Cairo is both daunting and exhilarating.

With a population of more than 17 million, Egypt's capital city is crowded, noisy and polluted. It is also one of the most vibrant and complex cities in the world.

Skyscrapers and five-star hotels loom over the River Nile, mosques fill even the most westernised neighbourhoods and a millennium of Islamic architecture competes for space with 4,000-year-old Pharaonic monuments. Cairo is located where the Nile flows around the islands of Gezeira and Rhoda, and is bounded by the Pyramids to the west and the international airport to the east. While the city covers over 200 sqkm, most of the areas inhabited by expatriates occupy a few easily navigable kilometres around Tahrir Square on the east side of the river.

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The commercial centre is in Downtown to the north of Tahrir square. Accommodation is easy to find and cheap by western standards, ranging from 19th-century colonial opulence to 1970s tower blocks. Street crime is almost non-existent and Cairo is one of the safest cities to walk alone after dark. However, in the last few years Egypt and its capital have seen a number of terrorist attacks aimed at tourist areas and no one can predict whether these will increase. Driving in Cairo can be hair-raising: traffic regulations are hardly ever enforced. Buses and taxis are cheap and plentiful but get bogged down in the heavy traffic.

The metro is fast and clean. Cairo isn't ideal for kids: good secondary schools are expensive and can involve a long commute, and there is little green public space. Islam remains the main cultural influence: the numerous religious festivals are major events for Cairenes. Dress is conservative even in the blistering summer heat, and foreigners are expected to follow suit. Cairo has a huge range of bars, from local dive bars to five-star hotel lounges, but good nightclubs are scarce. Possibly the best night life is in the streets, which bustle with life until the early hours of the morning. Text: Laura Maxwell.