What are the three must-see places to see in Cairo? That is a tricky choice to make, especially when you only have one day…
A couple of weeks ago one of my best friends, Merka, came to visit me from Estonia. As we had already so many other activities around Egypt planned, we only had limited time to spend in Cairo. So I decided to go on an ultimate one-day trip to what are, in my opinion, one of the most important sights in Cairo.
For this, I contacted We Know Egypt (Facebook; Webpage), a travel company located in Cairo, organizing tours and other matters for foreigners. It’s not my first time to ask for their help. They have been continuously supportive, responsive, extremely knowledgeable and what’s most important – trustworthy. There are so many tour operators to choose from in Cairo, but many of them are completely below the bar, claiming to be certified egyptologists when they are clearly not. Not to mention that most tour companies have really poor vehicles and they are constantly trying to make you stop at thousands of shops that their friends own.
The driver from We Know Egypt picked us up at 8AM sharp, not a minute late, in a lovely clean air-conditioned car (you better check that they have air-conditioning, especially when you visit in spring, summer or autumn). Then we picked up our tour guide Gad who is a certified Egyptian history expert and who started to fill Merka in on the rich history of Egypt. The whole day lasted about 10-11 hours and we were super exhausted when the driver finally dropped us off, but it was completely worth it. Even though I had visited most of those places before, it was comfortable to have a guide by your side who just knew how to get away from annoying salespeople and showed us the highlights of the places.
1. THE GREAT PYRAMIDS OF GIZA
First of all, let me just say, going without a guide is not a great idea. It’s difficult to even get to the area by foot without being harassed by hundreds of salespeople. Especially when you are a pair of young women. It’s just a lot more carefree and you can enjoy the whole experience more when you can enter by car and follow your guide. The locals know not to bother too much when they see you together with an Egyptian tour guide.
The price of entering the area is usually included in the tour price but to go inside of one of the pyramids you have to pay extra. Is it worth it to go inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the largest of the three big pyramids? Well, yes and no. No because there isn’t really much to see there. There is simply a narrow tight path that leads up to the dark and tiny burial chamber that has essentially nothing in it to see. Also, if you are claustrophobic or generally feel like you really like air, then you might want to reconsider anyways. There is hardly any air in the tunnel up to the chamber and it is kind of uncomfortable to climb up there. You cannot stand up normally but the narrow tunnel goes up in a 40 degree angle which can be tricky when you also have people coming down at the same time.
HOWEVER, I still recommend everyone who is physically up for a bit of an annoying climb and isn’t claustrophobic to go up there. Just for the sake that you can say that you have been inside the burial chamber of the largest pyramid in Egypt. No pictures though, it’s forbidden. Still pretty cool, isn’t it? Not to mention the views in the area. Oh, also, go on the camel ride, it is so-so cool! Even though I freak out every time they get up and get down, the general ride is quite smooth and really fun.
Also, you might want to get used to the idea that you are kind of a sight for many people there as well. Maybe even more than the pyramids. The tour guide explained that many schools take class trips to the pyramids and since these kids come from the rural areas, they have perhaps never seen blonde haired and blue eyed people before in their life. Well, although, the obsession with blonde hair and blue eyes is very much prevalent in Cairo as well, it is even more so at the rural areas. The guide told us that when a local girl in a village dyes her hair blonde, she is suddenly the most attractive girl in the village that every local man wants to marry. All in all, just be ready for selfie sticks and blurry phone cameras. Boys are generally more aggressive and sometimes do not want to let go of my hand, even though I allow them to take a picture. Girls are usually quite sweet.
SOME INTERESTING FACTS:
-> The biggest Pyramid is built by the father Cheops, the second one was built by his son Khafre and third one by his grandson Menkaure. It was a sign of respect to build their own pyramid smaller than their father’s but Khafre was so clever that he built his on a higher ground which makes it visually look taller.
-> The Great Pyramid of Cheops is the first and also the only remaining one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
-> It was built at around 2560 BC so more than 4500 years ago!
-> At 146 meters (481 feet) tall, it remained the tallest man-made structure in the world for nearly 4000 years.
-> It is built from approximately 2.3 million blocks of stones (smallest blocks weighing 1 tonne, maximum 17 tonne).
-> Giza was chosen as a location because it stands west of the Nile river and west of Memphis. It was important because the graves had to lie on the west side (sun rises/is born from the east and dies in the west), also it lied on a higher ground, protecting from the floods.
-> Back in the day, the rulers married their sisters and daughters, that is why they had physical deformities. Tutankhamun had a deformity because his mother was his father’s sister.
-> Sphinx is supposed to portray the ‘perfect image’. Smartest man (king) mixed with the strongest animal (lion). Kind of like a Superman.
2. THE EGYPTIAN MUSEUM
Yes, I know, many tourists aren’t really into the whole museum thing but hear me out. It has more than 120 000 items including the very well preserved treasures from the grave of Tutankhamun and what I found the coolest (and creepiest) was the amount of mummies they had there. Some of the mummies even still had some hair on their head and nails on their fingers! Super creepy but very cool to stare at them being just 30 centimeters away from you, only some glass in between. Unfortunately it is not allowed to take pictures in that room so all that imagery will stay nicely in your little head.
You do not have to spend the whole day there, although you very easily could and some people even go multiple days. If you go with a tour guide like we did then he will take you to the most famous and impressive pieces to save up on some energy. I learned so many cool things and I want to share some of them with you too.
SOME INTERESTING FACTS:
-> When reading hieroglyphs, the text can be read either from right to left or left to right. The key is to read the text so that you are facing the front side of the hieroglyphic animal symbols.
-> When displaying a sculpture of an alive character, they always have their left leg forward, this means they follow their heart. When the legs are together, the person is dead.
-> Straight beard is a symbol of being alive. Curved beard is for the dead people.
-> On all the paintings and sculptures, women are very light-skinned, whereas men are very tanned. That is because men wanted to be tanned to show themselves as hard workers. Even if they were part of royalty.
-> Tutankhamun did actually nothing impressive during his lifetime, he was a child king and never truly ruled himself. He is famous because his tomb was found untouched by the British in 1922. Usually all the ancient tombs had been robbed. This one was still full of treasures.
3. KHAN EL-KHALILI MARKET
Last but not least, the famous Khan el-Khalili market, something fun to finish off the day with. The place has been a center for commerce for more than 600 years. Back in the day, the souk was a place for many foreign merchants but today it is mainly occupied by Egyptian small businessmen. Because tourism has dropped quite a lot in the past years, the vendors can be rather aggressive and you might just be the only customer they have the whole day. I personally prefer to visit the shops of calmer salespeople. Loud yelling isn’t particularly attractive.
All in all, it’s an amazing place. Even if you will not buy anything (which I doubt), it is truly interesting to simply walk around the winding streets and experience the old souk atmosphere. After shopping you can just wind down in one of the coffee and shiisha shops and have some lovely mint tea or Arabic coffee. One of the oldest and most famous of these is the Fishawi coffeehouse, established in 1773.
SOME MARKETPLACE TIPS:
-> Don’t generally trust people who sell papyrus, there are official shops for these products. You might just end up with banana leaves.
-> Start your bargaining at 20-30% of the original price. They might huff and puff and make all sorts of faces but there is bargaining ahead of you and in the end you should not pay more than 50% of the original price.
-> Really double-check and question the origins of the pieces. They might tell you that they are selling Egyptian cotton but in the end it’s the same Chinese cheap product. Same for alabaster and other more precious pieces like marble.
-> Have fun while bargaining! Smile and be friendly. It is more likely that they will also be nicer to you as well.
That’s it, that was one day of sightseeing in Cairo. Of course, people have different opinions on what are the must-see places in Cairo but these were some of my suggestions. When you have more time in Cairo then go to Al-Azhar Park, check-out the view from Cairo tower, see how Christians live in the Garbage City, take a felucca ride and soak in the beauty of Muhammad Ali Mosque.
There is so much to do in Cairo and to be honest, if you want to see how people really live then you have to get away from these touristy spots anyways.
PS. Big thank you again to We Know Egypt! We really loved this day with you.