A word of advice if you are planning a short trip to Cairo, though: Ladies, dress conservatively. You won't get stopped by cops if you wear hot shorts, but you will get harassed. Besides Cairo, good cities to visit are Luxor, Sharm El Sheikh, Alexandria and Hurghada.
But even just the capital – let alone the whole country – can be a nightmare if you decide to go back-track style and just walk around the busy city until you find yourself at the Nile, the Pyramids, Cairo Museum, the Opera House or any other attraction you've read about before.
Because of the never-ending traffic in the highly populated capital, plan to only include three or four destinations in your itinerary. That's really all you need to get a true taste of Cairo – you'll be fine just walking through the vast museum, having a late lunch by the Nile, then going for a Sound & Light show at the Pyramids in the evening.
Throw in watching the sun set from Moattam (a small hill which is the best place to get a night view of Cairo) or Azhar Park (it is just a park, but it's location grants it an indescribable 360 degrees view), and you're as good as gold. But if you’re looking for a good view of Cairo over anything else, don’t miss going up Jazeera Tower during the daytime.
However, you won't see many Egyptians going about their daily lives and just doing their thing at the usual tourist attractions. If you want a taste of true Cairo life, you're going to have to dive head-first into the Old Cairo areas where it gets crowded, busy and sometimes even a little scary for first-timers.
The museum is a good place to start as it's located at Tahrir Square which is the heart of downtown Cairo (Tahrir is also where you get most embassies and consulates). If you go into the museum you'll probably come by a section which you have to buy another ticket to enter – go in, it's absolutely worth it because that's where they keep the mummies and the bulky gold stuff they discovered in the Pyramids. (Yes, that really is Pharoah Ramses III's hair.)
Khan El Khalili – a busy souq surrounding the celebrated Al Hussein Mosque – is another great spot to witness the days and lives of Egyptians, and it's the ideal place to do some shopping and pick up souvenirs and gifts for friends and family back home – remember to bargain, though. If you take time out to sit in one of the traditional coffee shops for some seriously good yet inexpensive shisha, chances are you'll wind up literally rubbing shoulders with the local college kids.
As many of the activities and attractions worth leaving your hotel room for are outdoors, make sure you go at a time of year when it isn’t too cold or too hot. Cairo summer can be just as bad as Dubai’s, and last just as long, so avoid June to August completely. It may require an exceptionally outdoorsy spirit to appreciate commuting around Cairo in the always-packed Metro or the air-conditioning-less taxis in May or September, but to make the most of visiting places like Azhar Park and outdoor cafés on the Nile, plan your weekend trip in April or October.
What to bring back
- The best place to take memorable photos is quite obviously at the Pyramids of Giza – but opt for a change from the cliché and take your camera to Azhar Park on a clear morning
- At Khan El Khalili, you can buy almost anything from the usual little marble statuettes of the Sphinx to silver jewellery and beads to sheepskin rugs and arabesque coffee tables
- If you're into hubbly bubbly, you'll find the most colourful and intricately-decorated shishas also at Khan El Khalili, although it could prove inconvenient to travel with one stuffed in your weekend suitcase