Our arrival in Egypt involved a little bit of luck. When we checked in our luggage at the Nairobi airport, the airline asked to see our yellow fever vaccinations cards. Nowhere in my Egypt research did I find any mention of this being a requirement, and it appears that it is only so if you’re coming from a country (like Kenya) where yellow fever is present.
Yellow fever vaccination is also not required for entry to Kenya from the US, though it is recommended, especially if you’ll be traveling outside of Nairobi (to the Maasai Mara, for example). So, at great difficulty and expense (a whole other story), we took the precaution this summer of getting our yellow fever vaccines at a Walgreens. Thank goodness we did!
I showed our vaccine cards and we were good to go. I’ll be carrying those gems with me everywhere in the future. I’m so glad we didn’t give up during the many difficulties we went through to get that vaccine. We didn’t think we’d need it, so it had been tempting to give up, but it turns out we did. And luckily it is a lifetime vaccination, so we never have to mess with it again.
Our arrival in Cairo was fairly smooth – line at no border control but a long wait for our luggage. We called an Uber to take us to our hotel in Giza. Our flight (on EgyptAir) arrived about an hour late and with the wait time for the luggage and the hour in the car, by the time we got to the hotel it was past the 12 p.m. check in time. The room wasn’t quite ready but they took us to the rooftop view of the pyramids and gave us our welcome drink, a lemon mint juice. It was delicious. And wow, what a view.
Once we got into our room, we found the view to be just as good there. I “splurged” (paying about $60 a night rather than $40) by booking a deluxe view room and that proved to be a great choice. It was so cool to see the pyramids right outside our window throughout our stay.
Dinner with a Show
We decided to have our first dinner in Giza at our hotel restaurant because it directly overlooks the Sound and Light show that plays at the pyramids at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. The meal was actually pretty good, splitting shish taouk (grilled chicken) and beef kofta (like a meatball). But the light show was the highlight. It was incredibly corny but a lot of fun to listen to and we had a great time.
The next day, we decided to dip our toes into Cairo rather than getting up close with the pyramids. We took an Uber to the Coptic Cairo complex, an area with a bunch of old Coptic Christian churches (Coptic just refers to orthodox Egyptian Christianity) and the Coptic Museum. The churches and synagogue (which didn’t allow photos) were very interesting.
Some of the churches weren’t open yet when we arrived around 9 a.m. so we wandered the streets, had a coffee, and checked out the synagogue, which had been converted from a church. At 9:30, the Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church started admitting visitors and we were among the first. This church is said to be on the site where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus stayed when they fled to Egypt shortly after Jesus’s birth and featured a well that they would have drank from.
From there, we walked over to The Hanging Church. It is the most famous in the complex, from the 3rd century. It gets its name from beingpartially suspended over a passage. It also had several relics on display, including pieces of the cross, the crown of thorns, and Mary’s girdle. Mary’s girdle was a new one for us.
The Coptic Museum was also well worth the time and the small entry fee (150 Egyptian pounds per person for foreigners). We really enjoyed learning about this type of Christianity and its history and art. And it was housed in a very cool old building.
We also made a brief stop into St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, though it didn’t allow photos inside.
Cairo Metro and Train Station
Conveniently, there’s a metro station called Mar Girgis right in the Coptic area, so we were able to use public transit for the first time in Africa. It was easier than I expected to buy our tickets at the small window and they were even cheaper than a Mexico City metro ticket at just 5 Egyptian pounds for up to 9 stops (about 16 cents). The trains come every 5 minutes or so and we rode around 5 or 6 stops up to the train station. From there we emerged to hectic traffic but were able to find a route to the train station underground with the help of a white-uniformed Tourism and Antiquities police officer. These officers are stationed around Cairo and most speak English, which is helpful because a person on the street in Egypt giving directions usually expects a tip.
At the train station, we went upstairs to a nice restaurant and café and enjoyed a cappuccino (for Chad) and lemon mint juice (for me) to rest from our long morning, then after several tries finally found the foreigner ticket office to buy our train tickets to and from Alexandria. In December the Egyptian government instituted new foreigner prices for train tickets that are in dollars and about 350% (or more) higher than the locals price. We feel this is a great idea for wealthier foreigners to subsidize the transit system. But it means you can only by your tickets from a special office on the “first floor” (would be called second floor in America) to the back and left of the café.
Old Islamic Cairo
Mission accomplished, we went back to the Metro and with one stop, one change, and another stop, were walking distance to Al Moez Ldin Allah Al Fatmi Street, a famous old Islamic market street. Honestly there wasn’t a lot to see there and we were frequently hassled to come into shops and restaurants, but it felt historic and was interesting to see. It was lunch time but we had a little trouble finding a well-reviewed restaurant in the area. The first (well-reviewed one) we tried was booked until 2 p.m. So we went to a large café I’d read about called Cafe al-Lord with traditional furniture and black and white photos of Egyptian movie stars all around. We were skeptical of the food because the menu was extensive, but the veggie pizza, baba ghanoush, and salad we got were surprisingly good. From there we got an Uber back to our hotel in Giza.
The next morning, we went out bright and early for our morning at the pyramids. Luckily the Sphinx entrance (one of two entrances) was a block from our hotel. We’d been unimpressed with the hotel breakfast the prior morning so stopped into Mango Café across from the ticket office to caffeinate (for Chad; I had green tea in the room) and enjoy the best fresh mango juice we’ve ever had. It was great. A little pricey (like Starbucks level) but worth it. We were able to sit comfortably and see exactly when the ticket office opened around 7:30 a.m. and were around the third or fourth people to get our tickets and go through the metal detectors/bag screening to get into the complex.
It was so nice being there early in the morning before all the crowds and vendors. We went first to the Sphinx, which was very cool, and then on up to the Great Pyramid and Pyramid of Khafre. From there we followed the road around 20 minutes to the viewing points where you could get photos of the three big pyramids and at least three of the smaller ones. We were approached a few times to do a camel or carriage ride but used the trick given to us by our hotel manager to dissuade them by saying “la shukran” which is Arabic for “no thank you.” This worked well most of the time and was a lifesaver especially on the streets of Giza where people persistently offer you taxis or to come into shops, etc.
Fortunately or unfortunately, it was a rather hazy morning at the pyramids. We didn’t get the clearest views, but we our photos felt very mystical and atmospheric. And we far preferred being there in the early morning with fewer crowds than going later in the heat of the day (highs in the 90s in October) with swarms of people. I’m happy with how our photos turned out and we had a really fun day.
Giza Summary and Food
The next day we departed from Giza via the train to Alexandria. I think it was a great choice to start our Egypt trip in Giza with the biggest, coolest, and nearly-oldest monuments. We had to learn very quickly how to deal with all the people offering taxis and tchotchkes and tours. And we had a great introduction to Egyptian food. Here are some of our other meals:
Sahara Pyramids Inn – I’m so glad we stayed here – I’m so glad we paid more to have a view of the pyramids from our room. That was absolutely incredible. We really enjoyed the rooftop restaurant for dinner our first night, which included the a view of the Sound and Light show across the street (I understand this only plays Wednesday through Saturday, so we were lucky to arrive on Saturday). Beer and wine available from the restaurant for a reasonable price. The room was a good size and clean. Bed was a little hard for my husband’s taste but I liked it. And the staff was all very friendly and social and we got the best travel advice ever from the manager. The wifi was pretty slow and frequently didn’t work. We only tried the breakfast on the first morning of our three-night stay and skipped it the other two. The contents were okay but the breakfast service was very slow. Many people were waiting at 7:30 in the morning and it was supposed to begin at 7. Everything else was great!