Meaning “the victorious city,” Cairo is the capital of Egypt and the largest city in Africa, populated by more than 18 million people. Spanning both banks of the Nile River in northern Egypt, the area has been home to numerous Egyptian civilizations spanning as far back as 6,000 years and is only a short drive away from the world famous pyramids of Giza. Known locally as “Misr,” the Arabic word for Egypt, the city is central to Egyptian life and is home to a fascinating mix of old world tradition and modern technology.
1. Felucca Ride on the Nile: One of the best ways to experience the river that has nourished Egypt’s population since its inception is by sailing on one of these flat bottomed boats. A felucca is an ancient Egyptian traditional sailing boat, and their billowing white sails can be seen smoothly gliding along riverbanks all over the city.
2. Pyramids and the Sphinx: While undoubtedly crowded, no trip to Cairo would be complete without a trip to nearby Giza to gawk at these giant ancient monuments. An unforgettable sight, just remember to bring your water and some sunscreen, as there is little respite from the sun’s scorching rays in this area.
3. Egyptian Museum: The gallery of artifacts in this collection can at first seem overwhelming: not only are they historically priceless, but the sheer volume of pieces can be mind-boggling! Opened in 1902, the building contains 107 chronologically divided halls featuring mummies, jewels, and other artifacts from ancient ages. Try to find a guide that will lead you on a tour of the awe-inspiring highlights.
4. Bab Zuweila Gate: Set slightly past one of the most sacred sites in Egypt, the Sayyidna al-Hussein Mosque, is a bustling street market full of treasures to be discovered. Located within this market is the gate of Bab Zuweila, the only gate remaining from the southern wall that bordered the old city. A paradox of old and new set against each other, this gate serves as a meaningful reminder of the city’s ancient origins.
5. Khan Ali-Khalili: Cairo’s biggest open-air market, this bazaar features row after row of souvenirs, spices, perfumes, jewelry, and more. Established in the 14th century, many of the vendors have been in the business for generations. The price on the label is never fixed, so hone your bargaining skills and come explore.
6. Cuisine: A favorite for locals and travelers, the restaurant Felfela is a chain that features delicious Egyptian cuisine in a well-maintained, authentic atmosphere. Known for its friendly wait staff, expert chefs, and extensive menu options, Felfela provides a memorable culinary experience for tastes that range from tame to the most adventurous of palettes.
7. Mosques: Located in the neighborhood of Midan al-Hussein, Al-Hussein Mosque is easily one of Cairo’s most beautiful. Featuring high vaulted ceilings, gray marble pillars, and hanging chandeliers, slow-walking pilgrims often circle the shrine to Hussein chanting their daily prayers.
8. Old Cairo: Also known as Coptic Cairo, this quiet neighborhood features two important sites, the crypt of the Holy Family under St. Sergius Church, and the Nunnery of St. George. Of particular interest in this area is the Ben Ezra Synagogue, rumored to be the exact spot where baby Moses was hidden among the reeds in the Bible’s Old Testament. A visit to the Old Cemetery completes an afternoon of quiet reflection on this city’s diverse ethnic heritage.
9. Babylon Fort: This fort serves at the entrance to the neighborhood of Coptic Cairo, the area settled by the very first Arab armies. Named Kheraha in ancient times, the city’s name was eventually changed to Babylon, and Persians built the fort to protect their city from invading Romans. All that remains today are the large towers that guarded the fort’s entrance, a skeleton of which you can see to the left if you’re facing the Coptic Museum. The Greek Orthodox Church of St. George is built atop the ruins of the second tower to the right.
10. Arab Music Festival: Each November, Cairo becomes home to this carnival of Middle Eastern-influenced artists. Housed in the Cairo Opera House, concerts include classic, traditional, and orchestral selections with Western and jazz influences.
Cairo experiences two seasons per year: a relatively warm winter from November to April, and a scorching summer that begins in May and extends until October. Your best bet is to travel to the city between November and March to take advantage of the cooler temperatures. Cairo receives very little rainfall, so no need to worry about a rainy season when determining your travel plans.
Visas: A passport and a visa are required for entering Egypt, and you can obtain a renewable 30-day tourist visa on your arrival at any Egyptian airport.
Transportation: Arriving at Cairo International Airport can sometimes be an overwhelming experience, but the possibility of violent crime is exceedingly rare. After buying your visa, make your way out of the airport to catch a cab. Do not let your cab driver suggest a different hotel than the one that you’ve already booked; some cab drivers receive kickbacks from certain hotels to bring in guests.
Traveling by foot or by metro are the best ways to get around. If you’re feeling brave enough to travel by bus, ask your hotel staff for directions and instructions before hopping on.
1. Egypt is divided into 29 governorates. If you look closely at a map, you can see that some of them, like the New Valley in the Sahara, are relatively large, while the governorates immediately surrounding the Nile, like Aswan, Luxor, and Qena, are very small. That accounts for the difference in population in the desert and in the fertile Nile region.
2. One Egyptian pound (E£), the nation’s currency, equals 100 piastres. All notes are written in Arabic and English, and the smaller the note, the smaller the monetary denomination. It can be a challenge to find a merchant willing to break the larger denominations from the currency exchange office, and you’ll need smaller denominations of piastres for the practice of baksheesh, as described below. Try to obtain smaller notes at the time of your exchange.
3. The Egyptian tradition of baksheesh is extremely common in the area and is more or less comparable to the Western practice of tipping. Baksheesh in Egypt encompasses a wider range, however, and is expected as a thank you for any service rendered, even if that service was not technically requested. Want to see a closed tomb? Twenty-five piastres. Want to turn on a light in a museum display case? Only 50 piastres. This constant exchange of baksheesh can be surprising for a first-timer, but it’s the norm all over the country.
4. Egypt uses the electric plug type called C, so make sure you pack a plug adapter before you leave. You’ll also need a transformer that can convert streams into 220 volts.
5. Religion plays an important part in Egypt’s history and modern culture, and Egypt’s constitution requires all legislation to conform implicitly with Islamic law. Today almost 90 percent of the population practices Sunni Islam, and the call to prayer can be heard five times a day from the mosque minarets that dot the country’s horizon. It is not uncommon for the small population of Christian followers to get a small, voluntary tattoo on their hand indicating their faith.