Cairo is hardly a city for the faint at heart. This capital city is noisy, dirty, hot, smelly, and crowded. With 18 million people in the city and surrounding areas, this should come as no surprise to an experienced traveler. But this city has a particularly chaotic vibe that I have only seen in India prior to this trip. It is a marked difference from the peacefulness and relative cleanliness of Amman, and the organized and tourist friendly Istanbul. Cairo is a whole different animal.
But for any visitor to Egypt, this is where your journey will begin. Unless you love this type of city, 48 hours should be more than enough for you. Take full advantage of the seemingly sparse activities for tourists, as wandering around the city with prove frustrating and futile. We started our visit with a walking tour of the old city near the Khali Kalal market and Muslim sector. This area of the city is filled with narrow alleys full of shops, as well as stunning mosques with minarets peering over the surrounding streets. Be prepared for heckling, and lots of it. Women will probably fall victim to it more, and you will hear kissing sounds and cat calls. Not pleasant when alone, I would recommend going with a couple friends. But once in the market, there are lots of small shops selling any number of things. The market is separated into distinct areas, so if you’re looking for souvenirs, make sure to have the cabbie drop you off near that area. Or else you’ll have a hell of a time finding it. There are lots of delicious falafel and shawarma joints in the area for a quick lunch.
We then took a cab to Nile Riverfront near the new Opera House to begin another short walking tour. The New Opera house was built when the old one burned down in the 1970s, and is a beautiful building, with some lovely gardens nearby. If you cross over the Nile on one of the many bridges, you will be greeted by two large lion statues on either side of the bridge, as well as a large roundabout with a statue. These are all around the city, and in the center of all them is a statue of a famous or important Egyptian. I can imagine that would be an interesting tour, seeing all of those. We didn’t do that, but caught glimpses of them from the car. They’re literally everywhere! Walking across the Nile is lovely, especially around sunset. The temperatures are a bit cooler with a small breeze and the colors make the city light up and the river look like it’s on fire. Very beautiful! Egyptians tend to come out later in the day and at night, so it was quite crowded when we were walking around.
Once across the bridge, you will be essentially in the center of downtown. If you continue to walk along the main street, you will run right into Tahrir Square. Famous for the protests in 2011, Tahrir Square is a central meeting place for young people and was designed by a French city planner back in the 19 century. The remnants of the protests are largely gone, except for the burned out shell of the Mubarak regime building at the north end of the square. It is completely burned out, all the windows gone, and to me, it looked like a symbol (or maybe warning?) so no one will forget the power the people held in 2011.
After snapping a few pictures, continue across the square to the Egyptian museum. This is another highlight for Cairo, and I highly recommend a stop. This museum has over 120,000 pieces in their collection spanning throughout the ancient Egyptian period. Some are believed to date back 7,000 years ago! There is absolutely no cameras allowed inside, so you will have to check your bag at the security drop box area and pick it up on your way out. This is strict, so don’t try and get away with sneaking it in. In my opinion, this museum could be the best in the world.
The collection is absolutely spectacular. It covers such a long period of history and is very extensive. Plus, there is a rule in Egypt that if there is not an identical replica of an antiquity, it cannot leave Egypt. So some of the items in the collection are the only one in existence, and this is the only place you can see them. But the museum itself is a shell of it’s former glory. Once inside, you will notice a distinct lack of AC, highly unpleasant in a stuffy 80 degree building.. The lighting is horrible, with flicking fluorescent tubes and awkward blue and yellowy colors. All of the artifacts are in these bulky wooden cases with glass that hasn’t been cleaned in years. And there is a noticeably lack of signs. The signs that do exist are printed on flimsy paper and scotch taped on the glass. Not exactly appealing. Having just come from the Acropolis museum, this was a huge disappointment.
Although there were flaws in the presentation, the museum is still worth checking out. Some highlights include the Tutankhamen collection on the second floor, the Royal Mummies room and the tomb/sarcophagus wing. The Tutankhamen room collection is by far and away the most impressive. Tutankhamen was a fairly unmemorable king, since he was a boy and mainly a puppet king. Plus he only ruled for about 10 years. What made him famous is his tomb. One of the only tombs found in it’s full form, this tomb contained everything that he was originally buried with. Many of the other larger and more famous pharaohs’ tombs had been raided in the 5000 years since burial, so the relics were gone. But not his.
In the collection, you see the famous burial mask, 4 different gold burial caskets and another 3 sarcophagi. Also here is an extensive collection of gold and precious stone jewelry (which provided a lot of inspiration for my Etsy shop), well preserved shoes & clothing, as well as a ton of amazing furniture pieces. The discovery of this tomb helped to uncover a lot secrets and give archaeologists a good view of what was typically buried with a pharaoh. As I mentioned, his tomb was considered a small collection of what would have been with the more famous pharaohs, like Rames the Great. And King Tut’s collection is considered priceless. Likely valued at over $1 billion, you can only imagine what would have been in those other tombs. As I mentioned, another interesting stop in the museum is the Royal Mummies.
Once you’re sufficiently antiquity’ied out at the museum, walk back along the main drag where there is lots of political street art, graffiti and murals to commemorate the protests. Some of them are very impressive and beautiful. According to our guide, they periodically get painted over by the police, and the artists will come back and paint another mural. It is a constantly revolving collection of memories, sayings and political cartoons. There were a few that were actually quite emotional. I highly recommend taking a look at these, because I think that it gives you a feeling for the people of the city.
This streets runs into the old part of the city, where you will see European style architecture, leftover from the British rule era. Some of them are quite beautiful, and there are lots of historic restaurants and coffee shops around here. We even saw an Egyptian actress & celebrity! We wandered around this area, although there were countless military tanks on the street corners and armed personnel. Our guide said it was to protect people on the street and clear street vendors or public nuisances. It’s a little unsettling at first, but I guess you just get used to it.
We had a lovely dinner at a local favorite called Koshary Abou Tarek. There is no menu because they only serve on thing: kosary. It is a carbs on carbs on carbs dish consisting of risotto, pasta and rice mixed with a chunky tomato sauce and green lentils. You are also given a side dish of toppings, including garbanzo beans, fried onions, parsley, garlic water, chili paste and fresh black pepper. This way you can dress up the dish to your own taste. Once everything was all mixed together, you can take a tasty bite of your dish. It was soooo good, super rich and flavorful. I couldn’t finish my bowl (surprisingly, considering how much we had walked), but left with a very happy belly. Also nearby, is a delicious ice cream joint. There only serve 4 flavors, and there is always a long line. Funnily, there is a separate line for men and women, and the women’s line was shorter! Amazing! Definitely try the mango sorbet, it is spectacular. So flavorful and creamy! I also got the strawberry sorbet, which was killer too. Really sweet :)
That made for a long day, so we headed back to the hotel for a rest. As you saw from my post the other day, we of course visited the Pyramids in the morning. This is a highlight of Cairo and all of Egypt, so definitely budget at least 1.5 hours there. It isn’t a huge site, and once you snap a few pictures, there isn’t a ton of other things to see and you will notice a total lack of signage. Hiring a guide would be best if you want to learn about the history.
If you’re not pyramid-ed out by that point, I also took a half day trip to Sakkara and Memphis. Memphis was the original capital of the ancient Egyptian empire and Sakkara is the site of the oldest and first pyramid ever built in Egypt. As with the pyramids, there was a distinct lack of visitors and we essentially had the site to ourselves. This was really nice! The step pyramid in Succara is currently under renovation, so there is scaffolding all over one side. But it is really cool to see the first one ever built and the distinct differences. It is a step style pyramid, rather than a true pyramid like the ones at Giza. Also at the site is a burial chamber with some exquisite hieroglyphic carvings.
Buried under the sand for thousands of years, they remained in almost perfect condition, and you can still see some of the painting on them! Again, no photos allowed inside, but these scenes depict the daily life of Egyptians. It shows the ritual processes and offerings they made to their gods and revealed a lot of secrets about what food & drink were typical in the Egyptian diet. This is also the only hieroglyphic scenes ever found that show how the pyramids were built. The carvings show Egyptians putting heavy objects on large sleds with wooden logs underneath to pull them using many men or oxen. It also shows that they would oil the road to make it slicker and easier to transport. I was so impressed with how well preserved these were, and how much information they provided to archeologists. I don’t know why it ever dawned on me, but pretty much everything that we know about this ancient culture is from the heiroglyphics images and the Rosetta stone. Pretty amazing stuff.
After Sakkara, you’ll make a quick stop at the ruins of Memphis. There isn’t much left to see, but this is the site of two pretty cool statues. The first is one of twin statues of Rames II. Rames II is one of the longest reining kings in human history (67 years) and probably the most famous pharaoh. He has lots of temples and statues around Egypt, but this one is tallest. It is a staggering 30+ meters tall. Two were found, and the second one will be put in front of the new Giza museum, whenever it opens. The details is so spectacular and you can see hieroglyphics cartouches on it, stating which king it was. The other famous statues is the second largest Sphinx behind the Great Sphinx at Giza. You can see the full body and good details on the body and face. This one is a bit of a mystery, because they don’t know who built it or who is built for, as there are no names listed on it.
If you follow this itinerary, you will have a packed 48 hours in Cairo, but it will be good way to start your exploration of Egypt. Don’t expect to fall in love the city, expect to fall in love with the history of the place. If you plan it properly, try to do Cairo at the end of your trip. I think this might help with the culture shock a bit, and you won’t be so turned off if you’ve experienced some of the other places first. Nonetheless, there are some major highlights in the biggest city in the country, and if you go in with an open mind, you are sure to enjoy what you see.