After 21 hours of travelling with Turkish Airlines, we arrived in Cairo! We stayed at Le Meridien Cairo Airport, which is very conveniently connected to Terminal 3, so that we were able to go straight to bed after landing very late at night. Also, I was able to use my SPG points (only 4000 points!) to pay for the hotel, as opposed to paying their normal rate of $170 USD. That’s a pretty great deal, since applying for the SPG Amex (this is a referral – I get a bonus if you use this link) and paying the $120 annual fee will get you 20,000 bonus points, enough for 5 nights at this $230 CAD/night hotel. The hotel itself was great. It’s very convenient (connected to the airport via a pedestrian bridge), the staff were very nice (they gave us the $25/person breakfast buffet for free because we asked nicely!), and they even gave us free macarons in the room!
Originally, I planned to make my way around Cairo using taxis. However, with everything going on I decided I’d be more comfortable booking a guide for the day. After emailing many different tour operators, most of whom were charging something crazy like $90 USD per person for a stopover tour, we decided on Egypt Tailor Made. Walid, the owner, was very helpful with planning an itinerary and his company sounded very competent and reliable. The TripAdvisor reviews were incredible, so much so that I at first suspected they were writing fake reviews. I ended up looking through the profiles of all those who reviewed them, and even emailed a few to follow up and confirm that the reviews were not fake. We agreed on a rate of $80 USD including tax for the two of us, excluding entry fees.
The Canadian government’s travel page recommended that we get visas in advance, but after calling the Egyptian consulate in Montreal they told us it was no problem getting the visas upon arrival. It was cheaper, $25 USD on arrival vs $60 CAD in advance, and we wouldn’t have to fill out any forms, or give in our passport for a few days, or give them passport photos. So we decided to get them on arrival.
Our Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul landed 30 minutes early, at 2:30 am. We had no checked baggage so we went straight to passport control. There was no line whatsoever. We paid $25 USD each at the bank counter for the visas, and immigration stamped them into our passports (a nice souvenir!) without asking any questions. We walked to our hotel via the pedestrian bridge, and checked in quickly and went straight to bed.
The next morning we woke up at 9:30 (after about 5.5 hours of sleep), showered and had breakfast at the hotel before meeting our guide from Egypt Tailor Made, Mido, at 10:30. Mido was great. He was very knowledgable (he studied Egyptian history in university), friendly, and spoke English perfectly. Originally I had planned to head straight to the pyramids to ensure we had enough time there, and we would go to the Egyptian Museum only if we had enough time before it closed at 4. However, Mido convinced us to visit the Egyptian Museum (75 EGP/$13 CAD, plus an extra 100 EGP/$18 CAD for the mummies room) first, so we did. I’m very happy we did, since the museum was incredible! So many amazing Egyptian artifacts, and most are a mind-blowing 4500 years old. I think it’s my favourite museum ever. It is a little run down, but we found that only added to the experience. We also went to the mummies room, which was well worth the extra 100 EGP ($18 CAD) to see 10 or so well preserved mummies! Everything would seem out of place in a shiny new building. If you are planning your visit to Egypt, make this museum a priority.
We arrived at the museum at around 11:30 and left by 1:15. We fought the traffic and arrived at the pyramids a little bit after 2:00. Driving into the pyramids complex was crazier than I had imagined. People were literally trying to climb into our car and grabbing Mido through the window, while the car was still moving. He would have to constantly scream at them and speed away. I am usually an advocate of renting a car and travelling independently, but definitely do not rent a car in Cairo!
As expected, the pyramids were incredible. As something so famous yet so seldom visited (at least by Canadians), I almost thought of them as fictional before I saw them with my own eyes. They are also way more massive than I had imagined – 455 feet tall. When you get up close and climb up a few steps (in the small section where it’s legal to climb), you realize how impressive a feat of engineering this was, considering they were built 4500 years ago. In fact, everything in Cairo is much older than any other man made object I’ve ever seen (except possibly Stonehenge).
After seeing the Great Pyramid from up close we got back in the car and drove by the other pyramids to the “panoramic viewpoint,” where you get good views of all six pyramids, and many photo opportunities!
You also have the option of taking a camel ride here, the only “legal” place to do so according to Mido (but that’s not exactly well enforced). We were quoted 120 EGP ($21 CAD) each for a long ride to another good viewpoint, but we didn’t want to spend that much time on a camel. Instead we payed 20 EGP ($3.50 CAD) each to get up on a camel, walk around in a circle, and have our guide take pictures of us. It was well worth it, but very scary when the camel stands up!
After taking lots of pictures we got back in the car and drove to our final stop in the pyramids complex, the Sphinx. Compared to the pyramids, the Sphinx looks tiny! Of course, when you get up close you realize that it’s actually quite massive, 241 feet long and 66 feet high.
We finished our tour of the pyramids within two hours, mostly thanks to having a car to drive us around. If you plan on walking around the pyramids complex, you’ll need a lot longer. After the pyramids we stopped for a Koshary lunch at Koshary Hekaya, which was an amazing and filling meal.
For our last stop, we drove to Islamic Cairo and walked along the kilometre-long pedestrian Muizz Street, the oldest street in Cairo. The street is very nicely lit up at night, and filled with interesting stores and some very large old mosques. There is lots of foot traffic, virtually all Egyptians – I was surprised how lively it was for a Tuesday night.
They also had some good street food. We shared a huge and delicious portion of the doughnut-y fried honey balls, for only 5 EGP ($0.88 CAD)! After making our way through Muizz street we walked along the adjacent Khan el-Khalili market, which was filled with touristy souvenir shops – not nearly as nice as Muizz street.
At this point it was time to call it a day, so we drove back to our hotel near the airport and said goodbye to Mido. All in all, we had an incredible day in Cairo that far exceeded expectations. We felt safe the whole time, and the attractions were even better than we could imagine.
After killing some time in the hotel lobby, we walked over to the airport and went to Egyptair’s business class lounge. While nothing like the Turkish lounge, it was nicer than I had expected and it had a decent but small selection of food. The flight itself was much better than I had expected, though obviously not as good as Turkish Airlines’ business class product. The bed was comfortable (although not completely lie-flat), the food was very good and huge portions, the in-flight entertainment screen was big and had a decent selection of Hollywood movies, and the flight attendants were all very friendly. When we arrived in Bangkok, we were given priority passes that allowed us to go through a designated line for immigration with very little wait.
Next up: Bangkok!