Cairo is one of the craziest on Earth. Home to the oldest Wonder of the World, as well as over 20 million people, this city’s legacy and importance, are tough to match. Cairo was always on my bucket list, but I actually wasn’t sure what to expect.
After visiting, it clicked. All of the good I expected to find in Cairo was indeed there. And the majority of the bad that I expected to find, actually wasn’t there!
Cairo has a reputation for being chaotic. It also has a reputation for being packed with cultural and historical significance. This post will spell out exactly what it’s like to visit Cairo, including everything you need to know before you go.
This post contains affiliate links that may earn a commission on any purchases made at no additional cost to you.
Best Places to Stay in Cairo
Cairo is sprawling and there are many neighborhoods you can stay in. I highly recommend staying in either downtown Cairo, Zamalek, or Garden City. These neighborhoods are all centrally located near the heart of Cairo, making excursions hassle-free.
We’ve stayed at two hotels in Cairo – the Steigenberger El Tahrir Hotel in downtown, and the Le Meridien Hotel at the Cairo Airport. The Steigenberger El Tahrir is a great place and is located within walking distance of the Nile. The food here is delicious, the amenities are nice, and the staff is wonderful.
The Le Meridien at the Cairo Airport is stunning. This hotel is gorgeous, sparkling clean, and packed with amazing amenities. The restaurants here are incredible, too.
The hotel is linked to Terminal 3 of the airport by a bridge, and there is a free shuttle service to the other terminals. There is no better place to stay near the Cairo Airport. However, if you’re going to be exploring Cairo, this hotel is a bit far from many of the city’s top attractions.
In Giza, we stayed at the Marriott Mena House and were beyond wowed. While it is pricey, it is worth every penny. Delicious food, stellar service, a stunning property, and the best views of the pyramids.
This is the best hotel in Egypt, as far as I have heard. It is a bit inconvenient to explore some parts of Cairo, but it is wonderful if you plan on visiting the pyramids, Sphinx, and the new Grand Egyptian Museum.
If you can afford it, I’d recommend staying in a luxury hotel while in Cairo. This is regardless of the neighborhood you decide to stay in. Hotels are very cheap in Cairo compared to many European and American cities, and the comfort of luxury hotels goes a long way after a day in the chaos and heat of Cairo.
How to Get to Cairo
Cairo is the biggest city in Egypt. As such, you can expect its airport to be the best airport to fly into in Egypt! Cairo is served by two airports: one of the past, and one of the future.
For now, the best airport to fly into in Cairo is Cairo International Airport (CAI). This airport is located about 30 minutes east of downtown Cairo. It is the biggest hub airport in Egypt, serving thousands of flights to destinations all over the world.
Cairo International Airport is notoriously chaotic. It is inefficiently laid out, riddled with security checkpoints, and also pretty dated. There are three terminals, and one of them (Terminal 1) feels like it hasn’t been updated since the 80s.
While the airport isn’t luxurious, it serves its purpose. Despite what felt like utter chaos, we made it through customs and immigration in under an hour and our bags were delivered in perfect condition. Getting your visa on arrival in Egypt is a bit complex, but all in all this airport isn’t as bad as people say.
From Cairo International Airport, you can get to Old Cairo in 30-40 minutes, the Giza Pyramids in 50-70 minutes, and New Cairo in 15-20 minutes. The best way to get from the airport to anywhere in the city is Uber. I highly advise you to avoid taxi drivers both at the airport and elsewhere in the city.
Sphinx International Airport is a very new airport designed to take some pressure off of Cairo International Airport. It is located to the northwest of Giza. Because of this, this airport is especially convenient for travelers who are only interested in visiting the attractions in Giza.
Giza is located about 30 minutes west of Cairo, and Cairo International Airport is located about 30 minutes east of Cairo. As a result, anyone solely desiring to visit the pyramids used to need to fly into Cairo and drive over an hour through traffic.
Sphinx International Airport is designed to alleviate this issue. Due to its location, travelers can get to Giza in roughly 30-40 minutes without the need to cross Cairo’s traffic.
This airport is still new. There aren’t many flights to and from its terminal yet. However, as time goes on and this airport’s operations ramp up, it could be a great option for travelers.
I’ve heard that there are plans for international flights to destinations in Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE, as well as European and Asian countries. There will also be direct flights to destinations all over Egypt.
While you’re likely going to find better flight options using Cairo International Airport for now, I recommend including Sphinx in your search. You never know what you will find, and both airports are within 45 minutes of Cairo’s downtown area.
How to Get Around Cairo
UBER | METRO | BUS | TAXI
Cairo is absolutely massive, and it is one of the least walkable cities we’ve ever visited. It isn’t just the largest city in Egypt, but it’s also the largest city in the entire Middle East. There are two ways I recommend getting around Cairo: the metro and Uber.
Cairo has a passable metro system. It isn’t one of the best metro systems in the world, but it serves its purpose. Traffic in Cairo isn’t terrible, and the metro is a big reason why.
Cairo’s metro system has 3 lines that connect to areas all over the city. All rides cost less than a dollar, with the actual price depending on the number of stops ridden. The metro is open from 5am to 1am every day of the week, and there are cars on every train reserved specifically for women.
Cairo’s metro system is very safe. However, depending on where you stay, you may have no need to use it. There are plans to open a line that connects all the way to Giza, but that has yet to be realized.
Uber is the best way to get around Cairo. Rides are very cheap, traffic really isn’t that bad, and there are plenty of drivers available. We used Uber in areas all over Cairo and never had a bad experience.
While the cars often aren’t as nice as they are in some other places, the rides are still plenty safe and efficient. At a good time, you can Uber one hour all the way from the Pyramids of Giza to Cairo International Airport for just $5. If you are able, I highly recommend tipping your Uber drivers, simply because the cheap rides mean they’re making next to nothing to drive you around.
Normally I love buses and public transport. But in Cairo, they’re not one of the best ways to get around. It isn’t a matter of safety, but more comfort and necessity.
Simply put, you have no need to take a bus in Cairo. Yes they’re cheap, but Uber and the metro are unbelievably cheap, too. The buses in Cairo aren’t the best quality, and nobody wants to sit in a steamy bus for an hour through Cairo when you can just call a ride on the app for $2.
I advise avoiding taxis at all costs, both around the airport and throughout the city. The taxis in Cairo are of terrible quality, and the drivers are known for being a bit scammy. There is simply no reason to take a traditional taxi in Cairo.
Uber is roughly the same price, and the quality and safety of its rides is exponentially better than taxis. If you’re unable to find a ride, the only taxis I’d recommend are ones commissioned directly by nice hotels. We almost had our hotel in Giza call one for us after an Uber driver to the airport canceled, but luckily a second driver came to pick us up.
Is the Traffic Really that Bad in Cairo?
Cairo has a reputation for having terrible traffic. Many travelers talk about wild driving, hectic streets, and terrible traffic jams. Personally, I think those assertions may be overblown, especially outside of the busy season.
Cairo is definitely hectic. There’s no disputing that. But its traffic and business come nowhere close to cities in places like India and Bangladesh.
New Delhi and Chittagong are next-level craziness. I wouldn’t say Cairo’s traffic is any worse than New York City. Yes, it is worse in the busy season than in the low season, but no it isn’t unbearable.
There may be a culture shock for travelers who aren’t used to hectic destinations. But if you’ve visited places like India, Bangladesh, or China, Cairo will feel shockingly not busy.
The piece of Cairo traffic that really shocked us was how difficult it can be to cross the street in the city center. It is not impossible, but crosswalks are few and far between. Traffic can be challenging to cross, and sometimes you just need to piggyback off of what the locals do.
If anyone offers to help walk you across the street, be ready to tip them. Personally, I just recommend crossing on your own, but if you’re uncomfortable you can ask a local for help. Egyptians are very friendly and aren’t always looking for money, despite the rude things many other people write.
Best Things to Do in Cairo
Cairo is a city with thousands of years of history. Ranging from the building of the pyramids, through the time of Jesus, past the Egyptian revolution, and onward to the present day, Egypt has been at the forefront of human history for millennia. This rich history has endowed Cairo with a wealth of incredible things to see and do.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of things to do in Cairo, but it is more than enough to fill an itinerary. One site I decided not to include on this list was the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo. Located just off of the famous Tahrir Square, this museum was one of the biggest duds of our trip.
While everyone raves about it, I didn’t like it at all. I found it to be underwhelming, dated, and not nearly as nice as the one in Turin, Italy. It is being replaced by a new Egyptian Museum in Giza, which is a much-needed move.
1. Visit the Pyramids and Sphinx
The Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx are the top things to do in Cairo. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about that.
The Great Pyramids of Giza aren’t one of the New Wonders of the World like many people think. They are actually the only surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World! In fact, they were the oldest member of that list.
The Giza Plateau is a bucket list destination. From entering the Pyramid of Khufu to taking a camel ride through the desert, visiting the pyramids is a full-day activity. If you visit at the right time, it doesn’t have to be hectic or stressful, either.
I highly recommend hiring a guide to take you on a private tour. We hired a guide with Viator and were very pleased with the result. There are about one million reasons to hire a guide to take you to the pyramids, and the price for a private tour is minimal.
The oldest pyramid on the plateau was built around 3500 BC. There is no posted information throughout the plateau, so unless you are an Egyptologist, you’ll want a guide.
A guide with a car is even better, as the plateau spans for miles and is not walkable whatsoever. We didn’t realize this before we visited, but the pyramids, Sphinx, and observation point are not close to each other at all, and the heat makes walking challenging.
There are carriage drivers looking to sell rides, but a carriage ride is likely to cost almost as much as a full private tour.
2. Go On a Private Tour of Coptic Cairo and Islamic Cairo
To many people, Cairo is synonymous with the pyramids. But there is so much more to do in Cairo than just the Giza Plateau and other pieces of Ancient Egypt! Coptic and Islamic Cairo are two incredible areas to visit that are filled with history and stunning religious sites.
We booked an Islamic and Coptic Cairo day tour with Deluxe Travel which took us to several important churches and mosques in Coptic Cairo and Islamic Cairo. As devout Catholics, we were especially interested in Coptic Cairo. The churches we visited were built over places where the Holy Family stayed during their flight from Herod!
The Hanging Church and Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church are stunning. Equally striking is the Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner, which is carved entirely into a mountain. The stories behind these churches are even more impressive than their designs.
We also really enjoyed visiting some of the most famous mosques in Cairo, like the Al-Azhar Mosque, the Alabaster Mosque, and the Mosque of Sultan Hassan. While the pharaohs are very important, Christians, Jews, and Muslims are a crucial part of Egyptian history, too. These churches and mosques, on their own, are some of the best tourist sites in the city, and their respective neighborhoods are very close to central Cairo.
3. Eat Breakfast with a Pyramid View
The pyramids are striking, and I advise soaking in their glory as much as you can. One great way to do that is by eating a meal with a pyramid view. To do this, we booked a stay at the Marriott Mena House hotel located just off of the Giza Plateau.
We reserved a room with a direct, uninterrupted view of the Great Pyramid of Giza. While pricey, this was one of the best experiences of our entire trip. We ordered a large breakfast of local foods to our room, and ate as a family looking out at the stunning view of the world-famous Pyramids of Giza.
You don’t have to stay at the Mena House Hotel to do this. There are cheaper options that also offer a great view of the pyramids. However, if you can fit it in the budget and are looking for a truly unforgettable experience, I can’t recommend the Mena House enough.
4. Soak in the Views from the Citadel
The Cairo Citadel is one of the coolest spots in all of Egypt’s capital city. Located just across the street from St. Simon the Tanner Monastery, this area is packed with beautiful structures and surrounded by gorgeous views. This is where the famous Alabaster Mosque is located, and in my opinion, it is the prettiest mosque in all of Cairo.
The Cairo Citadel was used as a palace and royal residence for centuries. Nowadays, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions located just a quick drive from the heart of Cairo. The palace was damaged by an earthquake and is going to take a long time to restore.
5. Head to the Child Museum
The Child Museum is one of the best children’s museums we have ever visited. Tucked away in a park in Heliopolis, this museum is super interactive, very clean, and the perfect place to take your kids.
Entrance to the museum cost us just a few dollars, and it was one of the biggest bargains of our trip. The museum was filled with interactive games, puzzles, and exhibits meant to teach kids about Egyptian history. While our son was a bit young for the museum at just 20 months old, he still had a blast.
I’d recommend the museum for any kids over 18 months. I think 3-year-olds and up would get the most out of it. Outside of the museum, there is a beautiful park filled with statues of animals, playgrounds, and a cafe.
6. Eat Dinner on the Nile
The Nile River is thought of as the life source of Egypt. It has been of the utmost importance to the country for thousands of years. In Cairo, it is a wonderful place to grab dinner!
The Nile River divides Cairo and Giza, with Cairo sitting on the east bank and Giza sitting on the west bank. Along both banks of the river, there are long promenades dotted with restaurants, hotels, cafes, and bars. While this is a lovely way to spend an evening, there’s an even more popular option.
Thousands of tourists flock to boats on the Nile to embark on dinner cruises. A typical dinner cruise on the Nile includes food, views, and live entertainment. These cruises are pretty affordable by Western standards, too, often costing around $50 per person.
7. Visit the New Grand Egyptian Museum
I mentioned earlier that the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is underwhelming and not worth visiting. Egyptian authorities must have realized this, as a brand new Egyptian museum has been built in Giza! This Grand Egyptian Museum is going to be the crown jewel of Egyptian Museums.
The Grand Egyptian Museum is located a short drive from the pyramids. This location was a good idea, as it will encourage more tourists to stay in Giza instead of Cairo, alleviating some of the pressure on Cairo’s infrastructure.
The old Egyptian Museum, sometimes referred to as the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, probably won’t close its doors. The plan is to renovate it after the new museum opens and eventually reopen it to the public. It houses an impressive collection but really falls short from an information and facilities standpoint.
8. Venture Out to Saqqara
Saqqara is the site of the oldest pyramid in Egypt. This small step pyramid was the first of many in Egypt, and it is a very popular place to visit. Despite its reputation, it isn’t nearly as busy with tourists as the Pyramids of Giza.
Saqqara is located about 30 minutes south of the Giza Plateau by car. Many private guides include Saqqara in a full-day tour itinerary of the pyramids. We didn’t have the time to visit, but our tour guide of Coptic Cairo was adamant that Saqqara is undeniably one of the top attractions around Cairo.
9. Explore Khan el Khalili
The Khan el Khalili Bazaar, sometimes referred to as the Khan el-Khalili Market, is widely considered one of the best attractions in Cairo. This tightly woven network of streets is filled with vendors looking to peddle their wares. Similar to the Souks of Morocco, this area is the chief place to barter for wares in Cairo.
We initially planned on visiting the Khan el Khalili neighborhood, but we ultimately decided not to. Our tour guide told us that the vast majority of things sold there are actually made in China.
This unfortunate reality is the case in many popular tourist attractions in the world, and we’d prefer to support true local artisans instead. This personal conviction doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go! If you want to go for the experience, be ready to haggle and pay in cash!
10. Learn about Papyrus Making
One of the most famous inventions of Ancient Egypt is papyrus. This special type of paper is able to last for thousands of years when preserved properly, and this longevity is what taught modern Egyptians and historians so much about Egyptian history.
Papyrus remains an important piece of Egyptian culture, and there are several special places to go to witness the creation of papyrus and learn about its history. One of the most famous places to go is the Three Pyramids Institute.
Best Time to Visit Cairo
I wrote an entire post on the best time to visit Egypt. In that post, I mentioned that the low season is absolutely unbeatable.
It will be hot during these summer months. When we visited in August, the average high temperature was somewhere in the 90s to low 100s. However, if you can stomach the heat, you get to experience the capital of Egypt with practically no lines.
During August, the number of tourists in Cairo is minimal compared to the winter. We visited the Pyramids of Giza and Sphinx around 9am on a weekday in August, and there were no more than 500 people on the entire Giza plateau. In the winter, there are thousands at any given moment.
We didn’t experience a wait for any single attraction in Cairo. From the Grand Egyptian Museum to the Al-Azhar Mosque, there wasn’t a line at any attraction in Cairo or Giza. In fact, when we visited the Sphinx at noon, there were literally no other tourists there. Zero.
If you can’t take the heat, I recommend visiting in the shoulder seasons around September and April. The weather will be a little more tolerable, but the crowds will also be much larger than in the summer. The winter is the busy season, and while the weather is the most comfortable, the crowds and traffic are known to be absurd.
Is Cairo Worth Visiting?
Cairo is unique. Before visiting, we weren’t sure what to expect. We had heard stories suggesting it was chaotic like New Delhi, but also had seen gorgeous pictures of places like Coptic Cairo and the Marriott Mena House Hotel.
All in all, Cairo is absolutely worth visiting. There is no disputing that. The city is packed with things to see and do, and I’d recommend it to anyone.
Cairo is hectic, and Cairo is dirty. In fact, our first impression of Cairo wasn’t all that great. But the more time we spent in Egypt’s capital city, the more we came to love it.
Places like Coptic Cairo, the Giza Plateau, and the Cairo Citadel are amazing. Other places like the Old Egyptian Museum and the Khan el Khalili are underwhelming. If you pick the right things to do and visit the right neighborhoods, Cairo is truly a special place.
Is Cairo Safe to Visit?
We had heard mixed reviews about safety in Cairo before we visited. Very quickly, we realized that the Egyptian capital city is a very, very safe place. This is for multiple reasons.
Firstly, Egyptian people are incredibly kind and hospitable! We never once felt at risk when among Egyptian locals. We took basic precautions, but at no point did we feel like we were in any more danger than we would be in Paris or New York.
Secondly, there are security checkpoints everywhere in Egypt. There are so many that it gets annoying, but I’d rather be safe than not. Every major building is equipped with a metal detector, and there is a very high police and security presence in the streets.
At no point did we feel in danger, even traveling with a toddler. I’ve heard many solo female travelers say they’ve had a similar experience, too. Cairo is just as safe as many of the popular international destinations throughout Europe.
The only safety concerns I’d truly beware of are food precautions and crossing the street. I picked up some sort of stomach bug from something I ate while in Cairo, and it wasn’t a fun day. It’s normally best to beware of street food.
When it comes to crossing the street, crosswalks can be hit or miss. Make sure to be safe when crossing the street, as there are a lot of cars on the road that are happy to zip right by you while you cross.
Best Place to Get Egyptian Pounds in Cairo
Egypt’s currency is the Egyptian pound. As I wrote in my post on getting foreign currency for a trip, most people get ripped off when exchanging money before they travel.
In that post, I spell out why currency exchange booths are the worst place to exchange money. Most banks in the US and Europe don’t carry Egyptian pounds for exchange, either. This leaves ATMs as the best way to get Egyptian pounds.
In Egypt, many ATMs add a markup to the exchange rate in order to make a profit. This gets really pricey, in addition to ATM fees charged by your bank and the ATM’s bank.
I spent a couple of hours walking around downtown Cairo checking out different ATMs to determine which banks offer the best deals. I found that ABC Bank is undisputably the best bank to use for cash withdrawals. Their ATM gave me the live exchange rate without adding any kind of fee or surcharge!
When I traveled, this was equal to 30 pounds per dollar. Other ATMs offered me between 19 and 25 pounds per dollar, plus a fee. There are several ABC Bank ATMs in Cairo, including the one I used a couple of blocks from the Steigenberger El Tahrir Hotel.
Frequently Asked Questions About Visiting Palermo
Can you explore Cairo on your own?
You can absolutely explore Cairo on your own, but hiring a guide is a good idea. We spent the first couple days of our trip exploring on our own, but we enjoyed the days that we had a guide much more.
How many days do you need in Cairo?
You could spend a full week in Cairo and still need more time. However, since you’ll likely want to visit other places in Cairo, you should allot at least 4 full days to explore Cairo.
Is Cairo a walkable city?
Cairo is one of the least walkable cities we’ve visited. The city is massive and most major attractions are far apart. Additionally, the traffic makes crossing the street at certain places very difficult.
Is it safe to go to Cairo as an American?
It is very safe to go to Cairo as an American. Americans are at no greater risk than any other nationality in Cairo, and the city is generally regarded as very safe. There are security checkpoints all throughout the city, including at the entrances to most major buildings.
That’s all we have for you about Cairo! Hopefully, this post is helpful as you start planning your journey to Egypt’s capital city. I really do think that Cairo is worth visiting, and it shouldn’t be skipped on any itinerary to Egypt.
If you’re planning a trip to Cairo, let us know! We’d love to chat ahead of time and answer any questions you have. Otherwise, have a wonderful day and stay present!