Last September I had the chance to visit to the Egyptian capital Cairo. My brothers girlfriends family are expats over there so with accommodation sorted we booked some BA flights and off we went for a week.
I’m a bit of a culture vulture so I relish any opportunity where I can experience a totally different way of life, and Egypt is just that. It’s the largest city in the Arab world and with it’s surrounding areas has a dense population of approx. 17 million. To put this in to perspective London has a population of 1,130 people per square kilometre whereby Cairo has 9,031 people per square kilometre so you can imagine Cairo is pretty overcrowded, and it shows. The highways appear to be built for 3 lanes of traffic but actually play host to 6 lanes of dusty cars constantly cutting each other up and bumping into one another. The horn is no longer an alert signal and lights are not just for illuminating dark streets. Instead drivers honk and flash to say ‘Move out the way I’m coming through whether you like it or not’. I’d estimate a horn is beeped every 2/3 seconds. Mopeds will weave through the chaos with a helmet absent family of five and their dog. It’s pandemonium! At least a few times a day you’ll hear the haunting echo of arabic chant as the call to prayer plays over every purposely placed speaker and tannoy in the city.
I didn’t expect a metropolitan city to appear so run down. The polluted capital is filthy and most of the buildings are severely run down or perhaps unfinished. But don’t let this discourage you! While I’d hardly describe the destination as beautiful it has it’s own ancient charm and endearing qualities.
The city suffers from a huge amount of pollution which is noticeable in the hazy yet pretty sunsets you can view from a faluka boat whilst you float along the Nile river with the picnic and beers you can bring onboard. These large sail boats can be hired from the riverside, no advanced bookings necessary.
If you can make it out to Coptic Cairo, the bustling suburbs surrounding downtown, you won’t be disappointed. The narrow ancient streets are adorned with Islamic architecture. You can pick up so many bargains in the many markets that occur daily and you’ll be amazed as the shop owners craft their goods in front of you. If you get the opportunity try the Egyptian delicacy of refreshing sugar can juice. Climb one of the many minarets which give the city it’s nickname ‘The city of a thousand minarets’ where you’ll get a 360 degree views of the ancient city all the way to the sacred Citadel. Ladies be sure to cover up! The locals don’t look upon bare shoulders or legs too fondly and you can expect a lot of negative attention if you don’t obey the rules.
The guy below was creating and selling camel skin shoes from a market in Coptic Cairo. Everywhere shop and stall seem to sell the delightful little pumps in an array of colours and patterns. I couldn’t resist and bought myself an orange pair for the summer months.
Of course one of the most attractive aspects of Cairo are the ancient Pyramids of Giza which are the last remaining wonders of the ancient world. We picked up a tour guide who ushered us around the monstrous structures and the tombs that surround them. The sheer size of the pyramids is mind blowing, the largest of the 3 pyramids is estimated to be built from 2.3 million limestone blocks, and it’s fascinating to hear the stories and myths of how they were built which to this day remains a mystery to modern science. For a fee (additional to the entry fee) you can climb inside the Cheops pyramid. Warning: this is not for those who feel even slightly claustrophobic.
Our driver then took us over to a view point within the pyramid complex where you can take your share of novelty perspective pictures e.g. you leaning against a pyramid etc. Again it will cost you (you can always haggle an Egyptian) but you can take a camel ride, two at a time if you wish, across the dessert.
We were then whisked to the famous Sphinx sculpture and filled in on the methods and history of the statue adn what it represents. When standing in the vast, arid desert it’s hard to believe that the area was once the wetland of the Nile riverbed.
Still in awe we left Giza and headed for the Egyptian museum of Antiquities which was yet another awe-inspiring experience. We wandered the halls lined with ancient ruins and towering statues of Egyptian gods, visited a room full of real mummies including the famous Ramses III and then explored King Tutankhamens treasures with the highlight being the famously spectacular solid gold and head dress.
Even if you’re not particularly a history buff I can promise you’ll find Giza and the history of the Pharaohs absolutely fascinating. But in case you don’t then the following may excite you.
You can arrange guided quad-biking and sand-buggying tours through the desert where you’re completely in control of your petrol beast. They are usually automatic but if you know a thing or two about geared bikes you can get a lot more speed out of them. Our guide led us to some Egyptian ruins covered in hieroglyphics and to the Sakara step pyramid. You’ll spend a couple of hours in direct sunlight so make sure you saturate yourself in suncream and take sunglasses with you. I’d also advise you to not open your mouth despite how much fun you may be having!
As we were staying with expats I can’t recommend any hotels although we popped into downtown Cairo a couple of nights and they had all the luxury cosmopolitan hotels. Also, our tours were booked by the family we were staying with but I’m told there are lots of travel agents and street kiosks which offer good deals on tours such as our trip to Giza and quad biking through the desert.
We went to some beautiful restaurants whilst in Cairo and the food is very similar to what you might expect in Morocco with a Greek/Lebanese influence; simple earthy flavors and tasty meats (excluding pork of course) e.g. pitta bread, hummus, babaganoush, falafel, lamb kebabs. A particular favourite was Sequoia, a gorgeous open restaurant situated in the middle of the Nile river with cosy white sofas, white linens, white canopies and a great cocktail menu. The atmosphere is laid back and friendly, similar to the service. The elegant modern interior matches the modern Egyptian/Lebanese cuisine. Hashish pipes, or shisha as it’s more commonly known, are a popular tradition in Egypt and can be found everywhere! However, Sequoia had the largest selection of fruit flavours on offer, we particularly liked the Apple and Cherry varieties.
For those not so keen on traditional Egyptian food there are also plenty of westernised restaurants and, as with every large city, chains such as T.G.I Fridays. And if you don’t feel like going out, no worries because EVERYWHERE in Cairo delivers.
As you may know Cairo is a desert climate and is hot all year round peaking between May and August to almost 40c and is a bearable dry heat. The sun is strong so you’ll need equally as strong sun cream and it’s probably best to avoid it between 12 and 2.
If we had more time we’d have loved to get out to the Valley of the Kings or take a trip to the luxurious resorts on the Red Sea at Sharm El Sheikh, but then hey, that’s just another excuse to go back!
Currency: Egyptian Pound
Activities: Lots to see and do in and around Cairo. 9/10
Beach: There is no beach but the majority of resorts have pools. 0/10
Food: Lots on offer, something for everyone. 7/10
Value for money: You seem to be able to get a lot for your money in Egypt unless you’re spending it on alcohol! It’s against their religion so you’ll pay considerably for an evening of booze. 7/10
All in all Cairo gets a whopping 7 out of 10. Not bad for a dirty city without a beach. Am I selling it well?