Leave your inhibitions at home and let the onslaught of Cairo’s sensory stimulation guide your journey. It’s hot, chaotic, and perfumy, but the city’s charm is indisputable. Most tourists are attracted to the city-adjacent Giza Pyramids complex, but when you visit, don’t miss out on all the hidden treasures that the city, and its surrounding villages, have to offer.
Arriving in Cairo by plane:
To enter Egypt, travelers from dozens of other countries are required to purchase a visa, including American and British passport holders. But don’t fret, an Egypt visa can be purchased upon arrival at the Cairo International Airport. After exiting the plane, go straight to an ATM if you do not have cash already, and withdraw at least $40. Then go directly to the ‘Visa on Arrival’ window. Do not go to the queue for immigration without first purchasing your visa! The lines tend to be long, so don’t wait in the immigration line twice. At the window, purchase your visa stamp. As an American passport holder in 2018, mine cost only $25, and it is still the most beautiful stamp in my passport. Don’t attempt to stick the stamp in your passport yourself, wait until you meet an immigration officer who will inspect your passport.
You can also pre-purchase a single or multiple entry tourist visa for Egypt online through iVisa. I have not personally used this service, but I have read good things about it.
Transportation from the airport:
Yes, Uber is operating in Cairo, and it is super affordable. A ride from the airport to the city should run you less than $20, depending on your destination. If you have booked a tour guide for your visit to Cairo, you may be able to arrange for them to collect you and your luggage from the airport.
Where to stay in Cairo:
There are many beautiful hotels in Cairo with stunning views of the Nile River. On the west side of the river, the Cairo Marriot Hotel & Omar Khayyam Casino will keep you comfortable and entertained with 5-star luxury suites, an Arabian spa, and an array of hotel-sponsored sightseeing tours. On the east side of the river, the Ramses Hilton features exceptional views of the Nile as well as the city skyline. It has an outdoor rooftop pool, kid’s playground, and 7 savory restaurants including a top floor lounge that offers the best views of the city. From this lounge, and any west-facing room in the hotel, you can see the ornate, lotus flower-inspired Cairo Tower, Egypt’s tallest tower with observation deck. The hotel is within walking distance to the Egyptian Museum, the Ramses Mall, and a variety of cafes.
Regardless of the hotel chain you choose, be prepared to spend some time checking in because they really role out the red carpet for their guests. I stayed at the Ramses Hilton, and I was treated like a VIP from the moment I arrived. My bags were carried for me as I was escorted to a private sitting area to complete the check-in process. During the introductions, I was offered tea and snacks and asked to describe my plans for my stay so that the hotel could help me with any reservations. Periodically, throughout my stay, I was addressed by name, asked if I was happy with my accommodations and if the hotel staff could do anything to make me more comfortable.
Getting around Cairo:
Wherever your travel plans take you, it is quite affordable to hire a private driver or guide for the day to show you around the city and wait for you at your chosen attractions. If you choose to travel by Uber, it is also very affordable, but since traffic is notoriously terrible in Cairo, you will most likely spend a lot of time waiting for your Uber, even if they are only a short distance away. If you’re short on time, the private driver would be the way to go. Another benefit of using a private driver or guide is that you can spend time talking to them throughout the day and learning more about the city than perhaps you could sitting in random Uber rides.
Cairo also has a metro with 3 lines that can help you avoid some of the city’s horrible traffic, but it may take you some time to navigate the system.
Driving in Cairo:
the street traffic in Cairo is loud and chaotic. The locals walk or bike through traffic, weaving between cars to cross several lanes. If you plan to walk, be hyper vigilant crossing streets, and be sure to jog or run while doing so. Do not expect to wait for crossing lights or signals, because drivers are too impatient to wait for, or even yield to, pedestrians. Drivers will also “bump” cars in front of them to urge them forward or to get the attention of the other driver. Virtually every vehicle I saw was covered in dents, some even had bumpers hanging off. I witnessed multiple car accidents a day, and I even experienced “bumping” while sitting in a taxi. Personally, I have no problem renting a car and driving in other countries, however, I would never drive in Cairo.
Day 1 in Cairo:
No trip to Cairo would be complete without experiencing the Giza Pyramids. And of course, we have all seen the mysterious artifacts from Egypt’s pyramids featured in museums, or at least on television, and I think many tourists expect to see these artifacts when descending into a pyramid for the first time. Although it is an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of us, you should temper your expectations before your arrival. The chambers within the pyramids at Giza are empty. The contents have either been stolen by plunderers, or placed in museums, some of which are not even in Egypt. If you decide to make the hot and stagnant journey inside, all you will see are narrow corridors and empty cavities. However, it’s pretty cool to be inside a pyramid. So, if you have time to visit one of the other pyramid sites close to Cairo, do yourself a favor and hold out for a less crowded and more interesting one.
For your Giza Pyramid excursion, it is highly recommended to hire a guide, not only for efficient transportation, but also for history highlights and knowledge of local customs. It is common for one or more of the pyramids to be closed for entry, so if you plan to see the inside of the Khufu or Khafre Pyramids, you may want to schedule it in advance. The on-site ticket availability is subject to seasonal conditions and on-going restorations. If you plan to purchase your ticket at the complex, get there early and wait in line.
At the Giza Pyramids, you’ll notice souvenir vendors and camel owners circling the grounds. If you feel so inclined, you can purchase a ride on a camel for a few dollars and take some pictures. From the vendors, you may find scarves, figurines, and cheap jewelry to take home, most likely made in China. If you are looking for an authentic souvenir made in Egypt, wait until you can get to a market or souk to find quality goods.
My trip to Giza was the first day of my Egypt itinerary, and the tour service I hired was the GEM Travel Agency and I cannot say enough good things about them. My tour guide, Bossi, has an education in Egyptology and she was committed to providing me with a custom-tailored Giza experience that I will remember for a lifetime. Bossi and her driver picked me up from the airport, brought me to the Ramses Hilton so I could check in and freshen up. On my schedule, they returned to pick me up, bought me breakfast and then we continued on to Giza. The purchase of my excursion included transportation for the day, access to all 3 of the Giza Pyramids, and the Sphynx, complimentary bottled water, and food. Bossi also recommended authentic Egypt-made souvenir shops where her driver brought me and waited patiently for me to make my selections before returning me to my hotel.
A private guide will cater the tour to you, which means you can see as much or as little as you want, but to see all that Giza has to offer, plan on dedicating 4-6 hours of your day to the excursion. Prepare for intense heat walking around the complex in the sand and sun, and don’t expect shady trees or awnings to escape it. Stay hydrated, wear comfortable walking shoes, and dress for the climate with sunglasses, scarf, or wide-brimmed hat. I should have followed Bossi’s lead that day and brought myself a scarf. It was windy!
Day 2 in Cairo:
Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt, is a must-see while visiting. It is a gateway to the Saqqara Pyramid complex, home to 11 pyramids including Egypt’s oldest. Only about 45 minutes (20 km) south of Cairo, within a village called Mit Rahina, you will find the open-air Museum of Memphis that contains the limestone colossus of Ramses II. Discovered face-down in a swamp in 1820, and missing its legs, the massive statue now lies face up in the main building of the museum where visitors can circle from 2 levels.
The Sphynx of Memphis, an 80-ton, 26-feet long Egyptian alabaster monument to Amenophis II waits outside. Visitors can also marvel at many other limestone and alabaster statues, figures, and a sarcophagus. Admission to the museum costs less than $5 and your visit will be self-directed.
After exploring the village of Memphis and its ruins, make your way west to the necropolis of Saqqara, the largest in Egypt. Saqqara is home to the largest collection of Egyptian tombs and the oldest successfully built pyramid. It is a feast for your senses of wonder and curiosity with more than 6 square miles to explore. It should not be missed!
The first pharaoh tombs at Saqqara, found in the north section, were built in an archaic manner reflecting the weak architectural knowledge of the people who designed them during the 1st Egyptian Dynasty (circa 3100 BC). The pharaohs were buried in mastabas, which are small rectangular buildings with sloped walls, which grew in size and complexity over time eventually developing into pyramids.
South of these early tombs are the first pyramids, built during the 3rd Dynasty (circa 2500 BC). Designed by Imhotep during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser around 2630 BC, the Pyramid of Djoser was the first successful attempt made at constructing a pyramid and remains one of the world’s oldest cut stone structures. The pyramid is made of limestone and stands over 200 feet tall. It is a relatively simple element in the center of a large funerary ensemble which also contains 2 courtyards, a temple, chapels, galleries, and a long colonnade at its entrance.
Despite all of the exposure damage and degradation of the past few millennia, sections of the exterior fortifications still stand where they once enclosed the impressive funerary complex of Djoser.
An interesting element of Saqqara is its intended spiritual purpose. Besides the cemeteries and tombs of the first pharaohs, there are 4 main temples that represent sacred places where the gods were worshiped. An important site for funerals, the complex includes a monumental hypostyle entry hall with massive columns and statues.
During your visit to Saqqara, be sure to check out the Pyramid of Unas, the last pharaoh of the 5th Dynasty, situated southwest of the Djoser Pyramid. It’s small, ugly, and totally inconspicuous above ground, but it was the most fascinating pyramid that I entered during my Egypt trip. The walls within the central chamber are covered with Egyptian religious texts relating to life after death. The hieroglyphs, painted blue and still visible after 4,400 years, are the oldest known collection of spells used to grant the pharaoh life after death. When inside, my guide placed his flashlight against the wall surface to expose carvings beneath the superficial paint. He explained that the underlying carvings were from a previous dynasty and were covered up by the builders of Unas’s pyramid.
Just south of the Djoser Pyramid court, there is a deep, open shaft that represents the south tomb. Its purpose remains disputed, but it is believed that the south tomb was constructed earlier than the other tombs and remained unused.
The Mastaba of Mereruka, right next to the Djoser Pyramid, should also be experienced before leaving Saqqara. Within the tomb, there are vivid scenes of ancient Egyptian life including hunting, fishing, and working.
Admission to the Saqqara complex is less than $10. It’s a short trip from Cairo and a small price to pay to witness the work of the first ancient architects whose designs paved the way for the modern Wonders of the World, still standing after thousands of years.
If you’ve come this far, you might as well see Dahshur, the oldest smooth-sided pyramid in Egypt. The ancient royal necropolis of Dahshur is located just 2 km south of the Saqqara necropolis, also on the west side of the Nile River.
Sometimes called the Bent Pyramid, the shape of Dahshur has been under some debate. Some historians believe that the irregular shape was part of the design, while others believe that the builders of the pyramid realized the pitch was too steep and shifted to a more gradual slope for the rest of the construction.
The Northern Stone Pyramid, commonly known as the Red Pyramid due to the reddish color of the limestone blocks, is the most impressive monument to be found in Dahshur. Standing more than 330 feet tall, it is the oldest royal tomb in pure pyramid form.
Enter the pyramid from the north through a shaft that leads to 3 chambers in the center of the structure.
The Black Pyramid, built during the 12th Dynasty (circa 1860 BC), originally stood over 200 feet high and was faced with slabs of marble which have since degraded entirely. The sarcophagus of Pharaoh Sesostris III was found within the tomb chamber, and just to the north, but still within the enclosure that surrounded the pyramid, tomb chambers belonging to female members of the royal family were also found. Their tomb furnishings can be viewed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Plan to purchase tickets in advance before visiting these two necropolises. To visit, permission from the Ministry of Antiquities is required, and can be obtained only through the legal sale of tour tickets. If you book a private tour for your excursions in Egypt, all of this will be explained and included in your booking fees.
There’s one long road from Memphis to Saqqara where you will pass by forests of fig trees and small villages. One thing that piqued my interest on this road was the Oriental Carpet School. There’s actually more than one in this remote area.
I asked my tour guide if I could see inside one of the schools and he arranged it as a stop on the way out of the necropolis.
Inside the school, I saw mostly men and boys weaving colorful carpets on large wooden looms. They ranged in size, shape, and material, but all of the patterns I saw were beautiful.
The workers were welcoming and eager to answer my many questions. After exploring the workshop for a while, I was brought upstairs to the gallery. Someone I can only assume was the gallery owner, brought me tea and showed me some of his most beautiful rugs for sale. I ended up buying one small enough to take home on the plane with me. The work is unmatched by any other rug I have seen.
Day 3 in Cairo:
After a couple days of exploring pyramids and monuments in the desert, you’ll be ready for some low-key activities like dining in a café, strolling through one of Egypt’s many museums, or a leisurely boat ride on the Nile at sunset. Don't forget to visit one of Cairo's many vibrant souks and haggle with a shop owner for your souvenirs. It's a local tradition!
On my last night in Cairo, my wonderful tour guide Bossi arranged for me to take a felucca tour on the Nile River. It lasted about an hour, and I witnessed a stunning sunset over the Cairo skyline, all for about $5.
It was a perfect ending to a wonderful 3-day weekend in Cairo!
Fun facts: there are well over 100 pyramids that have been identified throughout Egypt, and historians are still uncovering more landmarks and artifacts as you are reading this blog!
Special thank you to Bossi Mamdouh for making my first trip to Cairo unforgettable!
"To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live."
- Hans Christian Andersen