Port of Cairo (Port Said)
Find a Cruise to Nile River
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.
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.
Good to Know
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.
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.
Egyptians speak Arabic, but you'll find that most people involved in the tourism industry know English.
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.