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*I spent 3 days in Cairo in Sept. 2015 and it felt like 3 weeks. This place rivals Mumbai for the craziest city I’ve ever been to in my life. It was both mentally and physically exhausting after my short time in the city. This blog post serves as a guide to travel in Cairo based off my personal experiences. I’m going to be brutally honest with you here, so please, take it with a grain of salt.”
Since I can remember as a young kid, I’ve always wanted to go to Egypt. I remember learning about ancient Egypt in 1st grade and hoping that one day, I would have the chance to see the Pyramids with my own two eyes. Now I had the chance, so I took it.
And I’m glad that I came here, because seeing the Pyramids of Giza was one of the best travel experiences of my life. I took a 2 hour camel ride around the desert and it was something I’ll never forget.
But what about the culture in Cairo?
My trip to Egypt’s capital city was as about as unplanned as any trip can get. I booked my hotel the night before, I didn’t do any research and I had no friends in the city. I had never met an Egyptian person in my life, so I had no clue how they were or what their culture was like. I only knew about Egyptian history, but did that relate to the people and society of today? My only concern in Cairo was to visit the Pyramids of Giza, and the rest was ready to be discovered with an open mind and a willingness to learn.
But to say the least, Cairo was the toughest place I’ve ever traveled to.
Before I dive into this post, I’d like to mention that I screwed up by only visiting Cairo and not checking out other cities in Egypt like Luxor or Alexandria or Dahab. I’m certain that if I went outside of Cairo, that I would have had a much better experience. But I guess that’ll just have to wait for next time…
When I first told people that I was going to Cairo (friends and family included), everyone told me that I was crazy. Everyone told me to be really careful. Everyone told me not to go.
And honestly, I can understand why. The city has gotten a very bad reputation in the news and media since the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, and today, it is noted as a very dangerous destination for solo travelers due to the current tensions in the Middle East.
From the moment I arrived at my hotel in downtown Cairo and took a big whiff of the polluted air, I could already sense what I was getting myself into. Walking around the city, I’ve never felt more unsafe in my life. I’m frightened to tell you some of the things that I witnessed in just 3 days.
Exploring Cairo reminded me of being back in Mumbai earlier this year. It’s shocking similar in many ways. The prices are generally the same, the streets are just as hectic and dirty, and the chaos is unbearable in both places. Little kids will try to sell you things and beg you for money, pedestrians are seen weaving in and out of passing cars, and the hot sun will make you sweat through all layers of clothing. The only major differences between Mumbai and Cairo are that Mumbai has a higher population, a higher level of poverty and the people are much friendlier.
At this point after visiting 67 Countries, I’d like to call myself an experienced traveler. But traveling Cairo was very difficult for me.
I will warn you right now that Cairo it’s NOT an easy place to visit for inexperienced travelers.
Every time I left my hotel, I had a little paranoia in the back of my head. It’s nearly impossible to navigate the city unless you have GPS on your phone. I was haggled on every corner of the street. I was offered all sorts of things from hash to toilet paper to watches. One time, a taxi driver followed me 2 blocks down the street because I didn’t want to take his freaking taxi, and he wouldn’t stop yelling in my ear. Do you need directions to get somewhere? Good luck asking locals for help because they will just stare at you like you’re an alien.
I had no idea what was happening on the streets, but I can tell you that I witnessed 2 car accidents, 3 all-out brawls (yes, first fights) and I heard about a thousand honking horns every minute. When I walked past the American embassy, I saw several army tanks with bullet proof glass which scared the crap out of me. And all the tourist attractions had dozens of policemen with massive guns strapped to their backs and a grin on their face.
Yeah — I’m not making any of this up.
Let’s dive into some facts.
- – Currency – Egyptian Pound (EGP)
- Language – Arabic
- Population – 22 million (Greater Cairo)
- The Arabic name for Cairo is al-Qahirah, which means “the conqueror,” “the vanquisher” or “the victorious.” Most Egyptians call Cairo “Masr”, the Arabic for Egypt.
- Cairo is the most populated city in the Middle East and second in Africa (behind Lagos)
- Ancient Egypt is one of the oldest civilizations in the world
- The ancient Pyramids of Giza, dating back to 2500 BC, are located just a few miles from the city center
- The longest river in the world – the Nile River – runs through Cairo
- Cairo has the oldest and largest film and music industries in the Arab world, as well as the world’s second-oldest institution of higher learning, al-Azhar University.
- Cairo’s metro system, one of two metros on the African continent, ranks among the fifteen busiest in the world with over 1 billion annual passenger rides
What to Do?
Here is my list of the top 5 things to do in Cairo:
- Pyramids of Giza – You simply cannot come to Cairo without seeing one of the 7 wonders of the world (the best one in my opinion). Seeing these pyramids with your eyes is something that I just can’t explain. You just need to do it. And take the 2 hour camel tour around the desert, it’s worth it!
- Citadel – This is a medieval Islamic fortress that’s located on a hill in the heart of the city. It’s famous for it’s landmarks (the Mohammad Ali Mosque) and it has really nice views of the city. It’s now a preserved historic site with museums and mosques.
- Hussein District – This was my favorite place to hang out in Cairo! It’s also the location of the Khan el-Khalili market – a great place to buy souvenirs and hand made goods. The streets here are lined up with shops, restaurants and shisha cafes! This place has the best vibes in the city.
- Egypt Museum – Also known as the Museum of Cairo, this place is an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian antiques. I’m not a museum person, but this was one of the most fascinating ones that I’ve ever been to. Inside has over 120,000 items dating back to ancient times. It’s the big pink building located in the main square so you can’t miss it.
- Shisha Bars – Cairo is home to some of the world’s finest shisha (hookah)! It seems like people are doing it all day, everyday. And it’s very cheap ($1-3 depending on the place). Head over to Hussein district and sit down at a shisha place for the best experience.
Culture & People
The fascinating history of Cairo and the people of Cairo don’t seem to relate with each other. I didn’t feel comfortable walking around this city. Not one bit.
You may have heard about the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, where Cairo was at the center of attention. Millions of protesters wanted to overthrow the Egyptian president and have freedom for themselves. People were rioting, the police were shooting people, and it was an all-out chaos for some time. Almost 1,000 people died and over 6,000 were injured. Since then, things have settled down a bit but there still have been some random acts of violence and terrorism in the city. Especially with all the political things that have been happening in the Middle East lately, Cairo is vulnerable to dangerous things happening.
Here’s a photo of what Cairo looked like in 2011 during the protests…
I found most Egyptian people to be extremely aggressive, loud and pushy. One time when I was riding in a taxi, I saw a car crash happen and then there was a massive brawl on the streets with punches being thrown and people forced in headlocks. Everyone was screaming and pushing. I was scared for my life.
It almost seemed as if the people in Cairo are just looking for a fight. They are always arguing with each other, talking loudly, and getting in each others faces. I’m just telling you exactly what I witnessed and how I felt – I’m not making anything up.
Due to religion restrictions, Egyptians were difficult to approach and many of them are narrow-minded. Around the city of Cairo there must be a different mosque every 100 meters. And about 5 times per day, you can hear the Muslims praying on the loud speakers. Most women wear a hijab on their head, and many men wear long, solid color baggy clothes.
The streets in Cairo are a mess. They rival that of Mumbai. Everyone is honking all the time, even for no reason. Pedestrians are maneuvering between cars in the middle of the street, coming just inches away from being run over. There are no street lanes – cars just weave in and out and slam on the brakes every few minutes to avoid a crash.
As I’m writing this post right now in my hotel room in downtown Cairo, I can hear about three honking horns per second.
If you are going to take a taxi, then all I have to say is good luck. It was a nightmare for me and it’s a guarantee that they won’t speak any English.
On a positive note, the best thing about Cairo is that it is VERY cheap! It’s about the same prices as India. I got a falafel sandwich and a coffee for less than $1USD. A shisha is only $1-2USD, and a 20 minute taxi ride was less than $2USD.
But all in all, I’m going to admit that I didn’t’ feel safe walking around Cairo by myself. I was lucky to be connected with a local guy named Ahmed who was showing me around the city. Without him, I would feel completely lost and scared.
Egyptian food was really good! It’s kind of like Mediterranean with a twist. The pita bread is some of the best I’ve ever had in my life. You have to try a falafel sandwich (shown in photo below)!
Egyptians also like to eat mashed beans in pita bread, which is about 20 cents at any street vendor. It’s really good and I ate this everyday for breakfast.
Turkish style coffee is normally served with your meal and with shisha – it’s thick and rich and tasty.
Lastly, the fruits in Cairo are yummy and you should try the mango juice from a street vendor! It was my favorite.
As you might expect from any Muslim country, the nightlife is almost non-existent. There are some “bars” which are more like big coffee shop-style rooms with people sitting around drinking some beers. But that’s about it. Apparently there are some night clubs but I didn’t bother to check them out. I can’t imagine them being anything that great.
Most of the nightlife consists of chilling outside and smoke shisha — Which was fun! The quality of shisha in Cairo is second to none, and it’s dirt cheap. Head over to the Hussein district near the outdoor markets and try one!
I’m sorry if this post disappointed you if you had high expectations to go to Cairo, but I just had to be honest and share my experiences with you. As I mentioned at the beginning, I screwed up by only visiting Cairo and not seeing other places. I’m sure my experience in Egypt would have been much better if I got out of Cairo.
But I will say that Cairo is absolutely worth it to visit the Pyramids (for one day), but after that, get out and see something else.
If you want some more insider information about what to expect in Egypt, then check out my friend Jeremy’s blog post called Is it Safe To Travel to Egypt? His experience is well worth a read.
Lastly, don’t forget to book your hotels in Cairo on this link!