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Cairo (Port Said) Overview
Pick up just about any travel guide on Cairo, and you'll read about horrendous traffic, poor air quality, poverty and an unrelenting assault on the senses that can send the unprepared traveler into orbit.
The guides have it right. As cities go, Cairo is a tough customer. And the various strikes and protests that have continued since the country's January 2011 revolution -- some of them violent -- have made life in the Egyptian capital even more unpredictable.
But it's also a place with unique appeal. As a tourist destination, Cairo is known as the gateway to the legendary Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, fixtures in our psyche. But there are also mosques that are architectural masterpieces, still-inhabited neighborhoods that evoke thoughts of ancient Egypt, churches that date back to the beginning of Christendom, one of the largest bazaars in the world and, of course, the mighty Nile river.
Cairo traces its origins back to the Egyptian capital of Memphis, believed to have been founded in the fourth century B.C. Today, with a population of 16 million, it's both bustling and chaotic, but there are places to find respite, such as leafy Zemalek Island and the Citadel, the largest fortification in the Islamic world, which has dominated Cairo's skyline since 1176. From the Mohammed Ali Mosque at the fortress, you'll encounter views of the sand-colored city that bring to mind storybook Egypt. As a man notes in a tale from "One Thousand and One Nights," "He who has not seen Cairo has not seen the world."
Because it is often treated as a pass-through to the Pyramids and Nile River cruises, most travelers don't linger in Cairo -- except, perhaps, to take a perfunctory look at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities' world-class collection of treasures or to take a curious look at Tahrir Square, where 2011's Arab Spring arguably began. And that's too bad, because this is a city that deserves far more than a fleeting first impression.
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Other Africa Cruise Ports:
Alexandria • Cairo (Port Said) • Cape Town • Durban • Luxor • Safaga • Saguenay • Tangier • Tunis (La Goulette)
For some travelers, Khan al Khalili may rival the Pyramids as a tourist destination. A one-time Turkish suuq that dates back to the Ottoman period, the Khan, as it is known, is a maze of alleys where all types of souvenirs are sold. Among the most popular are carpets, perfumes, belly-dancing costumes, spices, stationery, semiprecious stones, alabaster, brass and copper, and the sheesha water pipes that are a staple in Cairo's cafes.
You'll also find galabeyas, the traditional robes worn by Egyptians, as well as gold and silver cartouche pendants, which can be customized with a person's name in hieroglyphic symbols. Buyer beware: The papyrus sold at the bazaar may look like the real thing, but don't fall for it. Most are knockoffs, manufactured from sugar cane or banana leaves. Also, bargaining is expected. As a general rule, offer half the asking price. In all likelihood, if you walk away, the vendor will call you back.
Egyptians speak Arabic, but you'll find that most people involved in the tourism industry know English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The national currency is the Egyptian pound, or L.E., which is divided into 100 piasters, or P.T. Visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com for up-to-the-minute exchange rates. (Oanda also has a nice "cheat sheet" conversion chart that fits neatly into a wallet.)
Egypt is still largely a cash economy, though credit cards are widely accepted in finer stores, restaurants and hotels. Vendors will take American dollars, euros and Egyptian pounds interchangeably (although your change will come back in Egyptian currency). ATM's tend to be the least expensive way to obtain local currency. Note: Try not to have any Egyptian money left at the end of your stay, as you cannot exchange it outside of Egypt.
Where You're Docked
Mediterranean cruise ships dock in Alexandria and Port Said, each about a 2.5-hour drive from Cairo. Shore excursions to Cairo from both ports are routine. Many ships drop passengers off at one port and then pick them up the next day at the next, allowing for an overnight in Cairo.
Cairo also serves as the port of entry for Nile River cruises, which operate strictly between Luxor and Aswan. Passengers frequently overnight for one or more days in Cairo before taking the short flight to Luxor or Aswan meet their ships.
In Alexandria, ships dock right at the passenger marine terminal, home to all manner of souvenir stands, as well as a queue of bright blue taxis. (It's about a 10-minute drive to the Corniche, the city's waterfront boulevard.) Set a price with your driver up front before you get in. The port itself is pretty buttoned down, and you'll need your passport to exit. Egypt does require a visa, which is handled in advance onboard.
If there is time, Alexandria -- the aptly named "Pearl of the Mediterranean" -- is definitely worth exploring. Don't miss the fabulous Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Opened in 2002, the beautifully styled library, with space for eight million books, was inspired by a library built there in the 3rd century B.C. In its day, it was considered the greatest library of all time, a magnet for the world's intelligentsia. The new library, designed as a sun rising out of the Mediterranean, is believed to have been built on the site of its ancient predecessor.
In Port Said, you're at the entrance of the Suez Canal, and it can be fun to watch the huge vessels coming through. The town has some nice 19th-century buildings along its waterfront (as well as some that are falling down), so you'll have a nice view as you enter. The Port Said cruise terminal has room for up to four ships of varying size, and there are souvenir stands and transportation available outside. If you aren't heading on to other historical sites, your best bet for entertainment is to take the ferry across the canal to nearby Port Fuad on the eastern side. (Check with your ship on the latest safety conditions before venturing afield.)
Taxis tend to be the preferred mode of transportation for foreign visitors. Hotel taxis are more expensive than the black and white cabs that are hailed on the street. Some taxis have meters; if the one in your cab works, this is the cheapest option. Otherwise, set a price before you get in, and don't pay until you arrive at your destination. However, don't haggle, or you'll never get to where you're going. If you don't like the price, take the next taxi. Fares are paid in cash, and most drivers accept Egyptian pounds, dollars or euros (though your change will come back in Egyptian). It's not unusual to ask the driver to meet you at an appointed hour and place for the return trip. Ask your hotel concierge or tour guide about average prices. Also, it is common practice for taxis to pick up extra passengers traveling in the same direction, so don't be alarmed if your group grows.
Watch Out For
First, the currency. Unscrupulous vendors may try to give you piaster notes instead of (Egyptian) pounds when making change. The bills look quite similar, so get familiar with them before going on a spending spree. Also, Egyptian vendors are notoriously aggressive. Don't give them money until you've agreed upon a price and have your purchase in your hand.
Since Egypt is a Muslim culture, it's wise to dress appropriately in more traditional areas and mosques. Women should take care to cover their upper arms, cleavage, midriff and legs when visiting a mosque. A hair covering isn't necessary. Except in tourist resorts, modesty is the best policy, or women may attract unwanted attention.
As for staying healthy, don't drink the tap water in Cairo -- even at the best hotels. It's also a good idea to avoid raw vegetables, fruit without peels and street food.
Finally, always have change on hand. Baksheesh is the word for tipping -- and it is a way of life there. Expect to tip toilet attendants 1 L.E. or, possibly, be denied use of the facility.
The Pyramids of Giza took 100,000 men 20 years to build, and they continue to fascinate observers 45 centuries later. For some visitors, their first looks at the storybook icons are sometimes disappointing because of the crowds, the tour buses and the vendors. And the three main pyramids are by no means in the middle of nowhere, as so many photos suggest. A string of hotels and apartment buildings lie just across the boulevard -- part of suburban Giza, which lies 11 miles south of Cairo. Still, there is something wholly mystical about the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the first and largest pyramid built at Giza -- and the sole surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Visitors can climb into the mausoleum through a corridor that descends into an unfinished chamber. Take the time to walk around this limestone edifice, and it's still possible to summon its ancient power and grandeur.
An unexpected bonus at the site is the Solar Boat Museum, which houses the Lebanese cedar boat intended to deliver King Khufu to the afterlife. It is one of five boats that were buried next to the pyramid and is thought to be the oldest boat in existence. Remarkably, the boat was assembled from 1,224 pieces, completed in 1980, and everything is original except for its ropes. A wooden version of a papyrus reed boat, it is displayed in fine fashion -- suspended over upper and lower galleries that give visitors full visual access.
Nearby, the eroding Sphinx, enclosed by fencing to protect it, stands sentry over the Giza plateau. A symbol of Egypt for thousands of years, the Sphinx has the body of a lion and the head of a king or god. Because of the changing desert terrain, the monument has been buried repeatedly, most recently in 1905.
No visit to Cairo would be complete without a visit to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, which contains more than 120,000 artifacts -- most of them recovered from the nation's tombs and temples. Among the crowd-pleasers: King Tut's death mask, made of solid gold and jewels; life-size statues of the pharaoh that guarded his burial chamber; furniture -- including his throne -- that filled the tomb; and Tut's wig box and wardrobe. Amazingly, Tut's umbrella, gloves and underwear are also on display.
Another fantastic corner of the museum is the dimly lit Royal Mummy Room, which houses 11 of Egypt's most illustrious pharaohs and queens -- the most famous being Ramses II, the great pharaoh who built the temples of Abydos and Abu Simbel and added to the temples of Karnak and Luxor. A couple of the mummies are wrapped in garlands of flowers. Others are so well-preserved that it's possible to see wounds, curly hair and pierced ears. It's well worth the extra admission fee. The museum, which is not air-conditioned, is literally teeming with treasures -- which is also its downside. This incomparable repository outgrew its space years ago, and its successor -- the Great Egyptian Museum, on a site near the Giza Pyramids -- is years from completion.
The Citadel, located on a spur of limestone above Cairo, is rightly one of Egypt's main attractions. Built in 1176 by the Kurdish general Salah ad Din to protect against attacks by the Crusaders, the fortress is home to several museums and monuments, including the Mohammed Ali Mosque, built in Ottoman Baroque style in the mid-1800's. The "Alabaster Mosque," as it is called, can be seen from every part of Cairo and offers magnificent views across the city. (You can even see the Pyramids of Giza if it's not too smoggy.) Modeled after the great mosques of Istanbul, it is distinguished by its dome and two slender minarets. Outside the mosque is an ablution fountain, where the faithful wash before prayer. The interior is modest -- the floors covered with prayer rugs and ceiling accented with, of all things, a French chandelier.
Been There, Done That
In Giza, you're there; the camels are there. Why not take a camel ride? There's a camel concession at the Pyramids of Giza that's on the up and up -- look for the vendors on the plateau behind all three pyramids. The ride -- you'll be surprised at how bumpy it is -- takes about 20 minutes, and the operator prefers to be paid in U.S. currency: $4 plus a $1 tip.
The Sphinx (impersonated by actor Anthony Hopkins) narrates this 50-minute sound and light show -- produced at varying times in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Japanese and Arabic -- at the Pyramids. The storyline depicts the building of the ancient monuments, and though it is somewhat cheesy, it's a fine way to experience them at night.
A Nile dinner cruise is another way to experience nighttime Cairo. Some offer dinner buffets, while others throw in floor shows with belly-dancers and singers. The Pharaohs Cruising Restaurants and Nile Maxim, run by the Marriott, are two reputable operators.
Cairo's main public gathering place, Tahrir Square, has become a tourist attraction in its own right, as visitors flock to see the site where the Egyptian revolution unfolded in January 2011. Situated within walking distance of the Egyptian Museum, the square has mostly reverted to its main role as a traffic circle, although regular protests are still often held on Fridays after Muslim prayer services. If you're planning to visit, check with your hotel or the State Department first to see if any alerts or warnings have been issued.
If you have the chance to visit one neighborhood in Egypt, make it Coptic Cairo. One of the oldest areas in the city, Coptic Cairo was one of the first Christian strongholds, and the faithful believe that the Holy Family lived there during their flight into Egypt. Sights include the Hanging Church (built in a location that has housed a church since the third century), the Babylon Fortress which was part of Cairo's original structure, and the Coptic Museum, which holds an incredible collection of early Christian artifacts.
In a rural area 45 minutes away from the Pyramids is Saqqara, one of the largest burial grounds in Egypt. It's best known for the Step Pyramid, the oldest of the nation's 97 pyramids. Discovered in 1821, the tomb was designed by the architect Imhotep for King Zoser in the 27th century B.C. Prior to the pyramid's construction, pharaohs were buried beneath rectangular mud-brick tombs.
Egyptian cuisine depends heavily on fresh ingredients -- herbs, spices, garlic, lemon, vegetables -- and its two staples are fava beans and aish, the national bread that's a mixture of plain and whole meal flour and looks like a darker, round version of pita bread. You can sample the cuisine in one of Cairo's many restaurants, although the better ones are in Garden City, Zemalek Island and other affluent areas of town. If you're worried about your stomach, stick to indoor places that draw large crowds instead of eating from stands or stalls.
Egypt is a country that lives on tips; you'll find yourself making small baksheesh payments to everyone from the man who hands you a flashlight at the pyramids to the woman who guards the public toilets. In restaurants, you'll want to tip between 10 and 15 percent.
The Garden Promenade Cafe at the Cairo Marriott on Zemalek Island is a favorite of wealthy Cairenes and tourists alike -- and it's no wonder. It's one of Cairo's few secluded outdoor spaces -- an oasis, housed in a 19th-century palace on the Nile. Menu options include freshly made pasta, pizzas, salads and traditional dishes, such as kebabs and kofta or ground meat. There's also a bakery inside the hotel that serves 14 types of bread, 28 French pastries and Movenpick, a terrific Swiss ice cream. It's pricey, though.
Also on Zemalek Island, Sequoia is a sprawling lounge that will make you feel like you're among Cairo's fabulous. Sit in comfy chairs under the tentlike tarp, enjoying the breezes off the river while you eat sushi or smoke a shisha (water pipe). As befits a Muslim city, Cairo doesn't have a ton of places to drink alcohol, but this is one of them. Reservations are recommended, and there's a minimum charge. It's on Abu El Feda Street at the northern end of the island.
Once the home of wealthy pashas, leafy Garden City is now the home to the American and British embassies, as well as top Western hotels -- which is why the neighborhood is surrounded by Egyptian security forces. Tell them that you're going to Taboula, a warm restaurant with Middle Eastern decor and Lebanese meze favorites, such as hummus, grape leaves, grilled cheese and baba ganoush. The restaurant, open noon to 1 a.m., is tucked away at 1 Latin American Street.
For fantastic seafood and Middle Eastern salads, the moderately priced Americana Fish Market is as good as it gets. Diners choose from a large selection of freshly caught fish. Then choices are weighed, cooked to order and served with salads and aish, produced right out of the kiln. On top of that, the restaurant is located on the upper deck of a permanently moored boat on the Nile. The restaurant, open daily from 12:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., is located at 26 Sharia al Nil in Giza.
Also in Giza, Khan El Khalili in the gorgeous Mena House Oberoi Hotel can't be beat for its breathtaking views of the Pyramids. It's open 24 hours and has a fantastic breakfast buffet. If you're in Giza around dinnertime, check out the hotel's popular Indian restaurant, The Moghul Room.
Cairo has a well-established cafe culture; as you ride through the city, you'll see countless storefronts where men sit outside, having cups and smoking a shishas filled with flavored tobacco. One of the most famous, the El Fishawy, is in the bazaar. Note that few women smoke shisha in public; if you'd like to indulge, you're best buying a pipe at your hotel or at an expat-heavy restaurant, such as Taboula.
A mecca for business travelers throughout the Middle East, downtown Cairo has no shortage of first-class hotels, including the Sofitel El Gezirah Cairo, the Nile Kempenski, the Fairmont Cairo in Nile City and the uber-luxurious Nile Plaza Four Seasons. No matter where you stay, ask for a room on a high floor; Cairo's noise never stops.
In Giza, the famous Mena House Oberoi Hotel, a former hunting lodge located in the shadow of the Pyramids of Giza, is outfitted in exquisite antiques, handcrafted furniture and rich textiles. It has hosted kings, emperors, heads of state and celebrities. Rooms in the 19th-century wing of the hotel have wonderful views of the pyramids. Even the swimming pool has a view. The hotel's Moghul Room is known for its spectacular Indian cuisine.
The night before your Nile River cruise, stay at the Cairo Marriott, located in a 19th-century palace on the Nile. It has large, beautifully furnished rooms, and many of the upper ones have a commanding view of the Nile and the city. Outside, there are gardens, a cafe, a pool and a fitness center. The hotel has a number of restaurants and boutiques, a business center with computer stations, a currency exchange counter, two banks, ATM's and a nightclub.
If you're looking for a resort experience within easy range of the airport, the JW Marriott outside of Cairo might fit your bill. You'll be out of the way from the city, but that might be the point: With a golf course, artificial beach and greenery, this hotel will make you feel worlds away from Cairo's chaos. The property counts seven restaurants, three bars and two pools among its amenities.
Boutique hotels have been slow to come to Cairo. If you're looking to immerse yourself in Cairo life, Le Riad Hotel de Charme may be for you. People rave about its spacious rooms and detailed service. But be warned: Because it's surrounded by mosques, the morning call to prayer will wake you up. (Egypt no longer observes daylight saving time, so the sun rises early.) You also won't be able to buy alcohol in this religious section of the city, and women will want to make sure they're covered up.
Another boutique choice lies in Maadi, a suburb outside Cairo that's popular with American expats. It's also an easy Metro ride into the city. The Villa Belle Epoque is more of an inn than a large hotel, with fewer amenities than a large chain (although it does have a bar, a restaurant and a heated pool, surrounded by lovely landscaping).
Staying in Touch
Many hotels and cafes have wireless access. The business center at the Marriott charges about $6 for 15 minutes on the Internet.
Due to the distance, shore excursions that originate in Alexandria and Port Said are long affairs, lasting 13 hours or more. Some even stay overnight, dropping you off in one port and picking you up in the next.
Optional land tours -- associated with Nile River cruise passengers, who spend time in Cairo in advance of their cruise -- don't have the commute, so expect a more reasonable day's adventures.
Best for Exploring Cairo: A tour that's often billed as "Spiritual Cairo" serves up a wonderful introduction to the city. It focuses on the labyrinthine lanes and alleys that make up Old Cairo with stops at the sixth century Ben Ezra Synagogue; the Hanging Church, which derives its name from its location atop the tower gate of a Babylonian fortress; and St. Sergius Church, said to have been built over the cave where the Holy Family sheltered after fleeing to Egypt. The half-day tour also typically includes a drive up to the Citadel and a stop at the Khan El Khalili bazaar.
Best Bet for Big-Ship Mediterranean Cruisers: This full-day bus tour includes stops at the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, followed by a buffet-style lunch at a hotel near the site. Time is usually set aside for shopping after lunch. The afternoon is reserved for a guided tour of the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. After a break for afternoon tea and snacks at a downtown hotel, passengers are transferred back to their ships.
Best Bet for Big-Ship Cruisers Seeking Full Immersion: Docked overnight in Alexandria or Port Said? You'll have the option of booking an activity-packed, two-day excursion with a hotel stay. While there's one thing that nearly every tour shares in common -- a visit to the Pyramids at Giza -- the two-day excursion adds a number of activities, including the melodramatic Pyramid Sound and Light Show (depending on season) and a Nile River dinner cruise. Tours are also likely to include visits to the ancient capital of Memphis, Egyptian Museum, Alabaster Mosque, a less famous pyramid (such as the Saqqara step pyramid), several buffets, and a bazaar, jewelry store or papyrus "factory." Hotels chosen tend to be above average. If booked through the ship, the overnight excursion will run between $400 and $500 per person, but you can cut $100 or more off the cost if you book independently.
Best for Pyramid-Lovers: You'll have your Pyramid fix after this full-day tour. The morning includes a visit to the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx with a buffet-style lunch afterward at a nearby hotel. In the afternoon, the tour continues to a rural area 45 minutes away -- the site of Saqqara, one of the largest burial grounds in Egypt, featuring the Step Pyramid, the oldest of the nation's 97 pyramids. The tour also includes a stop at a carpet school.
For More Information
On the Web: Egypt's Ministry of Tourism Web site or Egypt State Information Service
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Africa & the Middle East
Independent Traveler Message Boards: Egypt
--Updated by Chris Gray Faust, Cruise Critic Contributor