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Egypt Part 1

Egypt Part 1

For as long as I can remember, visiting Egypt was on my bucket list. Stories of Pharaohs, mummies, and pyramids captured my imagination as a child and engendered a life-long love of history and different cultures. Unfortunately, by the time I began traveling as an adult, the eroding political situation in Egypt made visiting difficult.  

In the early 2000s, Egyptians, inspired by the Arab Spring, began protesting the current Mubarak regime  in an effort to ignite political reforms and establish greater civil liberties. This culminated in the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Thanks to wide-spread protests, President Mubarak resigned and fled Cairo.

The ousting of Mubarak, however, only brought more political and economic hardship for the Egyptian people. Three years of radical factions, political corruption, and violent clashes ended in a coup d’état that ousted yet another sitting president, Mohamed Morsi. The man who led this military coup quickly gained popularity and announced his candidacy for president in 2014. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi reportedly won his election with 96.9% of the vote. While many question this number, his election was widely recognized internationally. Sisi remains the president of Egypt, in fact we saw him in Luxor while we were there, and his tenure has ushered in a period of increasing stability with substantial investments in tourism as well as trade and economic liberalization. Although critics argue that under Sisi Egypt has also become more authoritarian and religiously conservative.

Following the revolution in 2011, the Egyptian economy suffered a severe downturn and still struggles to restore growth, market, and investor confidence. From 2016, some economic reform did occur, but has been undermined by the Covid pandemic. Despite all of this, tourism is slowly returning and traveling in Egypt is the safest it has been in more than a decade. So why share all this political and economic history? Well, it is most definitely going to impact a trip to Egypt and will help to contextualize your experiences.


Where to Stay In Cairo

Where to Stay

One of the first lessons I learned was that mid-range hotels, as we know them, don’t really exist in Egypt. It is either 5-start opulence, or very minimal and basic (and typically under construction to avoid taxation). We also learned the hard way that many smaller hotels on sites like flat out misrepresent their properties, using stock photos and fake reviews. My first piece of advice is to splurge on the 5-start hotels and book directly through their website or your credit card’s travel site. There are some really cool historic properties as well as luxurious new high-rises. The good news is that these lavish properties are more affordable in Egypt. For example, our nightly rate at the newly built St. Regis in Cairo was just $249 (through AMEX) and worth every single penny.

While Giza and Cairo seem close by, traffic and urban congestion make traveling between the two difficult. So, you will want to stay in Cairo to visit the sites there and then relocate to Giza when you are ready to explore the pyramids. While in central Cairo you can easily and affordably get around with Uber. Our average Uber ride in the city was under $5 and using an app to enter your destination will help with the language barrier.

In Giza, we stayed at the historic Marriott Mena House. While not as updated as the St. Regis, this property has a rich history, stunning grounds, and is literally right next to the Pyramids of Giza. It is a 5-minute walk from breakfast to the Great Pyramid of Khufu!

What to Expect

If I had to describe Cairo in one word it would be chaos. I have been to a lot of chaotic cities in my travels, but Cairo takes the top prize. I won’t sugarcoat it; the absurd traffic, constant honking and noise, pollution, and trash are awful. Not to mention everyone smokes and smoking in doors is still allowed.

We also experienced quite a bit of “harassment” while in Cairo. I use quotations around harassment because while it was not welcomed, I never understood it as malicious. Nor did I feel that I was in any physical danger. Vendors will constantly shout at you, taxi drivers and children will follow you, and people will randomly shout whatever English words they know at you. As an extrovert, I did not mind this too much and I have experienced similar situations in other countries. But the introverts that I was traveling with, found it incredibly taxing.

There is also a bit of cultural misunderstanding at play. Americans interpret many of these behaviors, especially from men, as threatening and dangerous. But as I said, it never felt malicious, just uncomfortable as an American. And I think the language barrier makes it even harder to read these situations. The best way to navigate the “harassment” is to simply ignore it. If you do want to engage, to haggle over a price, for example, remember to be firm and willing to walk away. I say none of this to detour you from visiting Cairo. Rather, knowing what to expect will help you plan your trip and prepare mentally. My advice is to leave time in your day to recharge at your nice and quiet 5-star hotel!

Something else to note is that you will see police and military everywhere in the major cities. If you ever feel uneasy you can simply find nearby police. Many police officers took the initiative to help us when they saw us. For example, when we arrived at the crowded and chaotic Ramses train station, a police officer immediately pulled us aside and showed us to a private room where we could wait with the other tourists. He made us tea, escorted us to our train platform when it was time, waited with us, and helped us on the train. We found the military and police presence everywhere reassuring.

What to See

A lot of American tourists spend very little time in Cairo. Most fly in, stay in Giza, and see just the Pyramid complex before heading south to the cities of ancient Egypt (often by Nile cruise). If you do not like dirty, noisy, crowded, and chaotic big cities like Cairo, or fear the attention/harassment may be too much for you, then this is a good option. As a historian, however, I was very invested in seeing the historic sites and museums of Cairo!

There are several great museums in Cairo. We visited the National Museum of Egyptian Civilizations (NMEC), the Egyptian Museum, and the Coptic Museum. The NMEC does a great job covering the entire history of Egypt – from ancient mummification practices to the Islamic conquest and all the way to present day. It is also where you will get to see the famous royal mummies excavated from the Valley of the Kings. The Egyptian Museum takes you back to the days of colonial collecting. It feels as if you have entered the cluttered basement of a nineteenth century collector – artifacts everywhere! This museum focuses more on pharaonic Egypt and holds the famous sarcophagi and mask of King Tut.

The Coptic Museum is far less famous but a wonderful little gem that is part of a larger group of buildings, archeological remains, and churches that are collectively known as Coptic Cairo. This area traces the history of the Roman and later Coptic Christian community in Cairo. In addition to the museum be sure to visit the beautiful Hanging Church and a 2,000-year-old street that leads you to another church, which is said to be the site where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus stayed during their flight into Egypt.

Just up the road from Coptic Cairo is the city’s citadel, or the mosque of Salah Al-Din Al-Ayoubi. This stunning mosque is open to the public and the surrounding grounds sit high above Cairo, providing sweeping views of the city.

Another area of Cairo that you should not miss is the historic Islamic area of the city, which centers around the famed Al-Mu’izz street. This street was named after the Fatimid Caliph who first founded it and is dotted with mosques, madrassas (Islamic schools), mausoleums, and other monuments dating from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries. The street is full of stunning Islamic architecture and for a small fee you can enter many of buildings. We toured the Madrasa and Mausoleum of al-Saleh Najm al-Din Ayyub, the Madrasa and Khanaqah of Sultan al-Zahir Barquq, and the Mosque, Madrasa, and Khanqa of Sultan Barquq. At the end of Al-Muizz is a historic city gate from the eleventh century called Bab Zuwayla. You can climb the minarets of the tower for great views of the entire area.

Just off Al-Mu’izz is the bustling bazaar of Kan El Kalili. The winding historic alleys and small shops of Kan El Kalili sit on what was the center of trade during the Mamluk period (13th-16th centuries). While shopping for souvenirs be sure to notice the historic caravanserais, or road-side inns. These were found in major cities and along the Silk Road, and provided travelers and traders a place to rest.

The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has a great website that showcases all of Egypt’s historic sites, monuments, and museums, which you can filter by historic periods or cities. You can check it out here.

Cairo photography - Sphinx

On our fourth day in Cairo, we relocated to Giza. As I mentioned previously, we stayed at the amazing Marriott Mena House. This allowed us to easily visit the pyramid complex twice, which I highly recommend.

The first afternoon we entered just an hour before closing and headed straight to the Sphinx. The Sphinx faces east, so the late afternoon is the best time of day to see and photograph him! If you are patient, you can snap an epic photo of you, the Sphinx, and the Great Pyramid despite the chaos of the tourists and vendors that swarm the area as sunset approaches.

The following morning we woke up early to return to the pyramid complex. For just 350 Egyptian Pounds you can hire a camel and guide to take you to a panoramic spot. It is a bumpy but really fun 45-minute ride. The view and the photo ops from this spot are incredible and definitely worth being sore the next day. After our ride, we returned to admire the pyramids of Khufu and his son Khafre. You can pay an additional fee to enter the pyramids. But be warned, it is very cramped, stuffy, and crowded. If you are claustrophobic at all, I do not recommend it. Plus, unlike the Valley of the Kings, there isn’t much inside to see. After two days in Giza, we headed to the train station to board our overnight train to Aswan!

Below is the detailed breakdown of how we spent our days in Cairo and Giza. And because this post is getting quite long, I will cover the second half of our trip in another post.

Daily Itinerary Cairo and Giza

Day 1
Breakfast at hotel
(The breakfast at the St. Regis is phenomenal!)

National Museum of Egyptian Civilizations (NMEC)

Lunch in the Khan El Khalili market

Explore Khan El Khalili

Visit the Citadel

Day 2
Breakfast at hotel

Explore Al Mu’izz Street:

(Don’t miss the historic Madrasas, Mosques, and Mausoleums, especially the Qalawun Complex and Bab Zuwayla)

Lunch break at hotel

Egyptian Museum

Dinner at Bab El-Sharq
(Inside the Ritz and overlooks the Egyptian Museum)

Day 3
Breakfast at hotel

Explore Coptic Cairo
(Hanging Church, Church of St. Sergius, and Abu Sagra (the oldest church in Egypt)

Coptic Museum

Lunch break at hotel

Transfer to Giza hotel

Visit the Sphinx

Day 4
Breakfast at Hotel
(With a view of the pyramids!)

Camel Ride

Lunch break at the 9 Pyramids Lounge

Visit the Great Pyramids of Giza

Check out of hotel and transfer to Train Station

Evening departure on the overnight train