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Downtown Cairo’s budget hotels: No want of character

The Grand Hyatt has a revolving restaurant. The J.W. Marriott has a fake beach. The Tulip Hotel, on the other hand, has ants–lots of them. Several days after my stay, I’m still shaking them out of my backpack.

To be fair, the two-star downtown hotel clearly operates on a whole different premise than do the Hyatt or Marriott: at LE90 per night (for Egyptians, at least), a stay at the Tulip Hotel costs less than a few hours’ parking fees at any of its five-star counterparts. But when it comes to providing an interesting atmosphere, the Tulip Hotel is way ahead of the game.

Tulip is one of many other budget hotels scattered around Downtown Cairo that attract backpacking tourists who start unpacking the city from its heart. While they house their own eccentricities in the world of hospitality, they are a window into the teeming capital’s beating heart. 

Situated directly on downtown’s Talaat Harb Square, the hotel provides an excellent starting point for anyone wishing to explore the city center. Less adventurous lodgers can instead opt for a quick trip to the Al-Shorouk bookstore on the building’s ground floor and enjoy a relaxing read on the third-floor lobby’s balcony. The lobby itself remains unchanged since the hotel’s opening in 1956–from the checkered linoleum floor tiles to the sunken, bulky furniture, cozy in its out-datedness. Past the reception nook, a small seating area fills the space between a cocktail bar–its shelves stocked with Pepsi and water bottles–and a “restaurant” consisting of five tables surrounding a refrigerator.

Room 51–previously occupied by a British-Nigerian woman who claimed to be the reincarnated spirit of Queen Nefertiti–was simply furnished, yet had enough of the basic amenities to provide a comfortable stay. The L-shaped room consisted of two beds of unequal size, a nightstand, a closet, a desk, and a small bench that appeared to have been sawed off from the nearest bus stop. For some reason, the room is also equipped with two telephones. On the walls are a mirror, a framed photograph of a potted plant, and a pattern of mosquito-sized bloodstains (you’ll want to stock up on bug spray for your stay). The lack of air-conditioning is made up for by a massive steel fan hanging from the high ceiling. 

The hotel’s strengths lie in its location–try to get a room overlooking the square–and its staff, who are friendly to a fault. With many of them having been around since the Tulip’s inception over half a century ago, service is understandably slow, but always comes with a smile. Staff members never hassle you, and are always available whenever you need them, on any of the hotel’s three floors.

Despite its location, and the fact that it was almost fully booked during my stay, the hotel is relaxingly quiet–for the most part. At precisely 4 AM, I pulled out my harmonica and began teaching myself the national anthem, but was immediately silenced by loud thumping from the other side of the wall.

Haunted house enthusiasts, meanwhile, will be thrilled by a stay at the Gresham House Hotel down the street, which has a strong “live-through-the-night-win-a-million-dollars” vibe to it. With its long, winding hallways, dim-to-non-existent lighting, and cavernous rooms, the Gresham House might be the perfect setting for an Egyptian remake of The Shining. It is not, however, the ideal choice for those looking for a relaxing getaway. Getting to the third floor lobby is a challenge in and of itself: the overwhelming stench of urine is a bit of a turn-off, while the rickety, door-less elevator ride can be a nerve-shattering experience.

The young receptionist who greeted me was clearly eager to make a good impression, but, unfortunately, the morbid surroundings did little to help. Thick layers of dust cover every surface and a strong moldy odor dominates most living quarters, especially those cursed with en-suite bathrooms. Sheets cover most of the furniture and the dark corridors are littered with the skeletons of older reception desks and service carts–relics, perhaps, of more opulent times. The hotel does boast several bars and restaurants, all of which are closed. Given the circumstances, the Gresham House is outrageously expensive, with rooms going for LE110-LE140 a night, a range that does not appear to be based on any discernible differences.

Far more reasonably priced–and nowhere near as depressing–is the Paris Hotel, three floors above the always-crowded Felfela restaurant and Stella Bar on Talaat Harb Street. Between Felfela and Paris is Omar’s bookstore, which houses a comprehensive selection of Arabic books, a smaller section for foreign books, and, oddly enough, a driving school. Paris Hotel also provides a multi-lingual, albeit much more limited, variety of books that can be read in its comfortably furnished lobby. With its brightly painted walls and tastefully dim lighting, the Paris Hotel provides an immediately welcoming atmosphere. It also stands out from most downtown hotels in that it’s less than a hundred years old. Only one year after its 2006 opening, the Paris Hotel was awarded Hostel of the Year from–an accomplishment proudly displayed on cards and plaques throughout the tiny establishment.

Similar to Tulip, Paris Hotel also enjoys an excellent location, but manages to be a much more effective haven from the bustling chaos of downtown Cairo. The cool, pleasant coziness of the lobby extends into the rooms. Room 5 comes with two beds, a table, a closet, and no phones. A mirror and two black and white photographs of the Nile and pyramids hang on the crimson walls. The en-suite bathroom is efficiently small, in that you can shower while on the toilet and simultaneously brush your teeth over the sink. More importantly, though, the bathrooms are spotless and odor-free, as are the bed sheets, and the thick curtains and windows actually close, ensuring a peaceful night’s sleep. The walls, meanwhile, seem to be sufficiently soundproof, as no one complained when I began my 4 AM harmonica ritual. 

The only thing that clashes with the hotel’s modern, immaculately-clean aesthetic is its 40-year-old manager Waleed Talaat, prone to wandering around the lobby in his undershirt. Despite appearances, however, Talaat is a very attentive and friendly individual, although hardly the most talkative guy in the world. That said, he and his staff are more than willing to go out of their way to provide anything you might ask for. The Hotel also plans and schedules a variety of excursions and trips for interested occupants.

At LE160 a night per person, Paris is slightly pricey for a downtown budget hotel, but if you value comfort and cleanliness over the time-capsule charms of older establishments like Tulip, or the potentially paranormal experience offered by Gresham House, it might be the way to go. Wherever your preference lies, downtown Cairo offers endless variety. With enough searching, you’re sure to find what you’re looking for–or, at the very least, an interesting place to stay until you do.

Tulip Hotel:
3rd floor,
3 Talaat Harb Square
239 227 04
239 238 84

Gresham House Hotel:
3rd floor,
20 Talaat Harb Street

Paris Hotel:
3rd floor,
15 Talaat Harb Street
239 509 21

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