We recently spent three days in Cairo, Egypt. We went for the pyramids but experienced so much more. So much of life and travel is having the correct expectations, so here are a few things we wished we had known before we visited.
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1. Cairo is a monstrous, sprawling city.
Before we visited, I didn’t think past the pyramids, but I did not realize that Cairo would be so big and busy. Cairo Governate is 1,191 square miles, not including the 610 square miles of Giza across the Nile.
When people speak about Cairo, they usually refer to the whole metropolis, containing over 21.3 million people. Cairo is the largest city in Africa and the Middle East, and it is the 6th largest metropolis in the world!
2. The roads are functioning chaos.
Living 4 hours away from New York City, I have driven extensively there. But I would never brave driving in Cairo. I have never even crossed a street in Cairo on foot and would not begin to know how to.
I am still in awe of the road system of Cairo. How the roads functioned made no sense to a westerner, but they were very successful. The wide, multi-lane roads are used by cars, tuk-tuks, horses and carriages, and many pedestrians. Cars and pedestrians drive with few signals from the government or each other, and they don’t stay in their lanes or use cross-walks. But somehow, there is less standing traffic, and we did not see one accident or even a close call.
The roads are loud. But no one is angry. Horns seemed to be used to telling people you are here.
3. Egypt is a developing country with a dependence on tourism.
A little over 10% of Egypt’s GDP is due to tourism, and you will experience that with a fair amount of aggression to get your tourist dollars. One of the most accurate things our guide made us realize is that this would happen. Cairenes are not shrinking violets. When they interact, you will see a loudness and forwardness that can be surprising to westerners.
Our guide, Ahmad, told us that nothing is free, which was great advice.
4. There is a considerable amount of security in Cairo.
I am a pretty daring, confident traveler, but my friends had me a bit scared to visit Cairo. I had tickets to Cairo in the 1980s, which were abruptly canceled when the embassy was bombed. During the Arab Spring, there was a lot of instability in the region.
But as I stated in #3, tourism is essential to Egypt. The government realizes this and is pretty aggressive at keeping tourists safe. Three different forces keep you safe in Cairo- regular police, tourism police, and undercover police. There are numerous checkpoints to get into every tourist attraction. If you take a tour, the country knows where you are at all times to keep you safe. They want tourists to come to Egypt and have a good experience. It is still a big and busy city, so act as you would in every big city, avoiding dangerous areas and protecting yourself from pickpockets. Be aware of your surroundings.
It is my opinion that we felt very safe in Cairo and Hurghada. Obviously, travel smart, consult the State Department before traveling, and make your own assessment.
5. There is a bartering culture in Cairo.
In Cairo, you will pretty much constantly chatted up. Although the Cairenes are friendly and love to share their culture, they also want something from you. Remember, nothing is free. They expect you to negotiate for most things they want to sell you. If you have the right mindset, the game can be fun. But be sure to make it abundantly clear before you take anything. including a ride, and what you are willing to pay for it.
If you are uncomfortable with bartering, visit only stores with a fixed price. In the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, the fixed-price stores are hidden upstairs, but they are there. Having a guide with us the whole time let us know beforehand how much each ride was, making my trip much more comfortable.
My whole family truly loved our trip to Cairo. We loved the food, history, adventure, and culture; it was an excellent introduction to the Middle East.
Part of why it went so well for us was choosing to have a private guide for the Cairo portion of our trip. We used Ahmad Kamouna, and you can find him on Facebook.