My trip to Cairo was extra special because stepping foot on Egyptian soil meant I had stepped foot on all seven continents. Cairo itself is an interesting city. It's very big and has a huge traffic problem, partly caused by the fact that there don't seem to be any traffic lights or painted lanes anywhere. Everyone drives where they want and how they want. It's a good system for about a day, but then the frequent near misses (of other cars, pedestrians, and animals) and constant smell of car exhaust becomes a bit tiresome.
Cairo also has tons of occupied but "unfinished" buildings. I was told that this is because there is a loophole that if your building is not finished, you don't pay property tax. Many people start construction on the next floor of their structure which they never intend to finish. Great that residents are saving on property taxes, but the whole city looks like it's under construction, which contributes to the overall mess.
Arriving at Cairo Airport
Although this is not a very big airport, it helps to pre-arrange Egyptian visa assistance, if you need a visa. I arranged this through the Concierge of our hotel, the Le Meridien Cairo Airport. For $20, someone meets you near the gate, takes your passport and visa money, and ushers you to the front of the visa and customs lines. I would recommend this service to anyone arriving at Cairo Airport.
When one thinks of Cairo, one usually thinks of the Pyramids of Giza. These are obviously not to be missed. On the first of two sightseeing days, our private guide took us on a trip to Saqqara, which is just outside of Cairo where the pyramids and ancient city are located.
There's a handful of pyramids to see in all, and you can actually go in to most of them. History is a big interest of mine, so I really enjoyed exploring the narrow tunnels and chambers of a couple of the pyramids.
One of the first pyramids we saw, the Teti (Sand Dune) Pyramid, had an extensive funerary complex next to it. This was also a unique experience as you got to venture inside and see beautifully decorated chambers that are thousands of years old.
I was surprised that only a few of the pyramids actually had a distinguishable shape. Apparently, some of the Egyptian Kings didn't care so much about the exterior shape of the pyramid, and cared more for the interior chambers to serve as the tombs to carry them to the afterlife. Some of the pyramids on the Giza Plateau look more like a bunch of sand and rocks piled on top of each other.
How Did They Build the Pyramids?
This is one of the most famous, unanswered questions. I found this interesting YouTube video on the water shaft theory, which I believe is the most plausible explanation for how the pyramids were built.
Beyond the Pyramids, I would also recommend the National Museum, in downtown Cairo. Unlike most museums in the west, many of the ancient artifacts on display can be observed very close, and are not behind glass. This makes for a unique experience, and although the museum seems a bit worn, it allows you to get a better appreciation for ancient Egyptian history.
Another interesting, older area of the city is Coptic Cairo. Buildings here are many hundreds of years old, and are very ornately decorated. There are various narrow pedestrian streets to explore, and shops to pop in to. There are also numerous churches worth exploring, including one which was built suspended over the passageways underneath.
Seemingly nearby is the old market. The market is fairly typical for this part of the world, and reminds me a lot of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. One of the more famous things to buy here are their oils and perfumes, which come in countless fragrances.
On our way back to the hotel, we also visited the Al Khalifa Mosque. As this Mosque is located on a hilltop, there is a beautiful view of Cairo.
Where I Stayed
We chose to stay at Le Meridien Cairo Airport, which is the only hotel directly connected by a pedestrian bridge to the terminal building. I had originally booked another Starwood property, but received a lot of advise to stay at this Le Meridien because it's new and clean. (Which actually means a lot in Cairo!) The staff at the hotel were great, and very helpful. The hotel itself is also quite modern, and features a nice Le Meridien Club Lounge with free happy hour drinks and appetizers.
Staying in the city seems like another good option, but I actually liked returning to an oasis away from the whole mess.
One of the restaurants we went to in downtown Cairo was called Koshary Abou Tarek. This is one of the most famous of these restaurants in the city, and I would highly suggest it.
The process involves buying pita bread outside the restaurant from a vendor, then going inside to a table and ordering Koshary, which consists of lentils and pasta, chickpeas, fried onions, all of which you cover with a delicious tomato-ish sauce, and a side cucumber tomato salad. Absolutely delicious.