There’s more to Cairo than the pyramids.
I’m sure some of you are like, um, duh, and others of you, like me fairly recently, are leaning in whispering, “tell me more.” The truth is that when I first started planning my trip to Egypt, I was clueless! It wasn’t a country I had any base level of practical knowledge about, so I started from scratch with all of it. As usual, you guys were my absolute best resource for advice and ideas.
So first of all, the pyramids are technically in a city called Giza, though for all intensive traveler purposes, you can explore both from either. But don’t just tick off those three pointy piles of rubble and run off (now I’m just trying to make sure their ‘ol pyramid egos don’t get too big). Cairo has some pretty spectacular urban sights that deserve at least a day on your Egypt itinerary.
First up? The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, also often referred to as the Egyptian Museum, an absolute must-see even for the non-exhibition lovers among us. Shannon, Sam and I made plans to kick off another day of sightseeing at the museum, and as I was coming from the far-flung neighborhood of Maadi, I decided to tack on an extra adventure and use the Cairo Metro to get there.
Using public transportation in a new city where you don’t speak the language can be intimidating, but I was armed with small change, the name of the station I wanted to end up at (Sadat, for anyone making the same journey!) and a smile.
When I approached the ticket window at my local station, I smiled, said hello in Arabic, and said the name of the station. The seller replied in English that I needed to go to the other side of the tracks, which was super helpful. I went through a metal detector and my bag through a scanner, and then crossed over to the correct side of the station. I’d read there was a carriage for women only, and when the train arrived it was very clearly marked as such. While the carriages aren’t air-conditioned and got pretty steamy, it was otherwise a safe, efficient and simple way to get around Cairo! As a woman traveling alone, I felt totally comfortable. Best part? It cost 2EGP — or about eleven cents.
And it dropped me pretty much at the door of the Egyptian Museum.
Despite housing what are arguably some of the world’s most impressive artifacts, the museum is surprisingly ramshackle. There’s no MOMA-like gift shop, no swank cafe (in fact, no cafe at all) and a shocking lack of guard rails or ropes around what seem like some very precious relics.
Frankly, I wasn’t surprised when I later learned that there are not one but two new facilities being built to replace this one — though the building itself is so grand and historic I hope they find some appropriate way to memorialize it, too.
A few pieces of advice for anyone who may be Cairo-bound, someday: In Egypt, separate camera tickets are issued at most of the major sites. Of course, I bought the camera ticket at the museum (for 50EGP, or $2.80US), and texted Shannon that I’d happily share my museum photos with her so she didn’t have to buy one too. But when she entered the museum, they saw her camera inside her bag through the scanner and wouldn’t allow her in the museum without the camera ticket. So leave the camera behind or get ready to pay up.
Another thing to note — I still have a student ID (thanks for not dating those bad boys, Pratt!) and whenever I remember, I tend to whip it out for discounts, mostly out of habit. Never has it ever been a big deal… until I got to Egypt. The guy who sold me the Egyptian Museum and Royal Mummy Halls combo ticket (for 120EGP, or $6.70US) barely raised an eyebrow, but I then had to show it three more times within the museum, and twice the ticket-takers looked at me with the disappointment and disgust of someone who had personally stolen their paycheck and spent it on fruit-shaped pool floats before interrogating me on everything from my age to what I was studying. I was so flustered by the whole thing I vowed not to use my student ID again in Egypt, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I’m past that stage. I’m not an ultra budget traveler just scraping by anymore — I can afford full price admission and I should pay it. But anyway, student ID holders, be ready for an interrogation!
By the time we’d waited in line twice (to get Shannon’s camera ticket), dealt with my age interrogator (I mean, how did they know I wasn’t a grad student!) and finally gotten to the galleries, we realized that all the guides for hire were outside the museum. We weren’t going back there again. I actually think this would be a really interesting place to hire one, but we had fun just wandering and reading too.
My highlights were the contents of King Tutankhamun’s tomb — of which no photographs were allowed, even with the photo ticket — and the grand hall of the building itself. My lowlight? The Royal Mummies Hall! I didn’t even consider not buying the upgraded ticket when we were at the admissions booth, but in reality I walked right in, realized that I was looking at actual, shrunken little dead people, felt an overwhelming wave of nausea, and told Shannon and Sam I’d wait outside. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that we’d be creeping on actual corpses, but I was so rattled! Luckily there’s no photos allowed in there, either.
Next up? A lunch disaster of epic proportions. Every traveler will have a story like it, eventually: we Uber-ed to what we thought was an adorable lunch cafe, sat down already starving, placed an obscenely large order, and sat back chatting and laughing while we waited for it to appear. We were caught up in conversation and also trying to be chill, but as time went on we couldn’t help but notice not even our drinks had appeared.
After a long, laborious translation provided by another customer, we realized that half the order was being delivered from some sort of sister restaurant somewhere, and the other half was just never really placed… including our 2.5 beverages per person. At this point, over an hour had passed and various levels of hanger, chaos, and desperation had set it, so we abandoned ship. It was a dark time.
Sam had had enough and bid us adieu in favor of finding some real food. It being our last day together, Shannon and I rallied — and by rallied I mean I marched us into McDonald’s, got us some french fries and some fountain soda, and stuffed us in another Uber to continue on with our day and pretend that whole unpleasant mess never happened.
Our destination? Islamic Cairo, a historic quarter of the city known for mosques, markets, and the distinct sensation of going back in time.
We didn’t have a particular destination in mind, aside from the famed Khan El Khalili market. So we wandered around some backstreets that based on the reception we got, were definitely no main thoroughfare for tourists.
Twice we passed conservatively dressed families who whispered among themselves before stuffing a baby in my arms and taking a flurry of photos of us together, then shyly slinking away. “You’re like the president!” joked Shannon, encouraging me to give the babes a peck. I was so flustered by the whole thing I didn’t think to ask to take a photo of mine until it was too late!
Eventually we wound our way around to the market, which I have to admit was much more impressive than I’d expected. I braced myself for aisles of kitschy tourist crap, but we found an authentic, Aladdin-like bazaar with authentic crafts and art, narrow streets lined by cafés where locals puffed on shisha, and so many things we were tempted to buy!
My backpack was already bursting yet I couldn’t help myself from adding a few little gems…
Eventually, as we reached the outer edges of the market, the tourist trinkets featured more prominently, and we decided to give one last attempt at visiting a mosque — Shannon had never been to one — before we headed to Shannon’s hotel happy hour in Zamalek. We’d been overwhelmed by the “helpful” people claiming the mosque we’d wanted to visit was closed — a common scam we both knew well from the Grand Palace in Bangkok — and had fled rather than try to suss out the truth.
Heading back in, we were really still not in fine battle form — exhausted from a long day and still no savvier to what we were actually attempting to do. So when a friendly man promised to walk us to a different mosque with a beautiful view, we kind of willingly succumbed to being scammed. What the heck, right.
In the end, it was fo sho a scam — we payed a ridiculous sum of 100EGP, or $5.70, to be led up a back staircase to a secret rooftop, and then were later pressured to tip on top of that, which I replied to with a friendly laugh. All in all, it wasn’t a terrible deal — we never would have found the place on our own, and the views were gorgeous.
Sometimes, getting scammed ain’t so bad.
Shannon, Sam and I had planned to toast to our time together in Cairo with a big night out on the town. We were so excited… until we realized it was a major Muslim holiday and no alcohol was being sold. Whoops!
We managed to talk ourselves into a reservation at Sequoia for a fancy booze-free dinner instead. Even without a cocktail in hand, it’s impossible to imagine there’s a more beautiful restaurant in all of Cairo. Seriously — don’t miss it.
So, Cairo was a whirlwind! I still technically had a bit more time there as the first stop on my tour of mainland Egypt with Travel Talk Tours — coverage starting next week! — but my chapter of exploring Cairo on my own was coming to a close.
I feel I can’t conclude this post without answering the question I was most asked. Was it safe? Was I comfortable traveling on my own? Overall, I only had a few days to sample from, but I was pleasantly surprised with how comfortable I felt and how manageable the attention levels were. When I walked around Maadi and other non-touristy areas, I literally didn’t garner a second glance. We did get a lot of stares in Islamic Cairo and a lot of sales pressure at the pyramids, but neither was overwhelming.
Taking the metro and taking Ubers both felt like safe options for getting around, and I loved being able to consult with my female Airbnb hosts about various moves before making them. I’ll definitely continue to address this throughout my Egypt coverage, but I left Cairo feeling confident that I was taking a tour not because I needed to, but because I wanted to! And that was a great feeling.
Next stop… exploring mainland Egypt with Travel Talk Tours!