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Cairo Guide: Planning Your Trip

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Founded in 969 AD by the Fatimid dynasty, Cairo has been captivating visitors from all over the world for more than a thousand years. The Mamluks, the Ottomans, the French, and the British have all held sway over the capital at one time or another, and all have left their mark upon its culture and architecture. Just across the mighty River Nile, the remnants of a much older Egyptian civilization await exploration in the pyramid fields of Giza, Saqqara, and Dahshur (which are together inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Despite, or perhaps because of, its history, Cairo is also a thoroughly cosmopolitan modern city, with a thriving cultural scene and a host of world-class restaurants. Read on to discover how you can make the most of everything this fascinating destination has to offer. 

Planning Your Trip

  • Best time to visit: Cairo is a year-round destination. However, soaring temperatures in the summer and a combination of crowds and peak season prices in the winter make spring and fall particularly pleasant times to visit. 
  • Language: Egyptian Arabic is Cairo’s primary language, although many people (especially those in the tourist industry) speak some English. 
  • Currency: Egypt’s currency is the Egyptian pound; one pound is made up of 100 piastres. You will see prices written in EGP or LE, with the latter standing for the French phrase, "livre égyptienne."
  • Getting around: Public transport in Cairo includes the metro and shared microbuses. Tourists typically use private taxis or ride-share services like Uber and Careem. 
  • Travel tip: Cairo is a predominantly Muslim city, so visitors should take care to dress conservatively to avoid causing offense. 

Things to Do

The majority of visitors to Egypt are drawn by the country’s ancient history, and Cairo should be the first port of call for those wishing to uncover it. Start with a tour of the Egyptian Museum (currently in downtown Cairo, but in the process of being relocated to the Giza plateau). The world-famous Pyramids of Giza are a short drive away, while Coptic and Islamic Cairo double as open-air museums filled with historic mosques, churches, and markets. 

  • Tour the Egyptian Museum: The museum's status as a repository for the most precious treasures excavated from ancient sites across Egypt make it a must-visit. The top attraction is the fabulous contents of the tomb of Tutankhamun, which include the boy king’s funerary mask and sarcophagus. 
  • Shop for souvenirs at Khan el-Khalili Bazaar: Cairo’s primary shopping destination since the end of the 14th century, Khan el-Khalili is a maze of streets and stalls selling everything from exotic spices and Bedouin embroidery to silver jewelry and Egyptian street food. 
  • Visit the Pyramids of Giza: Hop in an Uber for the quick ride across the River Nile to the Giza plateau, where the iconic pyramid complexes of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure await. The first of these is the oldest and largest, and the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing. 

Get more inspiration with our articles on the best things to do in Cairo, day trips from Cairo, and best places to shop in Cairo. Then, check out our detailed guides to top attractions like the Alabaster Mosque and the Hanging Church

What to Eat and Drink 

Cairo’s restaurant scene is as diverse as its people, with cuisines from all over the world represented. Fine French fare, authentic Indian curries, and hearty Italian staples can all be found in establishments across the city. However, there are also plenty of opportunities for sampling traditional Egyptian food, with must-try dishes including koshary (also spelled kushari) and hawawshi. The former is a unique blend of rice, spaghetti, macaroni, and black lentils, topped with a spicy tomato sauce and sprinkled with fried onions and chickpeas. The latter is ground meat (usually beef or lamb) stuffed inside a pocket of traditional baladi bread. Both staples are equally delicious. 

Traditional Egyptian restaurants are unlikely to serve alcohol even in Cairo, a relatively liberal city. Tea is a popular alternative, whether you prefer the black, mint, fenugreek, or crimson-colored hibiscus variety. Coffee is ubiquitous, as are exotic fruit juices and smoothies. More unfamiliar drinks to try include sahlab (a thick, milk-based beverage made with dried and crushed orchid tubers) and qamar al-din, a kind of stewed apricot juice particularly popular during Ramadan. If you find yourself craving a glass of wine or a cold Egyptian Stella beer, do not fret: Alcohol is served in most international restaurants and hotels, and can easily be found in the bars and nightclubs of Cairo's Zamalek neighborhood.

Learn more about Cairo’s dining and drinking scenes with our guide to Cairo's nightlife, as well as our full-length articles about the best restaurants in Cairo, the top traditional Egyptian foods, and Egypt’s best non-alcoholic drinks.

Where to Stay

Cairo is a sprawling city with many different neighborhoods. However, the majority of tourist hotels are located in central Cairo (within easy reach of the Egyptian Museum, and just a short Uber ride from attractions in Coptic and Islamic Cairo). The most luxurious are situated along the banks of the River Nile and boast spectacular river views. These include the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza, the Kempinski Nile Hotel Garden City Cairo, and the Fairmont Nile City Hotel, Cairo. If you want to be close to the city’s best restaurant and nightlife scene, choose to stay in Zamalek, a trendy neighborhood that occupies the northern half of Gezira Island.

For further information, read our article about the top hotels in Cairo

Getting There 

Cairo International Airport (CAI) is the city’s main port of entry. It is also Egypt’s primary gateway and the second-largest air travel hub in Africa after O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. The airport is roughly 15 miles from central Cairo, and travelers can reach the city by bus, taxi, or ride-share app. The metro is not currently linked to the airport, although there are plans for a connection in the future. Those who wish to rent a car for their visit to Cairo can do so at the airport, where there are several internationally-recognized rental companies, including Avis, Europcar, and Budget.

Culture and Customs 

Egypt is a Muslim country, and as such, visitors from Western nations may need to adapt their normal dress or behavior to avoid causing offense. Men and women should dress conservatively, especially when visiting religious sites. Shoes should be removed before entering a place of worship or a local home, and public drunkenness and displays of affection are frowned upon. Remember that in Muslim countries, the left hand is used for bathroom cleansing and is considered unclean; always shake hands and eat with your right hand. 

Tipping, or baksheesh, is customary in Egypt, and is expected of foreigners for almost every service. This includes everything from waiting tables and serving drinks to giving directions or unlocking a tomb or room in a museum. Be sure to carry plenty of small notes with you for this purpose, but be firm in refusing services you don’t want so that you don’t end up paying unnecessarily. As in any country where poverty is rife, petty crime is common. Reduce your chances of becoming a victim of theft by being aware of your valuables at all times, leaving flashy jewelry at home, and carrying your money in a concealed belt or pocket.

In recent years, there have been some concerns about terrorism and political instability in Egypt. The situation has largely stabilized and Cairo is no more dangerous than most big cities. Basic common sense is required, however, such as never walking alone at night. Political and religious topics may inspire strong feelings, and are best avoided unless you know the person well or they initiate the conversation themselves. 

Money Saving Tips

  • A favorable exchange rate means that luxury hotels and restaurants are far more affordable than they might be in New York or London. However, travelers can save big bucks and get a more authentic experience by eating and sleeping in local establishments. 
  • When souvenir shopping, remember that haggling is expected and the initial price you are given is likely to be hugely inflated. A good method is to offer half of the original asking price before ultimately settling on a number somewhere in the middle. 
  • Haggling is often acceptable outside of the marketplace, too. You can haggle for the cost of a camel ride, a sightseeing tour, and especially for taxi journeys. 
  • When settling on a fair price for a taxi ride, be sure to come to agreement before getting into the car. Although Cairene taxis are meant to have working meters, many don’t, so it’s easy to be taken advantage of if you aren’t careful. It is often much cheaper to hire a taxi driver for a full day than to pay for several rides individually. This is a great option if you want to explore the different pyramid sites in a single day. 
Article Sources
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  1. UNESCO. "Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields From Giza to Dahshur." 2021

  2. CIA World Factbook. "Egypt." 2021

  3. Grand Egyptian Museum. "Opening Announcement." 2021