Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Wonder Years, Part 3: Seeing the Sights of Cairo

My first few weeks in Cairo went by very fast. I was meeting people, starting Arabic language school, and struggling to find my way around my neighborhood.

What did I care whether I'd seen the Pyramids or the Nile River yet?

Fast forward to 3 weeks later when I saw the Nile River for the first time. It was like I couldn't catch my breath for a minute.

I was awestruck.

And then it hit me. I was in Egypt. I was 4,000 miles away from everyone I loved.

And I was alone.

It's important to allow yourself to be a tourist in Egypt. Whether you'll be here for 6 months or 6 years, you need to take time to see the sights of Cairo. Don't get so busy and miss out on the honeymoon period of being in Egypt.

Trust me, culture shock will kick in before you know it.

Here's a list of all the must-sees in Cairo:

The Pyramids & the Sphynx. These sit right on the edge of Cairo. You'll need to arrange transportation to get there (or at least if you plan on getting back from them in one piece). Plus you'll need a ride to get out to where you can take the perfect panorama shot of the Pyramids.

Take time to check out the Boat Museum. Trust me you'll appreciate the break from the hot sun. And you'll have fun sliding around in the shoe bags they make you wear.
My first time to the Pyramids was about one month after I arrived in Cairo. It wasn't nearly as impressive as I'd expected it to be, maybe because for that entire month I'd been building it up in my mind. The most surprising thing about the Pyramids for me was how they backed right up to the city. I DID get to ride my first camel on that day too, and I would definitely recommend this. Although don't let the guy swindle you out of extra money by refusing to take you back until you pay up.
The Egyptian Museum. This is right smack dab in the center of downtown a stone's throw from the Nile. You can't miss this. It houses the King Tut exhibit. Honestly it feels a bit like more like walking through a warehouse than a museum, so you might need a tour guide to talk you through the exhibits. Otherwise you might get lost in there.
I honestly can't remember my first time to the Egyptian Museum. It's just a short walk from the Mubarak Metro station so perhaps I went sooner than I remember. I want to go one time with a tour guide because there is so much stuff inside that isn't labeled well. The best part is definitely the King Tut exhibit - the one section that is both air-conditioned and properly marked.
The Citadel. The most striking part of the Citadel is the Mohamed Ali mosque with its shiny domes overlooking the city. But don't forget to visit the Mameluk mosque as well (green domes off to the side) that is very unique with its pillars taken from centuries of buildings (including ones from ancient Egypt, Christian, and Jewish origin).
Oh, the Citadel! I remember what I was wearing the first time I went to the Citadel - a great big long black sweater! It was chilly because it was January. I think the Citadel gives you a great view especially of the old part of the city. I was fascinated by the inside of the Mohamed Ali mosque. And we had fun counting all the different pillars we could find in the Mameluke mosque. 
Coptic Cairo. Hop off the Cairo metro into one of the oldest parts of Cairo. Here is the Hanging Church built over Roman water towers. And if you're brave enough to stoop down into the older parts of Coptic Cairo, you may even find an ancient Jewish synagogue.
Coptic Cairo is just off the Metro as well. They call it "Old Egypt" in Arabic. I loved how you have to climb down on certain streets to get to where you want to go. It made me realize how this city has been built up (quite literally) over centuries of city before. And the ceiling in the Hanging Church looks just like the inside of a boat - it was really amazing to see!
The Cave Church. You'll need to arrange for transportation to reach this. Both fascinating and awesome is this church built right into the mountain. The story goes that God split the mountain for this church, but let someone there tell the story for you because I can't remember all the details.

Don't forget to visit the Recycling Center in the Garbage City while you're there to get some unique gifts to take back home made from recycled fabric and paper.
A church built into the side of a mountain?! The sheer magnitude of the place took my breath away! I didn't realize until a later visit that there are other halls and meeting rooms around to the right of the main seating area - so make sure you go around to see these. They are even more amazing than the big one because they're built into actual caves in the mountain. There are some amazing rock sculptures out around the parking lot as well that make this well worth the trip.
The Khan El-Khalili. This famous old tourist bazaar is built right into the fabric of Cairo. You'll need your best bargaining skills on hand to get some really good deals. Just remember that the key to bargaining is being able to walk away at any time.

Take a break from the heat to have lunch at the Naguib Mahfouz cafe. You can also visit both the Hussein and the Al-Azhar mosques (although ladies you will need to bring a scarf to cover your head and bare arms) while you're there.
I usually go to the Khan El-Khalili about once a year. Now I have a number of shops that I frequent and the owners give me a good deal not just because I come regularly but I also bring others to their shops. You can't really get all this stuff in one place for the prices you'll find down in there anywhere else in Cairo.
Al-Azhar Park. The best time to visit this park is just before the sun goes down. You'll get a chance to walk around one of the few large green spaces in Egypt and to watch a glorious Cairo sunset over the old part of the city and the Citadel.
Al-Azhar Park did not exist when I first came to Cairo. For many years that area was just a big trash heap that overlooked the Khan El-Khalili area. Now they've turned it into one of the largest green spaces in Cairo. We love to go to the Citadel View restaurant for dinner. It's the perfect place to bring guests who are in Egypt for the first time.
The Nile River. Take a walk along the Corniche. Ride on a sailboat (felucca.) Walk over the bridge to the other side. Any way you can experience the Nile is well worth the time spent.
You can't really be in Egypt without seeing the Nile. It almost seems silly to even list it here as one of the *sights* of Cairo. But since I waited 3 weeks to see this, I figured it's better to encourage you to see it as soon as you can!
The Revolving Restaurant. For an extra special occasion, the best view of the city (and perhaps the most expensive) is this restaurant at the top of the Grand Hyatt Cairo. It takes 2 hours to make a complete revolution, which makes for a very nice evening. Be aware that formal attire is required and no children under 12 are allowed in the restaurant.
My first time to the Revolving Restaurant was when my husband proposed to me the day before I left Egypt to go home. I can't say that I remember much about that night, but I do remember a later visit on our anniversary recently. The Grand Hyatt sits right on the Nile in the center of town so as you turn, you see all of Cairo around you. It has definitely made for some very special evenings for us.
City Stars. Perhaps the largest mall in the Middle East, this is definitely a sight to see. If you spend a longer time in Cairo, you'll find this to be a nice break from the streets of Cairo.
City Stars is new in Cairo as well. I don't think it's more than 5 or 6 years old. I love to take first timers to Cairo to City Stars. It seems so different to have such a modern place in a city like Cairo! But now it is a home away from home for me (especially since it's about 10 minutes from our house).
What is my advice for seeing the sights of Cairo?
  1. Plan according to the time you have available. If you're in Cairo for a while, you can spread these out over time. I still say you should visit at least the Pyramids and see the Nile River within your first month in Cairo (or as soon as you can manage it).
  2. Don't overdo it in one day. I don't think one could see all the sights of Cairo in less than 3 days. Give yourself some time to enjoy each place and try not to plan more than 2 sites in one day.
  3. Plan trips according to location. For example, I like to do the Pyramids in the morning, lunch downtown and then the Egyptian Museum in the afternoon. You don't know how much time you'll waste sitting in traffic at the oddest of times.
  4. If you can, take a tour guide with you. Get a recommendation for one from another expat friend. There are many tour guides who don't work through a company, although they can still get you good deals and arrange for transportation.
  5. If you're a student, ask about student tickets. This can save you a bunch of money.
Don't forget to check out the rest of this series:

The Wonder Years is a series about Erin's first 2 years in Cairo before she met and married her Egyptian husband. Stay tuned for more about her adventures in Egypt the first time around.


  1. Definitely enjoying this serie - Reading you is like being in Cairo, feeling the heat, smelling the odours of the market place and admiring the beauty and wonders of the city.

    A real treat - thank you.

  2. Thanks Marie. Have you been to Cairo?

  3. I've never been but heard a lot about it.
    Your descriptions make me wish to discover this city very soon.
    Thanks for sharing.


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