What we Did With 48 Hours in Egypt
During our backpacking through the Middle East, we were fortunate enough to book a layover in Cairo. Right away, we knew that Cairo was going to be an intimidating city. Before our arrival, we booked a taxi to take us from the airport to the hotel, and the traffic and pollution alone was unlike anything we had ever experienced. We’re New Yorkers, so when someone tells us to beware of crowds or traffic, we scoff; we’re used to that on a daily basis. Not so with Cairo. The roads are absolutely packed full of cars, vans, tuktuks, motorcycles, people riding donkeys, stray dogs, kids playing, men carrying baskets of fruit or bumpers for cars (we saw it! It’s not a joke!) - and somehow the drivers know exactly how to avoid all of it, but not without close calls that had us on edge. We tried to keep our cool in the back of our taxi, but I think our driver saw through our composure.
After that eventful introduction to Cairo, we checked into our (gorgeous) hotel and prepared for our 48 hour whirlwind in Egypt. Here is what we did:
1. Booked a Food Tour with Bellies En-route and explored downtown Cairo
On our first day, we were excited to take part in a five-hour food tour with Bellies En-route, an awesome company led by women entrepreneurs and the only food tour in Cairo! To be honest, we didn’t know a lot about Egyptian culture or food before taking this tour; it seems like whenever someone mentions Egypt, all you think of is pyramids or hieroglyphics, am I right? But this tour opened our eyes to the rich, deep and ancient culture of the modern Egyptian people. We tried koshari, a dish of pasta, lentils, chickpeas, tomato sauce and crispy onions that our guide, local Egyptian Mia, called “Egyptian drunk food.” We had the traditional dish of molokhia, a somehow-appetizing slimy paste made from a vegetable we had never heard of but that was akin to okra. And, Daniel’s favorite, we tasted Egyptian falafel, made from favabeans instead of chickpeas. There were fresh juices - I had tamarind juice and Daniel tried fresh sugarcane juice; we learned that the sugarcane could go poisonous in less than a day, so we were living on the edge. We finished our tour with a molasses dessert found in a “fruit and car parts market” (truly, there were stands selling fruits and stands selling car parts), but not before stopping for other dishes that I sadly can’t remember the name of. Our time spent with Mia, as well as a family from San Fransisco, a couple from India on their honeymoon, and a pair of cousins traveling from Ireland, was a night to remember. Delve into modern Egyptian culture, taste some awesome food and meet people from around the world when you book with Bellies Enroute!
If you are interested in booking with Bellies Enroute, do so with as much notice as possible. We reached out to them 2 months in advance and their tours were actually already booked; we were only able to snag a spot because we got on their waitlist.
Wanting to try Egyptian food closer to home? (If you’re an American, that is.) Since returning to the States, we found “Little Egypt” in Ridgewood, Queens - it has the most authentic culinary experience that we’ve had outside of Egypt. It’s owned by a couple who emigrated from Egypt and relocated to Queens; they even donate proceeds from the food they sell on Sundays and donate it to Coptic Christian churches back in Egypt.
2. Visited the Pyramids (duh)
Standing in front of the Great Pyramid was a surreal experience. Truly, everyone should journey to Egypt and take in these impressive pieces of ancient history for themselves. We spent most of our day walking between the pyramids, actually going INSIDE the Pyramid of Khafre (much shorter line than going inside the Great Pyramid), spotting the Sphinx and surviving a dust storm. The compound that the pyramids are on also have an incredible view of Giza. Read on for our tips of how we visited the pyramids in a safe and ethical way.
3. Stayed in the Marriot Mena House
This one is obviously not a “must see” because it is more expensive than the attractions we usually advertise on our blog, but we splurged on the Marriot Mena House as an anniversary gift to ourselves. (Five years of marriage!) The hotel is gorgeous and you can even book a room with a view of the pyramids. They also have a spa and pool that you’ll definitely want to frequent. A night at the Marriot Mena House will run you a minimum of $125 USD.
Things to know:
Security is intense.
In order to get into hotels, airports and the compound that the pyramids are on, you’ll go through multiple security checks. To get into the Marriot Mena House, we arrived via taxi and were stopped at a police checkpoint that chemical swabbed our car and searched it with bomb dogs. At the hotel, we were separated from our luggage and asked to go through metal detectors while they searched and scanned our luggage in a nearby room. You can choose to approach this as an uncomfortable infringement on your privacy, or you can acknowledge that these protocols are put in place to keep you safe.
Visiting the pyramids without a guide is completely doable!
Before going to Egypt, we read so many articles telling us to book with a tour group when visiting the pyramids. Being seasoned travelers and New Yorkers who are good at saying no to hawkers, we decided to brave it on our own. And guys, it’s completely doable. You’ll want to, of course, keep an eye out for various scams, here are the ones that we encountered:
Men will stand outside the pyramids and ask for your tickets after you’ve already paid and gone through security. Don’t give them your tickets. We saw these people and walking right past them was very easy, but we’ve heard that if you do give them your tickets, they’ll hold them for ransom and ask you to pay them to get them back.
If you take a picture of any of the camels, the handler will hassle you (sometimes aggressively) for a tip. Same goes for if a local asks you if you want them to take a picture of you. The most confusing instance we had was when a policeman, dressed in uniform, came over to us and said he’d “look the other way” if we climbed onto the wall to take a picture. (I’d previously broken my ankle, I’m not climbing up on any walls.) We said no, but he insisted that he’d look the other way if we gave him 20 pounds. We don’t particularly like arguing with policemen in foreign countries, so we just gave him 20 pounds and went on our way.
If you decide to go into the pyramid, there were men outside who were insisting that you had to leave your cameras with them and couldn’t take photos inside. They looked like employees and perhaps they actually were running an honest program, but we heard them telling people this from a distance, so we hid our cameras in our bag before approaching them. We told them we didn’t have any cameras, and simply didn’t take them out while we were exploring the inside of the pyramid, just to err on the side of caution.
Don’t give your money to the men working with horses or camels.
This is our last disclaimer about visiting the pyramids: don’t give your money to any of the men working with horses or camels. From what we witnessed, the camels had visible sores and the horses were foaming at the mouth. Being intentional about where your money goes during your travels can do a lot when it comes to changing animal welfare in any country.
Being a woman traveler in Egypt:
First and foremost, I can’t speak to being a solo woman traveler in Egypt because I traveled with my husband. However, I thought I should include my thoughts on being a woman traveler in Egypt, since it’s often a question I get asked. Bottom line is: I didn’t feel uncomfortable or unsafe in Cairo’s crowds while I was with Daniel. There was one man who offered Daniel six camels for my hand in marriage (😂) and another who told me I looked like Shakira, but both were just looking for attention. Plus, I’m a New Yorker, it’s not as if I’m not used to men yelling unsolicited things at me (and I’ve heard much worse.)
All in all, we had an incredible time in Egypt. We embraced the culture shock, sought to learn all we could from local Egyptians, tasted some delicious traditional Egyptian dishes and stood in front of one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. What could be better than that?