A Travel Guide to Cairo, Egypt

Introduction, When to Go and What to See in Cairo

Sphinx and Pyramid of Chephren in Giza, Egypt
••• John Wang/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images
Visiting Cairo, Egypt's capital and Africa's largest city, can be an overwhelming experience. More than 16 million people call it home; it's chaotic, exotic, smelly, dusty, and also beautiful. This travel guide to Cairo will help you make sense of the chaos and give you information about what to see in Cairo, when to go to Cairo, how to get around Cairo, where to shop in Cairo, a guide to the Pyramids and how to get there and where to stay when you visit Cairo.

Cairo has probably never been described as dull, so in my opinion it is worth spending more than just a couple of days.

There is a lot to see in Cairo. You can enjoy the numerous historic buildings of the city's many rulers - Arab, Roman, Greek, Turkish, British, French - spanning over five millennia. And of course there are the Pyramids and the Sphinx just outside Cairo, in Giza. Cairo is also a great place to shop and soak up some Islamic culture.

When to Go:

As with most destinations in Egypt, the weather really determines the best time to go because it gets very, very hot in the summer. The best time to visit Cairo is in the cooler months between November and March. For Cairo's current temperatures and annual averages click here. For a list of holidays see Egypt: Travel tips before you go.

What to See in Cairo

Old (Coptic) Cairo

Coptic Cairo (Masr al-Qadima) is the oldest part of the city, and is the original site of Roman built Babylon. This part of Cairo has been inhabited for more than 2000 years. It is the center of the Coptic Christian community and where you'll find most of Egypt's churches.

Highlights include the Hanging Church which is the center of Coptic worship and the Ben Ezra synagogue, Egypt's oldest synagogue. Roman remains and old cobbled streets make this area very interesting for the historians among us. The Nile Guide has more information on the sights of Old Cairo.

Islamic (Medieval) Cairo

Worth exploring for its warren like streets and bazaars, Islamic Cairo is where you'll get to see many mosques, the Citadel and the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar (see shopping). The major mosques worth visiting include the Mosque of Mohammed Ali (named after a 19th century ruler, not the boxer). The Ibn Tulun is one of the largest mosques in the world and the Al-Azhar mosque houses the oldest university in the world (from 970AD). TourEgypt has a very detailed article about Islamic Cairo's many sights as well as an informative feature on ancient mosques. Islmaic Cairo makes my list of Top Ten Attractions in Egypt.

Egyptian Museum

If you visit Luxor you'll find most tombs are empty and what the looters didn't take home with them, ended up here at the Egyptian museum. Along with mummies, sarcophagi and many other ancient relics this museum represents Egypt's archaeological glory. The Egyptian Museum makes my list of Top Ten Attractions you should see when you visit Egypt. The objects taken from Tutankhamen's tomb should not be missed. The boy-king's death-mask made of solid gold has been described as the most beautiful object ever made. The museum is open from 9am - 5pm daily. More about the Egyptian Musuem...

City of the Dead (Qarafa)

This may not sound like the liveliest part of Cairo to visit, but this huge necropolis on the East side of Cairo is in fact home to several million Cairenes. A vast 'living cemetery' as it were makes it a fascinating place to visit. Ornate tombs have become the living quarters for many of Cairo's poor and their place of business too. .

A Falucca on the Nile

Tired of breathing exhaust fumes and getting asked to buy a carpet? Head for the peace of the Nile. You can rent a Falucca (an ancient sail boat) by the hour. Take a taxi or walk to Garden City opposite the Meridien Hotel for your launch. (More about Nile cruises ...)

Whirling Dervishes

Free performances by Sufi dancers take place at the Citadel and on Wednesday and Saturday nights at the Mausoleum of Al-Ghouri in Islamic Cairo.

By all accounts these are amazing performances and will not disappoint.

Cairo Tower

A good place to enjoy a panoramic view of the city while sipping a beer in a slowly revolving restaurant. Located on Gazera Island (Zemalak) it is open from 9am-1am every day.

A Guide to Cairo

Page Two: Shopping in Cairo

Page Three: Pyramids, Sphinx, Saqqara

Page Four: Getting Around Cairo and Where to Stay in Cairo

Bazaars and Bargaining:

One of the pleasures of Cairo is to get lost in the bazaars (souqs) and take in the sights, smells and sounds of life in all its chaos and glory. You can shop for carpets, camels, shoes, books and veils or whatever else takes your fancy. Leave your valuables behind in your hotel and immerse yourself in a world that has changed little in hundreds of years.

For souvenirs most tourists head to Khan Al-Khalili one of the world's oldest bazaars.

If you like haggling, this is the place for you. To get away from the souvenir shops head west and you'll have a more authentic souq experience. The main goods sold are gold, silver, copper, perfume, spices, and cloth. Another place that gets good reviews for souvenir shoppers is the Khan Misr Touloun also located in medieval Cairo, just in front of the Mosque Ibn Touloun.

You probably aren't seriously considering buying a 'ship of the desert' but just wait until you see these lovely beasts at the camel bazaar (souq al-gamal). Held every Friday beyond Sharia Sudan in the west of city these beasts have travelled a long way to get to Cairo, so give them a pat on the head. Go early in the morning to get the most out of this bazaar.

Try the Wekalet al-Balah, for fabrics, including Egyptian cotton, the Tent makers' Bazaar for applique-work, Mohammed Ali Street for musical instruments, and Mahmoud Abd El Ghaffar in the Khan Al-Khalili for dance costumes (for the belly-dancers among you).

You get the idea, Cairo is a bit of a shoppers paradise. Not only can you get everything but you can watch most of it get made; what could be more fun?
Here are some bargaining tips that will come in handy at the bazaars:

  • Feel free to accept tea from the shopkeeper if it is offered, it doesn't obligate you to buy and it's a nice custom.
  • Halve the first asking price and start from there.
  • Stay polite and have a sense of humor while bargaining, it is supposed to be fun.
  • Walking away is a good way to get the price down quickly.
  • Convert the asking price in to your own currency before you end up haggling like crazy over what turns out to be a few pennies.
  • Pay what you think the item is worth and don't worry too much if others have paid less.
  • If the price is too high or you don't want an item just leave, there will be plenty more opportunities just around the corner.

A Guide to Cairo

Page One: Introduction, When to Go and What to See

Page Three: Pyramids, Sphinx, Saqqara

Page Four: Getting Around Cairo and Where to Stay in Cairo

What to See Around Cairo:

The Pyramids and the Sphinx

You won't want to miss one of Egypt's top attractions, the last surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Pyramid of Giza. There are in fact three main pyramids in Giza; the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops), The Pyramid of Kafhre and the smaller Pyramid of Menkaura. Each Pyramid is a tomb to a different King of Egypt. In front of the pyramids lies the Sphinx, or Abu al-Hol in Arabic, "Father of Terror".

Carved out of a single block of stone, this enormous cat-like sculpture has mesmerized millions of visitors.

Giza's three pyramids and the Sphinx were thought to have been constructed in the fourth dynasty of Egypt's Old Kingdom, arguably the first great civilization on earth. For most of us that translates in to about 5000 years ago. Even though there is still debate about how the pyramids at Giza were built, most are in agreement it wasn't by aliens . It is believed about 20,000 laborers were used and approximately 2 million blocks of stone, each weighing 2.5 tons, just to build the Pyramid of Khufu. For an in depth account of how they were built and a virtual tour inside the Great Pyramid (Khufu) explore the Pyramids with Nova and PBS.

Getting Around and Going Inside the Pyramids

Getting around the pyramids is easy enough, you can walk, take a horse and buggy or take a camel ride. A couple tips on the camel ride:

  • Bargain hard before you get on the camel.
  • Don't take a photo of the camel unless you are prepared to pay.
  • If you are feeling harassed then grab your nearest Antiquity Policeman to help you out.
  • Enjoy the ride, it is a once in a lifetime experience and worth a few bucks.

Climbing Up
I have some shaky Super 8 footage of myself as a six-year-old clambering up Khufu but that practice has been strictly forbidden since the 1980's.

Some intrepid folks attempt to climb up the sides of the Pyramids late at night, but really, it isn't worth ruining a Wonder of the World just for the thrill of it.

Going In
You can go inside the pyramids, but beware if you suffer from claustrophobia. The climbs are very steep and narrow so your knees have to be in good shape. Here is a decent account of one person's experience inside Khufu (Cheops). You have to get a separate ticket to enter the pyramids and they are limited to 300 per day so get there early.

Sound and Light Show

A sound and light show centered around the Sphinx is a nightly occurrence. Although it may sound too touristy for some, everyone ends up learning some interesting facts about the Pyramids and shows are in several different languages.

How to get to the Pyramids:

A taxi from the center of Cairo is probably the easiest way to get to the Pyramids, although mini and micro buses also make frequent trips. An air-conditioned bus also departs regularly from the Midan Tahrir. For advice on getting to the Pyramids from other parts of Egypt check out this site.

Saqqara

If you are interested in seeing the forerunner to the Great Pyramid head to Saqqara to see the 'Step Pyramid'. It is considered to be the first pyramid ever built and it dates to around 2800 BC.

A Guide to Cairo

Page One: Introduction, When to Go and What to See

Page Two: Shopping in Cairo

Page Four: Getting Around Cairo and Where to Stay in Cairo

Getting Around Cairo

The best way to get around Cairo is on foot and its density makes it possible to see the main sites even if you're no athlete. But, legs do get tired and if you are a female walking alone you may get weary of the attention you'll no doubt be getting. Cairo is also not an easy city to quickly get your bearings in. Maps will help you and so will the many forms of transport available to you:

Taxi:

There are more little black and white taxis in Cairo than minarets and that's saying something. You can hail a cab from any corner of any street, so getting one isn't a problem. Getting a fair price and emerging at your destination with nerves intact is another story ( the same can be said for cabs in New York). A couple of tips to avoid getting annoyed:

  • The meters don't work so agree on the price before you get in to the cab
  • Single men sit in the front, single women in the back
  • It is not unusual to pick up extra passengers along the way, so don't be alarmed if this happens
  • Keep small notes so you can pay the exact amount when you get out of the cab
  • Hold on and thank the stars you don't have to drive

Metro:

The only metro system in Africa and its a pleasure to ride. The first carriage is for women only, it runs on time, it runs until midnight and it's cheap. Buy your tickets at the station and hold on to them until you exit at your destination station.

Here's a map.

Bus:

Buses and mini-buses are a good option to get around the city if you speak and read Arabic and are on a tight budget. Tickets can be bought on board and be prepared to get up close and personal with your fellow passengers.

Getting to and from the International Airport

Although arriving in Cairo can be a little overwhelming it isn't a dangerous place.

You may get ripped off but violent crime is extremely rare. Don't worry too much about spending your first night in a hotel recommended by your taxi-driver that on hindsight cost you 5 times it should have.

A reasonable taxi fare from the airport to the center of town and vice versa is around 25 Egyptian Pounds
Buses and mini-buses depart both terminals and end up in the center of town at Midan Tahrir, the transport hub of Cairo. They cost less than 1 Egyptian Pound.

Where to Stay

Like every major world city, Cairo has plenty of accommodation options. Perhaps the best way to narrow down your choices is to decide if you would like a hotel near the Pyramids, near the airport (Heliopolis), in the center of town or in some of the finer, quieter neighbourhoods like Zamalek.

I've put together a list of Top 10 Hotels in Cairo that I believe offer good value, honest service and something to suit everyone's budget. There are good, safe dorm rooms for under $10 a night, and of course large resorts with hotel pools overlooking the Pyramids. Check the list, and book directly with the hotel.

Cheap hotels for those on a budget can mostly be found in central Cairo between Midan Tahrir and the train station.

Use the [http://www.hostelworld.com/findabed.php/ChosenCity.Cairo/ChosenCountry.Egypt]Hostel World web site for good rates and reviews.

A Guide to Cairo

Page One: Introduction, When to Go and What to See

Page Two: Shopping in Cairo

Page Three: Pyramids, Sphinx, Saqqara