“Is Egypt safe?” “Is Cairo safe?”
I punched these terms into my Google search several times over a couple days when contemplating a trip there this past March to watch my favorite band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, play a concert at the Pyramids in Giza.
In my opinion, formed on reading several accounts, yes, for tourist travel, it’s just fine. To simplify, America has four times the violent crime. Most of our large cities have areas that are far more dangerous than tourist travel in Egypt, and you have probably visited them. As my disclaimer, obviously anything can happen at any time at any place when traveling; it’s called adventure. But yeah, Cairo and other historical areas in Egypt are safe to visit. This is especially true on group-guided tours where everything is laid out, and you have people looking out for you at every experience. You can tell that the Egyptian government has put security at the forefront to bring back the tourists, and it is doing a good job of it. There are security stations and posts at every site that tourists visit. I solo traveled, because I’m good at it, and travel is relatively cheap these days if you know how to search out the deals.
What to do in Egypt
The main reason to visit Egypt is to revere its historical relevance. Its artifacts and antiquities are some of the finest and oldest on Earth. The grand mosques and pharoahs’ treasures are awe-inspiring to stare at, while trying to wrap my head around the fact that the glass-encased mummy I am staring at is more than 3,000 years old and, in some ways, looks better than me. However, if these things aren’t a complete passion of yours, you may grow tired of the town. That’s not to say that it isn’t worth traveling to for a stint to see one of the world’s top wonders of all time in the Great Pyramid, as well as to experience the beautiful area culture. I spent five days in Cairo and was content. It would be a great city to work into a Mediterranean tour or split time between Cairo and Israel, or see it from a multi-night Nile boat cruise. However, if you’re truly into the study of archeology and all it’s made of, two weeks won’t be enough.
After landing in Cairo shortly before midnight, I Ubered to my hotel, a five-star Marriott property built on the grounds of a former palace that sits on the bank of the Nile. The American dollar is strong here, and you get a lot of hotel for only a little money. The property was great, with several restaurants and bars and even a casino on the grounds. Bars are uncommon in Cairo, but that’s not to say they aren’t there. Most Western hotel chains will have them. The Four Seasons or the Roof Top bar at the Ritz-Carlton have trendy spots with incredible views of the Nile at night. The newly reopened Hard Rock Café has yet to receive its liquor license.
Late the next morning, I got dressed and set out to walk. I covered about a mile square around the hotel property, discovering what my neighborhood had to offer. For the most part, I never felt uncomfortable or even noticed by anyone. Through my research, I knew that Cairo is more liberal than most Muslim-governed nations or cities, and it was even more relaxed than I expected. The majority of people, especially young people, could have blended in as “American” back here at home. Just people, people like us, living day to day lives in just another big city on the same planet.
The most startling thing about the area was the traffic. It was nonstop,
with four-lane-wide roads somehow fitting five lanes of cars. Traffic police serve more as suggestions, and the car horn seems like the national instrument. Crosswalks are novel, so you have to be a pro to cross these streets. Oddly enough, there seems to be some symbiotic relationship between pedestrian and car as no one really speeds, or slows down, and the walkers time the cars, sometimes waiting mid-lane to cross. Just like the video game Frogger.
Through internet research, I focused in on the “Top 5 Things to Do in Cairo,” although there were “Top 10 … 15 … 20” and so on lists. I was going to be in town five full days, with the concert on my second. I figured that I could do at least one “must-do” a day. Here’s what
Take a Nile cruise by day or by night, or both. As you walk along the Nile, which bisects Cairo, you will see several 35-foot boats, most open-air, looking somewhat like well-worn Disneyland safari adventure boats. You tour the landscape by river, but not just any river – the longest river in the world, 4,131 miles. Nile waters have traveled through 11 African countries before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. You see Cairo lit up in beautiful splendor, appearing like Cleopatra never dreamed; the gem-colored lights of the nearby high-rise hotels spark the black water to life. A daytime cruise in the late afternoon lets you see the hustle and bustle of the city, while drifting along peacefully. You can see locals gather along the banks as they come to enjoy street foods, picnics and each other’s company while watching the sun set.
The Egyptian Museum is a public display, built in 1902, and is one of the largest museums in the area. Within it are 120,000 items, including the King Tutankhamun display, where you can study up close his death mask, among other artifacts belonging to the Boy King. In another display, you can find the mummy of Queen Tiye, Tut’s grandmother. It is hard to explain, but somehow she retained some of her beauty. Some displays you can run your hand over, such as a tomb door, or a sarcophagus, a coffin made of stone, and instantly make a connection that is thousands of years old, a one-of-a-kind sensation. Don’t be surprised if you are approached by school kids here; they love Americans and want nothing more than to take a picture with one.
Within a trip full of magic and mystique moments, one instant caught me by surprise in Al Azhar Park. Here is Cairo’s largest green area, a park covering 74 acres built atop a hill with gentle slopes containing walkways, gardens, fountains and several cafes. From the top, you have a 360-degree view of Cairo. At the park around sunset, evening prayers were being offered over neighborhood loudspeakers. From blocks away and blocks beyond, different prayers with different voices filled the air. It was one of the most peaceful and beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed. A red sun globe set to the west, igniting the color of rust over the city, giving it the antiquity look that it has earned. At the nearby playground, kids continued to play, and mothers and dads sat on benches and continued to talk, just like people from big cities all over the world. We are all so much more alike than we are different. Discoveries as powerful as this are exactly where the pricelessness (Editor’s note. I sometimes like to make up words that work, like “Heroesque”) of travel is found.
There is a one-stop get-everything-you-need souvenir spot. The Khan El Khalili Market is a bazaar set in a historic district. The site itself, steeped in a thousand-year-old history of its own, was once the spot of an ancient mosque. Now it’s a place established as the central part of economic trade by a powerful sultan 500 years ago. You will have the opportunity to buy remembrance items and gifts made specifically in the Egyptian area. A scarf of Egyptian cashmere or a stylish and ornate hookah, spices and perfumes are derived and sold here as well. And here’s the thing – the American dollar is so strong, you can get a lot of really cool things for next to nothing. Expect to barter here. Whatever they say, you cut it in half, ultimately leading to some midpoint. The purchase is usually a low dollar amount, and it’s just not worth trying to make a few more cents off the merchant. Then everyone is happy.
When shopping or touring areas like this, there are only a few Arabic words needed to warm the encounter. Kaif halak, pronounced kay-fall-ik, is a greeting. Masalaama, pronounced maw-saw-llama, means good-bye. And the most important word in any language, shukraan, pronounced shoe-krahn, means thank you.
The last thing one must do is typically the first thing that comes to mind on Egyptian travel: Visit the Pyramids in Giza. They are the only remainders of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It’s one thing to see the colossal structures on a postcard and another to stand at their base and breathe in the wind that blows off them.
For size reference, the Great Pyramid is only 100 feet shorter than the peak of Morro Rock on California’s coast. The Giza Pyramids were the tallest manmade structures for 3,800 years. They are three tombs – a grand-father, son and grandson, with their respective queens nearby with smaller headstones. Along this tour, which can be taken on horseback, on a guide-led camel or on foot, you travel over sands and touch the pyramid stones, instantly linking you to their 5,000-year existence. You are standing next to man’s first attempt to outlast time, with construction methods that still baffle architects today. While here, you are only a short walk to the Sphinx, one of the largest statues in the world, which carries one of the oldest mysteries of mankind with her.
If you’ve ever wanted to visit Egypt to experience these things, go. Don’t let fear stop you; it’s unwarranted. Like I said, if you book through a reputable touring company, you will have no problems to speak of. What you will have is an adventure of a lifetime while wandering around an ancient place that is the world’s best reminder that we only have one lifetime, and time is fleeting. Grab those sands while you can.