Cairo Guide: Planning Your Trip
Founded in 969 AD. By the Fatimid dynasty, Cairo has captivated visitors from around the world for over a thousand years.
The Mamluks, Ottomans, French, and British ruled the capital at some point and all left their mark on its culture and architecture.
Across the mighty River Nile, the remains of a much older Egyptian civilization await exploration in the fields of the pyramids of Giza, Saqqara, and Dahshur (which together have been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Despite its history, or perhaps because of it, Cairo is also a thoroughly cosmopolitan modern city, with a thriving cultural scene and a host of world-class restaurants.
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Read on to find out how you can make the most of all that this fascinating destination has to offer!
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: Cairo is a year-round tourist destination. However, high temperatures in summer and a combination of crowds and high season prices in winter make spring and fall particularly pleasant times to visit.
- Language: Egyptian Arabic is the main language in Cairo, although many people (especially in the tourism industry) speak some English.
- Currency: The currency of Egypt is the Egyptian pound; a pound is made up of 100 piastres. You will see the prices written in EGP or LE, and the latter represents the French phrase "free égyptienne".
- Getting Around: Public transportation in Cairo includes the shared metro and minibus. Tourists often use private taxis or ride-sharing services like Uber and Careem.
- Travel Tip: Cairo is a predominantly Muslim city, so visitors should dress conservatively to avoid offense.
Things to Do
Most visitors to Egypt are drawn to the country's ancient history, and Cairo should be the first port of call for those wishing to discover it.
Start with a tour of the Egyptian Museum (currently in central Cairo, but in the process of transferring to the Giza plateau).
The world-famous pyramids of Giza are just a short drive away, while Coptic and Islamic Cairo function as open-air museums filled with historic mosques, churches, and markets.
Visit the Egyptian Museum
The museum's status as a repository for the most precious treasures excavated from ancient sites throughout Egypt makes it a must-see.
The main attraction is the fabulous contents of Tutankhamun's tomb, which includes the funerary mask and sarcophagus of the boy king.
Shop for Souvenirs at Khan el-Khalili Bazaar
Cairo's premier shopping destination since the late 14th century, Khan el-Khalili is a maze of streets and stalls selling everything from exotic spices and Bedouin embroidery to silver jewelry and silver Egyptian street food.
Visit the Pyramids of Giza
Board an Uber for a quick ride down the Nile River to the Giza Plateau, where the iconic pyramid complexes of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure await.
The first of these is the oldest and largest, and the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that still stands.
Get more inspiration from our articles on the best things to do in Cairo, Cairo day trips, and the best places to shop in Cairo.
Then check out our detailed guides to top attractions like the Alabaster Mosque and the Hanging Church.
What to Eat and Drink
Cairo's food scene is as diverse as its people, with dishes from around the world represented.
In establishments throughout the city, you can find good French food, authentic Indian curries, and hearty Italian dishes.
However, there are also plenty of opportunities to sample traditional Egyptian food, with must-have dishes including koshary (also spelled kushari) and hawawshi.
The first is a unique blend of rice, spaghetti, pasta, and black lentils, topped with a spicy tomato sauce and sprinkled with fried onions and chickpeas.
The latter is ground beef (usually beef or lamb) stuffed in traditional Baladi bread. Both staples are equally delicious.
Traditional Egyptian restaurants are unlikely to serve alcohol, even in Cairo, a relatively liberal city.
Tea is a popular alternative if you prefer the black, peppermint, fenugreek, or crimson variety of hibiscus. Coffee is ubiquitous, as are exotic fruit juices and smoothies.
Other unknown beverages to try include sahlab (a thick milk-based drink made from crushed dried orchid tubers) and Qamar al-din, a type of cooked apricot juice particularly popular during Ramadan.
If you're in the mood for a glass of wine or a chilled Egyptian Stella beer, don't worry - alcohol is served in most international restaurants and hotels and can be easily found in the bars and clubs of Cairo's Zamalek district.
Where to Stay
Cairo is a sprawling city with many different neighborhoods. However, most tourist hotels are located in central Cairo (with easy access to the Egyptian Museum and a short Uber drive to Coptic and Islamic Cairo attractions).
The most luxurious is located on the banks of the River Nile and offers spectacular views of the river.
These include the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo in Nile Plaza, the Kempinski Nile Hotel Garden City Cairo, and the Fairmont Nile City Hotel, Cairo.
If you want to be close to the best restaurants and nightlife in the city, choose to stay in Zamalek, a trendy neighborhood that occupies the northern half of the island of Gezira.
Cairo International Airport (CAI) is the main gateway to the city. It is also the main gateway to Egypt and the second largest air travel hub in Africa, after the O.R.
Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. The airport is about 15 miles from downtown Cairo, and travelers can reach the city by bus, taxi, or on the car-sharing app.
The metro is not connected to the airport, although there are plans for a connection in the future.
Those who wish to rent a car for their visit to Cairo can do so at the airport, where there are several internationally renowned car rental companies, such as Avis, Europcar, and Budget.
Culture and Customs
Egypt is a Muslim country2 and, as such, visitors from Western countries may need to adapt their normal clothing or behavior to avoid being offended.
Men and women should dress conservatively, especially when visiting religious sites.
Shoes must be removed before entering a local place of worship or home, and public drunkenness and displays of affection are frowned upon.
Remember that in Muslim countries, the left hand is used to clean the toilet and is considered impure; always shake your hand and eat with your right hand.
Tipping, or baksheesh, is common in Egypt and is expected of foreigners in almost all services.
This includes everything from waiting tables and serving drinks to giving instructions or opening a tomb or room in a museum.
Be sure to carry lots of small bills with you for this purpose, but be firm about declining services you don't want so that you don't end up paying unnecessarily.
As in any country where poverty is rife, petty crime is common.
Reduce your chances of becoming a theft victim by keeping an eye on your valuables at all times, leaving flashy jewelry at home, and carrying your money in a hidden belt or pocket.
In recent years, there have been some concerns about terrorism and political instability in Egypt.
The situation has largely stabilized and Cairo is no more dangerous than most large cities.
Basic common sense is necessary, however, as never walk alone at night.
Political and religious topics can inspire strong feelings and should be avoided unless you know the person well or start the conversation on your own.
Tips to Save Money
- A favorable exchange rate means that luxury hotels and restaurants are much more affordable than in New York or London.
However, travelers can save a lot of money and enjoy a more authentic dining and relaxation experience at local establishments.
- When shopping for souvenirs, remember that bargains are expected and that the starting price you will receive will likely be extremely inflated.
A good method is to offer half the asking price before finally settling on a number in between.
- Trading is also generally acceptable off the market.
You can haggle for the cost of a camel ride, a sightseeing tour, and especially taxi rides.
- When setting a fair price for a taxi ride, make sure you agree before getting in the car.
While Cairene's taxis should have working meters, many don't, so it's easy to take advantage of them if you're not careful.
It is usually much cheaper to hire a taxi driver for a whole day than to pay for several trips individually.
This is a great option if you want to explore the different locations of the pyramids in just one day.
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