The number one drawcard of Cairo is its past. The Pyramids and Sphinx are surprisingly close to the edge of Cairo, which has expanded to a point that the outer neighborhoods have these ancient tombs and monuments almost in their back yards.
Although the tombs are almost always packed with tourists, there is a very good reason for this – they are unmissable. All of the photos in the world can't convey the sheer size of them, as well as the almost palpable sense of history that hovers over them. You can get to the pyramids by camel (not as much fun as it sounds – these are smelly, bad-tempered animals that are uncomfortable to ride) or shuttle bus (about 20 minutes from downtown Cairo). Definitely hire a guide. If you don't like packaged tours, there are plenty of freelancing guides in and around the pyramids who offer enthusiastic and knowledgable tours for a fraction of the price of pre-organized visits.
The Egyptian Museum is another must-see. Although security is heavy and can make the wait to get inside pretty long, a peek at King Tut and the embarrassment of riches that was recovered from his tomb is awe-inspiring.
Forget the gift shop and head to Khan Ali-Kalili for your souvenir shopping. This is the city's biggest open-air market and the perfect place to hone your haggling skills. If haggling exhausts you, there are enterprising young folk who hang around Khan Ali-Kalili and offer their services as a kind of 'personal shopper.' Despite the rumors, there is very little in the way of tourist rip-offs when it comes to this kind of service. These youngsters offer a good (and entertaining) shopping experience at a very fair price (although you will probably need to haggle this before you begin!).
Islamic Cairo is almost a world within a city. Predominantly based around the market (you will have to haggle here, it's seen as insulting if you don't), Islamic Cairo has barely changed in six hundred years, and the wailing call to prayer is a beautiful and eerie sound that drifts through the air to mingle with the smell of spices and the heat that is so thick it is almost a flavor of its own.
Places to Eat
Restaurants like Felfela are the best place to go to feel as if you have slipped away from the beaten path and are really experiencing Cairo. While there aren't many places that truly are off the beaten path here (the tourism industry is a well-oiled machine, as Cairo has been a popular visitor destination for centuries), a meal at Felfela (there are a few of them around the city) has the intimate décor and heady mix of spices and careful preparation that gives visitors a truly Egyptian dining experience.
When to Go
One of the best times to visit Cairo is in November. This is when the heat of summer and the full flood of tourism season has ended, and a cruise up the Nile is relxing, rather than a dodgem session with other boats full of excited visitors. It is also the month when the Arab Music Festival is held, and venues all over the city play host to some of the best Middle-Eastern performers on the planet. There is something eminently danceable about Arabian rhythms, so be sure to wear shoes that can carry you all night – many performances last until dawn.
Accommodation in Cairo is plentiful, and there are options ranging from the hyper-budget (a bed in a family home-stay can cost as little as US$9 per night) to the ultra-luxurious (upwards of US$2000 per night). Most mid-range accommodation is around US$100 – US$200 per night, with online specials at chains like the Sheraton to be had for the bargain price of $68 per night for a double or twin room. Haggling for breakfast to be thrown in for free is optional.
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