Cairo, Egypt - Stein Travel
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Cairo

Warning: Protests in Cairo have resumed as citizens call for the removal of military generals currently holding power. Visitors should avoid downtown Cairo, including Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, as the protests have turned violent and clashes with poilce are frequent.

Africa's largest city with a population of nearly 18 million, Cairo is a chaotic mixture of sights, sounds and smells. It is heaving with life, volatile, polluted and boisterous, with an intensity that both exhausts and invigorates the visitor. It is also distinctive with its ancient monuments in juxtaposition to the modern and cosmopolitan. The congested streets of Islamic Cairo are full of donkey carts, traders and mosques, while camels weave their way haughtily between the crumbling pyramids on the outskirts. Taxis clamour for attention and pedestrians elbow their way past busy coffee houses, where those seeking a brief escape from the hustle and bustle sit sipping at a strong cup of coffee while contemplating the smoke rings of a 'hubbly bubbly' water pipe - in true Egyptian style.

Visitors can also practice the age-old art of bargaining for trinkets, spices and perfume in one of the world's largest bazaars, or pay a visit to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, which houses treasures from Tutankhamun's tomb and is one of the country's main attractions.

Situated on the Nile, Egyptians arrogantly refer to Cairo as the 'Mother of all Cities'; many visitors who have experienced its unruliness would perhaps describe it in less endearing terms. But no matter how it goes down there is no doubt that Cairo is as beguiling as it is messy, and its charm lies in the blend of African, Arab and European influences, the timelessness of the old, and the energy of the present.

Information & Facts

Climate

The weather in Cairo is always warm or hot and the nights cool, with only two seasons: a very hot summer between May and October, and a mild winter from November to April. Cairo is very dry, receiving on average only about a centimetre of rain a year, but it does have high humidity levels in summer. The city occasionally experiences dust storms brought by the sirocco hot winds that are characteristic of Egypt's climate in the month of April.

Eating Out

Dining in Cairo should take advantage of unique, plentiful, and very cheap quality restaurants serving Egyptian favourites. By sitting down in the neighbourhood café and enjoying some light eats and sweet drinks travellers can easily immerse themselves into local dining and social culture. Yet, any one cuisine can get tired and the new best restaurants in Cairo have an eclectic international focus. Previously restricted to hotel restaurants, sashimi to cheeseburgers are now prepared by top chefs in trendy venues. Even local food is now getting a facelift. To peruse the trendiest restaurants in Cairo, Zamalek is the dining hotspot. Inversely, the areas about downtown and near Khan al-Khalili are great for cheap and local haunts. In Cairo it is considered unclean to eat with the left hand, and remember that alcohol is often not served unless at a hotel restaurant. It is considered good manners to leave food on your plate, as it shows taht the host has been generous. It is considered impolite to stare at another person's food in a restaurant. During Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day, many restaurants are closed and, again, travellers should head to a hotel restaurant.

Getting Around

The most efficient and reliable public transport in Cairo is the Metro, which has the added advantage of being very cheap. The route connects Helwan in the south of the city to Heliopolis in the north with various branches to Shubra, Ataba and Abdin. There is also a subway line between Giza and Shubra. Trains run from 5.30am to midnight, the first carriage of each reserved for women only. The streets of Cairo are well supplied with taxis, which may have a fare meter but it is not likely to be used. Fares vary and should be negotiated up front and are usually shared. Taxis from hotels tend to cost double that of hailed taxis. The bus and minibus services operating in the city are considered risky for tourists because of overcrowding and the potential for pickpocketing. Buses also require at least a working knowledge of Arabic to navigate. Walking is a fairly good option for taking in the atmosphere of Cairo, but be warned, streets are not marked and maps not much help, so it is easy to lose direction. Driving in Cairo is not for the faint-hearted as few road rules are adhered to, traffic is heavy at all times and streets are poorly signposted. Car rental agencies in Egypt require that drivers be 25 years old minimum and an International Driving Permit is needed.

Kids Attractions

The quintessential ancient city of the world, Cairo, at first glance, may not seem like the best place in the world to travel on holiday with children. Afterall, it's hot, dry, dusty and full of ancient temples and structures that children find hard to relate to - but Cairo does have a little something to offer its younger visitors. Obvious attractions such as the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx will amaze visitors of all ages, and riding a camel or Arabian horse round these spectacular attractions is a fantastic activity for the whole family and a good way to keep the kids interested, but don't forget the sunscreen and hats! Older children might enjoy the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, but a great way to teach the younger ones about Ancient Egypt is to take a barge ride through Dr. Ragab's Pharaonic Village where they can enjoy history being acted out. There are plenty of amusement parks in Egypt to enjoy too, such as Dream Park or Sindbad where children can enjoy plenty of rides and activities. For days when the heat is scorching and going outdoors with the children is not an option, take the kids to an indoor playground or amusement park, such as Magic Galaxy, which offers something for children of all ages and even a baby zone for the youngest visitors.

Language

Arabic is the official language although English and French are widely spoken, especially in the tourist areas.

Money

The unit of currency is the Egyptian Pound (EGP), which is divided into 100 piastres. Most credit cards are accepted in major hotels and restaurants. Visitors are advised to take travellers cheques in US Dollars or Pounds to avoid additional exchange rate charges. Banks are usually closed on Friday and Saturday, but private exchange bureaux, called 'Forex', are open daily and banks in major hotels are open 24 hours. Cairo branches of the Egyptian British Bank and Banque Misr now have ATMs available that accept Visa, MasterCard and Cirrus and are quite common in the main tourist areas.

Night Life

Cairo nightlife swirls around the aromatic social centre of the city, the coffee shop. The ahwas, as they are called, are day and night social gathering spots for locals. Many Muslims don't drink alcohol, although many do, and the ahwas are great places to mingle or relax from the frenetic Cairo day. In the night hours some cafés also sell alcohol to a very local crowd, although visitors are usually welcome. Most large hotels house a pub, bar or large club. These are very popular spots with locals as well as visitors, and bookings for club tables may need to be made in advance. Clubs usually have relaxing lounge or restaurant atmospheres, often centred around a performance of music or dancing. While this can be great entertainment, many belly dancing shows and clubs are fronts for prostitution. Large hotels have reputable shows as well as popular western-style discos, usually with an Egyptian-themed twist. Westerners are welcomed everywhere, and sometimes preferred, although women should dress a bit more conservative than they might at home. During Ramadan, alcohol is only served in 'foreigners only' establishments.

Shopping

One of the world's most historic cities and highly popular with tourists, shopping in Cairo is fun and distinctive with its markets, stalls, souvenirs and haggling. Many visitors to this vibrant city will have a wonderful time just wandering through the souks (markets) taking in the sights, sounds and smells.

Just about everything and anything can be bought at the largest market of Khan al-Khalili in Islamic Cairo. Most visitors dare not venture into the interior as touts can pressurise shoppers and shopkeepers can be pushy. Bartering is an essential skill when in Cairo and a good rule of thumb is to halve the first asking price and start haggling from there.

Popular souvenirs include painted papyrus scrolls embellished with hieroglyphics, copper and bronze items, jewellery, carpets and leather goods from bags and belts to full-length jackets, which can be found away from the main tourist drags. The quality is normally excellent. The Wekalet al-Balah is a must for lovers of beautiful fabrics and Egyptian cotton.

Most shops are open depending on the season and shops in tourist areas generally keep longer hours. The majority of stores open at 9am and close at 7pm during the winter months, while during the summer stores open later but close for an extended lunch hour during the day. Opening hours during summer are usually 9am - 1pm and 4pm to 9pm. During Ramadan opening times can be disrupted.

Visitors are only able to claim tax refunds on purchases of more than US$1, 000, which are shipped out of Egypt within three months. Travellers who wish to reclaim tax have to produce their passport at the point of purchase and request a governmental refund application form, which must be presented to the appropriate customs official at the departure point.P>

Sightseeing

One only needs to look up to the Pyramid on the skyline to be reminded that Cairo's ancient attractions are part of the city's fabric rather than only tourist exhibits. Cairo has been attracting tourists for thousands of years, and the Pyramids of Giza alongside the Sphinx are some of the oldest and arguably most impressive attractions in the world. One would think other attractions in Cairo competing for attention would pale in comparison. Yet, visitors find some of the best the sights in Cairo are rare places where people go about daily life in ancient surroundings. Not least among these is Khan al-Khalili, a central and much used market which gives visitors a chance to experience the bazaar much as it was 700 years ago. Another is Old Cairo, an ancient Coptic Christian community from Roman times. Other historic religious sites still in use include the ancient Hanging Church and the slightly less ancient (12th century) but enormous Saladin Citadel. Tourists shouldn't discount the museums however, particularly the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, which is one of the most impressive in the World and full of scary mummies. There are harems of tour groups but many explore their favourite destinations on their own, which before long, usually includes an eager unofficial tour guide anyway.

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