It’s impossible to take a photograph that captures the essence
of Cairo. Instead, Cairo’s character lies in the calls to prayer
that reverberate down the street, the grit that gets under your
fingernails and the shiver that goes down your spine when you
realize that seemingly everyone in this bustling city is looking at
The livelihood of modern-day Egypt depends on tourists intent on
seeing relics of a past civilization, but the city identifies
itself more with the five pillars of Islam. Many women walk around
with their heads covered, and anti-American sentiment is high.
We discovered, however, that we could enjoy Cairo even when we
stuck out like sore thumbs. What we found was an odd mix of
tradition and invading modern culture that typifies Egypt’s largest
Khan al-Khalili bazaar was a must-see experience the alleyways
boil over with shouting merchants, sizzling delicacies and tacky
tchotchkes. Bargaining is key, though it can be exhausting.
An underground pedestrian walkway links the main part of the
Khan with a lesser-known adjunct near the el-Azhar Mosque there,
stores carrying albums of Egyptian paper and linens with
belly-dancing designs feature fixed prices.
El-Azhar is a formerly operational mosque that welcomes visitors
as long as they remove their shoes, and women cover their heads
(the operators also keep cloaks on hand to cover skimpy dress). The
views of fantastical minarets and scalloped railings here are
amazing, and there’s no cost except for a tip of an Egyptian pound
or two to the employee who stashes your shoes.
In addition to the quintessential visits to the Egyptian Museum
and the Pyramids in Giza, the most authentic Cairo activity is
riding in cabs. There are no meters, so the price of a ride is up
to the customer. But when you look Western, it can get complicated.
If a cabbie immediately asks how much you’re willing to pay, get
out and find someone else. We found it easier to locate honest
cabbies a few blocks away from major tourist attractions, and those
who spoke little English were less likely to scam.
Cabs definitely operate differently than in the Western world,
but finding places to eat was a strange mix of both cultures. KFC
and McDonald’s were prevalent everywhere including at the base of
the Pyramids. Many places served American-style sandwiches and
entrees, though we did sample the traditional Egyptian dish of
kosheri, which consists of macaroni and rice topped with lentils
and a tomato sauce. It’s cheap and worth a try.
One night, we went to the bar at the landmark Nile Hilton, and
observed Latin Club Egypt giving entertaining lessons in rueda and
salsa dancing to the well-heeled youth of Cairo.
We later headed to the Semiramis InterContinental Cairo to try
out their nightclub, Rithmo. The margaritas were garnished with
lemon slices but the American music felt familiar.
Finally, it was a bit of a surprise to find one of the better
English bookstores we’d seen at home or abroad in Cairo. The
American University of Cairo has a tranquil campus amid the dust
and heat of downtown, and the bookstore provides even more of an
1113 Corniche El Nil
Entrance on Simon
Rithmo: Open 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.
The American University in Cairo Main
Hill House, First Floor. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday through
Entrance on Mohamed Mahmoud Street.
Dark, loud restaurant, with excellent cuisine and free Wi-Fi
18B El Maraashly St., Zamalek
American-style cafe opposite the American University of Cairo
31 Mohamed Mahmoud St.
|Web Exclusive: TRAVEL TIPS|
The best word to keep in mind in Cairo is la. It means
“no” in Arabic, and you’ll need it to ward off the scores of locals
who approach you to ask for an Egyptian pound or two. Starting at
the airport, when cabbies on commission from downtown hotels
approach you, use it loudly. Use only the black-and-white taxis,
and the tourist police will answer any questions that you have.
With the exchange rate of about 5.79 Egyptian pounds for each
American dollar, it’s easy to get caught up in your buying power,
but a little goes a long way. A 10-minute cab ride should cost no
more than five pounds, but don’t give the money to your driver
until after you get out of the car. Hand it through the window, and
say “shukaran.” And walk away, no matter what they
Women will have fewer problems when traveling with a male
companion, but as long as they dress conservatively (sleeves at
three-quarter length, pants no shorter than Capris, nothing too
tight) and refrain from looking men in the eye, they should be
fine. Such dress won’t stop once-overs from Egyptians of either
sex, but it should lessen the number of catcalls.