Escape to Egypt Part 1: Kicking Things off in Cairo
Exactly one year ago, I found myself high above the Atlantic Ocean, bound for Cairo, Egypt, eager to embark on an eleven-day odyssey through the land of the Nile. It marked the start of one of my most cherished adventures yet, and I’m excited to celebrate the anniversary by going old school Venga, Vale, Vamos: no listicles, SEO bait, or journalistic ambitions. Join me for a classic diary-style series recounting last year’s month-long escapade through the enchanting landscapes of Egypt, Jordan, Italy, and Malta.
In a previous post, I explained the series of unfortunate-turned-fortunate events that unfolded into a grand tour across the Middle East and Europe. If you’re not sure if you can get through the rest of your day without understanding the full story that led me to Egypt, check out that post here. But without further ado, Egypt part one!
The journey was long but surprisingly pleasant. Upon boarding my Turkish Airlines flight from LAX to Istanbul, I was thrilled to find the seat next to me—as well as several across the row—open. An international Turkish Airlines flight felt like pure luxury compared to the basic economy domestic flights that have made up the majority of my recent travel experiences. Delicious food, free wine, a handy care package with socks, an eye mask, earplugs, and more, and even nicely scented hand lotion in the bathrooms? Not the worst way to spend a 13-hour flight.
The long flight was followed by a 6+ hour layover in Istanbul. I promise this isn’t a paid promotion for Turkish Airlines, but did you know the airline offers free city tours and meal vouchers to anyone with a long layover? My layover was just too short for the city tour, but I did take advantage of the free food voucher and enjoyed some authentic Turkish Burger King while watching a Sicilian cyclist fly off the handle because his burger was too flat. See, folks, Americans aren’t the only ones who should be labeled bad tourists!
Two and a half more hours on a flight from Istanbul to Cairo, and, at last, I was touching down in the Egyptian capital! I would be joining an Intrepid Travel tour for the Egypt and Jordan portions of my trip, and one of the perks of this tour was it included a transfer from the airport to the hotel. Definitely an upgrade from the budget backpacking I’ve done in the past. And sure enough, upon arrival there was a representative awaiting me with an Intrepid sign! I quickly learned he wouldn’t be my guide for the rest of the trip, but he was able to usher me to the visa line and then to the baggage claim, where I waited for what felt like hours. At least I was able to use this time to set up my eSIM and get online (see tip below!). The last pieces of luggage trickled out, with mine still nowhere to be found. But just as I was about to give up all hope and resign myself to a full wardrobe of pharaoh chic, my little backpack-that-could came hobbling down the belt. Praise Amun-Ra!
Let me interrupt myself with a few travel tips:
- eSIMs are, in my humble opinion, the best way to get a data plan when traveling abroad. Using your regular data plan is easy but more expensive, and getting a local SIM card is cheaper but not always easy. If your phone is carrier-unlocked, you can simply download an app like Airalo (that’s the one I used and was very happy with! You can get $3 off if you use my referral link), buy a package, and follow the instructions to install—no physical SIM card needed. Some phones will even let you use dual SIMs so you can continue receiving text messages on your home number but use the eSIM for data.
- If you’re traveling to Egypt, getting a visa on arrival is much easier and slightly cheaper than buying a visa online in advance. Just make sure you bring cash—and specifically U.S. dollars—ideally exact change. Check the current visa price before you travel.
Even after the delay at baggage claim, I had a long wait at the airport while the Intrepid representative hunted down other tourists. I should have been exhausted after my 22-hour trip, but I was simply thrilled that both my luggage and I had made it to Cairo, and I was eager to get the proverbial party started. Eventually, the Intrepid representative sent me off with a driver, and we began the hour-or-so drive to the hotel. And here’s where it finally hit me that I was back in my element at last! Solo travel in a truly foreign land, something I had sorely missed over the past few years. As we drove to the hotel, I sat in the back of the van, giddily absorbing the sights and sounds of Cairo and admiring in the vibrant energy of the bustling late-night city streets. I even got my first glimpse of the Nile as we crossed over it en route to Giza. I was really and truly in Egypt!
The hotel my tour started from was in Giza, not far from the Pyramids and Sphinx. I’d always assumed Giza was a totally distinct city in another part of Egypt, but it’s really just the neighborhoods of Cairo that are west of the Nile. I checked in and was delighted that, despite having opted out of Intrepid’s single room surcharge, I had an entire room to myself that first night. By this point, it was 11pm or later, so I settled in, did a bit of Egyptian channel-surfing, confirmed my plans for the next day, and then drifted off to sleep, dreaming of the day to come.
A Slice of Ancient History
The following day, my Intrepid Tour was due to begin with a group orientation at 6pm. With an entire day to explore Cairo on my own, there was just one destination I knew I had to visit: Pizza Hut.
Yes, the American pizza chain. For years, I’d seen photos floating around the internet of tourists dining at the Giza Pizza Hut and enjoying an incomparable view of the Pyramids and Sphinx. I had to see it for myself, not only because I found the idea hilarious, but because I’d heard that this Pizza Hut genuinely does offer one of the best views in all of Cairo. And let me tell you: Pizza Hut did not disappoint!
I started the day feeling victorious after navigating myself to an ATM that didn’t reject my debit card. Then, I Ubered from my hotel to the Pizza Hut, managing to immediately mangle the bit of Arabic I was feeling daring enough to use and accidentally misgendering my driver. A live radio broadcast of mosque prayers was a fitting soundtrack for the ride and a stark reminder that I wasn’t in the US of A anymore.
Suddenly, the Great Pyramid came into view, and all I could think was, “Dang, that thing is HUGE!” It hit me once again: I was really in Egypt! My Uber arrived at the Pizza Hut, I fought my way through crowds of Egyptians trying to sell me tours of the Pyramids, and then I figured out how to order my pizza despite the lack of typical counter or menu, just an unmarked stand with a QR code. I ventured up to the rooftop where, sure enough, the views of the Sphinx and Pyramids were impeccable. I feasted on a personal pizza, chatted with an American expat and his friends he was hosting for the week, and took some of the best photos I’d get of the Pyramids all trip.
My next tips:
- When in Cairo, Ubers are plentiful, safe, and absurdly cheap. Public transportation is difficult to navigate, and taxis are ripe for rip-offs, but Uber is a perfect for getting around the city. Another good reason to make sure you have a data plan in Cairo.
- Go to that Pizza Hut in Giza!
My Salad(in) Days
From Pizza Hut, I caught an Uber across town to the Citadel of Saladin, one of Cairo’s most renowned attractions that wouldn’t be on the Intrepid tour itinerary. I had read that Fridays are a particularly bad day to visit the Citadel, as Friday is the Muslim holy day and the mosque is packed. I came close to letting those posts talk me out of visiting the Citadel, but I figured, well, this was the one free day I had in Cairo, so why not?
My Uber driver to the Citadel was quite the character. His English was flawless, and he had immense knowledge of Egyptian history. As I learned during the drive, when he’s not driving for Uber, he leads spiritual tours around Egypt—and he meant “spiritual” more in the woo woo sense than the religious history sense. By the end of the drive, I was armed with knowledge on the optimal temples for meditation and how I could utilize their energy to balance my chakras. So much for getting out of L.A.
The Citadel of Saladin is brand spanking new compared to most of the Egyptian monuments I would see over the next two weeks. It was first built in the 12th century AD and served as a fortress, seat of government, and royal residence. Today, it’s a sprawling historic site, where tourists can freely explore the grounds and visit its mosques and museums.
The Citadel offered my first real glimpse into the entrepreneurial side of Egypt, something I’d experienced in other countries where tourists are rampant and foreign currency is strong. On the way in, there were a handful of vendors selling everything from camel figurines to overpriced water. As I entered one open-air mosque, a man hovering at the entrance asked where I was from, eagerly exclaimed, “Ayyyyy Obama!” then asked to exchange my U.S. dollars. And inside the mosque, a couple of teenagers were wandering around offering to take tourists’ photos in exchange for tips. Over the next week and a half, I’d learn just how common this kind of interaction is in Egypt, but, hey, I respect the hustle.
I had a fabulous time slowly wandering around the Citadel, absorbing its stunning Islamic architecture, and, of course, taking a million photos. The Citadel grounds offer sweeping views over Cairo’s sprawl, and, honestly the most impressive aspect of the view was the dense smog that even 1970s L.A. couldn’t rival. The jewel of the Citadel is the Muhammad Ali Mosque, a 19th-century mosque with soaring ceilings, intricate adornments, and a picturesque courtyard. Also located on the Citadel’s campus is the National Military Museum, where I did a quick run-through of the country’s historical conflicts, a good reminder that there’s more to Egyptian history than King Tut and Cleopatra.
All in all, the Citadel was a fascinating place to explore. And I don’t know if I got lucky with the particular day I went, but despite my concerns about visiting on a Friday, the crowds were sparse and my visit didn’t coincide with the prayer service.
Once I’d finished touring the Citadel and taking all the photos I could dream of, I hopped in another inexpensive Uber and headed back to the hotel. I’m not typically good at giving myself downtime when I’m in a new destination, but I picked up some water, checked out the city views from the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, and afforded myself three whole hours to relax in my private hotel room before group orientation.
- Try to avoid Egypt’s big tourist attractions on Fridays, but if that’s the only day you can see a place, don’t let the weekend crowds stop you!
- Women, carry a scarf with you throughout Egypt. I never felt out of place without one in most spots, but they’re helpful to have when visiting mosques. I don’t think you’d be stopped from entering a mosque without one, but it is respectful to cover your head when entering religious buildings.
Strangers in a Strange Land
At last, it was time to meet the folks I’d be spending nearly every minute of the next eleven days with! We shuffled into a meeting room, where our fearless leader for the trip, an Egyptian man named Mohamed, introduced himself and gave us the rundown of the tour, everything from food safety to currency to useful Arabic phrases. The tour group members introduced themselves one-by-one: five Aussies, one American, three Canadian, two Brits, and me, ranging in age from their late 20s to late 70s, all absolutely thrilled to explore Egypt.
As I learned the previous time I did a multi-day group tour, in South America, meeting your tour group can be a big moment of truth. Thankfully, everyone seemed incredibly friendly and fun right off the bat, and I’d learn over the next ten days just how wonderful they really were.
After the meeting, the group opted for dinner at one of the hotel’s restaurants rather than experimenting with Gizan cuisine. I joined them for what wound up being lackluster westernized food but great conversation. With an early start ahead of us the next morning, I called it a night, ready for the next day of adventure to begin.
Could this post mark my triumphant return to (semi-)regular blogging? Only time will tell, but I do have plenty more I’m itching to share. Next up: seeing more of Cairo on my first full day with the tour group, including venturing inside a pyramid, sampling koshary, and coming face-to-face with mummies at the Egyptian Museum.