As our taxi weaved in and out of traffic, driving much faster than was wise and honking unnecessarily at every passerby, I couldn’t help but smile and think “this guy is either absolutely fearless or totally insane!” But it wasn’t just him. It was the family of five balanced precariously on the back of a rusty old motorbike and the elderly lady dashing across the highway narrowly avoiding the cars whizzing by. And slowly but surely, that fearlessness crept it’s way into me as well.
Cairo has that effect on you – it awakens all of your senses and gives you this energy, it makes you feel truly alive. It only takes a day or two to get used to the persistent taxi drivers, the smells that can either be horrifying or intoxicating, the constant traffic and honking of horns, and the curious locals that exclaim “welcome to Egypt” excitedly and then request to take a photo with you. And it doesn’t take long to become totally, completely captivated by Cairo!
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Complete Guide to Cairo, Egypt
Cairo is the capital of Egypt as well as the largest city with a population of approximately 6.76 million (with an additional 9.5 million living in close proximity). Most people associate Cairo with the nearby Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, the Nile Delta, King Tut, Pharaohs, mummies and “walking like an Egyptian”. You’ll find all of that and much more in this massive, sprawling metropolis. For everything you need to know before you go, and once you arrive, you’ve come to the right place!
Cairo: Know Before You Go
- The currency in Egypt is the Egyptian Pound (LE). At the time of writing (November of 2017) the conversion rate was about 17.65 LE to $1 USD. We’ll be referring to costs in Egyptian Pounds so just keep in mind that if we say something costs 100 LE, that’s just about $5.50 USD.
- Each Egyptian Pound is made up of 100 Piastres and the bills look similar so familiarize yourself with both.
- The prices appear to have gone up significantly. But they haven’t. The value of the Egyptian Pound has fallen drastically since 2016 and prices have been increased to reflect the change.
- The following countries can obtain a visa on arrival at Egyptian ports of entries: USA, UK, EU Nationals, Australia, Canada, Croatia, Georgia, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Macedonia, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Serbia, and Ukraine. The price is $25 USD/person and the visa can be purchased at the currency exchange counters before you reach passport control. If you don’t have US dollars, don’t worry, you can also exchange your currency there.
- Egyptians speak Arabic and you should learn a few key phrases to get around! “Al Salam Alaikum” (pronouned sall-em wall-a-come) is a nice way to say “hello”. “Shukran” (pronounced shoo kran) is “thank you”. “Ma’-Elsalama” (pronounced ma sell lem-a) is “goodbye”. And “tip” is “baksheesh” – you may get asked for one every now and again.
- Islam is the official religion for 90% of the population and most of those are Sunni Muslims. As with most conservative countries, women are expected to cover their knees and shoulders when venturing out of the house (although this is not necessarily the case in upscale neighborhoods). Foreigners are only expected to cover their heads when entering mosques. Remember, you’re not here to change the culture, you’re here to experience a new one.
- Friday is the Muslim holy day and you’ll find that many stores are closed. Buses run infrequently, if at all, on Fridays.
- Make sure you read our Egypt travel tips before your trip!
Is Cairo Safe?
Forget everything you’ve heard about how “dangerous” Egypt is and don’t take everything you read at face value. While there are some areas that are still a bit seedy, including the Northern Sinai Peninsula (so we would not recommend a land border crossing from Israel), you’ll find that most of Egypt is full of kind, welcoming people who want to learn about you and take a photo with you, and complete strangers all over the city will be concerned with making sure you feel safe.
Prior to visiting I read a lot of blog posts that warned of “passive aggressive groping” (where men pretend to brush by your bum) and endless catcalling. And warned that women should avoid eye contact with men as it would be perceived as flirting.
Well, the only touches I received from men were friendly handshakes and the worst of the catcalls was “how many hearts have you broken today?”. The only time I felt uncomfortable was when I was surrounded by school children requesting selfies and my cheeks were in physical pain from smiling too much.
Is Egypt safe? Absolutely! While bad things can happen anywhere and everywhere, I never felt unsafe not even once during my time in Cairo.
Side Note: I traveled to Cairo with my husband and while I didn’t get the feeling that I would be uncomfortable in any situation without him, solo female travelers may attract more attention from men.
Best Time to Visit Cairo
October until April is considered high season in Cairo as the weather is more bearable than the sweltering summer months. High temperatures in the winter months range from 57-72°F and in summer the highs can reach 104°F. Rainfall is sparse. During the off season you’ll find that tourist sites are less crowded and prices are generally lower but you’ll likely want to find a pool around mid-day.
TIP: If you happen to visit Egypt during the holy month of Ramadan, you’ll find a very different atmosphere. During that month, which takes place in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims must fast from dawn until dusk. Because they are only allowed to work 6 hours/day most businesses operate on a reduced schedule.
How Long to Spend in Cairo
If you have more time then consider spending a night in Giza at a hotel with a view of the Pyramids. Waking up to the sun rising over the last ancient wonder of the world is a memory you won’t soon forget.
How to Budget for Your Trip to Cairo
Egypt is probably one of the cheapest countries we’ve visited to date. After the Egyptian revolution in 2011 the tourism industry collapsed leading resulting in 4 years of high inflation. So when it comes to budgeting for Egypt you’ll probably spend a lot less than you’re expecting.
Our 45-minute Uber ride from Cairo to Giza cost us less than $3 USD. Our thick American brains cannot figure out how the price of both gas and time could possibly make that trip worth it for the driver!
We ate huge, delicious meals for about the same price as the taxi. It’s worth it to opt for luxury accommodations in Egypt as your money will go a lot further here than you’re probably used to! You can take a luxury cruise down the Nile or stay in an all-inclusive on the Red Sea for a fraction of what a similar experience would cost you in the USA or Europe.
What to Pack for Egypt
As mentioned earlier, women are expected to cover their knees and shoulders but Egypt can be incredibly hot! Long, comfortable pants, button-down shirts, long dresses, and a scarf to cover your head when you enter mosques are recommended.
A few of my favorite Egyptian staples:
- A floor-length, short-sleeved comfy maxi dress
- A lightweight scarf
- Comfortable but cute close-toed walking shoes
- A foldable brimmed hat
- Wide leg wrinkle-free pants
Getting Around Cairo
- The Cairo International Airport (CAI) is a hub to get to/from Cairo and Giza. It’s located about 13 miles Northeast of Old Cairo (where you’ll probably be staying).
- Giza is just a short 30-minute drive from Cairo so it’s easy to do as a day trip if you’re short on time although we would highly recommend spending a few days in each place.
- Uber has made it’s way to Cairo! Taxis are everywhere but, as with other large cities in the world, taxi drivers prefer to keep rides for tourists off-the-meter. Regardless of your method of transportation, getting around Cairo is incredibly inexpensive unless you hire a guide to accompany you.
- If you decide to rent a car (or even just end up in a car at night) you’ll notice that many people drive with just their low beams on, or no headlights at all. Some Egyptians believe that headlights make driving more difficult at night and have been known to get irritated with drivers who don’t comply. Also, we would NOT recommend renting a car unless you are well-versed in navigating lawless roadways. We were on a mission to find a dent-free vehicle anywhere in Cairo to no avail.
TIP: Hiring a driver to take you to the sights around Cairo is fairly common. You can expect the price to vary considerably depending on if you just hire a driver or if you have an English-speaking guide to show you around as well.
We even ran into one couple who had hired a private security guard to accompany them on their tour of Cairo. Of course, a tip will be expected so plan on an extra 50-100 LE depending on the length of time that you spend touring the city.
Where to Stay in Cairo
There are hundreds of places to stay in Cairo but there is only one that offers 5-star luxury in a garden oasis on an island right in the middle of this big, bustling metropolis. The Cairo Marriott Hotel sits on 6 acres of amazing gardens on Gezira Island and provides a tranquil reprise from the city chaos outside of it.
The original building was a palace, constructed in 1869 by the ruler of Egypt, Khedive Ismail. The Marriott gained management of the property in the 1970’s and has done a fantastic job of preserving the history and architecture of the palace while adding modern-day luxuries.
Elaborate restaurants, ballrooms, and lounge areas filled with ornate gold mirrors, plush carpets, intricate latticework, and beautiful artwork throughout create the illusion that you have stepped back in time and gained royal status. Large conferences and lavish weddings are commonplace here, and for good reason. The property is absolutely stunning!
Wake up every morning and enjoy a cup of coffee from your spacious balcony overlooking the Nile River and then head downstairs to try their lavish breakfast spread. You’ll find everything from traditional Egyptian flavors, made-to-order omelettes, a selection of charcuterie, cheeses and breads, and everything else in-between!
And with 14 delicious and diverse restaurants and bars, a state-of-the-art fitness center, an inviting pool, and even an in-house casino you may never want to venture off the property! But if you do decide to explore more than just the Cairo Marriott, we’ll tell you everything you need to know in order to see all of the highlights of this sprawling city.
TIP: Keep small change on you to tip the bellboys, the housekeepers, and any other helpful hotel staff members.
What to Do in Cairo
The Great Pyramids of Giza – Of course, there’s no way you would come to Cairo and miss visiting the Pyramids. They are bound to be an unforgettable experience!
Citadel of Cairo – the citadel was constructed for protection against the Crusaders between 1176 and 1183 AD. It was was the seat of the Egyptian government until the 19th century when Khedive Ismail moved to his brand new palace. The present-day Citadel contains 3 mosques and 3 museums and offers breathtaking views of the city below. Go early as the courtyards offer little shade. (Open 8:00am – 5:00pm except on Fridays during prayer. Entrance fee:100 LE/person)
Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan – this mosque was commissioned by the Sultan Hassan who ruled over the region twice – once at only 13 years old. Construction began in 1356 AD and was completed 3 years later “without even a single day of idleness”.
The Egyptian Museum – containing approximately 160,000 items, this museum houses the world’s most extensive collection of pharaonic antiquities. (Open 9:00am – 5:00pm every day. Entrance fees: 120 LE/person for just the museum or 240 LE/person to visit the mummy rooms as well. Thursdays and Sundays the museum is open during the evening from 5:30pm – 9:00pm but you’ll pay a higher entrance fee. If you want to take photos with a camera you’ll be charged an extra 50 LE for photography and 300 LE for video).
Khan El-Khalili – a large market that offers typical Egyptian souvenirs that tourists will go nuts over. Don’t forget that their first offered price is never their final price!
Coptic Cairo – a unique area within Old Cairo containing six churches that date back to the early Christian Era between the pharaonic religion and the arrival of Islam.
Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque – originally built in 641–642 AD, it is the first mosque built on the African continent.
Where to Eat in Cairo
For an upscale, immaculate 5-star dining experience while being serenaded by soft piano music, Saraya Gallery is a lavish restaurant located inside of the Cairo Marriott. Start with the traditional French onion soup, the slightly spicy nicoise salad, and a glass of Egyptian chardonnay. For your main course either the rack of lamb or the filet of fish in hollandaise sauce are spectacular. And don’t dare leave without sampling their creme brulee trilogy!
The Garden Promenade Café in the Cairo Marriott gardens is a popular spot among Cairo’s elite for a casual lunch or dinner . They offer classic American dishes with stunning views of both the palace and the courtyard.
You can try quite a few Egyptian specialties at Zooba, also located on Gezira Island. Try the Classic Koshari, the Ful, and the Spicy Pepper Taamia – this filling meal will cost you less than a burger at McDonalds!
For stuffed pigeon right in the heart of the bustling Khan al Khalili market, try Naguib Mahfouz. If you can’t stomach pigeon, you really can’t go wrong with anything on their menu.
TIP: A 10% tip is customary for servers in Cairo although many restaurants add a service charge to your bill. If that is the case you may give a bit extra if your server went above and beyond.
Must-Try Egyptian Foods
Koshari – you might think that the person who created this dish hadn’t been to the grocery in a while and just threw everything they had left in the cupboard into a pot. Often referred to as a “poor man’s dish”, koshari is made of rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas, onion, and tomato sauce and tastes a bit like spaghetti (but better).
Hamam Mahshi – don’t let the fact that this dish is actually stuffed pigeon turn you off. Sure Americans refer to pigeons as rat birds but we also can’t live without bacon which comes from garbage-eating pigs. You can’t leave Cairo without trying this specialty!
Fiteer Baladi – Egypt’s version of pizza (but a bit less healthy, if that’s even possible) is layers of buttery, delicious filo dough either served plain or stuffed with savory or sweet fillings.
Shawarma – this is a staple all over the Middle East and for good reason – it’s delicious and cheap! But some might argue that the best shawarma can be found in Egypt. Be sure to try some while exploring the city.
Taamia – quite similar to the classic falafel but made with split fava beans rather than chickpeas.
Ful – a simple dish of cooked fava beans served with oil, cumin and other spices, and occasionally topped with tahini. Eat it like chili or as a dip for your pita bread!
Where to Drink in Cairo
In Islam, the consumption of alcoholic beverages is generally forbidden in the Qur’an but some choose to imbibe depending on personal beliefs. You won’t find as much of a “bar scene” here as in Europe or the US but there are plenty of restaurants and bars that cater to foreigners. You’re more likely to find Egyptians smoking shisha (flavored tobacco out of a water pipe) than drinking alcohol so we’ve recommended a few good spots to partake if you so choose.
Billiard Bar is nestled away behind the Saraya Gallery Restaurant on the ground floor of the Cairo Mariott. Due to it’s hidden location, mood lighting, and lavish decor, it feels a bit like stepping back in time and into a speakeasy.
Cairo Jazz Club is a fun place to catch a live show and rub elbows with the young and hip of Cairo. If you plan to arrive after 10:00pm a reservation is recommended.
The Tap Maadi offers a casual atmosphere, good food, and lively nightly entertainment.
Sugar & Spice is nestled in the middle of a trendy shopping area just west of Gezira Island. Fancy coffee drinks, comfortable chairs, and shisha make this a popular spot with the local Egyptian women.
Egyptian Nights is also located inside of the Cairo Marriott and offers authentic Egyptian food, nightly entertainment, and shisha. It’s the perfect late night hangout!
Any other captivating Cairo treasures that we missed? Comment below so we can add them to the list!
Planning a visit to Egypt? Check out our favorite books and travel guides.