Andy and I were both looking forward to Cairo because not only were there a lot of cool sights to see, but it was where our friends Ami and Megan, our second visitors of our trip, were meeting us. We were excited to give them a glimpse into our trip and how we have been living for the past 5 months.
We were also a little nervous how the girls would react to Egypt. We had been on the road for a while and had gotten used to a lot of craziness. As soon as we arrived in Egypt, we both agreed that it was our most challenging country to date and was extremely exhausting. We heard that Cairo was the craziest of all of the cities in Egypt, so we crossed our fingers and hoped that it would be better than we expected.
Night Train from Aswan to Cairo
Getting Our Tickets
Flights from Aswan to Cairo on EgyptAir were about the same price as taking the Ernst sleeper train. We concluded that we would be better off taking the night train since the price included both a night of lodging as well as dinner and breakfast.
We purchased our tickets when we arrived in Aswan. When the guy picked up a book of carbon copy paper, hand wrote our tickets and stamped them with a rubber stamp I giggled inside since it felt like the 80’s.
Wanting to make sure that we were on the train in time, we arrived at the train station early. When our train pulled in we were a little nervous since it looked pretty rough. At that point there was really nothing that we could do so we crossed our fingers that the inside would be better than the outside – which it was. The cabin was pretty clean – you could tell that the carpet had been worn but for the age of the train, everything looked a lot better than we had anticipated from the outward appearance of the train.
There were 2 toilets per train car which were not nearly as clean as our rooms were. I made note of that and went to the bathroom early then limited my beverage intake for the rest of the trip. I think the most shocking thing for us is that the toilets let out directly onto the tracks. I had heard that local trains in India did this, but was shocked that a tourist train in Egypt would do the same thing.
Since the sleeper cabins hold just 2 people, we had our own private cabin for the ride. The cabin was a decent size for us, included a private sink and had space to put our luggage in a rack above the door. I appreciated that there was a chain lock on the door which made me feel secure in our room. Ever since the conductor on our night train in Vietnam opened our locked door with his key, I have felt a little unsure of the privacy on a night train.
When we arrived, the cabin was set up as train seats. After dinner the conductor put down our bunk beds. The beds had clean bedding but felt a little smaller than a standard twin size bed.
There was a thermostat in our cabin which we set to heat since it started to get cold. I don’t think that the temperature control worked as our cabin seemed to get colder and colder throughout the night.
I had read mixed reviews about the food online so we packed plenty of snacks just in case it was terrible. I would argue that the food was better than most airline meals that we have eaten.
For dinner we had a chicken breast, potatoes, rice, cake and a roll. Breakfast was not nearly as good but they gave us 4 different prepackaged bread items to choose from.
In developed countries the trains go fast and you barely feel any movement since the tracks are maintained so well. Our train in Egypt went relatively slow and we seemingly felt every bump in the tracks. At one point, in the middle of the night, Andy was concerned that we were going to derail since it was so shaky on the train.
Fortunately, we arrived safe and sound albeit 2 hours later than projected. We left Aswan at 7pm and were told that we would arrive in Cairo at 9am but did not actually get into the station until 11am.
Once we arrived in Cairo we were freezing. The temperature was much colder than the steamy temperatures that we had just experienced in Luxor and Aswan. We knew that the cold in Cairo was only the beginning since after our time in Egypt we were headed north to Europe.
Taxi Ride to Our Hotel
One of our craziest stories in all of our trip happened in our taxi ride from the train station to the hotel. After haggling with a taxi driver to take us to our hotel, we got into one of the crappiest cars we have ever seen. As soon as we were ready to pull out, a shared van stopped right in front of our taxi. Since our driver had a fare and wanted to leave, he was upset about this. In order to show his frustration, he decided to lay on his horn constantly until the shared van left.
A man with a cane walked by the car and shouted something to our driver in Arabic. While we don’t know Arabic, we knew that it didn’t sound very nice. After shouting at each other for a while, the man with the cane and our driver started to fight, yes that’s right, a fistfight through the window. At one point, the man with the cane had a grip on our driver who bit, yes bit, the man’s arm. I am not sure how much he hurt the man as our driver only seemed to have 4 teeth in his mouth.
Some people passing by saw this craziness going on and pulled the man with the cane off our driver. It took 3 grown men to pull the man off our driver. The entire time the fight was going on, we were in the back of car with our jaws on the ground. We couldn’t quite believe what we were witnessing.
Once the man with the cane was on the ground, our driver pulled away. It wasn’t fully over yet, as the man with the cane whacked the car with his cane as we drove off – something that scared the crap out of me since the cane hit the driver side rear door where I was sitting.
When we were 2 blocks away from the scene of the fight, the driver stopped the car, got out and grabbed a cup of coffee from the hood, then casually sipped it as he drove us to the hotel. By this point we were cracking up in our heads, dying to get out of the car to discuss just how crazy the entire scene had been.
Cairo – Day 1
Knowing that there are a lot of taxi drivers who scam tourists, we opted to book a private driver through our hotel. While this seemed like a good plan at the time, we ended up getting scammed anyway. We let our hotel know about the scam and they seemed to feel at least a little bad about our experience. In hindsight we should have negotiated a deal with a taxi driver or used Uber instead.
The driver we hired to take us to the pyramids drove a very roundabout way to get there. This was intentional as where he dropped us off it did not show the main entrance gate. When he stopped the car, he told us that the pyramids were 12 kilometers away and that the only way to get there is on foot or by camel. We knew that this was a lie because we were the only tourists around and the pyramids are one of the biggest tourist attractions in Egypt. I had read about this particular scam online but could not remember how to get out of it. We should have pushed the driver to take us to the front gates but figured since we planned to take a camel anyway, we would see what the story was.
The driver walked us over to a particular camel owner who he said was a “government regulated business”, a line that we knew was a load of crap. He took us to the particular camel owner because he would get a kickback if we got camels through him. The camel owner gave us the rundown on the different routes we could take and gave absurd prices for them. We said we needed some time to discuss it as a group and when he came back to check on us, the prices were magically less. As we negotiated on the price, we ended up with a number much lower than what he first threw out but was higher than what I felt it should have been.
Once we walked out to the camels my heart started to break. The last thing in the world that I wanted to do was support someone who had camels that did not look well maintained and we were getting ready to get on camels that looked sick. At this point we had already paid so I held back my emotions and got on my camel. We paid our entry fee for the pyramids of 80LE or $10.25 and had our bags checked before we continued on our camels to the pyramids.
During the ride, I felt bad for both my camel and Andy, who was behind me, since my camel had diarrhea and seemed to have to go to the bathroom every few minutes. After about 15 minutes, the guide unhooked Andy’s camel from mine which allowed him to not be downwind of the stench.
As we rode into the desert, we stopped at a great place to take pictures far away from the pyramids. Our guide happily took our cameras, setting us up to take all sorts of pictures with the pyramids. While we typically don’t like people taking pictures with our camera, we were fine with it at the time. That is until our guide tried to tell us how to take a jumping shot, a picture that we have taken many times and I feel perfected. Needless to say, we didn’t need him to take many pictures for us after that.
Our guide continued to take us around the pyramids, then asked us if we wanted to see anything else before we headed back. We told him that we wanted some time to see the pyramids by ourselves which seemed to confuse him a lot. After much reassuring that it wasn’t anything he did, it was us wanting to see things on our own, he told us we could meet our driver at the stables which were just behind the Pizza Hut. I was super annoyed at this point since we were SO CLOSE to the entrance when we were dropped off, but because we couldn’t see it, we got scammed.
Walking around the pyramids on our own we were able to take our time and get a lot of photos closer than when we were on the camels. The weather cleared up and sun came out as well which was nice while we were walking around.
At one point, while we were taking some pictures in front of the Khafre Pyramid, an entire group of young Egyptian women came by and asked to take pictures with us. They were excited to take pictures with all of us (except Andy), but Megan seemed to be the biggest celebrity with her blonde hair.
When we arrived at the Sphinx, I was surprised how easy it was to get a good picture. It seemed that everyone wanted a picture of themselves with the Sphinx with the pyramids in the background, but that wasn’t the best angle to get the face of the Sphinx.
Not surprisingly, you aren’t able to get too close to the Sphinx. While I thought it would bother me, it actually worked out well since we were able to crop out all of the people that were around the Sphinx when we were taking our photos.
It was cool to see and I’m sure if we had read up more about the history of the sites that we saw, we would have been more impressed with it, but we were tired of being scammed and ready to move on to the next location.
Saqqara Pyramid & Memphis Museum
After leaving the pyramids we asked our driver if there was some place that we could get a quick inexpensive lunch. He told us that he could bring us to a restaurant with good food. Always being cautious we asked him how much the lunch would be. It was a set meal for 95LE or $12 per person, which we felt was way too expensive. When we asked if there was something in the area that was quick and cheap he told us that the food in the area around Giza was not clean or safe and this restaurant was the best place to go. We knew this wasn’t true because we had just met someone in Aswan who told us about all the cheap falafel places he saw around Giza when he was there. Since he was only going to bring us to the one place (probably because he got a kickback from them) we decided to skip lunch and eat later.
When we asked the driver where we were going next, he gave us the option of going to the Saqqara Pyramid and paying the entrance fee to visit it, or viewing it from a distance for free. We decided to go with the free option. Little did we know that “seeing it from a distance” meant pulling over on the side of the road and seeing the pyramid way off in the distance, obstructed by power lines.
Our final stop was supposed to be at the Memphis Museum, but we learned that it wasn’t really worth going to if we planned to visit the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Since we had plans to do that the next day we decided to pass on the Memphis Museum and head back to the hotel to get some lunch and relax. Overall, the day was draining and all we wanted to do was go somewhere where we wouldn’t get scammed.
Cairo – Day 2
Since the only thing that we saw on our first day in Cairo was the pyramids and the Sphinx, we knew that we had a busy day on our second day in Cairo. We had plans to take a bus to Sharm El Sheikh the following morning so we had to fit everything else that we wanted to see in Cairo into 1 day. While it was a long day, we were successfully able to see everything that we wanted to see.
Our first stop was to the Egyptian Museum. This is the museum that houses many Egyptian treasures including most of the artifacts found in King Tut’s tomb. We had heard a lot of good things about this museum and we were excited to see it for ourselves.
The admission was 75LE or $9.50 per person plus a 50LE or $6.40 ticket to take photos. Since the photo ticket was kind of expensive, we all agreed that we would use our camera and share all of our pictures with our friends.
When we went through security, I was surprised that our friends were not allowed to take their cameras into the museum unless they paid for a photo ticket. There was a camera check outside which held their cameras free of charge. We were a little nervous about it, but when they returned to pick up their cameras everything was safe and sound.
At the museum, there were options to take guided tours or get an audio guide. We decided against both of these for both time and money. We knew that we had a busy day and a guide would double or triple the time that we spent in the museum. While I am sure we would have learned a lot, we had a good time looking at all of the different exhibits in the museum and going at our own pace.
The museum was quite large and had a lot of things to see. Not surprisingly, the setup was very different from museums that we have in the US. There were only informational plaques on some of the items and there were quite a few things that were out in the open, not protected from visitors at all.
Even though there were a decent number of people at the museum, the sheer size of it spread people out. The only time that it felt crowded is when we were looking at the treasures from King Tut’s tomb. We were able to get some good pictures of some of the treasures, but there was no photography in the gold room which had King Tut’s mask and lot of amazing gold jewels. We knew that we couldn’t take pictures in the room, even with our camera ticket, but it was still pretty disappointing since the treasures were pretty amazing.
Our second stop of the day was to the Abdeen Palace. Our plan was to take a tour of the inside but when we arrived, we were told that there were no more tours today and to return tomorrow.
We snapped a few pictures of the front of the palace which for some reason seemed like a good place for some kids to play a game of soccer. Our next stop was not walking distance or reachable by the subway so we set off in search of a taxi.
Citadel of Salah Al-Din (aka Muhammad Ali Mosque)
Getting our taxi to the Citadel of Salah Al-Din was one of the most painful taxi experiences during our time in Cairo. Our driver didn’t speak English which was something that we have worked around before. We told him the name of the temple that we were looking to see and even pulled it up on a map. He was still confused about what we needed and proceeded to stop random people who spoke English to translate for him. After a lot of painful back and forth, along with renegotiation of the price, we finally were all on the same page.
When we arrived at the mosque, we paid our 60LE or $7.50 entry fee. After going through security we saw the mosque up close for the first time. It was pretty dirty from the smog of the city and since it rarely rains in Cairo it never gets washed off. I really thought with the high price that we paid for admission that it would have been cleaned more regularly.
The look of the mosque was familiar to our friends who had just been in Istanbul. This was because the mosque was modeled after the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Inside the mosque was nice but would have looked better had there not been a lot of lightbulbs that had been burnt out.
The best part of the mosque was the view of the city, which was in my opinion, was the best view that we found in Cairo. After taking a few pictures, we headed down to get a taxi. After some haggling, we got in a car and headed to the Cairo Tower.
When we arrived at the Cairo Tower, we were a little surprised that the entry fee was 70LE or $9. This seemed a bit high to us as it was just admission into the tower. We figured that we would likely never go back to Cairo and figured that we should suck it up and do it.
Upon reaching the top we were pretty disappointed. There was a fence completely around the tower which blocked our view and didn’t allow for great photos. In fact, the only way that Andy got any good photos at all was by shooting over the fence, something that was only possible because he is tall.
Since it was close to sunset, we thought that we should sit in one of the cafes and watch the sunset from above. Both the rotating restaurant and cafe had minimum amounts that you have to spend in order to sit in the tables. We decided against this and headed down.
This was our most disappointing attraction that we saw in Cairo. If we were to do it over again, I would not pay to go up in the tower opting to see essentially the same view from the mosque instead.
On our final night we were exhausted after a long day of sightseeing, but still wanted to experience some Egyptian food. Luckily, after a quick search on Google, Andy found that one of the top rated restaurants for Koshary was just a few blocks from our hotel.
We didn’t know what to expect, but we were all pleasantly surprised by how good the food was. When the waiter brought our food he gave us a demonstration of how the Egyptians mix the ingredients together and in what order. At first it seemed like an odd mix of ingredients, but putting them all together ended up being a pretty good dish.
The Good and the Bad of Cairo
I had read online that you will either love or hate Cairo, turns out it is true for me. While I am glad that we went to Cairo and were able to see all of the things that we saw, it was our most challenging city that we visited not only in Egypt, but in my entire life.
It’s not all negative though, we had positive experiences on our trip as well.
Even though the official language is Arabic, just about every person spoke English and almost all of the signs were in English as well. This made it extremely easy to get around.
The people were very warm and welcoming to foreigners, even more so when we said we were American. Andy and I discussed how we feel bad that the scammers that tourists encounter are likely the Egyptian people that they remember when their trip is over. As frustrating as those people were, the vast majority of people were genuinely good, kind people. We made note to remember the kind people instead of the scammers when we reflect back on our trip.
Cairo was probably the dirtiest city that I have ever seen. In addition to the blanket of smog that lays over the city, there is trash everywhere. Our train ride into the city was eye opening as we saw just how dirty the outskirts of the city were. Instead of trash being picked up and taken to a dump, people just throw bags of trash out their window. By the sides of the tracks there were piles of trash bags, just sitting there rotting.
We’ve visited countries where the pedestrians do not have the right of way but Cairo took this to a new level. In addition to the seemingly constant traffic, the cars do not stop for pedestrians and there are no crosswalks. In order to cross the street, we had to follow the locals, using them as a body shield of sorts.
Like I said earlier, most of the people were extremely nice but there were some bad apples as well. We had to constantly keep our guard up the entire time that we were in Cairo since given the chance, people will try to scam you. We avoided this as much as we could – shopping at grocery stores with set prices, finding out what things should cost before beginning to haggle and so on, but the professional scammers are extremely good. They can read people and know what weaknesses people have. Once a scammer knows a person’s weakness, they’ll play into the weakness to get whatever they need from the person.
Even though our time in Cairo was extremely exhausting, we are glad that we went. Seeing the pyramids, the only standing ancient wonder of the world was pretty incredible. To make it even better, we got to experience it with some of our friends from home.
We thought as experienced travelers that had been on the road for 5 months, Cairo wouldn’t be as challenging as people made it out to be. It turned out to be just as challenging, if not more than we were told, something that was shocking to me. I am not sure how a novice traveler, especially someone who has a problem being rude in the American sense, would handle the country. I believe the difficulty level of Cairo is a reason why we saw so many large tour groups around Egypt.
Even though we’ll likely never return to Cairo, we were able to see everything that we wanted to see. We have some amazing photos and lots of memories of our time there – some good, some bad.