Cairo has been on my travel bucket list for quite some time now, but with the political and social unrest that we have seen plaguing Egypt portrayed in the media over the years, it had always been a place that I relegated to the “one day” section. The hint of underlying danger that has slowly begun to overshadow the thrill of viewing the relics of such an advanced ancient civilization has had a substantial impact on an economy that thrives based on tourism. But if there is one thing that I have learned in my travels, it is that terrorism and danger can strike at anytime, anywhere. You can read about my trip to Istanbul days after the coup attack by clicking here.
So, when I made the decision to spend this summer exploring parts of Africa, I decided that it was finally time to venture into Egypt. And since the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx were at the top of my list of things to see, I opted for a short trip to Cairo, versus Alexandria or Luxor, for my first trip. There are some places where I will arrange my own tours and sightseeing, however, on this trip I opted to go with tour guide, Mina, after hearing and seeing great things about his service, professionalism, and quality photos, from other travelers and through stalking his Instagram page.
My sisters and I arrived to Cairo on a late night flight, where Mina was there to pick us up and escort us to our hotel. After a long flight, it was nice to not have to worry about calling an Uber or having to hassle with a taxi driver. Just something to note when planning your trip, Cairo is a large city with an even larger population, so my recommendation for first timers is to get a room in the downtown area to be near a larger selection of eateries and social life. We opted to stay at Hotel Kempinski for the rooftop pool and city view.
In two days, we managed to squeeze in almost all of the most popular sights in and around the Cairo and Giza area, eat authentic Egyptian food, smoke Shisha, and explore Egyptian culture from ancient to modern civilization.
Here are 10 things you must see/do on your visit to Cairo:
Eat authentic Egyptian cuisine.
One of the perks of using a local tour guide is being directed to the best places to eat authentic cuisine, and Mina included lunch at one of his favorite local spots complimentary as part of our tour. While most of us are familiar with hummus and falafel, our Egyptian spread also included hawawshi, which is a pita stuffed with minced meat and spices, and kushari, a mix of noodles and lentils topped with spicy tomato and garlic sauce. And let me not forget to mention that while alcohol may not be available in some restaurants, you can’t go wrong trying the fresh squeezed juices and local teas. I recommend the hibiscus tea and lemon mint juice. Super refreshing!
Visit the Giza Pyramids and the Sphinx.
Purchase goods at the Khan El Khalily.
Whether you are looking to find souvenirs or Egyptian goods to adorn your home or body, the Khan El Khalily is the perfect place to barter your way through various shops and vendors.
Rule of Thumb: Offer half of the asking price as a starting point, and be willing to walk away. Most of the same goods can be found at various shops throughout the market.
Tour the tombs in Saqqara (Sakkara).
Even though the pyramids at Saqqara might not be as famous as the Giza Pyramids, Saqqara is the site where Egypt’s first pyramids are said to have been built. From the Step Pyramid of Djoser to the King Titi Pyramid, this archeological site is a must see gem and located only about 30 minutes from Cairo.
Sidenote: Bring lots of water and dress for extremely hot weather, especially if you’re traveling in the summer, because the temperatures easily exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Smoke Shisha with a view.
Since our hotel was centrally located, we had the advantage of being near many highly recommended restaurants with a view. 3 out of the 5 locals that we asked for a place to go for good food and Shisha recommended Sequoia. We were not disappointed. The food, view, and smooth Shisha were a great way to spend one of our last nights enjoying Cairo.
Learn about papyrus at the Papyrus Museum.
As you peruse the streets of Cairo, you will be stopped several times by vendors attempting to sell you authentic papyrus scrolls. While almost 99% of those “authentic” scrolls are replicas made from banana leaves that probably won’t make it home from your trip, you can visit the Papyrus Museum to find out the history of papyrus and purchase certified authentic pieces that come with a government seal as validation.
Browse ancient Egyptian treasures.
The Egyptian Museum is filled with treasures from excavated pyramids and historical sites around Egypt, including treasures from the pyramid of the infamous King Tut. Please note, the museum does require you to purchase an additional ticket if you plan on taking pictures of the exhibits, with the exception of the Mummy rooms, as those pictures are prohibited.
Fun Fact: While King Tut is probably the only pharaoh that many tourists can name, his time of rule was fairly unremarkable. The only reason that he is truly famous is because his tomb is one of the only ones that has been found virtually undisturbed and in pristine condition.
Take a felucca ride on the Nile.
Visit Tahir Square.
As we headed to our hotel from the airport, we couldn’t help but to notice what looked like a park filled with patrons socializing and enjoying food and beverages like it was mid-afternoon. That “park” turned out to be Tahir Square, the place where the 2011 revolution in Cairo originated. Since daytime temperatures in Cairo are brutal, you will notice that the city really doesn’t come alive until the nighttime. There are many businesses that don’t even open until later in the day, so while a crowd in the wee of the night might be strange to some of us (outside of the club), it’s perfectly normal in Cairo.
Ride a camel in the desert.
Did I feel safe while in Cairo?
This is a question that has continuously popped up on my social media and via my text since posting my trip pictures. The answer was absolutely YES. At every hotel, restaurant, and site that we visited, there was a security checkpoint and/or trained dogs to search for security threats. And if you look on the travel advisory website, most parts of Egypt are on a Level 2, similar to visiting just about any country in Europe or in the Caribbean.
As with any trip out of the country, exercise caution while living your best life and adhere to societal norms.
Should women be conscious of their attire?
Being that Cairo is a predominantly Muslim city, women should make attempts to be modest in their attire. This does not mean that you have to go out and purchase a burqa, but I would recommend bringing a scarf or something to cover your arms while wearing sleeveless attire and try to stay away from bottoms that show off to much skin. You will see some tourists that don’t abide by any of these rules, especially because the temperatures are brutal, but I prefer to minimize any extra attention.
Even though Egyptians come in all shades, the attention on my sisters and I, because we were black women from America was often overwhelming. I can’t tell you how many times we got called, “Black Chocolate,” or were hassled by men that just wanted to take a picture, etc. Mina was great for stepping in and squashing those situations fast.
I heard that the customer service in Egypt isn’t all that great. Is this true?
If I would have been asked this question after my first day in Egypt, I would have agreed with this statement, with the exception of Mina, who was a gracious host and guide (that even took me to find a nail shop because I had broke a nail on my flight). My sisters and I were appalled at the length of time it took to recieve service in restaurants and businesses, and/or to even be acknowledged. But after a couple of days, we realized it wasn’t a service issue, but a lack of urgency issue. While we are used to fast food and service in America, dinner in some countries is a multi-hour affair and most workers in Cairo just move at their own pace. Once we accepted that as the norm, our experience was a lot better. Everyone that we came across was friendly and accommodating, but just slow to action, very slow.
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