I recently came back from an 8-day trip to Cairo and thought I’d share a few impressions and tips for anyone else who is considering visiting in the near future and is wondering what to expect.
Cairo and Egypt in general was a place I’d been dreaming about visiting every since I learned about Ancient Egypt at primary school. Like many a school child, I was entranced by the images of pyramids, hieroglyphics, stunningly-decorated tombs, mummies and painted papyrus. So Cairo (and more importantly Giza) had been sitting at the top of my bucket list for approximately two decades, before I finally decided to make the fantasy a reality.
Saying that, though, before going I had practically no knowledge of modern Cairo. My research beforehand basically consisted of watching a lot of YouTube videos that actually turned out to be quite unrepresentative of what the city is actually like (although I did get some good ideas, such as visiting the pyramids and tombs at Saqqara, not just Giza). Obviously don’t be like me. It’s always a good idea to research a new destination, especially if it’s not a tourist-friendly European city on the beaten track like Paris or Prague. So without further ado here are a couple of snippets of information that you might not know about Cairo, or that might be helpful before you go.
Some of the points might sound a bit negative but that’s just because I want to make you aware of a few potential issues so you can get on with enjoying all the amazing things about the city with much less hassle.
It’s *really* big
I’d heard people say that Cairo is big, and I’m like ‘yeah mate, I’m from London, you can’t surprise me’. But it turns out you can. You really can. Compared to Cairo, London feels like a nice country town that you can stroll around easily on foot! Whilst greater London has around 12 million residents, Cairo has more like 20 million, and the entire metropolitan area is so big that it takes literally hours to cross it by car. Polish travel blogger Kamischka wrote in her (very helpful) blog post about Egypt, that she found Cairo ‘walkable’. I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree because I’ve never been to a less walkable city in my life! It’s far too big to walk between major sights like Cairo Citadel, Coptic Cairo and Khan-El-Khalili. In fact, you’re looking at at least 45 minutes in a taxi to get between each of these places. Elsewhere, if you want to walk, you’ll be doing so beside a huge road with 8 lanes of crazy traffic, often lacking a pavement. And crossing the road is a bit of a suicide mission where you take your life in your hands every single time.
The air quality is atrocious
I’m actually wondering why this is an issue that never seems to be mentioned by bloggers, Instagrammers and YouTubers when talking about Cairo? One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in the city, and something that bothered me more and more as time went on, was the awful air quality. I’m used to living in big cities with plenty of cars and some pollution (London, Kiev), but I’ve never experienced anything like Cairo. For a start, the number of cars is totally insane. As I mentioned, the roads are all huge and several lanes wide. They’re also always busy, crammed with vehicles every hour of every day, many of them cheap old cars which spew out black fumes. You’re also rarely if ever more than a few metres away from a road while in either Cairo or Giza. Even the poshest hotels are built right on the road and there are very few pedestrianised areas or green spaces. In fact, Cairo is an incredibly brown city. The buildings are brown, the signs and billboards are caked in brown dust and even the trees and sky seem brown thanks to the air pollution and dust.
Cairo frequently ranks in the top 10 of lists of the most polluted cities in the world, and as high as first in some studies. Some days the air is so polluted that it looks grey and you can barely see in front of your face. If you’re driving around a lot, as you likely will be if you want to reach major sights, you’ll spend hours sitting in traffic jams breathing in the fumes, and it’s not a pleasant experience. I’d personally avoid it if I had asthma or any kind of lung problems, or even bring a mask to cover my nose and mouth.
It’s (somewhat) safe
A lot of people are put off going to Cairo or Egypt in general by fears over safety. Since the revolution in 2014, tourism has dropped dramatically and it’s still not back to what it was.
I wouldn’t like to make blanket statements about safety based on an 8-day holiday, so my best advice is to check your government’s travel recommendations for more information before you decide whether to go. At the time of my trip (January-February 2019), Cairo seemed perfectly safe and fine to visit. The only time your life is at risk is crossing the road! I didn’t feel unsafe or worried at any other moment.
However (as with anywhere, really), things can change and it’s always advisable to keep an eye on news and on travel recommendations from someone other than a blogger you don’t know who went somewhere once. Always check before you travel and take reasonable precautions (as you should anywhere), like avoiding dodgy areas at night and making sure you know where you’re going.
Security is tight!
Leading on from my point about safety, perhaps the reason that it feels very safe right now is that security has been ramped up to 11. This means that almost every building you enter will have airport-style security scanners, you’ll have your bag searched by guards, you may be frisk-searched (by someone of the same gender) and you’ll have to run your belongings through the usual X-ray machine. This can be a little bit of hassle when you have to do it multiple times a day, but it does mean you can be confident about safety in hotels and mainstream sights like the Egyptian museum and Giza pyramids.
You’re going to get ripped off a bit, but not too badly
As you’ll probably know if you’ve travelled to another Arab country, if you’re not on your guard you are likely to come across a number of scams or rip-offs aimed at foreigners. We all know about the Arab practice of bartering when shopping for goods at markets etc, but this is not the only thing you need to be aware of. You’ll often be approached by guides or taxi drivers trying to pressure you into using their services. They’re not outright aggressive but they are fairly persistent and will unfortunately sometimes lie in a bid to get you to jump in their taxi, ride on their camel or use them as a guide. For an example, taxi drivers at the airport will probably tell you there’s no bus or that Uber doesn’t run from the airport. Neither of these things are true: there is a bus from just outside the airport, and I used Uber to get to my hotel with no problem at all. In addition, guides at the pyramids will tell you that it’s too far to walk without a horse/camel – again, no, it’s not. You could walk around on foot just fine.
Keep in mind that unless you can read a price on a menu or label, it’s likely that you’ll be quoted an overinflated ‘foreigner’ price that’s double or triple what locals pay. You may wish to stick to places with menus on display unless you speak Arabic or are very confident in knowing the correct values for things. I also suggest using Uber to get around as you can always see the price in advance.
I didn’t find the scamming, price inflation and begging for tips anywhere near as bad as in Marrakech, but it does pay to be aware. Be very firm in saying no thank you when offered unwanted taxi rides, camel rides, souvenirs or guides. Check in advance what the correct prices are and make sure the person knows that you know. Don’t overpay for souvenirs like perfumes, papyrus or knick-knacks. Whatever price they are offering is probably too high and if you don’t really want the item, just keep saying no thank you – don’t be pressurised into buying or giving tips because the person makes you feel guilty.
Uber is your best friend
I used Uber for almost every journey I made around Cairo, and I very strongly recommend it. Taxi drivers will hassle you everywhere you go offering ‘very cheap prices’, but I doubt they can compete with the prices of Ubers which are indeed very cheap. You can get to almost any sight around the city for a couple of pounds/dollars, and the best part is that you’ll see the price beforehand onscreen so there can be no nasty surprises.
Cairo also has a metro system, which I did not use, but this could also be a good alternative and Kami has written more about this in her post which I linked above.
Don’t be a muppet (like me) and overpay for a visa
The easiest thing to do if you’re from the EU or UK is to apply for an E-visa in advance of your trip and just print it and bring it with you. You need to apply at least 7 days before your trip (ideally sooner).
You apply for the visa on the Egyptian government website. There are loads of other websites offering visas, many of which look extremely official and almost exactly like the real site. Some are possibly scams, others are just brokers who sell you the same exact product for 2-3x the price. The correct price for a single-entry tourist visa is 25 USD, so don’t pay more than that. Go straight to the correct website and apply there. Don’t do what I did and Google ‘Egypt visa’ and apply on a site that charges more – doh.
Buy a SIM card and withdraw money at the airport
I strongly recommend picking up a local SIM card at the airport, which we used to call Ubers, check maps and generally get around hassle-free. There are three desks at the airport for the 3 main mobile operators: Orange, Vodafone and Etisalat. We used Vodafone as it seemed to have the best deal for a data-only plan. We spent about 10 euro to have 3G for the whole trip, which was a real life-saver in getting around without potentially having to pay inflated taxi prices.
You should probably also withdraw some Egyptian pounds in cash from one of the machines at the airport. I usually find this cheaper than exchanging money beforehand or at a bureau de change. You might need to pay for quite a few things in cash. However I wouldn’t advice to carry too much on you at one moment just in case anything goes wrong, and also because it helps when negotiating with guides etc when you show them that you only have 200 pounds, for example. Their prices are likely to drop when they know they can’t squeeze any more out of you.
You’ll have to fill in a registration card when you arrive and leave
When you land, you’ll have to fill in a landing card before you cross the border. Pick up the one that’s written in English for foreigners. Remember to bring a pen as, bizarrely, none are provided.
You’ll have to do the same again when you leave, and you cannot pick up your boarding card until you’ve done so, even if you checked in online, so leave some extra time for this!
Don’t just go to Giza pyramids – the real stuff is at Saqqara
Of course, yes, go to the Giza pyramids. This is where the Great Pyramid, aka the Pyramid of Cheops is located, and the most famous sight in the whole of Egypt, maybe even the world! A full ticket to see everything, including climbing inside the Great Pyramid, costs 500 Egyptian pounds (about 25 GBP). It’s expensive, but definitely worthwhile. If you don’t want to spend more, just stay away from the touts and guides.
However, if ancient Egypt is your bag, don’t stop at Giza. Yes it’s incredible, but if you want the real off-the-beaten-track Egypt experience (without going to Aswan or Luxor, if these are not on your itinerary), you need to go to Saqqara. Saqqara is about 45 minutes drive from Giza, and about 1 hour 45 from Cairo centre. You can either take an organised tour or just get a taxi or Uber there. I was a little worried about whether it would be easy to find a taxi or Uber back again, but it really was. There’s even 3G coverage there!
That said, it is kind of in the middle of nowhere. You’ll have to drive through some pretty small and basic villages to get there, and it’s kind of in the desert. There are WAY fewer tourists to be found at Saqqara than at Giza, and you have a much more ‘authentic’ experience looking around the tombs and pyramids on your own or with just a few other people around.
Inside the Great Pyramid at Giza is not all that exiting really. Inside is just a large stone room with absolutely nothing in it. No treasures, no mummies, no carvings, no hieroglyphics. By contrast, you’ll see all sorts of carvings and hieroglyphics at Saqqara, including some which still have some colour painted onto them. There are around 200 tombs here and it’s quite a big area, so it’s recommended to spend a whole day or at least half a day here. You can choose to take a guide or not – it’s fine to see everything on your own. In fact we did take a guide here as he offered a good price, and we were really happy to get loads of extra insights and to be shown around some places which were completely deserted. But it’s up to you. In any case, this is as much of a must-visit as Giza.
Hop up on one of the fancy hotels’ rooftops for the best views
If you’re wondering where to go in Cairo to get away from the worst of the hustle and bustle, heat, noise and traffic, the answer is to head to the Nile. The Nile is what Cairo is all about, obviously since the city wouldn’t even exist without it. There, you can take a trip on a boat to see some more of the city, or do what I did a few times and get up on a nice terrace with a view over the Nile. A little secret (ish) tip is that most of the big hotels such as the Nile Ritz-Carlton and the Semiramis International will allow even non-guests access to their restaurants and terraces. So even if you’re on a shoestring budget there’s nothing to stop you getting that Insta-shot of the sunset over the Nile.
I particularly enjoyed hanging out on the Nile Terrace at the Semiramis which has an amazing view over the city and river and is so calm and relaxing compared to the rest of the city. From up there, you can appreciate the city’s beauty. Food, drinks and shisha there are a little more expensive than elsewhere but for me it was really worth it. (Nothing’s to stop you going up even if you don’t intend to eat or drink, though).
Have you been to Cairo? Drop any other tips and info in the comments below!