Home to one of the word’s oldest civilizations, Egypt is one of those places that everyone should aim to visit at least once in a lifetime. I spent a week there with my family in 2005. From the moment I arrived, I was impressed with the buzz of excitement and activity — great food, colorful and fragrant bazaars, museums, and a robust social scene! Things have changed quite a bit since I visited– and this was apparent every time I passed through Cairo in subsequent years. Still, some aspects of Egypt are timeless and I’ve focused on a few of those below.
Cairo is massive and sprawling — and (like New York) it never seems to sleep! Some of my best memories of Cairo were just walking around the various neighborhoods at night, watching people fishing on the Nile, stopping in shisha bars, grabbing some thick Arabic coffee (with cardamom) and enjoying the vibrant social atmosphere. We stayed in the Golden Tulip hotel – a mid-range option in the Zamalek neighborhood, which was a good value– and worth the extra few dollars for the Nile View room. It had a great breakfast buffet with an elaborate Fo’ul station (mashed fava beans with cumin, oil, and various other vegetables mixed-in to preference).
The most notable attraction in Cairo is the Egyptian Museum, with a sprawling array of artifacts. Note — it’s an extra charge to go into the mummy room, but its worth it.
The Khal el-Khalili is a massive Souq / bazaar that has plenty of souvenirs, trinkets, spices, and clothing. Even if you don’t plan to buy anything, it’s great to go for the atmosphere and photographs. The famous, ornately-decorated El Fishawi cafe is tucked in the bazaar and is great spot to stop for a mid-day coffee.
Around this area are plenty of famous Islamic sights, including the Al-Hussain Mosque, the Al Azhar Mosque (dating back to 970) and Zeinab Khatoon complex, as well as the Arab Oud House music school. Also, don’t miss the sprawling Madrassa of Sultan Al-Nassir Mohammed Ibn Qalawun with its long-hanging lamps. Further south is the massive Mosque-Madrassa complex of Sultan Hassan and the Mosque of Mohammad Ali, next to the National Military Museum. Don’t miss the massive Cairo Citadel, which was originally constructed by Saladin in 1176.
Other key sights include the Abdeen Palace Museum, the lotus-patterned Cairo Tower (with a revolving restaurant on top), and Tahrir Square, the focal point of the 2011 demonstrations that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. There are plenty of house museums scattered around town that showcase traditional architecture, such as the 17th Century Gayer Anderson House Museum. We went to another one (I can’t remember the name) that had random curiosities such as eagle-claw candle sticks, several mounted animals, and a massive narwhal tusk on the wall. You really never know what you’ll find in those places!
Heading south, the Coptic quarter is worth a day of exploring to get a sense of Egypt’s ancient-rooted Orthodox Christian community. Of particular note is the Hanging Church, built over a Roman fortress, with a roof in the shape of Noah’s Ark. It is thought to date back to as early as the 3rd century. There’s also the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, which was built in on the the location of the site where Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were thought to have taken refuge. The quarter has a warren of small streets with family-owned restaurants serving delicious home-style cooking, as well as shops selling souvenirs, prints, and religious items.
Nile river trips are a great activity in the late afternoon early evening (sunset time). There are plenty of options, ranging from formal dinner trips with entertainment, which you can arrange from operators downtown, or ask your hotel concierge for a recommendation. We just wandered down to the banks of the Nile and found some kids with a large party boat and agreed on a price. They brought a few friends, switched on lights and music — and it ended up being a great night out!
The food is as extensive as it is delicious. Many of the dishes (fo’ul, falafel, koshari) are all worth trying — especially when soaked in spices like cumin. Felfela restaurant is a traditional place downtown with a cozy atmosphere, which I enjoyed quite a bit. I had pigeon, which was quite good, although it didn’t have very much meat. (It was a bit awkward because there were live pigeons in a nearby cage as I ordered my dish– even as our server assured me that I wouldn’t be getting one of the caged ones : ) Another dish worth trying is Molokhia, a soup made from a green vegetable leaves similar to spinach.
Finally, it’s worth noting you can get a haircut and a straight razor shave for a great price at one of the numerous barbers around town– and you can throw in some eyebrow threading while you’re at it!
Note on Touts– Several touts hang out around at common tourists locations (such as the exit point of the Egyptian Museum) and try to get visitors to buy overpriced handicrafts at their shops (things you could find in the Souq for a fraction of the price). For those who haven’t had this experience, someone strikes up a casual conversation with you and will usually start by asking where you’re from, noting they know someone from that place. Some will keep the conversation going for a while to build more of a connection. They may state that wherever you’re currently heading is about to close (for prayer or some other reason), as they seek to redirect you to their shop, at which point the high-pressure sales tactics begin. A few polite “no’s” usually does the trick.
The Pyramids of Giza / Necropolis are home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world — it’s truly a bucket-list item! Fortunately, it’s only a 20 minute taxi ride from Cairo. The site is massive and sprawls over several hectares (with additional ruins heading south for many kilometres). The main area can be covered on foot — including the Sphinx, the Great Pyramid, the Khafre Pyramid, and some of the smaller pyramids and archaeological sites. The size and scale of construction is really awesome to see in person — and it’s hard to imagine these being built some 2,500 years BC.
Be sure to bring water, sunscreen, and a head covering– it’s gonna be a hot one! Once you enter the main grounds, you can purchase tickets to go into key sites such as the Great pyramid; other smaller ruins were free to explore at no extra charge. There were several people at the ruins selling drinks out of coolers– even going so far as to offer the choice between Coke or Pepsi : ) As you might imagine, there will be many souvenir vendors nearby, in case you’re in the market for an alabaster King Tut statue. I recall there were also plenty of guards trying to keep hawkers from sneaking onto the grounds — but with limited success.
Some people inside the ruins offered camel rides, but they typically just take you in a loop at a fixed location, rather than offering them as a means of transportation.
A note on camels— one common tourist trick is to agree on a price to ride a camel, but then once you’re on the massive creature (and you’ve walked in circle for five minutes), the guide explains the price was only to get on the camel… it’s an additional charge to get off : )
A note on taxis— Allow plenty of time to get around, as traffic in Cairo is intense! Cars come at all directions and it really feels like a free-for-all. This is one place where I felt it was worth using taxis rather than renting a car myself. Also, while travelling around, make sure you agree clearly on 1) the exact destination and 2) the price, and 3) the price for your group (not ‘per person’) before getting in a taxi. One common taxi scam is the driver goes to an alternative destination and then charges much more to go to the correct location once the ‘misunderstanding’ is clarified. (Apart from the money, this ruse can be annoying if you’re short on time.) Another scam is for the driver to arrive at the destination and then claim that the agreed-upon price was “per person” as opposed to being for everyone in the cab.
Alexandria– another world famous city from antiquity– is an easy three-hour drive (or slightly shorter train ride) from Cairo. Of note is the modern Alexandria Library, which houses over eight million books — in a nod to the ancient library thought to be founded by Ptolemy I and (possibly) burned down by Julius Caesar in 48 BC (although debate continues about that point). There are also plenty of Roman ruins around town, given this city’s prominence during the Roman Empire. Of note is Pompey’s pillar, built alongside Sphinxes of the Serapeum Temple, as well as a Roman amphitheater and the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa.
The corniche / walkway along the waterfront is a scenic place to spend an afternoon, starting at El Gondy El Maghool Square. There are also plenty of great seafood restaurants scattered around the city. We ate at a local cafeteria, Mohamed Ahmed, which had fresh food in a busy, no-frills atmosphere. Heading west on the corniche, it eventually curves to a peninsula with the Citadel of Qaitbay on the end. The well-preserved 15th century fort offers great views of the city from across the bay.
Something for Next Time: Next time I’m in Egypt, I’d like to head south to the upper Nile and visit the famous sites of Aswan, Luxor, and Abu Simbel. I’ll also head out west to the White Desert, with its uniquely-carved landscapes. On the Sinai Peninsula, I’d be interested in getting to Mount Sinai and maybe doing some scuba diving on the Red Sea. (As I’ve been told, Sharm el Sheikh sees many Russian tourists whereas Dahab draws more of a backpacker crowd).