[A special guest post by Robert Schrader]
In spite of Egypt’s longstanding status a favored destination for travelers from all around the globe, its capital Cairo has a decidedly negative reputation. The megacity, whose population is estimated to be close to 20 million as of 2011, suffers from traffic congestion, overcrowding and a thick blanket of haze and dust that all but obscures its skyline as seen from Giza, home of the Pyramids, which sits just across the Nile from Cairo.
I’m not here to refute any of that — it’s all true, to a certain point. What I will say is that Cairo is absolutely worth a visit. A proper visit, not just a stopping off point for when you visit the Pyramids, the Red Sea beaches of the Sinai peninsula or the more celebrated southern reaches of the Nile in Aswan and Luxor. Cairo is truly world-class in its way, something you’ll understand fully if you give the city even the slightest chance.
I flew to Cairo from Sharm el Shiekh on the Sinai peninsula and was surprised at how abruptly the sprawling metropolis appeared — and seemingly out of nowhere, amid the vast desert that had dominated everything I saw out the plane’s window as it flew westward. Within the first five minutes of the taxi ride into the city, I knew I was in love. Cairo had me at “hello.”
But why? The sheer scale of it for one. Heading into Cairo’s outskirts from the airport, which sits approximately 15 km northeast of the city center, I was amazed at the length and breadth of its boulevards, the large number and vast expanse of its sand-colored housing complexes and the literally millions of cars that almost carpeted its thoroughfares, highways and back-alleys alike.
And then, of course, there’s the Nile. The cradle of the civilization that’s existed here for six millennia, the mighty river bisects the city into Cairo proper, which occupies its west bank and Giza to the east, which was formerly known as “The City of the Dead.” Wide in span and slow and steady in its motion, the glass-like surface of the Nile puts the massive city that has sprung up on both sides of it into mind-bending perspective. This is all before I set foot onto the streets of the city, mind you.
Cairo for Tourists
Cairo is a veritable treasure trove of museums, mosques and monuments, a holy grail for sightseeing purists that travel for the purpose of seeing what others have told them about. Let Egypt’s entire history wash over you during a few hours at the Egyptian museum, then sweat it out at the Mohammed Ali mosque, built from the limestone casing of the Great Pyramid by an 18th-century ruler of Egypt, not the famous boxer of the same name. Alternatively, explore the city’s Coptic Quarter, which dates back to its Greco-Roman period. By any measure, Cairo boasts perhaps more — and without a doubt more interesting — tourist attractions than any other single destination in the world.
If you’re like me and more traveler than tourist — in other words, you travel to see what is there, rather than what others have told you to see — Cairo is just as abundant in riches. My first day in Cairo, I took the Cairo metro to Mar Girgis station and exited into a part of the city aptly named “Old Cairo.” Before I departed my hostel, I was warned that I might get lost. Get lost I did — and in the best way possible.
See, Cairo (and, as I found out, Old Cairo, in particular) is a serpentine maze of ever-smaller, ever-twistier streets that get more interesting the more intertwined in them you become. People become more curious and kinder, to the extent that it’s easy to feel like a pharaoh after only a few minutes of walking. If you’re into photography like me, aimlessly wandering the streets of old Cairo is the best means of getting killer shots.
Of course, this only scratches the surface of Cairo. As my dear friend Maria Alexandra, the owner of this blog, will tell you, even months of living in the city leaves a great deal of its secrets uncovered.
The Nitty Gritty
As a mostly-poor city in a mostly-poor country, it isn’t shocking that Cairo is extremely cheap by Western standards. As of September 2011, you can get a private hostel room or a single in a two- or three-star hotel in the center of the city for around LE 75, or $13 per night. This extremely low price point affords you a comfortable place to lay your head and a great location from which to embark whenever you arise from your sleep.
Transportation in Cairo is likewise inexpensive. My preferred means of travel is the Cairo metro, the only such system in Africa. Open from around 6 a.m. to midnight — as is the case with most things in Egypt, times are never specific — a journey from any point to any other point on the metro costs just 1 LE, or about 16¢.
Cairo is a food lover’s paradise. Snack on fresh fruit or dates from a local vendor in any of the city’s omnipresent markets (some such vendors even travel with moving carts) or enjoy traditional Egyptian falafel or kofta for lunch or dinner. Or better, stop in at my personal favorite restaurant in Cairo, the LE 10-per-plate Abou Tarek, which serves up a hearty kosher meal of legumes, pasta and fried onions. No matter your choice, it’s almost impossible to go hungry in Cairo. In fact, I imagine I’d grow quite fat if I stayed here for any great length of time.
Cairo is an incredibly city unlike any other in the world. One of the characteristics that makes this so is its close proximity to some of Egypt’s most famous tourist attractions, many of which are reachable by day-trip or a quick overnight stay.
First and foremost, Egypt’s most famous tourist destination, the Pyramids of Giza, are right over the Nile from central Cairo — you can see the Cairo skyline (or kind of see it, thanks to the smog) as you walk or ride a camel down the ridge from the Great Pyramid toward the Sphinx. Several other pyramids also sit nearby the Egyptian capital, such as the “step” pyramid at Saqqara, the first ever pyramid constructed in Egypt, and the so-called “bent” pyramid in Dashur, located 11 km south of Saqqara.
The iconic Mediterranean city of Alexandria, Cleopatra’s capital, is just three hours away by express train from Cairo’s Ramses central station. LE 43 gets you a spacious seat in a first-class, air conditioned cabin, a perfect place to take in the scenery around you during the journey, which reveals that only a small swath of nature exists between Cairo’s and Alexandria’s outer suburbs.
For travelers who are feeling more adventurous, it’s possible to take an overnight excursion to the Bahereya Oasis, a long-famous watering hole that sits in the middle of the mysterious White Desert, a few hours to the east of center Cairo.
The bottom line is this: No matter how long you stay in Cairo, what you do there and where you go after you leave, I guarantee you’ll find something to love here if you surrender yourself to the power of this incredible city.
Robert Schrader is a travel writer/photographer and editor of the blog Leave Your Daily Hell. His work has additionally appeared on websites like CNNGo, Shanghaiist and We Blog The World and in print publications such as “East & West,” “That’s Shanghai” and “Little Blue World.” He was selected as one of 12 finalists in the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s “Medical Blog Contest” is late 2010 and won the grand prize in Budget Travel magazine’s “Do Good, Travel Well” travel photo contest in early 2011. You can check out his full photo gallery on his Flickr page.