Cairo is often in the American news for all the wrong reasons, but there’s more than a few reasons to dedicate a portion of your Egypt trip to Cairo. First of all, it’s huge—the largest city not just in the Middle East and Arab world, but on the continent of Africa. Nicknamed, “The City of Minarets”, it’s home to an astounding amount of Islamic architecture, as well as ancient treasure and modern delights. The streets are packed with cars, donkey carts, buses, bicycles, motorcycles—all of which pay absolutely no heed to any semblance of traffic laws. The air is dusty and hazy, burning your throat and eyes when you first step into it, and every few hours it swells with the eerily garbled calls of the muezzins, calling the people to prayer. It feels like chaos, and if you try to fight it, or control it, it will overwhelm you. Better to let the chaos take hold of you, and, like the sturdy flow of the Nile, sweep you along.
Where to Go in Cairo
Flying in and out of the Cairo airport makes it easy for you to bookend your Egypt holiday with days in the capital, and out of the many activities, I’ve chosen three that I think give a good sampling of Cairo’s offerings if you’ve only got a limited time to spend in the city proper (a separate post on visiting the Pyramids is in the works!).
One of the places I was most excited to explorewas Khan el-Khalili, the famous Cairo souk. Having been there, I can reportthat it…was fine. There’s a lot of it that’s just Made in China crap, but ifyou make a few good turns, you can find little pockets of truetreasures—hand-hooked silk rugs and glorious metal lighting fixtures. All thestuff, of course, that was too big to bring home! Plan to arrive in the earlyafternoon (around 13h) and you’ll miss the big tour envoys, which is ablessing because the souk is pretty overwhelming even half empty. And if youdo find something you can’t bear to part with, many of the more establishedshops offer shipping through Western carriers to get your treasure safely back toyour home.
We arrived at the Egyptian Museum around 15h, which again meant that most of the big tours were gone. Plenty of would-be guides pressed us for hire as we bought our tickets and headed through the security doors, but if you have a good guidebook (and depending on the depth of your interest in the artifacts), you’ll likely be fine without one. Definitely splurge on the ticket for the Royal Mummies—you can buy the ticket inside if you’ve forgotten to purchase it outdoors. We spent a solid two and a half hours inside the museum before heading out for an early dinner. Read my whole post of the Egyptian Museum here.
Located on the northern part of Gezira island, in the middle of the Nile, Zamalek is one of Cairo’s wealthiest and hippest neighborhoods. It’s home to the Embassy District, which means that, on the whole, it’s one of the safest neighborhoods to roam and explore. Home to the Cairo Tower, this district is jammed packed with boutiques, galleries, cafes, and more. We ate at Abou El Sid, an Egyptian restaurant tucked behind ornate doors. The interior looked like a smoking room out of a vintage movie, and the food was a hearty pick-me-up after a day of wandering Cairo’s dusty streets.
Tips for Safety in Cairo
For Westerners, Cairo can feel overwhelming,and this can contribute to a feeling of unease. It is a decidedly foreign place,and it’s okay to have some reservations about exploring it. To help you feelsafer, there are a few pre-emptive steps you can take:
- Enroll in STEP, a free servive provided by the (American) government that registers you with the local Embassy. STEP will alert you to any security change via text and/or email, and through it, the Embassy can contact you or connect you to family and aid if an emergency situation comes up.
- The (again, American) State Department regularly updates the state department advisories, which you can check here and here in advance of your trip.
- Add the number for American Citizens Services (ACS): (20-2) 2797-3300. This is a number for emergencies only, which would include things like: hospitalizations, arrests, and lost/stolen passports.
One thing to note is that there are a lot of scams waiting to happen to unsuspecting tourists. You’ll want to come with your street smarts sharpened, unafraid to be firm (even rude) with locals who are pushy.
Otherwise, I found Cairo to be safer than everyone (cough, the news) likes to say. It was dirty and loud, and definitely unfamiliar, but beyond that, I think any unease I felt was more my own bias and lack of understanding. Yes, it’s a different place, and visiting it for the first time will likely land you squarely beyond the limits of your comfort zone. But once you make peace with that, you’ll find plenty of reasons to enjoy the city.