Keeping Mum in Cairo

Cairo, the Egyptian capital, is nicknamed “The Mother of the World” and is surely one of the most visually-appealing cities on the planet, from the gold and ceramics in the souks, to the bizarre camel trading markets, there’s certainly lots on which to feast our eyes! But can tourists really have a voice in this deafening and disorderly desert metropolis?

Sunrise over the Nile
Sunrise over the Nile
Midday in Tahrir Square
Midday in Tahrir Square

Maybe it was the recent memory of the Arab Spring that was on my mind, or maybe it was the constant fear of terrorism in this part of the world, but in Cairo more than most places, it perhaps doesn’t pay to act like a tourist. I got the impression that westerners are no longer welcome in this city, even if that was just my own impression. I felt like I had to keep my mouth shut most of the time (I cannot speak Egyptian) for fear of upsetting taxi drivers or shopkeepers. Terror is in the air, yet despite this, I tried to enjoy my time in the Mother of the World.

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The Street of Tentmakers is a famous place in the city
The Street of Tentmakers is a famous place in the city – but all narrow streets in Cairo look the same!

More than most cities in this part of the world, Cairo will confuse you. A LOT! I thought most of the streets here all looked the same and not all of them are marked in English signage. So unless you’re fluent in Egyptian, orientation around Cairo may prove somewhat cumbersome. However, it is perhaps going to be rare that you’re out and about on your own (you will get hassled too much, especially females), so a bit of preparatory research before heading out in the morning is a good way to remember where you’re going in Cairo – and how to find the right way home!

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The main reason I came to Egypt in the first place was of course for the ancient city of Luxor. It is a substantial journey from Cairo to Luxor (further reading: How to get from Cairo to Luxor (and not get scammed)) but it is one that all travellers to the country should make. Still, despite the old markets full of conmen and the chaotic driving standards, Cairo does have a lot of traditional Egyptian culture in which to immerse yourself – even if I did see a few international fast food chains by the roadside…

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Al Azhar Park is a great getaway from the depths of downtown Cairo
Al Azhar Park is a great getaway from the depths of downtown Cairo
Qarafa: The City of the Dead
Qarafa: The City of the Dead

The 3 “essential” sights to visit in Cairo as far as I’m concerned are Khan el-Khalili, Al-Azhar Park, and the City of the Dead. Khan el-Khalili is a labyrinthine bazaar where you can find all kinds of antiquities and Egyptian street food – just remember to practice your haggling! By contrast, Al-Azhar Park is known as the lungs of the city and a place for families to enjoy together, what with its lush greenery providing a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of downtown. The City of the Dead (also known as Qarafa) is a famous necropolis and cemetery on the southern outskirts of Cairo, notable for being a place where poor Egyptian people still live and work among the tombs. All 3 of these attractions are essential when visiting Cairo, along with possibly the Street of the Tentmakers (for more souvenirs), and the Ibn Tulun Mosque (for a bit of Islam) if you have a little more time.

Familiar fast food in Cairo...
Familiar fast food in Cairo…
Egyptian Shawarma - fresh meat off the bone!
Egyptian Shawarma – fresh meat off the bone!
Koshari always tastes best as street food!
Koshari always tastes best as street food!

One of the things that impressed me most about my time in Cairo was seeing the size of the shawarma! I saw nothing this big in Istanbul – and yes, I did try some lamb! One thing you can be sure of anywhere in Cairo – or for that matter anywhere in the Middle-East – is awesome food served by awesome people! The language barrier for which Cairo is known is not in effect in this situation, as a simple pointed finger at the food you want is enough to make the vendor know precisely what to serve you! I always find that eating and drinking on the streets (in moderation, of course) is a great way to integrate with the local community – especially if you get rid of your western comforts like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut and enjoy some of the Egyptian cuisine like koshari, mombar, or fakhfakhina.

The Pyramids of Giza
The Pyramids of Giza

Of course, it wouldn’t be quite right to talk about Cairo without mentioning the possibility of heading to Giza to see the famous Pyramids and the Sphinx. I once said that the Pyramids of Giza were one of the most overrated tourist attractions in the world, and my reasoning is that they are too touristy, and there is not enough infrastructure there to assist tourists (it’s all a bit of a mess, or at least it was when I visited). However, there can be no denial that most travellers to Egypt will want to see these incredible structures up close for themselves. A taxi from downtown Cairo should take no longer than 45 minutes to the Pyramids, but when you’re there be prepared for an avalanche of touts and conmen.

The featured image in this article is courtesy of the blogger ‘Shane Woz Ere’.

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