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Sway to the East and Then the West: Cairo vs. Istanbul

When the days are short and the nights are long, I dream of exotic faraway places full of mystery and charm. I hear the sound of the darbuka drums calling me with a seductive rhythm that causes me to sway to an eastern beat. The twin capitals of Middle Eastern cool are Cairo and Istanbul. Both are fabulous places full of history, shopping, food and fun, but which is better? Join me in exploring the finer points of these two fabulous destinations by spending 24-hours in each one…

 

Cairo

I draw back the curtains in my luxurious hotel room as I cast my eyes into the darkness, over a city, whose 21 million residents are mostly still sleeping even if there are plenty out and about at this hour. Still too dark out to really see much, I spot the first rays of the sunrise lighting the tops of the distant pyramids. The sight is one that inspires me each time! While sipping a fine blend of sweet tea, I plan my day ahead. The Middle Eastern city of Cairo was named after the Arab word for ‘conqueror’, which is exactly what I plan to do: conquer this wonderful metropolis in just 24-hours!

I quickly dress for the day and prepare to set off to beat the crowds. Cairo can be cool this time of year so I dress in layers that will allow me to shed and don as the situation requires.

Pyramids Cairo vs Istanbul

The original Pyramid Scheme!

My first stop, is a guided tour of the Pyramids of Giza. I wonder at the inscrutability of the Sphinx and notice the building detritus around each pyramid. One of the pyramids was once covered in glistening sandstone, while a second was clad in red granite. My favourite, however, was covered in pure white alabaster which can still be seen littering the desert. This is a magical place full of mystery and power!

My next stop is to look outside the Grand Egyptian Museum, set to open this Spring of 2022. I dearly wish that I could visit the reorganized collection that has been painstakingly moved from the older Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Tahir Square. The new museum may just be the very best in the entire world when it opens and I cannot wait to return for a visit to this long-awaited gem.

No time to linger now, though! The next on my list is an early afternoon trip to the famous Citadel, set high on a hill overlooking the city. The Citadel is beautiful and gives incredible views over a city that shows the mark of each of its fourteen centuries! Next, I wander through the ‘Khan’ or Khan El Khalili Souk at the base of the Citadel to pick up fresh vacuum-packed spices, gorgeous papyrus scrolls and a few other souvenirs to take home. I grab a snack of foul medamas, a delicious local favourite of spiced fava beans, scooped up with pita and lamb kofta kebab. I need the energy to fuel my explorations. Shopping in Cairo covers absolutely all tastes and levels of expenditure. I negotiate hard for bargains – it is expected and polite to do so!

market cairo vs istanbul

Souk it up, buddy!

Next, I return to the hotel to shower and change into something more elegant, before enjoying a quick gin Gimlet in the hotel’s bar. Now, I’m properly fortified for boarding a dinner cruise on the Nile. The sites of the Middle Eastern city spread out on both sides of the world’s longest river. I daydream of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar cruising these very same waters! After the cruise docks, it’s time to find a nightclub where the sound of the drums leads to smoky dens that promise wild fun and new friends. I dance, smoke the Shisha and party until the sun rises again. I guess it’s time to return to my hotel for a few hours’ sleep before starting off again!

 

Meanwhile in Istanbul

 

Thank goodness for strong Turkish coffee and a hearty breakfast, I think, as I sit by the famous Bosphorus over-looking the nearby Galata Tower. Istanbul is one of the most exciting Middle Eastern cities in the world and, just as the Nile made Cairo, the Bosphorus and Golden Horn made Istanbul.

Istanbul Cairo vs Istanbul

Istanbul won’t give you the blues!

It can be chilly in Istanbul in the winter months so I’ve dressed warmly. Istanbul is a welcoming Middle Eastern city where its 14 million inhabitants literally embody “East meets West”.  I’m going to explore the riches of this exciting city that spans both Europe and Asia in just 24-hours! I first visit the wonderful historical district of Sultanahmet where some of the best treasures of the city are located. I must always visit the Hagia Sophia – one of the most extraordinary buildings ever built! It was for centuries, the largest domed building in the world and it is still a marvel to explore. I stop to pet the cats that patrol the precinct. They are well-treated and ensure that the vermin population is under control. My next stop is the nearby Blue Mosque before I take a quick spin around the magnificent Topkai Palace.  I’d love to linger but there is so much to do and I have so little time!

After a bit of awe-inspiring sight-seeing, it’s time to tackle the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar, located at the edge of Sultanahmet.  This has been the heartbeat of the city since it was called Constantinople, named after the Roman emperor who founded the city over the ancient village of Byzantium. The Grand Bazaar is filled with over 3000 shops and is considered to be the largest mall in the world. I pick up vacuum-packed spices, and delicate tiny rose blossom tea (my favourite) amongst other souvenirs.

I stop briefly at Gul Ebru Kantin for a taste of the real döner kebab, washed down with ayran, a local drink made from yoghurt and salt. I feel revived but in need of caffeine. Luckily, each shop I visit offers me a Turkish coffee or sweet red tea. I love the red tea with a sprig of mint and, thus revived, return to my explorations.

grand bazaar cairo vs istanbul

Istanbul can be Bazaar!

After picking up a few treasures,  I stop by the Basilica Cistern, whose monumental engineering never fails to amaze me. That’s why it has been featured in so many movies. I love wandering in Istanbul and always find something amazing but it can be tiring to walk its fabled streets.

Before returning to my hotel, I just have time for a special treat. I visit Hurrem Sultan or Roxelana – one of the best ‘Hammams’ (Turkish Baths), for a soak and a massage.  This is a luxurious tradition that is thousands of years old. The beautiful tile mosaics, domed ceilings and marbled interior feel as luxurious as the warm bath and aromatic oils. Next, I return to my hotel to change into my glad-rags for the fantastic night ahead. First, I make my way to the Beyoglu neighbourhood to bar hop before dinner. I catch a Whirling Dervish performance at the Galata Mevlevi Museum before enjoying a fantastic dinner on a rooftop overlooking the Gold Horn. Then, I dance the night away to the sound of the darbuka drums at one of the many bars along the Bosphorus. As the sun starts to rise in the east, I realise that I’ve started and ended this wonderful day at roughly the same place.

CAIRO

ISTANBUL

PROS

  • Inexpensive
  • Fabulous historic wonders of the world
  • Incredible shopping
  • Unique east-meets-west culture
  • A shopper’s paradise with expansive bazaars
  • Delicious food

CONS

  • Cairo can feel very big, dusty and overwhelming at times
  • Istanbul can be surprisingly expensive

 

 

Isabella’s Recommendation:

This is a very hard decision because I love both Middle Eastern cities Cairo and Istanbul dearly. I’m a “regular” in both extraordinary cities. When pushed to recommend just one, however, I’d have to select Istanbul during the Winter. While both cities offer wonderful hospitality, Istanbul is more modern and comfortable. The new airport in Istanbul is very convenient and that takes a lot of hassle away from a visit. Istanbul is a walkable city while Cairo traffic makes walking “not recommended”. I’ll definitely be visiting Cairo during the Spring or Summer when the new museum is open, though!

 

When nothing will satisfy you except a visit to an exotic locale, I can recommend both cities highly!

 

Love,

 

Isabella

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