Honking. Lots and lots of honking. And haze. And diesel. And yelling. And the constant buzz of energy! There isn’t any place else on earth like Cairo, Egypt. From world-renown museums and the great pyramids of Giza to fateer and falafel (the fava bean kind) and Coptic old Cairo, there’s plenty to do and see in this bustling breadbasket of the world. Read on for some bookmark-worthy Egypt travel tips from Color & Curiosity founder Megan Zink’s recent journey for a bucket list trip you won’t soon forget!
A Giant List of Egypt Travel Tips – Table of Contents
- Is Cairo Safe
- Best Time to Visit
- Where to Stay
- Group Tour, Guide or Self-Guided?
What to Do in Cairo
- The Egyptian Museum in Cairo
- The Great Pyramids of Giza and the Giza Plateau
- Saqqara and the Step Pyramids of Djoser
- The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization
- The Khan-El-Kalili Market
Where to Eat in Cairo
- Abou El Sid Restaurant
- Koshary El Moemen
- El Fishawy Café
- Pour Vous Rooftop
Pro Egypt Travel Tips
- Hustle Culture
- Photography in Museums
- Negotiating Everything
- Air Quality
- Avoiding GI Issues
- Pre-Trip Travel Clinics
- What Vaccines Do You Need?
Is Cairo safe?
As a woman – one of the first things on my mind was safety. I have always been fascinated with Egyptian history and culture since I was little, and knew one day I’d make it to see the incredible place in person – but our world is a different place today.
Actually, I started to think about this question many years before we actually went; I’d signed up to see Dr. Kara Cooney present National Geographic Live in Chicago and give a talk on her new book at the time – When Women Ruled the World. At the end she was doing a signing and though I didn’t have anything to show, I did have two burning questions 1) ‘is Egypt safe?’ and 2) ‘could I interview you for my website?’, so I figured why not shoot my shot, and stood in line. In the very short time I got to speak to the gracious scholar, she assuaged my fears; have common sense, take a couple of extra steps (like have a guide, conservative dress) and be ready for a different culture, and you’ll be fine. Fast-forward a number of years later and I am lucky to say I’ve actually met up with her on a number of occasions and got many of the recommendations you’ll read in these guides from her and other scholars!
So – back to the question, is Cairo safe? The short answer is yes. It’s a very religious country – predominantly Muslim. I used common sense, kept my belongings close and not unattended, and didn’t feel like I had much to worry about by way of theft. As for traveling as a woman – it’s hard to say; I am not sure how much I was not bothered because I had Riley with me the whole time and we also had a private guide and driver for much of our stay. I would recommend going with a group, or having a guide the entire time, or going with a partner. I also wore an imitation wedding band – nothing flashy – just so I didn’t have extra things to worry about!
I will also say, the hustle culture is real there – which is totally understandable, it’s how Egyptians make their living. Everyone will be tripping over themselves to help you – for a little baksheesh (tip). If you know this going in and are prepared ahead of time, have researched when to tip and how much, and have a system for carrying small bills and change, etc. you will be fine. If you find that type thing annoying, you’re probably going to be irritated. I also do think having a guide with us helped – and one of my many pro Egypt travel tips: I also had a scarf I carried with me most of the time that occasionally I would put over my head and I think that helped us blend in a bit more, too. And if it becomes too much, just say ‘la’ (no) – or ‘la, shukran’ (no thank you) politely, and firmly.
What is the best time to visit Egypt?
Not in the summer! Okay – any time is magical, but it’s going to be significantly hotter in the summer months than in the fall or winter. I’d say the best time to visit Egypt is between October and April. You will need to plan around some major holidays (such as Ramadan) which can affect certain opening hours and other factors.
What’s the best month to visit Egypt?
Key Egypt travel tip: I’m partial to February, when we went – it honestly felt a lot like their shoulder season. The holidays can be very busy and very expensive, and as spring ramps up you’ll have to contend with school breaks and holidays. It was typically in the mid 60s-70s while we were there and thankfully we didn’t notice a whole lot of mosquitos or other bugs, either.
Where to stay in Cairo, Egypt?
We elected to stay in the more upscale area of Zamalek – essentially an island and where many expats choose to live. It’s also got more international businesses and restaurants. It’s a quick walk to the Nile, and it’s a short Uber ride (yes, they have Uber in Cairo, and it’s very reasonable!) to pretty much anywhere else in the city you might want to go.
We stayed at the Hilton Cairo Zamalek Residences and it was incredible. The staff went above and beyond every time we interacted with them. AND we even got upgraded to an expansive suite! I honestly got lost in the rooms. There was even a wing for ‘the children’ and ostensibly ‘their caretaker’. Also breakfast was included every day – there was an incredible buffet spread which was awesome for sampling a lot of different kinds of local cuisine and prepping to try different fare other meals throughout the day.
Things to do in Egypt
So what should be on your things to do in Egypt list? Specifically Cairo? Aside from the obvious Pyramids of Giza, there are plenty of other incredible things to see and do. Read on for highlights plus some key Egypt travel tips:
How to Do All the Things – Hiring a Guide for Egypt
There are a number of ways to check items off your things to do in Egypt list – you can elect for a group guided tour or package, you can go it alone (honestly, by the end of our time there, we probably could have; but if it’s your first time, navigating can be a bit intimidating) – or you can hire a guide.
The first time we planned our trip (let’s be honest – when I planned our trip) we’d chosen to sign up with a group tour through G Adventures – but that was in 2020, womp womp. I won’t get into details but we were pretty disappointed with the way they handled the entire situation (yes, it was tough for everyone, of course, but there were certain things that led us to decide we probably won’t be using them for tours in the future). Fast-forward 3 full years later and the amazing fortune of befriending an Egyptologist, and I had a new confidence that we could probably do everything on our own with a guide.
Enter Forever Egypt Tours – our guide, Waleed, was absolutely incredible and came highly recommended by a student of Dr. Kara’s who lives and works as an archeologist in Egypt. We couldn’t have done it without Waleed. He helped facilitate all the tickets, admission, airport pickups and drop-offs, journey through customs, transportation around Cario, local lunches and other logistical hurdles that probably would’ve left us scratching our heads. Check out his website and tour options here! Much of our itinerary was built through my research and his expertise – but here were a few highlights from our itinerary:
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo
One of THE main attractions in Cairo is the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. Yes, the city is working on the brand new Grand Egyptian Museum (aka the GEM) but that’s been in the works since before 2018 and it still wasn’t open when we went in Feb 2023. Rumor has it its due to open sometime this year or next, but I personally think the Egyptian Museum is still worth a visit.
I am not entirely sure what they will keep there and what will go to the GEM, so you may want to do some research before you travel. For us, it was perfect and well worth the visit. We spent about 2ish hours there. Some of my favorite highlights included:
- King Tutankhamun’s funerary mask and coffins
- King Seti’s statue
- Queen Hatshepsut’s face from Deir El-Bahari
- The Rosetta Stone replica and exhibit highlight
- King Kufu’s ivory statuette
The Great Pyramids of Giza and the Giza Plateau
Yes – seeing the great pyramids of Egypt is an absolute must-do and totally worth it. If you’ve ever seen the Coliseum in Rome, you’ll be prepared in the sense that this incredibly old historic site is indeed just right outside a gigantic, bustling city. But the sheer magnitude and importance of these is just something that cannot be missed. The great pyramids were built in the 4th dynasty around 2500 to 2490 bc. That is literally more than 4500 years ago. Humans! Built them! Without modern technology! As for going inside the pyramids, that is a personal preference.
Our guide, Waleed, recommended we wait to go into one of the step pyramids of Djoser at Saqqara instead, which had a lot more going on inside (carvings, etc.) as opposed to the void of the pyramids of Giza. We also did elect to take the camel ride – it was terrifying (Egyptian camels are HUGE) but also one of those bucket list items. I specifically planned to wear pants that day – the ride is definitely jerky (and kinda smelly) and I am glad I wasn’t wearing a dress.
The Step Pyramids of Djoser
As far as Egypt travel tips go – this is one. This was one that I honestly hadn’t cared much to see when I was researching but am SO, SO glad we did. The Step Pyramids of Djoser pre-date the smooth-sided pyramids of Giza and were built in the 3rd dynasty — back in 2670 bc. Again, an absolutely incredible feat, knowing there was no modern technology (?!?!) They’re a lot less crowded than the Giza Pyramids and actually going inside one of them – the Unas pyramid – is included in your admission. If you have a guide with you, they’ll need to stay behind, and you’ll get a local guide who will guide you down into the pyramid.
Egypt Travel Tips – Caution on Cramped Spaces: if you don’t like small spaces – this may not be your jam. You do literally have to crouch and semi-waddle down a boarded incline until you get to the passageway – and you’ll also need to crouch along the corridor, so there is a moderate amount of physical activity to the experience but if you can make it, highly recommended. The guard will ask for baksheesh (tip) when you start, and also probably once you get in there before you head back out – when he asked a second time, we just told him politely we’d left everything in the car, as they can be pretty persistent.
The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization
Aside from the GEM, the NMEC is one of the newest museums in Cairo and definitely worth stopping by. If you visited the Cairo Museum you’ll be seeing a lot of similar artifacts, but what I really liked about the new museum is that the displays followed a sequential timeline pattern and there was arguably more info to read (and much in English as well as Arabic – they definitely know their audience). It essentially covers all of Egyptian civilization (hence the name) from the very beginning until present day with spotlights on different cultures and takeovers.
A can’t miss here is the mummy exhibit, if you are into that sort of thing. We found it fascinating but I understand it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I think we saw something like 26 mummies – most royalty. Queen Tiye actually has an incredible amount of hair preserved – she was notorious for her luscious locks!
The Khan-el-Kalili Market in Coptic Cairo
The Khan-el-Kalili Market in old, Coptic Cairo is A MUST. It’s chaotic and smelly and crowded but so worth a visit. Personally, I felt like I maybe didn’t get hassled as much by putting my scarf over my head (plus, you’re near Old Cairo, so this is a way to be respectful). EVERYONE will want to sell you something. People will want to play music for you. Serve you coffee. Sell you the exact identical thing as their shop neighbor but promise you a better price. It’s a great place for some wonderful souvenirs – but not everything should be purchased there.
I personally found a great cowhide cushion/mini footstool and some flowy pants. We also had some delicious coffee and a rice pudding dessert at the oldest coffee shop in Cairo – El Fishawy Café. It’s been serving pick-me-ups since 1797!
Best Restaurants in Cairo
Egypt travel tips abound as far as restaurants go – one of the best things about visiting Egypt is that the food is relatively inexpensive. As an example, we ate at a pretty nice rooftop restaurant, each had a beer, an appetizer, water (bottled) and entrées and our total was 1472.15 EGP – roughly $47 USD. And that was fairly expensive while we were there. Check out some of the best restaurants in Cairo (at least – our highlights) and a few things you can’t miss on the menu! And yes – you should be as adventurous as you can, and no, you shouldn’t over-order if you can help it; many in Egypt can’t even afford to eat so it was always something we tried to be conscious of!
Great rooftop bar and restaurant on Zamalek – one of the most westernized options on this list. It was a great spot to acclimate ourselves (we went to dinner there our first night). The chicken thighs were juicy and the veggies it came with were cooked (I was already on high alert because we had a stacked itinerary and couldn’t afford any GI upset!).
One of the ‘must try’ restaurants in any search! Also on Zamalek. Definitely try to get a reservation if you can – we got VERY lucky with a walk-in but we went pretty early and it seemed like we’d just skated by. We ordered the Abou El Sid’s Dolma and the Spicy Cheese Dip to start (yes, spicy cheese dip sounds super weird, yes, you should totally get it). We also went with the Bessara – a creamy fava bean dip with garlic, herbs and other yumminess. As my main I went with the Abou El Sid’s Fettah – which is not obviously Chicken Tikka Masala but kind of similar except with different spices, flavors, etc. (It’s a chicken and rice dish with creamy tomato sauce, can’t explain it!)
Koshary El Moemen
Our guide took us here on the way back from Saqqara and it was a much-needed pit stop. Firstly, the koshary is a must try, it’s Egypt’s national dish! Think noodles, rice, lentils and fried onions mixed with savory tomato sauce. Don’t forget the vinegar – yes vinegar! It’s a heavy dish but you can get different sizes and it’s great for fueling up for a long day of sightseeing. Nowhere near the real stuff… but this is basically how we any spaghetti leftovers now; just mix in fried onions, some rice, lentils if you got ‘em and red wine vinegar! Tastes just like Cairo.
A must-visit if you are in the Khan-El-Kalili market, this coffee shop has been serving patrons since the 1700s. What?! Yup! There are a ton of cozy spots but the room in the back is pretty neat. The coffee is strong but they also have a bunch of other options, plus desserts, too!
Pour Vous Rooftop / Rooftop Zamalek
A great spot for a drink and a wonderful view of the Nile. Head through the lobby in the Nile Zamalek Hotel and let them know you’re there for the rooftop – the elevator will take you up. We didn’t eat there but apparently they also serve Italian food!
Our favorite restaurant of the trip – if I could have eaten here twice, I would have. Taboula is a Lebanese restaurant in the Garden City area of Cairo. We walked in without a reservation but it’s probably best you try for one, or get there really early. Get the Toumia (garlic dip), and don’t pass up the Ras Asfour (quite the name, eh?) but the pomegranate and lemon sauce on this beef is out of this world unique and delicious. Also the fried Halloumi cheese, the Labneh and the Kubbeh (balls of cracked wheat, minced meat, pine nuts in a yogurt sauce). If you have room, the Om Ali is a delicious bread pudding-like dish and I highly recommend it!
Pro Egypt Travel Tips – Other Miscellaneous Tidbits
- Air quality – heads up, everyone smokes, EVERYWHERE. It’s part of the culture. I find it gives me a headache and makes me nauseous so this was a little hard – especially on the overnight train we did from Luxor to Aswan later in the trip. But be prepared and you will be okay.
- Also – the air pollution is kind of nuts. Being a super dry desert climate, with an agricultural focus with farmers who do controlled burns on their fields plus being a major city with car exhaust and other pollutive elements (not to mention the sand that gets whipped up all day) you will definitely notice it. I had a few N95 masks with me and am really glad I had them to wear while we were driving and other places. Makes for pretty sunsets, though!
- Avoiding GI Issues – aside from the obvious ‘don’t drink the water’, your travel nurse or someone may also tell you to stay away from certain foods. I personally didn’t want to risk getting sick for a second since we had so much to see and do in a short time. They’ll tell you to only eat fruits and veggies that you can peel or are cooked – but I also stayed away from garnishes, raw veggies and sadly, Tabouleh (mix of cous cous but also raw onion, tomato, cucumber, etc.) Wish I’d realized/remembered what was in it before I ordered it!
Medical Related Egypt Travel Tips
- Go to a Travel Clinic – I had no idea these existed but someone recommended I check the resource out. If you’re going somewhere where you need multiple vaccinations and/or have multiple travel considerations you should probably consider it. Sometimes it’s covered by insurance, sometimes things will be out of pocket – I don’t believe you can just go to your doctor to get them but you should check with your doctor on their policies. It’s a good one-stop-shop resource and I learned a fair amount!
- What Vaccinations Do You Need for Egypt? You’ll want to start this process well in advance because you’ll need a few that are multi-phase shots over the course of a number of months if you haven’t gotten them before, including Hep A, Hep B, TDAP, Typhoid and Covid vaccines. Definitely check with your doctor or travel clinic on anything else you need, though – I am not a doctor!