After almost a decade of political turmoil, visitors are finally returning to Egypt. Hotels are full, boat trips along the Nile require a waitlist to book once again, and the highly anticipated Grand Egyptian Museum promises to draw even more tourists when it opens its doors within the next year or so. I was able to travel to Cairo for nearly a week last November, and while there’s nothing quite like seeing the pyramids in person or listening to the call to prayer at sunset along the Nile, the city can still be overwhelming for a first-time visitor. Here are a few things I wish I’d known before my trip.
Cairo’s metro system is a pretty well-oiled machine, and it’s easily the cheapest way to get around. Fares start at just three Egyptian pounds (around 17 cents) and increase depending on the distance you’ve traveled to a max of seven pounds (around 40 cents). Considering the city’s notorious traffic, it can often be the fastest way to travel. Just note that you’ll have to submit your bags to an x-ray machine and pass through a metal detector before entering the stations. There are also women-only cars on each train, so pay attention to signage if you’re a female traveler and want to hop on one of them. Side note: The murals in some of the stations are wonderful.
In many places around the world, you’re expected to haggle flat rates with cab drivers before you get in the taxi in order to secure the best fare and ensure they don’t upcharge you at the end. In Cairo, that’s not the case. Many drivers will happily accept a negotiated flat rate, but you’ll often end up paying more than what the metered fare would come out to be. Clarify with your driver that your ride will be metered before getting in the cab. Additionally, some drivers will double dip into the passenger pool and pick up multiple parties along the way, so if you flag a taxi and the car rolls up with people already inside, you can just wave the driver along. And for what it’s worth, there is Uber in Cairo, and it’s quite affordable.
While the majority of Cairo’s main tourist sites (the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, the Hanging Church, and the Salahdin Citadel) are in central Cairo, the pyramids are located right on the edge of Giza, which is a 20-minute drive from the center of the city. Throw in some bad traffic, however, and the drive takes 45 minutes to an hour—sometimes even longer. If the pyramids are on your to-do list—and let’s be honest, they’re going to be—stay at a hotel in Giza for a night or two instead of central Cairo so you can maximize your day on the site. The Marriott Mena House, which first opened in 1887, sits right in the shadow of the Great Pyramid and guests can watch the pyramids’ evening light show from their room balcony. When the Grand Egyptian Museum opens in the next year or two, it’ll be located just a few minutes’ drive from the hotel.
In the past, you had to bribe the guards sitting outside the entrance to let you into the Great Pyramid’s burial chamber. Today, that’s not the case—it’s about $20 for a special entrance ticket, on top of the $9 general admission ticket. (Just make sure you buy your additional ticket at the first entrance gate, as you can’t buy it once you’re inside the site.) As for the tunnel itself, claustrophobes beware: One portion of the tunnel is extremely cramped, so unless you’re under four feet tall, you’ll have to crouch to ascend into the burial chamber. There’s one tunnel for both upward and downward traffic, and it’s only a few feet wide, so get ready to be up close and personal with dozens of strangers. The cramped portion of the tunnel only takes a few minutes to get through, but given the close quarters and how humid the air is, it can feel like an eternity. Don’t expect to snap a selfie: There are absolutely no photographs allowed. (Many tourists ignore the rule, but if a guard catches you they could confiscate your phone or camera.) Lastly, the tunnel actually closes for an hour each day around lunchtime to prevent the buildup of too much moisture from people breathing inside the tunnel.
was caught off guard by a scam outside the Egyptian Museum when a local approached me near the entrance and told me it was closed for an hour for prayer. He suggested my friend and I head to the shops across the street to pass the time, and offered to escort us across the major highway running next to the museum and pointed out some shops. As it turns out, the shop owners work with these locals to bring tourists into their stores, offering them a commission for any purchases. We turned around and headed straight for the museum—which, as it turned out, doesn’t actually close for prayer.
Check the official opening hours before your visit, and if someone approaches you outside the gates claiming the museum is closed, politely excuse yourself. And on that note, some people stand around the entrance saying you need a guide to enter the museum—you don’t. You do, however, need to pay an extra fee to take photos inside.
Khan el-Khalili, Cairo’s big souk, has more than its fair share of tourist traps, but there are real gems to be found throughout the market, from antique shops to estate sales to workshops that make leather-bound notebooks. The key to finding the best stuff is to let yourself get lost in the maze-like complex for a few hours—a worthwhile activity even if you don’t plan on buying anything. But if you do want to make a purchase, get ready to haggle, cutting the first price you’re offered by at least half, if not more. As for where the locals go? You’ll find them at the food stalls shopping for fresh produce and oven-hot pita. The bazaar is also home to a number of famous cafés, including Faharat, which is known for its pigeon dishes, and El Fishawy, one of Cairo’s oldest, which reportedly opened more than 250 years ago.
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