The desert heat, the noisy streets, and the sheer size of Cairo will leave even the most adaptable traveler with a serious case of culture shock. The constant bombardment of street vendors, the inescapable aroma of livestock, and the seemingly chaotic way of life will joggle the senses. But be patient. Take some time to relax over a cup of tea, to wander the ancient streets, and to watch the sun lower over the mighty Nile River. It won’t take long for the city’s treasures to reveal themselves.
Most visitors flock to Egypt’s capital to explore the wonders of the ancient world, following the footsteps of the pharaohs. But there are two sides to Cairo; the city’s residents embrace their history and rejoice in their progress. As Giza, Dahshur, and Saqqara fight with the trendy bars of the Zamalek neighborhood for spotlight. Honking taxi cabs vie for space with braying donkeys in the narrow streets. And the traditional Islamic call to prayer adds to Zamalek’s soundtrack of lounge music and boisterous banter. The only way to get a true sense of Cairo is to take the old with the new.
How To Save Money in Cairo
- Learn to haggle There’s no such thing as a set price in Cairo. Depending on how good your bargaining skills are, you should be able to save 20 to 25 percent on everything from souvenirs to taxi rides.
- Be in-the-know Only the bright yellow cabs use meters; the others operate on set fares per route. To avoid being scammed, find out from your hotel concierge how much you should spend on a cab ride and set the fare before getting into the taxi.
- Greet the heat Summertime sees temperatures near triple digits. While that may seem unbearable, unbeatable hotel rates could make up for it.
Cairo Culture & Customs
Since the 2011 uprisings, Cairo has remained in a state of political unease. This shouldn’t affect you as a tourist, but to stay on the safe side, avoid any public protests. You should also ensure that someone at home knows your itinerary. Once you arrive in the city, determine how far you are from the American embassy—located in the Garden City neighborhood in downtown—and the most convenient route there.
A visit to Cairo is like an assault on your senses: The city’s barrage of noise—shouting merchants, screeching traffic, and braying livestock—is a lot to process. The key to adjusting to Cairo is succumbing to its organized chaos and letting yourself fall into its rhythm. One of the hardest aspects of Cairo’s culture to adapt to is the residents’ chatty nature. The primary language here is Arabic, although residents may also speak English or French. You’re likely to be approached by fellow passers-by who wish to strike up a conversation or con you into an unofficial tour or an unwanted souvenir. If you’re not in a chatty mood, simply smile and continue on your way. Just make sure you keep a vigilant eye on your belongings; it’s easy to get distracted by a market vendor or a street performance only to later discover that your wallet is missing.
Cairo’s frenzied atmosphere lulls during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. The majority of the city’s population participates in this ritual, abstaining from eating and drinking during daylight hours. During Ramadan—which takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar—Cairo exudes a sense of calm. But once the sun sets and the evening call to prayer begins, the clamor resumes as thousands of Cairenes take to the streets in search of a place to break the fast (a ritual known as Iftar) or to nab a good seat at one of the many free concerts taking place. You should note that finding a daytime snack or drink can be tough during Ramadan; some recent travelers recommend adjusting your schedule (sleeping in and staying up late) and joining in the fast.
You should also follow suit in terms of how you dress. Cairenes tend to dress conservatively in long pants or skirts and shirts that cover the shoulders. This is especially important for women, who often become the object of unwanted attention. Bear in mind that you’re less likely to get hassled if you’re traveling with a companion, particularly a male companion. If you’re visiting a mosque, you will have to remove your shoes, and headscarves (known as hijabs) will be provided to women whose heads aren’t already covered.
The primary currency here is the Egyptian Pound (EGP), which is roughly equivalent to $0.17 USD. You’ll quickly learn that you’re expected to hand out money on a regular basis. Everyone from the person who carries your bags to the person who holds the door for you expects a little something in return. Be prepared with a pocketful of small change.