The Semiramis InterContinental hotel in Cairo is the successor property to the old Semiramis Hotel that hosted the likes of dignitaries and socialites during Cairo’s golden age. Unlike its more quaint (read: worn) neighbor, the Shepard Hotel, which retains its Old World Cairo look and feel inside, for better or worse, the Semiramis of yesteryear was torn down decades ago to make way for the more modern hotel property that occupies the same location today.
Speaking of locations, the one on which the Semiramis InterContinental sits is indeed one of Cairo’s most prime. At the intersection of the Nile and its Corniche with the Kasr el Nil Bridge; overlooking the river, the upscale island of Zemalek, and the neighborhoods of Giza on one side (on a clear day you can even see all the way out to the Pyramids) and Egypt’s famous Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum on the other; flanked by important buildings like the Arab League to the north and the American and British embassies to the south, you can begin to see how central this hotel is within Cairo and how great of a base it makes for both business and tourism.
The lobby and common areas of the hotel are great. Unlike some of the more upscale hotels in Cairo, this one actually manages to tastefully infuse some local flavor into its décor without overdoing it or coming across as cheap. A piano, sometimes accompanied by a violin and cello, can be expected to fill the lobby area with live classical music on most evenings and the 24-hour café with free wi-fi is a welcome draw for the night owls, workaholics, and jetlagged travelers. The wi-fi, which pretty much covers the whole ground floor and parts of the second floor, is good enough to browse, work, and even Skype off of.
In addition to the 24-hour café, which has a decent array of good foods, the Semiramis also hosts several other cafes and restaurants ranging from decent to devine. Across the lobby from the 24-hour café is Night & Day, a rather ordinary restaurant with international fare. On the second floor, however, is where deliciousness reigns. One of the best restaurants in Cairo is Birdcage, the InterContinental’s exquisite Thai restaurant, which is located adjacent to a good Lebanese fine dining restaurant, Sabaya, and a quite nice Italian restaurant, Pane Vino. Located off of Pane Vino is a wonderful terrace with sizeable couches and tables where one can enjoy drinks, snacks, sheesha (what some call hooka) and amazing views of the Nile and the western part of the city.
I have personally heard Thai visitors rave about Birdcage and I knew a group of Lebanese businessmen who once lived in the Semiramis who dined at Sabaya every evening. You can’t get a better endorsement than that. I haven’t come across any reviews of Pane Vino by Italians, but if any have eaten there and have and opinion please share. However, I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed it too.
There is also an elegant bar/lounge on the second floor with an assortment of Western alcohol (not always that easy to come by in Egypt), but it can be a bit over priced (don’t worry – all Western alcohol is overpriced in Egypt because of the import taxes). Speaking of overpriced, that’s always been my impression of the French restaurant, The Grill, located on the third floor of the Semiramis. But this upscale fine dining restaurant does have some great private and group spaces with some really intriguing and large modern wall art.
The rooms of the hotel are somewhat basic – neat but basic. Beds are comfy, and the views can be phenomenal, but beyond that think Holiday Inn. The TVs have a good number of channels, including multiple English news stations, a few English non-news channels, and otherwise mostly Arabic options from Egypt and the Gulf. The bathrooms are decent, although the showers are small and the shower curtains are not bowed to maximize space like most hotels do these days. I’ve stayed in this property quite a bit, even lived here for stretches of time, and while its nice for a short stay you may occasionally see mediocre housekeeping and receive mediocre or disheveled service from the staff.
If you want internet access in your room, you can forget about getting it on a smartphone or tablet, as only wired access is available above the second floor. If you have a laptop, you can connect via ethernet to the hotel’s unnecessarily complicated splash page via a browser window and jump through a few hoops to get free mediocre speed wired access. They do offer faster connections for unreasonable amounts of money, so make sure you’re selecting the free option if you don’t want to get charged for in-room internet.
Should you forget to pack anything, there are some convenient shopping options in the small shopping arcade on the ground floor just off the lobby. These include a pharmacy (akin to a mini-CVS/Rite Aid/Duane Reade/Walgreens), clothing and souvenir shops, a bookstore, a bank (a 24-hour bank is located just across the side street in the Shepard Hotel), a salon, a florist, and a few other random shops thrown in there. It’s not the best place to do your primary shopping, but certainly nice to have easy access to for the quick essentials or forgotten gifts.
For a hotel in the center of Cairo the InterContinental does have a large swimming pool on the 4th floor terrace, although the smog sometimes makes it unpleasant to grace it with your presence. During Ramadan the Lebanese restaurant, Sabaya, sets up another outdoor restaurant around the pool and the views and atmosphere in the evening can be quite nice. Also located on the 4th floor is the rather underwhelming fitness center. It suffices for a quick workout, but for a really motivating fitness experience checkout the Nile Gold’s Gym just across the river. It’s actually built on stilts out over the edge of the Nile and is everything you’d expect from the Gold’s brand – with an Egyptian flair.
Overall, the Semiramis InterContinental is a very nice hotel that is centrally located with lots of great in-house dining options and decent rooms. The management could certainly pay a lot closer attention to detail, but most short-stay guests won’t notice those finer points and will be happy with their accommodations. The hotel touts itself as a 5-star property, however, I’d have to be honest and say that right now it’s more of a 4-star property with potential to be a 5-star with some easy improvements. However, what may push it just over the 5-star threshold (for Egypt) would be the dining and shopping options located there within the hotel complex.