Surviving Cairo, Giza and the Pyramids

Would you like to visit one of the true wonders of the world? Is exploring the ancient city of Cairo on your bucket list? Do you want to know the best way to visit Egypt's flagship tourist site independently and ahead of the crowd? How about getting some hotel and restaurant recommendations for the area too? If so, read this post about us surviving a visit to Cairo, Giza and the Pyramids.

Although Cairo, Giza and the Pyramids are considered somewhat challenging destinations for independent family travel, their unsurpassed historical treasures make them unmissable for every family with a heart for adventure. Seems like the best way to explore is going super early to get these amazingly photogenic locations all to yourself. Wandering around Old Cairo's maze of alleyways or horse riding in Giza's dunes overlooking the Pyramids takes you back to a lost era of flamboyant architecture and steep history. Thankfully, right now everywhere in Egypt (apart from the Sinai Peninsula) is safe, but further negative political developments could reduce security in future months or years. Go there now while you can!

From Alexandria to Cairo

Our family journey in Northern Egypt had begun a week earlier in Cairo, where we jumped straight onto a train to Egypt's surfing capital: Alexandria. While Alexandria had exceeded all expectations, we still felt the best was yet to come. Seems to me that visiting Egypt without a taste of both the capital and Giza's Pyramids isn't really experiencing the country at all. Edging towards Cairo on the return train trip from the north coast, I couldn't help feeling an incredible sense of excitement. One of the true wonders of the world was now within reach. The Pyramids awaited us. 

After three hours on a train, and evening fast approaching, we agreed to use the first guy to approach us at Cairo's train station offering a cheap taxi. He appeared like a nice enough character and pretended to understand my map and clear instructions too. So we followed him out of the station, tied my board to his roof rack and settled in for what we expected to be an uneventful ride to Giza. While heavy traffic conditions made getting out of Cairo difficult, our first glimpse of the Nile made my heart skip a couple of beats. But when the driver asked to see the map again and claimed he didn't know where the Pyramids or Sphinx were, I knew a shake down would follow. Logic will get you nowhere in the Middle East, only the answer to the question how much. Unable to understand any of my suggestions, the driver stopped and asked an Egyptian who spoke English to translate. He told me not to pay the driver any extra and helped him find the route to our hotel of choice: Giza Pyramids Inn. Two hours and a half later, the driver finally pulled up outside and smiled. To ensure he kept smiling and avoid any ugliness, I gave him the extra pounds he requested. It didn't matter to me anyway; it was small change.

Where to stay in Giza

Located on the banks of the river Nile, Cairo, Egypt's capital, sprawls over 1,191 square miles. Nine million people live within its metropolitan area, which consists of Cairo Governorate, and parts of Giza and Qalyubia Governorates. It is, by far, the largest city in the Middle East; a true mega city. Unsurprisingly, Cairo offers every possible accommodation option you might require: from super cheap hostel to luxurious palace. However, if you're keen to experience the Pyramids independently and early, choose a hotel in Giza Governorate.

Primarily for reasons of location, we chose the Giza Pyramids Inn (see room pictures above), which cost just thirty-five pounds ($46) per night for a deluxe room with balcony including breakfast. Situated directly opposite the Pyramids' entrance, you really couldn't wish for anything better at such a budget price. Right from the moment we checked in, the Inn's owners made us feel at home and quickly ushered us to the roof for a cold beer and prime view of the nightly Pyramid light show. The following morning we enjoyed a breakfast in the cold winter air with unimpeded views across the empty compound which houses the Sphinx and the three most famous pyramids in the world. It's definitely a great low to mid-range option but, like a lot of places in the heart of Giza, was a little noisy at night with horse riders and boy racers making the most of the darkness.

If you're looking for somewhere more upmarket and quieter, we'd recommend the fabulous Mena House. This place is steeped in history and located right at the drive-in entrance to the Pyramids. Its restaurant offers clear views across the Pyramids, as do many of their rooms (see picture below). Deluxe pool view rooms cost one-hundred and five pounds ($137) and Pyramid View rooms are slightly more expensive at one-hundred and twenty-eight pounds ($167). Alternatively,  Airbnb's Giza options include a range of self-catering apartments and other possibilities. Check them out too!

Five Awesome Things to Do in Cairo & Giza

1. Exploring Old Cairo and the Citadel

Home to ancient mosques, myriad market stalls, juice bars, restaurants and winding cobbled streets, Old Cairo is simply unmissable. Incorporated within our Cairo family photoshoot, we loved discovering narrow corridors for a stolen kiss and market stalls offering authentic souvenirs. Like most popular historically-rich areas, visitor numbers increase rapidly as the day progresses so, if possible, wander these amazing streets early morning or late in the evening after the crowds have disappeared. Not far from Old Cairo, and home to the Mosque of Muhammed Ali, is Cairo's Citadel. Worth a visit for the scenic vistas alone, this World Heritage Site is home to a splendid viewpoint, a fascinating Islamic museum and an incredible mosque.

2. Cruising the Nile on a Felucca

A definite highlight of any visit to Cairo is a gentle sail along the Nile on a felucca. You can arrange a cruise through your hotel or, to save a small fortune, just head to the edge of the river directly in front of the Four Seasons Nile Plaza, and requisition a boat and captain there. The price is naturally negotiable but don't pay anymore than a few US dollars per person. While sunset on the Nile might seem the most opportune time to feel the romance of Egypt, don't get too close to your wife or partner. My wife and I were scolded by the captain for kissing and cuddling; I guess he wanted us to get a room! Nevertheless, his sailing skills and rustic boat more than made up for his disdain for marital affection, and we rewarded him with a handsome tip for this once in a lifetime experience.

3. Camel Ride or Horse Riding in Giza's Dunes

Although Miras and Raf succumbed to pressure for a quick camel ride (US$5) near the Pyramids themselves, it was Raf and I's lengthier sojourn high into the dunes of Giza on horseback (US$40, including tip) that proved far more memorable. To the west of the Pyramids, at the edge of Giza, lie several stables offering horse-riding. Not for the faint of heart or sensitive animal lovers, you can take a taxi to these stables or arrange a ride through your hotel or a local guide. Once again, negotiation gets you the best price for riding horses or camels, and expect significant hassle for a tip which, if you agree to, effectively doubles your charge.

4. Explore the Pyramids

Numerous low to mid-range hotels, including Giza Pyramids Inn, invite their guests to enjoy the nightly light show over the Pyramids. The speakers are loud enough to hear the show too, and there's really no need to pay extra to get any closer. If you arrive in the evening, like we did, just go straight to your hotel rooftop, from where you'll got a superb introduction to these mythical pyramids. Our son Raf went to bed feeling so excited knowing he was staying in the backyard of these giants. Of course you'll want to get up close and personal too. While every hotel in Cairo offers a tour of the Pyramids, you can just walk in or independently drive inside the compound. If you're a seasoned traveler, you'll definitely prefer the freedom of just wandering around the expansive grounds at a time of your choosing. Go early to avoid the inevitable crowds and a chance of an IG-worthy capture for your feed. 

Refusing our hotel's insistence that we'd need a tour guide or expensive group tour to survive, we entered the compound two times without such assistance. First, with a Cairo-based American photographer for a sunset family photo shoot, and then alone the following morning. The experiences could not have been more different. A fairly serious sandstorm and significant crowds made the photo shoot a challenging experience, especially for Mirasol wearing an above the knee sexy dress and over the top Egyptian-style hair and make up (read more about the photo shoot here).

In complete contrast, the peace of the early morning, light winds and zero crowds made our second time a dreamy affair. A Giza local took us by horse and cart to the far viewpoint beyond the Pyramids and simply dropped us there. With unimpeded views and way ahead of anyone else, we snapped some timeless images under sunny winter skies. After that, we strolled back slowly towards the Sphinx checking out each pyramid in turn, including all the structures and alleyways around the smallest one. It felt quite unbelievable to be roaming around this incredible compound without anyone else. By the time we reached the middle pyramid a few tourists had begun to turn up, but not enough to spoil the relative tranquility. However, two hours later huge numbers poured through the gates and the Sphinx area was positively swamped by people as we headed down to the exit. It was time to go but we left with  huge appreciation of this wonder of the world. Timing was everything. Go early and you'll love it too!

5. Cairo National Museum

If you visit only one museum in the whole of Egypt, make it this one: Cairo National Museum. With other 120,000 artifacts, the museum houses an unbelievable range of mummies, pottery, jewellery and King Tutankhamen's treasures. But what makes the place so incredible is how rustic and dusty it is. While the Egyptian authorities have plans for a new, modern museum to house these treasures, it feels far more authentic in a less majestic, older, dustier environment.General entrance costs just 60 EGP (US$4) per person, with an additional 100 EGP (US$6) payable for the Mummies Room. Also, guides are available before you enter, which we'd recommend you think about hiring as the guy we chose really helped to illuminate what we were looking at, and Raf lapped up both his enthusiasm and information. Contrary to some information online, the museum's open every day including Fridays so make sure you put it on your Cairo itinerary even if you're only in town for one day.


Cairo & Giza Photography Highlights

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Three Amazing Places to Eat in Cairo & Giza

Unsurprisingly, the Cairo area offers a wide enough variety of cuisine to satisfy even the fiercest food critic. Egyptian food mirrors the staples available across the Middle East: kabab wa kofta (grilled meats), Ful wa Ta'meya (fava means and falafel), kushari (rice, macaroni, lentils mixed with spices and chickpeas) and all-time favourites hummus and grape leaves. After filling ourselves with seafood in Alexandria, it was time to sample a bit of authenticity in Old Cairo, alongside dinner at Mena House and platters of unbelievably delicious Arab and western food at the Four Seasons. Whatever you're looking for in Egypt's capital is available, from eateries offering $1 mains to palaces charging US$100 for a meal for two, so follow in our footsteps or discover your own culinary treasures.

1. Four Seasons Brunch

After an unreal experience at Cairo's National Museum, we hailed a taxi to the Nile's left bank in order to find a felucca captain and attend brunch at one of Cairo's most luxurious hotels. The short hop provided just enough time for Miras to slip on her highest heels and Raf to reluctantly don a fancy shirt. I already had a decent shirt on. It's not everyday you go to the Four Seasons, so it seemed like a marvellous idea to dress appropriately upmarket.

If you want one of the best foodie experiences in Cairo, or perhaps the world, don't hesitate to book Friday brunch at Four Seasons, Cairo. Live cooking stations, myriad salads, seafood specials, assorted meat dishes and deserts of every imaginable kind; this brunch had it all. Although Miras expressed doubt about how much she might enjoy it, as soon as she polished off a plateful she decided it was one of her all time favourites. Raf devoured mountains of food too, especially enjoying the wonderful array of desserts on offer. Meanwhile, I kicked back with a few glasses of red wine, selected some choice pickings from the buffet, and relished time with family in such a spectacular setting overlooking the Nile.

2. Mena House Dinner

If you're looking for a restaurant in Giza with a view, then you can't do a lot better than Mena House. Following a challenging family photo shoot in the middle of a sand storm at the Pyramids, our photographer kindly dropped us at Mena House for dinner. Chilly winds and lifted dust forced us indoors at 139 Restaurant, but our table still had lovely garden, pool and Pyramid views. The restaurant's international menu found us ordering an Arabic mezze starter to share and Asian cuisine for main course. Local beer nicely washed down the food which was quite nice but not as spectacular as the view.

3. Old Cairo Breakfast Places and Juice bars

Opposite Al-Hussein Mosque, at the edge of Khan el-Khalili bazaar, are a row of local-style restaurants perfect for breakfast. All of them offer Arab favourites like hummus, beans, falafel and fresh pitta bread washed down with the obligatory cup of tea. The comfortable seating, friendly service, amazing vibe and mosque view makes you feel like you're in the middle of the Arab world for a while. Although you pay a tourist price for food here, location is what makes it such a great experience and it still isn't expensive.

Dining here at the end of our Cairo family photo shoot allowed the photographer to snap a few shots of us enjoying a family meal. It might have been quite a simple affair but we all loved it, especially the super delicious Egyptian take on falafel. If breakfast isn't quite enough, you always can fill up on vitamins at one of Khan el-Khalili's myriad juice bars. Miras loved getting a taste of her Philippine roots by ordering a large sugar cane juice on our way out of the bazaar and Raf couldn't resist a small orange juice; both were so fresh and tasty.

Cairo & Giza Food Highlights

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Rafsworld Video Highlights


Follow in our footsteps

– To get to Cairo in the first place, start with skyscanner to find the cheapest international flight options. You can fly direct from almost all European and Middle Eastern capitals.

– Alternatively, combine Egypt with other countries in the Middle East. While the Arabs (for political reasons) might not recommend it, there are overland options to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Eilat (Israel). Check Mazada Tours website for some comfortable options or take more local style buses. Jordan is another interesting option: you can take the twice-daily ferry from Nuweiba (Egypt) to Aqaba (Jordan). Check AB Maritime schedule for up to date information and price. Visa on arrival is available in Aqaba.

– Check booking.com and Airbnb for accommodation options in Cairo and Giza. It makes sense to book ahead using booking.com (using free cancellation option if plans change) to ensure you get the right place for the right price.

– To get the most out of Egypt expect to pay more as a foreigner for almost everything. Come with enough money and a willingness to spend it all (tipping a lot where necessary) and you won't feel like you're being hassled or ripped off. Come with limited funds and hopes to have a cheap experience, and you'll be arguing for your entire trip.

– Ticket prices for independent entry into key sites in Cairo are extremely cheap (US$10 or less) compared with booking a group tour but be prepared for significant hassle; sunglasses and indifference go a long way.

– Book your table in advance at Mena House and Four Seasons using the up to date telephone numbers on their websites.

– For more information about photo shoots in Cairo, or Egypt in general, check our blogpost: "A Tale of Two Cities: Family & Boudoir Professional Photography and Hair & Make Up Experiences in Egypt" (Credit to Penguin Photography for some of the family and portrait images in the photo albums embedded above).

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