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Cairo is often visited by cruise groups, either as part of a day trip or as an overnight tour for cruises that stop in Alexandria and/or Port Said. The most famous sites in the Cairo area are the massive Giza Pyramids and Great Sphinx and the smaller pyramids and temples in Sakkara. Within the city are important museums such as the National Museum, with its world-class exhibition of ancient relics and the Pharaonic Village.
Several important mosques of different eras include the Alabaster Mosque of Mohamed Ali (19th century), the Ibn Tulun Mosque (9th century), and the Hassan Mosque (14th century). Greek Orthodox and Coptic churches and historic synagogues offer attractions to those of different faiths. Medieval ruins, such as the Babylon Fortress and Ayyabid Wall, dot the center of the city. The Khan el Khalili Bazaar, originally built in 1382, offers the taste and smell of Egyptian commerce and its commercial history. Port Said is located in the northeast corner of Egypt and the Nile delta.
The Suez Canal passes between Port Said and its twin city Port Fuad. Port Said has a population of just over 600,000 and with Port Fuad has a metropolitan population of over 1 million.
Imagine an antique world just waiting for your sandals to touch its land of treasures. Egypt is a name that defines ancient history. One of the wealthiest ancient nations, Egypt stood very proud, but had excluded itself from the outside world that was thought to be chaotic and evil. The Egyptians believed in Kittum/Misharum, which represented truth, order, and justice. When you step onto her golden sands, get ready to be transported to a time when gods and Pharaohs reigned.
Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is indeed alive and well! It is a massive cosmopolitan city where the past and the present coexist in perfect harmony. Buy a mocha or latte from the local café and browse the monuments that have stood for thousands of years. A city that many rulers once called home is now a land of individual empires. We are fortunate that this physical timeline still exists to be traced over by our own two feet. Preservation and individuality are two reasons the pharaohs would not destroy the thrones of their predecessors, but instead, chose to construct their own new kingdoms, adding more pieces to this fascinating puzzle with every era that passed into history.
With thoughts of Egypt, pyramids always come to mind. These massive structures are certainly geometric masterpieces. A brief thirty-minute cab ride from the center of the city will take you to the home of the most popular pyramids of Giza. Here dwells the great Sphinx that has become the second flag of Egypt. Notice how his head is considerably smaller than the trunk of his body. This is the reason why so many historians believe that the Sphinx once carried a head different than the one that sits there now. Discover how the face is not as time-worn as the rest of the body, and find out why experts think it may have been originally designed with the head of a lion.
Egypt is truly one of a kind. Where else is it possible to pretend you are a god-king or the powerful and seductive Cleopatra while walking along the River Nile? Put aside those history books for now and instead let the visceral beauty envelope you.
Docking & Local Transportation
Mediterranean cruise ships dock in Alexandria or Port Said, and each port about a 2.5-hour drive from Cairo. Shore excursions to Cairo from both ports are routine. Many ships drop passengers off at one port and then pick them up the next day at the next, allowing for an overnight in Cairo. Cairo also serves as the port of entry for Nile River cruises, which operate strictly between Luxor and Aswan. Passengers frequently overnight for one or more days in Cairo before taking the short flight to Luxor or Aswan meet their ships.
Getting Around
Taxis tend to be the preferred mode of transportation for foreign visitors. Hotel taxis are more expensive than the black and white cabs that are hailed on the street. Some taxis have meters; if the one in your cab works, this is the cheapest option. Otherwise, set a price before you get in, and don't pay until you arrive at your destination. However, don't haggle, or you'll never get to where you're going. If you don't like the price, take the next taxi. Fares are paid in cash, and most drivers accept Egyptian pounds, dollars or euros (though your change will come back in Egyptian). It's not unusual to ask the driver to meet you at an appointed hour and place for the return trip. Ask your hotel concierge or tour guide about average prices. Also, it is common practice for taxis to pick up extra passengers traveling in the same direction, so don't be alarmed if your group grows.
Buses are a great and efficient way to travel between cities in Egypt. One of the most accommodating and comfortable services is the Super Jet (02/579-8181). This line runs every half hour and can take you to Alexandria, the Nile Valley, the Red Sea, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Suez Canal cities.
Watch Out For
First, the currency. Unscrupulous vendors may try to give you piaster notes instead of (Egyptian) pounds when making change. The bills look quite similar, so get familiar with them before going on a spending spree. Also, Egyptian vendors are notoriously aggressive. Don't give them money until you've agreed upon a price and have your purchase in your hand.
Since Egypt is a Muslim culture, it's wise to dress appropriately in more traditional areas and mosques. Women should take care to cover their upper arms, cleavage, midriff and legs when visiting a mosque. A hair covering isn't necessary. Except in tourist resorts, modesty is the best policy, or women may attract unwanted attention.
As for staying healthy, don't drink the tap water in Cairo -- even at the best hotels. It's also a good idea to avoid raw vegetables, fruit without peels and street food. Finally, always have change on hand. Baksheesh is the word for tipping -- and it is a way of life there. Expect to tip toilet attendants 1 L.E. or, possibly, be denied use of the facility.
Local Interests
Everyone always wants to see the pyramids, but that is not all that Egypt has to offer. A must visit is Old Cairo. Here are located many of the most beautiful churches, mosques and palaces! The Hanging Church (Shar'a Mari Girgis) was originally built in the 9th century above a Roman fortress. View the paintings of saints, the marble pulpit and the sanctuaries contained inside. If you love to visit churches, this one is by far the most impressive Egypt has to offer.
Can't get enough of Egyptian artifacts? You haven't seen anything until you visit The Egyptian Antiquities Museum (Al-Mathaf Al-Masri, Maydan Tahrir; 02/579-6974). Here lies the greatest collection of artifacts from Egypt in the entire world. Don't expect to count them all, since there are an impressive one hundred thousand pieces. Be ready to pick and choose what you want to see because it is impossible to see it all.
St. David Building (02/391-4337) was discovered in the 1880s by a Welshman and today holds Stephenson's Pharmacy and The Anglo-Egyptian Bookstore. Enjoy the fortress-like roofline and the many Welsh symbols that abound. Don't forget to look down at the ground because your feet will be touching the original floor. The pharmacy still possesses the recipes for the remedies used in the ancient world.
One last quick tip for you is to make sure you put the Citadel at the top of your list of places to go. It lies on top of the Muquattam hills and its protective fortress walls contain the most amazing mosques and palaces you will see in Egypt.
Don't Miss
The Pyramids of Giza took 100,000 men 20 years to build, and they continue to fascinate observers 45 centuries later. For some visitors, their first looks at the storybook icons are sometimes disappointing because of the crowds, the tour buses and the vendors. And the three main pyramids are by no means in the middle of nowhere, as so many photos suggest. A string of hotels and apartment buildings lie just across the boulevard -- part of suburban Giza, which lies 11 miles south of Cairo. Still, there is something wholly mystical about the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the first and largest pyramid built at Giza -- and the sole surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Visitors can climb into the mausoleum through a corridor that descends into an unfinished chamber. Take the time to walk around this limestone edifice, and it's still possible to summon its ancient power and grandeur.
An unexpected bonus at the site is the Solar Boat Museum, which houses the Lebanese cedar boat intended to deliver King Khufu to the afterlife. It is one of five boats that were buried next to the pyramid and is thought to be the oldest boat in existence. Remarkably, the boat was assembled from 1,224 pieces, completed in 1980, and everything is original except for its ropes. A wooden version of a papyrus reed boat, it is displayed in fine fashion -- suspended over upper and lower galleries that give visitors full visual access.
Nearby, the eroding Sphinx, enclosed by fencing to protect it, stands sentry over the Giza plateau. A symbol of Egypt for thousands of years, the Sphinx has the body of a lion and the head of a king or god. Because of the changing desert terrain, the monument has been buried repeatedly, most recently in 1905.
No visit to Cairo would be complete without a visit to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, which contains more than 120,000 artifacts -- most of them recovered from the nation's tombs and temples. Among the crowd-pleasers: King Tut's death mask, made of solid gold and jewels; life-size statues of the pharaoh that guarded his burial chamber; furniture -- including his throne -- that filled the tomb; and Tut's wig box and wardrobe. Amazingly, Tut's umbrella, gloves and underwear are also on display.
Another fantastic corner of the museum is the dimly lit Royal Mummy Room, which houses 11 of Egypt's most illustrious pharaohs and queens -- the most famous being Ramses II, the great pharaoh who built the temples of Abydos and Abu Simbel and added to the temples of Karnak and Luxor. A couple of the mummies are wrapped in garlands of flowers. Others are so well-preserved that it's possible to see wounds, curly hair and pierced ears. It's well worth the extra admission fee. The museum, which is not air-conditioned, is literally teeming with treasures -- which is also its downside. This incomparable repository outgrew its space years ago, and its successor -- the Great Egyptian Museum, on a site near the Giza Pyramids -- is years from completion.
The Citadel, located on a spur of limestone above Cairo, is rightly one of Egypt's main attractions. Built in 1176 by the Kurdish general Salah ad Din to protect against attacks by the Crusaders, the fortress is home to several museums and monuments, including the Mohammed Ali Mosque, built in Ottoman Baroque style in the mid-1800's. The "Alabaster Mosque," as it is called, can be seen from every part of Cairo and offers magnificent views across the city. (You can even see the Pyramids of Giza if it's not too smoggy.) Modeled after the great mosques of Istanbul, it is distinguished by its dome and two slender minarets. Outside the mosque is an ablution fountain, where the faithful wash before prayer. The interior is modest -- the floors covered with prayer rugs and ceiling accented with, of all things, a French chandelier.
Been There, Done That
In Giza, you're there; the camels are there. Why not take a camel ride? There's a camel concession at the Pyramids of Giza that's on the up and up -- look for the vendors on the plateau behind all three pyramids. The ride -- you'll be surprised at how bumpy it is -- takes about 20 minutes, and the operator prefers to be paid in U.S. currency: $4 plus a $1 tip.
The Sphinx (impersonated by actor Anthony Hopkins) narrates this 50-minute sound and light show -- produced at varying times in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Japanese and Arabic -- at the Pyramids. The storyline depicts the building of the ancient monuments, and though it is somewhat cheesy, it's a fine way to experience them at night.
A Nile dinner cruise is another way to experience nighttime Cairo. Some offer dinner buffets, while others throw in floor shows with belly-dancers and singers. The Pharaohs Cruising Restaurants and Nile Maxim, run by the Marriott, are two reputable operators.
Cairo's main public gathering place, Tahrir Square, has become a tourist attraction in its own right, as visitors flock to see the site where the Egyptian revolution unfolded in January 2011. Situated within walking distance of the Egyptian Museum, the square has mostly reverted to its main role as a traffic circle, although regular protests are still often held on Fridays after Muslim prayer services. If you're planning to visit, check with your hotel or the State Department first to see if any alerts or warnings have been issued.
If you have the chance to visit one neighborhood in Egypt, make it Coptic Cairo. One of the oldest areas in the city, Coptic Cairo was one of the first Christian strongholds, and the faithful believe that the Holy Family lived there during their flight into Egypt. Sights include the Hanging Church (built in a location that has housed a church since the third century), the Babylon Fortress which was part of Cairo's original structure, and the Coptic Museum, which holds an incredible collection of early Christian artifacts.
In a rural area 45 minutes away from the Pyramids is Saqqara, one of the largest burial grounds in Egypt. It's best known for the Step Pyramid, the oldest of the nation's 97 pyramids. Discovered in 1821, the tomb was designed by the architect Imhotep for King Zoser in the 27th century B.C. Prior to the pyramid's construction, pharaohs were buried beneath rectangular mud-brick tombs.
The best places for exclusive Egyptian shopping are at the First Residence shopping center in Giza. If you are looking for antiques and collectibles, then check out the auction houses and antique shops. Osiris (17 Shar'a Sheriff) in particular is the place to go.
Egyptian cuisine depends heavily on fresh ingredients -- herbs, spices, garlic, lemon, vegetables -- and its two staples are fava beans and aish, the national bread that's a mixture of plain and whole meal flour and looks like a darker, round version of pita bread. You can sample the cuisine in one of Cairo's many restaurants, although the better ones are in Garden City, Zemalek Island and other affluent areas of town. If you're worried about your stomach, stick to indoor places that draw large crowds instead of eating from stands or stalls.
Egypt is a country that lives on tips; you'll find yourself making small baksheesh payments to everyone from the man who hands you a flashlight at the pyramids to the woman who guards the public toilets. In restaurants, you'll want to tip between 10 and 15 percent.
The Garden Promenade Cafe at the Cairo Marriott on Zemalek Island is a favorite of wealthy Cairenes and tourists alike -- and it's no wonder. It's one of Cairo's few secluded outdoor spaces -- an oasis, housed in a 19th-century palace on the Nile. Menu options include freshly made pasta, pizzas, salads and traditional dishes, such as kebabs and kofta or ground meat. There's also a bakery inside the hotel that serves 14 types of bread, 28 French pastries and Movenpick, a terrific Swiss ice cream. It's pricey, though.
Also on Zemalek Island, Sequoia is a sprawling lounge that will make you feel like you're among Cairo's fabulous. Sit in comfy chairs under the tentlike tarp, enjoying the breezes off the river while you eat sushi or smoke a shisha (water pipe). As befits a Muslim city, Cairo doesn't have a ton of places to drink alcohol, but this is one of them. Reservations are recommended, and there's a minimum charge. It's on Abu El Feda Street at the northern end of the island.
Once the home of wealthy pashas, leafy Garden City is now the home to the American and British embassies, as well as top Western hotels -- which is why the neighborhood is surrounded by Egyptian security forces. Tell them that you're going to Taboula, a warm restaurant with Middle Eastern decor and Lebanese meze favorites, such as hummus, grape leaves, grilled cheese and baba ganoush. The restaurant, open noon to 1 a.m., is tucked away at 1 Latin American Street.
For fantastic seafood and Middle Eastern salads, the moderately priced Americana Fish Market is as good as it gets. Diners choose from a large selection of freshly caught fish. Then choices are weighed, cooked to order and served with salads and aish, produced right out of the kiln. On top of that, the restaurant is located on the upper deck of a permanently moored boat on the Nile. The restaurant, open daily from 12:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., is located at 26 Sharia al Nil in Giza.
Also in Giza, Khan El Khalili in the gorgeous Mena House Oberoi Hotel can't be beat for its breathtaking views of the Pyramids. It's open 24 hours and has a fantastic breakfast buffet. If you're in Giza around dinnertime, check out the hotel's popular Indian restaurant, The Moghul Room.
Cairo has a well-established cafe culture; as you ride through the city, you'll see countless storefronts where men sit outside, having cups and smoking a shishas filled with flavored tobacco. One of the most famous, the El Fishawy, is in the bazaar. Note that few women smoke shisha in public; if you'd like to indulge, you're best buying a pipe at your hotel or at an expat-heavy restaurant, such as Taboula.
Many fine restaurants are in Cairo, as well as many types of cuisine that you can choose to match your mood. Egyptians, by nature, eat lunch and dinner quite late, but you don't have to. Dress is casual but neat, and reservations are not always necessary. A good Middle Eastern restaurant with a great atmosphere, and made to look like a stone mansion, is Papillon (02/347-1672). It gets quite crowded, so a reservation is definitely advised. If Italian food is your fancy, there is a really tasty joint by the name of Spaghetteria (02/355-7171). Join in on the fun here and build your own dish with many sauces and other ingredients to put in it. An all-you-can-eat establishment, make sure to bring your appetite as well as your creativity.
Nightlife and Entertainment
Cairo comes alive at night. A fun place to go where you can hear Arabic music along with live performances is the Al-Ghuri Palace (02/510-0823). You will be transported by its setting as you enter this medieval mansion! What is Egypt without a little belly dancing? If you like to stay up very late and like a risqué atmosphere as well, then Alhambra (02/336-9700) is the place for you. Do you feel like winning some money on your vacation? Casinos are open all night and have all the games you would expect. Especially popular is the Omar Khayyam (02/735-8888 ext. 8251), located in the Cairo Marriott.
The Arts
A beautiful place that is consistently frequented by superb artists is The Opera House (El Borg Gezira, 02/739-8144). It features excellent western as well as traditional Arab orchestras. Contemporary Egyptian artists show off their masterpieces at the Mashrabia Gallery (02/578-4494). It is quite a brilliant display of talent!

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