It´s more or less a philosophical question where exactly you would like to live in Cairo. As we all know the city is VERY large and has many faces. The famous novel by Naguib Mahfouz explains another character trait of the city: Cairo is a cosmos of districts, villages and street communities. In German we have a word for this: the Kiez. People live in one part of the city most of their live and hardly ever leave it. The community there is strong and sometimes embossed with the charateristics of their people. It is impossible to talk about all quarters of the city. As far as I know from my own experience there are some parts of the city popular with tourists, vistors and foreigners so that we can concentrate on them for the start.
The first question you have to ask yourself is – in my opinion- one of the most important: Do you want to live in a mostly Egyptian Community or do you like to have some other international neighbors? There are parts of the city that are very international and quiet modern while other charming quarters are more or less in the hand of the Egyptians only. Before you answer this question, think about yourself! Are you really capable of living in a purely Egyptian nieghborhood? How good is your Arabic? What kind of food do you need for your daily life? How important is comfort to you? And one of the most important questions: Where will you work/study everyday?
Cairo is a traffic-nightmare and since the revolution there are several security issues that have to be reconsidered.
When you have answered those question it is time to think about the perfect part of the city for you to live in.
If you like a international atmosphere and you need a higher comfort there are at least three districts in Cairo that can be recommended:
Heliopolis (Masr eg-Gedida, not to confuse with the new plans for “New Cairo”)
and Maadi. There are others, surely but as I said, it is impossible to talk about all disctricts…
Today we will have a closer look at Garden City and Zamalek
Garden City (جاردن سيتى ) is an extension of Downtown (wust al-balad) and a residential area at the East side of the Nile. The eastern border is marked by the famous Qasr al-Ayni-Street while the western border is the Corniche an-Nil and therefore the River itself. Garden City was part of the Europeanisation of Cairo that started during the rule of Khedive Mohammed Ali and his sucessors. Garden City was planned and built by private investors only. The name is not just a lable as Garden City belongs to the greenest areas of Cairo. There are lots of small palaces (qasr) with ornamental decoration, large houses, windy streets and lots and lots of trees. Garden City houses some embassies but is not the International Diplomatic Area as you can read in some travel guides – this surely is Zamalek. The two most important in Garden City are the embassies of the United States of America and the UK. Some of the most important Hotels in Cairo are situated in Garden City as the Four Seasons, the Kempinski, the Grand Hyatt or the Semiramis (although the Semiramis in fact is closer to Down Town and borders on Tahris Square. Garden City is a kind of “hot spot” for rich foreigners. In past decades it was very famous by Europeans and Americans but now is visited by thousands of Arabs from the Gulf States who normally have rooms in one of the large hotels in the area.
Garden City is – for Cairo – a quiet place, quiet western in design and close to the most important parts of the city like Downtown or Zamalek where lots of foreigners work. Shopping is one of the weaker points in Garden city as it is a more or less pure residential area. On the other hand you will find your small grocery shops and lots of very good restaurants like the famous Taboulee. The flats in Garden City are from high to higher quality and most houses are in old buildings. This means high ceilings, parquet floors, large rooms and so on. Some houses here even have nice spacious balconies. The prices for flats in Garden City are quiet high and so you will not live much cheaper than in Europe (while the flats are normally larger).
Zamalek is – apart from the walled communities far outside the city centre – surely the most glamorous, gentrified and chichi part of Cairo. And as far away form the life of the normal Egyptian as is New York, Berlin or the moon. Zamalek is an illusion, a bubble of wealth, education and western lifestyle in an ocean that is Cairo. The island therefore easily cheats its inhabitants – Egyptians and Europeans. People who lived in Egypt for years and only lived on Zamalek tend to have a strange view of Egypt and the Egyptians while even the Egyptians living here often think that their lifestyle is the true Egyptian Way of Life. Here you still find the social norms of the times of the kings in order. Social Class is important, money is very important. You see a lot of women without cover, men in modern clothing drinking cocktails and even alcohol on one of the famous roof-top restaurants, you will see expensive cars (German Brands mostly), very good restaurants – from Chinese, Sushi, Thai and Indian to Italian and Libanese, from handmade burgers to the western brands like MacDonalds or Pizzahut (not to forget the famous famous Kentucky Fried Chicken….how could I nearly forget about that???). You can go shopping in expensive botiques, browse in international bookstores like Diwan and finish your day with a water pipe directly at the Nile or a capucchino – you like beer? No problem at all in Zamalek. Lots of bars and pubs will offer you a ice cold drink. Zamalek is the true diplomatic quarter of the city with numerous embassies that sometimes occupy entire streets along with restaurants, shops and some hotels like the Hilton Zamalek or the Marriott. Zamalek is – like Garden City – very green with some parks and in the south of the Island (which is called Gezira “island”) larger parks and the enormous sport clubs. Zamalek is full of shops and has three western supermarkets. A lot of expensive private schools are to be found here, too. Galleries, a music school, art schools and the opera are on the Island as well. When you have to stay in Cairo for some months and you are not very interested in learning much about Egypt and th Egyptians, if you need the atmosphere of an international city, Zamalek is probably the best choice for you. A lot of foreigners never leave the Island because of that feeling even when they stay in Egypt for many years. They can never give up western lifestyle and comfort – this is something I can understand while on the other hand it keeps the people on distance to real Egypt. Zamalek offers comfortable flats but of course is not expensive. What makes the Europeans stay is the fact that with an European Salary you can live the life of the upper 10,000 on the Island. You can have staff cleaning your large flat, you can dine in a restaurant every day, have a coffee here, a shisha there and the best: This is all easily possible without any Arabic. Most people in Zamalek speak English – the Egyptian Upper Class sometimes even uses English or French when they talk with each other because this seems to be very sophisticated. When you see “normal” Egyptians at the streets, men in ghalabbyia, covered women and so on you can be sure that they will leave the Island in the evening. Most of them do not live on Zamalek, they “serve” on the Island.