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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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