Delicious chaos. There’s no better way to sum up the exotic, intoxicating and infuriating nature of Cairo, the largest city in Africa and the Middle East. Because Cairo is not just about its Pharaonic heritage, even if it does boast the last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World. Cairo is a sprawling mass of humanity in which different worlds collide, and the past rubs shoulders with the present.
Soaring Islamic architecture peers down on bustling bazaars, where young boys slip through the throngs delivering tea to the haggle-happy masses. Serene Coptic churches huddle together next to the remains of the Roman fortress.
Donkey carts battle taxis for supremacy over the streets. The traffic either moves at breakneck speed, or it doesn’t move at all. Rich fast-food suburbia snuggles up to poorer, more baladi areas, where workers eat fuul in the street.
Old men in galabayas sit smoking shisha and playing backgammon in local cafés. The rattle-slap of the pieces and the hubble-bubble of their pipes merge with the cacophony of horns, laughter and blaring Arabic pop. The sweet smells of fruit tobacco and spices mingle, seasoning the traffic fumes.
And cutting through it all, five times a day, is the Call to Prayer, ethereal and mesmerising. But older even than Cairo, the Nile flows on, dividing the city in two.
How it all breaks down
Cairo is not really one city. Its story stretches back for thousands of years, from ancient Egyptian times through to the present day. The current Arabic name for Cairo is al-Qahirah, which can be translated as “The Victorious”, or “The Conqueror.” Egyptians also refer to Cairo as Masr, which means Egypt.
The city is huge, and is divided into numerous neighbourhoods. Here are some of the most important:
Downtown Cairo is the centre of the modern city, a mish-mash of commerce and housing. Here you can visit the wonders of the Egyptian Museum, including the treasures of Tutankhamen. There are also a few art galleries, and numerous restaurants, cafes and bars.
Towards the east, Downtown shades in to the area known loosely as Islamic Cairo. This is where you find the liveliest markets, such as Ataba, and of course Khan al-Khalili, as well as the most majestic Islamic architecture. One of the most famous Cairo mosques is al-Azhar Mosque, arguably the most important in the Sunni Muslim world. At the edge of Islamic Cairo, on top of the Muqattam Hills, the Citadel stands watch over Cairo, as it has done for centuries.
Out towards the east and the north-east are the neighbourhoods of Nasr City and Heliopolis. Virtually self-contained cities, there is little of interest here to the casual visitor, though there are lots of hotels in Heliopolis.
South of Downtown Cairo, stretching along the Cornice, are the hotels and embassies of Garden City. Below this is Old Cairo, home to the Coptic Christian quarter, and one of the most picturesque parts of the city. Even further south is the expat enclave of Maadi, one of the best places in Cairo to do a felucca ride. A way east of Maadi, you can find the New Cairo development, a partial shelter from the hurly burly of the centre.
Al-Manyal and Zamalek are two large islands in the centre of the city, around which the Nile flows. Zamalek is a blend of the posh and the westernised, with good shopping, lots of restaurants and nightlife, and some swanky hotels.
West of the Nile, in what is really Giza rather than Cairo, are the residential neigbourhoods of Imbaba, Mohandiseen, Agouza, Dokki and Giza. With a number of hotels and restaurants, many tourists choose to stay in Dokki.
The other alternative is to head further west, to where Giza crashes into the ancient past. The city literally spreads all the way to the edge of the Pyramids, and there are lots of hotel resorts that provide a convenient base for exploring the Pharaonic monuments of Giza, Saqqara and Dahshur.
Further west still, near the start of the Alex-Desert Road, is one of Cairo's swish new satellite cities: 6th October City. This is where many of the great and the good live in order to escape the chaos of Cairo itself.
Stuff you need to know
Egypt is a quite conservative Islamic country. About 85 % of the population are Muslim, while the remainder are Christian, mainly Coptic. While Egypt is nowhere near so conservative as, for example, Saudi Arabia, and the locals for the most part are used to dealing with foreigners, a few things are worth bearing in mind.
Dress sense: This is important, but doesn’t need to be a headache. Women are advised to cover their shoulders and knees as a minimum (but you don’t need to wear a headscarf). This is both prudent, and respectful. You are unlikely to offend anyone in touristy areas, but you will attract a whole lot more attention if you are wandering around in shorts and singlet. For men it doesn’t matter so much, but it’s considered more respectable to wear trousers rather than shorts.
Public behaviour: It’s best for couples to avoid overt signs of affection. Holding hands is fine, but full-on pashing in the street definitely isn’t! Physical contact between the sexes in Egypt is limited, though you will see men holding hands and kissing each other – that’s how it’s done here! Also, be mindful of the Call to Prayer. Egyptians will usually turn their music off so it doesn’t compete, and this certainly isn’t the time for you to “Cheers” and down a shot of vodka. Likewise, watch out for prayer mats on the street, and try to avoid stepping on them.
Hospitality: Egyptians are super-friendly, inquisitive, and (Cairenes in particular) can sometimes come off as a little blunt. You will be regaled wherever you go with cries of “Welcome in Egypt,” and “What’s your name?” Many people will want to practise their English with you. One of the first questions people often ask is your marital status, or your religion! You may also be lucky enough to be invited to someone’s home for a meal; or even better yet, to a wedding! Go, as it will likely be the highlight of your trip. (Click here for more information on food and going out.)
Health and Safety
For such a large city, Cairo is incredibly safe. There is very little chance of your being robbed, much less attacked. You should, of course, still take all the normal precautions you would when travelling anywhere in the world.
The combination of crowds, sun and pollution can wear down visitors to Cairo. So drink plenty of water, and make sure to slip-slap-slop! Officially, the tap water here is safe to drink because it’s so heavily chlorinated, but it still takes some getting used to. Bottled water is widely available, and cheap. Unfortunately, you can’t do anything about the crowds or pollution – you just have to suck it up! Also, be prepared that many people in Cairo smoke, everywhere. Very few restaurants or bars have non-smoking areas.
It’s not unusual for visitors to suffer from a bout of traveller’s diarrhoea, or “Ramesses’ Revenge”. You just have to take this in your stride and ride it out. Keeping well hydrated, and washing your hands before putting them anywhere near your mouth, will reduce your chances of being struck down. Bear in mind that some of the money is filthy. If you do need to grab any medication, there are pharmacies everywhere, and the staff are well trained and usually speak English.
The biggest annoyance for most visitors is the hassle factor. Anywhere the tourists go, the salesman and touts spring up too. They are persistent, silver-tongued, and very good at what they do. The majority of Egyptians are honest, and almost painfully generous and helpful, but a small minority in the tourist trade view all foreigners as walking $$ signs, so be prepared. It should go without saying that whenever you are buying anything in the bazaars, you will be expected to haggle.
Sometimes, this hassle has a darker edge to it, and foreign women here (as well as the locals) can fall prey to sexual harassment in the streets. This is normally confined to inappropriate comments and cat-calls, but the odd grope is not unheard of, especially in crowded areas. You can minimise the chances of this happening by dressing conservatively, and travelling with a man if possible. For single women, wearing a fake wedding ring is also a good idea.
Money and other practicalities
The currency here is the Egyptian Pound (LE). ATM’s and exchanges are widely available, though not many shops or restaurants will let you pay with plastic. Small change can sometimes be hard to find, so hoard your 1 LE notes (you’ll need them to use the toilet in many places). Baksheesh is a big part of life in Egypt. It can be thought of as tipping – for a service given, out of charity, or to smooth the way through the machinations of government bureaucracy.
Internet cafés are all over the place, cheap to use and with generally good connection speeds. Many cafes also have Wi-Fi access. Post offices are common, though the post system is not the most reliable in the world. If you want to call home, the street kiosks sell phone cards. Minatel is the best – the green and yellow phone booths.
The most important piece of advice
Pack your sense of humour along with oodles of patience, throw out your preconceptions, and just dive right in! Cairo can be a challenging city to visit. Yes, it is big, smelly, dirty and crowded. Yes, some people will try to rip you off, take advantage of you, or ask you for baksheesh. Yes, even the simplest task can turn into a massive mission. But that’s the game, here. Scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll find there is nowhere on earth that is as exhilarating, fascinating or welcoming as Cairo.
Whether you are here for a weekend or a week, on a business trip or your honeymoon, interested in Pharaonic monuments, getting off the beaten track, or simply the food, Cairo has it all. It truly deserves its medieval appellation of Umm al-Dounia, the “Mother of the World.”
1089 Corniche El Nile
P. O. Box 63 Maglis El Shaab
Gamal Abdul Nasser St
21 Mahmoud Bassyouni Street
Midan Talat Harb
6 Abdel Hamid Said Street
(Odeon Palace Hotel)