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The capital of Egypt and the largest city in North Africa and the Arab World.

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Getting Around Cairo, Egypt

  • Jan 26, 2010
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Cairo is the capital of Egypt.  The population is around twenty million in the greater Cairo area, dwarfing the population of New York City.  It is the largest city in North Africa.  The Nile flows north through the continent of Africa, placing Cairo into the region known as lower Egypt, even though it is physically North.  The Nile is the central feature, dividing Cairo from Giza, which combines to create the immense population.  With 20 million people trying to get from point A to point B, Cairo's roads get very congested.  If you are visiting Cairo, rental cars are available.  Avis had cars at my hotel for fifty dollars per day.  There is no way I would even consider getting behind the wheel of a car in Cairo.  Two major factors contribute to that decision.  First, I value my life.  Second, once you get where you are going, there will not be parking available anyway. 

I stayed out in Heliopolis, which is serviced by a tram.  Tram service used to be available through out the area, but this train only runs locally.  In order to get into Cairo, which was about ten miles away, my best choice was by taxi.  Taxi cabs are abundant in Cairo and seem to be even easier to find than in NYC.  In fact, anytime I left my hotel to visit nearby attractions on foot, every other taxi cab honked at me to see if I needed a ride.  Taking a taxi in Cairo is very different from taking one in New York (or other US cities, where they are heavily regulated).  Hopefully the tips in this transportation related review will help you get along if you travel to the region.

White checkered taxi cabs

The cab pictured above is the one you want to find if you are in or around Cairo.  The white taxi cabs are newer (likely safer) and have meters.  Ask the driver if he has a meter.  If you know how to get where you are going ask the driver if he can take that way.  If you do not, have an idea of the distance and let the driver you know how far your destination is.  Also, let them know that you want to use the meters and then watch them set it.  There are a couple of scams that I ran into, even with the metered cabs.  The first involved not resetting the meter.  The driver must have just dropped off a fare for 6 LE (Egyptian Pounds) which is just over a dollar.  The meter should have read 2.50 LE when we got in the cab.  He never reset it.  He did not take us out of our way, so I did not complain...I simply deducted the difference from the tip I planned to give him.  His loss for dishonesty.  The second problem I encountered was on my last day.  I traveled to Kan El Kalili bazaar and was told by the driver that the location was tall...I thought he was referring to the two mosques that had tall spires on top located at the bazaar.  I soon realized he meant FAR.  When I realized we were going the wrong direction, I asked him the distance...he replied 60 Km.  The bazaar was 20 Km and I assured him I knew the distance.  All of a sudden, his English evaporated.  When we arrived, he attempted to charge me 65 LE for a ride that I had been paying 22 to 25 LE for.  I refused to pay him the amount on the meter and split the difference.  I gave him the option of visiting the Tourism and Antiquities Police to resolve the dispute, but he quickly settled with me and went his way.

Unmetered Cairo Taxi

If you visit any of the local attractions you will find "Guides" trying to get you a cab (which you can easily get yourself) or you may see taxis waiting on their next fare.  They will approach you and aggressively try to get your business.  The ones I ran into that wanted to drive me were mostly the black unmetered cabs.  Dickering is part of the Egyptian way (at least with tourists) and the prices I got from the black taxis were severely inflated.  I needed a ride from The Citadel to the Egyptian Museum, which ended up being around 15 LE (less than three dollars).  The first taxi driver that approached me told me he would take me there for 100 LE (twenty dollars).  I did not even attempt to dicker with him...his price was not close to what I knew the fare was worth.  He was probably hoping to settle somewhere around 40 LE which would be vastly inflated from the true cost in a metered cab.  He continued to pursue me and ask for my business, which I declined.  If you take an unmetered taxi, ensure that you settle on a firm price before you get in the cab.  Otherwise you may get "taken for a ride."

Cairo cab drivers are unlike anything I have ever experienced.  I have driven myself in Bosnia, Italy, South Korea, New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles.  You would think I had seen it all.  I have come away from Egypt with the conviction that the lines on the road are only there to help gage the distance between cars to see if you can squeeze between them.  On a three lane road, four lanes were the standard and five lanes not uncommon.  Any passing space was utilized regardless of how the road is designed.  Any centimeter of open space is filled with car.  Buses, semi-trucks and heavy equipment do not intimidate drivers in the least and almost seem a challenge to them.  How these drivers manage to maintain paper thin distances between vehicles is beyond me.  It is utterly amazing to witness firsthand.  Another thing I noticed was that they do not use headlights at night (except to flash other drivers).  The ability to fit a car into impossibly tight spaces seems amazing enough, but they manage to do it one handed, while the other hand constantly blows on the horn.  Riding in a Cairo cab is a treat that you have to experience first hand.

Cairo Metro

If you are traveling between two points serviced by the Metro, it is likely to be the quickest, least expensive method of travel.  The Metro stations are marked with a sign like the one above.  There are three rail lines that operate on the Cairo Metro system.  Having been on the DC Metro many times, I am familiar with the incredible reputation that Metro has for being clean and safe.  I am not sure how that applies in Cairo, but I took the line four stations between downtown Cairo and The Coptic Museum.  Unlike DC, the Cairo Metro charges a single rate for fares regardless of the distance traveled.  One fare runes 1 LE, which is currently about 18 cents.  Transportation, like food, is much cheaper in Cairo than in the United States.  I felt safe on the train and considered it relatively clean compared to the rest of the city.  Nowhere near as nice or as clean as the DC metro (and food and drinks are allowed on the train).  There is a special car reserved on the train for unaccompanied females to give them a greater sense of safety.  I have been told that crowded trains provide a sense of anonymity for male riders who like to brush against Western females, so that is something to be considered.  My wife and I were on an uncrowded train and did not have any issues.

Felucca rides

You can travel up and down the Nile on the Felucca, which is a traditional boat that dates back centuries.  There are different versions of the Felucca, which are normally sailboats like the one pictured above.  However, they also have motorized feluccas of various shapes and sizes.  The price can be negotiated.  You will find these boats parked all along the Nile, so finding one does not require much effort.  Normally, the boat Captain will drop you off anywhere you want along the Nile.  So you can potentially start from one point and get dropped off at another.  Along with the Felucca are Dinner Cruises which can also be found easily along the Nile.  Many of these cruises include a buffet dinner and belly dancing for entertainment.  They are not all created equal, with prices varying depending on the quality of the food.  If you are staying at a local hotel, ask the bell staff.  They can probably make a safe recommendation for the cruise.  Feluccas vary in price and can be anywhere from twenty dollars on up.

Camel at Giza

Camel rides are one of the big attractions at the pyramid locations.  The pyramids of Giza have a few locations where you can negotiate a camel ride. I traveled to the pyramids with a personal tour guide that I hired through my hotel.  They booked through a tour company called Thomas Cook.  My guide negotiated the price of the camel ride for me (it was around 28 dollars each) and made sure I wasn't going to be scammed.  Another couple that I met on my return trip from Egypt told me that they negotiated their own price (which was higher than what I paid) and were taken out into the desert.  The camel boy then told them he wanted another 150 US Dollars to take them back.  They negotiated an additional fifty dollars (which is about what I paid total) just to get back to the pyramids.  It is a common scam.  The boy that took us through the desert was great.  He also warned us that we would be approached about buying drinks.  This was some sort of scam that I did not completely figure out, but he warned us to just tell them "no."  We followed his advice and did not suffer the consequences of finding out what the game was that they were trying to play.  At Giza, you can also take donkey and horse rides into the desert.  It was an awesome experience that I would highly recommend.  It is incredibly peaceful, and no tour buses are allowed on the backside of the pyramids, which includes a panorama where all nine of the pyramids can be viewed from one spot.  Our camel guide also took pictures of us on the camels which turned out exceptional.

Yours truly (and my better half) with the Great pyramid in the background.
The smaller pyramids to the right belong to the wives of the builder of the first pyramid at Giza.

Another mode of transportation in Cairo is the horse and buggy.  I did not take a ride on the horse buggy, but saw a few buggy riders along the Nile.  It is probably not very safe for them to get into the heavier traffic through the city, so I tend to think they may stay along the river as much as possible.  Because I did not take a buggy ride, I am unfamiliar with the price or routes.  It looked fun, though!

Getting around Cairo can be entertaining as well as stressful.  Riding in a Cairo taxi is a one-of-a-kind experience.  The cabs are fluid in a strange mechanical way.  The way the drivers drift between lanes and seem capable of reading the other driver's mind is something to see.  There must be unspoken rules that you learn with time.  It can scare the heck out of you, but the drivers are efficient and get you around surprisingly fast considering the incredible amount of traffic.  Finding a cab was never hard for me, even in more remote areas like The Citadel.  Many of the driver's do not speak English or are embarrassed enough by their English not to try.  For that reason, it is a good idea to have directions or locations you want to go to already translated into Arabic.  I obtained assistance in this endeavor from my bellboy, who listed all the locations I wanted to go that day in English (for me) with Arabic translations.  It came in handy.  I also kept a slip of paper in my pocket with my hotel address written in Arabic as well.  Taxi rides are inexpensive, but the Metro is even cheaper.  If it runs the direction you want to go, you can get there cheap.  Two other methods of transportation I did not take and would strongly advise against are the public bus (the bus was always over-crowded and they did not look reliable) and the private van (which was also crowded and scary).  Both will set you back the same as the Metro, 1 LE or about eighteen cents US.

There is plenty to see around Cairo and much of it is not in walking distance.  Downtown has the Nile and the Egyptian Museum, the pyramids are out in Giza, Memphis and Saqqarah, the Coptic Museum in is Old Cairo and The Citadel and the Kan El Kalili bazaar is in the area between Old Cairo and The Citadel but not walking distance to either.  The best way to get around is to make a game plan (taking into consideration the varied opening and closing times of each attraction) and use a combination of the Metro and Taxi to get between locations!  It isn't hard once you get the hand of it!
Getting Around Cairo, Egypt

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July 10, 2011
Egypt is a fascinating country. I continue to marvel at the Great Pyramids.
February 02, 2010
Nice pictures and very imformative. Was that a bumpy ride in the desert? Nice job glad to see you made it back safe.
January 30, 2010
Absolutely fantastic review - I went to Cairo some years ago and you completely nailed it. Great stuff.
January 26, 2010
I can relate to you in the cab scams. A lot of those are going around who target tourists. This is a well-written piece. Very informative! I'll do a write up on killing zombies and mummies later...
January 26, 2010
I visited Cairo in 2000 and had almost the exact experience you did with transportation. The taxi's are madness, to say the least, unlike any other driving experience I have ever had, I never felt safe but I'm very glad I tried it out! I did take a private van my first night in town, due to a delay flying out of Athens I did not arrive until after 2am and a van was my only choice for getting to downtown. The crew consisted of a driver and a navigator and while both seemed nice I was, I think reasonably, uncertain that they were trustworthy. Beside the fact that they "got lost" for about 30-45 minutes so as to charge extra they get me to my destination unmolested. Another difference between your experience and my own is that I foolishly negotiated by own camel ride at the pyramids from a boy of perhaps 10 who took me whereever I wanted but who continually tried to pick my pockets (it got to the point where I simply slapped his hand whenever he came near my shirt or pants). As for tipping, or Baksheesh as it is called locally, nothing moves without it, not taxi's, not the fire department, which is vastly different from my Western perspective, but I found that cigarettes went a long way. Even as a non-smoker I purchased a carton of cigarettes upon arrival and gave them out to people to assist me with what I needed, not one person turned them down. I found your review most interesting and am glad that someone is putting this information out there, having had to flounder my way through Cairo with no advice, I can only image how helpful this will be to future tourists.
January 26, 2010
Interesting stuff here. You should post some of this as a review! Those tidbits about the pick pocketing, and cigarettes will probably be useful to many people :)
January 26, 2010
Another great review, John! I've never thought about taking a trip to Egypt before, but this review, plus your other one of Egyptian cuisine, are definitely making me think twice. I really love your touch with the photos, too. Almost didn't recognize you without the 'fro! ;P Thanks for sharing!
January 26, 2010
I have plenty to write about. I have identified about a dozen topics and locations I plan to write about, so it should be an interesting couple of weeks! Now if I can only find the time! I'm back to work tomorrow.
January 26, 2010
Well, when you find the time, you know us Lunchers are all eagerly looking forward to it! ;D Didn't you just get back? Hope your jet lag wasn't too bad! :P
January 26, 2010
I should be posting here and there over the next two weeks. I did just get back on Sunday night. The jet lag wasn't too bad this direction. A nice bonus!
January 26, 2010
Awesome Review! I've always wanted to make the trip to Egypt! Now I have some good tips. Thanks!
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Cairo is the capital of Egypt and the largest city in North Africa and the Arab World. Nicknamed "The City of a Thousand Minarets" for its preponderance of Islamic architecture, Cairo has long been a center of the region's political and cultural life. Even before Cairo was established in the tenth century, the land composing the present-day city was the site of national capitals whose remnants remain visible in parts of Old Cairo. Cairo is also associated with Ancient Egypt due to its proximity to the Great Sphinx and the pyramids in adjacent Giza.

Egyptians today often refer to Cairo as Maṣr, the Egyptian Arabic pronunciation of the name for Egypt itself, emphasizing the city's continued role in Egyptian influence. Cairo has the oldest and largest film and music industries in the Arab World, as well as the world's second-oldest institution of higher learning, al-Azhar University. Many international media, businesses, and organizations have regional headquarters in the city, and the Arab League has been based in Cairo for most of its existence.

With a population of 6.8 million spread over 214 square kilometers (83 sq mi), Cairo is by far the largest city in Egypt. With an additional ten million inhabitants just outside the city, Cairo resides at the center of the largest metropolitan area in Africa and the eleventh-largest urban area in the world. Cairo, like many large cities in developing countries, suffers from high levels of pollution and traffic, but its ...
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