Experience The Best Of Cairo In 72 Hours
Whether you have two days or two weeks to travel, our Cairo city guide covers the must see sites, local food recommendations, where to stay, how much the city will cost, an example itinerary, and how to get around the city - including how to get to and from the airport.
Cairo is a greatly misunderstood city, full of contradictions. You will see a clash of histories – the new building on top of the ancient, a clash of people – passersby who will happily shout “Welcome in Egypt!” in a true kind gesture who will just as soon cut you off in traffic or shout at you for not paying enough in a taxi. Above all, this is a place for adventure. There are so many trips that you can take in Egypt – one filled with snorkeling and diving in Red Sea coastal towns like the famous Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada; the famous Nile Cruises between Abu Simbel, Aswan, and Luxor for an immersive look at Pharaonic Egypt. However, misconceptions abound about Egypt’s mega-city, the fastest growing city in the world. Prior to moving to Egypt, I had often heard from tourist friends: skip Cairo, it’s dirty, huge, chaotic, and stressful. I have one thing to say to those people: DO NOT MISS CAIRO. If you approach the city strategically, as I will detail below, Cairo is an approachable, very affordable, fascinating city with truly an endless number of things to do. Further, unlike Nile cruises and the Red Sea, Cairo has a broader array of things to do and history to explore – from the huge collection of mummies at the Egyptian Museum, to the famous mosques in Islamic Cairo, to 20th century downtown watering holes where Egyptian politics came to life under Nasser and Sadat.
What To Read On The Way
Palace Walk written by Naguib Mahfouz; a very famous Egyptian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in the 1980s. Mahfouz’ historical novels get up close and personal to Egyptian families in the early 20th century, and give a rich feel for what Cairo looked like and felt like in past decades. Additionally, The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany is critically acclaimed, and throughout the international community in Cairo it is a widely held favorite. It is a fast and engaging read and would highly recommend.
Getting To & From The Airport
There are 3 ways to get into the city from Cairo International Airport:
1. The most convenient way is by one of the numerous "limousine services" (This is the fastest option). Pick-up points are in front of the terminals (curb side). The prices are fixed depending on the destination and the car category, but different providers may charge wildly different prices. Category A are luxury limousines (e.g. Mercedes Benz), Category B are Micro Buses for up to seven passengers, Category C are mid-sized cars and new Category D are London Taxis. Price from airport to downtown is about 200 pounds, or $10.
2. Public Bus (This is the cheapest option). Public buses leave outside terminal 1 and connect frequently to transportation hubs like Abbasia and Tahrir Square but can be confusing for visitors and are not suitable for persons carrying large pieces of baggage. Line 3 of the Cairo Metro will connect the airport to Heliopolis, Central Cairo and Giza in the future. Intercity buses leave from the bus station located in between the terminals.
3. Taxi. The old black and white taxis usually do not have a meter and prices are negotiated before traveling while the newer white taxis have meters, but will generally refuse to use it when leaving from the airport and charge significantly more.
First Things First - Where/What To Eat?
It is worth noting that the price approximations have been written below to show the differences in cost between the restaurants listed. However, given the cheap prices in Egypt, you likely will not be paying more than around $30-40 for two people for food at the restaurants with three dollar signs ($$$). Cairo is certainly very doable on a shoestring budget with its current low prices, but I think one of the really amazing things about the city is just how cheap you can get a very fancy, relaxing, luxurious restaurant experience for.
***A Note on Alcohol and Drinks: Egypt is a Muslim majority country, and the vast majority of restaurants do not serve alcohol. The government puts huge import taxes on foreign alcohol, so beware if you see it on the menu!! At the nicer restaurants, which are typically cheap by U.S. standards, things usually start getting a bit pricier when you order alcohol. There are a few options when it comes to alcohol: 1) don’t drink, instead taking advantage of the incredibly abundant and cheap fresh juices or fancy coffee drinks 2) bring your own (some restaurants allow you to bring your own to the restaurant – call ahead and ask), or 3) order Egyptian brand beer or wine. Egyptian beer (Stella and Saqqara) are fine, but Egyptian wine is pretty nasty (rose is passable, but really still not worth the money). If you do order foreign brand alcohol in restaurants, make sure you are fully apprised of the price, as it is likely double or triple what you would pay in the United States.
Must-See's Of Cairo
Cairo is a city of many faces, neighborhoods, and parts of history. What you decide to do should be determined by how much time you have, and what else you might plan to do while visiting Egypt. If you plan to see Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, you might want to explore more of the Islamic part of Cairo and more modern historical offerings (delving into Ottoman history, Coptic Cairo, and a tour of the Citadel, for example). If you like the outdoors and pleasant walks with views, you may want to check out Al-Azhar Park. I can promise you this – unless you stay in Cairo for a year, you will miss something, so don’t feel guilty for skipping things in the below list, or in one of those thick guidebooks which list 200 different cool things to do. Here are my top 6 favorite places and experiences in Cairo:
Exploring Cairo On Public Transportation
Working with a local travel service to hire a tour guide and driver is the ideal way to do Cairo. Cairo is hectic, congested, and can be a bit stressful to get around in, and this will help you get the most out of your trip. Furthermore, it is very doable to get a driver for several hours a day for less than $50-70. If you want to do your own thing, or are on a tighter budget, Uber is a great way to go, as this removes the need to haggle with white cab drivers, who sometimes will try to charge an extravagant amount in Egyptian terms (though when I say extravagant, in U.S. terms I’m usually talking $4.50 instead of $2.50). Word to the wise – Egyptians (even Uber drivers) often have difficulty following maps and GPS. Keep an eye on the GPS map to make sure that your Uber driver actually knows how to follow his map. For a bit more money, but an incredibly efficient and professional cab service, use London Cab. You can order it online, they always speak English, they always have air conditioned and clean vehicles, they never arrive to the pickup point late. This is a great service to go with for pickups and drop-offs to and from the airport, and what my husband and I always use (price from airport to downtown is about 200 pounds, or $10).
For a bit more money, but an incredibly efficient and professional cab service, use London Cab. You can order it online, they always speak English, they always have air conditioned and clean vehicles, they never arrive to the pickup point late. This is a great service to go with for pickups and drop-offs to and from the airport.
(Price from airport to downtown is about 200 pounds, or $10)
Where To Stay
There are tons of accommodation options in Cairo, from hostels, Airbnb, bed & breakfasts, or many five-star hotels.
It's recommended to stay in the Zamalek district. Located on the Nile island of Gezira, is a very fun, hip, interesting place to explore, home to lots of artsy boutiques and hipster restaurants. Many of the fun going out restaurants that are listed above are in Zamalek, and are paired well with a day of shopping and exploring of Zamalek, which was built in the mid-1800s.
Travel Tips & Helpful Hints
Do I need a visa?
Pretty much everyone from any country needs a visa to enter Egypt. However, most western countries can apply for and receive a Visa-on-arrival. Check out everything you need to know about your visa, here.
What is the power voltage?
Egypt uses European 220 Volt power. If you have an adaptor you should bring it with you. Please be careful when plugging things in in Cairo. There is often shoddy installation of electric sockets, and I have had friends get shocked or even electrocuted while here even in nice hotels.
What about smoking weed or drinking in the streets?
You will be arrested and imprisoned for YEARS if you have any drugs, to include marijuana. There is nothing the U.S. Embassy can do for you if this happens. Feel free to bring your own alcohol in your suitcase when you come into the country, but do not be drinking it in the streets. remember, Egypt is a Muslim majority country where public intoxication is not tolerated.
What is the currency and its value?
The currency used in Egypt is called the Egyptian pounds (LE or EGP).
The current value (July 2018) is 17.7 EGP = $1 USD.
The workweek in Cairo is Sunday through Thursday. Fridays are very quiet as most Cairenes are at the mosques. Friday morning is probably the best time to go to the pyramids if you are going on the Egyptian weekend (Friday-Saturday).
You can get almost anything delivered to you:
Just about anything can be delivered to your door in Egypt. Download the Otlob delivery app for a wide variety of restaurants that will deliver straight to you. Gourmet Egypt is a nice grocery store which can deliver as well.
A Note on Alcohol and Drinks:
Egypt is a Muslim majority country, and the vast majority of restaurants do not serve alcohol. The government puts huge import taxes on foreign alcohol, so beware if you see it on the menu!! At the nicer restaurants, which are typically cheap by U.S. standards, things usually start getting a bit pricier when you order alcohol. There are a few options when it comes to alcohol: 1) don’t drink, instead taking advantage of the incredibly abundant and cheap fresh juices or fancy coffee drinks 2) bring your own (some restaurants allow you to bring your own to the restaurant – call ahead and ask), or 3) order Egyptian brand beer or wine. Egyptian beer (Stella and Saqqara) are fine, but Egyptian wine is pretty nasty (rose is passable, but really still not worth the money). If you do order foreign brand alcohol in restaurants, make sure you are fully apprised of the price, as it is likely double or triple what you would pay in the United States.
72 hours in Cairo Example Itinerary:
Word to the wise – I would recommend hiring an Egyptologist tour guide/driver. They are incredibly reasonably priced in Egypt.
Day 1: Pyramids
Wake up early and head to the Giza pyramids before the crowds arrive. Meander about, and take your time, breathing in the views, getting fun touristy pictures, walking by the Sphinx, and even popping in the Sunboat Museum too if you have time.
You will now be hungry! Fork in the road for what you want to do:
1) Head over to Gad for a quick, casual lunch of shawarma and tammeya (falafel) on the way back to downtown for more adventures (perhaps an afternoon walk around downtown Cairo around Midan Talaat Harb or Zamalek with some shopping), OR
2) For a more luxurious and laid-back experience, check out Mena House, for a drink, meal, and a dip in the pool. All with great views of the pyramids. (350 LE (20 USD) per person for a day pass) Mena House does not have the best food, but definitely provides a relaxing and beautiful afternoon.
In the evening, head to the Sofitel Hotel Moroccan restaurant to relax by the Nile, be serenaded by the oud (a Middle Eastern lute), and to dine on delicious food.
Day 2: Islamic Cairo
Head to the Citadel to explore the grounds and check out the views, as well as Muhammad Ali Mosque. After this, check out the two other mosques at the bottom of the hill – Al-Rifai Mosque and Sultan Hassan Mosque.
Take a London Cab over to Al-Azhar Park to eat lunch, and after lunch meander around the beautiful grounds. Lots of nice photo ops here, and a great view of where you just were!
If you did not check Zamalek out yesterday, feel free to shop some of the boutiques in the afternoon.
For dinner, stay in Zamalek and check out Pier 88, Left Bank, Mezcal, or Cairo Kitchen Restaurants, and then head to Rooftop for a shisha and a beer overlooking the Nile.
Day 3: Downtown
Hang out downtown, heading to the Egyptian Museum in the morning before running into crowds. Hire a guide and explore. Also, the gift shop is pretty good here, with artisan products in addition to the traditional souvenirs – be sure to take a look before you leave.
Head to Oldish Café for a pleasant lunch and coffee in the courtyard – it’s just a few blocks away and you can walk through Tahrir Square. Feel free to pop in the American University Cairo (AUC) Bookstore on the way over.
For the evening, choose one of two:
1) Take a cab down to the Khan il-Khalili for some shopping and to watch the Whirling Dervishes show (Wekalat El Ghouri Arts Center). For dinner, the Naguib Mahfouz Restaurant in the market is fun, though recommend sticking to the mezze sauces with bread, as the meals can be hit or miss in terms of tastiness.
2) Pick up a picnic dinner from a grocery with some bread, cheese, and beer/wine/juice, and hire a felucca ride on the Nile for the evening, watching the sun set. This is an incredible Cairo experience, and very cheap too!
So What's It Going To Cost?
Day 1: $53 with all the more expensive options:
Pyramids – 80 pounds entrance, or 200 to go inside ($4.00 or $10.50)
Camel ride – 100 pounds ($5.50)
Gad lunch – 50 pounds ($2.50)
Mena House – 350 pounds ($20.00), includes meal
Sofitel – 200 pounds ($12) per person – this approximation is based on a meal without alcohol
Taxi costs – 100 pounds ($5.50)
Day 2: $44 with all the most expensive estimates:
Citadel Entry – 140 pounds ($8.00)
Al-Azhar Park Entry – 25 pounds ($1.50)
Lunch at Al-Azhar Park restaurant – 150-200 pounds ($8-12) per person
Dinner in Zamalek – 200-400 pounds ($12-24) per person
Taxi costs - 100 pounds ($5.50)
Day 3: $53.50 with more expensive options (Naguib Mahfouz, Whirling Dervishes), not counting purchases at Khan il-Khalili:
Egyptian Museum – 240 pounds ($14.00)
Oldish – 200 pounds ($12.00) per person
Khan il-Khalili – varies on what you spend
Naguib Mahfouz Restaurant – 250 pounds ($14.50) per person
Picnic and Felucca – 300 pounds ($18.00)
Taxi costs – 400 pounds ($5.50)
Where's Your Money Going?
So, What Can You Expect To Spend In 72 Hours?
Total for Transportation: $26 USD
Total for Activities: $59 USD
Total for Accommodation: $30 USD
Total for food: $95 USD
Totat: $210 USD
Thats $70 USD per person, per day!
This city guide was contributed by one of our SMP Ambassadors. Alexandra Pickett is an American living and working in Cairo as a diplomat. When she's not working, Alexandra is appreciating the culture of the warm and welcoming people in Cario and exploring the endless things to do in the city.