There is an exquisite beauty in Egypt that is made all the more impressive when you understand the history of civilization that is encapsulated by hieroglyphs, statue fragments, and embalmed mummies. While this alone is meaningful, it should be considered in conjunction with the evolution of a society and culture encompassing five thousand years that more recently has undergone a revolution and is contending with the tensions that arise in a turbulent region of the world. With some advance preparation and an open mind, a visit to Cairo is incredibly rewarding.
In the morning you can enjoy a roof-top breakfast with a view of the only surviving Wonder of the Ancient World, by day you can crawl into some of the earliest pyramids built, at sunset you can take in the expansive city atop the Cairo Citadel, and in the evening you can wander the chaotic markets of Old Cairo. While perhaps not advisable to do all this in 24 hours, there is no shortage of places to see with the one or many days that you have in Cairo.
- For most visitors to Egypt, a mandatory stop is the 5,000 years old Great Pyramid of Egypt, but this pyramid is only one of the overwhelming number of ancient memorials, tombs, temples, and artifacts you will encounter on your visit. In preparation for the amount of information you will consume, and to make your visit even more rewarding, I would recommend investing some time upfront to learn about Ancient Egypt. Professor Bob Brier’s course, The History of Ancient Egypt, in The Great Courses lecture series is an excellent resource available on Audible or as a DVD or downloadable video from The Teaching Company. Altogether the Audible lectures total 24 hours of narration, however you can pick and choose what you listen to if you can’t invest this much time.
- Booking guided tours will allow you to not only maximize your time touring, but also obtain additional context around what you are seeing, and because you’ll likely be seeing a lot, this is helpful! Guided tours in Egypt come in all shapes and sizes – from a single or half day guide, to a fully planned itinerary extending over a week or more. We used a combination of guides throughout out trip – our day tour of the pyramids from as far south as Dahshur, and back up to Giza, was booked using Tours By Locals and we thought our guide and driver did a nice job providing us with contextual information and getting us to so many places all in one day. While travelling on the Nile, we utilized a separate tour operator to book a package that included the boat accommodations and a guide. Figure out what works for your style of travelling and your budget – there are plenty of tour operators and independent guides. A side note: unless specified as only a walking tour, a guided tour will include a driver to get you from place to place as efficiently as possible.
Your guide may not accompany you to every part of your visit to the archaeological sites as there are certain areas where they are not allowed to act as a guide. Such was the case when we entered a mastaba in Saqqara – an attendant took us inside while our guide waited outside for us. We were expected to tip this attendant a small amount in return.
- If you are traveling to/from the Cairo airport, it’s not a bad idea to either book a driver through your hotel or request an Uber upon your arrival. This takes the hassle out of arranging transportation with one of the many tour companies waiting in the arrivals section or haggling on the price with a taxi driver. While certain hotels will charge a significantly higher fee for a driver, others will offer free transportation from the airport to the hotel if you stay a minimum of two nights. Case in point – at our first hotel in Giza, it was free pick-up from the airport and $25 for airport drop-off (when staying two nights), while at our second hotel in downtown Cairo it was $75 for pick-up and $50 for drop-off at the airport.
- A visa is required to enter Egypt, and for US citizens and 40 other countries, it is possible to purchase your visa upon arrival in the airport before going through immigration. This visa is valid for a visit up to 30 days. There is the option to have it processed ahead of time online for an additional fee, however seeing as it was very easy for us purchase it ourselves of upon arrival, this would be my recommendation. We were told to bring exactly 25 USD in cash for each visa as they don’t give change and aren’t accepting of other currencies. We came prepared with the exact amount of USD so I can’t confirm if that is actually enforced.
The same counter that processes the visa is also where you can also exchange money for the local currency, the Egyptian Pound (EGP). This is in fact a good time to exchange for the Pound as Egypt is not only a cash-based society, but it also has a culture of tipping. Whenever possible, request Egyptian Pounds in small denominations for the obligatory baksheesh expected throughout your visit (more on this below). The current exchange rate is around 1 EUR = 18 EGP and 1 USD = 16 EGP.
- The official language of Egypt is Arabic. Learning a few simple Arabic phrases will be helpful to you and facilitate polite exchanges with your hosts and other locals.
- Greeting others with Salaam alaikum or simply Salaam means peace upon you
- Expressing thanks with shukran or no thanks with la shukran
- Accept that tipping, called baksheesh, is an inherent part of the culture. Tipping is applicable everywhere in Egypt from the standard practice of restaurants, guides, and drivers, to the more abnormal of settings when in bathrooms and upon a local taking your photo. For a small service, like using a toilet (especially if you want toilet paper), a tip of 5 EGP is appropriate. For attendants at archaeological sites that show you around and/or offer to take a photo of you, a tip of 10 to 20 EGP is appropriate. A ten percent tip at restaurants and for guides is a good baseline, but of course, appreciation for excellent service can be expressed through a larger tip. One exception to the norm of tipping on the spot was on our Nile River Cruise where they encouraged us to leave a total tip in an envelope upon check-out instead of tipping for each service aboard the boat.
- Don’t be surprised by the number of sales offers extended to you. From camel and taxi rides to hats and scarves, there is no shortage of opportunities to purchase goods and services. Your guide won’t necessarily speak on your behalf, so be prepared to negotiate a price or decline and keep walking. Approach a purchase with only mild interest and when asked what you are willing to pay, offer a lower amount than what you are actually prepared to pay. A counter offer will be returned and the negotiations will continue until you either walk away or agree to the price and thus complete the sale.
- Watch your belongings and don’t get caught up on distractions when approached by someone or a group of people. We had no issues with pick-pocketing, but it’s easy to see how just the smallest commotion, such as someone asking to check my ticket while we are already inside the site, could be a distraction that momentarily takes your mind off your belongings.
On the topic of crime and safety, you will encounter security checks at the entrances to practically all sites, businesses, and hotels. The checks will require you to pass through a metal detector and/or have your belongings screened by an X-ray machine or security personnel. Follow the instructions and gestures of the attendants when in doubt about the screening requirements.
- The price of admission to sites is subject to change based on the season and year, so stated rates from the prior month can already be obsolete. We arrived at the beginning of the tourist season (November to April) and were charged 90 EGP for entrance to a site that a month earlier was 70 EGP. We were aware of the price increase because our ticket still listed the old price and our guide explained the change.
Plan to pay all admission with EGP, anticipating that you may need to have more cash on hand than initially planned. Your guide or your hotel can assist you in finding an ATM.
- Uber was a convenient and very affordable way to travel in Cairo. We did get in one vehicle where one of the seat belts wasn’t working, but during our three separate Uber rides, the drivers were respectful and we felt safe. Do review the driver’s rating when you request the ride and don’t hesitate to cancel if you are uncomfortable with a lower than preferred rating.
If instead of taking an Uber, you find yourself walking in Cairo, take personal responsibility for your safety when crossing streets and DO NOT expect that the cars will stop for you as the pedestrian. If you find yourself needing to cross a busy street when you are not at a controlled intersection, cross with locals and signal your intent to cross by holding your hand up to the oncoming drivers. You will still likely end up in a game of leap frog so pay attention to the vehicles that are or are not slowing down.
- A hotel in Giza provides convenient access to the Giza pyramid complex, as well as the archaeological sites further south of the city. An added benefit is that some hotels in Giza offer unobstructed views of the pyramids themselves. We stayed at the Pyramids View Inn for two nights at the front end of the trip, and from both our balcony and the roof, the three largest of the Pyramids of Giza were right before our eyes. In the evening we watched the Giza Pyramids Sound and Light Show from the balcony and in the morning we enjoyed our complimentary breakfast on the rooftop overlooking the pyramids and sphinx.
Another option in Giza is the Marriott Mena House, which is well-equipped for those looking for luxurious accommodations. Even if you aren’t staying at the hotel, the 139 Lounge Bar & Terrace is a relaxing spot for dinner overlooking the pyramids.
- By staying at a hotel in the Garden City district of Cairo, you will swap your pyramids view for convenient access to sites in downtown Cairo. The Garden City district of Cairo is well-situated for walking to the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, El Tahrir Square, and across the Nile to the Cairo Tower and Egyptian Opera House on Gezira Island. We stayed at the Kempinski Nile Hotel which is located on the river along the Nile Corniche promenade and were able to get around on foot and by car.
- Saqqara – About 45 minutes south of Giza, the Saqqara Necropolis is the location of the oldest complete and intact stone building known to mankind – the Pyramid of the Pharaoh Djoser, or Step Pyramid. The Step Pyramid is the earliest evidence of the successful completion of a pyramid burial tomb and was constructed with six levels (steps) of stones. The archaeological site also includes a handful of mastabas dating from the Old Kingdom when royals and non-royals alike were buried in the flat-topped rectangular “houses” that pre-dated the burial of royalty in the pyramids.
- Dahshur – To see the Bent and Red Pyramids, which are evidence of the transition from the step-sided to smooth-sided pyramids, you’ll want to head a bit further south to Dahshur. Demands for a smooth-sided pyramid by the Pharaoh Sneferu led to the construction of the Bent Pyramid which was deemed to be a failure on account of the structure’s instability. Initial construction began with a 54 degree incline but this was decreased to 43 degrees about half-way up to avoid a structural collapse – hence the bent appearance.
The interior of the Bent Pyramid has only been open to the public since July 2019. If you don’t mind claustrophobic conditions or bats (found in the very last chamber) I would recommend mustering the courage to tour the interior. Entrance to the pyramid is by way of a raised entrance on the north side and upon entering, you will immediately descend into a steep and very confined tunnel before you ascend a wooden staircase and then crawl through another tunnel to reach the chambers within.
- Memphis – A short drive from the vast dessert sands and through the agricultural fields extending out from Nile are the ruins of Memphis, the once capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom. While Memphis doesn’t exist today, what can be seen today by visitors is an open-air museum featuring the colossal statue of Ramses II, which was discovered partially intact in 1820. I say partially intact because a fragment of the legs and feet of the statue was broken off, but what remains is impressively well-preserved on account of the statue lying face down in mud for thousands of years until its discovery.
- Giza – The Giza pyramid complex encompasses the Great Pyramid (or Pyramid of Khufu), Pyramid of Khafre, Pyramid of Menkaure, several smaller pyramids, and the Great Sphinx – all dating from around 2500 BC, in the time of the Old Kingdom. The Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world until the end of 13th century AD, and there is a theory that the capstone or uppermost point of the Great Pyramid was once gold. The pyramids used to have a smooth outer limestone layer, but some of this original casing was loosened by an earthquake and then subsequently removed from the pyramid to be used in the construction of other buildings in Cairo. What remains of this original casing is now only seen on the top portion of the Pyramid of Khafre.
Climbing the pyramids is not allowed; however you can scale the steps to the entrance of the Great Pyramid without being scolded by guards. You will need to pay for a separate ticket to enter the pyramids, but know that there are no mummies inside as they were moved to the museum. For a view of all the pyramids from a further distance, there is a road behind the pyramids that leads to a decent spot for photos, or can you pay to take a camel further into the desert for an even more impressive panorama.
A ticket to the pyramid complex also includes your visit to the Sphinx. Before you see the Sphinx from the very popular side angle, while still outside the fence in front, step off to the right (when facing the Sphinx) to take in a panoramic view that includes the three largest pyramids and far less crowds. There is also a Solar Boat Museum adjacent to the Great Pyramid, which can be accessed with a separate ticket.
- Museum of Egyptian Antiquities – There are an overwhelming 120,000 artifacts in the museum – a large percentage of them are on display and most have minimal information presented to explain their significance. For this reason, many visitors utilize a guide to navigate around the exhibits and provide context, with specific attention paid to the more impressionable articles. We considered hiring a guide but instead opted to guide ourselves, approaching our visit like an archeological excavation – with patience and excitement about the thrill of discovery. We were happy with our decision as we did not feel rushed and had the flexibility to wait until the larger groups had moved away in order to view the artifacts up close for ourselves.
If you choose to tour independently, I’ve created a separate guide for visiting the museum to assist you in your visit. This guide details some of the most notable artifacts in the museum, including, but certainly not limited to:
- The Narmer Palate, referred to as “the first historical document in the world”, is on display just inside the entranceway of the museum and depicts the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by Narmer around 3150BC.
- The wooden statue of the scribe and priest Kaaper whose eyes are alarmingly realistic.
- The King Tut gallery containing the famous golden mask and a remarkable display of other treasures buried with the boy king (no photos allowed & strictly enforced).
- The spine-tingling Royal Mummies Halls containing the astonishingly well-preserved mummies of some of Egypt’s most well-known Pharaohs (no photos allowed & strictly enforced).
- Citadel of Cairo & UNESCO designated Historic Cairo – The Citadel of Cairo or Citadel of Saladin, a strategically placed fortification from the medieval Islamic era. Construction of this impressive structure began in the second half of the 12th century AD and from its walls today, you are afforded a hazy overlook of the endlessly sprawling metropolis. During our visit, the view was incredible and remarkably peaceful on account of the very few people enjoying the late afternoon glow over the city.
Also contained within the Citadel walls are four mosques, of which we visited the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. The public is welcome to enter provided you enter shoe-less (carry them in your hands), and while I was not certain that my hair needed to be covered, I did so nonetheless. An interesting fact about the mosque is that the clock tower in the courtyard was a reciprocal gift from France after the obelisk now standing in Paris’ Place de la Concorde was removed from Luxor Temple and “gifted” by Egypt.
The Citadel is located within Historic Cairo, recognized as one of the world’s oldest Islamic cities. In this UNESCO designated World Heritage Site, you will find historic sites and museums, such as the Mosque of Ibn Tulun (where you can go up to the top of the minaret for a panoramic view of Cairo), Al-Muizz li-Din Allah al-Fatimi Street (one of the oldest streets of Cairo that runs between the old city gates), and the famous Khan el-Khalili Bazaar.
While not a definitive list for visiting Cairo, the above information is based on my own experience in and research of this evolving city that both confounds and captivates. Egypt is one grand open-air museum that requires time and patience to appreciate. Time, because there is a lot to see; and patience, because being a tourist in Egypt is sometimes exasperating. While touring Egypt, and more specifically Cairo, is beyond rewarding, it is important to acknowledge the impact that tourism has on the economy and people. Many Egyptians depend on the income earned from a very competitive tourism industry and as such, it’s not surprising that business from tourists is highly sought after in an array of manners. Knowing that any frustrations experienced aren’t unique to you is reassuring, and in becoming more aware of the cultural and political setting, you can adjust your mindset and take in everything this vibrant city and the surrounding area have to offer.
For What to Know & What to See on the Nile River and in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, check out my other posts with helpful tips. For the full details of our time in Cairo and our experience on the Nile River, I’ve posted longer recaps.