Cairo Travel Tips: 10 Helpful Things You Need To Know Before Visiting Cairo

Table of Contents

Introduction

Cairo is an epicentre of Egyptian culture, history and magic. It’s one of those places where, the second you step off the plane, you imagine yourself going back in time. If you haven’t already read our helpful things to know before visiting Egypt guide, this is a good place to start! In this guide, however, we’ll talk you through the best Cairo Travel Tips and everything you need to know.

Cairo is a city that I personally have wanted to visit for many years. It’s somewhere that I knew I would love and I’m so pleased I was absolutely right! What struck me as I started to do more research was that I had vastly underestimated how much there was to do. We realised pretty quickly that we needed much more time than we had initially allocated and were so pleased we were visiting as part of a longer trip and could change things around to stay longer.

However, Cairo really is a city unlike any other, so here’s what you need to know…

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the Pyramids of Giza, near Cairo, with the Sphinx in the middle
Iconic Cairo isn’t actually in Cairo!

10 Cairo Travel Tips

1. Most areas of Cairo are better with a local guide

There are a few reasons for this, the first one being that Cairo is quite a hectic city. There’s a lot going on and as a tourist it can be very overwhelming. It’s difficult to enjoy if you’re not used to this kind of atmosphere. Personally speaking, we had been overlanding through Southern and Eastern Africa for the best part of 6 months before we got to Cairo (with a lot of prior experiences in busy African cities before that) and even we found it pretty overwhelming at times (though it is really fun too!).

As tourists, especially at tourist sites, there are a lot of people who will want your attention. They might want you to buy things, to sway you to choose them as a guide or sometimes just to say hello, so you do get a lot of hassle. As a woman, I also found I got a lot of stares, even when fully covered up. This almost completely stopped when we stopped travelling independently and met up with our local guide (Rami).

Rami, an Egyptian guide, wearing a bright blue puffer jacket is standing under a beautifully decorated archway in a mosque
This was our guide, Rami!

2. Giza is not in Cairo

This is mentioned in pretty much every guide we’ve seen so if you’ve bothered to do any pre-reading at all, you probably already know this. Giza is a small town outside of Cairo with its own central hub, its own hotels and its own restaurants. Here there are probably close to 1001 hotels with pyramid view rooms, varying degrees of luxury.

Giza city. You can see apartment blocks, with washing hanging up, and the Pyramids of Giza in the background
Giza, a completely different city from Cairo!

Before we went, we read every guide going about which hotel is the best for pyramid view – honestly, it doesn’t matter. Even the hotels that don’t have rooms with a view of the pyramids will have a balcony usually or some kind of terrace where you can see them. We’d suggest picking a hotel you like the look of and suits your budget instead. Don’t worry about whether the view will be spectacular, because wherever you stay it probably will be!

We stayed in Rami’s Pyramid Guesthouse, which has pyramid view rooms and a better pyramid-view terrace. It’s not as close as some of them get but we got great pictures and loved his hospitality. It is really advisable to stay outside of Cairo (in Giza) if you want to be at the pyramids early. Getting there early will help you avoid crowds. Alternatively book pyramid-view accommodation. We also advise to stay outside of Giza (in Cairo) on days you’re visiting any other attractions. This is mainly because…

3. The traffic in Cairo is horrendous

Seriously, horrendous. Especially around ‘rush hour’ (between around 4pm and 7pm), we were finding that journeys that should have taken us maybe 40 minutes end to end were taking just upwards of 2 hours. It’s not always this bad, but there will almost always be a delay on the time Google predicts. It seems to be better in the mornings, we found afternoons extremely chaotic.

For this reason if you have something you urgently want to see, we’d suggest going early morning. Any afternoon appointments may be a little delayed.  We would suggest not overdoing it on activities each day or at least planning activities that are close together so that you are not constantly in a car.

A view over Cairo with the Pyramids of Giza in the far distance. The city looks very hazy and beautiful
Views from Muhammad Ali Mosque

4. They have Uber in Cairo, but beware…

If you’re planning to travel Cairo mostly by taxi (which is easy), be wary of the Uber app. It can be a little frustrating at times. There are multiple taxi apps available in Cairo – we tried Uber (with mixed results), Bolt (terrible) and Careem (again, mixed results). Below are our findings!

Uber

Personally, we had a couple of issues with Uber. The first was that drivers would turn up (after a long waiting time), drive us a minute or so up the road and then demand we pay cash (which is not currently possible on the Uber app in Cairo at the time of writing). We can see why the drivers do this. They don’t get paid as much by Uber as they would with cash in hand (because of Uber’s commission). The thing is that it’s not practical when you’re trying to get around as a tourist, especially because Uber will then charge you the full price usually or a cancellation fee if you try to pay directly. Frustrating.

Basically this led to quite a lot of arguing, and often hanging around waiting for second Ubers. This didn’t happen with every Uber and equally, some of the drivers from Uber are amazing. One of them even drove us around all day (miles from Cairo) to Memphis, Dakar and Saqqara, which was above and beyond the call of duty.

We also had friends tell us they’d used Ubers in Cairo that would turn up a few metres down the road from where you are, mark you as ‘passenger on board’ and then leave, meaning you’d be charged a cancellation fee that was hard to get back, but you’re left without your ride. We didn’t have that happen but it’s worth being aware of. Given our time again, we’d probably still use Uber in Cairo. One serious pro for Uber is that they have an automatic translate function on their messaging system. Essentially, even if you speak no Arabic at all you can communicate with the driver.

A pop up for a free 3 day city guide to Cairo. Click the link for top Cairo Travel Tips

Bolt

Just terrible. Mostly the drivers wouldn’t show up. If they did, they’d try and charge us a different amount or negotiate a higher price with us. It’s also really hard to communicate with non-English speaking drivers if you don’t speak Arabic, as there’s no in-app translate function (at the time of writing).

The one bonus is that you can pay cash and mark your ride as paid. This was better for the drivers (we think – they seemed to prefer it) and easy for us.

Careem

This is a local app. We downloaded it for Alexandria, as they don’t have Uber there. One major pro to using Careem is that they will allow you to pay cash. They also allow you to cancel free of charge within 3 minutes of ordering. Basically it’s a good set up for Egypt, BUT one super annoying thing we found with it was that it didn’t always seem to understand when you had paid in cash, so we were receiving notifications for months afterwards saying we had outstanding payments due to the app – super annoying.

We eventually just deleted the app, but who knows if there will be repercussions from that. To be honest, maybe we did it wrong! This definitely did seem like the more reliable app of the three for local drivers, but I guess better the devil you know, so we preferred using Uber.

The Great Pyramid of Giza. Murray is standing in front of it.
Having the Pyramids completely to ourselves is an experience we’ll never forget

5. The best time to visit the Pyramids is as soon as it opens… and skip the camel rides

The best time to get to the pyramids is as soon as they open. This is us speaking from first hand experience of arriving and having the pyramids completely to ourselves for nearly 20 minutes. We even managed to be the only people inside the Great Pyramid before anyone else arrived. It was amazing.

How did we do this?

Well, yes, we arrived very early, however we also had an amazing local guide, who knew exactly which entrance to go to in order to make sure that we would be totally alone. That person was Rami (Instagram: @ramisinsighttours and phone number: +41 76 801 68 10). Overall, this made our experience so much better and we highly recommend hiring Rami to anyone visiting the Pyramids.

Our second tip for the pyramids is: as a tourist, please don’t ride the camels. Yes, it’s complex because local people have done it for years, so of course there should be no judgement on the locals, however as a tourist, there is no need to contribute to an industry where the animals are treated really poorly for the purposes of tourist entertainment. You can still get amazing photos of the pyramids with camels in them without sitting on top of one.

A shot of the NMEC, a stone building. The writing reads NMEC: National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation.
The National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation

6. NMEC and the Egyptian Museum are different

We would not have known this if not for a tip off from a friend who was born and raised in Cairo and we’re so pleased she gave us this advice!

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

We were planning to visit the Egyptian Museum anyway (the EMC). It’s incredible. It’s so vast and has so many exhibits that we could have stayed for the whole day. As it was, we spent around four hours there, and only left because we started to get hungry and didn’t want to eat there. You can easily book tickets on arrival and they are inexpensive.

Our only minor complaint with this museum is that the signage is a little lacking (so it’s quite hard to know exactly what you’re looking at). Some of the newer exhibitions have signage in both English and Arabic and they are very interesting, so it’s better to start with them (on the bottom floor) if you prefer more information. The upper floor contains more sarcophagi and ancient artefacts, so this is very visually appealing but not quite as informative. It’s a complete maze so you can completely get lost in it all and spend as long as you like.

The NMEC

The NMEC (National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation ) on the other hand is much smaller. It is more modern (it was only finished a couple of years ago) and in our opinion, a lot more ergonomically designed, but without as much to see.

Whereas in the Egyptian museum you could quite literally get lost and wander around for hours, the NMEC is much more compact. It has only 3 main exhibitions and one main room. The main area is a collection of artefacts that you can probably whip round in around half an hour/40 minutes, depending on how interested you are. The second exhibition is an absolutely fascinating collection of Pharaonic mummies. They are all preserved in original bandages and many with sarcophagi, alongside explanations of who they are and some digital facial reconstructions.

It’s super interesting and we spent a lot longer in this exhibit than the main room (about an hour/1.5 hours). The third room was sadly closed when we were there, but we believe it is a display of sarcophagi, all very beautifully and ornately decorated, from what we have heard.

A pop up for a free 3 day city guide to Cairo. Click the link for top Cairo Travel Tips

The Grand Egyptian Museum

The GEM (Grand Egyptian Museum) is a third museum, in Giza. We didn’t have chance to visit, as it hadn’t yet opened while we were in Cairo, but it looks seriously impressive. You can book tickets for their immersive Tutankhamun exhibition here.

So which one should you visit? Honestly, this depends on how much you like your history! I would say the NMEC is best for those who want bite-sized chunks and eye-catching exhibits, while the EMC is better for a deep dive, or who have already got a good basis of knowledge. The GEM seems to give real wow-factor, and is based in Giza, so this could be good for those wanting to extend Giza trips.

Lanterns and gold artefacts in Islamic Cairo.
Boutique stores in Islamic Cairo

7. Different districts have different things to offer (and different dress codes)

Islamic Cairo

Islamic Cairo is, as the name suggests, where you can find the greatest density of mosques in Cairo, as well as many Islamic traders selling traditional artefacts and souvenirs. It’s a beautiful and fascinating part of Cairo city. Much of the most beautiful architecture in Cairo can be found here, and it is a true hubbub of culture and local life. You could easily spend a full day here, just wandering from mosque to mosque and soaking it all in.

It’s important to dress respectfully in Islamic Cairo and respect the culture of the area. Naturally, this means respecting Muslim dress. For example, during Ramadan, avoid drinking or eating in the streets (though many restaurants will still cater for tourists indoors). In Cairo, there is also a Christian centre (Coptic Cairo) and a Jewish Quarter. In each place it’s really important to abide by local customs and be respectful.

An underground cave church, set out with auditorium style chairs. 'Amen, Come Lord Jesus' is inscribed into the wall and Emma is standing in the middle of the church.
The Cave Church, Coptic Cairo

Coptic Cairo

Culturally speaking, Coptic Cairo is the Christian epicentre of the city. Coptic Christians (also known as Copts) are a Christian group, indigenous to North Africa. The history and current situation in Egypt is a little complicated. If you want to find out more about it, you can do so here. Coptic Cairo is certainly an interesting part of the city to visit and comes with much of its own culture and customs. Be sure to visit the cave church and the hanging church during your stay!

An interesting phenomenon near Coptic Cairo is the so-called ‘Garbage City’ (Manshiyat Nasser). The inhabitants of this area of Cairo come from a long line of waste disposal workers. For over 70 years now they have taken the place of a much-needed waste disposal system in Cairo Metropolitan Area. It’s a super interesting project, where almost 90% of the waste here is recycled! Pretty impressive. You can read more about this from Atlas Obscura.

Multi-coloured sacks of rubbish in the middle of the street in Coptic Cairo
The so-called ‘Garbage City’

Downtown Cairo

Downtown Cairo is perhaps the most modern part of the city. In our opinion, it’s also the area that people tend to find ‘hectic’ or imposing. Personally, we liked it! At the centre is the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and the impressive Cairo Tower. If you start to get stressed in this area, we highlight recommend a calming walk along the river. Top tip: it’s very hard to pick up a taxi in this area, as the traffic is full on. If you can get to another area, this will save you some hassle.

Buildings in downtown Cairo. There is a wide road and palm trees in the middle
Downtown Cairo

Where to stay in Cairo

We stayed in a few different areas of Cairo, and also stayed in Giza. For Cairo itself, we chose a hotel in downtown Cairo, Downtown Inn.

What we liked: it was central and easy to find places to eat and drink. They were really so sweet when we arrived and insisted on making us Turkish coffee and breakfast every morning, even though that wasn’t included in our rate. It was pretty basic, but also clean and comfortable.

Given our time again, we might have chosen to stay in Islamic Cairo, which felt much more relaxed. There are also many places to eat and drink, and it has a great feel. It really does depend what you’d like to see though, we also enjoyed being downtown, so we could easily visit the museums and the river.

We also stayed in Giza with our guide Rami. His guesthouse is also excellent if you’re wanting to stay in Giza area.

8. There is a LOT to see and do

If you didn’t guess from the part about the museums, or the part about the districts, Cairo is seriously HUGE. We vastly underestimated the amount of time we would need there and ended up extending by quite a few days just because we were keen not to miss anything. This combined with the traffic can be frustrating and it’s an idea to plan your days around doing things that are in the same area (such as one day for Islamic Cairo, one day for Coptic Cairo etc). Also, we didn’t realise that most of the attractions take quite a while!

For example, you could easily spend the entire day just in the Egyptian museum or Islamic Cairo alone so you really need to budget enough time so that you don’t feel rushed. If you’re short on time, we would say the absolute must-sees are the Muhammad Ali Mosque, obviously the pyramids in Giza and The EMC.

Explore the best things to see and do in Cairo below:

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A pop up for a free 3 day city guide to Cairo. Click the link for top Cairo Travel Tips

9. It isn’t very pedestrian-friendly

Cairo is quite a sprawling city. As we have mentioned, there are many different districts and it’s quite a long distance between each. We’re big walkers and tend to find we walk miles in new cities, so naturally we tried this in Cairo. On a few different occasions, we tried to walk shorter distances (30-40 minutes) and it just wasn’t very nice. For one thing, the city is really dirty, and so unless you are wearing proper hiking boots and clothes you don’t mind getting dirty, it’s a little gross.

Secondly, cars, motorbikes and buses almost always have priority in Cairo! Many of the roads are gigantic, multi-lane nightmares for pedestrians, and if you find yourself on the wrong side – oh dear… We found that in generally we could expect to walk for double the amount of time Google was suggesting. I mean, we truly love walking, but it’s just not a great place to do it.

The interior of a mosque in Cairo
So many beautiful mosques in Islamic Cairo

10. As a woman traveller, you might want to cover up

I say ‘might’ because this truly is personal choice. While in Cairo, I chose to wear a headscarf almost every day. My reasons were:

  • It is very dusty and quite dirty. I found that my hair was getting very dry and it felt quite uncomfortable. The scarf gave me some protection
  • Women do get a lot of attention. We noticed that men were paying attention to a lot of women, but I do feel that tourists (especially white tourists) got more attention than most. I felt a little more modest wearing a headscarf and therefore more comfortable.
  • I felt it was culturally appropriate, especially in Islamic Cairo. To me it felt respectful.

It’s worth saying that it isn’t mandatory in Cairo as a tourist woman to wear a headscarf, and even many local women weren’t wearing on. It is completely personal choice. Because of the attention I got, I also preferred to dress very modestly (covered arms, legs, cleavage and midriff). Again, this was my choice. Cairo is quite open-minded with regard to dress, though we would advise modest dress to stay respectful of local culture.

A view over the city of Cairo. You can see lots of minarets on various mosques
Views out over Islamic Cairo

Is Cairo safe?

Of course this is a nearly impossible question to answer, as safety is so subjective to the individual. In Cairo, we never felt unsafe as a white, heterosexual (obviously tourist) couple. However, we did occasionally feel a little uncomfortable or like we were generating a lot of attention. In busier areas, as with any city, it’s wise to keep a close eye on your belongings and stay alert.

As a woman, I was pleased to be travelling with a man, although honestly that did not deter a lot of on-lookers. Men regularly, for example, would ask me if I had a husband (while Murray, my husband, was standing right next to me), openly stare or else jeer at me. However, I never experienced any physical aggression. As very experienced travellers, who had backpacked through most of Southern and Eastern Africa by this point, we were (honestly) quite surprised by how ‘full-on’ we found Cairo.

As mentioned above, scams (such as with Uber etc) are a bit of a problem, and we did feel safer in general with a local guide. It’s worth being aware of this, but in our opinion, Cairo was no less enjoyable for these experiences overall.

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10. The call to prayer will wake you up every morning

I mean, this is fairly standard for most Arabic countries. Additionally, we did go during Ramadan (so praying is perhaps an even more important part of the day than usual) but the call to prayer definitely woke us up every morning. It’s very loud and you’d be hard pressed to sleep through it, so if you are not a Muslim and sleep is important to you, we’d recommend booking a hotel either away from mosques if possible (outside of Islamic Cairo) or else a more expensive hotel which is likely to be soundproof.

Honestly, it didn’t bother us at all, and we quite enjoyed the wake up call by the end – it’s a nice start to the day! But it is worth bearing in mind.

A pop up for a free 3 day city guide to Cairo. Click the link for top Cairo Travel Tips

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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