that place: cairo layover

So you’ve bought your LivingSocial deal, packed your bags and got on the airplane. One 11 hour flight later, you land in Cairo. Now what?????

Though firmly attached to the past, Cairo is also home to a vibrant modern society. Ancient structures mingle with Coptic sites, medieval Islam and thoroughly modern amenities. The city is famous for its history and will surprise you with its future.

If you’ve booked your trip with LivingSocial your airport transfers are covered. For those flying solo, the heart of the city is most easily accessed via taxi. White meter taxis are the only acceptable kind and are easily found at all airport terminals. Insist on using the meter and refuse to pay the parking ticket for the driver. The trip from Cairo International will cost anywhere from 150 to 200 EGP (roughly $25-35 USD) depending on your final destination within Cairo city limits. For most visitors, downtown Cairo will be the first stop.

Cairo has a number of high end hotel options to chose from. The Kempinski Cairo and the Le Riad Hotel de Charme are my favorites in the luxury category. The Le Riad, is designed with interiors that look like they were torn from the glossy pages of a magazine and the rooftop is perfect for enjoying a sunny breakfast before heading out into the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s a great choice for travelers who want all the amenities of a luxury property without feeling like they’ve gotten lost in the chain. With rooms starting at around $300/night, you will get what you pay for.  Similarly lush and Egyptian in flavor, the Kempinski Nile Hotel offers luxurious rooms on the shores of the Nile River. Rates are generally around $200-300 per night, but deals can be found with rooms offered at around $170, especially in the winter months.

A step down the price ladder, the Talisman Hotel de Charme is your best bets. A boutique hotel in central Cairo the Talisman is set in the ideal location for taking in the sights. The hotel’s 25 guestrooms, on one floor, feature warm-colored decor in a traditional, North African style with intricately- designed sheets and wall tapestries. With rooms for $100 a night the Talisman Hotel de Charme is a great value.

For those on a shoestring, my recommendation for a place to crash would be the Australian Hostel. In the heart of downtown, the Australian creates a cozy place for travelers to call home. They’ll even come grab you from the airport if you book 5 nights. Beds start at just $8 a night.

Two years ago, I was lucky enough to visit this fascinating place.  The two days outlined in the following paragraphs flew by as we tried to pack in everything Cairo has to offer. Upon arrival, the choreographed chaos here hits you like a ton of bricks. Cars whirl past, the city echoes with the cries  of hawkers and blanket of smog settles atop everything. Nonetheless, Cairo is memorizing.

Navigating the streets of Cairo can be done alone, map in hand. However, I strongly recommend hiring the services of a local guide. Traffic here is tricky, taxis are a must, and a large majority of the drivers are illiterate. Unless your Arabic is up to par, a local guide is your key to a smooth experience. Don’t worry if you haven’t arranged your guide beforehand- in a city where everyone is an “Egyptologist” finding a local to show you the ropes is pretty easy. I arranged my trip through Travel Udi. Keppy, the brains behind the operation, is great to work with, professional and affordable. Though and Israeli based company, Travel Udi has years of experience arranging tours in Egypt as well as other parts of the Middle East (Keppy introduced me to Mostafa Mosbah, my local guide of choice, and has generally great contacts throughout the region). 

Any tip here will most likely begin with a visit to the pyramids which define the skyline of the city. Jutting out of the desert landscape, the Giza necropolis consists of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the Pyramid of Khafre,  the Pyramid of Menkaure and the great Sphinx. Considered the emblems of Ancient Egypt, the pyramids are one of the Seven Wonders of the World and the only ancient world wonder still in existence.

postcard pyramids, obligatory “pyramid in hand shot”, the sphinx, camels EVERYWHERE

Though the pyramids are Cairo (and Egypt’s) most obvious landmark, to understand the ancient Egyptian world, one must make a stop at the Egyptian Museum. The museum houses the greatest collection of Egyptian antiquities the world over- more than 200,000 artifacts are on display. The thousands of artifacts can be overwhelming to absorb- to see them all would take weeks. More than likely, any visitor, myself included, will only have a few hours. Luckily, the highlights of the museum can be seen in that time. Be sure not to miss the Narmer Palette (thought by some to depict the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt), the painted limestone figures of Rahotep and Nofret, the Gold Mask of King Tutenkamen and the nine remarkably preserved mummies from the time of the pharaohs. Selim Hassan St., Tahrir Square daily 9AM- 5PM.

outside the Egyptian Museum, the Saladin Citadel of Cairo

The pyramids, Sphinx and antiquities of Cairo are what draw most tourists to the country. While important pillars of the city, Cairo has far more history to offer. One of these important historical sights is the Saladin Citadel of Cairo. The medieval Islamic fortification was built between 1183-1184 by the Ayyubid ruler Saladin to protect the city from the Crusaders. Built on a promontory beneath the Muqattam Hills, a setting that made it difficult to attack, the efficacy of the Citadel’s location is further demonstrated by the fact that it remained the heart of Egyptian government until the 19th century. Not a far distance from the citadel, in the area of town known as Old Cairo,  lies the equally impressive Coptic Hanging Church and the Synagogue of Ben Ezra, Cairo’s oldest.

citadel details and interior

Coptic priests, the Hanging Church Interior

Most of Cairo and the sights within it are old in fact. The Khan el-Khalili souk is no exception. Dating back to 1382, the market is at the epicenter of Islamic commerce in Cairo. The market is a is a maze of shops and restaurants with vendors selling everything from spices, to jewelery, clothing, household wares and various food products. Khan el-Khalili was a highlight of my trip- I travel the world for markets, enjoy getting lost amongst the people and native smells, while picking up irreplaceable souvenirs from my journeys. I find that in the local markets of a city, one experiences true local life and Khan el-Khalili further supported my theory. Natty and I were walking through the market in search upon a comfortable stop to grab a cup of coffee. Before we knew is, a tranquil market scene was turned into the sight of a traditional animal slaughter. Restaurants in the market sometimes slaughter cows and other livestock in public display as a form of charity. Once dispatched, the meat is distributed among the poor and provides a meal to those who could otherwise not afford it. Though the ritual was a hard one to watch, I’m eternally grateful to have witnessed a truly local and authentic experience.

surprise slaughter

Though my time in Cairo was short, any visit to the city would not be complete without a cruise down its famous river. The Nile at night was stunning- the ancient waterway comes alive under the city’s illuminated skyline. The  most common option for the night time expedition is a dinner cruise, though if you have the time during the day, I highly recommend taking a traditional felucca ride. If visiting during the summer months, the traditional sailboats have the added bonus of offering respite from the oppressive heat. Feluccas are available across from the Four Seasons Hotel in Garden City. To charter your own, negotiate a fair price of no more than 20 to 30 EGP for about a half hour for the boat, or 50 EGP for an hour, no matter how many people are on it. Pay after your ride, or you may get much less than you bargained for.

nile at night, hookah with a view (pyramids in the distance)

the impressive traffic situation, “unlimited refreshment, zero alcohol”, Egyptian feast

portraits of a city

My time in the city was short- if anything a teaser to what Egypt has to offer. I look forward to returning to Cairo. To see once again the majesty of ancient Egypt and hopefully, experience a little more of the modern.

Time permitting a few additional experiences that should be on your list (and even if it doesn’t permit you should make time for):

  • take in One of the pillars of Islamic thought and home to the world’s oldest university at Al-Azhar Mosque
  • get spooked on a walk through the City of the Dead– a 4 mile dense grid of tomb and mausoleum structures, where some people live and work amongst the dead
  • visit the home of the last king of Egypt the exiled King Farouk on a tour through Abdeen Palace
  • a visit to the four surviving Wadi Natrun Monastaries  all of which date from the fourth century AD
  • sip a coffee at El Fishawy’s coffee shop in Khan El-Khalili
  • smoke a sheesha (traditional water pipe) and laze your night away under the stars at an outdoor establishment
  • indulge in traditional Egyptian dishes of koshari (dish of rice, lentils, chickpeas and macaroni), falafel (deep fried chickpea patty), ful medames (cooked and mashed fava beans served with olive oil, chopped parsley, onion, garlic, and lemon juice) or hamam mahshi (braised pigeon) at a local haunt

نراكم في القاهرة! (see you in Cairo!)

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