Are you from India? Do you know Shahrukh Khan? Do you know Amitabh Bachhan? Can we click a picture with you? I was asked these questions within the first five hours of arriving in Cairo. Numerous people were interested in talking to me about Bollywood, the Indian film industry. Every Indian has seen a movie starring Sharukh Khan or Amitabh Bachhan at least once in his/her life! I live in Mumbai, the hub of movie making in India – I am armed to start a conversation on such a topic!The Egyptians are a friendly lot…they love to talk about themselves and want to know more about you and your land. Looking back at the 17 odd countries that we have travelled to, the Egyptians and the Turks have been the friendliest people.
Best time to visit…
Summer is HOT – May to August are summer months in Egypt. The temperature soars and reaches as high as 40 degrees Celsius. Also, Egypt in an Islamic country. The locals fast during the month of Ramadan and do not eat anything from sunrise to sunset. If you here during Ramadan times, managing food during the day may be a challenge. However, the feast is thrown open at night . The Iftar parties are amongst the best degustation experiences.
I visited Cairo in September – it was still warm, rather hot. I would recommend months from October to March as the best time to visit Egypt. I was there on the last day of Ramadan and on the day of Eid. It seemed as though the whole city was out to celebrate – festivities galore. Food from the tandoors, sweets, sheeshah ….music and singing was all around. And I literally mean all around – groups of locals sat in small coffee shops making merry.
Where to stay… In the heart of the city…
Tahrir square is the heart in the city. It is close to the museum, metro/tube station and has lots of restaurants – local food and international cuisine in the vicinity. I stayed a couple of lanes away from the square in Hotel Osiris. A small property, which is situated on the top storey of a building and may be hard to find. I would rate the place very high on cleanliness and location – perfect for the budget traveller. For the luxury traveller, the Novotel, Intercontinental and Hilton are properties close to the Tahrir square and are quite popular.
A word of caution, in the recent times that there has been unrest in Egypt, Tahrir square is one of the prime areas of demonstration.
Top 5 picks in Cairo…
Here are my top 5 picks in Cairo, as always, in no particular order of preference:
Pyramids of Giza
Let’s agree – the primary reason that you are in Cairo is to the see the great pyramid of Giza. It has been on your bucket list and you too want to tick it off! The pyramids are colossal – seriously. I guess the word colossal would have been coined just to described them. The pyramids of Giza are tombs that were built for the pharohs over 3800 years ago. The biggest pyramid has a height of ~140 meters and each side of the base measures ~230 meters and was made for the Pharoh Khufu (Pyramid of Cheops/Khufu). Obviously, they look bigger as you get closer but you really get an idea of the magnitude when you climb on one of them and stand next to the building blocks – I felt like a dwarf!
If your curious spirit wants to know what lies inside the pyramid, there is an option to enter the pyramids as well, for a fee of ~ LE 100. It is not for those who are claustrophobic. You descend through a deep dark tunnel for a few hundred feet and then come out through a similar tunnel. If you are unsure of your claustrophobia and want to let the curiosity, may I suggest going to the smallest one. It’s cheaper and the entire experience is shorter as well.
Close to the pyramids of Giza is the Sphinx , with the body of a lion and the head of a man. It signifies the intellect of man and the strength of the lion. The sphinx was built in ~2500BC. After the Giza necropolis was abandoned, the Sphinx became buried up to its shoulders in sand. The first documented attempt at an excavation dates to c. 1400 BC.The mythical being has lost its nose somewhere through the years. Some say that Napoleon and his troops were the ones that caused the damage, others believed that it was already destroyed before the ‘Little Man’ arrived. Whatever be the reason in the past, the monument is constantly being eroded by the sand and the wind – get here before it is damaged way beyond repair!
Having a picture clicked with the pyramids and the sphinx deserves to be in your bucketlist.
While Brandon Fraser is one of the reasons that I watch ‘The Mummy’ each time it plays on television, it is my fascination with ancient Egyptian customs that makes me read up a little more each time the movie ends.Heard of Tutankhamun – the young rich prince with treasures that could make the Richie Rich jealous-…fancy seeing his treasure? Do you want to know more about Ramses, who ruled Egypt and made marked changes in the ancient Egyptian beliefs? A lot of questions are answered in the Egyptian museum. You will even be able to see a well preserved mummy – keep your fingers crossed and pray that it does not jump up on you and ask for the secret spell or a long lost treasure tablet.
I spent almost 6 hours in the museum – but that is just so me. I can spend hours and hours rummaging through museum artifacts and still feel that I have not had enough time to satisfy my curiosity. I could have spent the next 4 hours as well, had the museum not been closing for the day. Suggest that you budget at least 4 – 6 hours to walk through various key artifacts.
Khan el Khalili market
There are few places in the world that can pose a stiff competition to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and the Crawford Market in Mumbai. The Khan el Khalili market is one such place. You will get anything and everything here …souvenirs, spices, fake watches, jewellery, antiques, clothes, gold, silver, alabaster statues, sheeshah – the list goes on. It’s all about trying to find what you want….it will be hiding in some little shop.
As with the Turkish Grand Bazaar, bargaining works here as well. I typically ended up paying 50-60% of the price that was quoted initially. Women…beware…the Egyptian men will shower you with compliments if you are bargaining too hard. Let not the woman in you melt and give up your stand – shopping your forte!
Egypt is an Islamic nation. However, the old town in Egypt was inhabited since 6 BC and is now part of Coptic Cairo. It is believed that the Holy Family visited this site, seeking refuge from Herod. Few notable monuments that date back to the early Christian Era are:
- The Hanging Church, or the Church of the Virgin Mary. The effect of this ‘hanging’ is now diminished significantly as ground levels have raised around the walls.
- Church of St. Sergius, which dates from the 5th century and was supposedly built upon the site of a crypt where the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph) to shelter during there time in Egypt.
- Ben Ezra Synagogue, which is the oldest synagogue in Cairo. Apparently, this is where the pharaoh’s daughter found Moses among the reeds.
The top 5 picks in Cairo are like the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to do and experience in a city as vibrant as Cairo – plan a day trip to Memphis and the stepped pyramid of Saqqara, exercise your nose at a shop selling local fragrances, sit in a cafe and enjoy a bubbly sheeshah or just chat up with a local on Bollywood. Whatever you do, Cairo will leave an impression in your memory lanes that you would want to wander often!
As always…send me an e-mail if you need any further details. Glad to help!
Let the travellers’ tribe grow!