Pick up just about any travel guide on Cairo, and you'll read about horrendous traffic, poor air quality, poverty and an unrelenting assault on the senses that can send the unprepared traveler into orbit.
The guides have it right. As cities go, Cairo is a tough customer. And the various strikes and protests that have continued since the country's January revolution -- some of them violent -- have made life in the Egyptian capital even more unpredictable.
But it's also a place with unique appeal. As a tourist destination, Cairo is known as the gateway to the legendary Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx -- fixtures in our psyche. But there are also mosques that are architectural masterpieces; still-inhabited neighborhoods that evoke thoughts of ancient Egypt; churches that date back to the beginning of Christendom; one of the largest bazaars in the world; and, of course, the mighty Nile river.
Cairo traces its origins back to the Egyptian capital of Memphis, believed to have been founded in the fourth century B.C. Today, with a population of 16 million, it's both bustling and chaotic, but there are places to find respite, such as leafy Zemalek Island and the Citadel, the largest fortification in the Islamic world. It has dominated Cairo's skyline since 1176. From the Mohammed Ali Mosque at the fortress, you'll encounter views of the sand-colored city that bring to mind storybook Egypt. As a man notes in a tale from "One Thousand and One Nights," "He who has not seen Cairo has not seen the world."
Because it is often treated as a pass-through to the Pyramids and Nile River cruises, most travelers don't linger in Cairo -- except, perhaps, to take a perfunctory peek at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities' world-class collection of treasures or to take a curious look at Tahrir Square, where 2011's Arab Spring arguably began. And that's too bad, because this is a city that deserves far more than a fleeting first impression.
--written by Ellen Uzelac; updated by Chris Gray Faust