Cairo's endlessly unfurling, pharaonic history and sharp modern contradictions -- carts fueled by horse and whip navigate the streets alongside gold-rimmed Mercedes -- make it one of the most fascinating cruise tourist draws. Everywhere you turn, you'll find potent reminders of the past: the Great Pyramids at Giza, three of nearly 100 monolithic tributes to life or death (depending on your perspective); Memphis, the capital of ancient Egypt more than 4,000 years ago; and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, which houses the remnants of those thousands of years of mythic power. It's all very provocative to the Western mind.
Unfortunately, Egypt's capital city of some 18 million is not a place that's tailor-made for a mega-ship cruise pit-stop. It's sprawling and dust covered, with millions struggling in visibly abject poverty; the nearest cruise ports, Port Said and Alexandria, are a three-hour bus ride away; and there's simply too much to see, even in a two-day, overnight excursion. The city is better served by a longer visit or by the slowly unfolding nature of a Nile River cruise.
And yet, the ships come.
Huge ships from major lines -- including Cunard's Queen Victoria, Costa Concordia, Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas and Brilliance of the Seas and countless smaller luxury and expedition lines' ships -- dock in Alexandria or Port Said (or both), visiting in the cooler months, October through May. Given the distance from port to Pyramid, most lines stay for two days. As you'd expect, nearly everyone gets off for a visit. On my trip, five buses were set up for the crew alone.
I visited Cairo for two back-to-back days in April as part of a 12-night Eastern Mediterranean cruise aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Jade. Expectations were high -- and the many who'd decided to splurge for the overnight excursion were spending nearly a cruise fare for the privilege. (I spent $499 for a solo ticket.) From mosque and museum to Nile River cruise and pyramid, we had just enough time at each stop to snap a few action shots before it was "please get off the camel and back on the bus, sir." Two days is nowhere near enough time for exploring Cairo, but the glimpse of Egypt you do get is so impressive that it's worth the long days and high tour price. And, if the nature of a cruise is to sample destinations in order to decide where you'll return for a longer visit, this trip has convinced me that I'll definitely be heading back to Cairo.
Cruise travelers wishing to visit Cairo on ship-sponsored tours have two basic options: the 12-hour tour (half of which is spent driving) and the overnight tour. The day tour takes visitors to Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza and back to the ship that night, while the overnight tour adds a few more stops.
On the day trips, in addition to visiting the Pyramids, you can select from activities like camel and jeep rides through the desert or visits to the Egyptian Museum or the ancient capital of Memphis. The daylong port calls allow only enough to time to visit the Pyramids, eat lunch and stop at one (or perhaps two) other sites.
Overnight tours are, obviously, much more comprehensive (and more than twice the cost), including the following greatest hits: visits to the Egyptian Museum, the Pyramids at Giza, the ancient capital of Memphis, the Alabaster Mosque and a less-famous pyramid (such as the Sakkara step pyramid); a Nile River cruise; tickets to the Pyramid Sound and Light Show; and an obligatory shopping stop (a bazaar, jewelry store or papyrus "factory"). Wanting to see as much as possible during my two-day visit, I chose the overnight option.
All tours will keep you well-insulated from the chaos of the city, and their packed itineraries leave little opportunity for passengers to stray too far before it's time to head to the next stop. Our guide even seemed hesitant to provide factual information about certain things, notably the famed "City of the Dead," a large Islamic cemetery that thousands of poor call home. As we passed the graveyard metropolis, a passenger asked if people actually live there. "No," our guide said with a chuckle. "They used to, but not anymore." "But there are clothes lines, and I see smoke coming from a house!" insisted the passenger. "That's nothing," she responded. At times, I felt like I was being too protected, losing out on some of the more fascinating info -- like the living conditions in the City of the Dead. But again, there simply isn't time to delve too far into the "real" Cairo.
Editor's Note: There's no need to apply for a special visa if you're visiting via cruise ship; the cruise line will take care of that for you. Hand over your passport, it'll be stamped, and then you simply show the authorized page to the customs man on the way out to the bus.
Cruise Ship Tours Vs. Private Tours
It's painless enough to organize your two days in Cairo through either your ship or a major, private tour company. As a solo traveler, I opted for the ship's tour, but as with most cruise ship shore excursions, arranging independently can result in substantial savings. An overnight ship-sponsored tour will run you from $400 to $600 per person; organize on your own, and you may be able to lop off $100 or more from the shipboard rates. Plus, you'll likely find yourself with a far better guide-to-passenger ratio (12 tourists to a guide, rather than the 40:1, as in my case). The smaller the private group, however, the more you'll pay.
Private tours also allow for some customization. (I would have tweaked my itinerary slightly: skipped the Sound and Light Show; chosen to sail on a traditional felucca, rather than a river boat for my Nile dinner cruise; and visited the museum at a different time.)
Casual Cairo, Nile Blue Tours and DeCastro have all been repeatedly recommended on the Cruise Critic message boards. Some companies offer Egyptologists for their guides, so be sure to inquire if you're interested in touring with a true expert. Looking to join an independent group tour? Arranging an overnight or day tour on your cruise's roll call is an option. On my trip, a group of about 12 people "met" on the boards, corresponded and scheduled a tour together. They gave high marks to their tour, which took in the same sites as mine, but which was far more intimate and allowed them to form a solid group bond.
For all tours heading into Cairo -- and, again, nearly everyone gets off of the ship -- the day begins at about 7 a.m. The overnight buses leave together with a police cavalcade escorting the caravan into Cairo, the two front seats reserved for two heavily armed guards (a government requirement for large groups).
We left on a Friday, Islam's holy day, so many businesses were closed. The 220-kilometer ride was smooth and quiet. We slid past numerous pigeon coups, the size of which is an indication of the owner's status; desert areas, where the government was encouraging suburban spread through incentive programs (five years, property-tax-free; if you've lived in the desert for 15 years, you own the land, assuming you can prove it); and an agricultural swath known as "green" Cairo. I was being lulled by the long ride, just another bus trip in just another country on just another cruise -- until the guide pointed out the Pyramids, looking like giant triangular shadows visible through the distant haze. Suddenly, I was more alert and interested in the scenery sliding past. The first spotting of the massive outlines in the distance was a huge adrenaline boost, and with the growing excitement, it became easier to focus on the surrounding countryside and the guide's informative prattle.
Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (Egyptian Museum)
Our first stop was the Egyptian Museum, home to some 120,000 objects of Egyptian antiquity (not all on display). With the exception of the Vatican, it was the most amazing museum I've ever been to. It would be easy to spend the day there -- but we had other sites to see, so were confined to about an hour and a half.
Inside the museum, by the King Tut exhibit and other crowd magnets, it's very noisy, and keeping a large group within earshot takes an impressive voice -- the perfect blend of high cutting pitch and crystal articulation. Guides were constantly jockeying for air space and floor space, with many having their groups make a semi-circle to block out others. Our guide was short in stature, with a husky drawl and thick accent -- and her voice and body quickly got lost in the hubbub. It was a strain just to pick up the disembodied vibrations. A game of telephone ensued:
Guide: "They took out the organs -- except the heart and kidneys, the most important, which were washed and returned to the body -- and put them into three jars."
Touree1: "They took out the heart and kidneys and put them in three jars."
Touree 2: "They took out the organs, replacing them in the body with three jars."
Touree 3: "They took out an organ, and played a little ditty of three bars."
Not quite, but you get the picture! At a certain point, I gave up straining and decided to wander off on my own, taking in the black granite statues, ornately carved coffins and the royal mummy exhibit, which is not to be missed for its fantastically morbid appeal. (That one is 100 Egyptian pounds extra -- about $20.) The exhibit showcases mummified remains of Egyptian rulers, most still with hair and teeth. Their twisted faces seem to stare through you (they have no eyes, as the softer matter has long since disintegrated), their jaws open in silent screams. Though the exhibit is small (roughly 25 mummies), my bones were suitably chilled, and it was well worth the extra expense.
One more thing: Your memory of the exhibits will have to do for posterity because no cameras are allowed in the museum. You can find some professional photos online.
Alabaster Mosque of Mohamed Ali
Navigating from museum to mosque around noon, we passed crowds kneeling in prayer, foreheads pressed against dusty pavement. We also caught a glimpse of the ancient quarry from which the Pyramids' stones were culled. Our destination was the Alabaster Mosque of Mohamed Ali, an Ottoman mosque, completed in the mid 19th century. The mosque is known as much for its elevated location on the Citadel of Cairo -- offering fantastic panoramic if haze-filled views of the city below -- as for its impressive architecture. The architecture is striking, with a spiky pair of 250-foot-high minarets that frame the exterior and an ornately carved cupola (dome) on the inside with inset columns and stained-glass windows all the way around. Shoes must come off upon entering, and respectful dress is expected. (Green robes were handed out to those who were dressed immodestly.) A far more peaceful place than the museum, it was nice to take a breath -- and the quietude of the mosque gave our guide a nice opportunity to explain the Five Pillars of the Islamic religion to her gaggle of North Americans. (For those not in the know, the pillars are: belief in Allah as the one God and Mohammed as his prophet, daily prayers, giving alms to the poor, ritual fasting and pilgrimages to Mecca.)
Hotel and Lunch
After a morning of driving and touring, the caravan arrived at our hotel for check-in, lunch and a siesta. I, along with the few hundred other people from our ship on the overnight tour, stayed at the Conrad Cairo Hotel, a four-star hotel with views of the Nile. The high-ceilinged rooms were surprisingly large, the shower pressure was awesome, the mini-bar prices were exorbitant and the balcony (with a view of another hotel) was a fine way to get a sense of why Cairo is considered one of the noisiest cities in the world.
Other popular hotels for the cruise ship overnights included the Intercontinental and Le Meridian, large hotels that can handle the sudden influx of a few hundred cruisers. Check out TripAdvisor, our parent company, for reviews of your hotel.
Our lunch was held in a banquet hall and was served in the form of an all-you-can-eat buffet (not a shock, given the need to serve a few hundred people at once). I was beyond hungry, and the food was excellent, including hummus, babaganouj, fish, salads, beef stew, pasta, chicken and desserts. Water, tea and coffee were included, but soda and beer were an additional $4 or $5. After lunch, it was time to recharge -- for both me and the camera battery.
The Pyramids Sound and Light Show
Newly restored and back on the bus, we headed out for our first look at the Great Pyramids. But, rather than wandering the Giza plateau with sunglasses, cameras and fanny packs, we settled in for an evening sound and laser light show, called Son-et-Lumiere. Held every night at a perfect pyramidal viewing angle, the approximately 45-minute show consists of shouted pleas to the sun god, soliloquies from ancient Egyptian rulers, laser beams criss-crossing the pyramids and history lessons on Egypt and the pyramids.
Charlton Heston would have approved of the English version of Son-et-Lumiere, with well-executed lines like "The world fears time ... but ... time ... fears ... THE PYRAMIDS." The "laser" technology was shamefully dated, the "acting" pathetic and the classical soundtrack overblown. But, all of my pretentiousness aside, the colored lights and bombastic acting kept the audience mesmerized, and I learned a nice bit about Pharaonic history and the Pyramids. (Did you know it required more than three million blocks of stone to build the 455-foot tall Pyramid of Cheops?)
Two Notes: First, if you'd like to film the program, it'll cost you $6. Second, though it can be scorchingly hot during the day, temperatures drop quickly in the desert at night. Depending on when you visit Cairo, a light sweatshirt (or heavier garment) might be necessary for keeping warm during the show.
Dinner Cruise on the Nile
Hungry once more, we were bussed back through the city to the Nile, where we boarded the Nile Crystal for a three-hour Nile dinner cruise. Each riverboat accommodated one busload (about 40 passengers), so I imagine many riverboats dotted the Nile that evening.
The dinner cruise on our "five-star" riverboat (the Egyptian tourism agency gives all its ships ratings of at least four stars) was enjoyable, but something I would have reconsidered if given the choice. Here's why: Though the atmosphere was pleasant, the food (again a buffet) was decent, and the belly dancer was energetic, it all felt a little too forced.
Passengers certainly seemed split on the cruise. Some had a blast, becoming smiling links in the circular dance chain created by the "folkloric" dancers. Others glanced at their watches or talked quietly among friends. No one really had a bad time -- far from it -- but it wasn't necessarily everyone's cup of tea.
With limited time in port and much to see, we began our second day early. Breakfast in the hotel is included, but sleeping through the morning meal is also an option (the one I took -- blame jet lag). We had three stops on the day-two schedule -- the Sakkara burial grounds, the ancient capital of Memphis and the Pyramids at Giza -- before it would be time to make the three-hour trek back to the ship in Alexandria.
Sakkara Step Pyramid
Driving into the countryside, past date and sugar cane farms, the sun was already ablaze as we arrived at Sakkara, the burial ground for the ancient capital of Memphis. Away from the frenetic pace at the center of Cairo, the complex felt utterly tranquil. It was our least touristy stop, a place where you could quietly commune with a monument to death (if you so chose). The trinket peddlers -- who, at Giza, would leave a foul taste in my mouth later in the day -- were absent. It was just me and the Step Pyramid of King Zoser, a huge 5,000-year-old structure that served as a precursor to the Pyramids at Giza. This pyramid felt a lot more meditative, more of what I expected the Pyramids at Giza to feel like before it became one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
The complex contains a plethora of other archeological gems, including the large, multi-roomed tomb of Mereruka -- with its incredible wall carvings -- and the smaller pyramid of King Titi.
Since Sakkara was the necropolis for Memphis, it made sense that we stopped to visit the ancient city, which served as the capital of Egypt for approximately a thousand years (from 3100 B.C. to 2200 B.C.) What's left of the city -- and surprisingly little has been discovered -- is preserved in an open-air museum. We walked the grounds on our own, visiting the ruins of the temple of Ptah and the alabaster sphinx of King Amenophis II. The piece de resistance of the site is a huge, well-preserved fallen statue of Ramesses II, housed in a two-story building. The thing looked awesome laid horizontally, so I can only imagine how imposing it may have been upright -- a warning and testament to Egyptian power.
The Giza Plateau
Back in the middle of Cairo, we concluded our excursion with a second visit to the Great Pyramids. We had about an hour and a half to explore…and it was an hour and a half of relentless hounding from gimcrack touts, selling "traditional" head scarves, statues, T-shirts and other garbage. There wasn't a moment's peace to reflect on the majesty, as I was bombarded by calls of "Welcome! Where you from? Brazil? Bratislava? This gift is for you." Accepting the gifts will result in harassment and demands to "look at my cousin's blanket," so be forceful and firmly say no.
In Giza, "merchants" would literally chase you down and force trinkets into your hands (or armpits!) if you so much as glanced at their wares. Or, they'd send camels to chase you down until you agreed to go for a ride. But, as of the summer of 2008, rather dramatic efforts have been made to make the Pyramids a more serene and respectful place. In attempt to establish order, the government has installed a 12-mile-long fence, security cameras, alarms and motion detectors. It remains to be seen how the salespeople will respond.
What can I say about the Pyramids themselves? Despite the headaches, the monuments are spectacular. I came to see the Pyramids, and I recorded my visit -- both by snapping photos and by staring intently, trying to capture a permanent mental image. They are some of the world's most awe-inspiring monuments, and regardless of what you bring to the site -- in terms of education, travel experience, cynicism -- you'll be wowed. Getting as close as possible (they're roped off, though bribery might work to get you closer) and staring up, up, up is a spiritual experience.
We had another buffet lunch at a local hotel -- again one that could accommodate a few hundred hungry cruisers -- and then it was time to head back to Alexandria and the startlingly modern world of the cruise ship.
Overall, despite any complaints I may have had, I enjoyed my two-day tour and am still convinced it was the best use of time for such a short visit. If you're contemplating an excursion, know that it's important to have the right expectations for such a journey. A cruise is the great travel sampler, a chance to visit a bunch of new places, pick your favorite and book your return trip. You won't be getting a comprehensive exploration of Cairo.
But, even with the whirlwind nature of the experience, certain memories of my trip remain quite strong: The quietude of Sakkara. The harassment at Giza. The feeling that I wish I had more time at the Egypt Museum. And, if anything, it's given me a far better idea of what I would and wouldn't do if and when I return to Cairo. I still want to find out about the City of the Dead, the fascinating metropolis that's sprung up in Cairo's massive cemeteries, and about which our guide would give no information. It's something to look forward to on my next visit.
--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor