It’s not love at first sight with Cairo. The city of over nine million (20 million in Greater Cairo) can be hell for those accustomed to rules, order, and space. Cairo is a polluted, chaotic, traffic-choked mess. But, in a most peculiar way, Cairo’s unpleasantness is part of its appeal. Cairo bursts with vitality. I wouldn’t want to live there, but it charged me, gave me energy, and provided an extraordinary travel experience. Give Cairo a chance; it just might grow on you.
Here’s a lighthearted guide to surviving Cairo, and even enjoying it.
Forget what your mother taught you, and step off that curb:
On our first full day in Cairo, we decided to walk from our hotel to the Egyptian Museum. A nice 30-minute stroll the receptionist told us. Well, it would have been if we hadn’t crossed to the wrong side of the Nile. “Told you it was a dumb-ass idea to walk,” our teenage son said when we finally admitted defeat and piled into a taxi.
We had wasted a couple of hours, but in that time we learned how to become Cairo pedestrians. At the first few busy intersections, we waited, and waited… surely there would be a lull in traffic. The stream of cars is continuous, horns blare incessantly, and exhaust fumes just add to the misery. There are cross walks and traffic lights but no one pays any notice of them.
We watched with trepidation as groups of Cairenes stepped off the curb into the busy intersection, seemingly oblivious to the massive oncoming traffic. Magically, cars did stop—mind you, only inches away from the foot-goers. If you don’t want to stand on the curb forever, you need to take the plunge. Keep pace with the locals and strategically place yourself so there is a buffer of bodies on the side of the oncoming traffic. We survived; that’s all I can say.
Don’t cram the itinerary, and be flexible:
It all looks good on paper: Egyptian Museum in the morning, lunch downtown, Coptic Cairo in the afternoon. As you’ve just read, we got off to a slow start.
The Egyptian Museum is huge, and shouldn’t be rushed. By the time we finished lunch at a little shawarma place (my son’s top Cairo activity) it was well into afternoon rush hour. I suggested taking the metro to Coptic Cairo. My guys reluctantly followed. As we descended into the bowels of the mega city, sandwiched among the masses, I sensed this was perhaps a bad idea. We finally made it to the station platform. Several trains stopped and we watched with growing unease as people were forcibly shoved into the cars so that the doors could close. “Mom, I’m not going in there,” my son hissed. No argument from me.
Back above ground, we decided it was too late to visit Coptic Cairo, hailed a cab, and made our snail-paced way back to the hotel. “We should walk, we’d get there faster,” I joked. They just glared at me.
Visit or stay at some (relatively) peaceful spots:
Many mosques and churches welcome tourists, and these can be havens of tranquility. Make sure you linger awhile. My son, frazzled by the chaos, loved the peacefulness of the Church of St.George’s and the Hanging Church when we finally made it to Coptic Cairo. The enormous Mohammed Ali Mosque at the Citadel has plenty of carpet space for some quiet reflection.
After a hectic day exploring Cairo, it was a relief getting back to our hotel in Zamalek, a neighbourhood on Gezira Island. If you want some peace, I highly recommend this location; it’s relatively quiet (for Cairo) and still very convenient to downtown. A good option is the Hotel Longchamps, a well-run place with comfortable rooms and lovely communal patios to enjoy a recharging beverage.
Get lost and try something new:
There’s no better place to get lost in Cairo than in the Khan el Khalili bazaar. Deep in the heart of Islamic Cairo, the narrow alleyways are home to shops that sell spices, fabrics, hardware, and just about anything you can imagine. There’s not much use following a map; it’s best just to turn down a corridor that look interesting. I was drawn into a shop selling embroidered leather footstools. Over several cups of sweet mint tea, and much impatient eye rolling by my guys, a deal was struck.
All bargained-out, we relaxed at El Fishawy, a cafe and smoke shop nestled in the bazaar’s labyrinth. It has been in operation since 1773! I’m sure we were an amusing sight for locals (and an embarrassment to our son) as we sat puffing on our mango-flavoured sheesha.
Don’t assume everyone is out to scam you:
There were hoards of men outside our hotel all trying to sell us private tours and transportation services. We had a running joke with one taxi-guide guy who mimicked our “maybe tomorrow” line every time he saw us walk in and out of the lobby. We finally broke down. After much negotiation and itinerary discussion we agreed on a very reasonable price. Omar drove us to several spots and waited patiently while we did our sightseeing. Between attractions, stuck in Cairo traffic, he regaled us with personal stories, and history, and politics lessons. He was charming, funny, smart, and honest. It was a great afternoon.
Sure, Cairo has its share of shysters and you need to be vigilant, but don’t assume everyone is out to scam you. Use some common sense and gut instinct. The small risk you take can turn into an amazing travel highlight.
So…go to Cairo, embrace her gritty and chaotic glory. It may not be love at first sight, but you’ll never forget her.
Read about our visit to El Fishawy , Cairo’s oldest café.