We ended our time in Egypt back in Cairo where we could be ready to catch our flight home. This time we chose the island of Zamalek as our home base and I booked our Airbnb for 5 nights, though we left before sleeping on the fifth night to accommodate our 1 a.m. flight.
Before sharing more, I have to make a quick correction to my prior post. Our picnic wasn’t our last adventure in Aswan. Our host helped us hire a driver to take us to the airport and we paid him a little extra to take us to see the famous Aswan dam on the way. The dam is long and impressive but hard to really take in. There is a small charge for tourists and some exhibits we didn’t have time to check out. I think our entry was 50 EGP per person for me and Chad and we gave the driver an extra 100 EGP for the short detour and 10-minute stop so the total cost to us was $13 or so. This is another attraction I’m not really sure was worth it but if we hadn’t done it I would have wondered.
Despite being only a 1-hour direct flight to Cairo, this became one of our longest and most stressful travel days as our flight got canceled. Fortunately, there are numerous flights between Aswan and Cairo each day. Unfortunately, our airline (Air Cairo) handled the cancellation and rebooking really badly (especially distributing the new tickets in no type of order which required a lot of crowding around harried gate agents). But we finally made it around 8 p.m., about four hours later than planned.
Even though we didn’t have time for a full grocery shop and making dinner, we managed to find some excellent healthy convenience food at a store called The Grocer near our Airbnb, so the day ended well. And our Airbnb apartment was great (review below)!
Although we were heartily sick of Egypt by the time we arrived back in Cairo (just being honest), those last days were some of our favorites. We really enjoyed exploring the Zamalek neighborhood and our final Egyptian sightseeing was excellent.
Saqqara and Dahshur Pyramids
Our first trip was to see the older pyramids at Saqqara and Dahshur. There is no real public transportation or drop off option to successfully do this, but luckily one of our Uber drivers from our first days in Giza had given us a hard sell on providing a one day tour to see these. Chad didn’t care for him, but I took his WhatsApp info and seeing no other option rather than a tour, reached out about a price. He quoted $35, which sounded fair, especially compared to what was available on booking sites like Get Your Guide. So after making clear what exchange rate I would pay converting to Egyptian pounds and that I expected no selling or upselling while with him because this would be virtually our last day in Egypt, we arranged to have him pick us up on a Monday morning at 7 a.m. so we could be first to arrive at Saqqara.
This actually worked out great and if you’re planning a trip to Egypt and want to do some touring around the Cairo area, reach out to me for Ismael’s number. We were actually about 15 minutes early to Saqqara and Ismael asked if we wanted to drive on to Dahshur to maximize our time (since we’d have to come back past Saqqara anyway) but I was most excited about this site and determined to be first in. But we had a nice time chatting while we waited.
Once at the Saqqara site, we bought our tickets (300 EGP each for the tickets plus 20 for bringing a car; as our driver, Ismael was free) and Ismael drove us up to the pyramid. This step pyramid is a precursor to the pyramids of Giza built by a pharaoh called Djoser and was the first pyramid Egyptians ever built about 4700 years ago. Over the past couple of decades there’s been a lot of reconstruction at this site and the surrounding Saqqara necropolis to make it more attractive to tourists. It was very cool, especially being first on the scene and walking through the Colonnade Entrance by ourselves.
After the Pyramid of Djoser, we were driven to the tombs that had been excavated. We didn’t go in many because most required an additional ticket and I’d forgotten to bring cash to tip any guardians (who were eager to escort us even to the ones we didn’t have tickets for) but we poked around a couple of the open ones. They weren’t as impressive as the tombs in the Valley of the Kings but if you were to visit Egypt and miss out on Luxor, these would give you a good idea of what that is like.
After the tombs it was time to drive on to Dahshur. Ismael showed us a new road they’re constructing directly between the two sites but for now you have to drive back out to the main road and back in at the Dahshur site, about 30 minutes. Dashur has three pyramids, known as the Bent Pyramid, the Red Pyramid, and the Black Pyramid (though this one is far from the road and in worse shape). For one low ticket price (200 EGP each) you can even go inside both main pyramids on the site. Ismael said he always advises budget-conscious clients to just wait for Dahshur to go inside a pyramid since there’s not much to see in any of them anyway (though with an extra ticket you can go in at Giza or Saqqara).
Our first stop was the Red Pyramid. To access it you climb up to a terrace 30 meters up and then down 60 meters into the pyramid, which goes under the ground. Ismael dropped us off where we could get good photos of the front and said he’d be waiting in the parking lot to the side.
Something about the climb down really triggered my fear. There was no real danger but the ladder seemed steep and the space was pretty tight. So my muscles were shaking through the whole descent and my arms and thighs were quite sore for several days after. At the bottom Chad was a little concerned because my face was drenched in sweat but once I was on solid ground I felt fine. We enjoyed poking around, though there wasn’t much to see, just a few rooms including one up a small flight of stairs. The climb up was much easier for me and I was glad to have done it. This pyramid is also older than the Giza ones and was during the time they started perfecting the pyramid shape.
Our next stop was the Bent Pyramid, but on the way, Ismael stopped along the road for a photo op, encouraging us to do all the goofy poses they make tourists do. Not our thing, but we did our best. The Bent Pyramid gets its name because halfway through building it they had to change the angle to make it work and so it looks literally bent. You can see it in the photos, though it feels even more pronounced in person.
The guardian at the entrance to the Bent Pyramid encouraged us to enter, but I’d had enough of being inside pyramids and was ready to move on. We could see the Black Pyramid in the distance but it doesn’t have much of a pyramid shape anymore.
I had negotiated with Ismael to drop us off in a south Cairo neighborhood called Maadi that a fellow tourist had recommended. She’d said it had lots of shops and cafes and a fun vibe. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting but we enjoyed walking down the street and had a phenomenal brunch at a restaurant called Caracas (which served Lebanese food; it was unclear if there was any Venezuelan connection). We were going to take the Metro back to Zamalek but when we saw the train pull up to the platform it was incredibly crowded so we waited for the next equally crowded train and decided to get an Uber instead. I’m not sure I’d recommend Maadi to others (the neighborhood wasn’t that great) but the excursion to Saqqara and Dahshur was excellent and one I’d definitely recommend.
Our final tourist activity in Egypt was a trip to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It is soon to be moved to a fancy new building in Giza, which would have been fun to see, but I was glad to see it in its classic version which is well-known for being a bit of a jumble. It was actually better laid out and labeled than I expected and we enjoyed seeing the great pieces, many of which came from the sites we had visited. We learned this trick of saving the archeological museum for last in Naples when we saved the museum there for after we’d been to Pompeii, etc. Credit to this blog post I found that gave us a bit of direction for the best things to see in the museum and to Chad for reading it well enough to recognize when we came across them: https://www.intrepidscout.com/must-see-things-egyptian-museum-cairo/.
After the museum we walked a few blocks to a bar we’d heard good things about called Carol Bar. It turned out to be so-so but nice to get off our feet after our museum trip. We had a snack there too and then took an Uber back to Zamalek for some mussels and zucchini dip to serve as the rest of our dinner.
Staying on Zamalek brought just a little redemption to our experience in Egypt, being in a nice Airbnb in a treed neighborhood that was pleasant to walk around in. We even managed a picnic at the Aquarium Grotto Park (a park on the site of a former aquarium). Still, our overall impression of Egypt is that it would have been better as a shorter trip focused primarily on sightseeing covering just the major sites of Giza, Cairo, and Luxor. I don’t regret our time there – it was interesting and stimulating even when it wasn’t pleasant. But it was a rare misstep for us. And proof that we don’t just fall in love with every place we visit!
Airbnb Review – This was by far the best Airbnb my husband and I had in Egypt. The rooms are huge and get good natural light. Well-equipped kitchen for light meals. Wifi worked well with good speeds except during the nightly government power outage from 6-8 p.m. (the apartment building did not lose power during this time but the blocks to the west did and that seemed to impact internet service). Solid hot shower and the clothes washer also worked well. Zamalek is a great neighborhood and a pleasure to walk around in. There’s a healthy grocery store, produce market, and plenty of restaurants nearby. We received excellent communication from host Tanios throughout our stay. Out of five different accommodations during our time in Egypt, this is the only one we’d come back to.