It's a cliché, but there's really no sight like them. For sheer, dominating bulk, the pyramids on Giza have got pretty well everywhere else in the world beat. It used to be that you came upon them slowly, riding on horseback across the green fields that separated the plateau from the city. Nowadays, urban sprawl laps at the very feet of the Sphinx himself, and by the time you see the pyramids, they're right on top of you. It's a moment that you'll never forget.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu is the first one you come to. The entrance is on the north face, and once inside, you face a long and uncomfortable scramble to the Great Gallery, which is some 47m (154 ft.) long and 8.5m (28 ft.) high. Don't even think about going in if you suffer from the slightest bit of claustrophobia -- the passages are narrow and the spaces are tight, and in the heat of the summer stuffed with tourists, the inside of this place is guaranteed to set you off. Other than the thrill of where you are, there is little to see inside the pyramid. Do note, however, the extraordinary stone masonry involved in fitting the building blocks together, and take a pause to consider the skill involved in positioning the massive slabs of limestone and granite that make up the walls and roof.
Around the back of Khufu's pyramid, on the south side, is the strangely shaped Solar Barque Museum, which houses a boat that was disassembled and buried near the pyramid in a sealed pit as part of the interment rites for the deceased Pharaoh. Another one was discovered, but left in place, in 1985. When excavators found the boat, it had been carefully stored as 1,224 separate pieces, which had to be carefully fit together in precisely the right fashion before being put on display. The result is a breathtakingly graceful vessel with a high, curved prow and a narrow entry.
The medium-size Pyramid of Khafre is a lot easier to visit than its bigger neighbor -- both because it's smaller (not that the corridors are any wider, but they are shorter) and because there are generally fewer people -- which is something to consider when you're fighting for tickets or simply trying to have a relaxed day on the plateau. Have a good look at its peak as you approach, and check out the remnants of its white limestone casing. Inside, you can still see Khafre's granite sarcophagus.
The Pyramid of Menkaura, the smallest on the plateau, was the target of some 12th-century vandalism when Salah el Din's son, Othman Ibn Yusuf, attempted to have it dismantled and removed. You can see the dent his workers made in the north face. This is the sum of their achievements after about 8 months of work, testimony to the solidity and sheer bulk of even the least imposing of these structures.
After you've seen the three pyramids, the Sphinx is about all that's left before lunch. Legends and stories have attached themselves by the dozen to the battered half cat, half human figure on the southern edge of the site, close to the bottom of the causeway up to the Pyramid of Khafre. The bottom line seems to be that it was carved from the bedrock at about the same time as the pyramid, and that its features were those of Khafre himself. Napoleon, despite rumors to the contrary, did not remove the nose -- it seems to have been chipped off at least 500 years before the diminutive Frenchman was born.
Take a full morning to see this site, and try to leave before the midday heat sets in. Take plenty of water with you, and think about retiring to the Mena House Oberoi for a light lunch when you're finished. In fact, this hotel is a great place from which to admire the pyramids without the stress and hassle of actually going in. In the summer, this is best done from the pool.
The business of selling tickets and getting around the plateau, even after so many years, is still not perfected. Changes are ongoing, and it's all still a bit ad hoc. Start with the general admission ticket at the kiosk at the main gate (on the road that turns past the Mena House Oberoi). You will need an additional ticket for each pyramid, and sometimes there is a limit imposed on admission to the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre of 300 tickets per pyramid per day -- 150 at 8:30am and the rest at 1pm. When this is the case, you have to be prepared for a bit of pushing and shoving. The best way to avoid the scene is to take a bus tour (below).
In addition to the limit on the number of tickets, the usual situation is that only one of the two smaller pyramids is open at any given time to accommodate ongoing restoration work inside them. To find out about either of these conditions, call the Pyramids Tourist Information Office (tel. 02/33838823), located across from the Mena House Oberoi near the main gate to the plateau.
Note: The pyramids in Giza have the highest density of con artists and touts of any site in the country. Before you even make it to the gate, you'll be surrounded by eager young men who insist that you will not be allowed in without a guide (don't worry, you will be), or that you need a horse to get around (you don't). Once inside, the offers will keep coming, many of them from uniformed policemen who will offer a variety of favors in return for cash. They may be irritating, but they are not dangerous and can safely be ignored. If you do opt for a horse or camel ride, agree on the price first, and do not pay until you get where you're going -- pay upfront, and your horse will "go lame" within a couple of feet, necessitating another steed and another payment. Incidents of theft are also not uncommon; don't hand anyone your camera to get your picture taken -- you may find yourself having to buy it back.
Tips: Take a Break, Take the Bus -- I am no fan of the organized bus tour, but unless you have someone to drive you out to the pyramids, fight for the tickets, and keep away the touts, it's actually the best way to see the site. The front desk of almost any hotel in town sells the tours, which usually include doorstep service. Thomas Cook has an excellent reputation, but most companies offer the same thing: an air-conditioned bus, tickets, and a guide. About the only thing that you want to look out for when booking your tour is the tacked-on "tour of the papyrus factory" or "visit to the carpet workshop," during which you'll find yourself herded through an overpriced tourist store in Giza and pressured to buy by a "guide" who gets a healthy cut of whatever you spend.
Just the Facts -- The three pyramids in Giza are the oldest and biggest tourist sites ever, and they've been attracting visitors since before Greek historian Herodotus named the biggest of the three as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The pyramids were built on the western edge of the Nile Valley, by 4th-dynasty rulers between about 2589 and 2530 B.C., and given their age, they have survived remarkably well; the most noticeable damage has been the loss of most of the gleaming white limestone casings, which has changed the dimensions of the biggest pyramid, Khufu, giving it a saw-toothed profile when viewed up close. The medium-size pyramid was built for Khafre, the son of Khufu, and the smallest was for Menkaura, who succeeded Khafre.
Sound and Light Show -- The keyword here is cheesy. This over-the-top light show (tel. 03/23852880 or 02/33857861; www.soundandlight.com.eg; admission LE60/$11/£5.55), ostensibly narrated by the Sphinx, is historically uninformative and giggle-worthy for the most part. The upside is that you get to be out on the plateau after dark. The downside is that they turn the volume up too high, and the sound system isn't really that great. Unless you are a huge fan of this kind of thing, or have an ironic sense of humor, I would advise saving your sound and light budget for Karnak.
There are three shows a night, each in a different language. Showtimes in the winter (Oct-Apr) are 6:30, 7:30, and 8:30pm. In the summer (May-Sept), shows are at 8:30, 9:30, and 10:30pm. The logic behind the language schedule has always escaped me, and I would recommend double-checking the information below before trekking out to Giza.
Note: If your curiosity's been peaked, but you're not willing to ante up the cost of entry, you can get a pretty good view of the proceedings from just outside the exit from the plateau over by the Sphinx.