Three Days In Cairo.

Egypt Pyramid

So many people dismiss Cairo as they rush around the must see sites on an air conditioned package tour bus, but they are missing out on one of the most fascinating cities on the planet.  Yes Cairo is crowded, smoggy and crazy, with over 20 million people calling the city home sensory overload is almost guaranteed, but it isn’t labelled ‘the mother of the world’ for nothing. Thousands of years of culture and history are thrown together in a smorgasboard that shouldn’t work, but inevitably does, and Cairenes are welcoming, hospitable and have a humble but gregarious sense of humour like nowhere else in the world. I urge everyone to get away from the package tours, step off your air conditioned coach and take the time to investigate and explore this living, pulsing, crowded but amazing city, because Cairo will weave a spell over you like no other city can. 

Three days is not long at all to discover this huge, sprawling city and it is nowhere near enough time to fit everything in that you can see or do, but it is a lot longer than the average package tourist spends here and it is enough time to see most of the highlights. So here are some suggestions on how best to maximise your time here whilst still allowing time to rest, hydrate and get out of the sun for a little bit.

Day One

Egyptian Museum.

Assuming you have been smart enough to spend at least a day before acclimatising to the heat and your surroundings, you will still want to take it relatively easy today, and the Egyptian museum is one of the best places to do that and get a good feel for Egyptian history and culture while you are at it.

Egyptian Museum

The Egyptian Museum is one of the worlds premier museums and an absolute mecca for anyone interested in ancient history or Egyptology. Most people spend half a day here on a tour, but that is nowhere near enough time to see everything, a full day isn’t either, so don’t even think about trying. I have visited this museum a dozen times or more and still discover new things every single time. The best thing to do for the casual visitor is spend at least half a day or a little more to see the highlights, and then explore until you start to feel overwhelmed. There is just so much history here you will at some point. Even when the new Grand Museum finally opens near Giza, this museum will still be the place to go.

It is best to turn up really early (a taxi from pretty much anywhere in Cairo will get you here really cheap if you haggle, or the Sadat metro station is beneath Midan Tharir – yes, that one – and is invariably better than an organised coach even at rush hour) and start to queue for tickets and the bag x ray before it opens at 0900 hours. Aim to be one of the first in if you can and make a beeline straight for the Tutankhamun galleries, because the tours that run through the day for package tourists will invariably wind their way around the museum first and end up there, and once they hit this tiny room it is difficult to get a look in. These are amongst the worlds most famous and premier antiquities, and are a highlight of any visit to Egypt, so are well worth getting a good look at.

After that, you can please yourself and just get lost wandering around the exhibits. You won’t see all of them but enjoy exploring on your own terms and view what takes your fancy. Particular highlights for me are the old kingdom rooms, the royal tomb of Tanis and the royal mummy room.

Coptic Cairo. 

After the wonders of the ancient world, spend a few hours getting to know a completely different side to the city in Cairo’s Christian quarter. Walk around the narrowed, timeless streets and explore the numerous churches, monasteries and convents that dot the area. Just remember to dress conservatively here. The Roman towers and the high walls are an interesting architectural sight in and of themselves, but take on a whole new facet when you find out that the Nile used to come right up to the entrance and this was a riverside fort.

The Coptic Museum is well worth a visit to get an understanding of a less understood period of Cairo’s history, and houses an extensive and impressive collection of Coptic Christian artwork.

Downtown Cairo.

After a couple of hours in Coptic Cairo, there’s nowhere better to explore than downtown Cairo. Tahrir square is basically one big traffic jam, but is an interesting place to go if you want to soak in the recent history of the start of the Arab spring, in spirit if nothing else. It is also an excellent place to orientate yourself as a central hub. From there walk downtown and get something to eat in one of the many eateries, explore the myriad of shops and businesses and wait until the place really starts to open up in the evening. Tawfiqiyya souq is an excellent place to wander around as it slowly shuts down and the awhas just start getting going late at night.  Make sure you take the time to aimlessly wander down a few back streets around Sharia Alfy and sit at a few awhas’s or coffee shops just to people watch. It isn’t traditional tourism I grant you, but there is nowhere better to get a feel of local Cairo.

Day Two

Khan El Khalili.

Egypt Khan El Khalili

Okay, I know Khan El Khalili is mostly just a massive tourist trap now, but it wasn’t always like that and there are some redeeming features too which make this souk an absolute must see. Once you get past the mountain of tourist tat and touts it is important to remember this has been the center of trade and commerce in Cairo for centuries. This is much more evident once you start exploring the side streets and find the gold and copper sellers or the spice stalls. There is also no better place in Egypt to hone your haggling skills than here either, the sellers here are masters par excellence at smooth talking tourists out of their cash, and if you treat it as a bit of a game it can be really fun.

Islamic Cairo. 

Islamic Cairo is the core of medieval Cairo, and it is almost like stepping back in time as you head further away from the hustle of modern Cairo and immerse yourself in the bustle of traditional vendors in galibiyyas and fascinating mixture of sights, sounds and smells that will assault your senses. It is easy to get a little lost and disorientated here but don’t worry that is part of its charm, and you are never too far away from the Nile to orientate yourself or get a taxi ride back to where you need to be.

Islamic Cairo Egypt

There are a lot of mosques ad minarets here but don’t get the wrong idea, the moniker has nothing to do with religion itself. Islamic Cairo is named as such because it was the Islamic seat of power in Cairo and still holds the greatest concentration of Islamic monuments and buildings in the city. Simply wandering round the minarets and architecture gives you a whole different perspective on Cairo. If you start off at the Bab Al Futuh (Gate of Conquest), you can take in the impressive Al-Hakim Mosque and the huge Qalawun Complex within relatively easy walking distance. If you want a real surprise make your way to the Al-Azhar Park, a real green space in the middle of the bustling city. It really feels like you’ve stepped out of Cairo entirely. There are a few nice spots to stop here for lunch or a snack too. There are a number of great mosques you can visit after your break, all concentrated around Midan Sala ad-Din, but you really want to head to the Citadel, one of Cairo’s more impressive attractions.

Day Three

Giza.

Egypt Giza

The best has definitely been saved for last here. This site really doesn’t need any introduction at all, it is quite simply the reason many people come to Egypt, to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx. These legendary monuments never fail to impress even the most jaded of travellers eyes, and even the hordes of tourist sheep pouring onto the plateau from their air conditioned coaches won’t dampen your enthusiasm at seeing and touching these ancient structures first hand.

Most people tend to ‘do’ the pyramids on a half day trip, but they are missing out. This is the single premier tourist site in the world. The last remaining ancient wonder of the world. It is not a place to come, take a selfie and then leave! This is why you should spend if not a full day here, then at least the majority of it.

Don’t listen to anyone in Cairo, or any tour operator for that fact, you do not need any organised tour to see the pyramids. Arriving in the early morning before the complex opens, just wait at the ticket office and buy your tickets (the genuine ones with holograms). That’s it. It is that easy.  Really savour and remember your first glimpse of these majestic structures though. Mine was catching glimpses of them through the buildings of Cairo through the taxi window, and just those intermittent glances were enough to eclipse every Egyptologist fantasy and ancient history geek out I had ever had! Being one of the first people in the early morning to walk onto the Giza plateau is one of the most rewarding travel experiences I have ever had, just being able to enjoy the peace and quiet before the hordes of package tourists swarm off their air conditioned coaches from Sharm.

Take your time and wander around the Sphinx first and wander at how small it is compared to the legend (and die a little inside as you realise the great Sphinx now stares at a Pizza Hut), before you go on to explore the pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. Just wandering around taking in the frankly awe inspiring and mind numbing sight of these ancient structures can easily take up a couple of hours, just remember to carry water with you. Which pyramid you actually get to see up close and clamber inside of will depend on when you go, as the Egyptian Authorities rightly rotate which ones are open to tourists in an effort to preserve the structures.

Most package tourists end their trip there, but there is so much more to see on the plateau.

Stop for a little rest and refreshment at the cafe near the front of the Sphinx, it is expensive compared to elsewhere, but what do you expect? It is worth the pric of a drink or two for the experience. Having the pyramids to stare at while sipping a cool drink has to rank as the single best view in the world!

After that, escape the rising heat of the early afternoon by stepping inside the air conditioned Solar Boat Museum, an interesting museum dedicated to the barge that would have transported the deceased Pharaoh on his route to the afterlife.

You can of course head away from Giza at this point if you wish, there are plenty of other things in Cairo to see that have been left off this list, but I would personally savour the opportunity and the experience and spend the rest of the afternoon just wandering around the entire complex, visiting some of the smaller queens pyramids or the lesser known complexes such as the tomb of Khentkawes or the Eastern and Western cemeteries.

Sunset on the Nile.

After a long day at Giza, there is no better way to enjoy your last evening in this amazing city than heading out onto the waters of the river Nile to enjoy the sunset. There are literally dozens of places you can head to along the rivers bank where you can get a ticket to head out on a small boat or a more traditional fellucca. Alternatively you can splash out a little more and have a sunset dinner cruise. Personally though I prefer the old time atmosphere of just sitting on the deck of a fellucca and watching the city drift by.

This is just a taste of what Cairo has to offer. These are just some of the highlights I would recommend to get a taste of the city on your first trip before you head off to explore the rest of Egypt. So what do you think of this three day itinerary? Would you add anything to this list?

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, freelance travel writer and founder of Bemused Backpacker. He is also a charge nurse by vocation with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine, but his real passion is travel. Since finding his wanderlust a decade ago in South East Asia, he has bounced from one end of the planet to another and has no intention of slowing down.

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12 comments on “Three Days In Cairo.
  1. Marie Kharaz says:

    Hi, I enjoyed reading your piece on Egypt and I am actually wondering something. My husband and I have been wanting to go to Egypt for a while now, but I’ve heard that it’s difficult to go to the pyramids. We only really want to go for that reason, and whenever I have asked hotels over there if they plan excursions to the Pyramids, the answer has been no. We assumed this meant it is difficult to go to the pyramids due to the problems which have been experienced over there. Did you come across any of these potential problems when going to Cairo? Any help would be great. Esra

    • Hi Esra/Marie, I’m really happy you liked it and I hope it inspires you to finally take that leap! As to your question, no the exact opposite is true! It is the easiest thing in the world to go and see the Pyramids! As I say in the post all you have to do is get a taxi (or a local bus if you are feeling adventurous) to the Giza plateau, buy a ticket at the entrance booth, and you are in! That is it! The easiest thing in the world. Now, by problems I am assuming you mean safety? Trust me, Egypt is one of the safest places you could go, especially as a tourist! The biggest problem you are likely to face is a tout trying to get you to buy a camel ride or a tour you don’t want!

  2. Milosz Zak says:

    Awesome – so sharing this! Thanks for another great piece! 😀 I really like that you searched beyond the model of the mass tour. It is so true that all that you do is end up at the pyramids, do a walk to the Sphinx, and that’s it – you’re done, and out of time. This country needs to be done with ample time, and without being rush, and three days is more than enough for Cairo.

  3. Amanda says:

    You didn’t mention the other pyramids outside of Giza; The Red Pyramid, Step Pyramid & Bent Pyramid are amazing as well and far less crowded. I’d definitely recommend those to people wanting to see pyramids. 🙂 When I was there years ago they were restoring the Step Pyramid and using basic equipment to do it (wooden ramps, ropes & carts to haul the blocks of stone up). It was quite interesting to watch and imagine if this was how they did it in ancient times.

    I disagree a little about the guide bit. It’s true that you don’t need a guide to see the pyramids, but if you get a good guide they can explain so much about what you’re looking at. They can tell you the history & significance behind statues or tombs, or stories in the carvings. Though if you get a guide it is important that you do some research, there’s a lot of guides out there who do little more than herd people from one monument to another. I’m a massive history nerd so I splurged on a private guide and really loved learning about all the history behind everything. Though if history’s not your thing then a guide’s probably not necessary.

    • I didn’t Amanda no, because I wanted to concentrate on the city of Cairo itself, and even in three day itinerary I had a lot of attractions and activities to take out! The bent and step pyramids among others are outstanding monuments to see and I completely recommend anyone in the region goes and sees them. Maybe I should write a separate article on day trips from Cairo! ;D

      I was generally talking about the mass tour groups that so many people sign up for. It is those that are absolutely not needed in any way shape or form. It is so easy to go and see the plateau independently and hire a private guide if you like, although I generally wouldn’t do that either. I think guides can be a little hit and miss, especially if they are the touts who find you rather than the other way around. I agree if you get a good one then it can definitely add to the experience. The key is to find that good one! I’m a massive history geek myself, and have been studying Egyptology on an amateur/hobby basis for years, so I simply preferred to fall back on good reading material and guides about the plateau and explore at my own leisure.

      • Amanda says:

        You definitely don’t want to be getting the guides that come up to you at the pyramids or other well known sights. I managed to find a company that hired Egyptologists as guides so I had some confidence I would be getting a good guide. When we were at the Vatican museums we overheard a guide telling her group about the carving we were looking at (a scene from Greek mythology with a large plaque next to it describing the story). This woman then told her group: “Now this is uh.. Jesus… uh fighting the uh.. sea serpents.” We then followed her around for a bit to see what other pearls of wisdom she had. 😀

      • I know what you mean, I’ve overheard tons of guides like that in so many places. That’s why I often prefer to read a book beforehand or maybe get a walking audio tour and explore on my own terms. So much better.

  4. Oh I have always wanted to go here! Is it really that easy to just do things on your own? I always assumed it was more set up for package tourists from Thomas Cook. What about cruising down the Nile?

    • Yes Egypt does have a huge package tourism industry but that doesn’t mean you have to use it. Travelling through all of Egypt is so, so easy to do on your own and independently, and in fact it is even better to do just that! As for the Nile cruises, you can still do that independently too. Just head down to the jetties and barter passage with the captains. Personally I prefer a traditional fellucca to a cruise ship, but it’s your choice. 🙂

  5. Musharraf Hassan Syed says:

    Yes, independent riding tour to Egyptian cities is good suggestion, but how we can arrange it. always we need a well known sites surfer. This is so difficult to have one arranged.

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a published author, qualified nurse and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent 15 years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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