To travel to Cairo is to travel to the heart of the Arab Spring. Joelle Petrus is our guide to the Egyptian capital in flux… and finds Facebook is more relevant than pharaohs.
*Security: Following the revolution in 2011, Cairo has gone through rapid and serious changes. Cairo, once an astoundingly safe city, has seen recent spikes in crime, including harassment and sexual assault. Before going, be sure to check travel advisories for your embassy and read local English language newspapers.
*Dress Code: Both women and men can somewhat avoid unwanted attention by not wearing shorts, skirts above the knee, or shirts without sleeves. If it is hot, a woman can bring a light scarf to cover the shoulders of her sleeveless top. A scarf is also useful for women when trying to get into well-known mosques for free or otherwise.
The Arab Spring isn’t over yet in Egypt. The events of January 25th, 2011 and after have brought to the surface deep unresolved issues regarding the identity of the nation. These events are still unfolding in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the city. Scattered protests and bouts of violence still occur, and the situation is constantly evolving in new and sometimes unexpected ways.
The battling worlds of Egypt can be seen the most clearly in Cairo, from the posh malls and clubs frequented by foreigners and the very richest Egyptians, to the Muslim Brotherhood member with his wife wearing ‘niqab.’ Yet the essence of Cairo is still sitting in the ‘baladee’ (my country) café in the street, smoking a shisha and drinking a tea with fresh mint or a good black coffee late into the evening.
Despite, or maybe because of, everything that has happened, most Egyptians are still eager to exercise tolerance for religion, welcoming outsiders with panache that one suspects is as old as the pharaohs. With the pyramids in an outlying suburb, Cairo is the ultimate place to experience the clash of old and new, of radical change coupled with die-hard traditions. It is an intense assault on the senses and the brain.
You will either be addicted to Cairo or never return. There is no in between.
Best of the Beaten Track
Cairo has so many layers of important history, it will be difficult to hit even these main points in just one weekend. Generally, sites can be broken down into Pharonic, Coptic Christian, Islamic, colonial, or modern periods.
Cairo is world famous for its traffic, so if you take a taxi, be prepared. Make sure you hail a white cab with a working meter. Also, make sure the taximan explicitly turns the meter on, and make sure it begins at 2.50 EGP. A non-working meter is a sign of a scam, and check current information from your embassy regarding taking taxis at night.
The metro will take you near many places of interest to travelers. It costs 1 EGP. Maps are posted in the interior, but they are out of date, meaning that the names of a few of the stations have changed; notably the Mubarak station has become Al Shohadaa (the Martyrs). It is best to download a map and then ask metro workers for assistance.
Sites to see include the Pyramids (though beware of touts), and the Sakkara Pyramids (you must have a car or taxi to and from this destination) also check out the Mastabas beside it. With its collection of antiquities, a traveler needs to see the Egyptian Museum. However, you should check the situation in Tahrir first, as it is located just beside the square.
Coptic Cairo can be reached easily by getting out at the Mar Girgis metro station, including the Hanging Church and the Coptic Museum. Islamic Cairo includes the Citadel, Khan el Khalili Souq with El Fishawy’s Café and the Islamic Art Museum.
Probably, the coolest neighborhood to get lost in is Garden City. Legend has it that its impossibly winding streets were made that way to confuse the British during Egypt’s resistance to colonialism; Wikipedia claims otherwise. Now it’s home to many embassies, juxtaposed by barbed wire and even tanks.
Across the way, outside the Saad Zaghoul metro station, you will find a house that belonged to the station’s name sake, a central leader in the struggle against colonialism. Two more sights worth seeing are the home and museum of Om Khalthoum, a singer who retains cult following status among many Egyptians, and the Nilometer, the structure used for measuring the undulations of the great river. Both of these sites are on the same site at the southernmost tip of Manial Island.
At the heart of grassroots liberalism in Egypt and a hotspot of the revolution is Townhouse Gallery. For rare book enthusiasts, check out Dar el Kotb (house of books) downtown; it’s free and houses one of the oldest Korans ever written.
Experience & Events
If the Arab Spring was a Facebook revolution, then Cairo is a Facebook city. Anything hip or cool going on in the city is likely to be posted on Facebook as an event, and a traveler can get a head start on their trip by joining some groups in Cairo relevant to their interests. For art enthusiasts, I can recommend joining the Darb 1718 group, the Townhouse Gallery group, and the French Culture Center in Cairo group.
Graffiti art has experienced a renaissance in Cairo since the revolution. To see some of the best work of this movement, you go to Mohammed Mahmoud Street just outside the American University downtown campus. You may even see graffiti art in progress. Mohamed Mahmoud Street is notorious as the site of many street battles between Egyptian youth and the military since the Arab Spring. After doing this, you might take a stroll to the burned out structure of the National Democratic Party building, definite proof that the revolution remains unfinished.
A particularly interesting time to visit Egypt is during the month of Ramadan, when Egyptians hang out special decorated lanterns and set out tables in some neighborhoods with food for anyone who cares to sit and break the fast. However, the downside is that bars close during this month and Egyptians are legally barred from drinking.
Dina’s Hostel is the place to stay in Cairo. The place vaguely feels like you are staying in your friend’s apartment, with an owner on hand who has the most up to date information about Cairo. There is also the Windsor Hotel downtown, which used to be frequented by British officers and still retains the flavor of this bygone time. For an option outside of downtown and further away from Tahrir, try the Horus Hotel, with its friendly hotel staff and pretty terrace. For something more upscale, try the Marriott in Zamalek. It is the most picturesque of the expensive hotels in Cairo, and makes a good effort at oriental décor.
While any little falafel stand has the possibility to impress, head to Abou el Sid in Zamelek for a step back in time. Eat at Sequoia for the nile view, Prince in Imbeba for the street scene, or Cairo Kitchen in Zamalek, for home-cooked restaurant food – a newly-opened favorite in the city. Then finish it off with a takeout of sweets from the Syrian sweet shop Bloudan on Mahmoud Bassiony Street, or Egyptian sweets from Tseppas on Kasr el Ainy Street.
Cairo is a city where an authentic night out might look more tame than its European city counterparts. Remember, Egypt is still a conservative society by western standards.With this in mind, the bar at the center of the local drinking scene is Horreya (freedom) bar downtown. It remains the place to meet the drinking and liberal inhabitants of Cairo. There is also Odeon Palace Bar, Carlton Hotel Bar, or the more upscale Cairo Jazz Club in Mohandisseen, which occasionally has music. For a still more upscale choice, you might try the L’Aubergine in Zamalek. That said, if you really need to dance, many of the boats along the Nile are discos, but they are expensive and tend to be frequented by foreign exchange students as much as locals.
There aren’t many ways to get to Cairo beyond the major airlines. There are high-end cruise ships that go from Alexandria to Cyprus and other ports in the Mediterranean. The budget Arabiya Airline flies to Alexandria and it’s a 3 hour train ride to Cairo from there.
Cairo is known for having a robust blog scene, many commenting in English on Egyptian current events. One of the most famous is Sand Monkey. In addition, sites like Cairo360 and Filbalad serve up reviews and an event schedule for all Cairo’s hot spots. For political or current events buffs, you might check out English daily newspapers such as the Daily News Egypt.
Lonely Planet and Rough Guide Egypt are both standard possibilities for travel guides on Cairo. In addition, take a look at these titles: The Yacoubian Building (a critique of post-1952 Egypt and arguably the most read contemporary book on the country, with a film of the same name), anything by Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mafouz, Playing Cards in Cairo and Taxi (a compilation of short stories told by taxi drivers).
Cairo is the Hollywood of the Arab world. With many cinemas in Cairo showing only Egyptian films, catching a local flick while in Cairo could not be easier. However, for the film buffs out there, I offer these recommendations:
Yacobian Building based on the book. 678 (2010), a film that talks about the issue of sexual harassment in Egypt. El Banat Dol (“These Girls”) (2007), a documentary about girls who live on the street in Cairo.