Egypt has been on our list of countries to visit for a long time. When the "Arab Spring" demonstrations (which the Egyptians call the "revolution") took place in 2011, we thought we had lost our chance. But Egypt is undergoing a recovery and is experiencing a rebirth of tourism. We spent two glorious weeks in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan (Abu Simbel).
We spent five days in Cairo, split between the beginning and end of the trip. At no time anywhere in Egypt did we feel unsafe - except for crossing the street in Cairo - more on that below.
The greater Cairo area including Giza which is home to the pyramids, has a population of about 24 million. We were told that there are about 10 million cars in Cairo, but based on our experience, that seems to be an understatement! Cars, motorcycles, taxis, buses, horse carts and pedestrians weave in and out with seemingly no rules and no distinct lanes. You need to turn right from the left "lane"? No problem, just do it. It's a cacophony of horns day and night. Amazingly, we saw only a few accidents. Katie and I tried to cross the street only once to walk to a store but fearing for our lives, ended up hiring a taxi!
This was taken from inside our van, but it gives you a small idea of the everyday traffic in Cairo. It never stops!
Bargaining and tipping are a way of life. Offer a price considerably lower than the vendor's and he acts insulted. It's a game that Egyptians are superb at but which I'll never get used to. Nevertheless, I tried my hand at bargaining and despite my efforts, I still probably greatly overpaid. The vendor and I always ended up being best friends which probably confirms that I'm as terrible at it as I think I am!
About 80% of the Egyptian population is Muslim and about 20% is Christian. From what we could tell and from what our guides told us, both religions co-exist in relative peace.
The variety of dress was fascinating, from jeans and other Western garb to galabeyas and thobes, the long flowing robes, to full burqas covering everything but women's eyes.
Egyptian children are delightful. I can't tell you how many times both boys and girls stopped me to ask to have their picture taken with them. The guide said it's my blond hair. They were so giggly and excited to pose with me and I was happy to oblige.
Khan al Khalili Market
No visit to Cairo would be complete without walking through Khan al Khalili. It's colorful, frenetic and authentic. Al Muizz, the 1 km. street stretching between Bab Zuweila and Bab al-Futuh, the remaining gates of the ancient city, is lined with shops selling everything from gold to textiles to souvenirs. It's closed to cars, but watch for scooters and carts! And be prepared to have shopkeepers call to you to visit their shop. Usually a polite but firm "no thank you" suffices, but some are persistent and will follow you down the street.
These lovely fixtures stand atop minarets as in the photo on the right.
If bargaining isn't your thing, head to Jordi. There is no bargaining and the prices are very competitive. This is a foreign concept in Egypt and we were told that understandably, the other shop owners in Khan al Khalili aren't fans of Jordi.
The two ancient gates bookending Al Muizz Street, Bab Zuweila and Bab al-Futuh.
The Tentmaker Street
Tentmaking is an art which has been handed down through the generations in Egypt. The ancestors of the current tentmakers made tents during the Ottoman empire and the craft is alive today, albeit intended for more modern everyday uses such as pillows and rugs. The colors are rich and beautiful.
While many locals also shop at Khan Al Khalili, we passed the market below which is uniquely a local market. It was huge - and so colorful!
Hookas and Shisha
Smoking shisha, the fruit-scented tobacco through elaborate and shiny hookas is a popular pastime in Egypt. We saw it everywhere.
Some miscellaneous photos of Cairo...
Would you like to guess what these structures are? Imagine our surprise when we were told that they're pigeon towers! Many people in Cairo keep pigeons and release them from these towers. "Most" of them return!
View of the pyramids from our hotel room through the afternoon haze.
We used our Hilton points to stay at the Ramses Hilton both times in Cairo. The only issue we had with it is that it was impossible to leave the hotel just to walk along the Nile (or anywhere else for that matter) due to its location at the intersection of several major streets which we didn't feel comfortable (to say the least) crossing. It's just across the street from the Egyptian Museum and a couple blocks from Tahrir Square.
While we traveled independently as we always do, we hired drivers and guides throughout the country. If you've read our other posts, you know that we like to be met at the airport when we arrive in new cities. For this trip to a country with such rich and plentiful history, we also wanted Egyptologists to explain what we were looking at. I spent a lot of time researching before we left and we hired Go Luxor Tours which was excellent (we're not getting any revenue from this). Having expert guides and drivers throughout the country made a huge difference in the quality of our visit!
➜ Top Tips
Tipping is expected - by everyone. Egyptians will happily accept US dollars so we took $1 bills which came in very handy. Hotels weren't able (or willing) to give us small Egyptian bills and the ATM machines generally give out only large bills, but the banks will gladly change large bills (Bank Misr is one of the large ones).
This probably goes without saying, but take comfortable walking shoes. There is a lot of walking at the pyramids, temples and tombs in addition to the cities and much of it is on old and uneven pavement.
Take a hat; the Egyptian sun is very strong!
Be prepared to bargain; it's expected. And be prepared to be hassled by vendors. If you so much as look at something in a shop, some vendors will pressure you to make a purchase to the extent of walking with you on the street.
Uber is common in Egypt, but if you take a taxi, make sure you lock in the fare before you get in the cab.
Order mint tea after lunch or dinner - or anytime - it's delicious!
We felt very safe everywhere we went in Egypt, but as in any country, situational awareness is important (especially crossing streets).
Egypt is conservative. Katie wore jeans and I wore crop pants. We wouldn't have felt comfortable wearing shorts.
Build in some down time. Egypt is an assault on the senses and there's a lot of walking in addition to taking in all the history you'll learn. Stop at a coffee shop and people watch. We didn't take a Nile cruise, but that would be a great way to relax.