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Sprawling, calamitous, bustling, ancient and balmy Cairo is home to 16 million people and has a long reputation as one of the world’s greatest tourist cities. It’s hardly graceful or clean and certainly not walkable, but fascinating non-the-less.
First stop for most are the Great Pyramids of Cheops (and his two sons), located at Giza on the city outskirts. One of the apparent seven wonders of the world, the Pyramids are guarded by the massive lion-like Sphinx. How they managed to build theses massive structures over 5000 years ago is anyone’s guess. Every evening a ‘Jean Michel Jarre’ style light show theatrically descends about the area, explaining its history.
Cairo’s most visited attraction is the world renown Egyptian Museum, boasting perhaps the greatest collection of antiquity in the world (more than 100,000 pieces), including King Tutankhamen’s gold and lapis mask, and the Royal Mummy room. It’s located near the city’ bustling main square.
Visiting Islamic Cairo is like stepping back six centuries, its full of tiny alleyways, mud-brick houses, food hawkers, and goats, camels and donkeys. The 9th C Mosque of Ibn Tulun is the city’s oldest, and presiding over it is the Citadel - a medieval fortress with its own Al-Azhar Mosque that dominates the skyline. The Mamluks (Turkish army officers) seized power and ruled from here for 700 years.
Coptic Cairo has Roman origins and the Fortress of Babylon is the sole remaining evidence of Christian influence in the city. There is also a fascinating museum recording young Jesus’ visit to the city.
The rest of Cairo is a mess, but intriguing with its endless markets, street life, Nile river banks, lovely mosques and Islamic architecture.
Cairo’s traffic is mad, and road rules seem irrelevant in favour of a cacophony of blaring horns. You’re better off taking a taxi tour, which you’ll find difficult to avoid. These hustlers are found in all tourist spots and offer ridiculously cheap prices, with the tour inevitably ending up at gem and perfume shops full of very aggressive salesmen. Hire a car and then hire a driver (with his photo album of sights to select from.)
In addition to the Pyramids at Giza, the Citadel, Coptic Cairo and Islamic Cairo (see mini guide section), there are further interesting sites to discover.
The Manial Palace Museum, built in the early 20th century for a royal, has interesting palatial interiors. Heliopolis is Cairo’s newer upmarket suburb, offering respite from the city, and some great shopping if you can cope with haggling.
South of Giza are the less impressive but much older pyramids of Zosar at Saqqara. Twenty kilometers south of is the quieter Dahshur fields and pyramids of 4th and 12th dynasties. From here you can see the fields of the fertile Nile basin that feed the country.
Alexandria is an important and ancient maritime city on the Mediterranean coast with some fascinating sites. There are several sun-soaked resort towns along this stretch of Mediterranean coast near Alexandria, such as Sidi Abdel Rahman.
Wadi Natrun, a long, narrow depression in the desert just west of the Delta region, shelters several ancient Coptic monasteries.
Cairo is Egypt’s gateway, and is a popular stopover point for many African and Asian bound flights, so options are numerous from Europe. There are also a few direct trans-Atlantic flights. Often the cheapest tickets are package deals, with a few free nights thrown in an over-rated Cairo hotel. The airport isn’t terribly modern or comfortable if you have time to kill. Taxi hustlers are numerous, but can be pretty cheap, alternatively there is an uncomfortable bus into the centre and various shuttles. Agents might bundle several of you into a single minibus which is the best value. The journey into the centre takes about 25 minutes outside of rush hour.
Distances are large in Egypt and many chose to fly as the only really convenient and comfortable option. EgyptAir, and Air Sinai offer good domestic connections. Charter flights also fly to Luxor, Hirghada and Sharm el Shiek.
A train line dissects the country running north to south and passing through Cairo at the busy Ramses station. First class overnight trains to Luxor and Aswan can be comfortable and cheap, usually they run on time, but the platform can be chaotic.
There is a bare network of roads in the Nile delta and Cairo area, with a highway running south on both sides of the river, but drivers are often dangerous. Despite crossing deserts there are regular settlements if you run into car trouble. The tourist Police prefer you to drive in convoy following the 1997 tourist attack, but there hasn’t been a major incident since. Driving in Cairo is hair-raising, with seemingly little regard for road rules, and plenty of blaring of horns.