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A Magnificent Chaos: Cairo Travel Guide

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Cairo (القاهرة‎) is the chaotic capital of Egypt, a city that feels like it’s built on contradictions and stuck between timelines.

With a population of 22 million living in its metropolitan area, Cairo is the biggest African city and the sixteenth-largest metropolis.

Buildings in Cairo, Egypt

But the capital of Egypt is not only vast and chaotic. It’s also one of the richest cities in world history, a place where the past intertwines with the present and where many different cultures mix like nowhere else in the world. In this Cairo travel guide, we’ll show you the best way to navigate this beautiful mix! 

In the words of Aldous Huxley: “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”

So, ignore everyone’s opinion about the city, and discover it your way! 

In this guide, we’ll give you some tips on the ten best places to visit in Cairo, so that you have the foundation you need to go out there and discover this magnificent (and sometimes infuriating) city for yourself!

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Table of Contents
  1. Tips Before You Go
  2. Must-See Places for a 1-3 Day Trip
  3. Highly Recommended Places for a 4-7 Day Trip (or Longer)
  4. Arabic Survival Phrases for Travelers
  5. Conclusion

Tips Before You Go

A key step in planning a visit to Cairo is to become familiar with the city, know what to expect while there, and prepare accordingly. Here are some useful tips to give you a head start. 

When

The best time to visit Cairo, and Egypt in general, is between October and April. The temperatures are cooler during this period, but still pleasantly warm!

If you want to avoid the crowds, visit at the end of March or in October/November. This is the quietest time of the year, and even the prices are lower.

Remember: The workweek in Cairo is Sunday through Thursday, so Fridays are relatively quiet in the afternoon but very busy in the evening. The Egyptian weekend is Friday and Saturday.

Visa

In order to visit Egypt, you will need a visa. Tourists from most Western countries are able to fill out an application before their trip to receive a visa once they arrive. 

For more info about your visa, check out this website.

Tips

  • Egypt uses the Egyptian pound (LE or EGP) for currency.
  • Egypt is a Muslim country, and the vast majority of restaurants do not serve alcohol. Sometimes, they’ll let you bring your own. Call in advance to find out. 
  •  Consuming or possessing drugs, including marijuana, is illegal in Egypt.

Must-See Places for a 1-3 Day Trip

Chances are, your stay in Cairo will be short. After all, there are so many other places to explore in Egypt! 

To give you a hand putting your itinerary together, we’ve compiled a list of the best places to visit in Cairo for a shorter trip. Backpackers and resort tourists alike will find something here they’ll love! 

Giza Pyramids and Sphinx (مجمع أهرامات الجيزة)

The Sphinx

One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, this is probably the first thing you think about when planning a trip to Egypt. 

These astonishing structures were completed over 4,500 years ago and are testament to the power, organization, and engineering genius of Ancient Egypt. 

The Giza Pyramids, each named after the Pharaoh who ordered its construction, stand on the Giza necropolis together with the famous Sphinx. 

You can easily enjoy spending an entire day here, and it’s worth staying for the evening sound and light show. During the show, you’ll learn about the history of the Sphinx and pyramids while taking in the magnificent view of the monuments lit up with bright lights.

The surrounding desert plateau is home to other pyramids that are also open to the public, like those in the Saqqara necropolis, which are considered to be the oldest pyramids. 

The Egyptian Museum (المتحف المصري)

This is another unmissable stop for your visit to Cairo. Also called the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, it’s home to the largest collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, including the famous Tutankhamun collection with its beautiful gold death mask and sarcophagus, and the royal Mummy room. 

The opening of an even more stunning collection—the Grand Egyptian Museum—is planned for 2021. 

The Citadel

Also known as the Saladin Citadel of Cairo (قلعة صلاح الدين), this is a medieval complex full of architectural wonders that dates back to the twelfth century. Today, it is also an UNESCO World Heritage site. 

If you’re interested in the Islamic past of Cairo, this is the place to visit. Here, you’ll find the stunning Mosque of Muhammad Ali, also known as the Alabaste Mosque. 

Take your time to visit the interior and the terrace, which is one of the best viewpoints over Cairo. 

Another must-see inside the citadel is the Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque, built in the fourteenth century. This mosque is quite unique, with two ornate minarets and mosaic decorations, which do not appear in any other mosque in Cairo. 

Khan el-Khalili (خان الخليلي‎)

Khan el-Khalili

This bustling market district, or souq, is located in the heart of Old Cairo and won’t be hard to find. 

Its narrow, cobblestone streets and labyrinth-like alleyways create a magical atmosphere in which the past gets intertwined with the present, the old with the new. 

Here, you’ll have the most adventurous shopping experience you’ve ever had (or even imagined!). 

You’ll also find a wide range of restaurants and cafés serving authentic Egyptian food, so choose one and go try new flavors to take a break from the busy streets. Or better yet, ask a trusted local for recommendations.

Highly Recommended Places for a 4-7 Day Trip (or Longer)

Once you start to feel the slightly overwhelming charm of Cairo, you may decide to stay a little longer. Here are our recommendations for where to visit in Cairo when you have a little more time. 

Al-Azhar Park (حديقة الأزهر‎)

This park is literally an urban oasis. Built on what was dust and rubble for over two centuries, it now offers a much-needed 30-hectare expanse of greenery. 

Take a break from the city and explore its gardens, pavilions, and alleys. There’s even a small lake to sit by and relax. The views over the city are fantastic at sunset.

Mosques Next to Citadel

Sultan Hassan Mosque (مسجد ومدرسة السلطان حسن‎) is one of the finest examples of Mamluk architecture in the world. With its abundance of stalactite detailing and intricate arabesque features, it’s Arabic artistry at its best.

Directly opposite the Sultan Hassan Mosque, you’ll find the El-Rifai Mosque (مسجد الرفاعى). It was built in 1912 to house the tomb of Khedive Ismail and constructed to replicate its older neighbor. 

Alexandria (اسكندرية‎)

A Castle in Alexandria, Egypt

This is a wonderful day trip from Cairo, during which you’ll learn more about the history of Egypt and its conquest by Alexander the Great. This is also where the famous Cleopatra lived. 

Alexandria served as the capital of Egypt until Roman conquest, and it’s home to the remains of the world-famous library of Alexandria. You could also visit the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina built in 2002 to commemorate the old one—and while you’re at it, you could visit the nearby Citadel of Qaitbay, a fifteenth-century fortress that has stood the test of time.

The Hanging Church (الكنيسة المعلقة‎)

This is an interesting sight for its cultural significance. Did you know that more than ten percent of Egyptians are actually Christian? 

Egypt has its own church (the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria), of which the hanging church—so called because of its nave suspended over a passage—is probably one of the oldest places of worship. It was built in the late seventh century and is home to over a hundred icons. 

Boat ride down the Nile (النيل)

Downtown Cairo

Gliding on the Nile’s waters is a beautiful way to spend an afternoon in Cairo. If you’re tired of the city and want some rest with splendid views, hop on one of the cruises. 

You can choose between many options, one of which includes riding on a traditional felucca boat. You might even get to see some wildlife (maybe a crocodile!) while on the water. 

Zamalek (Gezira Island)

Gezira (الجزيرة) actually means “island” in Arabic, and it’s the Nile’s main island in central Cairo, home to the district of Zamalek (الزمالك‎).

Zamalek is Cairo’s top dining destination, and it features art boutiques and fancy shops. At the southern tip of Gezira, you’ll also find some art galleries to explore, as well as the Cairo Tower where you can enjoy an amazing view of the Nile River from the top floor. 

Arabic Survival Phrases for Travelers

In the more touristy areas, you’re likely to find locals who speak some English. That said, you’ll have a much better trip and smoother communication if you learn some Arabic

Here, we’ve put together some easy-to-learn words and sentences that will help you make the most of your trip. 

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes while there; locals always appreciate foreigners who make an effort to speak with them in their native language! Here are some helpful Egyptian Arabic phrases:

salāmo ʿalīkom!سَلامُ عَليكُم!Hello!
ʾezzayyak?إزَّيَّك؟How are you? (speaking to a man)
ʾezzayyek?إزَّيِّك؟How are you? (speaking to a woman)
wenta?وإنتَ؟And you? (speaking to a man)
wenty?وإنتِ؟And you? (speaking to a woman)
ʾenta mnīn?إنتَ منين؟Where are you from? (speaking to a man)
ʾente mnīn?إنتِ منين؟Where are you from? (speaking to a woman)
ʾanā men ʾamrīkā.أنا مِن أمريكا.I’m from America.
šokran!شُكراً!Thank you!
šokran gazīlan!شُكراً جَزيلاً!Thank you very much!
ʿafwan!عَفواً!You’re welcome!
momken tesāʿednī?مُمكِن تِساعِدني؟Can you help me? (speaking to a man)
momken tesāʿdīnī?مُمكِن تِساعديني؟Can you help me? (speaking to a woman)
ʾanā tāyeh.أَنا تايِه.I’m lost.
el-ḥammām fīn?الحَمّام فين؟Where is the bathroom?
bekām dah?بِكام دَه؟How much is this?
law samaḥt.لَو سَمَحت.Excuse me.

Conclusion

We’ve now introduced you to the best places to visit around Cairo, no matter how long your trip will be. So, are you ready to go out there and make up your mind about Egypt and its chaotic capital, Cairo? 

Travelingit leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller. (Ibn Battuta)

And I’m sure that after visiting Cairo, you’ll have countless stories to tell—especially if you’re able to communicate with the locals during your stay! 

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