Tips for visiting Cairo:
- Flying into Cairo: If you are coming from another country, you will need to buy a visa at the airport in cash. If you’re flying in domestically, everything will be very simple as they will drop you off at the baggage claim belt, and there’s only one! The domestic part of the airport was like a ghost town the 3 times I went through it. It was during Ramadan, but still very empty. Expect a very thorough pat-down from the female security agents (if you’re a women and vice versa if you’re a man).
- Cairo hosts 19,5 million people within its different neighborhoods which vary from very poor, poor, average, wealthy, extremely wealthy. It’s also separated by the Nile River, which is the longest river in Africa.
- Getting around: my Uber experience was very frustrating as 75% of them cancelled on me the first time I ordered them, the estimated pick-up time was always off, and due to bad cellular reception the app didn’t always work. We took one local taxi, because we were stuck, and thankfully my friend’s mom speaks Arabic, which reassured me, but the car still didn’t feel safe to me. I think the way to go is to hire a driver! I wouldn’t recommend renting a car as driving in this city is the most hectic I’ve ever seen!
- Drivers and guides are the way to go to visit Cairo in a safe, fun, educational manner. It’s also very affordable!
- Tipping: Get used to it- you will be tipping everyone for everything. Make sure you have change on you.
- Pricing: If you happen to travel with an Egyptian, they and sometimes you, will get discounted prices. It’s worth asking!
- Smoking: it’s everywhere. In hotels, restaurants, busses, boats… everywhere.
- Le Méridien Cairo airport hotel: The hotel is linked to the airport so it’s very convenient to stay here the night before a flight or after a long journey into Cairo. It’s very modern, clean and I felt refreshed after staying there for only a few hours. It was a great way to start my journey back home!
- Le Méridien Heliopolis: The staff were very nice but this hotel is old. You can smoke inside the lobby and in most of the rooms so even the non smoking rooms smelled of old cigarette butts. The rooms were old, the AC didn’t work very well but they were also very big and spacious. The breakfast buffet was very nice.
- Marriott Mena House: An absolute must stay! If you book a room with pyramid views, you will be blown away. How many people in the world can say they woke up to a sunrise over the pyramids, from the comfort of their balcony, a coffee in hand? The property also had a nice gym, pools, breakfast lounge and restaurants. It has somewhat of an American vibe and style. Surprisingly the rooms were the smallest we stayed in, apart from the rooms on the Dahabeya.
- The Citadel or the Mosquée of Mohammed Ali: a beautiful mandatory stop when in Cairo. Its stunning architecture will blow your mind away and the location offers great views of the city. Make sure you have the proper dress attire (scarf, long sleeves and long skirt) and take off your shoes when you walk in.
- Coptic Cairo: The only place in the world where I have seen Churches, Hanging Church, Mosque, Synagogue and Coptic burial grounds within a small perimeter. Make sure you check out Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church, where the Holy family is said to have been hiding underground for 3 months.
- The Pyramids: probably one of my favorite parts of exploring Cairo and I wish it had lasted longer. Driving up to the pyramids was already so impressive, but can you imagine my excitement walking up to them and then climbing in them! If you are a healthy person that’s not claustrophobic, I recommend you buy the extra ticket to hike up the stairs, inside the Khufu pyramid. Don’t bring your camera unless you buy a special ticket to take pictures (we still did with our phones, not my professional camera) or you will have to leave it outside. We laughed so hard during the short trip it took us to go up and back down. But it’s quite steep and narrow, you are warned! Another warning: there’s nothing exciting to see at the top, just a dark room.
- Camel trip around the pyramids: this was also an enjoyable moment and a frustrating one at the same time. It was great to get on a camel’s back and to walk around the desert, assisted by a local. We got a little tour, took pictures in front of the pyramids and turned back around. I would have loved for it to last much longer! The camel walkers (let’s call them that) were very rude and insistent on a big tip and were harassing us for it before we even got off the camels. We gave them a considerable tip, and still they were asking for more! We were so irritated and disappointed with their attitudes, it almost ruined it for us.
- The Sphinx of Gizeh: It was definitely worth checking out the Sphinx (it’s right next to the pyramids). It’s such a beautiful monument, especially with the pyramids as a backdrop!
- Our guide offered to bring us to a perfume museum: it was what I would call a tourist trap. Read more below. I believe the papyrus museum is meant to be a similar experience too. Unless you have the intension of buying some, I’d stay away from it.
- Snacks on the Al Saraya boat restaurant: we were in between opening hours, and during Ramadan but the waiter was still very nice to us. It was really hot and we just needed a place to grab a bite in town before heading to the airport. I had my first turkish coffee here and I fell in love. We also had some delicious hommos, wine leaves and the local bread that is to die for (like a little pita bread).
- I also tried raw Cane juice for the first time. I saw the guy press the cane and the juice coming out of it was poured directly in my glass. 100% cane sugar juice! It was quite intense, even for someone like me who likes sugar!
- Pigeon: I tasted pigeon for the first time in my life. It’s a local delicacy: don’t worry, they don’t just shoot them from the sky! I would describe it as being a lot of work to eat: there’s a lot of bones and not much meat!
- The pharaonic village: big mistake for 5 grown adults to pay to come here. Skip it unless you have young kids.
- Across the street from the Marriott Mena House hotel and the Pyramids is a little restaurant that sells the best pita bread stuffed with falafel, foule or meat. It’s to die for. I believe the name of it is Felfela Village.
- Al Azhar Mosque: another must stop. Women have to cover their hair, shoulders, neck, legs with a skirt or long dress ( cannot wear pants). You must take your shoes off when you walk in. Be careful as some prayer rooms are for men only.
- Historical housing: we got very lucky because our guide knew of this building that was 100+ years old and we were able to walk in and admire the beauty of it. They all had the Moucharabieh (or Mashrabiya), “an architectural element which is characteristic of Arabic residences. It is a type of projecting oriel window enclosed with carved wood latticework located on the second story of a building or higher, often lined with stained glass. One of it’s purposes is privacy, an essential aspect of Arabic culture. From the window, occupants can obtain a good view of the street without being seen” (more here).
- Khan El Khalili Souk: is a huge, very old, famous bazaar in the Historic center of Cairo. I would compare it to a big flea market. You will find anything and everything here. Be ready to negotiate long and hard! There are a lot of gems hidden around every corner- I came back with a nice lamp, a few poufs, souvenirs, etc. Stop at El fishawy cafe for a carcadet (a drink made from hibiscus flowers and is often mixed with fruit peels, diced fruits, or other flowers) while you’re here. This café is apparently a very famous spot for artists to hang out.
- We attended a Dervish Turner show and that was also quite a unique experience. Read more below!
- The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, also known as the Egyptian Museum or Museum of Cairo, was unbelievable and incredible at the same time. I’d never been to a museum with so many antiquities just laying down on the floor, barely labeled. It was somewhat organized but chaotic at the same time. I couldn’t believe I was in the same room, breathing the same air as all these artifacts! It was definitely worth the detour! Make sure you check out the mask of Tutankhamun (a gold mask of the 18th-dynasty ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun) but respectful and don’t take pictures!
- NEW in 2020: Egypt’s anticipated national project, the Grand Egyptian Museum, is set to open at the end of 2020! We drove by the construction site and it was massive! I would love to come back and visit it! (this project could also explain the chaotic stated of the Egyptian museum as they start organizing and moving objects around)
- The Night Light & sound show at the Pyramids of Giza: we ran out of time, but we were told it’s a magical.
- The Cairo Tower at night is also a common tourist attraction. We sadly didn’t make it, but it’s on my list for next time!
- For more tips about food, Carcadet, Ramadan, what to bring, etc, see Egypt post.
Impressions of Cairo:
As I sit at my desk at home, in Redondo Beach, polishing this last post about Egypt almost a year later, I realize how incredible every second of this trip was. We saw and did so much within such a small amount of time. I believe you need at least 3 to 4 days in Cairo to see the minimum there is to see in this huge city! Within the next paragraph I will try to highlight my personal favorites and least favorite moments in Cairo.
(Below is a VERY detailed and immersive description of my thirty-six hours in Cairo. The idea is to showcase the beauty, chaos, religious, open, dirty and historic feel of this city. If you don’t want to know, just scroll down to the pictures.)
After flying into Cairo by myself, after a very long day of flying -over sixteen hours- I was very happy to have notified the hotel of my arrival time and that someone was waiting for me when I got off the plane. Needless to say the airport was a bit chaotic for someone who’d just been in transit for that long, didn’t speak the language and had never been there before. This nice man spotted me right away, showed me the hotel logo, brought me to the top of the line, then to the Egyptian customs to buy my visa (cash). Once that was done we went to money exchange kiosk so I could get some currency. We waited for my bag to show up at the carousel, which I was convinced it wouldn’t because my flight (with a connection through Abu Dhabi) was three hours and a half late departing LAX… but it did! The nice man then brought me to my private shuttle bus and I tipped him nicely. The driver brought me to the hotel (also paid and tipped him well) and the concierge was ready and waiting for me, at 1 am, to check me in and send me to my room. The room itself was quite spacious but it smelled of old cigarette buds. The bed was not the comfiest, but after a day’s travel and with only a few hours to rest, it did the trick!
As I mentioned earlier in the tips, I strongly recommend using a driver and a guide. It will make your whole experience go smoothly and you will feel safe. I was there with 5 girlfriends and not once did I feel unsafe. At 7 am, I was jumping into the van and reuniting with my friends that were coming from all over. We were headed to The Citadel or the Mosquée of Mohammed Ali.
It was so beautiful and peaceful: something about the architecture, the colors, where it stands and the views of the city it offers. It was a great way to submerge ourselves into the Egyptian culture within a few seconds! We covered our heads and shoulders, took our shoes off and headed in: the red carpet interior with huge bulbs hanging low, the chandeliers, and the quietness made this place feel unreal.
Then our driver brought us to Coptic Cairo, also known as Old Cairo, an area where synagogues, churches and mosques cohabit together. I’ve never heard of such a place, anywhere else in the world. Walking in and out of all these religious buildings was very strange and intriguing. Every building had a unique set of color, architecture and even vibe. No crowds here either.
Next were the Pyramids of Giza, and they did not disappoint! Driving up to them was a surreal experience as I’d been hearing about them and studying them since I was a kid. The fact that egyptians see them on their way to work everyday blew my mind! As we walked up to them, I got goosebumps. Here they were, standing in front of me, making me feel like the tinniest ant and so irrelevant. If only walls could talk! We decided we wanted to climb into the pyramid, even if we’d been warned about the fact that it was a very steep, narrow climb that led to nothing. The idea of being INSIDE the pyramid just sounded exciting to all of us! So away we went. We laughed, we cursed, we sweat, we giggled, we bruised and we took a picture at the top of the climb just for the sake of it!
Then came the surprise my friends had kept from me: Camel riding beside the pyramids! It was the typical tourist thing to do, but also so unique. When in Rome, am I right? As I mentioned in the tips, the experience could have been better by having a longer and farther stroll, less harassment from the merchants but it was still an extremely memorable moment that I will never forget! It was also my first time on a camel!
Last stop in this area was the Sphinx, another very impressive monument I’d studied and was excited to see. The area was a little bit more restricted, and you couldn’t be as close to them as the pyramids- where you could literally climb on them!- but it was still a fantastic view. Thus ended the best first day ever… because the last part was a tourist trap.
The perfume museum was quite the disappointment. We walked in and these two men brought us in this little room (we found out after that the building has about 20 of these within it) that was very well decorated. We were offered beverages as they proceeded to give us the whole speech about how Egyptian perfume is made, how authentic it is, their virtues and then we got to smell a bunch of them. The seller then expects you to buy at least one if not a whole box for a not so cheap price! Not my cup of tea!
We had a little bit of time to kill before we headed to Luxor for the night so we decided to grab a bite and drinks at Al Saraya, a retired steamboat permanently docked on the banks of the Nile. They were technically closed because it was during Ramadan but they server agreed to take care of us (see above in tips).
This concluded my first day in Cairo and Egypt. The second part below took place 5 days later, on our way back from Aswan and our Dahabeya experience (read more here).
Our first stop that day was the Pharaonic village, which I would have skipped in hindsight. This place is made for kids and their families: it’s an interactive museum with lots of activities for kids under 12 years old-ish. It’s also quite old and needs some love. Our consolation was the mini Nile cruise we did at the end, but we still could have done a better one on our own. The little cruise allowed us to see the golden island (a little island in the middle of the river), abandoned boats and local life on the riverbanks from our comfy seats on the boat.
We then made our way to the Al Azhar Mosque. From the outside, it just looks like a regular mosque lost within the chaos of another old part of Cairo. Be warned, this mosque was by far the strictest in terms of dress code. Women have to cover their hair, shoulders, neck, legs with a skirt or long dress ( cannot wear pants). You must take your shoes off when you walk in. Be careful as some prayer rooms are for men only. It was such a unique experience to walk into this place because it was so clean, peaceful and quiet compared to the chaos on the other side of the walls. I stood there for a few minutes, looking around and taking it all in. The reflection on the floor from the white white walls and floor tiles and the way it contrasted with the blue sky, the peaceful mumble of people praying and talking, it made it all seem so unreal.
On our way out of Al Azhar Mosque we had to use the restroom so our guide brought us to the one designated for women. As we walked in, and without trying to look creepy and disrespectful, I admired the local women getting cleaned up before the prayers. With smiles and gestures, they guided me to the nearest toilet and once I was done, they guided me to the sink and everyone just kept smiling. It was quite a unique experience.
Khan El Khalili souk is on the other side of the street where Al Azhar Mosque stands proudly. Think of Souks as a huge permanent flea market: you can buy everything from clothing to furniture, food, jewelry, etc! It was pretty quiet since it was right before food time (during Ramadan). It’s quite enjoyable and not too busy- definitely the right time to go! Merchants can be very pushy (and I noticed it got worse once they’d eaten) and they will try to sell everything to you. Some were very nice. I bought 2 poufs, which my friend’s mom negotiated for me for 100EGP each (about $6USD). She was our expert negotiator: patience, determination, ignoring them and then pretending to walk away seemed to be the negotiating tools. My friends also got lanterns, cute little boxes, an old backgammon game and other souvenirs. We went into one of the guys workshop which was also a fantastic experience. One offered some Turkish coffee which I gladly accepted since I hadn’t seen how it was made and was in need of some energy after the long day we’d already had. It was a risky offer to accept because I had no idea if the water used was bottled or if it was local tap water (boiled long enough?). Sitting in that tiny little alabaster shop with locals, sipping on freshly made turkish coffee is another memorable moment for my trip in Egypt. And don’t worry, I was fine and didn’t get sick.
After all our shopping was done, we stopped at El Fishawy cafe, located in the Khan El Khalili souk, for a carcadet, coffee, shisha and I got a henna tattoo.The Café was chaotic: a lot of people in a small space, a lot of beggars and sellers harassing you while you were just sitting down and having a chat with friends (note that we were in the back room and still got as harassed as the locals sitting on the street). I also experienced the local toilets, in the Souk, which was quite an intense experience. My friend told me the Henna artist would bring me to one so I followed her down a few narrow streets into… a mixed bathroom with no doors or walls for the urinal and a single toilet with something that resembled a door. They unlocked it for me, and the Henna artist guarded the door as I peed. The whole bathroom stank, saying it was dirty is an understatement, but the Henna lady and the local toilet keeper were so nice and smiley. Sometimes sign language is hard and I didn’t understand that the henna lady wanted me to only give the toilet keeper 5EGP for letting me use it (I found out after) but I wanted to give him something so I left 10EGP (60 cents). At first he refused it, gesturing that it was too much, but I insisted and he took it and gave me the biggest grin. Such a humbling, unexpected experience.
Next we walked to the Dervish Turner show that was set in an old church in the Historic Center, with dramatic lighting. In a nutshell, the Dervish Turners were spinning and whirling, without rest, to get into a trans mode. Through the practice of “sema,” or listening, in a prayer-induced trance, the Dervishes aim to act as a bridge between God and humankind (more from cnn article here). I was completely mesmerized by watching them dance and turn on themselves to the beat of all the instruments played live in from of us. The music was fantastic and immersive. One of the principal dancers turned on himself for OVER 45 MINUTES! It was really a unique experience and an absolute must.
By the time the show was over, we were starving so we sat at a local joint, right outside the Khan El Khalili souk and enjoyed the local Egyptian crepe and quesadillas. Sitting at a table, on the street, eating amongst locals, soaking in the sounds, absorbing the lights, feeling the commotion and pulse of the city so late in the evening was another unique experience. The city comes back to life at night, after the heat of the day settles and the Egyptians break the Ramadan fast (at sunset). It was cool to experience it all.
Our last stop for the night was the Marriott Mena House. We were very excited about clean, comfy beds and passed out very quickly after looking out on the balcony and seeing the pyramids. The next morning we enjoyed coffee on the balcony, with a view of the pyramids- this is another highlight of my time in Cairo! A fantastic breakfast spread was waiting for us in the lounge and once our bellies were full we headed to the pool for a chill day after quite an intense week of non stop visiting in the heat. It was actually nice to sit down and chill and enjoy the sun. I remember thinking I was surprised at how hot the sun felt but didn’t burn… and then came the loud B-A-N-G.
As I looked around, startled and worried, no one else seemed to be alarmed by the sound. I therefore assumed it was due to construction or something… moments later my sister texts me, from the other side of the world (Canada) and asks if I’m okay. She sent me a link about the explosion that just happened outside the Pyramid site, targeting a tourist bus. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t uneasy for the rest of the afternoon. I hit the gym and laid low until we headed out to dinner at my friend’s aunt’s house.
We took an Uber to get to the hotel (Le Meridien Heliopolis was right next to her aunt’s house). What an experience! The poor driver’s gps kept taking us on detours. It guided us through the tiniest streets that were buzzing with pedestrians, scooters, toc tocs, horses, cars and the poor driver scratched the whole side of his car against another one. The bumper came off and the paint was scratched. My friend and I felt HORRIBLE. We had to stop again by a main road to tie the bumper and the poor guy didn’t have anything to tie it with so I ended up giving him the string from the hat I was wearing! It seemed to have done the trick, for the end of that ride at least. The worst part was that the whole drive took over 45 minutes and cost peanuts so we gave him a huge tip- to take care of his car!
For our last night together as a group, we were invited into my friend’s aunt’s house for dinner. I had no idea what to expect! I just walked in open to anything and excited about it: it was such an extraordinary experience to be welcomed into a Cairenes home and eat a homemade dish. The apartment was located in the Heliopolis district and it was quite big. It had a lot of big windows that let in a wonderful, much welcomed, breeze. It was very open space with large, vintage furniture but it was not cluttered. Right away we felt at home partly because of the apartment but mostly due to the fact that my friend’s relatives were so friendly and welcoming. Some of the family members spoke english, but most of the communications were done with gestures (since I don’t speak Arabic). We all sat at a large dinner table and the plates started going around. The food was amazing and in huge quantities. I’d never seen a so many handmade stuffed vine leaf rolls in one place. This is also where I tried eating pigeon for the first time. My friend had explained to us that it was a local delicacy. I can’t say it looked very appealing: probably because it had been cooked in a brown sauce and was served the full bird carcass… but I will admit it was tasty, just a lot of work. The meal was accompanied by veggies, salad and a few other side dishes. We drank carcadet and date juice (another first!). No alcohol was served. Next came the desserts and wow were they good: I apologize for not remembering the name of them. There were like 20 different types of baklavas as well as other Egyptian delicacies.
The next morning, the only two people left from our group was my friends mother and myself. We woke up at the Méridien hôtel and enjoyed the breakfast buffet which was very good. We then decided to head to the Egyptian museum and after multiple attempts to order an Uber (that didn’t cancel on us) we were on our way. We took a leisurely stroll around the museum. It was a very pretty building with so many artifacts, tombs, sculptures, jewelry and much more… but the layout itself of the museum wasn’t great. Sometimes you’d admire a sculpture and the only information you’d find about it was scribbled on the oldest, tiniest piece of paper stuck to it and… written in Arabic. I was tempted to check out the mummies but it was an additional fee. I realize now the value of paying for a guide with your entrance fee: he can probably answer all the questions you have and help you decipher it all. It was still a great experience and I was blown away by the quantity and age of objects they had. Another thing that struck me is how chaotic and disorganized the sections were. You could physically touch (you weren’t allowed but you could have easily) so many coffins and other sculptures. We assumed that the disorganized state was due to them preparing to move objects to the new Grand Egyptian Museum opening in 2020.
From there we wanted to go back to the souk because I wanted to buy one more lamp*. The taxi outside the museum were asking for 3 times the price so we walked through the Ritz Carlton so I could get wifi and call an uber (a trick I have learned throughout my travels around the world). If you have the means to stay here, I’d recommend it. The lobby was very luxurious and the staff was extremely helpful! Once I managed to connect to WiFi, and after two tries (and cancellations) we found one that would bring us to the souks. We were able to make our way back to the same lamp merchant, and my friend’s mom started the negotiation dance. It was quite the experience sitting in this tiny shop, watching my friends mom negotiate in Arabic, arms flinging up and down, smiles, angry faces… you never know what’s happening. It was very hard to read their body language. It took forever but in the end she closed the deal on the one I wanted!
One last thing about the Khan el khalili Souk. My next trip here will not be limited in time. I want to be able to take my time, look at everything (although we were told that if you look at their merchandise, they will harass you) and learn how to negotiate (and have time for it!).
My last Uber experience in Cairo was a major fail. I didn’t have enough cellular reception and there was no hotel or wifi options available so my friend’s mom proceeded to start hailing down cabs amongst the chaotic streets. She waved some down, negotiated, shoed them away, and finally found one that would take us, without almost gettting hit by the local mini buses while doing so. We got in it and that was also an interesting experience. It was different from the better conditioned cars we’d gotten through Uber and our mini van. This car didn’t have AC so we sat in heavy traffic, windows down, inhaling all the car fumes and city smells for at least 35 minutes! It was a great reminder to NEVER DRIVE IN THIS CITY. People drive like crazy and I’m surprised there aren’t more accidents although a lot of them are dented and old.
I picked up my suitcase from the Méridien Heliopolis, said goodby to my friend’s mom and grabbed the shuttle to the domestic airport terminal towards Hurghada. This was my second time through this terminal and yet again it was completely empty. I’d gone through the multiple security points and was at the gate within 10 mins. That’s also including the delay caused by the security agents finishing up their first meal of the day (almost everything at the airport is stopped at this time).
I was quite excited to start a more relaxing few days scuba diving and enjoy the red sea in Hurghada (read more here).
* There’s a whole story around this lamp merchant and a missing/stolen phone. In the end we recovered it but it was quite the saga. I’ll happily tell whomever is willing to listen!*