The number one item on my husband’s travel bucket list was to see the Great Pyramids in Egypt. So when we had a chance for our first big trip after the pandemic, we knew we wanted to make his dreams come true. Due to many complications, we only had six days to spend in Egypt. We spent two days in Cairo and learned it was enough time to see the highlights of Cairo, although three days in Cairo would have been ideal.
We rushed a bit during our last day and would have loved to take two days to see what we did in one. Because I want to help you plan your time in Cairo, I will provide you with a 3-day Cairo itinerary. Do realize we did most of days two and three in one day, except for the churches we visited before our flight to Hurghada.
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Where to Stay in Giza
Since seeing the pyramids was the most important item on our Cairo bucket list, I wanted to stay where we could see them from the moment we landed. Giza is an interesting place, and there are places in it that are essentially stables for the working animals. Although it is considered part of the Cairo metropolis, it is much less a city than Cairo. I have two choices to suggest staying here.
Steigenberger Pyramid Hotel
The Steigenberger has pyramid view rooms in an upscale European hotel. Our guide highly recommended that we stay at the Steigenberger Pyramid Hotel.
Best View Pyramid Hotel
Much of your Cairo visit will be affected by your expectations, even more than traveling to other places. My husband wanted to see the pyramids, and I loved the idea of being right in the middle of them. This hotel is cheap and right in the middle of working Giza.
It is where we stayed, and it was perfect for us. An Egyptian runs it with a wife from the US. He is a typical Egyptian in that he charms you, then wants to sell you a tour or ride. The rooms were small but quiet, with no real view of the pyramids. The place doesn’t look as fancy as it does online. Camels are eating in front of the entrance. The room came with a complete, but not fancy, buffet breakfast from which we were looking directly at the pyramids. When we got off the plane, we went directly to the hotel. We were greeted with tea, then went to the roof to gaze at the pyramids from the rooftop. This was the perfect start to our trip.
Day One: Giza Plateau
The Giza Plateau contains many people’s main draws to Egypt- The Great Pyramid and the Sphinx. Pyramids were built as final resting places for Pharaohs or Egyptian kings. The Egyptians believed in an afterlife and outfitted their tombs with everything they would need to take with them, either real or in picture form.
There are three pyramids on the Giza Plateau, including the Great Pyramid, which was built for Pharaoh Khufu in the 26th Century BC. It is the oldest and most intact of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. On one side of the pyramids is the desert and on the other is Giza, which is a surprise for most people.
What is it like to visit the Great Pyramid?
The ticket that you buy at the entrance to the Giza Plateau includes admission into the grounds that contain the Great Pyramid and its outbuildings, the Khafre and Menkaure pyramids, and to see the Sphinx.
The plateau is open and sunny, so likely hot. There are vendors selling drinks on the grounds, but it is good to wear a hat and sunscreen and bring a drink. There are relatively flat trails up to the pyramid, so access shouldn’t be a problem.
The Great Pyramid was just as spectacular as we expected- we kept pinching ourselves that we were standing below it. Most of the pyramids in Egypt (at least over a hundred) were emptied a long time ago of everything, including the decorated walls. Many of the items can be seen in museums around the world.
A separate ticket is required to go into any of the pyramids. The journey into the center of the Great Pyramid is hot and cramped, and it is not an easy climb, so not at all handicap accessible. Two of the five of us turned back about halfway in due to claustrophobia, but I was thrilled to have seen the inside of such an iconic place. The Great Pyramid is empty except for Kurfu’s sarcophagus in the King’s Chamber.
If you look at the top of Khafre’s pyramid, you can see the limestone that initially covered all three pyramids.
Take a ride.
I know it is a controversial topic, but we were in Egypt, and we were going to take a camel ride. I am terrified of riding horses but enjoyed riding camels. The camels were really sweet too and my son’s camel kept cuddling with me. You can get a camel ride on the opposite side of the pyramids from the entrance. They also offer horse rides.
If you aren’t going to book your whole trip through one guide, you can look into this tour to the Pyramids, and Sphinx, which includes a camel ride, or look into booking a sunrise or sunset camel ride.
It is about a ten-minute walk from the Great Pyramid complex to The Sphinx.
The Great Sphinx
The Sphinx has a king’s head and a lion’s body and seems to be protecting the pyramids (tombs) of the kings. It is the oldest monumental statue in Egypt and one of the largest in the world. The Sphinx is carved out of the bedrock, like the faces of the presidents at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Ruins of a temple surround the Great Sphinx, who is missing his nose and false beard.
Now will be a perfect time to take lunch as there are many restaurants right outside the gates of the Sphinx complex.
My son wanted to go to the Kentucky Fried Chicken, but I wanted authentic Egyptian food, which our guide provided with a view of the Sphinx! Be sure to try the strawberry juice- it is the best I have ever had.
Saqqara Step Pyramid (The Pyramid of Djoser)
This pyramid was less busy and well-known, and we were so glad we visited. It is the oldest stone building in Egypt, built in the 2600s BC for the Pharoah Djoser.
As I stated in the section about The Great Pyramid, they are mainly cleaned out of their original contents, but this pyramid was much more intact when we went into it. It is also a less treacherous path in, although one must still bend down to enter.
We also were able to tour the Mastaba of Mereruka, or tomb of a high noble, which still contained many original walls and decorations.
Desert Sunset ATV
We ended our day with an ATV ride through the desert with a view of the pyramids. The boys loved the adventure, and I loved the ride through the streets of Giza. It was an excellent way to keep teens happy, balancing the area’s history with the adrenaline of flying over the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, the largest hot desert in the world!
Day Two: Cairo
On day two, we moved to the Kempinski Nile Hotel. Although we were fine in the budget hotel in Giza, it was far away from what we wanted to see in Cairo. This hotel is much nicer, has a great view of the Nile, and has a Chocolate Bar in the lobby! The meals in the restaurants were also delicious.
Old Cairo is a UNESCO world heritage site that was inhabited before Cairo was established in 969 AD, perhaps as early as 6 BC, when it is believed the Persians built the Fort of Babylon on this site. A canal was built to connect the Nile River to the Rea Sea, and then the Romans took over and moved the fort closer to the Nile. The first mosque built on the African Continent, Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque, was added when the Islamic religion took control of the area.
This area of Old Cairo has churches built after the Pharaonic religion’s popularity subsided, but before Islam became the predominant religion practiced in Egypt. As a Christian, it was fascinating to see these churches.
The Church of the Virgin Mary
The Hanging Church is the center of Coptic Christianity and soars with its nave hanging over the walls of the Fort of Babylon. It was built sometime around the 5th-8th centuries. It contains a picture of Coptic Mary (Coptic Mona Lisa) from the 8th century, perhaps the only painting of Jesus’ mother painted firsthand.
The interior and doors are quite beautiful and unique compared to many churches around the world. The ceiling is dark timber, meant to look like Noah’s Ark. There are also lovely mosaics on your walk into the church.
It is free to visit the church, but it has limited hours.
Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled Herrod’s order to kill firstborn sons by escaping to Egypt. The holy family sheltered at the end of their journey to Egypt in a cave under The Cavern Church. How incredible to be where Jesus was! Visiting Israel is high on my list, but this will do for now.
The Coptic Museum is right up the road from the Hanging Church and holds the most extensive collection of Coptic artifacts in the world.
Ben Ezra Synagogue
You won’t just find Christian Churches in this area. Lore says this synagogue was built on the site where Pharoah’s daughter found baby Moses.
The Monastery of St. Simon
We ran out of time and weren’t able to visit this church in a cave, the largest Christian Church in the Middle East. This church is part of an interesting phenomenon in Cairo. To get there, you have to travel through “garbage city.” Cairo has more trash in a city than I have seen in my travels, although it smells much better than New York City in the summer. It is on the side of roads and floating down irrigation ditches. There is a whole group of people, mainly Christians, who collect trash for a living and keep it in their neighborhood. They were moved out of town and started this church in the caves to protect it from fires.
We ended our night with a Nile Dinner Cruise which included a show with traditional dancing.
The Egyptian Museum
So you can’t see the contents of the pyramids in the pyramids, but you can see them in Egypt! The Egyptian Museum even contains many things from the tomb of King Tut! We learned all about Egyptian burial, beliefs, and history with our guide. There was a long line for the King Tut exhibit.
The Egyptian Museum is the oldest archeological museum in the Middle East and the most extensive Egyptian collection in the world. We spent only about two hours here because we were short on time, but you could spend a whole day.
The current museum is in Cairo, but a new Grand Egyptian Museum will open in Giza in the future.
Bazaar Khan El-Khalili
Spend time looking for Egyptian treasures in the beautiful alleyways of this souk. If you read my 5 Things to Know Before You Visit Cairo, you know Cairo is a bartering city, but there are fixed-price shops upstairs, and it is quite an experience.
The Citadel of Cairo (Citadel of Salah al‑Din al‑Ayyub)
A great Egyptian sultan, Saladin, built this massive walled Citadel during his reign when Egypt was at the peak of its power. He ruled not only the Egypt we know but Yemen, Syria, and other parts of Northern Africa.
The Citadel contains a mosque, palace, and military history museum.
Mosque of Mohammad Ali
This mosque was the main reason that we wanted to visit the Citadel. Since the Middle East is predominately Muslim, visiting Mosques are a great way to learn about the culture, and this one is quite grand and ornate.
The “Alabaster Mosque” was built in 1848 by Muhammad Ali Pasha in memory of his son, who had died. It has the highest minarets in Egypt and sits on a hill, so it is visible anywhere in the city if the air quality is good. The whole time we were in Egypt, there was lots of sand in the air, so we never saw good views.
Dress conservatively to visit any mosque, including taking your shoes off before entering. Men should wear long pants, and women need their shoulders covered. Some mosques also require women to cover their heads. I bought a scarf at the market, which I carried with me to put over my head if I needed but generally found Egypt much less conservative than I had expected.
On the grounds is the Gawharra Palace which has a terrace that can give a nice view of the city on an elusive clear day.
There are entrance fees to most of the attractions in Egypt. Check out this post from Egypt Tailor-Made for a price list.
What is it like to travel in Egypt during Ramadan?
I was hesitant to travel during the month of Ramadan when Islamic followers could not eat or drink for the whole day. I had read blogs about how we would have a hard time finding food, but we did not find that a problem. Every restaurant we tried to eat at was open.
One of the only complications was that there was too much to eat. After sunset, the Iftar meal was generally a lavish buffet with yummy unique drinks, such as hibiscus.
The only way Ramadan negatively affected our trip was that opening hours were shortened or altered. We also would need to wait for about half an hour after sunset to eat, so the Egyptians could quickly grab a snack. But it was more than worth it to see the devotion of the Muslims around us praying and fasting, which is very admirable.
If you have read my blog often, you know that I am an adventurous traveler. Although I have used day guides sparingly, I often travel on my own because I love to wander.
Visiting Egypt was my first time in the Middle East, and I didn’t know what to expect. I found a guide through a few travel groups on Facebook, Ahmad Kamouna with Captivating Egypt. If you are planning a trip to Egypt, I highly recommend you take a guide.
Please read my post about 5 Things to Know Before Visiting Cairo to see why I feel so strongly about this. Our trip would have been different and much less enjoyable, with many hassles, if we traveled as we usually do.
The whole family loved Cairo and Egypt. Continue following along to hear about our next stop in Egypt, Hurghada on the Red Sea.