There is no better way to experience adventure than riding camels to the Great Pyramids of Giza! With its historical sites, food, and culture, Egypt is one of the most spectacular destinations I’ve ever visited. This experience has been a highlight of my travels and I’m already excited to return to this incredible place one day.
As opposed to traveling in Europe or North America, Africa can be much more unfamiliar and the culture shock is a bit bigger. My brother, sister-in-law, and I definitely learned a lot of from traveling here and we want to make our newfound travel knowledge useful for you.
In this post, I answer several common questions about my short trip to Cairo, Giza, and Saqqara and share with you what I learned from this amazing country. I hope this post helps you feel prepared for one of the best experiences of your life as you get ready to check this destination off your bucket list!
Is it safe?
This is definitely the most common question I get asked about Egypt. Oftentimes people feel scared to travel here because their only understanding of this country is what they hear from political news. However, from my experience, I definitely felt very safe and secure as a foreigner visiting Egypt. In fact, I felt safer here than in many places in Europe! Since the Arab Spring riots in 2011, travel advisories have greatly decreased in severity. If you visit government sites that issue travel warnings, they specify areas that are not advised for tourists. More of often than not, these advised areas are not anywhere near places that are popular for tourists and shouldn’t be concerning to you. Since the political crisis in 2011, Egypt has suffered greatly from the lack of tourism. Today, Egypt is putting special attention towards this sector to draw in millions of tourists once again. Hospitality here is incredibly personable and caring because there is a lot of reliability on tourist income to support the economy. I found that many of the places were especially welcoming and helpful in our best interest. Being a foreigner in any country has its risks but it shouldn’t refrain you from partaking in the experience as long as you’re prepared.
Because Egypt has had a lot of travel warnings in the last decade, most people aren’t traveling to there. If anything, now is the perfect time to go because there aren’t thousands of tourists everywhere you go. I was blown away by how empty the Great Pyramids of Giza were during our visit. It was the peak summer season, but as you can see in many of my photos there was hardly a soul in sight. It was a surreal feeling to have the pyramids all to ourselves.
I should also mention how kind and genuine the people are that I met here. I truly felt that the local people here wanted to be my friend and didn’t just want my money. Being approached by friendly people who wanted to help navigate me through Cairo or give recommendations were beyond friendly and welcoming. I gained most of my travel advise from them!
Is it safe for women?
This is another very common question. In Egypt, the culture has a very different perspective of women compared to progressive countries in Europe and North America. I have heard stories of women traveling alone or with other females who have had traumatic experiences in Cairo. If you are female, my advice is to travel with at least one male. My sister-in-law was traveling with both my brother and me, so people definitely kept their distance. Seriously, having one male will make all the difference to the dynamic of a potentially uncomfortable situation.
Aside from this suggestion, women do have to take extra preventative steps in order to respect the culture in Egypt. You don’t necessarily have to do this but it is strongly recommended and polite to do so. It is necessary for females to travel in public with their shoulders and knees covered. Many people might even find that an exposed head is disrespectful, but this ideal is not as strict. It is very rare to see much skin exposed by local women in Egypt. It seems crazy for us foreigners to be wearing jeans and pants in such a hot desert climate but it is the norm in this country. Another note: dress code is much stricter in areas that aren’t as touristy. My sister-in-law took note of this and wore shorts at the archeological sites, but long dresses on the streets. If you choose not to cover up, you will be stared at intensively. There was one instance where we quickly visited a grocery store right next to our hostel. After entering the store for five minutes there were several men staring at my sister-in-law’s legs. She didn’t necessarily feel unsafe but just uncomfortable with all the eyes watching her. It can be challenging for local people to not stare at a beautiful blonde girl but the the intensity could be lessened by covering up.
As for men, there really is no dress code or necessary precautions in regards to wardrobe.
How to be Prepared:
As I mentioned before, Egypt (as for any country in Africa) is a much bigger learning curve than traveling to Europe. The best way to understand is to simply experience it, but I hope these tips help you be aware of what to expect. First off, there are no crosswalks in Cairo. Technically there are some, but traffic is completely oblivious to this and only slow down when somebody is already walking on the road. I’ll never forget when a local man told me how it’s done: “close your eyes, pray to Allah, and walk!” It’s important to just be confident and start walking across a busy road at a constant pace. Yes, people are crossing roads wherever they feel like it even if it’s a freeway. The most important tip here is to just walk at a constant pace. I know someone who was hit by a car in Cairo and broke both legs which goes to show how hectic traffic can be. Make sure to be seen and stay confident while crossing.
Secondly, people want to scam you…everywhere. As I said earlier, there are so many welcoming and genuine people but that doesn’t mean there aren’t typical scammers out there that want your money. It’s almost impossible to hide the fact that you’re a tourist in Cairo so it’s important to be aware of scammers that want your easy money. As you will experience, people find the most creative ways to trick you into giving them tip money. Whether they use guilt, act as though their free sample is ‘free’, or distract you entirely, scammers use many different strategizes.
Here are some examples from my experience. When walking around the pyramid complex on a very intensely hot day, a man approached us and handed us ice cold waters. Most of the tour guides don’t warn you of any of these vendors and they might act as though it is complimentary to your tour. As soon as my brother had a sip, they were asking for money. Another time, I went into a public restroom and a man went before me, flushed the toilet, unraveled the toilet paper a bit, cleaned the seat, proved the sink worked, and then asked for a tip. The act was unnecessary and the fact he did this was out of my control, but the act was nice and helpful. It can be easy to feel guilty for not giving money or awkward to say no but you just need to get used to it. Perhaps the most awkward situation was when my brother and I were inside an underground tomb. Our tour guide gave us time to roam free around the area and go down into the tomb. A man inside encouraged us to sit inside an open sarcophagus on display for a photo op. I thought, well I’m never going to have this opportunity again so why not? I sit inside, my brother takes a blurry photo, and suddenly the man gets all serious. He explains to us in choppy English that sitting in this sarcophagus was a violation that could translate to a fine. The man suggested we pay him a small tip to keep his mouth shut and let us leave with the photo. The entire conversation was awkward and difficult to understand, so my brother and I just straight up ran away and left the tomb as fast as we could. Most people would probably believe him and feel obligated to pay. Like these situations, there were new scams on every corner. I’m not going to go into much detail with more stories, but I feel you get the gist of it. In short, don’t take anything or consume anything until you are 100% confident or certain it won’t be charged and be aware of these scamming techniques. Be overly cautious and be aware.
As for many African countries, Egypt requires a tourist visa before entering. This can be purchased on arrival at the Cairo International Airport and doesn’t need to be purchased in advanced. The price is approximately $25 per person. Make sure you have at least half an empty passport page for the visa (this only concerns people who have a ton of travel stamps in their passport).
Another thing to be aware of about traveling internationally from Cairo is the current checked-bag policy (this only applies to people traveling from Cairo to the United States). Due to recent travel security for people flying from muslim countries to the U.S, expect to have to check a bag if you are carrying any electronics besides a cellphone. Traveling light this summer, I was successful in avoiding any checked-bag fees until Egypt. They were very strict and I had to check my relatively tiny backpack just because I had a camera *eye roll*
What if I Only Speak English?
Another concern about Egypt is the language barrier. Not knowing a word of Arabic was not an issue in our experience. All of the popular sites make it easy to navigate in English and of course there are countless guides that service English speakers. Egypt was once occupied by the British and therefore English is widely spoken there. It is a very common language to study in school because it is a huge economical advantage for being successful. Almost everyone I spoke to on the streets could communicate fluently. Overall, it is unlikely you will face language challenges especially in the city and touristy areas.
Where Did I Stay?
Our group stayed at the Mayfair Hostel Cairo. It is a very nice hostel that offered us our own room and bathroom. Located in the heart of Cairo, it is in close proximity to the Nile River and Cairo Tower. EXCELLENT air conditioning. Coming from hostels in Greece that had little to no air flow inside, it was a great relief to have a functioning air conditioner in Egypt. You will really appreciate this after you experience the baking heat of Northern Africa. There is also a small complimentary breakfast and helpful staff/front desk. We booked most of our tours through our hostel and had our own driver take us around the city and to/from the airport. The private driver was unexpected with the booking but it very convenient for us. He would even wait patiently inside his parked car while we went off exploring certain sites.
Where are the Best Places to Go?
There are a ton of places to visit in Cairo and Giza. Having only three days in Cairo, we weren’t able to go everywhere. Despite the short trip we made the most of our time and maximized our visit. Here were some of the highlights.
The Great Pyramids of Giza– This is a no brainer while visiting Egypt. It is the most iconic and spectacular place to visit and best place to learn about the history of ancient Egypt. Egypt’s history goes back thousands and thousands of years and it can be a head-trip to realize you’re actually where it all happened! What better way to experience this ancient world wonder than by riding through them on camels? This is a very common way to see this huge complex and it is a must-do bucket list item. The tour was arranged by our hostel but it’s so common for tourists you can simply arrive at the pyramids and pay someone to take you around upon arrival. An amazing day we will never forget!
The Sphinx– Once finished with the camel tour, pay a visit to the iconic Sphinx. This site is what greets visitors to the pyramid complex. My face in this photo says it all- it was awe-mazing. As I mentioned earlier, I was blown away by how empty the sites were. It is such an amazing time to go and experience Egypt because there aren’t thousands of people everywhere you go.
The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities– This is the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts in the world. Located in the center of Cairo, this is a very popular tourist attraction that is well worth the visit. It’s one of those museums that is seemingly endless because their collection is so grand. There is a special section for a small additional fee that allows visitors to see the preserved mummies. We don’t regret buying the extra ticket as this was the most fascinating exhibit. It is simply incredible to see the actual mummies that came from various tombs throughout Egypt. Be aware that this museum doesn’t allow professional photography and that they might ask to store your camera behind security at the entrance (this happened to me). Avoid making it known that you have a camera so you can keep it on your person during your visit.
Saqqara- To be completely honest, I had no idea what Saqqara was until I was standing inside of it. Our tour guide took us here and it ended up being a highlight. Saqqara is an ancient burial ground in Egypt that served as the necropolis for the Ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis. The pyramid depicted below was ‘a trial’ pyramid built before construction of the greater, more iconic ones. It is here that you can go underground and see the inside of the tombs. The drive to Saqqara is very scenic and definitely gives a remote desert vibe. Most of the drive, however, is through banana farms and tropical plantations. It may surprise you that areas around the Nile River are very lush and tropical before it reaches the desert edge.
Nile River Boat Cruise– The Nile River is one of the most famous rivers in the world and is worth a sunset cruise. Our hostel arranged for a very cost effective boat cruise that provided dinner, entertainment, and city views. It was a relaxing evening that allowed us to eat an endless buffet of Egyptian cuisine.
Khan el-Khalili– Because of unforeseen circumstances, we weren’t actually able to visit this historic souk. I was very excited to experience this marketplace but it gives me something to look forward to for next time! Many of my friends who have been there highly recommend this area for shopping and eating Egyptian food. The marketplace is located in the bazaar district which is one of Cairo’s main attractions for tourists to visit. The photos below were taken by a friend of mind who visited Cairo a few months earlier.
Our trip was simply too short, otherwise we would have explored so many more places. This city is rich with history and so much incredible architecture that it’s impossible to explore it all. Other sites I hope to make it to one day are the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, Abdeen Palace, and Cairo Tower.
What is the Food Like?
Before visiting Egypt, I really didn’t know anything about Egyptian cuisine. An all-you-can-eat buffet on a Nile River boat cruise introduced me to the wide spectacle of cuisines and introduced so many new flavors to my world! A lot of people initially think that Egypt is completely barren, hot, and dry everywhere you go; however, areas around the Nile River are lush with tropical fruit farms and plantations. Fresh fruits and vegetables make for sweet and delicious flavors in many Egyptian dishes. Something you must try is the fresh mango juice. Put simply, it is AMAZING! Pure mango juice that can be found in almost any supermarket in Cairo. As far as traditional Egyptian food goes, the most commonly known dishes are Kushari, Kababs, Shawarma, and Ful wa Ta’meya. The main element in Egyptian food is the massive amount of spices used to give a unique flavor to every dish. The main base ingredients that you will find in most meals are beans, vegetables, eggs, falafels, pasta, fish, and grilled meats. My favorite dish I tried (I can’t remember the name of it) was a cooked garlic cucumber yogurt pasta. It sounds disgusting but it was actually delicious. If you see anything with similar ingredients while there I recommend you try it.
Egypt is definitely one of the cheapest places I’ve travelled to. Like many third-world countries, it is easy to negotiate with vendors in order to buy items at the price you want. Most souvenir shops don’t have price tags on items, so make sure you propose the first price lower than you’re willing to pay. For our full day trip to the pyramids, camel rides, and Saqqara, we paid about $30 USD for a private guide and driver. This of of course was worth every penny and very affordable for a full bucket-list day. Although, always have a lot of cash on hand as there are many unforeseen costs when going on a tour. Many tour expenses might not include actual admission to a site. These costs are very minimal regardless but we experienced this a lot! Take our camel rides for instance: our guide said we’d “get to ride camels during our tour” which translated to us paying somebody separate to ride their camels. Minor costs are frequent and should be expected before traveling.
Another useful tip when purchasing items: don’t ever mention or show that you have any money on your person and avoid giving out cash willingly to scammers that want tips. After giving someone a tip for doing something nice you didn’t necessarily ask for can attract more people or inhibit the person to act for more. It can be irritating shoo-ing people away and is best avoided in the first place.
Egypt is one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited. I hope this post helped you feel prepared for one of the most amazing experiences of your life and made you feel inspired to visit this spectacular country. If you’re interested to see video content from my trip to Egypt, check out my 2017 travel video:
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Written by Jeff Hyer