From dust till dawn in Egypt
- Recommended for:
- Cultural, Shopping, Short Break, Budget, Expensive, Mid-range
Come face to face with the Sphinx in Giza, climb inside a pyramid, haggle for souvenirs in a souq and dodge the traffic in the 'city of a thousand minarets'. It's all part of the Egypt experience
Par, parp, parp, parparparp. Cairo is one noisy city - deafening, in fact. Even if you bag a room on the top floor of a good hotel in Egypt's capital - the real city that never sleeps - you'll feel like you're trying to kip in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. Trying to get anywhere by taxi is like taking part in a real-life dodgem car game.
The traffic is famously chaotic, pedestrians risk life and limb when crossing the roads, and the heat can be stifling, especially during spring and summer, when temperatures hit 40°C and you'll feel like you're standing in a sauna being blasted by a fan heater.
But Cairo is also vibrant, colourful, intense, exciting, friendly and, of course, home to the pyramids. Located in what is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you'll find them (plus the requisite camel rides) in Giza, a town on the outskirts of sprawling Cairo (though it's hard to know where Cairo ends and Giza begins). Built as tombs for the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, the three main pyramids, and the Great Sphinx that guards them, are what most visitors travel to Cairo for. The largest, the Great Pyramid, is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing.
Most of the tourists who are bused in from cruise ships and resorts across Egypt pitch up on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so go on a Monday morning and you'll have the pyramids all to yourself (well, just you and a few other thousand savvy travellers with the same idea - but for the pyramids, that's relatively quiet).
Once there, pay extra to climb inside the Great Pyramid's Great Chamber, then, come dusk, take in the outdoor sound and light show, which tells the story of Egypt's history - it witnessed the origins of civilisation, the rise of the Greek and Roman empires and the establishment of Christianity - with the aid of lights, lasers and a booming pre-recorded narration.
Yet for all its sometimes maddening intensity, Cairo, which is home to around 19 million people (not counting tourists), is also incredibly green, filled with lush parks and beautiful plantlife. You can escape the noise and the madding crowds at the El Azhar Park, a favourite with locals, and enjoy the fresh air and views over the city.
Another day well spent will take in the Egyptian Museum (get there in the morning, before the parties of school children arrive and the temperature rises inside this air con-less attraction). It houses a vast collection of sculptures and antiquities, including those from the tomb of Tutankhamun, as well as a chamber devoted solely to mummies. Then, in the afternoon, embark on a walking tour of 'old' Cairo's churches and historic synagogue.
Don't go home without haggling for trinkets in the Khan El Khalili souq, where vendors will try to tempt you with everything from heady spices and perfumes to tacky musical toy camels. But look out too for the Lehnert & Landrock bookshop, a calm oasis in an indoor mini-mall on El Moez Ledeen Ellah Street, the first main street of the souq. Established in 1904 by two European gents, it's filled with beautiful photographs and prints from the early 20th century.
Food-wise, you'll be met with a mix of Arabian dishes and Mediterranean cuisine, plus lots of sweet, plump, dates. It may be a tourist cliché, but the Nile Maxim floating restaurant dinner cruise offers a fun show, featuring singers and a belly dancer, a buffet meal and views of the skyline at night. Near the pyramids, at the end of Pyramids Road, and great for fish, is the Khristo seafood restaurant.
The Pharaohs built the pyramids so they could enjoy a secure eternal slumber, but what about you? Visiting VIPs stay in The Mena House Oberoi hotel, a classy joint with great views of the pyramids - if you can’t get a room, console yourself with a table in its upmarket El Rubbaeyat restaurant for dinner.
Other good options include the Sheraton Cairo Hotel Towers and Casino on the west bank of the Nile (ask for a Nile view) and the Conrad Cairo in the business district. If you're on a budget, check out the downtown Osiris hotel/hostel - it's basic (not all rooms are en suites) but homely and close to the Egyptian Museum as well as the main train, bus and metro stations. No matter where you choose, ask about air con before you book - not all hotels offer it.
Cairo isn’t called the 'city of a thousand minarets' for nothing, and a visit to the mosque of Mohamed Ali, with its exquisite, largely alabaster, exterior, in the citadel of Saladin, is another must. (Women have to cover their shoulders, and everyone must take off their shoes, in respect of the Muslim religion.).
As well as visiting Giza, take in the ancient burial ground at Sakkara, 30km south of Cairo, which features the world's oldest standing step pyramid, as well as the ruins at Memphis (the best way to visit these sights is on an organised tour).
Not the Memphis of Elvis fame, obviously. This one - the original one - was the ancient capital of Egypt and home to another King entirely, though his name also comes with a musical connection - he was called Aha.