Ideally, you should move between neighborhoods at times of low traffic (before 8am or 11am-1pm) and within them at all others. This, of course, is impossible all the time, but it's a helpful rule of thumb when planning your day.
The black-and-whites are the basic staple of transport for middle-class Egyptians, tourists, and anyone who has to transport a TV or a dishwasher from the souk. They are ubiquitous and have become so numerous that the government stopped handing out new taxi licenses several years ago, the result being an aging fleet choking the city.
The meters that they sport on the dashboard are so outdated that they're useless and universally ignored (except for the odd enterprising individual who will attempt to scam an inexperienced victim by playing with the decimal point and claiming to be owed exorbitant sums of money).
There is no system, per se, for fares; everyone simply knows what the rates are to and from various points. You tell the driver where you want to go (usually leaning forward and shouting the neighborhood through the open passenger window as he rattles past), and if he consents to go there, he waves you in and off you go. Upon arrival, you ante up the fare and wander off, unless the driver senses that you're not in the know, and then a whole raucous opera is played out with red-faced demands for sky-high fares.
There are clearly two ways to deal with this as a tourist: Either negotiate the fare to begin with, or go local and just tell the driver where you're going and pay when you get there. In either case, use the rate table below as a point of reference. These fares are generous and marginally more than an expat would pay (and certainly in excess of what the locals are handing over for their rides), but they should give you a fair idea of what to expect. Whatever objections the driver may raise will be purely tactical and aimed at extracting a little extra cash from your pocket.
I also highly recommend the new system of yellow cabs, but they are becoming harder and harder to find. Introduced with great flourish back in March 2006, they were supposed to bring the Cairo taxi fleet up to the standards of neighbors in Jordan and Syria. Indications at the time of writing, however, were that the whole plan is falling victim to a depressingly familiar pattern of bad maintenance and incompetent management. That said, if you can find one, take it. They are only marginally more expensive than the black-and-whites but substantially more comfortable.
There is supposed to be a taxi stand in Tahrir Square close to the massive, Soviet-era Mugama building and another in Mohandiseen on Gamat al Daawl al Arabia (across from the restaurants Raucha and Kandahar), but the drivers at both these spots will turn down fares to nearby locations, preferring to sit idle and wait for the more lucrative rides to Maadi and the airport. If you want to go to Zamalek or Mohandiseen from these spots, you're going to have to tell them that you want to go to the airport and then "change your mind" once the cab is a little way from the stand. Worst-case scenario is a driver who decides to terminate the ride, in which case you can pick up the next black-and-white that comes along. All that has ever happened to me with this stunt is a somewhat sullen driver.
Tips: The 30-Second Taxi Survival Guide -- There's no better way to get around Cairo than the venerable black-and-white Ladas and Fiats that cruise the streets, flashing their headlights and honking at potential customers. Easy to find and economically priced, they can provide both functional transport and fun social encounters. The flip side is that the meters haven't worked for years, and many drivers are looking to take tourists for the wrong sort of ride. Fortunately, you can keep things easy and pleasant by following a few simple rules:
- To engage a taxi, just tell the driver your destination by telling him -- through the always-open driver's-side window -- the neighborhood you're headed to. He'll either wave you in or wave you off. In a few cases, he'll ask you how much you're going to pay, which leads to the next rule.
- Don't negotiate the fare. Cairenes know from experience how much any given trip is worth. They pay on arrival, plus extra for traffic congestion, and everyone's happy. If you let on that you don't have a clue, get ready for endless hassles and price gouging. If the driver asks about the fare, find another cab or accept paying at least double the going rate.
- Know the fare before you start. Ask a local or consult my fare table. Pay on arrival, and walk away from demands for more. If you have doubts about how the process is going, get your driver to stop on a busy one-way street, pay him, and walk back the way you've come. The other drivers will soon ensure that your unruly cabby is on his way.
- Always have the exact fare handy. Extracting change from an unwilling driver is like pulling teeth from the proverbial chicken, and even honest and cooperative drivers carry very little change.
- A rule for single women: Always sit in the back. Sitting in the front seat is considered an unambiguous sexual invitation. Dress conservatively and either ignore attempts to strike up conversation or be prepared to turn it quickly to family: asking about children and wives and telling him about your husband (fictional or nonfictional) establishes your respectability.
These rules only apply to the taxis that cruise the streets. The black-and-whites waiting outside the door of the five-star hotels tend to charge several times the normal fares. They also tend to be a little cleaner and newer than the others, and the drivers might speak a little more English and be more familiar with the tourist sites. With these, negotiate what you are willing to pay before heading out. This also applies to the taxis waiting around the airport.
At first glance, Cairo looks chaotic and terribly crowded with cars, donkeys, buses, and people, but it's actually a surprisingly walkable city for the reasonably fit. Safety is a very minor concern in Cairo, with random violent crime virtually unheard of and pickpocketing rare. What is fairly common, however, is general hassling. In a car or on a bus, you'll be cut off from the street, but walking through town there will be a lot of people who want to talk to you and get a tip. Downtown, particularly around the museum area, and out by the pyramids in Giza, this takes the form of touts (khertee in the local street Arabic) who will use any ploy to strike up a conversation and then try to entice you into a range of commercial transactions, all of which are designed to fleece you. As you leave the areas frequented by tourists, however, you'll run into more and more people who simply want to talk to you and be seen talking to you. This can be fun, but it can also get tiresome, and you can simply smile and wave as you keep walking. If you're feeling antisocial, stay away from elementary schools in the afternoon -- you risk being mobbed by exuberant 8-year-olds, all of whom need to shake your hand and ask after your health.
For exploring beyond the limit of the maps in this guide, I highly recommend Cairo: The Practical Guide Maps (AUC Press), which was originally published as an addition to Cairo: The Practical Guide (which, while once excellent, has not been properly kept up to date). Both are available at the AUC bookstores and Diwan, and can also be found at the bookstores in major hotels. And though it might sound extreme, I also recommend a compass if you're going to wander into areas such as Moski or Ataba, where the alleys are frequently covered and always densely packed.
There is little point in using a car to explore within Cairo. With traffic congestion that verges on gridlock at certain times of the day and a disastrous parking situation, a private vehicle is more likely to be a 3,000-pound albatross around your neck than a convenience. A driver changes the picture a little and solves most of the parking problems, but I still recommend cabs or the Metro.
For the sites around the outskirts of the city, such as Saqqara, Birqash, and even the pyramids in Giza, a car with a driver is the best way to go. A reliable driver is a great source of information, and having a fixed price for all your transport from the beginning of the day can save an enormous amount of hassle. It may cost a little more, but the peace of mind is worth it.
The Metro is a rare example of functional transportation in Cairo. It's crowded -- extremely crowded during rush hour -- but trains run about every 10 to 15 minutes and are tolerably clean, though during the summer months they can become quite malodorous. Women can decide whether to take advantage of the women-only cars, which are usually the first two in the train (after 6pm, the second car usually becomes general seating). Traveling alone, women may find themselves the object of unwanted attention in the mixed cars. On the other hand, unveiled women report increasing levels of religious harassment in the women's car, with "modestly" attired Muslim women praying loudly, making comments about their "immodest" fellow passengers, or even overtly proselytizing. The line between a cultural experience and an annoyance is a matter of individual tolerance.
There are currently two Metro lines in operation, and a third is under construction (which probably means that it will be under construction for a long time). There are several particularly useful stations on the Marg-Helwan line including Sadat (directly underneath Midan Tahrir, beside the Egyptian Museum), Mubarak (next to the Ramsis train station), and Mar Girgis (next to Coptic Cairo).
Tickets cost LE0.50 (9?/5p) for nine stops and are for sale inside all stations. You will need the ticket not only to get onto the platform, but to exit at the other end as well, so keep your ticket for the duration of the trip. Trains run from about 6am to midnight.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.