Hunkering Down in Cairo
by Jimmy Dunn
For the pure tourists who are often travelers that visit many destinations and simply wish to see the sites and go on to other destinations, nothing can beat an arranged tour of Egypt. It can be a very "clean" experience, arriving and staying at a "tourist" hotel in Cairo and by way of air conditioned tourist couches, visit the Great Pyramids of the Giza Plateau and probably Saqqara, the churches of Old Cairo and the most significant monuments of Islamic (medieval) Cairo, while probably taking in the Khan el-Khalili (market). From there, they fly or take a train to Luxor or Aswan, touring those areas often from the comfort of a grand Nile cruiser. Then its back to Cairo for the flight home. Its a nice, pat itinerary offered by a multitude of tour operators for a variety of budgets, usually taking between ten and fourteen days.
Others, though tourists they may be, want a little more than this. Perhaps they are enthusiasts of ancient Egypt or the Oriental culture. Or, they may simply wish to dig deeper into the roots of whatever country they have come to explore. For these travelers, two weeks in Egypt will not be enough, though their finances may not allow any one extended journey. In fact, making several trips to Egypt may provide them with the opportunity to explore, and digest, before exploring once more. Depending on the extent they wish to dig into this ancient land and its populous, they may wish to make as few as two, or as many as five (or more) visits, learning the ropes as they unearth the wonders of Egypt.
For some, exploring the environs of Cairo on one trip and southern Egypt, including Luxor and Aswan on a second may be enough. On the other extremity, they may wish to make separate visits to Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, the Delta and North Coast (Alexandria), the Oasis and Western Desert, and the Sinai. There is certainly enough to explore in any of these locations to occupy an entire vacation.
Irregardless, the place to begin is Cairo, unless specific interests dictate otherwise. In fact, for many of us, a few weeks may not be enough to explore all the wonders of this grand old city.
One advantage to hunkering down in Cairo is that it changes the nature of exploring Egypt. On many normal tours to Egypt, considerable time is spent packing, in transit, and unpacking together with the associated fatigue. By limiting one trip to Cairo specifically, travelers eliminates this inefficiency. They may even pack differently. On normal tours that span the entire country within a matter of a week or two, it is often best to travel light, but by focusing on Cairo, where one may operate out of a single hotel, it is easier to pack for a more comfortable stay. Also, one may also limit expenses by finding a local market from which to by food and snacks, and even a local laundry that can be much less expensive than the typical hotel facilities.
Many monuments, including pyramids, tombs, ancient churches and monasteries, and Islamic monuments are either within the city, or a short drive away, and there are also all sorts of Egyptian culture at hand.
We can divide Cairo into a number of segments for sightseeing purposes. There are the pharaonic attractions, normally considered to be dated from about 3,000 BC through the first part of the Roman Era (up to the archaic Christian Era). For a relatively short trip to Cairo, these monuments would include the pyramids, tombs and temples of Giza and Saqqara, but with only a little extra time, could also include other monuments including pyramids at Dahshur, Abu Rawash, and Abusir and perhaps even a day trip to the Fayoum. With the exception of the Fayoum south of Cairo, all of these locals are either on the edge of Cairo, or only a few minutes drive outside of the city. Within Cairo, there is also the Egyptian Museum which, depending on one's interest, may take up anywhere from a half day to at least several days to fully explore. In fact, the only type of pharaonic monuments that are not present within a short drive of Cairo are the more grand temples and royal tombs found mostly around Luxor.
Though a thorough examination of Christian monuments would, just as in the case of pharaonic monuments, lead one into every small corner of Egypt, there is a good representation of these monuments in Old Cairo and elsewhere in the city, together with the Coptic (Christian) Museum. These include some of the most famous Churches, such as the Hanging Church in Old Babylon, as well as others. Also like the pharaonic monuments, just a little extra time will also allow a short visit to the desert monasteries north of Cairo in the Wadi al-Natrun.
As for Islamic Monuments, which one might also think of as Medieval sites though they span a much greater period of time, only the most exhaustive tour need take one outside of Cairo, and even then, a day trip to Alexandria would, but for a very few, take in all such sites. Of course, for those with a great interest in such monuments, many days could be taken to explore the hundreds of places just in Cairo. These certainly include beautiful old mosques, but also fortresses such as the Citadel, ancient gates and other institutional buildings and private residences, along with the Islamic Museum. There are also a number of minor museums with some relationship to Egypt's archaic Islamic heritage with wonderful exhibits. These include the Abdeen Palace Museum Complex, the Gayer-Anderson Museum, the Museum of Islamic Ceramics and the Mawlawi Museum.
However, other museums span the various eras to some extent. For example, there is the Military Museum, the Postal Museum as well as various exhibits located at the Pharaonic Village. Others museums provide displays of more recent times, or cover topics that may be of specific interest. For example, there is the Rail Museum, which of course, houses displays of Egypt's early railway artifacts and the Carriage Museum, but for specific tastes, there is the little known Geology Museum that includes dinosaur artifacts and the Qasr al-Eini Museum that explores the establishment of modern Egyptian medicine. There are also a number of offbeat museums such as the Mohamed Nagy Museum with displays of early Egyptian photography, the Museum of Mohamed Khalil who effected early Egyptian fine art and the Gezira Center for Modern Art with any number of masterpieces from Egypt and elsewhere. In fact, one could spend a number of days just visiting Egypt's minor museums.
Then, of course, there is modern Cairo. Most people who visit this grand old city for the first time may be caught by surprise with regards to the many shopping opportunities. Of course, there is the ancient Khan el-Khalili, where one may find typical tourist souvenirs, but also antique books, watches and jewelry, or modern brass, glass wear, furniture and clothing as well as a thousand other products. However, shopping fun is not limited to the Khan by any means and indeed, just as elsewhere in the world, there are huge, modern malls. Just within the Zamalik district, one may find antique stores with old Victoria record players, numerous jewelry stores offering fantastic designs, and sometimes at fantastic prices, unusual home decor items including rich, oriental carpets, unusual health food stores, clothing establishments offering everything from belly dancing costumes to modern Egyptian cotton goods, handmade leather items and even Harley Davidson motorcycles!
If shopping is not your bag, then one may take in a round of golf, visit an amusement park, ice skate, bowl with the Egyptians, see a modern western movie, catch a soccer or basketball game, or simply rest up in an English pub.
Cairo is an ancient city but it is also a large metropolis, with all the trappings of a world center. While out and about, a McDonalds or Pizza Hut seems to always be convenient, but there are also the TGI Fridays and Chili's, as well as very fine French, Italian and various Oriental restaurants. And then there are the unique riverboat restaurants, or perhaps more accurately, nightclubs, that provide live entertainment together with a wonderful view of the city as one floats down the Nile a few miles under the lights of the city.
With everything there is to see and do during the day, many of us may find the night best spent watching western cable television in the confines of a fine, five star hotel, but for those with that extra reserve of energy, Cairo never sleeps. Most every hotel will have a bar, often with some sort of entertainment. Discotheques are common at the larger hotels and elsewhere. One may catch a traditional Egyptian show at many nightclubs, with belly dancers and whirling dervish, European style stage shows (animation), or even take in the Hard Rock Cafe. There are no limits to such activities which, in some cases, may last all night. But there is also the grand Opera House or various casinos and just about any other form of nightly entertainment one may find in Europe or North America. And one may continue to shop as some establishments remain open late into the evening.
Rarely have I met a visitor in Cairo who did not wish to spend "just a few more days". This city alone offers such a variety of monuments to see, as well as other activities, that there is really never enough time for everything. Even locals seem to never be able to see all the sights, for in a city this large, new, grand restaurants are always popping up, new malls need exploring, and even new monuments are unearthed or restored.
Sightseeing and other excursions may be arranged either in advance through a normal tour operator, many of whom offers specific tours geared to Cairo only, or through day trips arranged through or at the hotel. What is truly wonderful about the experience of Cairo is that it can all be seen and done from the comfort of a fine hotel such as the Cairo Marriott, or even the pleasing atmosphere of a less expensive Bead and Breakfast such as the Hotel Longchamps, with all of the modern conveniences one might expect in Miami, London or Paris.
Of course, there is indeed much more to see in Egypt, and most people who limit a first trip to Cairo will wish to return in order to explore other important locations such as Luxor and Aswan, together with other sites along the Nile, the Western Desert and Oasis and the Sinai for both its nature and ancient sites.
Last Updated: June 13th, 2011