Essential Egypt in 9 days - Part I: Arrival and first impressions of Cairo

Land of the Pharaohs, the Great Pyramid of Giza and some of the most impressive ancient temples, everyone has dreamed at some point of visiting Egypt.

For my trip, I decided to join the Essential Egypt tour with Travel Talk Tours, a fascinating journey through time and one of the most incredible civilisations of the history of mankind. Here is an overview of my itinerary and my first impressions of the city of Cairo!


How to visit Egypt

 

Visiting Egypt had been my dream for years. Now that the political situation has stabilised in the country after the Arab Spring, I felt that this was the right time to make my dream come true.

When I started organising my trip, I soon realised that the infrastructure in Egypt is just not good enough to organise a 9-day visit on your own relying on public transport. Additionally, with thousands of years of history and mythology that have changed the course of the world, visiting Egypt on your own without a guide that can explain the fascinating stories behind the constructions and temples that you’re seeing is just not worth it.

Pyramids of Giza

When I travel, I always like organising the trip myself without a tour operator. I don’t mind booking a guided tour every now and then, as having transportation organised for you and a guide that gives you the insight of what you’re seeing is actually not that bad. But travelling for an entire week in an organised trip is something that I hadn’t done in years.

Since I didn’t have many options without an organised trip, I started researching online and soon came across a tour operator called Travel Talk Tours. A friend that had travelled with them had already talked to me very positively about them, and after reviewing their itineraries and getting in touch with them, I decided to book their Essential Egypt Tour.

Travel Talk Tours specialises in guided tours at very competitive prices, not only in Europe but also in multiple locations around the Mediterranean Sea. Something that I especially liked about them is that they focus on budget travellers and backpackers in their twenties or early thirties. Most of them seem to come from Australia or New Zealand and are based in the UK. The fact that I’d be travelling with a group of people around my age was something that especially caught my attention.

Being 100% honest: the tour was absolutely fantastic. The itinerary was more than perfect, the guide was incredibly knowledgeable and I had the most fantastic group of people. Overall, the quality of the transportation, hotels and restaurants was of very high standards considering their competitive prices. But, what exactly did my visit consist of?

 

Essential Egypt Tour

 

My tour lasted for a total of 9 days and covered the main highlights of Egypt from north to south. They offer 3 slightly different versions of the tour and, even though you’ll be in the same group for the most part of it, at some points some members of the group were split up depending on their itinerary.

The itinerary itself is the same in all three options, the main difference is the method of transportation. I went for the Essential Egypt tour, which did everything by road on a very comfortable bus.

An alternative and the most popular option was the Felucca Odyssey; the itinerary was the same as mine, but when we arrived in Aswan, some members of the group slept in a traditional felucca for a couple of nights, while I stayed in a hotel. Since I went in June with temperatures that reached 47 degrees, I was very happy with my choice and the comfort of the hotel. I have to say that everyone loved the felucca ride, so if you’re a bit more adventurous or are travelling with more bearable temperatures, this sounds like a fantastic alternative.

The last option was the Jewels of the Nile cruise tour. The itinerary was also pretty much same, but in Aswan, instead of sleeping in a hotel, you take a cruise for a couple of days that brings you back to Luxor, where you meet again with the rest of the group. Only a couple of people in my group went for this option, which seems to be catered for couples rather than solo travellers or friends travelling together.

My tour lasted a total of 9 days and the itinerary was the following:

  • Day 1 – Arrival in Cairo. Free time until 6 pm, when we gathered at the hotel for a briefing meeting.

  • Day 2 – Pyramid of Sakkara and Great Pyramids of Giza. Afternoon drive and overnight in Luxor.

  • Day 3 – Visit to the West Bank of the Nile and the Valley of the Kings, as well as the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Drive to Aswan for overnight stay.

  • Day 4 – Optional morning visit to Abu Simbel, followed by a tour of the High Dam and Philea Temple.

  • Day 5 – Brief ride in a felucca sailboat to see the Elephantine and Kitchener Islands from the distance. After the river excursion, free day in Aswan.

  • Day 6 – In the morning, drive back to Luxor visiting Edfu and Komombo temples on the way.,

  • Day 7 – Visit of Karnak Temple on the East Bank of the Nile of Luxor and drive back to Cairo.

  • Day 8 – Cairo City Tour, visiting the Egyptian Museum, the Citadel of Saladin with the Mosque of Mohamed Ali. In the afternoon, visit to the Hanging Church and Kahn el-Khalili bazaar. In the evening, optional sound and light show at the Pyramids of Giza.

  • Day 9 – End of the tour with Travel Talk Tours. This day, I had a full day trip to Alexandria with Egypt Day Tours before my midnight flight back home.

 

Travel Talk Tour group


Day 1: Arrival in Cairo

 

I landed in a very deserted Cairo airport at around 2 am. A Talk Travel Talk representative would pick me up at the airport to bring me to my hotel, so I headed straight to get my visa and to my surprise, he was waiting for me before immigration.

After welcoming me to Egypt, he took my documents and the money for the visa ($25) to get everything sorted for me while I waited at the very short immigration line. Most nationalities can obtain a visa on arrival, so all you need to do is go to the visa counter before joining the immigration line and pay for it there.

Just before it was my turn for the passport check, the representative came with my tourist visa ready and we went to hand my documents to the immigration officials. The entire process was extremely quick and easy, which was appreciated after a long flight!

 

Views of Cairo

 

Leaving the terminal was like entering a sauna, it was 38 degrees at 3 am! I didn’t even want to think what it would be like in the middle of the day. A short 30 minutes ride brought me to The Oasis Hotel Pyramids, where I would be staying during my time in Cairo.

After checking in and waking up my poor roommate in the middle of the night, I went straight to bed as I only had a few hours to sleep before waking up early to explore the city of Cairo after breakfast.

 
 The Oasis Hotel Pyramids

The Oasis Hotel Pyramids

 

I slept for less than 5 hours before I woke up to enjoy a delicious breakfast and got ready to head to Cairo. I had to be back at the hotel at 6 pm for a briefing meeting with our guide, so I wanted to explore the city to make the most out of my short time in the Egyptian capital.

Right when I was ordering a taxi, my worst nightmare happened: my phone died and there was no way to turn it back on. This kind of ruined my plans as I wouldn’t be able to use Uber or even check Google maps, so exploring Cairo was pretty much impossible.

One of the representatives of Travel Talk Tours was leaving the hotel, so offered to bring me to Cairo and I could then get a taxi in the street to get back to the hotel. I haven’t explored a city without using Google maps in years, but I didn’t want to waste more time so I got into his car and he drove me all the way to Tahrir Square.

 

Tahrir Square

 

My first impressions of Cairo were quite mixed. While I was incredibly excited to be in such an iconic city, I had never been in such a dusty, chaotic and dirty place. The dust was so bad that you couldn’t see the skyline or even the buildings around you. The city was also quite littered with trash on both sides of the road and tons of plastic bags flying around.

Exploring Cairo without a map was a very interesting experience. Before leaving, the representative gave me some directions to some points of interest and I convinced myself that I could actually get there without getting lost.

My visit took place right after the end Ramadan, which is a national holiday, so the streets were quite deserted and all the stores were closed. I walked around for a while, trying to find some of the mosques that I wanted to visit, but of course it didn’t take me too long to get lost.

 

Mohamed Naguib Square

Opera Square

St. Joseph Catholic Cathedral

 

I did see some interesting architecture while I was wandering around, but I was unable to find any of the mosques that I had previously marked on my map.

After asking for directions and being ‘offered help’ twice only to be brought to someone’s store, I went into a hotel and got a map of the city.

It goes without saying that I haven’t used a paper map pretty much since I was a teenager, so it was completely useless. I had no idea where I was, the map was written in Italian and missing many of the points of interest that I wanted to see in that area, so I gave up and got a taxi to go to Khan el-Khalili bazaar and the Muslim Quarter.

 

An unusually empty Khan el-Khalili bazaar

 

My tour already included a visit to the Khan el-Khalili bazaar on the last day, so considering that it was a public holiday that day and most of the stores were closed, I didn’t pay much attention to it. I was more interested in visiting some of the mosques that can be found in the narrow lanes.

My first stop was the small and underwhelming Al-Ashraf Mosque, a historical mosque and madrasa located in the famous Muizz Street. Built at the beginning of the 15th century, it was established by Sultan Barsbay.

As soon as I got in, one of the helpful keepers insisted to show me around and opened a couple of doors for me so that I could see some of the hidden parts of the complex. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand anything of what he was enthusiastically trying to explain, but of course, I had to leave a small tip at the end.

 

Al-Ashraf Mosque

 

The most impressive monument that I saw during my first day in Cairo was the Sultan Qalawun Complex, an architectural ensemble located at Al-Moez Ledin Allah street. Sultan Al-Mansour Qalawun Al-Salhi is one of the most famous sultans of the Bahari Mamluk sultanate, who finished this complex in 1285 AD above the western Fatimid palace ruins. 

The complex consisted of a bimarstan (hospital) used to treat the patients. It had doctors and pharmacists in all specialities. 

It also containes the sultan’s burial dome, which represents one of the most beautiful remaining Mamluk era domes in Cairo. It reflects the finest decorative elements in wood, marble, stucco and coloured glass. 

There is also an educational school with a middle courtyard surrounded by four lawns to teach the four doctrines of Islam, in addition to holding the prayers. Finally, the high minaret, one of the largest minarets built in Egypt. 

 

Outside of the complex

Decorations in the inside

 Interior of the complex

Interior of the complex

Courtyard

Mihrab

 Minarets

Minarets

 

On the way north and located in the middle of the street is the beautiful Sabil-Kuttab of Katkhuda building, which comprises a fountain on the outside, a kuttab of Quran school in the second floor and a residential wing.

It was built in the 18th century by an Egyptian architect and has been considered one of the treasures of the Ottoman architecture.

 

Sabil-Kuttab of Katkhuda

 

Another major tourist attraction is the Mosque of al-Hakim, famous for the beautifully ornamented minarets on either side of the facade, which remind to the propylon of the pharaonic temples.

The mosque is named after the sixth Fatimid caliph and the 16th Ismaili Imam. During the centuries, it served multiple different purposes: from a prison during the Crusades and a stable during the Saladin times, to a fortress during Napoleon’s stay in Egypt.

Today it is a very prominent Islamic place and it was packed with worshippers during my visit.

 
 Mosque of al-Hakim

Mosque of al-Hakim

Garden outside the mosque

Interior of the Mosque of al-Hakim

 

At the end of Muizz street I reached Bab al-Futuh, one of the three remaining gates in the walls of Cairo that give access to the Old City. Built in 1087, it has two 23m high flanking towers with rounded fronts, decorated with an arched panel on the front and sides.

After the Muslim quarter, I had originally planned to visit the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan and Mosque of Ibn Tulun. But, without my phone, I didn’t even remember the name of the mosques and of course I didn’t have access to a map in order to get there. With big regret and no other option or place to go, I decided that it was time to get another taxi back to The Oasis Hotel Pyramids.

 

Bab al-Futuh

 

At 6 pm the entire group got together to meet each other as well as our guide. Our guide’s name was Mostafa, and he went with us through the entire itinerary, as well as some very helpful tips that would come up very handy during our stay in Egypt, including security, money exchange or how to haggle at the bazaar.

We were offered an optional group dinner on a cruise that included some live music. Since this was a great opportunity to get to meet the other members of the group, I decided to go for it. Being honest, the cruise was a bit of a tourist trap with a buffet-style dinner that wasn’t the best I had during my stay in Egypt.

Belly dancer

The views from the cruise were pretty much non-existent, as the banks of the Nile weren’t light up at night. I spent most of the time inside watching the live show, which consisted of a karaoke-style singer that at one moment could be singing traditional Egyptian music and at the other would be singing Elvis or La Bamba and Despacito in a very questionable Spanish. It was followed by a fake whirling dervish that also did some juggling during his performance, as well as a belly dancer that was pretty decent.

The entire experience was quite bizarre, but I had to admit that it was kind of fun after a few beers and a great opportunity to bond with the rest of the group.

It was time to head back to our hotel and get some rest, as the next morning was when our tour of Egypt would really start. Due to the extreme temperatures and enormous distances, our day would always start extremely early in the morning, having to wake up by 5 am or 6 am most days.

I couldn’t be more excited as our first day would start with the big highlight of any visit to Egypt: the step pyramid of Sakkara and the three pyramids of Giza.

 

All opinions are my own.


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