Egypt is such a big and varied country that it’s hard to know where to even start describing its best, most intense, and most satisfying places and moments. Egypt offers everything, and more, from sunrise in the desert on the edge of the Great Sand Sea, to sunset over the granite mountains of the Sinai where they meet the shimmering azure of the Red Sea, to trailing your fingers in the cool waters of the Nile from the back of a faluca after a day of exploring underground tombs. Below are some highly subjective “best of” lists for Egypt.
Egypt Best Dining Bets
•Abu Sid (Off 26th of July St., Zamalek, Cairo; tel. 02/27359640): Reservations are required at this upscale eatery, and when you get to the table, traditional Egyptian cuisine never tasted so good. Get down to the classics in an intimate atmosphere decorated with icons of Egyptian culture from the golden days of music and film.
•Bab Inshal (Midan el Souq, Siwa; tel. 046/4601499): This place is about atmosphere as much as the food. The rooftop restaurant at the Bab Inshal is backed into the ruins of the ancient city of Shali in the center of the oasis. The menu of Siwan dishes was developed by a French chef and is at once bold and satisfyingly simple. This restaurant serves the best Egyptian breakfast in the country.
•Fish Market (El Geish Road, Alexandria; tel. 03/4805114): Down-market atmosphere and upmarket food make this the best place to settle into a traditional Alexandrian meal of shrimp and grilled fish. Head down here around sunset to take advantage of the best harbor view in town.
•La Scala (Abu Tig Marina, Gouna; tel. 065/3541145): Look in the window, and you’re going to see a basic diner with a long open kitchen and simple decor. Get down to business with the food, though, and you’re going to have the best steak and grilled vegetables on the Red Sea coast.
•Mogul Room (Pyramids Road, Giza, Cairo; tel. 02/33773222): It’s a long drive from Downtown Cairo, but the Mogul Room would be worth it even if it was another hour. The food is the best Indian meal in town, and the location — the lush, 19th-century Mena House Oberoi and the pyramids — adds additional spice to the meal.
•Moudira Hotel Dining Room (West Bank, Luxor; tel. 095/2551440): Classically elegant tables amidst the garden of Al Moudira’s central courtyard makes for one of the loveliest and most sophisticated restaurant settings in Egypt, and the food lives up to the architectural billing.
•Tandoori (Naama Bay, King of Bahrain Street, Dahab; tel. 069/3600700): From the street, the only indication that this place even exists is the scent of spices that wafts through the doors of the Camel Hotel. Inside you’ll find the best north Indian cuisine on the coast at a price that won’t make a dent in your wallet.
Egypt The Best Art, Architecture & Museums
Egyptian Museum (Cairo; tel. 02/575-2448 or 578-2452; www.egyptianmuseum.gov.eg): The world’s largest collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, with over 120,000 pieces on display. It’s impossible to see everything in one visit, but make sure you catch the Tutankhamun exhibit, with its famous gold mask and sarcophagus.
Saqqara: A fine collection of pyramids and tombs on the outskirts of Cairo, in an area that was once the cemetary for the ancient city of Memphis. Best known for its Step Pyramid, said to be the prototype for the larger and more sophisticated Pyramids at Giza.
Islamic Cairo: A whole district of ancient alleys, squares and mosques, including the magnificent Mosque of Ibn Tulun. Check out the nearby Gayer Anderson Museum, a restored Ottoman home that was featured in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. Spend a day or more strolling around, and visit the Citadel and the Museum of Islamic Arts.
Hanging Church: Built over a 2nd century Roman gate, this church dedicated to the Virgin Mary was started as early as the 3rd century and has been a work in progress ever since. It is said to be the oldest church in Egypt. Highlights include wonderfully preserved icons, an ancient marble pulpit, and friendly volunteer guides from the local church group.
In Upper Egypt
Abu Simbel: You’ve probably seen pictures of this gigantic monument in Abu Simbel before: four seated colossi of Ramses II carved into the mountain, forming one of the boldest temple facades in the world. Known as the Great Temple of Ramses II, it is aligned so the sun’s rays travel through the mountain and illuminate Ramses’ sanctuary twice a year — on October 22 and February 22.
Karnak: One of the largest concentration of temples in the world, spanning an area almost the size of Central Park. Lose yourself in an avenue of sphinxes or a forest of stone columns colored and inscribed with hieroglyphs. Stand under monumental gateways and rest in the shade of the once holy sanctuaries. Along with the Pyramids and Abu Simbel, Karnak is one of the best known and most impressive sights in Egypt.
Abydos: Ancient Egyptians wanted above else to be buried in Abydos, as near as possible to the tomb of Osiris, god of the netherworld. Those who couldn’t afford it had their names inscribed on stone tablets there instead. Seti I’s Temple to Osiris, more than 3,000 years old is a fascinating example of ancient relief work, and used to be one of the most beautiful houses of worship of ancient times.
Theban Necropolis: Probably the largest cemetery in the world, carved into the cliffs of a remote hill, where New Kingdom pharaohs tried to hide their tombs from raiders. The highlight is the Valley of the Kings, with over 60 tombs dating from 1570 B.C. to 1085 B.C. Colorful depictions of daily life in Egypt, and elaborate spiritual texts adorn the walls and ceilings. It was here that Tutankhamun’s treasures were discovered.
Kom Ombo: One of the most important towns in Ancient Egypt, with the magnificent Temple of Horus and Sebek standing on the banks of the Nile. The temple is a curiosity because it’s dedicated to two deities, Sobek and Haroeris.
Kom Al Dikka: Misleadingly called the “Mound of Rubble,” this is an impressive collection of ruins on a site that was formerly a Roman garden. Check out the Roman theater, made of marble and surrounded by elegant columns and mosaic paving.
Catacombs of Kom Al-Shoqafa: Alexandria’s most awesome archeological find, a 2,000-year old underground burial site, complete with a funeral banquet hall, carved sarcophagi and elaborately decorated walls. Particularly interesting for its combination of Egyptian and Greco-Roman styles.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina (tel. 03/483-9999; www.bibalex.org): A recently inaugurated resurrection of the ancient library of Alexandria, which stood for 600 years before burning down in the 3rd century. In its age, the Bibliotheca held the largest collection of books, and was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The new structure, resembling an angled discus, was designed by a Norwegian architect and cost about $200 million.
Egypt The Best Cultural Experiences
Weddings: In Egypt, you don’t have to be a guest to enjoy the best part of the wedding: the zaffa. It’s a noisy, perfectly choreographed procession that accompanies the couple to its kosha (wedding throne in the banquet hall) as the family cheers on. Passers-by often join in to watch and clap, and if you’re near a hotel on a Thursday or Friday night, you won’t miss it.
Ahwas: Arabic for coffee, an ahwa is the quintessential sidewalk cafe, perfect for people-watching or a game of backgammon. Try a traditional hot beverages like black tea with fresh mint, thick Turkish coffee, herbal tea or sahlab (a sweet milky delight made from the bulb of an orchid). If it’s hot, cool down with an icy karkadey (a sweet hibiscus drink) or tamr hindi (a sweetly sour tamarind drink). Order a shisha — an old-fashioned waterpipe used to smoke sweet fruit-infused tobacco.
Belly dancing: Forget any belly dancing you might have seen anywhere else, this is the real thing. Curvy, professional dancers shimmy their bellies to the beat of the tabla drums, twirl canes on their hips, and leave you with a whole new understanding of what this misunderstood art is all about.
Egypt Health & Safety
Public health standards are low in Egypt, with little government investment in programs to improve it. Eating in restaurants that do not regularly serve foreign clientele or drinking water that has not come from a well-sealed bottle is asking for a bout of traveler’s diarrhea or worse (including cholera and hepatitis). Most problems are easily avoided by following a few simple rules:
•Only drink bottled water. If the water doesn’t taste right, even if it was unsealed in front of you, send it back and get another.
•Eat in restaurants with a high volume of foreigners whenever possible, particularly expats. Word gets around quickly when someone gets sick.
•Avoid the muddy banks of the Nile and other waterways. Schistosomiasis, or bilharzia, a parasitic disease caused by flatworms that live close to shore, remains a problem in Egypt.
General Availability of Healthcare
Contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) (tel. 716/754-4883 or, in Canada, 416/652-0137; www.iamat.org) for tips on travel and health concerns in the countries you’re visiting, and for lists of local, English-speaking doctors. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (tel. 800/311-3435; www.cdc.gov) provides up-to-date information on health hazards by region or country and offers tips on food safety. Travel Health Online (www.tripprep.com), sponsored by a consortium of travel medicine practitioners, may also offer helpful advice on traveling abroad. You can find listings of reliable medical clinics overseas at the International Society of Travel Medicine (www.istm.org).
Tropical Illnesses — There is a very limited risk of P. falciparum and P. vivax malaria in the oasis of Fayum during the summer months (June-Oct). It has been a decade since any indigenous case was reported, but you should still use a good insect repellant and a mosquito net at night if you are visiting the oasis during these months. Antimalarial medications are not recommended by the World Health Organization for tourists planning to visit Fayum.
Egypt’s first confirmed case of the H5N1 strain of avian flu was back in March 2006. By July 2007, there had been 37 more cases and 15 fatalities. These outbreaks will occur periodically as long as Egypt’s standards of public hygiene remain low and people and livestock intermix freely. Travelers should check the news and the websites of the World Health Organization (www.who.int/countries/egy/en) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/destinationEgypt.aspx) for updates before traveling. Note that in the event of a serious outbreak, acquiring Western medical supplies in Egypt would be extremely difficult.
Dietary Red Flags — Tap water in Egypt is not potable and should be avoided. Only drink bottled water from a sealed bottle, and if you have doubts about the contents, get another one. This is not usually a problem, as upmarket and tourist restaurants will automatically provide bottled water. In private homes, you may be offered glasses of tap water. Particularly outside a big city, in any kind of rural settings, these are best politely refused.
Fresh fruit juice from the street-side juice shops are a judgment call but generally best avoided. Sniff the air inside the shop and make your choice.
Green salads are best avoided as well, even in high-end hotels. Not only are they often washed in contaminated water, but they can contain bacteria because of agricultural practices. Also avoid fruit that you have not peeled yourself, and chicken and eggs that have not been thoroughly cooked.
Bugs, Bites & Other Wildlife Concerns — There is rabies in Egypt and care should be exercised not only with wildlife, but semi-domestic animals such as cats and dogs.
The deserts of Egypt contain a variety of poisonous insects and snakes. Take care when hiking; wear closed-toe shoes, and don’t go reaching into nooks and crannies. Turn over rocks with a stick and watch where you’re putting your feet. Choose your guide with care, and make sure that he has received at least basic first-aid training and knows what to do in the event of emergencies.
Mosquitoes and a variety of other biting insects may not be life-threatening, but they can certainly spoil the fun. Five-star resorts spray heavily for insects and keep rooms pristine. If you are staying in midrange or budget-range accommodations, I recommend having some good bug repellant handy, as well as a can of insecticide. It’s best to bring the repellant with you, but there are a variety of lethal sprays available on the local market, including Raid.
Respiratory Illnesses — Air quality is a serious problem in Egypt — in Cairo, in particular. Some government sources say that the situation has improved in recent years, but levels of lead and particulate in the capital still often exceed even relatively lax domestic standards and are frequently several times the amounts considered safe under international standards. Tourists with asthma or other respiratory problems should limit the amount of time they spend in Cairo.
Sun/Elements/Extreme Weather Exposure — Heat stroke and excessive sun are both potential problems in Egypt, particularly during the summer months. You should be prepared with sunblock, a good sun hat, and a way to replace electrolytes lost to sweating, such as oral rehydration salts, which are available over the counter at almost any Egyptian pharmacy for around LE1 (18¢/9p) a dose.
AIDS — Figures differ on the number of HIV/AIDS cases in Egypt. UNAIDS estimated there to be about 5,300 people living with HIV in Egypt in 2006. It seems likely that the number of cases is underreported, however, given the social stigma associated with AIDS, the low awareness of preventive measures among IV-drug users and other high-risk groups, and the difficulty involved in obtaining anonymous testing. Condoms are readily available in pharmacies.
What to Do if You Get Sick Away From Home
We list the best private clinics and hospitals in Cairo in the “Fast Facts” section, but keep in mind that even here, service is well below Western standards.
At any hospital in Egypt, you will be expected to pay upfront and in cash for any treatment. Keep this in mind in the event of an emergency — arriving at the clinic with your wallet is very important.
Medicare and Medicaid do not provide coverage for medical costs outside the U.S. Before leaving home, find out what medical services your health insurance covers. To protect yourself, consider buying medical travel insurance.
Very few health insurance plans pay for medical evacuation back to the U.S. (which can cost $10,000 and up). A number of companies offer medical evacuation services anywhere in the world. If you’re ever hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, MedjetAssist (tel. 800/527-7478; www.medjetassistance.com) will pick you up and fly you to the hospital of your choice virtually anywhere in the world in a medically equipped and staffed aircraft 24 hours day, 7 days a week. Annual memberships are $225 individual, $350 family; you can also purchase short-term memberships.
U.K. nationals will need a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) to receive free or reduced-cost health benefits during a visit to a European Economic Area (EEA) country (European Union countries, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway) or Switzerland. The European Health Insurance Card replaces the E111 form, which is no longer valid. For advice, ask at your local post office or see www.dh.gov.uk/travellers.
If you suffer from a chronic illness, consult your doctor before your departure. Pack prescription medications in your carry-on luggage, and carry them in their original containers with pharmacy labels — otherwise they won’t make it through airport security. Carry the generic name of prescription medicines in case a local pharmacist is unfamiliar with the brand name. Try to avoid buying prescription drugs in Egypt (even if they are dramatically cheaper than back home), as the quality control of drug production is not guaranteed.
Staying Safe — One of the enormous advantages that Egypt offers visitors is that it is generally very safe when it comes to petty crime. Independent travelers and groups alike can wander at will, exploring deserted temples and crowded tourist sites without worrying about anything other than being overcharged for souvenirs and taxi rides. On the other hand, there is the potential for problems with home-grown terrorist attacks. It has been a number of years since there’s been an incident in Upper Egypt, but the same is not true for the Sinai and Cairo. There were a series of shootings and bombings targeting the tourism industry in Cairo and on the Sinai Peninsula in 2005 and 2006. The government now overstates the problem in Cairo and Upper Egypt for political reasons, but it is quite possibly understating them in the medium to long term on the Sinai Peninsula. The politically and economically repressive conditions that gave rise to the 2005 and 2006 attacks have not been ameliorated, and the heavy-handed security response will probably prove counterproductive.
In terms of street crime and random violence, Egypt is a remarkably safe country. Although there is potential for violence, it takes a lot of provocation and occurs in areas and situations that tourists are unlikely to encounter.
Women in particular, however, will find themselves subject to a high level of verbal harassment in public areas. In more crowded areas, this will escalate to groping, and in less crowded areas to self-exposure.
For both men and women, personal safety is based on the usual rules. Keep away from street fights — absent a professional civil police force, these can turn nasty quickly and tempers can run pretty hot in Egypt. It is highly unlikely for a foreigner to be consciously targeted, but collateral damage is always a possibility. Avoid badly lit, deserted places after dark. Most heavily touristed areas are fine at all times of day and night.
The threat to personal safety from political instability is low. Cairo has seen sporadic, usually low-key, demonstrations by various pro-democracy and reform groups in recent years, and these are best avoided. The government routinely deploys plainclothes operatives to harass and intimidate, and there is a very real risk to locals and foreigners alike of being assaulted by the police in the vicinity of these demonstrations. Women perceived as being involved in the demonstration are particularly at risk, as security forces have been known to sexually assault female participants as a way of discouraging further participation.
In any dealing with the police in Egypt, keep in mind that this is not the kind of coherent, professional organization that you expect in the West. Officer and management positions are assigned by social class and connection, and lower positions are not paid a living wage. Corruption is rife. If you find yourself on the wrong side of the law, do not hesitate to buy yourself out of trouble either directly or through the mediation of a lawyer. At its most basic, this will involve paying a few pounds to a traffic cop for parking your car in a no-parking zone (which is most of Cairo). For more serious problems, your focus will be getting out of the country (with the assistance of your embassy’s consular section, if needed).
That said, law enforcement agencies will generally work hard to accommodate foreigners when they have a problem. Don’t expect any actual police work in the event of a theft or accident, but they should be able to provide a friendly face, a glass of tea, and pro-forma services such as a police report for insurance purposes.
Drugs such as a hashish and cannabis are officially illegal, and penalties, at least in theory, are harsh. Signs at the airport warn of severe penalties for drug possession and trafficking in Egypt. In practice, the situation is a little murkier. Though it is generally only Egyptian nationals and non-tourist foreigners who get into serious trouble for drug offenses, any kind of involvement in illegalities can leave you open to blackmail and a host of other best-avoided entanglements.
The traffic is perhaps the greatest routine threat to personal safety in Egypt. Extreme care should be exercised in crossing the road and in driving. Highways are particularly dangerous, and unless you have high confidence in your driving ability, you should hire a driver from a reputable firm. Avoid driving outside the city at night.
Many governments maintain advisory pages online that provide useful, up-to-date information on everything from the potential for political instability to the latest outbreaks of avian flu. See “Travel Warnings” in the “Online Traveler’s Toolbox” later in this chapter. Registration with your country’s embassy in Cairo can also help consular officials warn you of problems and contact you in the event of a situation back home.
Dealing With Discrimination
Egypt remains, unfortunately, a society in which racism and sexism is both prevalent and acceptable.
Egyptians are particularly biased toward other Africans, whom they regard as inferior both socially and economically. African-American visitors, even holding their U.S. passport in their hands and speaking English, will probably find problems getting past security at some restaurants and hotels, and African-American women have reported higher-than-average levels of sexual harassment.
Asians, or people who look Asian, will find a different set of problems. Over the last 10 years, an increasing number of economic migrants from China have drawn the attention of Egyptian authorities. Generally the attitude of people in the street will tend more toward parochial curiosity than outright discrimination, but police will tend to be suspicious of independent travelers, and tourists may be subject to random document checks and searches.
There is also a degree of anti-Western feeling in Egypt, which has been substantially increased by the 2004 invasion of Iraq and subsequent “War on Terror.” On the whole, however, individual Egyptians recognize the difference between government policies and the intentions of citizens, and it is unlikely that resentments will be visited on individual travelers.
Similarly, though there is a high degree of acceptance of anti-Semitism in Egypt, it is rare for it to be visited on individual Jewish people.
Clothing, not surprisingly, is a major factor in how you will find yourself being treated in Egypt. When possible, smart-casual clothes are best: dress pants and long-sleeved shirts for men, long skirts or loose pants and long sleeves for women. This, of course, isn’t always practical while traveling, but men should avoid shorts and tank tops, and women will experience elevated levels of harassment in direct proportion to the amount of skin they bare.
This also applies, though to a lesser degree, in the big resort towns such as Sharm el Sheikh or Hurghada. Resorts with private beaches have rigidly enforced rules regarding local access and staff who are accustomed to Western clothing habits, but the same only applies to a limited degree on the streets outside the resort walls. Here you will be under the assumption that Westerners are rich but morally lax. This will only be intensified by low-cut shirts, shorts, or tight pants.
Egypt Fast Facts
American Express — Cairo: 33 Nabil El Waqad St., Ard El Golf, Heliopolis (tel. 02/24130293/4/5 or 02/26909129; fax 02/26909131), and 15 Kasr El Nil St. (tel. 02/25747991/2; fax 02/25747997). Alexandria: 14 May St., Madenat El Sayadla, Semouha (tel. 03/4241050, 4290800, or 4282021; fax 03/4241020). Luxor: Winter Palace Hotel (tel. 095/2378333; fax 095/2372862). Aswan: Kornish El Nil Street (tel. 097/2306983; fax 097/2302909).
Area Codes — Cairo: 02. Alexandria: 03. Aswan: 097. Luxor: 095. Fayum: 084. Hurghada 062. Marsa Matruh: 046. Siwa, Baherya, Farafra, Dakhla, and Kharga: 092.
Business Hours — You have to accept that, in Egypt, businesses are open when they’re open. Posted hours should be considered guidelines, not hard and fast rules, and you should expect most places to open a little late, and sometimes close a little early as well. Banks are open from 9am to 2pm, and quite frequently in the evening from 5 to 7pm. Stores generally open between 9 or 10am and stay open until between 7 and 10pm. Small grocery stores are open the longest hours, and you can expect to find a box of milk or a pack of cigarettes easily at midnight. Restaurants tend to stay open from midmorning until late at night.
Customs — What You Can Bring into Egypt — Egypt imposes large import duties on electronics, including cameras, stereos, and laptop computers. There is no problem bringing in items for personal use, but if you’re traveling with diving equipment, a laptop, or extensive video or photographic equipment, you may find yourself required to register them upon entry. This will actually reduce your hassle on exit, as it makes it easy to prove that you haven’t sold anything during your visit.
Only LE5,000 ($909/£463) can be brought into (or taken out of) the country, which shouldn’t be an issue given the ease with which you can exchange money inside the country and the bad rate of exchange outside of Egypt. Foreign currencies to a value of $10,000 can be brought in.
Duty-free allowance on arrival is:
1. 200 cigarettes, 25 cigars, or 200 grams of tobacco
2. One liter of alcoholic beverages
3. A reasonable quantity of perfume and 1 liter of eau de cologne
4. Noncommercial articles up to a value of LE100 ($18/£9.25)
5. Personal items such as hair dryers and razors
Interestingly, these allowances are made “irrespective of age.” Prohibited items include birds (live, stuffed, or frozen), Viagra, antiques, narcotics, cotton, and “items offensive to Islam.”
What You Can Take Home from Egypt:
You cannot export more than LE5,000 ($909/£463) or an equivalent of more than $10,000 in any foreign currency. You are also not allowed to take out drugs, food, silver, or gold bought on the local market (these last two have an exception for “very small quantities for personal use”). Note that at the time of writing there was a blanket ban on bringing any kind of bird back from Egypt to the United States.
U.S. Citizens: For specifics on what you can bring back and the corresponding fees, download the invaluable free pamphlet Know Before You Go online at www.cbp.gov. (Click on “Travel,” and then click on “Know Before You Go! Online Brochure.”) Or, contact the U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20229 (tel. 877/287-8667) and request the pamphlet.
Drugstores — There is no shortage of drugstores (saydeleya in Arabic) in Egypt, and they’re found in every neighborhood selling everything from shampoo to antibiotics. Most of their products are available over the counter. Pharmacists are also relatively well trained in Egypt and are commonly used for a wide range of medical advice. Additionally, many drugstores will deliver.
Seif Pharmacy is a well-regarded local business with branches all over Cairo. If they don’t have what you need, they can tell you which store has it and have it delivered if you want. Branches include: Kasr el Aini Street, downtown (tel. 02/27942678); Manial el Rouda, Manial (tel. 02/23624505); Degla Street, Mohandiseen (tel. 02/37489923); El Koba Street, Heliopolis (tel. 02/24507185); and Midan el Mahata, Maadi (tel. 02/3593846).
Electricity — Electrical current is 220 volts in Egypt. Plugs are European-style, with two prongs. There are very few grounded circuits in Egypt, so it is particularly important that you turn off the power to appliances such as washing machines before touching them. Adapters are readily available for two-pronged North American plugs.
Embassies & Consulates — U.S. Embassy, 8 Kamal El Din Salah St., Garden City, Cairo (tel. 02/27973300; email@example.com); British Embassy, 7 Ahmed Ragab St., Garden City, Cairo (tel. 02/27940852; firstname.lastname@example.org); Canadian Embassy, 26 Kamel el Shenawy, Garden City, Cairo (tel. 02/27918700; email@example.com); Australian Embassy, 11th Floor of the World Trade Center, Corniche el Nile, Boulac, Cairo (tel. 02/25740444; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Emergencies — For the police, dial tel.122; fire, 180; or ambulance, 123.
Etiquette & Customs — Appropriate Attire: Egyptians place a lot of stock in dressing well in informal situations, and a good pair of slacks and a few long-sleeved shirts should come with you on your holiday. For women, loose-fitting long-sleeved shirts and trousers or long skirts are the best choice. In mosques, you will be expected to take off your shoes, and women will be expected to cover their heads. Unless you expect to visit a lot of mosques, the issue of lace-ups versus slip-ons isn’t very important, but you should have socks without holes. Women should carry a light scarf.
Gestures: Meeting and greeting are important ceremonies in Egypt. Shake hands, introduce yourself, and take a moment to get to know people, even if you don’t expect to see them ever again. Your left hand is left out of social occasions, for the most part, and once the introductions are out of the way and everyone is sitting down, be careful to keep your feet pointed at (or, better, firmly planted on) the floor. The soles of your shoes are unclean, and it is offensive to point them or even show them. Platonic same-sex friends often hold hands in the street, but it is quite daring for men and women to do so. Cheek-kissing and hugging are de rigueur displays of respect and warmth between men and women, but any kind of public displays of affection are highly inappropriate between couples.
There are few gestures that will cause offense by misinterpretation, but pointing at someone with your finger is disrespectful. Generally Arabs have a richer gesture vocabulary than Westerners and are far more familiar with our signs than we are with theirs.
Avoiding Offense: Egyptians are easy-going and socially skillful, making genuine offense difficult to cause in the first place and easily worked through if it does happen. Religion can be a touchy subject but can be discussed as long as you keep in mind that Sunnis are as used to being members of the socially dominant religion as Christians, Jews, or Hindus are in their countries, and, as such, make the same basic assumptions of universal superiority and correctness as many members of other religions do. Muslims generally see more in common between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam than they do to divide them. Politics can also be discussed, but keep in mind that the Egyptian government doesn’t look favorably on its citizens when they criticize the state, and you can inadvertently put people in an uncomfortable position when discussing internal matters. On the other hand, if you’re talking international politics, expect a heated argument if you set out to defend positions contrary to the accepted wisdom.
Punctuality is a loose concept in Egypt. It is fine to be 30 minutes late for a social engagement, but on the other hand, Egyptians try to make a point of being on time for foreigners.
Obscenity, whether casual or pointed in either English or Arabic, is inappropriate until you know people well. The same goes for passing comment on women (odd, considering the casual and habitual level of harassment) and absent acquaintances.
Eating & Drinking: A small gift is always appreciated when visiting someone’s home. A small bouquet of flowers or a box of sweets are generally appropriate gifts. It goes without saying that in a Muslim country, showing up at someone’s house for dinner with a bottle of wine will produce much laughter or an awkward silence.
Business Etiquette: Unlike social appointments, business meetings are held as close to the set time as possible. Handshaking and exchanging business cards are the norm. Expect water, tea, coffee, and sweets to be served. Also expect a lot of smoking.
Photography: Photographing anything official, from the traffic policeman to government buildings and even bridges, will usually prompt an official warning and in many cases some kind of attempt to seize your film and camera. Disorganized and ineffective security arrangements, on the other hand, generally mean you can get away with it if you’re willing to ignore the shouting and walk away quickly. Actual military installations are where you should draw the line, and in no circumstances should you take an obvious photo of a military officer.
•The Global Etiquette Guide to Africa and the Middle East (Wiley Publishing, Inc.)
•Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in 60 Countries (Adams Media)
•Culture Shock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette (Marshall Cavendish Corporation)
Holidays — Islamic feast days and religious holidays follow the lunar calendar, and so the exact dates on which they fall may vary by a day or two; they will fall back 11 days each year against the Gregorian calendar used in the West. Holidays for 2009 are Islamic New Year (approximately Jan 1); Mulid an Nabi, birthday of the Prophet Mohamed (approximately Mar 10); Sinai Liberation Day (Apr 25); Shem an Nessim/Easter (Apr 27); Labor Day (May 1); Revolution Day (July 23); Ramadan (approximately Aug 26th-Sept 23); Eid el Fitr (approximately Oct 23-25); Armed Forces Day (Oct 6); Eid al Adha (approximately Nov 30-Dec 1); Victory Day (Dec 23); Islamic New Year (approximately Dec 19).
Hospitals — The following hospitals provide an ambulance service: Al Salam Hospital, 3 Syria St., Mohandiseen (tel. 02/33030502 reception, or 02/33034780 ambulance); Al Shorouk Hospital, 5 Bahr el Ghazal St., Mohandiseen (tel. 02/33044891 or 02/33044901 reception, 02/33459941 or 02/33044901 ext 103 or 105 ambulance); Nile Badrawi Hospital, Nile Corniche, Maadi (tel. 02/25240022 reception, or 02/25240212 ambulance); New Kasr el Aini Teaching Hospital, Kasr el Aini Street, Garden City (tel. 02/23654060 or 02/23654061 reception, 02/23654045 or 02/23654101 ambulance). For medical helicopter service (with a doctor and nurse), call tel. 02/24184531 or 02/24184537 24 hours.
Internet Access — Most cafes have free Wi-Fi access, and small Internet cafes abound. In Cairo, Zamalek and Mohandiseen are the most wired-up neighborhoods. Most smaller centers feature hole-in-the-wall Internet shops where you can check your e-mail for LE2 to LE10 (35¢-$1.80/20p-90p) per hour.
Language — English is widely understood around Cairo and in tourist hotels and restaurants throughout the country, but off the beaten track and in smaller towns it is relatively rare to find functional English speakers. A Pocket Dictionary of the Spoken Arabic of Cairo (AUC Press) is an excellent and convenient linguistic companion to exploring Egypt.
Laundromats — Self-service laundromats are extremely rare in Egypt. Instead, you will find small laundry shops, usually tucked away on a side street. The service is cheap but can be slow (reckon on a 24-hour turnaround unless you can get a specific commitment to be quicker). Shrinkage is not usually a problem, but broken buttons from overly enthusiastic ironing is common.
Legal Aid — Tourists who find themselves in legal entanglements should immediately contact the consular department of their embassy in Cairo for advice. Although there is often little that embassy staff can do directly to help, they will provide references for lawyers and can help to ensure that legal procedures are followed.
Liquor Laws — Egyptian liquor laws are obscure and unevenly applied. Most bars and stores frequented by foreigners, however, have well-posted policies of not serving or selling to anyone under 18. Local beer, wine, and hard liquor can be purchased at Drinkies chain outlets and a dwindling number of independently operated outlets. Drinkies also delivers (tel. 19330).
Lost & Found — Be sure to tell all of your credit card companies the minute you discover your wallet has been lost or stolen, and file a report at the nearest police precinct. Your credit card company or insurer may require a police report number or record of the loss. Most credit card companies have an emergency toll-free number to call if your card is lost or stolen; they may be able to wire you a cash advance immediately or deliver an emergency credit card in a day or two.
To report lost or stolen credit cards in Egypt, call: Visa (tel. 410/581-9994), Mastercard (tel. 636/722-7111), or American Express (tel. 19327).
If you need emergency cash over the weekend, when all banks and American Express offices are closed, you can have money wired to you via Western Union (tel. 800/325-6000; www.westernunion.com).
Mail — Egyptian post offices are not swift, but they are a reliable way of sending postcards and letters home. A card will cost LE1.50 (25¢/15p) to destinations in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and England. Envelopes of 50 grams or less will cost LE3.5 to LE5.5 (60¢-$1/30p-50p) depending on the destination.
Medical Clinics — Shaalan Surgicenter, 10 Abd el Hamid Lotfi St., Mohandiseen. Outpatient clinic (around the corner), 11 al Anaab St., Mohandiseen, open 9am to 10pm daily except Friday. Clinic tel. 02/37605180, 02/37482577, 0122263606, or 0101050571. Surgery 02/37603920 or 02/33387648. Degla Medical Center, 4 St. 2003, Degla, Maadi (tel. 02/5213156 or 02/2523157), open 9am to 10pm daily except Friday.
Newspapers and Magazines — The newsstands on 26th of July Street and bookstores in Cairo stock a variety of international magazines and newspapers. Expect daily newspapers to be 1 day late, and save 50% on weekly magazines by buying them one week late from independent newsstands.
Local Media There are a variety of English-language newspapers and magazines in Egypt, but none of them are very good. You are better off reading about Egypt in the international media.
Newspapers: Al Ahram Weekly (http://weekly.ahram.org.eg) is the major English-language publication in Egypt, at least measured by print run, but it is closely associated with the government, and its thin coverage of domestic issues rarely strays off the government message. The Egyptian Gazette (www.algomhuria.net.eg/gazette/1) is a thin daily newspaper also closely associated with the government. Widely distributed in tourist hotels throughout the country, it is sometimes worth a laugh for its disastrously badly translated crime pages. The Daily News (www.egyptdailynews.com) is the closest thing to an independent English-language newspaper in Egypt and the best bet for local news coverage. The News comes bundled with the International Herald Tribune.
Magazines: Egypt Today (www.egypttoday.com) is the biggest English-language magazine in Egypt. Close editorial identification with the government undermines the credibility of its political coverage, but lifestyle features and listings are good enough if you can find a complimentary copy. The same company produces Travel Today, Business Today, and Horus (the not-very-good EgyptAir in-flight magazine). Business Monthly is the publication of the American Chamber of Commerce in Cairo (www.amcham.org.eg) and is the best business-focused publication available. Community Times has lifestyle coverage of interest to expats.
Other publications with titles such as Enigma, Ego, and Teen Stuff cover fashion and youth issues for a young local audience.
Passports — Allow plenty of time before your trip to apply for a passport; processing normally takes 3 weeks but can take longer during busy periods (especially spring). And keep in mind that if you need a passport in a hurry, you’ll pay a higher processing fee.
For Residents of the United States: Whether you’re applying in person or by mail, you can download passport applications from the U.S. State Department website at http://travel.state.gov. To find your regional passport office, either check the U.S. State Department website or call the National Passport Information Center toll-free number (tel. 877/487-2778) for automated information.
Restrooms — The best bet for restrooms in Egypt is to head for the nearest tourist-class hotel. If there’s nothing in sight, the next best option is a Western-style fast-food operation or a cafe. In my experience, McDonald’s and Costa Coffee have the best, followed by Pizza Hut, Hardees, and KFC.
Smoking — Egyptians smoke everywhere. Quite a few tourist facilities are now establishing nonsmoking zones, but this is unheard of in the rest of the country, so feel free to light up in the bank, at the doctor’s office, or in the elevator.
Taxes — Tourist services are generally taxed at about 22%, which is often referred to as the “plus plus” because it is made up of “plus” 10% tax and “plus” 12% service. The exact makeup of the “plus plus” varies between municipalities, and in some places is now “plus plus plus.”
Time Zone — Egypt is GMT+2, which means GMT+3 when daylight saving time (DST) is in effect. DST comes into effect in the last week of April and ceases to be in effect in the last week of September.
Tipping — The general rule for tipping in Egypt is simple: When in doubt, tip. Tip drivers (except for taxi drivers, whom you pay by the ride), waiters, bellhops, and guides. Tip anyone who performs a service for you (shows you to your seat on a train or opens an extra door at the museum), and tip those who haven’t done anything directly but ask for it anyway (often the case with street sweepers). How much depends on circumstances and service — a bellhop in a $400-per-night hotel who gives good services should be slipped LE50 ($9.10/£4.60) or more, while waiters should receive a percentage of the bill that reflects the quality of the service. Being provided extra access at monuments or museums is worth LE5 (90¢/45p) at most, on the other hand. Bathroom attendants are well served with LE1 (20¢/9p), as are street sweepers and anyone else looking for a handout.
Useful Phone Numbers — U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory (tel. 202/647-5225 manned 24 hours), U.S. Passport Agency (tel. 202/647-0518), U.S. Centers for Disease Control International Traveler’s Hotline (tel. 404/332-4559).
Water — Tap water in Egypt is not generally suitable for drinking. Bottled water costs about LE1 to LE2 (18¢-36¢/9p-19p).
Egypt Tips On Dining
I have divided restaurants throughout the book into four categories. Very Expensive meals are LE150 ($27/£14) or more, Expensive meals are LE100 ($18/£9.25) or more, Moderate meals are between LE50 to LE80 ($9.10-$15/£4.65-£7.40), and Inexpensive meals range from LE25 to LE50 ($4.55-$9.10/£2.30-£4.65).
Egyptians are enthusiastic about their meals and are ready to tuck into food at almost anytime of the day. Formal meal times, however, tend to be later than we are used to in the West, with the main meal of the day happening in the middle of the afternoon or sometimes being put off until after work (around 3 or 4pm), and dinner times as late as 9 or 10pm.
During the month of Ramadan, of course, this changes entirely, with a light sohour meal eaten just before sunrise (which makes it either a late dinner or an early breakfast) and the enormous iftar (literally “breakfast”) happening just after sundown.
Most restaurants will automatically add a 12% service charge to the bill, but most people will leave another 5% to 8% in cash on the understanding that the staff probably never sees the service charge.
Breakfast is usually a selection of flatbread and eggs, often with a side dish of fuul (simmered fava beans).
Lunch is usually the main meal of the day, in which meat is served. Families often sit down together immediately after work (which ends a lot earlier in the day than in the West but may be supplemented by a return to the office or shop in the evening) around 3 or 4pm for plates of kosherie (a mix of macaroni, lentils, rice, fried onions, chickpeas, and spicy tomato sauce), molakheya (sauce of Jew’s mallow) and chicken or rabbit, and fateer (a flat pastry that can be served either savory or sweet).
Local Beer & Wine
Just a few years ago, Egypt produced a single brand of beer, which, though inconsistent in taste and alcohol content, was drinkable. The wine was unpalatable, and the hard liquor was downright dangerous. These days, thanks to the privatization of the state alcohol monopoly and the purchase of the country’s largest single producer by Dutch beer producer Heineken, there are several drinkable beers and a choice of presentable locally made wines. The most popular of these include Stella; Saqqara, a light lager, indistinguishable from Stella by most drinkers; and Meister and Meister Max, an attempt to make a darker beer (Meister Max sacrifices taste for alcohol content).
Beers cost from LE6 ($1.09/55p) at a store up to LE30 ($5.45/£2.80) in a five-star hotel.
Grand Marquis, Cape Bay, and Sheherezad are the best of the local wines and cost about LE65 to LE80 ($12-$15/£6-£7.40) retail and LE100 to LE200 ($18-$36/£9.25-£19) in a restaurant or hotel.
Egypt Using A Cellphone
In Egypt, the two major mobile phone service providers are Mobinil and Vodaphone, both of which rent you a temporary phone number on a SIM card that slides into your GSM phone.
At Vodafone, just renting the basic line costs about LE 78 for one month, and you have to charge your phone with minute cards that cost LE 25, 50, 100 or 200. A local call costs LE 1.25 a minute. (Vodafone tel. 02/529-2888; www.vodafone.com.eg)
Mobinil offers a similar set up, but local calls are slightly cheaper at LE 0.75 per minute. (MobiNil tel. 02/760-9090; www.mobinil.com)
If you don’t own a GSM set, you might have trouble renting one in Egypt. At time of writing, there were no reputable local stores that rent handsets.
It’s always advisable to bring money in a variety of forms on a vacation: a mix of cash, credit cards, and traveler’s checks. American and Canadian dollars, pounds sterling, and euros are all easily exchanged in Egypt, and Cairo International Airport has a number of 24-hour banks that give the same rates as in town. It’s easy to exchange enough on arrival to cover tips and the cost of transport into town.
ATMs, once a rarity in Egypt, are now common in large cities and tourist destinations. While they offer good rates of exchange, some networks also charge hefty transaction fees. Check with your bank before leaving home.
Unlike exchange bureaus in many countries, most of the exchange offices (maktab sarafa) in Egypt offer competitive rates. They also offer longer hours and quicker service.
Hotels, however, offer bad rates of exchange and should be avoided except in emergencies.
There has been no black market for hard currencies in Egypt for several years and therefore no advantage to changing on the street.
You will find Egypt cheap compared to any Western country. Like most third-world countries, however, Western goods are available in major centers, but usually at prices that are well beyond the reach of most of the working population. In fact, you will find various services, including midrange and upper-range accommodation, priced in “hard currency” (U.S. dollars or euros, generally) rather than Egyptian pounds (LE), therefore, the Egyptian pound pricing for some accommodations is for reference only.
The easiest and best way to get cash away from home is from an ATM (automated teller machine), sometimes referred to as a “cash machine” or a “cashpoint.” The Cirrus (tel. 800/424-7787; www.mastercard.com) and PLUS (tel. 800/843-7587; www.visa.com) networks span the globe and are easy to access in all major tourist spots in Egypt. Go to your bankcard’s website to find ATM locations at your destination. Be sure you know your daily withdrawal limit before you depart. Note: Many banks impose a fee every time you use a card at another bank’s ATM, and that fee can be higher for international transactions (up to $5 or more) than for domestic ones (where they’re rarely more than $2). In addition, the bank from which you withdraw cash may charge its own fee. For international withdrawal fees, ask your bank.
Note: Banks that are members of the Global ATM Alliance charge no transaction fees for cash withdrawals at other Alliance member ATMs; these include Bank of America, Scotiabank (Canada, Caribbean, and Mexico), Barclays (U.K. and parts of Africa), Deutsche Bank (Germany, Poland, Spain, and Italy), and BNP Paribas (France).
Credit cards are another safe way to carry money. They also provide a convenient record of all your expenses, and they generally offer relatively good exchange rates. You can withdraw cash from your credit cards at banks or ATMs, but high fees make credit-card cash advances a pricey way to get cash. Keep in mind that you’ll pay interest from the moment of your withdrawal, even if you pay your monthly bills on time. Also, note that many banks now assess a 1% to 3% “transaction fee” on all charges you incur abroad (whether you’re using the local currency or your native currency).
Most mid- and high-end tourist hotels will accept major credit cards, with Visa and MasterCard having the widest acceptance in Egypt. American Express is less commonly accepted but still useful in higher-end facilities. Diner’s Club is rarely accepted in Egypt. The majority of restaurants and shops remain cash-only.
Most banks and many change offices will cash traveler’s checks, albeit at a less advantageous rate than cash. Midrange and upper-range tourist hotels also generally provide facilities for cashing traveler’s checks and make it possible to settle your bill with them.
You can buy traveler’s checks at most banks. They are offered in denominations of $20, $50, $100, $500, and sometimes $1,000. Generally, you’ll pay a service charge ranging from 1% to 4%.
The most popular traveler’s checks are offered by American Express (tel. 800/807-6233 or tel. 800/221-7282 for card holders — this number accepts collect calls, offers service in several foreign languages, and exempts Amex gold and platinum cardholders from the 1% fee); Visa (tel. 800/732-1322) — AAA members can obtain Visa checks for a $9.95 fee (for checks up to $1,500) at most AAA offices or by calling tel. 866/339-3378; and MasterCard (tel. 800/223-9920).
Be sure to keep a record of the traveler’s check serial numbers separate from your checks in case they are stolen or lost. You’ll get a refund faster if you know the numbers.
American Express, Thomas Cook, Visa, and MasterCard offer foreign currency traveler’s checks, useful if you’re traveling to one country or to the euro zone; they’re accepted at locations where dollar checks may not be.
Another option is the new prepaid traveler’s check cards, reloadable cards that work much like debit cards but aren’t linked to your checking account. The American Express Travelers Cheque Card, for example, requires a minimum deposit, sets a maximum balance, and has a one-time issuance fee of $15. You can withdraw money from an ATM (for a fee of $2.50 per transaction, not including bank fees), and the funds can be purchased in dollars, euros, or pounds. If you lose the card, your available funds will be refunded within 24 hours.
Egypt When to Go
Egypt is best visited in the fall (Sept-Nov) and spring (Feb-Apr). The weather is relatively chilly December through January, except in the south, where the winter is very pleasant. The summer is the only time to be avoided for climatic reasons. Cairo is hot, muggy, and filthy for most of June through August, and most residents take their vacations during this period, if possible. Upper Egypt and even the Red Sea coast can also be uncomfortably hot during the summer.
High and low seasons follow a combination of weather patterns and school holidays. Thus, summer in Upper Egypt is low season because of the heat (despite the summer holidays), and winter is high season, with the market peaking around Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter. The same is true for Cairo and the Red Sea, though with less dramatic fluctuations. Winter is low season in Alexandria and along the north coast, but temperatures are relatively cool and the wind picks up. During the summer, with Egyptian schools on holiday and the unpleasant Cairo climate in stark contrast to the moderate warmth of the Mediterranean, the high season takes the north coast with a vengeance.
To avoid the crowds, go against the seasons, but be prepared for some serious heat if you’re headed for Upper Egypt during the summer. Luxor in August is not for the faint of heart, and venturing out to the sights without a fairly serious sunblock, an extravagantly brimmed sun hat, and a couple of liters of water is simply unwise. Personally, I would try to stay at the margins of the high season and visit around the first 2 weeks of November or June. The same goes for Cairo, the Red Sea coast, and the Sinai.
The main thing to watch on the north coast is the Egyptian school schedules. Once the Egyptian schools and universities let out, cities and beaches on the Mediterranean become very noisy and crowded, and Western tourists, women in particular, will find themselves subject to substantial unwelcome attention. For this reason, I would advise visiting Alexandria in March and April or October and November.
Egypt is a country that takes a lot of holidays, both secular and religious. Public holidays in Egypt are a mix of secular celebrations of the achievements of the post-1952 state and religious holidays. Islamic religious holidays can be a little hard to pin down sometimes, because they occur according to a lunar calendar; by religious reckoning, they happen on the same day every year, but according to the modern Gregorian calendar, the dates move about 11 days earlier every year. Further complicating matters is that for the beginning of the key month of Ramadan to be officially declared, the new moon must be spotted.
Government offices (including visa extensions) and many public services (like banks) are closed for secular holidays such as July 26 or October 10. Most general services, including money-change offices and major tourist sights, operate as normal, however.
Religious holidays carry more social significance and provide you with fascinating opportunities as well as potentially insurmountable obstacles. Ramadan, the month of fasting that precedes Eid el Fitr, is a great example. On the one hand, it’s a fascinating time to be in Egypt: the streets are decorated and, once the sun goes down, the streets of poorer neighborhoods are filled with parties and celebrations that go on most of the night. On the other hand, the already-brief Egyptian working day is substantially shortened during Ramadan, which means that getting the most minor arrangements made or changed can quickly become a frustrating and pointless exercise.
All the holidays listed wreak havoc on public services. Restaurants and tourist facilities largely remain open, but government offices close and many stores also close or open late. Here are the highpoints of the annual holiday schedule in Egypt:
•Coptic and Orthodox Christmas, January 7: Unlike Western Christians, the Eastern church celebrates the birth of Christ on January 7. This day has only recently been made a national holiday.
•Muharram, approximately January 10: This is the beginning of the Islamic year (the first month of which is named Muharram).
•Moulid El Nabi, approximately March 20: The birthday of the Prophet Mohamed is celebrated with special sweets such as the sesame-seed-based sensemeya.
•Sham El Nessim/Easter, April 9: This celebration of spring cuts across social and religious lines in Egypt, and on this day everybody who can collect a meal in a basket and get out of the house goes for a picnic. The name of the holiday simply means “smell the breeze” in Arabic.
•Sinai Liberation Day, April 25: This commemorates the day that the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt by the Israelis under the terms of the American-brokered Camp David Accords.
•Labor Day, May 1: Paying lip service to the socialist propaganda of yesteryear, the Egyptian government still celebrates May Day.
•National Day, July 23: This commemorates the occurrences of 1952 that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser and his group of Free Officers to power.
•Ramadan, approximately September 2 to October 2: A month in which Muslims all over the world are enjoined to abstain from food, drink, and sex between sunup and sundown. The major meal of the day becomes iftar (literally, breakfast), which is consumed with great enthusiasm the moment the sun goes down.
•Eid al Fitr, approximately October 2: Egyptians spend these 3 days celebrating the end of Ramadan with street celebrations and special sweets. “Al fitr” means breaking the fast. Eid is originally 1 day only (the day when fasting stops), but in Egypt it lasts for 3 days during which traditional Egyptian sweets such as kahk and ghouraiyyeba are baked.
•Armed Forces Day, October 6: This commemorates the crossing of the Suez Canal by Egyptian forces in 1973.
•Eid Al Adha, approximately December 8: Commemorating the completion of the Haj and the return of the pilgrims from Mecca as well as Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, Eid al Adha celebrations may be a little too colorful for comfort. Most stores, most banks, and all public offices are closed for this holiday. Restaurants, however, remain open.
A Day to Stay Inside & Read
Eid al Adha, which follows the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and commemorates Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his own son to God, is celebrated over 4 days during which everyone who can afford it slaughters sheep, goats, and cows. A third of the meat is distributed to the poor and a third to family and friends, with the remaining third going to those who paid for the animals. In the days leading up to the feast, the roads into major cities are jammed with trucks full of livestock.
The first day of Eid is marked by early morning prayers. When the men return from the mosque, the animals are killed in the street, in the stairwells of apartment complexes, and in parking lots. In accordance with Muslim tradition, the animals must bleed to death, and the mess, often not cleaned up for days, is extraordinary and can be overwhelming. There is generally no problem going out and participating in the celebrations if you feel like it — participants, including children who dip hands and feet in the pools of blood, are usually very happy to pose for macabre pictures. However, the sight of animals dying slowly in often unsanitary conditions may be disturbing for many, and I would advise spending the day well away from it all. This would be a good day to visit the nearest major tourist site or stay in your hotel room with a good guidebook.
Egypt Entry Requirements & Customs
Your passport must have a minimum of 2 months’ validity beyond your departure date in order for you to enter Egypt. Everyone older than 16 is required to have his own passport.
For information on how to get a passport, go to “Passports” in the “Fast Facts” section of this guide — the websites listed provide downloadable passport applications as well as the current processing fees. For an up-to-date, country-by-country listing of passport requirements around the world, go to the “Foreign Entry Requirement” Web page of the U.S. State Department at http://travel.state.gov.
Most Western visitors to Egypt are required to have a visa. The main exceptions to this rule are travelers who have a National Identity Card issued by Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, or Portugal. Visas can be acquired at the nearest Egyptian Embassy or at the point of entry (note that if you are traveling on a National Identity Card, as noted above, and want to get your visa at the point of entry, you need to bring a passport photo with you). A 30-day tourist visa costs $15/£7.50 (Egyptian pounds not accepted).
Tourists traveling directly to the Sinai Peninsula by air have two options: the standard 30-day visa that is valid for all of Egypt, or a free 14-day visa valid only for the Sinai tourist zone (which includes St. Catherine). The 30-day visa is easily extended for a small fee and can also be acquired (for a surcharge) after entry through travel agents in Sinai if you enter on the 14-day visa and then decide to visit the rest of the country.
Officially it is recommended that you obtain a visa before you travel, but most regular visitors to Egypt who arrive by air find it quicker and easier to pick up a visa on arrival at the airport.
Travelers who arrive overland should obtain their visas before arrival. Coming through Taba, there may be problems obtaining the 30-day visa without the help (and extra expense) of a travel agent.
Visa requirements can change without notice, and you should check the latest requirements as far in advance as possible in order to allow time to obtain a visa in your home country should that be necessary.
Americans can check http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1108.html.
Egypt The Best Ancient Sites
•The Pyramids in Giza (Giza): There’s no way to come to Egypt and not visit the pyramids. They are as vast and imposing as they were when they were built more than 4 millennia ago, and their impact has not been dimmed by the crowds of tourists and touts.
•Valley of the Kings (Luxor): Since it was first excavated at the beginning of the 20th century, this steep-sided valley on the west bank in Luxor has long been drawing tourists to its underground complex of richly decorated tombs. There is now a whole industry built on these visitors, and rightly so — it’s a must-see.
•Sound and Light Show at Karnak Temple (Luxor): Justly famous for its massive hypostyle hall, this vast temple complex reveals a whole new side of itself at night. Follow the narration through the ancient courtyards, and try to snap a picture of the dramatic lighting effects.
•Medinet Habu (West Bank): This often overlooked temple has it all: big walls, glorious gory hieroglyphs, and a great rural setting — and with far less hassle than you get almost everywhere else in Upper Egypt.
•Temple of Amun (Siwa): This small, remote temple in the distant western desert oasis is plain and not very well preserved compared to the sites of Luxor and the Giza Plateau, but it does have unparalleled mystique.
•Saqqara: The setting makes this site even more special than its historical significance. Like the pyramids in Giza, it sits on the edge of the desert looking down at the river valley. Whereas the megalopolis of Cairo sits at the foot of the monument at Giza, Saqqara is surrounded by greenery and looks like it might have many millennia ago.
Egypt The Best Authentic Experiences
•The Call to Prayer from the Citadel (Fatimid Cairo): As the sun sets over Fatimid Cairo, dozens of mosques send out their calls to prayer. With flocks of pigeons circling in the golden light and the last sun of the day picking out the highlights of the domes below, the ancient chanting surrounds you and takes you to centuries past.
•Cairo Tower (Cairo): From this tower in the middle of the city, your view encompasses everything from the Great Pyramid in Giza all the way to the Moqattam Hills on the other side of the valley. For just a moment, it feels as though you can actually get your head around this extraordinarily complex, vibrant city.
•A Cold Beer at the Cap d’Or (Alexandria): No visit to Alexandria is complete without a stop at this back-street pub, which retains the ambience of an era that has now all but slipped away. Look around at the fading posters, and watch the regulars come and go.
•Tea at the Old Cataract Hotel (Aswan): If it was good enough for Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie, it’s good enough for me. This is a great place to catch the sunset; the sun turns the dunes on the other side of the famous First Cataract of the Nile to a reddish gold, and the falucas drift back and forth.
•Sunrise at the Summit of Jebel Moussa (Mt. Sinai; St. Catherine): This is where Moses is said to have received the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. The view across the rugged red mountains of the Sinai as the sun rises is unforgettable.
•Tea at Fishawy’s (Cairo): What could be more Egyptian than drinking sweet tea among the spices, gewgaws, and crowds of a densely packed souk? Watch the crowds of people from all over the world, and haggle with merchants who will stop by with everything from saffron to sunhats.
•Palm Sunday in Coptic Cairo (Cairo): Celebrate Easter with one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Children and families crowd the ancient church-lined street giving out crosses and little figures made of local palm leaves.
Egypt The Best Museums
•The Aswan Museum: This tiny museum on the southern end of Elephantine Island in Aswan lost most of its best pieces to the new Nubian Museum and, hence, doesn’t receive many visitors now. But its 19th-century building, the residence of the architect of the Aswan Dam, Sir William Wilcocks, is a museum itself and deserves a visit.
•Egyptian Museum (Cairo): With a history that goes back to the very beginning of the archaeological exploration of Europe, the collection of antiquities held by the Egyptian Museum is one of the richest and most varied in the world. From Tutankhamun’s tomb to the Fayum portraits, there is no way to come to Egypt and miss this one.
•Luxor Museum: It may be smaller than the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but the Luxor Museum is better lit, better organized, and better documented. Housing an impressive display of ancient Egyptian artifacts, it’s not something that you should miss if you’re in town.
•Mummification Museum (Luxor): It sounds lurid, and it is, but it’s also well laid out and holds some impressive items. Kids will particularly enjoy the displays of mummies and the tools used to embalm them.
•The Museum at St. Catherine’s Monastery: This monastery’s collection of ancient manuscripts is second in size only to the Vatican’s. A few of these are on display, as well as some impressive early icons, truly jaw-dropping golden reliquaries, and examples of devotional embroidery.
•Nubian Museum (Aswan): This is a long-overdue monument to the land of Nubia, flooded by the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the early 1970s. The museum tries to re-create the lost culture and leads the visitor through the history of the land all the way to its rather abrupt modern truncation.
Egypt The Best Shopping
•Aswan Souk: Even though it’s rapidly becoming more touristy, this rambling, sprawled-out souk retains all the vibrancy you would expect of a millennia-old crossroads on the trading routes between Africa and the Mediterranean world.
•Egypt Craft Center (8-27 Yehia Ibrahim St., Zamalek, Cairo; tel. 02/27365123): Here you have low-hassle access to a range of folk crafts from around Egypt. This is a particularly good place to pick up pottery from the Fayum or handmade scarves from Upper Egypt. Proceeds go to support community development nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
•Khan al Khalili (Cairo): This centuries-old souk in the heart of old Cairo is a must for anyone who has the shopping bug or just wants to experience the real hustle and bustle of an Arab city. Take cash, and be prepared to haggle. This is the best place in town to buy novelty T-shirts, souvenirs with your name printed in hieroglyphics, and those little bottles of colored sand that have pictures of camels in them.
•Khan Msr Toulon (Tulun Bey Street, Cairo; tel. 02/33652227): This French-run store, located just across the street from the mosque of the same name (but spelled differently), has a not-at-all-surprising sense of style. Shelves are stuffed with interesting handicrafts, furniture, and glassware from Cairo and beyond.
•Nomad (14 Saraya Al Gezira, Cairo; tel. 02/27361917): Check out the main branch of this store for a great selection of handicrafts from all over Egypt, including hand-woven Bedouin blankets, silver jewelry, and embroidered pillow slips. Prices are fixed, and staff are friendly and helpful.
•Siwa Souk: For an end-of-the-world shopping experience, the central square in Siwa is hard to beat. It wasn’t long ago that all the goods brought here were bartered for in this marketplace, and many of the locally made handicrafts on sale here are impossible to find anywhere else.
•Souk el Fustat (Cairo): This is a little shopping mall just outside the northern entrance to Coptic Cairo that’s aimed squarely at the discerning foreign buyer. Check out the beautiful handmade copies of Mamluke and Fatimid lamps sold here by Hassan and Mohamed.
Egypt The Best Religious Sites
The Best Islamic Sites
•Al Azhar Mosque (Cairo): This mosque has undergone a number of changes since it was built in A.D. 972 and has been the centerpiece of the Islamic world’s most prestigious university since A.D. 988.
•Bab Zuweila (Cairo): This huge gate, which rises out of the thick-packed confusion of a local souk, was one of the original entrances to the Fatimid city of Qahira (Cairo). Its colossal shoulders bear witness to the architectural and military power of the 11th-century founders of this dynasty.
•The Madrasa of Sultan Hassan (Cairo): This massive example of Mamluke self-aggrandizement casts a massive shadow over the rundown neighborhood that surrounds it. Yet, from inside, the 14th-century domes and courtyards are gracefully proportioned and somehow human in scale.
•Mohamed Ali Mosque (Cairo): Its high Ottoman dome gives this mosque a tremendous sense of calm and space, and the view across old Cairo from the courtyard is second to none.
•Mosque of Ibn Tulun (Cairo): Unique, Iraqi-style decorations set this 9th-century mosque apart from others in the city. The enormous courtyard is a reminder that there was once a time when you could build a mosque big enough to hold every man in the surrounding area.
The Best Christian Cultural Sites
•Al Bagawat Cemetery (Kharga): One of the largest ancient Christian cemeteries in the world, al Bagawat in the Western Desert is still comprised of more than 200 domed mausoleums, some of which contain exceptional wall paintings depicting biblical scenes.
•Church of St. George (Cairo): This small, domed, Greek Orthodox church in Coptic Cairo is built on top of the ruins of the Roman Fortress of Babylon. With the lights low and the lines of candles flickering beside the altar, this is one of the most atmospheric spots in all of Cairo.
•Monastery of St. Anthony (Red Sea): Set in the middle of the magnificently stark scenery of the remote Red Sea coast, this ancient monastery was built on the site near Anthony’s cave where his followers established a camp. The chapel where they buried him is decorated with some of the richest Coptic art in the world.
•Monastery of St. Paul (Red Sea): This is a high-walled compound, fortified against attacks by local Bedouins, that is still a functioning monastery not far from the Monastery of St. Anthony. St. Paul is said to have been fed every day by a crow that brought him bread.
•Monastery of St. Simeon (Aswan): This monastery is still massive and imposing despite having been abandoned for centuries. It stands like an abandoned fortress on the edge of the desert on the west bank of the Nile at Aswan.
•St. Catherine’s Monastery (Sinai): The oldest continually working Christian monastery in the world, St. Catherine’s is uniquely steeped in tradition. It’s also rich in religious art, having neglected to take part in the 8th- and 9th-century destruction of iconographic art.
Egypt The Best Scuba Diving
•Giftun Island (off Hurghada): The coral reefs around this big, sandy island are second to none for color and variety. There are at least a dozen places to dive around the edge of the island, and with a good guide you can usually get away from the crowds and have a reef to yourself.
•Panorama Reef (Hurghada): This is a long block of vibrant colored coral that offers the possibility of seeing eagle rays, turtles, and even white-tipped and hammerhead sharks.
•Ras Mohamed National Park (Sinai): Where the deep waters of the Gulf of Aquaba meet the warm shallow waters of the Gulf of Suez at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, this thin finger of a reef houses some of the richest and most colorful coral and fish populations in the world.
•Seven Pillars (Soma Bay): As easy for beginners as it is rewarding for experts, the Seven Pillars site off the Sheraton Soma Bay beach has a resident Napoleon fish. It’s named for the coral pillars that rise from a depth of 12m (39 ft.) almost to the surface and play host to scores of puffer, lizard, and lion fish.
•Straits of Tiran (Sharm el Sheikh): The warm waters off Sharm el Sheikh offer the possibility of some of the most dramatic drift dives in the world through Jackson, Woodhouse, and Gordon reefs, and dozens of other sites.
•The Wreck of the SS Dunraven (Sharm el Sheikh): This late-19th-century wreck of a spice ship from Bombay is a popular dive from Sharm el Sheikh. The upside-down hull is broken open, and it’s possible to enter the wreck and look at the old boilers.
•The Wreck of the Thistlegorm (Sharm el Sheikh): Thirty meters (98 ft.) below the surface, between the Red Resort City of Hurghada and the Ras Mohamed National Park, lies this World War II cargo vessel. Check out the vintage motorbikes as well as a pair of locomotives that were flung away from the wreck by the force of the explosions that sunk it.
To call Egypt:
1. Dial the international access code: 011 from the U.S. or Canada; 00 from the U.K., Ireland, or New Zealand; or 0011 from Australia.
2. Dial the country code, 2.
3. Dial the city code and then the number.
To make international calls: To make international calls from Egypt, first dial 00 and then the country code (U.S. or Canada 1, U.K. 44, Ireland 353, Australia 61, New Zealand 64). Next, dial the area code and number. For example, if you wanted to call the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., you would dial 00-1-202-588-7800.
For directory assistance: The once-disastrous state of directory assistance in Egypt has undergone a miraculous transformation in recent years. Now you can dial 140 and get English-speaking directory assistance for inside Egypt that is accurate and up to date. The same service exists online at www.140online.com, but the numbers are less likely to be up to date. For business phone numbers and addresses, try www.yellowpages.com.eg. For international directory assistance, dial 144.
For operator assistance: If you need operator assistance in making a call, dial 120 if you’re trying to make an international call and 140 if you want to call a number in Egypt.
Toll-free numbers: Toll free numbers start with 0800 in Egypt. There is a partial and hard-to-search list of them on the Telecom Egypt site (www.telecomegypt.com.eg/English/Home_FindNumber_aNumSearchFreePhone.asp). Calling an 800 number in the States from Egypt is not toll-free; in fact, it costs the same as an overseas call.
In 2007, Cairo phone numbers (city code 02) were changed from 7 to 8 digits. The rule of thumb is, on the west side of the Nile (Giza, Mohandiseen, Agouza, Dokki, and so on), add a 3. On the east side of the river, and in the middle of the river (downtown, Heliopolis, Maadi, Garden City, Zamalek, and Manial), add a 2.
Meanwhile, mobile numbers are all 10 digits and do not need an area code.
The three letters that define much of the world’s wireless capabilities are GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), a big, seamless network that makes for easy cross-border cellphone use throughout Europe and dozens of other countries worldwide. In the U.S., T-Mobile and Cingular Wireless use this quasi-universal system; in Canada, Microcell and some Rogers customers are GSM; and all Europeans and most Australians use GSM. GSM phones function with a removable plastic SIM card, encoded with your phone number and account information. If your cellphone is on a GSM system, and you have a world-capable multiband phone such as many Sony Ericsson, Motorola, or Samsung models, you can make and receive calls across civilized areas around much of the globe. Just call your wireless operator and ask for international roaming to be activated on your account. Unfortunately, per-minute charges can be high — usually $1 to $1.50 in Western Europe and up to $5 in places such as Russia and Indonesia.
For many people, renting a phone is a good idea. In Egypt, you will need to buy or rent a handset, buy a phone number, and purchase a prepaid phone credit. Many five-star hotels’ business centers rent phones, too. The Conrad and the Four Seasons, for example, will supply you with a handset for around LE125 a day ($23/£12). With a perfectly functional, low-end handset running LE300 to LE600 ($55-$109/£28-£56) on the local market, however, it makes sense just to buy if you’re going to need it for more than a couple of days.
SIM cards and phone numbers can be purchased for about LE125 ($23/£12) from almost any store advertising the products of one of the three local mobile service providers: Mobinil, Vodafone, and Etisalat. You will have to give them a copy of your passport and fill out a form.
Prepaid credit, available where you buy your SIM card and phone number, comes in various denominations from LE10 to LE100, and you pay the face value of the card plus about 15%. I usually get the guys in the store to deal with the complicated business of entering the code rather than struggle with the automated voice system in Arabic. Outgoing calls are about LE0.15 (3¢/1p), and incoming calls are free.
North Americans can rent a phone before leaving home from InTouch USA (tel. 800/872-7626; www.intouchglobal.com) or RoadPost (tel. 888/290-1606 or 905/272-5665; www.roadpost.com). InTouch will also, for free, advise you on whether your existing phone will work overseas; simply call tel. 703/222-7161 between 9am and 4pm EST, or go to http://intouchglobal.com/travel.htm.
Egypt Tips for Vegetarian Travelers
Vegetarian options are becoming more common in Egyptian restaurants, but the best bet remains ordering a variety of appetizers. Between stuffed vine leaves and hummus, yogurts and cheeses, and fresh bread, a good restaurant can provide a well-balanced and filling meal. Make sure you ask before ordering the stuffed vine leaves — these are sometimes cooked with a small amount of meat inside.
One potential boon to vegetarian travelers is that the Christian community in Egypt maintains a rigorous fasting calendar. Unlike the Muslims, who abstain from food or drink during daylight hours, the Coptic community eschews meat and dairy products during their fasts. Enquire after “fasting foods” at restaurants and bakeries.
Happy Cow’s Vegetarian Guide to Restaurants & Health Food Stores (www.happycow.net) has a restaurant guide with more than 6,000 restaurants in 100 countries, though at the time of writing, it has only one, outdated, listing for Cairo. Hopefully, this will expand with reader contributions. VegDining.com (www.vegdining.com) also lists vegetarian restaurants (with profiles) around the world. Vegetarian Vacations (www.vegetarian-vacations.com) offers vegetarian tours and itineraries.
Egypt The Sinai Peninsula
The Sinai is big, and if you try to move around much, you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time waiting for buses or sitting in taxis. My advice is to figure out what you want and stay in the place that provides that for as long as your schedule will allow. If you need a laid-back resort atmosphere, then head to Dahab. If high-end resorts and nightclubs are more your speed, Sharm el Sheikh or Taba Heights will fill the bill. Unless you’re going to stay a long time, and exhaust the diving possibilities of one area and have to move on, it’s really not worth chasing your tail up and down that long hot coast looking for something better than what you’ve got.
Warning: Sinai roads, particularly on public holidays, can be lethal. Something about unpoliced blind corners brings out the very worst in Egyptian drivers, and the results speak for themselves. You’ll see wrecked cars and buses close to the edge of the road, and the odds are that you’ll also come across recent accidents on the road itself. It is, therefore, imperative that you have transport that you trust. If you drive yourself, be aware that no laws apply to, and even the laws of physics are rarely respected by, the other drivers: Don’t ever think that just because it’s a blind corner or a blind hill somebody’s going to think once, let alone twice, about passing. This isn’t a place that you want to be driving tired or under the influence. If you have a car with a driver, insist on seatbelts, and do not hesitate to tell him how to drive. Somebody has to have common sense, and it’s your life on the line as well as his. Finally, I personally avoid public minibuses; they rarely have any safety equipment at all, and the drivers have generally been scraped off the very bottom of the barrel.
2 Days for St. Catherine
Day 1 — Take the bus, or drive, early in the morning from Cairo to St. Catherine. Arriving early in the afternoon, check in and have lunch at the Monastery Guest House. If you’re feeling energetic, try a walk to one of the sites nearby, such as Wadi Ferrah and Wadi Shrayj to see the Nabatean and Byzantine ruins, and maybe spot an ibex. Check to make sure that you don’t need to go into the village to buy fresh flashlight batteries before heading back to the Guesthouse for an early dinner. This is a good opportunity to see who else is there, get to know some of your fellow travelers, and, crucially, find out what time the sunrise is going to be the next day.
Day 2 — Well before the crack of dawn — you should be on your feet and moving about 2 1/2 hours before the sun comes up — head up Mount Moussa. Pause at the foot of the mountain in the dark to get your bearings and appreciate the peculiar beauty of the scene: the line of sleepy pilgrims trudging up the slopes above you is traced by the small golden dots of their flashlights. You’ll be back down in time to breakfast at the Guest House and be at the door of the Monastery at 9am. If you’re one of the first through the door, you’ll get just a moment of seeing it without the crowds who are pressing in behind you. Grab a quick lunch at the Guesthouse, check out, and head for the coast or back to Cairo.
4 Days on The Sinai: St. Catherine and Dahab
Days 1 & 2 — Follow “2 Days for St. Catherine;” this itinerary picks up where Day 2 leaves off.
Day 2: Unwind & Plan Ahead — You’ve booked ahead at Castle Zaman, so you’re expected as you roll up to the front gate. Spend a few hours lounging by the pool and sipping cold drinks while dinner cooks. Eat fairly early — around dusk — because you have about an hour’s drive to get you down to your hotel in Dahab. (Obviously, this only works if you’ve hired a car.) Thumb through the “Active Vacation Planner”, and decide what to do tomorrow.
Day 3: Active Outdoors — Spend time today doing whatever activities you decided on last night. On a recent trip, I rented snorkel equipment from one of the many little stalls on the main street and stuffed it in my bag next to the packed lunch from my hotel. I hopped in the back of a jeep — after a 10-minute discussion on prices — for the 15-minute drive out to the Blue Hole for a long, lazy afternoon of alternately swimming with the fish and looking at the coral and lying about at one of the informal cafes chatting with slackers and hippies from every corner of the world. For dinner, try the seafood at Lakhbatita.
Day 4: Relax, Rinse & Repeat — After a late breakfast, I recommend hiring a bike and heading down to Dahab City for a bit of fun with the wind. After all that lolling about yesterday, you might want a bit of adrenalin, so you can try kitesurfing. If not, hang at your hotel, watch the waves, and do a little snorkeling.
In the late afternoon, load into a taxi and head to the airport in Sharm el Sheikh for your return to Cairo.
4 Days on The Sinai: St. Catherine & Trekking
Days 1 & 2 — Follow “2 Days for St. Catherine;” this itinerary picks up where Day 2 leaves off.
Day 2: Al Karm — Meet up with your guide, and walk from St. Catherine to Al Karm Ecolodge. It’s about 15km (9 miles) and will take you around 3 hours, getting you there well before dark (vital if you’ve elected to do this without a guide). Enjoy the sunset light on the mountains around Al Karm with tea and biscuits (the wise will have packed snacks with them). Dinner will be something tasty and filling concocted by Jamal and his associates.
Day 3: Trekking Sheikh Awad — This is a full day of trekking around the rugged valleys and hills of the Sheikh Awad area. You can consult the St. Catherine section for ideas, but the staff at Al Karm or your guide will have a much fuller menu, along with helpful ideas tailored to your fitness level and interests. Keep your eyes open for wildlife, but you’ll probably see more people than animals. Trekking on the Sinai can actually be quite a sociable activity: You’ll certainly have hours of alone time, but inevitably you’ll run across shy-but-friendly shepherds and farmers.
Day 4: Heading Back to Cairo — You have time after breakfast for another walk in the area before you head back to Cairo in the early afternoon, making sure that you arrive before dark. The traffic between the tunnel under the Suez Canal and Cairo itself, especially on a Saturday evening or at the end of any public holiday, is something to avoid after dark.