Cairo has, for ages, been a tourist destination. The Greeks and the Romans visited and the Europeans descended upon Cairo in hordes. They still do.
The usual tourist itinerary through the ancient city will take travelers to the Pyramids and the Sphinx, and will no doubt inspire awe as it has for centuries. A trip to the museum will inform and enlighten, as well as give visitors the opportunity to see the marks of past generations of Cairo road scholars in the form of Greek and Roman graffiti. But if you really want to leave your mark on Cairo today, as well as have Cairo leave it’s mark on you, there are some areas off the route that should be visited, and some tricks to make the others more memorable.
Visit Garbage City
Known in Cairo as the Al-Medinat Al-Zabaleen, or the city of the garbage collectors, this is a stop for any tourist looking to get out of the tourist infected sites of Egypt. Located just below the looming green expanse of Al-Azhar Park, Garbage City is where a portion of Egypt’s Coptic Christian population gathers, sorts and recycles a heavy part of Cairo’s refuse.
The thought of wandering through a trash dump, let alone living among it, may seem a bit uninspiring. Nevertheless, a trip here will introduce visitors to some of Cairo’s most open and welcoming locals. Touring through the area can find visitors invited into a small shop where plastics are recycled and pressed into coat hangers or a small apartment where the family gathers for tea and fresh juice between sorting duties.
Sit at one of the cafes along the main strip to smoke sheesha and drink tea – in no time at all you will find yourself welcomed by residents more curious about you, and less curious about your wallet, a rarity in the city so well known for it’s constant barrage of tourist leeches.
Furthermore, no trip to Garbage City would be complete without a visit to the Monestary of St. Tanner located above the town in Moqattam Hill. The church is steeped in legend of moving mountains and miracle apparitions, but the sheer size and architecture of this church built into the rock is sure to impress even the irreligious.
1. Visit the Burquesh Camel Market
While this market earns mention in many travel guides the trouble of transportation and timing often make it a day trip that is unfortunately overlooked. The Lonely Planet Guide offers a bus route, which, like so many public transit options in Cairo is nearly impossible to find if existent at all. You can find your way to this market by going to Imbaba in northwest Cairo and hiring a minibus to take you for a slightly more than comfortable sum or hire a taxi the whole way out.
The market itself is not for the feint of heart as the animals are treated quite poorly. Nevertheless it is a cultural experience that shouldn’t be missed. Form the market visitors can catch a pick-up truck taxi to the nearest train station and catch a train back to Cairo. This is where the true adventure lies. The residents of this Nile valley town are generous and charming, not to mention eager to meet foreigners who rarely pass through. The only train stopping at the cement platform station is third class but around noon when it passes is relatively empty on Fridays when the market is in full swing.
The market is open from 7-11 but the town’s markets are going all day long. Be sure to check it out if you’re in Cairo and want to see more than just a crowded, hectic city.
2. Take a Nile Feluka Ride
Many spending time in Cairo will have a chance to enjoy a Feluka ride on the Nile. But like any tourist excursion, spending your time on one of these sail boats can be done right and it can be done wrong.
For the best quiet and calming cruise be sure to head down near the Grand Hyatt along the Cornice to Dok-Dok Felukas and rent a sailboat. The cost should range from 40-60 Egyptian pounds per hour. The captains here range from charming to silent, but you’ll avoid the pain of having a captain more interested in harassing you then letting you enjoy your ride.
Most importantly though, you should be sure to hit one of the many fruit stands along the way and fill up a large water bottle with fresh juice. Hit a local shop, or one of the more popular restaurants like Gad or Felfella and stock up on some bread, hummus, babaganou, maybe some fuul (Egyptian beans) and some falafel. A quiet dinner on the Nile with the freshest fruit juice to wash it down will make a sunset cruise one of the most memorable adventures of your stay in Egypt.
3. The Giza Pyramids
Of course the pyramids are on everyone’s must see list that is traveling to Cairo, and for good reason. The history and sheer architectural prowess of these ancient monuments is reason enough to visit.
However, in recent years the pyramids receive such a large number of tourists that they are often over-run with crowds and with less than tactful locals trying to earn a buck. Camel jockeys, horse tour guides and souvenir hawkers can make even the most prepared sightseers aggravated and filled with a bad impression of the trip.
However, with Egypt’s laxidasical tourist police and the pyramid’s early closing time – four o’clock – it is possible to enjoy the ruins alone. Visit the sphinx around three and head up to the pyramids just before four. As security rounds up visitors to send them on their way just walk slowly and surely, snap photos and say “thank you, we’re on our way.” This can keep you at the pyramids until sunset and within minutes the guards will leave you to be. In the end you might just get a ride down the street in the back of a truck as the guards do their final rounds, and they’ll send you on you’re way with nothing more than a friendly goodbye. You, of course, will have enjoyed your visit without the hassle and frustration of most every other tourist, as well as having snapped some of the most brilliant and memorable photos of your trip.