for you to pay a visit to and explore. The first is the Museum of Egyptian National Railways which only needs 30 minutes before your train ride to impress you with an amazing display of rail items that tell the history of one of the first railway systems in the world.
If you can even make it two hours before your trip, you can stop by the Museum of Mohamed Abdul Wahab located on the same street to catch sight of the life of the man who made up the modern evolution of Egyptian music.
In addition to rail and music, two other special museums telling different geological and biological stories with hundreds of beautiful items in great condition are waiting patiently to impress you and make your visit to Egypt unforgettable.