Cairo, Egypt - Stein Travel

Cairo

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    • 16+ years

    • 12-15 years

    • 2-11 years

    • 0-23 months


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Welcome to 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.


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.

Nightlife

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.

The Egyptians were the first people to develop the art technology of manufacturing glass and cutting it into beautiful shapes and began doing this 5,000 years ago. Established in 1961 and located in Shobra, the Asfour Crystal Factory Showroom is the largest crystal factory in Egypt and provides crystals to many countries across the globe. Products range from jewellery, 3D laser gifts, figurines and a selection of chandeliers and other light fittings. The jewellery is not of the same standard as Swarovski crystal. But some lovely pieces can be picked up at prices up to 60% cheaper than what you'll find at retail shops.

One of the few round churches still in existence in the East, the Greek Church of St. George features a long set of steps that lead up to the church where visitors will find a relief of St George and the dragon wrapped around the outer brickwork of the tower. For centuries, the church alternated between Copt and Greek ownership, but since the 15th century it has remained Greek Orthodox, and the adjoining monastery of St George is now the seat of the Greek patriarch. The St George Church is most famous for its beautiful wedding hall, ( Qaat el Irsan) which dates back to the 14th century. Despite this, the Moulid of Mari Girgis, a large Coptic festival celebrating St George, is celebrated at the church each April.

Viewing the Pyramids by Arabian horseback is a great experience and an unforgettable way to take in one of the world's most famous sights. There is of course, the slightly smellier option of camel riding, a real 'Egyptian experience' and a popular activity with tourists, especially children. Sunrise and full-moon rides are available and after a day out on the sand, head back to the riding headquarters and relax on their deck with refreshments and barbeque while taking in the spectacular views over the Pyramids and Sphinx for the evening laser show.

This living museum is a fabulous attraction for the whole family to enjoy. Visitors sail down a network of canals in motorized barges where a cast of actors and actresses work to recreate ancient Egypt. All the characters from pharaohs and fishermen to slaves and potters are represented and even moments in history are recreated. Facilities include a cafeteria, playground, restaurant and boat hire.

A trip to Dream Park is a must for children of all ages and makes a great day out for the whole family. Featuring rides, shops and simulators, the 160 acre Dream Park is also encircled by a train, making access easy. Visitors can enjoy the 10 stomach-turning adventure rides, or 12 mellow family rides as well as two theatres and one of the largest concert areas in Cairo. 15 restaurants provide refueling stops, and there are five gift shops for souvenirs of your trip.

With over 100,000 artefacts in 107 halls, the Egyptian Museum provides days of exploration. Inside are treasures from ancient Egypt, including priceless finery taken from ancient royal tombs, and one of the museum's masterpieces, the statue of Khafre (Chephren). The most popular attraction is the Tutankhamun Gallery where exquisite treasures from the tomb of the iconic Boy King are displayed, including the famous solid gold death mask. Another top attraction is the Royal Mummy Room containing mummies of some of the most powerful Pharaohs in Egypt dating from the 18th to the 20th dynasties. The museum also contains collections of artefacts including coins, papyrus scrolls, scarabs and sarcophagi.

The Hanging Church in Cario derives its name from its location on top of the southern tower gate of the old Babylon fortress with its nave suspended over a passage. It's the most famous Coptic church in Cairo with the earliest mention of the church being a statement in the biography of the patriarch Joseph, who lived from 831 to 849. It went on to become known to travellers as the 'staircase church' during the 14th and 15th centuries, because of the twenty-nine steps that lead to the entrance. The visual impact of the church's elevated position has been reduced due to the rise of land surface by around 20 feet (6 metres) since the Roman period. The Roman tower remains mostly buried below ground.

Buzzing with the activities of buying and selling, Khan al-Khalili is one of the largest markets in the world. It is situated within Islamic Cairo, a World Heritage Site that attracts travellers and locals alike. This is the best place to soak up the colour of Cairo and to people-watch. Traders have been bargaining in these alleys since the 14th century and it is possible to buy almost anything, from exotic perfume bottles to everyday Arabic clothing. On the northern corner of the bazaar is the Mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein, one of the holiest Islamic sites in Egypt.

This indoor amusement park spans two floors and features 10 big rides, more than 100 games and rides, and even a Baby Zone section for very young visitors. Kids can enjoy rides such as the Moon Buggy or Falling Star, or even let off some steam in the Soft Play Room or jump on family rides such as the Comet Coaster or Demolition Derby. This is a fantastic attraction for the whole family, and a great way to beat the Egyptian heat.

Memphis and Saqqara are small towns today, but in ancient Egypt they were great cities and seats of power, an identity still traceable in the ruins and relics in each. Memphis is home to the Temple of Ptah, which includes the Colossus of Ramses II, a 33 foot (10m) statue near the entrance, and a small museum.

Only 1.8 miles (3km) away is the plateau of Saqqara, where visitors will find a vast Saqqara Necropolis, containing many cemetaries, pyramids, mastabas and private tombs, including the Mastaba of Ti, the Pyramid of Teti I, and the Unas Causeway and Pyramid of Unas. One of the most famous structures in Saqqara is the Step Pyramid of Djoser, also known as the Step Tomb due to its rectangular base. Saqqara is also home to the Imhotep Museum.

Memphis and Saqqara together make a popular excursion from Cairo. There isn't much in the way of entertainment, dining, or accommodation however, so most visitors take a day trip while staying in the capital.

This small and enclosed area, also known as Coptic Cairo, is the oldest part of the city and was once known as the Roman stronghold of Babylon; some of the old walls still exist. It is the ancient heart of the Coptic Christian community and although only five of the original 20 churches remain they are interesting to visit, along with the first mosque built in Egypt and the oldest synagogue, a representation of three of the major religions of the modern world. It is a peaceful place to wander around and a respite from the busy city centre. Churches of interest are the Al-Muallaqa (Hanging Church), the oldest Christian place of worship in the city, and St Sergius where the Holy Family reputedly sheltered during their flight to Egypt.

The pyramids are the earth's oldest tourist attraction and the Great Pyramid of Khufu (also referred to as the Great Pyramid of Cheops) is the only remainder of the seven ancient wonders of the world. Throughout their history, they have fired human imagination, with much speculation as to their origin and purpose, but most evidence supports the theory that they were built by the ancient civilisation as tombs or great monuments in which to bury their kings and nobles, a place to start their mystic journey to the afterlife. The oldest and largest pyramid, the Great Pyramid, is thought to have taken 20 years to build and is made of about two million blocks of limestone. No one knows how the two-ton blocks were moved into place, but it was known to be the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 40 centuries. The Great Sphinx, known as the Abu al-Hol (Father of Terror), stands in front of the Great Pyramid and is thought to be older than the pyramids themselves.

Tours of the pyramids are conducted by many tour operators in Giza. Access to the interior of the pyramids is restricted, and at least one is closed for renovations at any given period. While climbing the pyramids was once a popular activity, the practise has now been banned. The best time to visit the Pyramids of Giza is early in the morning, before the tour buses descend on them. While unofficial 'tour guides' lurk around the site to demand tips, better-informed guides can be booked in advance from Giza.

Discovered in 1882 during excavations, the statue of Pharaoh Ramses II was cut into six pieces in the 1950s and moved to Ramses Square in central Cairo where it stood for a further 50 years. In 2006 the statue moved to a new home near the Pyramids and the Museum of Antiquities, as there were growing concerns that heavy pollution was damaging the 3,200-year-old statue, which weighs 83 ton and stands 36 feet (11 metres) high. Ramses II, who ruled Egypt for more than 60 years during the 19th dynasty of pharaohs, was one of ancient Egypt's most prolific builders.

This massive stone fortress of the Saladin Citadel, set in a beautiful tropical location with magnificent views, was built by Salah ad-Din in the 12th century. Visitors have the freedom to roam the castle, which remains in pristine condition, including the execution room. Two other mosques are located at the Citadel, the 13th century Mosque of al-Nasir Muhammad and the 16th century Mosque of Suleyman Pasha. The Al-Gawhara Palace, National Military Museum and Police Museum can also be found inside the Citadel.

From Cairo it is possible to experience Egypt's finest journey on offer, the Great Desert Circuit. It runs for over 621 miles (1,000km) through spectacular desert landscape and is punctuated by four oases situated in a depression: Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga. The first two have hot springs and palm groves, Farafra being the more traditional and rural of the two. To experience the remoteness of the desert travellers can spend an unforgettable night in the White Desert between oases. Dakhla and Kharga are surrounded by old ruins and villages from the times of the ancient caravan routes to Sudan.


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