It was a dusty, smoggy afternoon in 2009 when our tour bus zipped down Salah Salem Street and passed the City of the Dead, Cairo’s dense necropolis where thousands of Egyptian families live among the tombs. The streets were quiet and unpaved; the thin minarets rose through the yellowed haze like a dream.
In that moment, I knew our day-long tour of the capital had barely been an introduction. There was another world down there, below the Muqattam hills where Muslims buried their dead since the 7th century, and we would only get to see it from a speeding bus. Dozens of other worlds lay across the massive city, the largest in the Arab world.
It was my first trip to Egypt, and it was both fascinating and overwhelming. It was a rushed affair that only offered glimpses into Cairo’s life, packed between a three-day cruise down the Nile and a few days of lounging on the Red Sea.
Now, after years of living in Cairo, the city doesn’t seem as immense. What once seemed exotic has become the everyday.
But I’ve never stopped feeling like there’s still more to explore. A city with centuries of history, different neighborhoods and layers of cultures can’t be unpacked very quickly. It offers endless ground for exploring – and it’s always changing under your feet.
So where do you begin?
I’ve toured all the city’s major landmarks and I’ve gone off the beaten path to explore the less touristy spots. There are definitely sites well worth seeing, and others that are overrated or repetitious when they’re all packed into one itinerary.
Where do you start in a city this massive? If you don’t have much time, how do you get a satisfying taste of Cairo that doesn’t leave you feeling like an exhausted tourist?
If you only have a day or two, and if it’s your first time visiting Cairo, there are 3 things you shouldn’t miss which serve as an excellent intro to the city: the old souq of Khan el Khalili and a felucca sail down the Nile River in downtown (coming soon in a separate post) and the iconic pyramids.
The pyramids are definitely just as impressive in reality as they are in photos, though they’re better experienced when they’re taken slower.
The Giza pyramid complex
Giza is technically part of greater Cairo, and I’ve visited numerous times not only to see the pyramids, but also once to attend a conference, to go out for dinner or in passing through whenever I’ve gone West on a roadtrip. On clearer days, you can see their vague, distant outline from old Cairo.
I can’t count how often I’ve been to Giza, but the pyramids still amaze me each time with their sheer scale and geometry. Cheops’ pyramid – the largest and most perfect of the three – is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and comes after dozens of other half-finished pyramids left abandoned throughout Egypt. The pyramids are definitely worth the trek – an hour or two from Cairo, depending on traffic.
But they’re probably not like you’d expect. Photos on Instagram often show the pyramids rising up from endless stretches of windblown sand. In reality, the pyramids are in the middle of a huge metropolis – Giza is Egypt’s third-largest city after Cairo and Alexandria.
The sand surrounding the three pyramids isn’t much larger than an American parking lot. And if you’re using the entrance facing the Sphinx, you can stand at the ticket booth and see a Pizza Hut across the street that, besides great food, boasts one spectacular view.
And though the crowds are nowhere near as large as during tourism’s heyday, the restaurants, the colorful camels and the souvenirs can make the entire experience feel a bit like an amusement park ride.
To get the real spirit of the place, you’ll need to spend more time. Take at least a few hours inside the complex to walk around, sit down and have a drink and enjoy the view. If you have more than a few hours, I’d recommend staying longer for a meal or a coffee at one of the surrounding restaurants, or spending the night at a nearby Airbnb or hotel with a view, especially the stunning Mena House (built in 1869 for the Khedive, it’s worth seeing on its own).
Because if you linger for awhile, your experience of the pyramids will change. When you first see them it’s all about the wow factor – and then you’re probably thinking if you paid too much for those postcards, where to go for the best photo op, or if you’re drinking enough water.
But if you stay awhile, your head clears and you begin to ponder what those strange, massive structures really mean.
I once spent a day in Giza and stayed that night at the Mena House. I visited the pyramids, then had pyramid views over breakfast, on the balcony where I spent the afternoon reading Egyptology books, and at night when the pyramids were illuminated and I sipped beer at the hotel’s 139 Lounge Bar.
A few hours and a few bottles later, I told my friend, “They’re terrible, aren’t they?”
“What’s terrible?” he said.
“The pyramids. When you think about the history,” I said. “And they follow you everywhere.”
My friend looked at me quizzically and I dropped the subject, too tired to explain. But if you think about it, the pyramids are not a happy landmark. They were built on the misery and sweat of thousands of workers who toiled believing unless their king would transcend from his perfect grave, he would be caught in a limbo and Egypt would fall into chaos.
They are towering and oppressive reminders – which you can’t quite get out of your line of vision in Giza – of the king’s supremacy over the masses. Injuries and broken bones at the construction site were so common that it was equipped with medics. And although they’re not often visited, there are tombs where the workers are buried.
Has their suffering paid off because it’s given us these amazing structures? What legacy should the pyramids leave behind? Can a human being laboring under delusions be truly free?
If you pay them a longer visit, the pyramids offer a very powerful experience that will leave you with many questions.