How long do you really need in Cairo, Egypt?
Updated: Nov 28, 2023
As part of our Thanksgiving Abroad trip, we planned on 4 nights with 3 full days in Cairo. We wanted one day to visit Giza, one in Luxor (as we would find out this was much trickier to organize than we realized!), and one in Cairo. It may seem odd to only spend one day in the city you’re staying in, but we were focused on maximizing our time in each country on this trip. In order to see some of the most incredible wonders in Egypt, we had to keep our time in Cairo short. Luckily, for us, 1 day was all we needed in Cairo for what we were interested in doing. There are a few things that are truly remarkable must-sees in this city: the Egyptian Museum; the Mosque of Mohammad Ali; and the large Bazaar (Khan Al-Khalili). There are definitely plenty of mosques to explore and neighborhoods to wander in if you feel comfortable. However, our group struggled the most with the air quality in Cairo. It was more difficult to breathe after just 24 hours and one person in our group even got sick to his stomach for about 12 hours of our time there. Thankfully the second we moved out of the city and the air cleared he began to feel better.
Due to a few late nights of drinking and general fatigue from the long day of travel, we were only able to fit in 2 of the 3 things we wanted to see in Cairo. We opted to leave out the Egyptian Museum because we figured we would get multiple walks through history with Giza and Luxor.
So, all 4 of us set out to the Mosque of Mohammad Ali as our first stop. This particular mosque piqued our interest for more than just its name’s association with the famous American boxer…but it is in the middle of The Citadel in Cairo which was first built in 1176 to protect against Crusaders. Today there are 3 mosques within The Citadel, a Police Museum, a Military Museum, and a collection of other artifacts and pieces of Egyptian history from the more recent centuries. The most remarkable structure, by far is the Mosque of Mohammad Ali which towers above the rest of the structures and sits on the highest point. It has an immense alabaster-white stone courtyard to enter through with gorgeous tower pillars all around. In the center is an ornate clock which we found out was a gift from King Louis-Philippe of France in return for the obelisk that adorns the Place de la Concorde in Paris (thank you Lonely Plant Egypt for this fact). Had we known we’d see this clock, we also would’ve stopped to see the obelisk in Paris! It was quite remarkable how these circular ties occurred more than once on this trip.
When you enter the mosque, women must have their heads covered and everyone removes their shoes as signs of respect. Once appropriately dressed you can wander aimlessly among the white stones and take as many pictures as you like, or simply reflect. We chose to do a little of each!
Inside the mosque, you’ll find an elegantly carpeted floor with candles and chandeliers adorning the walls and ceilings. It’s peaceful inside with a low yet powerful energy that compels you to silence. Not being a Muslim, I felt like I was intruding on a sacred space by lingering too long so we made our way out to the back portion of the fortress that overlooked Cairo city. The views were sprawling! We each took a bit of time to absorb the experience and internalize the meaning we each found. To visit the entire complex, we paid between 120-160 EP ($5-7 US dollars). Your money goes far in Egypt!
After the Mosque, two of us (our group decided to split up) wanted to explore the famous bazaar of Cairo: Khan Al-Khalili. This Khan dates back to the 14th century and is a labyrinth of skinny streets packed tightly with any type of shop you can imagine. There are 3 main areas that are noteworthy (the gold sellers, spice market, and coppersmiths) but they can be difficult to find if you haven’t planned it out ahead of time. Even for someone who loves exploring, enjoys meeting people, and genuinely wants to try new things, this place was overwhelming. The streets are so narrow and winding that it is impossible to see a way out unless you are on the edge so it can begin to get claustrophobic. Not to mention, the stories are true, everywhere you look someone is right there trying to catch your eye and sell you something. These are the most aggressive merchants in the world! They are very good at making a sale and smooth-talking their way into convincing you that you need this one-of-a-kind scarf at a “special price, just for you”. You have to practice saying no and sticking to it! And then of course you have to say no repeatedly because once you’ve turned one merchant down, his buddy is right behind him hoping he can crack you. In my opinion, it is absolutely an experience you cannot miss in Cairo! I wish I would’ve spent more time in the spice area, but when you’re on a tight timeline you have to pick and choose! If you don’t buy anything (which can be difficult) this entire experience is free. If you do choose to buy something, practice your haggling! There’s always someone overhearing your conversation, who will try to steal the sale that the merchant you’re talking to will say he simply “can’t make at that price” (but of course, they can! It’s all part of the game). We had a little fun haggling, especially because we weren’t attached to anything we were trying to buy. In fact, we used those skills later on when haggling prices with taxi drivers who do in fact try to outrageously rip you off. So in those situations, do not back down or you will pay double what you should. The Khan wrapped up our day in Cairo, mostly because we had to hustle back to the hotel to grab our bags and then race to Ramses Station to catch an overnight train to Luxor! A chore to book and a humbling ride, but well worth the trip to my favorite part of Egypt! More to come on Luxor in another post…
Reach out with any questions about this trip and others! And definitely connect with me on IG if you have trip suggestions, ideas, or asks!