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The capital of Egypt.
A city of 20 million people crammed in a slither of space surrounding the fertile plains of the River Nile.
And home to the last remaining ancient wonder of the world: The Pyramids
Of course there will be people that love the city and will tell you to spend months there absorbing the culture and getting to know every single side street.
However I will tell you to spend 2 days there and then get out to see the better parts of Egypt that aren’t a snarling crawl of traffic and air pollution. I’ve been to Delhi and Beijing, both known for their horrendous air pollution, but Cairo is the only place I’ve been to where I have blown my nose at the end of a day of walking around to see the tissue filled with black gunk.
When I went, I flew in on a Saturday evening, explored on Sunday and Monday, before flying out again on Tuesday morning. Could I have spent longer there? Probably. Did I want to? No.
How To Spend 2 Days In Cairo
Head to the Cairo Museum (also known as Egyptian Museum or officially, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities) to see everything about Ancient Egypt in one place. Located close to the Nile, the Victorian era building has hundreds of artefacts from all over Egypt including one of the most famous in the world, Tutankhamouns tomb. If you know a lot about Egyptian history already then you will be amazed at the collections inside. However if you don’t know too much, I would recommend getting a guide as not everything is clearly labelled with explanations. There are plenty of guides near the entrance offering their services and many languages are spoken by them.
Note that from 2022 most of the exhibits here will be transferred to the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, not far from the Pyramids.
Top Tip: General admission is 200LE per person but you will also need to pay 50LE to take in any cameras or leave them in storage. Phones are fine though.
Stroll the streets of Cairo
The streets can be hot, busy and polluted. But I still recommend taking the time to find a quiet neighbourhood and wander around. When I did this I found a cute coffee shop down a side street which felt a million miles away from the hussle and bussle of the rest of Cairo.
Top Tip: the roads can be crazy so if you aren’t used to crossing the road in a developing country, find a local that is also going and follow them. The general rule is walking out and don’t stop moving and the cars will avoid you.
Walk along the nile
The Nile is one of the words that bring romantic dreams of feluccas and desert sands drifting slowly by. While you may not see that in Cairo, spending some time down by the waterfront still lets you dream about those traditional days. For somewhere a bit quieter, head to El Andalos Park on Gezira Island for a taste of where the locals hang out. Feluccas can still be hired for 50LE per hour per person but the views will mostly be of high rise buildings.
Tahrir Square was the site of mass protests during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, which was part of the larger Arab Spring protests. Now, it is a peaceful square seen as the centre of Cairo with the Egyptian Museum, embassy’s and 5 star hotels surrounding the area. Maidan Tahrir metro station also stops here making it a central point for adventures for other parts of Cairo.
I have a thing for large towers with viewing platforms in cities. I think it gives a great perspective on the city and can make you realise how vast the area is below. The Cairo Tower, on Gezira Island close to the upmarket neighbourhood of Zamalek, is the tallest structure in north Africa, about 30m taller than the Pyramids. The island is a bit calmer than the rest of Cairo so makes an excellent stop at the end of a busy day.
It costs 70LE to go up to the observation deck. I paid 450LE which gave fast track entry (didn’t have to wait in a queue, just head straight up) to the revolving restaurant for sunset. A meal was included in the price, you just pay if it goes over 450LE (which mine did slightly).
Top Tip: Head up to the restaurant in the hour before sunset to see the changing colours of the city whilst you eat.
Surely the number 1 reason to go to Cairo is to see the Pyramids. As of the time of writing (December 2021) tourism has yet to fully return so you will be pleasantly surprised by how empty it can be. Get up early and get in as the gates open at 8.30am and you’ll have the place to yourself. I have written another guide on how to visit the pyramids but expect to spend at least a few hours and potentially the entire day in the complex: it is huge!
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Visit Islamic Cairo
Depending on how much time you have left, take an Uber to Islamic Cairo to explore the different styles of mosques and souks. It is more relaxed here with a variety of mosques dating back to medieval times, including the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As, the first mosque built in Egypt.
Looking for another great destination in the Middle East? Check out: Top 12 Things to do in Muscat and Oman
Top tips for visiting Cairo in 2023
- Most people fly into Cairo International Airport. Whilst public transport is available, it can be time consuming and involve a number of changes to get into the city centre. If your hotel or accommodation can arrange an airport pick up, I highly recommend using it. The Cairo Metro line will link to the airport in future but the completion date isn’t set yet.
- As always I recommend getting a SIM card as a back up. They are only sold in official Vodafone and Orange shops. You will need to take your passport for them to scan but the process takes 10-15 minutes to set up. Prices start from 190LE for 20GB, 270LE for 36GB and 450LE for 54GB of data.
- Cairo is vast and getting from one side to another can take a lot of time. Giza, where the pyramids are, to Tahrir square can take over an hour in peak rush hour, or even 40 minutes on a good run. From Giza to the airport, allow at least 90 minutes, and at least 60 minutes from the city centre to the airport.
- Outside of the city centre the metro and public transport can be difficult to navigate if you don’t have the basics of Arabic. Try learning at least the Arabic numbers if you want to do this.
- The easiest way to get around is using Uber. I try and avoid regular taxis as they are known not to use their meters and rip of tourists. Uber has a fixed price and can be tracked for safety. From central Cairo to Giza cost 80-100LE, Giza to the airport is 200LE and short trips around the city centre between 20-50LE
Dan is an avid traveller from London. His first big adventure was in 2010 living in Malaysia for 3 months and becoming a divemaster. He has been on the road almost constantly since 2015 travelling to destinations that aren’t on the mainstream tourist trail.