A First-Timer's Guide to Cairo
Published: April 2009
By David Kaufman
When Islamic militants gunned down 58 tourists at Luxor's Hatshepsut Temple in 1997, they all but killed Egypt's tourism industry. More than three years later, Americans are returning. Visitor safety is now a national concern, and security at monuments has been beefed up. For most travelers, Cairo is the first stop.
WHEN TO GO You'll avoid much of the heat and humidity if you visit between November and March, when temperatures are mostly in the seventies. But be aware that during the month of Ramadan (November—December), opening hours are limited.
VISAS An entry visa and a passport valid for six months after your arrival date are required. You can get a renewable 30-day visa upon arrival except at Taba and Rafah, the major border crossings from Israel.
FROM THE AIRPORT Cairo International Airport is 15 miles from downtown. Don't bother bargaining with "indie" limo drivers; instead, ask your hotel to arrange for a car and driver to meet you, or look for an official limousine station just past the arrivals hall. Trips into the city center take close to an hour and cost about $20; most drivers speak English.
WHERE TO STAY The new, centrally located Four Seasons (800/819-5053 or 20-2/573-1212, fax 20-3/570-4939; doubles from $190); or for Pyramid views and old-world luxury, the legendary Mena House Oberoi in Giza (800/562-3764 or 20-2/383-3222, fax 20-2/383-7777; doubles from $180).
MONEY It's easy to find an ATM in Cairo; branches of Bank Misr (Egypt Bank) accept both Visa and MasterCard/Cirrus cards; there are three American Express ATMs in town. Traveler's checks are most easily cashed at high-end hotels and restaurants.
WHAT TO WEAR Layering is the key word in Cairo, since warm days are followed by cool nights. Wear clean socks and carry a cover-up: shoes are forbidden in all Islamic holy sites and only tacky tourists go barefoot; women must cover their arms and heads in mosques.
VISITING THE PYRAMIDS The Pyramids of Giza are five miles from downtown, about a 45-minute journey by car. Hire a guide before you go; at the site, guides of dubious quality pounce upon unaccompanied travelers. Image Tours (20-2/568-1291) offers a trip for two, including a guide, entrance fees, transportation, and a camel ride for about $105. Be sure to arrive early—only 300 visitors per day are allowed inside Cheops, the largest pyramid (open 9—5; $5.50 per person).
MUST-SEES The Egyptian Antiquities Museum (al-Mathaf al-Masri, Maydan al-Tahrir; 20-2/575-4319), for the treasures of Tutankhamen; Khan el-Khalili, the world's largest market (east of Maydan al-Tahrir, near the El-Hussein Mosque); and the Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hassan (Maydan Salah al-Din), one of the largest examples of Islamic architecture in the world.