Egypt’s always been on my bucket list of travel places to visit. When I found out that the Red Hot Chili Peppers were playing an open air concert with the Giza Pyramids as a backdrop, Egypt ascended to the top of my list. So in March, 2019 we were off!
While we were there we explored Cairo, Giza, and Luxor. We hit the major places to see and discovered some great food along the way (of course). It was an absolutely amazing adventure, definitely one of my top travel experiences. I thought I’d take what I learned along the way and share it with you.
This article is meant to be sort of an itinerary (though you can tailor it to your preferences), where you can experience Cairo, Giza, and Luxor. I’ve also shared some of the tips I learned along the way so you can be prepared and avoid the missteps I made.
But let me address the one question that most folks who haven’t been to Egypt are probably wondering…
“Is it safe?”
I would say that during our time in Egypt I never felt unsafe the entire time we were there. We found the Egyptians to be incredibly friendly, helpful, and eager to chat.
For our time in Giza and Cairo I hired a local driver recommended by a friend (and who I would absolutely recommend) who ensured we got about everywhere safely. During our trip to Luxor I hired a reputable tour company. And because food safety is important to me we researched some amazing restaurants that have been operating for generations and popular with the locals (places I will share in this article).
Now is a great time to visit Egypt. The prices are very inexpensive, the sights are not crowded with tourists, and the Egyptians and their food are absolutely wonderful!
But read on to see what I mean…
Here is a short video of our Egyptian experience to get you excited about this itinerary!
Day 1: An intro to Cairo and ancient Egypt
You’ve landed in Egypt and you’ve got an amazing view of the Giza Pyramids. Your first instinct is to go there. Don’t. Give yourself some context first. The Great Pyramid of Giza is the only Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still in existence. If you go there first then you’re not really going to be impressed with some of the other sights after. Trust me, build up to it!
A great way to begin your exploration of Cairo and discover ancient Egypt is to first visit The Egyptian Museum.
The Egyptian Museum
Originally established in 1858, The Egyptian Museum where it currently stands in Cairo was opened to the public in 1902 and houses over 120,000 pieces of Egyptian antiquities. Which is probably why it sometimes feels a bit jumbled and disorganized in some rooms. A much larger museum is expected to open in Giza in 2020 that is more capable of handling all of the current inventory (and more) plus the throngs of tourists.
The museum opens at 9am. My recommendation is to get there a little before that, as the tourists buses start to arrive around 9:30 and you’ll want to avoid that. There are 2 tickets which you should get: the regular admission, and the mummies room.
As you walk about the museum you’ll find that there are several halls, and exhibition rooms that are filled with artifacts sorted accordingly to the various eras of Egyptian history. It’s strange that after awhile things that are only 1,000 years old or so seem new.
One thing’s for sure, the Egyptians really loved their bling. It is amazing the craftsmanship they were capable of so many thousands of years ago.
Pictures are not allowed to be taken in the Mummies Room or the King Tut exhibition. Both are must see exhibitions. King Tut’s room has the finest craftsmanship and most preserved artifacts. The Mummies Room is an incredible experience in that you actually see the physical presence of the people of legends.
It’s easy to kill a few hours at the Egyptian Museum. There’s just so much to see. But after walking about you’re going to have worked up an appetite. My recommendation is to break for lunch and experience one of Cairo’s local staple meals for the working class: koshari!
Lunch at Abou Tarek
Koshari is an Egyptian dish originally made in the 19th century, made of rice, macaroni, and lentils mixed together, topped with a spiced tomato sauce and garlic vinegar and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions. It’s an inexpensive meal that will fill you up with loads of calories cheaply. Hence it’s a working class staple dish.
One of the best places to experience Koshari in Cairo is at Abou Tarek.
Every day they’re hustling…for nearly 80 years locals have been lining up enjoy the koshari at Abou Tarek. The chefs have been able to accommodate them by creating an assembly line that puts together bowls with industrial efficiency.
Make sure you add plenty of garlicky tomato sauce and spicy chili to taste. Mix and stuff your face!
There are tons of sites of historical religious significance to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity crammed into the small area of Coptic Cairo. It’s easy to spend several hours marveling at their architecture and gorgeous iconic relics. This map will help to guide you in exploration of the area. Here I highlight just a few of the places that you shouldn’t miss, most of them conveniently located in the Babylon Fortress complex.
Once a strategic Roman fortification, the Babylon Fortress is slowly being reconstructed from its ruined state. This large complex houses many of the popular sights of Coptic Cairo to include St. George’s Church, The Hanging Church, and the Coptic Museum.
The Church of St. George is a Greek Orthodox church within the Babylon Fortress. The church dates back to the 10th century (possibly earlier). The current structure was completed in 1909 after being rebuilt following a 1904 fire.
The Hanging Church is the most famous Coptic Christian church in Cairo (a tongue twister!), as well as possibly the first built in Basilican style around 690 AD.The Hanging Church is named for its location above a gatehouse of Babylon Fortress, with its nave suspended over a passage.
Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church is traditionally believed to have been built on the spot where the Holy Family, Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus Christ, rested at the end of their journey into Egypt. It’s also possible they may have lived here while Joseph worked at the fortress.
The most interesting feature is the crypt where the Holy Family is said to have rested. The crypt is 10 meters deep and often floods when the Nile River rises. Originally built in the 4th century the church was dedicated to Sergius and Bacchus, who were soldier-saints martyred in Syria.
Cars are not allowed in the Coptic Cairo area and odds are you will park just outside of it. Located in this area is the not to be missed Mosque of Ibn Tulun. This is Cairo’s oldest mosque in the city built in 867 AD and surviving in its original form. In terms of land area it is also Cairo’s largest mosque.
Across from the mosque is a small coffee house where you can enjoy steaming glasses of strong coffee, watch folks play board games, and relax with a hookah pipe.
After all this walking about you’ve probably worked up an appetite, right?
Dinner at Andrea Mariouteya
Andrea Mariouteya is an amazing dining getaway from the hectic city of Cairo. This family restaurant has been operating for over 40 years and in 2015 moved to this scenic location overlooking the valley in New Giza. They offer a beautiful view and amazing Egyptian cuisine traditionally prepared.
All of the mezzes that we tried were wonderful, but I highly recommend the rotisserie chicken or quail (to be enjoyed with a cold Stella Egyptian beer).
You also can’t go wrong ordering any of the breads these lovely ladies make fresh by order!
This was an excellent place for us to unwind from the day (and our jet lag from our previous late night arrival). As the sun went down the trees around us were suddenly filled with birds chirping loudly (I assume about their day). Then all was quiet except for soft folk music playing in the background. It was a memorable moment to cap our first day in Egypt.
Day 2 – Exploring More of Cairo
Mohammad Ali Pasha Mosque
Begin the day with a visit to the The Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha which provides a commanding view and whose towering minarets are visible from every point in Cairo.
If this mosque looks familiar that may be because its design was derived from the famous Sultan Ahmed Mosque (a.k.a. Blue Mosque) in Istanbul, Turkey. Commissioned to be built by Mohammad Ali Pasha in 1830 its construction lasted all the way up until his death in 1848. He rests in the tomb he designed in the southwest corner of the mosque.
The mosque is also known as the “Alabaster Mosque” for its extensive use of marble on both the interior and exterior. One interesting artifact is an ornate clock which was given by King Louis-Philippe of France to Muhammad Ali in 1845. He reciprocated this gift by giving King Louis Philipps an obelisk from Luxor which can now be found in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
Give yourself a couple of hours to see this mosque. This is a popular field trip destination with local schools so you’ll be stopped often to take photos and selfies with the young children!
After viewing the mosque get ready to do some shopping at Cairo’s most famous bazaar. But first lunch!
Lunch at Farahat!
Eating pigeon would seem strange to most westerners but in the Middle East (and some European countries) stuffed pigeon is considered a delicacy. Farahat has been operating for generations and specializes in serving Hamam Mahshi, Egyptian stuffed pigeon. It’s also conveniently located within walking distance of the Khan el-Khalili bazaar area.
The pigeons are raised atop the buildings nearby the restaurant. Don’t expect a lot of meat on these birds as only the plumpest squabs aged at 6 weeks are selected for serving. This is because older pigeons may be meatier but they’re tough and chewy. But the little meat that there is is absolutely succulent and juicy. The rice is stuffed with Middle Eastern herbs and is a bit oily, but delicious!
Want to see me in action? Check out this short video of our Farahat visit!
Now that you’ve got a belly full of stuffed pigeon and pigeon soup it’s time to hit the bazaar.
Time to shop!
The area of Khan el-Khalili has been a center for trade and commerce in Cairo since the 14th century. Today many of the shops cater to tourists but it’s still just as popular with the locals.
You’ll find in Egypt that it’s incredibly easy to shop for souvenirs–while visiting sites people will literally walk up to you with an assortment of trinkets. But if you’re in the market for higher quality souvenirs this is a must visit bazaar. You’ll find the prices pretty reasonable but be prepared to haggle. The merchants won’t take offense and they’re not going to sale to you at a loss for themselves.
Day 3 – Walking in Memphis!
The Saqqara Necropolis is one of Egypt’s most ancient necropolises. Located 30 km north of Cairo, this is a day trip worth taking. The complex was built in the 27th century BC as a funerary complex for the pharaoh Djoser, but over the centuries also became a resting place for other first dynasty kings and for generals and nobility from the great city of Memphis. Archeologists are still discovering new tombs which have remained hidden for millennia.
When you get to Saqqara it can be a bit confusing at the entrance because they sell a ticket to each major and minor attraction separately, along with a ticket for parking, and a ticket to be able to take photographs. My recommendation is to get all of the tickets so you have the freedom to explore the entire site and take photographs (you will be stopped many times to make sure you have the appropriate tickets).
I’m only going to cover a few of the highlights of the Saqqara Necropolis complex in this article, but for more information about all of the sites this Exploring Saqqara: A Visitor’s Guide article by Planet Ware is an excellent resource for your visit!
Start off with the smaller tomb sites. You’ll find that most of the tourists are flocking to the major attractions and you’ll have these tombs to explore all to yourself. At nearly every site there will be someone there to check your ticket and offer their services as a guide (some rather insisting). Don’t let yourself feel hassled–this is their living and a “no thank you” if you don’t want their service does eventually close the conversation.
Some of these less popular tombs are actually quite impressive. Many of the paintings have retained their color pigment and some still have large fixed statues. The tomb sizes range from simple rooms to labyrinth like complexes depending on the wealth and status of the deceased. It’s a great introduction to the artwork and craftsmanship of Egyptians over 4,000 years ago. Once you’ve primed yourself with the smaller tombs, move on to the BIGGER sites.
The Serapeum of Saqqara
One of the most impressive burial tombs in the Saqqara Necropolis wasn’t built for people. It was built for bulls.
The Serapeum of Saqqara is a MASSIVE underground bunker complex built to entomb the mummified sacred Apis bulls. These bulls were believed to be the incarnations of the ancient Egyptian deity Ptah. The complex consists of several long passageways with large tomb rooms lining the sides. Each room has gigantic ornately inscribed stone sarcophagus which once contained a mummified Apis bull. The engineering feat is incredible!
Step Pyramid of Djoser
When folks think of Egypt they think of its pyramids. The Step Pyramid of Djoser is the earliest known pyramid built between 2620-2611 BC. This picture was taken from the backside of the pyramid.
The front side is of the Djoser Funerary Complex allows you to enter through the temple walkway lined with stone columns and side alters. Once through the temple it opens up to a large courtyard in front of the 60 meter high Djoser pyramid. As it’s a very popular site you’ll find plenty of touts selling cheap trinkets and friendly folks wanting dress you up in a headscarf and to help you take that “perfect picture” (for a tip of course).
After a day of thoroughly exploring Saqqara you’ve probably worked up an appetite. Hit the Imhotep Museum last. From the museum great food is only 750 meters away!
Lunch at Restaurant Pharous
The Restaurant Pharous is an outside restaurant catering to tourists (though also enjoyed by locals) nearby the Saqqara Necropolis. Their inexpensive menu offers a variety of grilled meats and mezzes. I recommend the mixed grill which is served on a sizzling mini grill.
Don’t be surprised when you arrive if there’s a small band of dancing locals beating tambourines, drums, and tooting horns, while the women make fresh bread ululating in cheer. Ululating is that high pitched vocal sound they make while wagging their tongue from side to side. It’s a welcome call!
There’s not much information for Restaurant Pharous so I’ve included the Google Map below. No visit to Saqqara would be complete without a visit there. I don’t want you to miss it!
Day 4 – Day Trip to Luxor!
If you visit Egypt without seeing Luxor then you’ve done it wrong. This area was the seat of power when Egypt was flourishing at its peak. The monuments, huge temples, and necropolises are a testament to the incredible power and wealth Egypt held. If you want to do it in a day from Cairo the only way to do so is an early morning flight and late evening return. You can do this on your own cheaply by buying the airfare tickets and coordinating your travel and guide arrangements on your own.
For peace of mind, I wanted to purchase a package deal that would take care of everything. It was a little more expensive but hassle free, and in my mind absolutely worth it. After shopping around I chose a private tour package offered by Memphis Tours which included door to door service from our hotel in Giza, flight tickets, driver, Egyptologist guide, all entrance fees (*not including photograph ticket fees), and lunch. In total it was $435 per person and a fantastic experience. If you’d like to go this route I highly recommend them.
The Valley of the Kings
The tour began with a visit to The Valley of the Kings. For 500 years between the 16th and 11th centuries BC this was the resting place of the pharaohs. Currently there are 63 discovered tombs but there’s constant archeological excavation to discover more. They only allow 8 tombs at a time to be open to the public so that they’re able to perform reconstructive works. An entrance ticket only allows you to visit 3 tombs.
We trusted our guide, Khaled, to pick the best of the 3 to see. One was a popular tomb pictured above, and the other two were in the back area. This was perfect. The popular one was very impressive but incredibly crowded, and the other 2 were very impressive and blissfully crowd free.
The only regret that I had was that I didn’t purchase the ticket to be able to take photographs. I mistakenly thought that since I’d already seen plenty of tomb art in Saqqara I really didn’t think I’d need more pictures of that. I was so wrong. The tomb art in the Valley of the Kings is astonishing. The colors are vibrantly colored, and the mural etchings are still very much intact. As a bonus there’s also tons of ancient graffiti art from the Christians in the first few centuries who had hidden out in the Valley of the Kings to avoid persecution. Buy the photography ticket!
Not far from the Valley of the Kings in the little town of Gournah is the Zalat Factory of Alabaster. Here craftsmen hand make souvenirs using quality stones using old traditional tools. The quality and craftsmanship is far beyond the plaster trinkets you’ll find at many of the tourist stores.
When you arrive they’ll give you a demonstration of how they create the various souvenirs. They’ll also encourage you to touch the different rocks and try your hand at using the tools. It’s impressive how they can go from a rough rock to a smooth stone vase.
At the end of the “presentation” you’ll be encouraged to take a look at the the finished products for sale. They make it very clear that you don’t have to buy anything–and I never felt pressured like I would have to. But after seeing what they had I was impressed and we weren’t leaving without a few things. The prices weren’t cheap. But considering the quality, the hours spent laboring, and the beauty of items I was happy to pay (after dickering for the price a bit, of course!).
If you have zero interest in shopping you can skip this–we actually asked our guide if we could go here. But if you do visit Zalat Factory of Alabaster you WILL do some shopping they’ve got great crafts.
The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut
Hatshepsut was one of the few known female pharaohs who ruled over Egypt. During her 21 year peaceful reign, Egypt prospered as a result of her many accomplishments. Though entombed in The Valley of the Kings, she was so loved that a giant Mortuary Temple was built in her memory for people to visit.
Yet strangely, she was nearly erased from history. Many of her images and written name that were able to be viewed in public were intentionally chiseled away. It’s a mystery as to why but the most logical theory is that this erasure was an attempt by Thutmose III and his son Amenhotep II to erase Hatshepsut from the historical record so that there would be no question as to their legitimacy to rule as pharaohs nor would their rule be overshadowed by her reign.
But at this mortuary you’ll notice some gaps in the murals, and some obvious chisel marks of her outline.
The Karnak Temple
One of the most magnificent ancient Egyptian sites to see is the Karnak Temple. Built in Thebes, the first capital city of a unified Egypt, each pharaoh contributed to its greatness by building upon it. The Karnak Temple was the home to their God which was represented as a small golden statue. Only the highest priest and the pharaoh could visit the special room housing this statue.
In addition to structures to honor the God, pharaohs built large statues of themselves, as well as huge murals about their campaigns and accomplishments.
The Great Hypostyle Hall was an area where nobility were allowed. It’s 134 ornately inscribed massive columns were mean to inspire awe. They still do today.
One interesting note, there is a large obelisk that is in amazing condition. It looks practically new compared to all the other obelisks. The reason for this is that it is an obelisk that was built by Hatshepsut when she was pharaoh. The folks who wanted to erase her from history wanted to tear down the obelisk but where fearful that this would anger the God (as it was a gift). So they ordered that it be covered in mud. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that it was discovered what was under all that mud and the mud preserved the obelisk!
Temple of Luxor
Nearly 3 km away next to the Nile River is the Temple of Luxor. What makes this temple special is that this is where the God at Karnak could “have relations”.
A large pathway lined on both sides by stone sphinxes (they are currently undergoing construction to restore this entire path) connects the Karnak Temple with the Luxor Temple. Once a year they would hold a large festival procession in which they would transport the golden statue from Karnak to the Luxor Temple. This was the only chance the common people got to view their deity so you can bet it was a big turnout.
The Temple of Luxor is much smaller than the grandiose Temple of Karnak but is still incredibly impressive especially during sunset.
What is also amazing is the color and detail of many of the wall paintings from ancient Egyptian times all the way up through the times of Roman rule. The Temple of Luxor was covered in sand for millennia so it preserved many of the drawings.
Day 5 – Finally, the Pyramids of Giza!
This is it! This is what you’ve been preparing yourself for. It’s time to visit the Pyramids of Giza (and Sphinx, of course!).
First let me give you a caution about scams. While visiting this site you will inevitably be approached by smooth talking folks who will want to run a scam on you. If someone suddenly wants to be your best friend and give you things for free just politely decline (sometimes you will have to repeatedly politely decline). Nothing is free, trust me.
The Giza pyramid complex, is the site that includes the Great Pyramid of Giza or Pyramid of Khufu, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure, along with Khufu Solar Boat Museum and the Great Sphinx.
The Great Pyramid is the only remaining 7 Wonders of the Ancient World that is still standing. Built around 2560 BC and standing at nearly 150 meters tall it held the record for tallest man made structure in the world until the Lincoln Cathedral was built in 1311 AD.
Yes you can go inside.
It’s a bit cramped at first so if you’ve got bad knees, back, or claustrophobia you may not want to attempt it. Further in it opens up, and then it turns into another narrow flat passageway that leads to the burial tomb of the Pharaoh Khufu. The lidless stone sarcophagus is still there.
On the side of the Great Pyramid is a museum containing Khufu’s Solar Ship (you will need to purchase a ticket). When pharaohs were buried they were buried with a lot of things to make their afterlife comfortable. Considered living gods, some pharaohs even had ships buried to transport them to the sun (hence solar ships). This is the oldest ship in the world and was recovered still intact!
My caution about scams does not apply to folks who are trying to sell you something, or folks who are trying to sell a service like camel or horse rides. These folks are offering a service–buy as you like (and barter).
The smallest pyramid in the complex is the Pyramid of Menkaure. What’s interesting about it is that during the 12th century the second Sultan to Egypt decided he wanted to tear down the pyramids. He decided to start small with the Pyramid of Menkaure. For 8 months workers struggled to take down this monument averaging 2 stones a day. Over time he begin to realize that tearing the pyramids down was going to be just as expensive as it was to build them.
The Great Sphinx is one of the world’s largest and oldest statues. It is also one of the world’s archeological mysteries. To this day the basic facts are still debated about when it was built, by whom and for what purpose.
Not far from the Great Sphinx is a large pedestal that you can stand on for that perfect Instagram kiss post!
Getting About Cairo
Cairo has Uber and plenty of taxies. Often hotels can also coordinate a private driver for you. A friend of mine highly recommended that I hire the driver that they used during her trip. That’s how we met Hany. Our time in Cairo and Giza was greatly enriched because of him. He provided very safe and dependable transportation throughout our visit, and even went out of his way to coordinate with the restaurants ahead of time to ensure we’d have a table for us.
Speaking of food…
Over the limited time that we were in Cairo and Giza we became very close to Hany. When he invited us over to his home to have dinner with his family we were deeply honored. It was a feast. It was also the best meal we had in Egypt. Hany and his family are just those kinds of people that are common in Egypt, warm, welcoming, and generous.
I highly recommend him as a driver if you’re looking for someone to make your transportation needs hassle free and pleasant during your time in Egypt. Feel free to contact him directly for a quote for your needs via Facebook messenger: Hany Ahmed.
Where to Stay
There are tons of places to stay in Cairo but I would recommend staying in the more quieter city of Giza, preferably one of the many hotels near the Pyramids of Giza. If you’re looking for a specific recommendation I would recommend the place we stayed it, The Pyramids Loft.
The Pyramids Loft is a comfortable guesthouse. The rooms are simple and clean, and the owner, Thomas, and staff are incredibly friendly helpful. The two big winners here are the home cooked food (we looked forward to breakfast everyday!), and the amazing view of the Pyramids of Giza!
Talk to me!
I hope this itinerary is useful for you. Should you decide to visit Egypt I’d love to hear your feedback in the comment section below, directly to me, or via message on either the Chow Traveller Facebook page or Chow Traveller Instagram. However you choose, I’d love to hear from you!