Renewing Your Visa
If you think that you're going to need more than the 30 days that the airport visa gives you in the country, it's best to get it extended before you leave Cairo. The office is in Tahrir Square, across from the Egyptian Museum in the mighty Soviet-inspired edifice known as the Mugama. Standing outside looking up at the dark Orwellian bulk of the place, you might think that you're in for a horrendous experience. On the contrary, if you show up by 9am before the place gets busy, and remember to get two passport photos at the little shop in the lobby before following the signs upstairs, you can be out and on your way before you've had time to say "1984."
By Plane -- All flights arrive at Cairo International Airport (www.cairo-airport.com; airport code CAI), about 24km (15 miles) from the city center. At the time of writing, the light was glimmering at the end of the tunnel on a massive renovation and expansion project underwritten by the World Bank, and getting into and out of the country has been a bit of a trial involving long bus rides and even longer lines. The government signed up the managers of the Frankfurt Airport to take over running the new facilities in 2007; however, and the airport is expected to run more smoothly under their direction than it did under the old management.
There are a number of bank kiosks inside the entrance terminals for changing money and buying visas. These banks offer the same exchange rate as banks and offices in town, and it makes sense to change money here at the same time as you buy your visa. Unlike the banks in town, however (which are usually very honest), these guys will sometimes try to jigger the exchange-rate calculations or shortchange you. Don't take any guff. Do your own calculations (on the teller's calculator if necessary), and calmly request everything that you are owed on the basis of the posted rates until you have it. You will find that dragging out the process of handing over small bills is one of the most common tactics used to try to eke a little extra cash out of a transaction. Have patience, but be firm until all your money is handed over.
By Bus -- Arriving in Cairo by commercial bus is a lot easier than it used to be, and is very likely to be presented to you as an option if you are in Sharm el Sheik or Marsa Allam (having arrived by charter flight direct to one of these coastal resort towns) and want to visit the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum. Buses run the length and breadth of the country frequently and fairly reliably, and, despite the appallingly bad driving habits of locals, they may offer an appealing way of seeing the countryside and meeting people. However, if you're traveling from a city with an airport, you may want to consider the following: Distances in Egypt can be quite long, and the price of a long, cramped bus ride can (a bit illogically) be comparable to the cost of a short and convenient internal flight. Many women have reported unpleasant incidents of harassment on these buses, particularly at night. Buses often carry unauthorized passengers in the luggage compartments below the seats, where they usually escape unnoticed at the frequent security checkpoints. Whether this is a real problem is questionable, but on the Sinai, there have been a number of bombings since 2005, so it's something to keep in mind.
Of course, you may have no choice but to take the bus (if you're coming from the oases, for example). If this is the case, make sure to take food and water with you, as well as plenty of reading material and earplugs. Smoke, bathroom, and eating breaks tend to be frequent, but roadside food in Egypt is not the best. Many buses offer a movie during the trip, but it will be in Arabic and probably quite loud. Also note that in the winter, buses crossing the desert can get quite chilly inside, so pack a blanket or at least an extra sweater.
Coming into Cairo by bus, you're likely to stop at a number of places as you enter the city. Unless you have a firm grip on the city's layout -- which can be pretty tricky after dark -- stay on the bus until the final stop at the new Turgoman Bus Terminal in Shobra. This is quite centrally located, so both downtown and Zamalek are a less than a LE10 ($1.80/90p) taxi ride away. Though Cairo is astonishingly safe (in terms of petty crime at least -- traffic is another matter entirely), the area around the bus station isn't a great place to walk with a bag -- it's crowded, it lacks sidewalks, and there's a lot of car and bus traffic.
By Train -- Trains are my favorite way to travel Egypt (though, depending on how much time you have, they may not be the best way to get to where you need to go). If you're headed to Upper Egypt on a tight schedule, you're probably better off flying. Trains conveniently depart from the heart of downtown and usually leave (if not arrive) right on time, making train travel to nearby destinations such as Alexandria just as convenient and quick as flying -- and it's cheaper and more environmentally friendly. The most appealing part of train travel, however, is that it offers an experience. The ride may not be the smoothest, but the views of village life and rural Egypt are fascinating.
There are two main train stations in Cairo, and you should consult your hotel or travel agent as to which one is most convenient for your arrival. Odds are, however, that it's going to be the main Ramsis Square (tel. 02/25790767), a British-built station in the middle of Downtown, or the more modern and, consequently, less interesting Giza station, which is a good distance from most of the hotels and sites.
Tips: Buying Train Tickets -- There are three different places to buy tickets in Ramsis, depending on where you're headed. One thing remains the same, however: Queuing means nothing here, and you have to be prepared to defend your turn with your elbows. Also keep in mind that the ticket sellers are frequently dishonest with the prices, so if you have any doubt about the price of your ticket, find out the correct price for your train from the helpful folks at the Tourist Information office by the main entrance before you head to the wickets.
If you're headed north to Alexandria, the ticket office is in the back-right corner of the main hall of Ramsis Station. (Put your back to the trains and look a little to your right -- over in the corner, there is a line of ticket windows.)
If you're taking a sleeper train south to Luxor or Aswan, the office is directly ahead of you if you're in the main hall with your back to the trains.
Finally, if you're headed south to Luxor or Aswan in a seat, you have to head through the main hall (leaving the trains to your right), and through to a second set of platforms that are outside and behind the main hall. Turn sharply left when you get there, and you'll see a tunnel underneath the tracks. Go through the tunnel, turning right at the end. The ticket offices for Upper Egypt are about 20m (65 ft.) ahead of you on the left.
While both stations appear to be in total unmitigated chaos, they actually work reasonably well. On arrival, follow the flow of passengers to the parking lot in front of the building. If you're coming into Ramsis from Luxor or Aswan, this will probably mean having to go through a short tunnel underneath the tracks and into the main building; the exit is from the main terminal building and not the side building where the trains arrive.
Feel free to ask men in uniforms for directions; officers (who carry sidearms, not AK-47s) often speak a little English and will be more forthcoming.
Ignore the entreaties of the touts, who will insist that they have the cheapest cars and the best hotels. These are baldfaced lies -- you will probably pay about double the going rate for your ride (LE15 [$2.70/£1.35] instead of LE5-LE7 [90¢-$1.25/45p-65p] for a quick ride to Zamalek or Downtown) and have to deal with more aggressive negotiating. The one advantage these touts offer is that they'll carry your bags through the swirl of humanity on the platform; something you may want to consider.
Regular taxis swirl through the parking lot outside, and if you flag one down while it's moving, it should take you where you're going at more or less the going rate.
By Car -- Arriving in Cairo by car is exciting -- probably too exciting for the comfort of most travelers. Unless you are already experienced with driving in the Third World, I suggest you hire a car with a good driver. It is also strongly recommended that you be off the highways by dark. They are not for the fainthearted during the day, and they're downright dangerous at night.
The excellent Cairo Guide Maps (American University in Cairo Press), available at both branches of the American University in Cairo Bookstore and Diwan, will help once you've penetrated the confusing sprawl of highways and sideways that surround the perimeter districts of Misr Gedida, Maadi, and Shobra al Kheima.
Getting into Town -- The best way to get into town from the airport (a distance of around 15-20km/10-14 miles, depending on which neighborhood you're going to) is by car. A large number of private companies offer their services from the airport, with prices ranging from around LE70 ($13/£6.34) for a compact car to LE150 to LE200 ($27-$36/£14-£19) for a ride in a shiny, late-model Mercedes. Depending on the time of day and whether there's a football game at one of the stadiums along the way, the ride can take from 15 minutes to an hour. The battered black-and-whites hanging around the exit present a cheaper option and will, with a little bit of discussion, usually run you into town for around LE50 to LE60 ($9-$11/£4.60-£5.55). If, in the future, there is a yellow taxi stand at the airport, this will probably be the best option. Yellow cabs are about the same price as black-and-whites, though they're newer, more comfortable, and run on a bona fide meter system that takes much of the hassle out of the trip.
There are also buses that run into town from the airport. Look for the Cairo Airport Shuttle Bus (tel. 02/22653937) kiosk inside the terminal or their red-and-white buses parked outside the terminal, and ask for your destination. Fares range from LE25 ($4.50/£2.30) per person to nearby Heliopolis to LE35 to LE40 ($6.35-$7.25/£3.25-£3.70) to downtown, Zamalek, and Mohandiseen. In theory, the buses leave the airport every 30 minutes, but if you hold people in Cairo to promises like this, your vacation will quickly be ruined by frustration and annoyance. In practice, expect the bus to leave within a reasonable amount of time (less than an hour) and take between 20 minutes to an hour to get to your destination, depending on the traffic.
Ministry of Tourism information offices in Cairo are a hit-or-miss affair. Some are quite helpful, while others are a waste of time. (By contrast, these offices are generally excellent in the smaller towns and cities.) I find the office in Ramsis Station, main hall, next to the sleeping-car office (tel. 02/25790767), to be the most useful office in Cairo, but the Adly Street office, 5 Adly St. (tel. 02/23913454), may be helpful as well. I wouldn't go out of your way to get to either. Your time in Cairo is better spent with a trip to one of the bookstores to buy a few maps and a book or two. Because the airport is undergoing renovation, it's not clear where the tourism offices will be located, but there will be one in each of the terminals.
I've found that hotel concierges in Egypt tend to be the best sources of the kind of information that you would normally expect from tourist information offices. Note that you don't have to be staying there to get help: Just call any of the big hotels listed in this guide and ask for the concierge desk.
Though it's easy to take advantage of the personal safety offered by Cairo, it doesn't mean you should ignore the usual danger signs. Women walking alone should be particularly careful in crowds and avoid straying far from the well-lit areas after dark. I would also avoid the City of the Dead without a guide (and certainly after dark), the area to the west of Khan Al Khalili after dark, and the sprawling slums on the outskirts of the city.
The Neighborhoods in Brief
Zamalek Until the 19th century, this island in the middle of the Nile was little more than a sandbar. Zamalek became a favored residential district under the British, who barred Egyptians from living here. A few of the stately villas built during this time survived, and though overshadowed by cement high-rise apartment blocks and shorn of their gardens, they retain undeniable shades of their original charm. Zamalek remains an upmarket district and is home to many expats and foreigner-friendly restaurants and businesses with some English-speaking staff.
This is also a good area for restaurants and hotels. Better value for money can be found downtown, but for many, Zamalek offers a hard-to-beat combination of modern amenities and relatively functional infrastructure. Zamalek is conveniently located almost exactly halfway between The Citadel, Islamic Cairo, and the pyramids and Sphinx in Giza. The Egyptian Museum and other downtown attractions are 10 to 20 minutes away by taxi.
Mohandiseen The name literally means "engineers," echoing Nasserist hopes of raising up a corps of technocrats who could push Egypt into the First World. Though these dreams remain sadly unrealized, the layout of Mohandiseen's streets is more logical than anywhere else in Cairo, with many leafy, quiet, residential side streets and a few decent restaurants.
Garden City This was the administrative center of British rule, and a number of embassies, including the British and American, are still located here. Like Zamalek, the area has suffered from shoddy, unplanned building over the last half-century, but like Zamalek, it retains a few examples of its former grace. It's an interesting place for an afternoon stroll.
Downtown Literally wust al balad, or "middle of the town," in Arabic (also the name of one of the most popular local bands), this area loosely reflects the European expansion of Islamic Cairo westward to the banks of the Nile. It may be a little hopeful to call it "Paris on the Nile," but it's stuffed with grand old buildings, many of them built by turn-of-the-century Italian stonemasons who came to Egypt masquerading as architects. Very few of the buildings have seen any maintenance since Gamal Abdel Nasser's time (partly because of some ill-advised rent-control measures that keep rents today at 1960s levels), and many are now being deliberately destroyed to make way for the kind of shoddy buildings that have blighted much of the rest of the city.
Islamic Cairo Misleadingly named (it doesn't seem to be any more Islamic than any other part of the city), this is the oldest part of the city, built originally in A.D. 969 as a walled, secure environment for the leaders of the Fatimid dynasty. Though it has had a number of wide, straight streets punched through it at various times in its long history, much of this area remains a densely packed network of twisting, turning alleys and little streets that you can only explore on foot. Some will find it too dense and too hectic, but for me, Islamic Cairo is the city at its best, and an afternoon exploring it never fails to put me in a good mood. A good point of entry is the old Midan Opera. Al Azhar Street runs up through Ataba to Khan al Khalili, and commercial areas on either side of it are vibrant, friendly, and fun.
Bakshish: The Art of Giving
Everywhere you go in Egypt, you're going to be asked for money, and you're life is going to improve immeasurably once you get comfortable with handing out a steady stream of small change to anyone who asks you for it. The guy who carries your bags to the car, the janitor who switches on the lights at the back of the museum, and the old guy at the mosque who takes care of your shoes while you walk around the building -- they should all get a couple of LE discreetly slipped into the palms of their hands. The closest equivalent in the West is a tip -- a little extra payment for a little extra service -- but here it's a simple expression of appreciation that another person's there should you need anything (even if you don't need it right now).