After years of dreaming about this mystical land, this is it, we are finally here! Yes, we were beyond exhilarated to step into the ancient Nubian lands of Egypt.
But is it safe to go there, you ask?
After the Egyptian revolution the number of annual tourists has plummeted from 14.7 million to 5.4 million. Still recovering from a couple of ad-hoc attacks once a year, tourists are still wary of travelling to this region in general.
After doing a little research, it looked like we would be just as safe in Egypt as we are here in NYC, if we didn’t take traffic accidents into account! While keeping a close eye on the political and safety situation, we started our journey to this historical land and can’t wait to get back!
We started our trip in the capital Cairo. With a population of over 12 million and the Greater Cairo area has over 20 million people, this metropolis is ever expanding.
This post is part of the Egypt Series. Other posts in this series:
- How to fly from NYC to Cairo in business for $12
- Cairo diaries: 3 day Cairo itinerary – This post
- Unforgettable Nile river cruise
- Incredible temples of Abu Simbel
Cairo day 1
After a surprisingly easy landing and immigration control, we are all set for a 1 hr 15 min drive to Giza. Our hub for the stay in Cairo is Giza – where the great pyramids are located. The drive through the Cairo city center was just what we needed to whet our appetite for the next several days.
Passing through the more luxurious neighborhoods reserved for the rich and powerful, to the neighborhoods mainly consisting of acres of mausoleums (cemeteries) full of homeless people living inside, we felt like a couple of excited little kids trying to take in the exuberance of the city from the car.
Cairo is infamous for its traffic, this 1hr 15 min ride, can easily turn into 2 hr ride during rush hour. I can safely say that driving in Cairo is something that a first timer should not attempt. With a favorable currency exchange rate, there is no reason not to go with a pre-arranged driver / car.
- Landing: 12.10 pm
- Departed immigration and picked luggage: 1 pm
- Arrival in Le Meridian Pyramids, Cairo: 2.30 pm
We chose Le Meridien, Pyramids for various reasons –
- Proximity to the pyramids – Translates to short travel time if you want to visit the Pyramids more than once
- View of the pyramids from your room – What better than enjoying these wonders of the world from the comfort of your room?!
- Fantastic redemption rate – We were upgraded to a suite for one night and to a room with pyramids view for another night which was a steal for 2500 SPG points / night.
After check-in, we headed straight to get our fill of Egyptian food – Felfela. It is an ideal location, being just 5 min walk from the hotel. We got too much food and didn’t regret it at all – fluffy cloud like falafel balls, creamy hummus, various other salads, pickles and sides. The walk was just the right distance to get a taste of the streets of Egypt while still feeling somewhat jetlagged.
Lounge at the pool:
We were surprisingly energetic after a long flight and decided to take advantage of the heated pool with the view of the pyramids. After a quick dip, we were ready to go out and make the most of our visit to Giza.
Drinks and dinner at the Mena house:
We decided to head to the luxurious Mena House for drinks and dinner. Originally part of the Oberoi group, this hotel has been acquired by Marriott group and will be officially renamed in 2018. This palatial hotel is surrounded by 40 acres of gardens and has a rich and colorful history –
- Originally built as a hunting lodge in 1869,
- Opened Egypt’s 1st pool in 1890,
- Hospital for Australian troops in 1939,
- Hosted Egypt and Israel peace settlement in 1977
- and much more…..
The walk from Le Meridien to Mena house is less than 15 min but it seems like an eternity if you are not used to crossing highways where there are no traffic lights. Instead of going the sensible route of using an Uber, we threw caution to the wind and decided to go for it.
After walking as far as we could on one side of the road, we found a good location where the cars where naturally slowing down for a speed hump. We then made a run for it. With cars zig-zagging and honking, it was all a blur through what seemed like a really stupid decision.
Either way – we finally made it to the Mena house – phew!
It felt much more difficult than a lot of crossings I grew up with in Mumbai or maybe I have lost my highway crossing genes. Jamie was completely fine and not as scared as me which made we wonder if I am still an Indian anymore.
After this heart racing walk, we were ready for a drink. We opted for the 139 lounge and terrace. It has spectacular view of the pyramids which is enhanced even further by the reflecting pool. It gets a bit chilly at night during the winter but don’t fret – the gas heaters by the tables keep you toasty warm.
Unfortunately, we went on a pretty foggy day and could barely see the edge of the pyramid from the terrace. It was a worthwhile location to visit nonetheless. Here’s how Mena house looks like on a clear day –
We opted for the intimate Mogul room restaurant in the Mena House hotel for dinner. The food was expensive for Egypt but a deal for us foreigners. The food was delicious and the service was excellent.
After the satisfying dinner, we were too full for an adventurous street crossing and instead chose to take an Uber.
It set us back a grand total of 50 cents! Yes, Egypt is cheap right now – book your flights!
Cairo day 2
We woke up early for the big day! We were excited for our first close-up visit to the Pyramids.
The breakfast at the Le Meridien (included as a platinum welcome gift). The buffet had varieties of breads, fruits, omelet station and various Egyptian delicacies. However, the coffee was subpar and it took forever to get refills.
We were ready for our guide from Memphis tour and eager to start the day. The guide made it but the driver was stuck in traffic so we started our tour at 9am instead of 8.30. No big deal because it took us less than 10 min to get to the Pyramid. You can get tickets to the Pyramid complex at the entrance for 80 Egyptian pounds or $9 USD.
The Great Pyramids of Giza
After the usual cursory security check (which is present at every tourist sight in Egypt), we were awestruck in front of these wonders for several minutes, just soaking in the experience. We learnt a fair bit about the history –
The pyramid is estimated to have around 2,300,000 stone blocks that weigh from 2 to 30 tons each and there are even some blocks that weigh over 50 tons.
The Pyramid of Menkaure, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Great Pyramid of Khufu are precisely aligned with the Constellation of Orion.
The interior temperature is constant and equals the average temperature of the earth, 20 Degrees Celsius (68 Degrees Fahrenheit).
The pyramids were originally covered by highly polished limestone
We wandered around the large complex, walking to all 3 pyramids and seeing them from different angles. Seriously – pictures don’t do justice. You have to see them in 3D to experience the magical feat of engineering built in 2500 BC!!
It is a little difficult to enjoy the pyramids in all its glory with vendors trying to sell you tchotchkes. Don’t respond, just ignore them if you don’t want to be bothered. A yes is a yes and a no is also a yes. If you decide to buy something, haggle away!
You can take camel and carriage rides but having done them in the past we decided to skip it and head to the panorama point. As the name suggests, from here you can see the pyramids and the entire complex. We then completed our visit of the Giza plateau after seeing the great sphinx.
The tour included a visit to the Papyrus shop which we really enjoyed. We were offered a beverage of hibiscus or sugarcane juice and were given a demonstration of how papyrus was made. It was also great to learn different hieroglyphic letters. We used the cheat-sheet to decode various hieroglyphs throughout our visit which was quite fun.
We were so impressed that we got suckered into buying a hand-made painting of “The judgement of the dead” on papyrus which is one of my favorite Egyptian stories.
A 30 min drive brought us back to the banks of Nile which divides Giza and Cairo. We had a nice leisurely lunch on riverboat (which was less than memorable due to the lame tourist driven menu pre-selected for us). After a bit of people watching, we were ready for the to visit Coptic Cairo.
The most famous site in Coptic Cairo is the Church of the Virgin Mary, better known by its nickname, the Hanging Church. The floor of the church is built on the is suspended above a chasm between the two towers. There are glass panels installed so you can see that it is the real deal.
We also visited the St Mary Egypt Orthodox Church. This church was built as a dedication for the Virgin Mary, it was the place where the holy family started their trip to Upper Egypt by boat.
I have to be honest – after living in NYC for almost a decade and after visiting plethora of museums in 6 continents, I certainly enjoy museums but I am no longer wowed by them. Cairo museum was an exception! You can spend days in this museum. Just the statues on the main floor command a museum by themselves. Our guide did an excellent job of navigating us through the museum – while describing the intriguing history and culture behind each antiquity.
We learned so much about the rulers –
History about the old, middle and new kingdom;
How each pharaoh tried to memorialize their life by building great temples and impressive inscription
How the pharaohs controlled the lower and upper Egypt
The meaning behind head dresses, beards, crowns, etc.
After a whirlwind of the tour watching the treasures of Tutankhamun, Ramses, Seti and various other rulers, we were ready for the grand finale –
The mummies room!
This room costs extra but is a must visit, in my opinion. You can’t help but still feel the strong energy from the mummified bodies. The mummies of several pharaohs including King Ramses II, Hatshepsut and various others are located in this room.
Having been shaken to the core and while delving into questions such as “what is really the meaning of life?”, we were jolted back to reality as we got to our next stop – the hustling and bustling Khan – El – Khalili market.
Hold on – a few logistical notes about the museum before we get to our next stop –
Cairo entrance fee – LE 60 (approximately $4 – this was included in our tour)
Royal mummies room fee – LE 100 (approximately $5.7 – we bough this separately on our own because the tour organizer was charging $20USD for this ticket, if tacked on to our full package)
Photo ticket fee – LE 50 (Approximately $5 – we also bought this separately. Note that you need a ticket for each camera. Phones are not counted as cameras but you will be asked to show tickets when you are taking pictures). You still cant take pictures in the mummies room. You could sneak a picture in but the pharoahs who clearly didnt want to disturbed wont enjoy it if you do.
Khan – al – Khalili market
Khan – Al – Khalili is a traditional bazaar or “souk” with a maze of zig-zagging lanes and vendors selling everything from food, clothing, souvenirs, spices, etc. It has great energy and is certainly a sensory overload.
Even though it was vibrant and fun, I wasn’t overly impressed. If you have visited other similar bazaars in Turkey and other parts of Asia, you may not be as impressed.
We ended the jaunt and headed to the warm, welcoming and upscale “Naguib Mahfouz Cafe”, located in the market.
The menu has a wide variety and we settled for various Egyptian delicacies such as baba ghanoush, hummus, fresh salads and warm bread. The food lived up to its well deserved reputation. It is also a good spot to stop by for coffee or shisha (hookah).
The cost is certainly above average for Egypt but a steal for visitors. It is a very popular place especially for visitors so reservations are necessary.
Next morning, we leave for Luxor and return to Cairo for our third night towards the end of our visit.
Cairo day 3
In this part, we are jumping to our last day of the trip. Our flight out of Cairo after visiting Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel was scheduled for 5pm. This gave us perfect opportunity for visiting other popular spots such as the Citadel – which was our original plan.
After seeing the magnificent pyramids, we spent a significant time in awe of them. We felt that instead of going to the Citadel, we should go back to the pyramids. Another reason that solidified our decision was that the view of the pyramids was quite hazy during our first visit and the views get clearer after noon. Had we known this, we would have visited the pyramids the evening before on our 1st day.
Some pictures from the visit on the hazy day –
We changed our hotel to Le Meridien Pyramids on our Nile cruise and made the drive back to Giza.
We were so glad we made this decision. To see the pyramids in all its glory when its not crazy was beyond what we could’ve imagined. This part wasn’t part of our tour so we went by ourselves in an Uber without a guide.
Be very careful if you are not with a guide. On one of our visits, an official looking gentleman (he was wearing the official vest and had an ID) approached us and asked to see our tickets. He wouldn’t give our tickets back until we joined his tour. After making it clear that we were not going to fall for this game, he gave our tickets back and left us alone.
We had a few hours before our ride back to airport and we spent every last minute – a bit past the deadline, watching these magnificent structures.
We now step into the beautiful and relaxing Nile cruise after our visit to Cairo – stay tuned!