When: October 2019
If I could describe the city of Cairo in one word it would be CHAOS! I don’t know if I expected a sleepy city but it’s like Vegas without the neon lights and if everyone was chugging Red Bull and there are no stop lights. Home to nearly 9.5 million people across 1,200 square miles, Cairo stays bustling.
We only had a day in Cairo as this was our “layover” stop before we began our safari adventures in Tanzania. Since we had limited time, I planned and booked everything in advance, via Chase Sapphire travel, so we could hit the most important highlights.
We flew in late and weren’t on our way from the airport to the hotel until almost one in the morning. We were mobbed by the typical cabbies and it took us a minute to get oriented and try and find someone who gave us a good price. Even at this hour, there was traffic and a bunch of kids on mopeds causing mischief. One of the young Egyptian Ruff Ryders “tapped” a car bumper next to us, so the driver puts it in park on the interstate, gets out and starts yelling at the kid, gets back in his car and then goes on his way. That interaction pales in comparison to the wedding party hanging out of their sun roof and lighting fireworks off in the middle of the highway. Welcome to Cairo!
I booked this part of our honeymoon adventure with my favorite site, Trip Masters. This covered our international flights to Cairo and home from Seychelles, as well as the hotels.
Visas are required for all US travelers entering Egypt. It was incredibly simple to do this in advance online, so I highly recommend paying the $25 before you travel so you can avoid waiting in line when you arrive in country. We applied in early August for an October trip and received our visas via email.
As previously mentioned, we only had a day to explore Cairo so we booked a private tour with Chase Sapphire travel tour with points. The tour included a guide and driver who took us to The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, the Pyramids of Giza, a buffet lunch and a few other “cultural stops.”
Where to Stay
Depending on your planned activities, you might stay downtown or outside of the city closer to the Pyramids. We chose to stay downtown to be in the action and have easy access to museums early in the morning as well as a 30 minute ride to the airport.
We stayed at the Steigenberger Hotel el Tahrir, which was attractive and modern. The rooms were comfortable and spacious. We hung out at the pool, had drinks and snacks at the pool bar and indulged at the expansive breakfast buffet. The hospitality and staff were fantastic and I would love to stay here again.
Things to Do
The Cairo Museum
Even after a marathon day of travel, I was up at the crack of dawn teeming with excitement to see the Pyramids! We were finally in Cairo! After an indulgent breakfast, we met our guide in the lobby at 9:00 am, who quickly escorted us into our ride for the quick drive to the Cairo Museum and kicked off the tour! We got there right as the museum opened but there was already a crush of people waiting to get in.
The Cairo Museum was built in 1901 and is an altogether different breed of museum. What it lacks in organization, detailed descriptions and sensical layouts, it makes up for with an abundance of the most incredible artifacts ever discovered. The sheer volume of items spread out over two floors is mind boggling. You could easily back up into a thousand year old statue and no one would bat an eye. This museum is obviously very popular and it was absurdly crowded during our visit. It was so helpful to have a guide who could point out and explain the artifacts because the placards weren’t very descriptive. The museum immerses you in centuries of Egyptian dynasties and overwhelms you with the amount of history and life represented by these left behind relics.
The main highlight is the room dedicated to the treasures found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun. The cases of gold objects and jewelry line the room while the 11 kilo solid gold burial mask sits in the center. It is truly bewildering to see this object that has captured the attention and imagination of so many people across the world and ages. As Howard Carter famously said upon the discovery of the tomb “Yes, wonderful things!”, it still rings true.
The other must see exhibit is the Royal Mummy Room. While this does cost extra, it is well worth it to view the mummies of Ramses the II! The preservation of these people is astounding, you can look into the faces of some of the most important pharaohs in Ancient Egypt.
We spent a good chunk of the morning wandering the museum and gasping at the endless collections of statues, parchment, jewelry and mummies, including mummified crocodiles.
However, like all things in Cairo, this museum is soon to be part of the past. The city is opening a new, modern, upgraded version called the The Grand Egyptian Museum in 2020 which will be located at the site of the Pyramids. I have no doubt the new museum will pay a proper tribute fit for all of these past kings and queens and I am gleefully looking forward to returning.
The Pyramids of Giza
After the museum, it was time for us to visit the Mecca of the Seven Wonders of the World and the only “wonder” still standing of the ancient world, the Pyramids. Set just on the outskirts of Giza, about eight miles from downtown Cario, the complex consists of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Khafre, the Pyramid of Menkaure, the Great Spinx of Giza and the smaller subsidiary pyramids and graveyards, which were constructed during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (2600 – 2400 BC). That’s quite the list of things to explore in one day!
We arrived at the pyramids and pulled directly into the parking lot, bypassing all of the waiting guides who were ready to poach wandering tourists. Once again, I highly recommend having a guide to explore the pyramids. It’s not that well signed so it’s incredibly helpful to have a knowledgeable person explain the history of the renowned site. Additionally, it will also keep other people from bothering you all day… if the pyramid hustlers see you already have a guide you are less like to get heckled for pictures, maps and souvenirs.
I walked directly to the Great Pyramid and touched the jigsaw limestone blocks. I stood at its base and looked up at the tip of the pyramid blocking the glaring sun and let the amazement just wash over me. I scrambled up a few layers following the signs and looked out over the modern cities of Giza and Cairo. It’s a surreal experience to stand on something from 2400 BC while there are cars driving on an adjacent road. If you’re looking for a quick primer on the history of the pyramids to prepare for a visit, check out National Geographic’s site.
Adding to the experience, you can enter all three pyramids. However, they each have an extra fee, are not open daily and sometimes the number of people are limited. We were able to explore the interior of the Pyramid of Menkaure, which is the smallest of the three primary pyramids. While all the funeral treasures are long gone, it’s still worth it to climb down the 20 meters into the interior chamber.
This trek is not for the claustrophobic. It’s humid as hell, tight quarters and a little tricky to climb up and down. You can feel the chisel marks on the ceiling and walls as you go. Nevertheless, we made it to the bottom and the attendant in the chamber made us do a million different ancient Egyptian poses for an unprompted photo shoot.
After the pyramids, it was time to explore the back of the complex via camel. We mounted our new friends and galloped through the hot sand for more picturesque views of the pyramids. We stopped to take it in and the camel jockey was directing another personal photo shoot and we ended up getting some incredible shots, so even though it was corny, I’m grateful for those memories!
Finally, it was time to meet the guardian of the pyramids, the Great Sphinx. Built in 2500 BC, this limestone mythical creature faces west to east and has the body of a lion and the head of a man. The face is thought to be Pharoh Kharfe, however no one knows for sure as the Sphinx is not mentioned in any inscriptions from the Old Kingdom. It’s faced much deterioration (the nose and beard are long gone), excavation and restoration over the years. Today, it still looks formidable from paw to tail and it was a dream come true to see the Sphinx in person!
The Extra Stops
As a part of the tour, there were some extra stops peppered in! We visited a Papyrus Store, a Perfume store and then a souvenir shop. The entire shopping extravaganza had the feel of “let me take you to my friend’s place and you’ll get a great deal.” We weren’t in the market for any of this stuff but went along with it because what else were we going to do, get dropped off early?
However, the papyrus store included a lesson and some coffee and the perfume store included an essence smelling class and some of the best iced tea I’ve ever tasted. I ended up purchasing some of the Nefertiti perfume because I am a huge sucker and it really did smell fantastic. So all in all it wasn’t a bad day! If you are looking to buy some mementos from your trip, then this would have been a perfect excursion!
We ended our day in Cairo as the sun was beginning to set on a bridge overlooking the legendary Nile River. Even with all the commotion surrounding us from the city, it was a peaceful moment to catch up on all of the unforgettable things we experienced that day!
Looking forward to my next visit to this immortal city!