Difference between revisions of "Cairo"
Revision as of 17:33, 13 January 2008
Cairo (Arabic: القاهرة,al-Qāhirah) is the capital of Egypt and, with a total population in excess of 16 million people, one of the largest cities in both Africa and the Middle East (which regions it conveniently straddles) - it is also the 13th largest city in the world. Situated on the River Nile, Cairo is famous for its own history - preserved in the fabulous medieval Islamic city and in Old Cairo - and for the ancient, Pharaonic history of the country it represents. No trip to Cairo would be complete, for example, without a visit to the Giza Pyramids, to nearby Saqqara, or to the Egyptian Museum in the center of town. Though firmly attached to the past, Cairo is also home to a vibrant modern society.
NB: While al-Qāhirah is the official name of the city, in local speech it is typically called simply by the name of the country, Mişr (Arabic, مصر) pronounced Maşr in the local dialect.
Situated along the Nile, Cairo has ancient origins, located in th evicinity of the Pharaonic city of Memphis and al-fustat (today a part of Old Cairo). al-qahira, the city victorious, was founded in 969 AD, during the reign of the fatimids. Today it's a city with at least 17 million inhabitants, where the modern life of often impoverished Egyptians live side by side to world heritage.
Originally, Cairo was the designated name of the city on the western bank of the Nile, and this is where you'll find both the modern downtown, built under influence of French architecture, today the center of commerce and popular life, as well as the Islamic and Coptic sights. Also, in this part of the city you'll find the modern, more affluent suburbs of Heliopolis, Nasser City and Maadi.
In the middle of the Nile is the island of Zamalek and Jeezira, more Western and tranquile than the rest of the city. On the eastern bank is lots of modern concrete and buisness, but also the great Giza pyramids and, further to the south, Memphis and Saqqara. The city might seem like a lot to handle, but give it a try, and you might come to love it!
Getting into the country may seem like a long arduous task in and of itself but it is guaranteed that once you find out what to do, doing it isn’t nearly as difficult as it may seem. All foreign visitors must be in possession of a passport that is valid at least 6 months past the date of entry into the country. Also, all North American and European countries and some others are required to have tourist visas. For most foreign visitors the visas can be obtained trough the Egyptian consulate in your own country. If that seems like too much of a hassle then the visa can be obtained at the border in several of the Egyptian airports and is also cheaper this way. Two types of touris visas are available, single entry and multiple entries. Both allow the holder to stay for up three months. The only difference would be what is explicitly stated in the title. The multiple entry visa allows you to leave the country and return multiple times within those 3 months, a single entry does not.
Cairo International Airport (IATA: CAI), , is well served by Egyptair, the national carrier, and others such as British Airways, Air France, [KLM], Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa. Egypt Air now lands and departs from the domestic terminal, even for international flights.
Getting to downtown Cairo can be a pain. £E 40 is a good price by taxi, although it can be quite difficult to negotiate this price if you are not an Arabic speaker. Refuse to pay the "ticket" (airport parking fee) for the driver. For the adventurous, catch a public bus to Maidan Tahrir or Maidan Ramses. Walk 5 minutes out of the terminal to the big undercover bus station, and ask a local, but don't catch the notorious green buses. Rides are just under £E 2. It takes around 1 - 1.5 hours to reach downtown.
Alexandria are served by a large number of departures through the day. Among the best trains are the Espani which has a morning service from Cairo at 9am. The Espani and Turbobin are the best services, driving non-stop to Alexandria and taking 2 hours and 40 min. The next best service is al-fransawi, which stops at the major Delta cities on the road. Buy tickets one day in advance to be
The trains in Egypt don’t generally run on schedule, as a matter of fact they run consistently at least 15 minutes late, if not later. The Trains that run from Cairo/Giza in Lower to Luxor in Upper Egypt and back are overnight trains and will provide snacks and breakfasts for a small price. On theses trains there are cars designated as tourist cars and are guarded by armed plain-clothes policemen. If you happen to spot a firearm on one of these men it is hard not to initially be scared, but remember it is for your own safety. Tourism is the main source of income for the country and they guard heavily against incidents that would diminish the amount of tourists coming into the country.
Going to Upper Egypt, Luxor and Aswan, the Sleeping Trainleave Cairo 8 pm and arriving in Luxor 5.05 am and Aswan 8.15 am. Check the website for more departures, including one three days a week from Alexandria. It's relatively expensive at 60 USD for a bed in a double-person cabin one way. Tickets are bought at the office to your left as you enter the train station from the Metro and taxi station. The tickets are payable in US dollars only (there are no exchange offices at the train station itself).
Going to Upper Egypt, the alternative to the expensive sleeper (or flying) is the ordinary trains. One of these departs at 00.30 to Luxor and Aswan and is supposed to take 10 hours to Luxor and 13 hours to Aswan.
Trains also depart to the canal cities, but buses are much faster.
For those unfamiliar with Cairo traffic, one shouldn't expect to drive. The traffic is, at the least, overwhelming for the common traveler. Road signs, lanes, right-of-ways, etc. are not adhered to. The driving has a consistency, but not in any official way. Parking houses or official parking spots are rare, but many places people work to look after parked cars. A small tip is expected for this service.
Getting in and out of Cairo, the roads to and from Fayoum and the destert cities in the south-west and Alexandria, Delta and Marsa Matrouh in the north-west are through the Giza and pyramids area, the road to Beni Suueif and Upper Egypt (Aswan, Luxor) is in the south, after Maadi and Helwan. North from Heliopolis are the road to the canal cities (Port Said, Ismailiyya, Suez) and Sinai. Ein al-Sukhn and Hurghada is best reached by the tolled road after New Cairo City.
Buses arrive to Cairo from virtually all over the country. The two main destinations are Midan Ramsis and Turgoman, but vechiles also sometimes stop at other destinations, notably abbasiya. From Midan Ramses and Turgoman it's a quick 5 EP taxi cab ride to downtown, 7-10 EP to Zamalek.
The Turgoman has, from 2007, been renovated into a new, modern indoor station, close to the older one
From Turgoman, hourly services run to the canal cities (2 hrs) and Sharm al-Sheikh. To Sharm, the East Delta is taking approximately 8 hrs. The Superjet is faster, driving non-stop without a break in approximately 6 hrs. Three of the East Delta services continue to Dahab. Fares for the East Delta is approximately 80 EP for foreigners.
Services also go to Taba and Nuweiba, leaving three times daily (including one night services) with prices comparable with the services to Sharm. It takes 6 hrs all the way to Nuweiba.
To the canal cities, Port Said, Ismailiya and Suez, buses go all the time from Turgoman station, costing 20-30 EP. The travel to all destinations takes a little bit more than two hours.
Uncomfortable, but cheap, microbuses leave from Cairo to a large number of destinations. The main garages are Midan Ramsis and al-Marg metro station (for the north-east and Sinai). They are faster and might as such be an option for shorter trips, but have a terrible toll of acccidents. There are also other places these buses leave from depending on your destination, ask locals. Be aware that at least for Sinai, foreigners are prohibted to use the microbus system.
The American University in Cairo has made a good map of Cairo. It is a must-have when you want to get around on your own. CAIRO A-Z from The Palm Press offers a more detailed city map in 300 pages.
Cairo has the only metro system on the African continent, and a modern and sleek one at that. While its two lines are all too limited in scope, they're a major boon in the areas they do go to and the flat fare of 1.00 pound per trip is a steal. The key interchanges are Mubarak, at Midan Ramses, and Sadat, below Midan Tahrir.
It's also a hassle free way to get to Giza to see the pyramids, although you'll need to complete the trip taking a microbus all the way (change to microbus for "al-haram" at the end stop, Giza).
Note that the first car of each train is reserved for women.
The metro stops running at approximately 12am and starts up again around 6am. There are no routes as such, but departures are very frequent.
Plans have been made to include new routes, however, little progress seems to be made on this.
The fleet of black-and-white taxis that ply Cairo's streets are convenient but a hassle — communication can be an issue and the meters, which are heirs from antique eras of gas prices, are not normally used. Prices are, however, not erratic, and any Cairene knows how much the driver expects depending on time and distance spent in the car, and perhaps the traffic (relative to normal Cairo levels, of course). Because of a recent 20% raise in gasoline prices, prices could be slightly higher, but still very cheap for most tourists. Additionally, it is highly recommended that you have exact change before you enter a cab; drivers are reluctant if not resistant to giving change, but if you can present them with the exact amount for the journey they will more likely accede without haggling or complaint.
Ordinary Egyptians will never state prices beforehand. Instead the correct sum is payed through the window after leaving the car. Some drivers might protest as they expect tourists to pay more than the standard rates. Avoid negotiations - it takes lots of time and you end up at a price you won't like. Instead, use the "walk-away"-technique if they don't agree to your (reasonable) price. As long the driver does not leave the car, you're all right. If this happens, consult someone nearby.
As a tourist you might prefer to state a price beforehand, which may prevent ripoffs but will require you to quote slightly above the local price to get a quick nod.
Try to get a taxi on the fly instead of those loitering outside 5-star hotels and restaurants to minimize price inflation. Using a big hotel as your destination may also inflate the price. Always choose the taxi, don't let the taxi choose you.
In March 2006 a new fleet of 500 bright yellow taxis hit the road. They run on natural gas, and will soon add up to a total of 1500 cars, all equipped with air-conditioning, meters that actually work, and credit card readers. The meter starts at 3.50 LE, and then 1 LE for every additional kilometre. The drivers are not allowed to smoke in the cars. They are referred to as 'City Cabs' or Cairo Cabs', and can be a bit more expensive (and less of an adventure) than the black-and-white cabs for short hops. However, for longer distances they are the way to go for price and comfort. From within Cairo call 0104343438 - 19155.
The large red, white and blue public buses cover the entire city and are much cheaper, but are usually crowded. However, there are the similar air-conditioned buses that charge 2 L.E. for the trip and prohibit standing on the bus. They can be found in the main squares in Cairo. Also found in main squares are the smaller mini-buses that are usually orange and white or red, white and blue. Because of problems with sexual harrasment women travellers are advised only to take the small micro-buses and buses which prohibit standing.
Apart from the main bus stations, buses can be hauled down from street-level. Buses are seldom marked with destination, instead passengers shout out their destinations and if the bus goes this place it will stop. On micro-buses, the fare starts at 25 piastre and goes up to 1 EP. Travelers unfamiliar with Cairo can ask bus drivers or passengers to let them know where there stop is. Don't be shy - even if you don't speak Arabic, simply politely blurt out the name of your destination to the bus driver or a friendly looking passenger and they will take care of you.
There are a number of major bus stations (mawqaf) throughout the city. One of the largest is conveniently located behind the Egyptian Museum in Midan Tahrir. Note that there are actually two stations - the main bus station for the city buses, and the micro-bus station behind it. Travelers who want to visit the Pyramids, for example, can catch a seat in a micro-bus for approximately 2 pounds. The micros in the last lane to the right all go to the pyramids - just ask for "haram."
There are also bus stations in Midan Ramses, under the overpass. Buses run from Ramses to Heliopolis, City Stars Mall and other destinations not covered by the Tahrir bus station.
Feluccas are great for leisurely ride down the Nile.
From the airport
The airport is located on the north-eastern outskirts of the city at Heliopolis. To get into downtown Cairo you can get a fixed-price limousine (60 EP) or negotiate a lower price with one of the small black taxis. You could negotiate down to as little as 40 EP. Back from the city a normal price would be 20-30 EP, depending on the traffic.
CityStars is the latest landmark in Cairo and consists of three international hotels including 1500 room accommodation options, shopping and entertainment centre, a medical centre, office and residential towers.
The complex's shopping mall includes 550 shops and outlets. These include Spinneys, Mango, Billabong, Quicksilver, Levi's, and a Virgin Megastore. The restaurants and cafes in Stars Centre include Chili's, Fuddruckers, McDonald's, KFC, Hardee's, Starbucks, Rainforest Cafe, Go Wok, and Cinnabon. The mall also includes a 21 screen cinema complex.
Stars Capital, the business portion of the complex, houses Egyptian branches of various International companies including Cisco Systems, Orange Business Services, British American Tobacco, Maersk, CMA CGM and others.
Music and Culture
If you have professional qualifications you could find possibilities for work in Cairo. Try the English weekly's al-ahram and al-waseet.
ATMs are conveniently located in various places throughout downtown. A more secure option are the ATMs in the five star hotels (the Nile Hilton, the Semiramis Intercontinental, etc.).
When lookıng at shops in this market, be ready to encounter merchants who will try to lure you even before you think about seeing items in those shops.
Fair Trade Cairo (in Zamalek) is a great shop selling high quality crafts made by local artisans. There is Nomad that has a small, charming showroom in Zamalek, as well as Nagada and Khan Misr Taloun.
In general, downtown is good for budget eating, while for higher quality eating you should head to Zamalek, Mohandesin or any of the other more affluent parts of town. Most guidebooks and food critics agree that Cairo is not a great culinary destination. Ingredients are often low quality, and even the "best" restaurants might serve questionable dishes. That said, there are still a few good places to eat.
For those with a greater interest in Cairo's culinary life, look for Cairo Dining, a magazine with a half-yearly update of 1000 Cairo restaurants (and places to go out) sorted by price, kind of food and area. It is sold in chain cafes like Cilantro and Beanos. Otlob.com delivers food from a large number of Cairo restaurants, and is also practical because it offers a list of restaurants by type of food, area, and even covers menus, conveniently all in English. Almost all but the highest quality Cairo restaurants offer delivery or takeout.
Egyptian and oriental food
Traditional Egyptian staples are available almost everywhere. In stalls and street restaurants you will find traditional dishes like foul (bean paste), taamiyya (falafel), muzagga'a (spicy aubergines) kushari (macaroni, lentils, chick peas, and sometimes a tomato sauce), fatayeer (Egyptian pancakes with different fillings) and shawarma (a recent import from Lebanon and Syria — pieces of roasted meat usually wrapped in bread). Cheaper places will only serve up vegetables and maybe beef hot dogs or corned beef. Eggs, fried potatoes and salads are also usually available. Hygiene varies wildly and the best advice is to go for the most visited places. Avoid empty outlets as the food will be less fresh. Especially downtown you can find many good Kushari outlets.
In the medium and upper price range your choice of traditional Egyptian food will be more limited. Although the situation is improving, traditionally Egyptian gastronomical experiences are still mostly restricted to private homes. Quality chain restaurants like Felfela (several outlets) and Abou Sid (Zamalek, Maadi and Doqqi) offer authentic Egyptian food. Otherwise Arabic and oriental restaurants tend to mix styles or completely go for more Lebanese-style eating, considered more stylish by rich Cairenes. The good side of this is that Cairo is blessed with many quality Lebanese outfits, from chains like Dar al-Qamar to stylish restaurant establishments. Additionally, Turkish food and restaurants catering to gulf visitors can be found.
Western and Asian food
Cairo has a growing number of Western fast food outlets available - these are, incidentally, some of the best places to see young Cairenes relaxing together, as fast food restaurants are apparently considered amongst the hippest places to hang out. McDonalds, Hardees, Pizza Hut and KFC are spread about the city. There is also a cute TGI Friday's on the nile banks at the entrance of Maadi, serving beer but no wine. For burgers, you can also try the Fudd Rocker's (Maadi and Mohandesseen) or the Lucile in Maadi (Street n° 9) held by an american woman. A funny italian place is the Mint in Mohandesseen, boasting a very stylish interior, however it's alcohol free... Lighter meals like sandwiches and salads as well as pastries can be found in western-style bakeries and cafes. Popular chains like Cilantro and Beanos and The Mariott Bakery as well as individual outlets all offer more or less similar dishes. Most of these places also offer wireless internet. If it's more stylish international dining you're into, Cairo offers a wide variety: Italian, Chinese and Japanese outlets in addition to the ambigious continental cooking abound, especially in areas like Zamalek, Mohandesin and Dokki.
Hygiene and diet issues
For health reasons it is advisable not to drink tap water or eat unpeeled fresh fruits and vegetables -- at least for the first few days of the visit. There are few solely vegetarian options, L'aubergine in Zamalek is a good restaurant for vegetarian food. Otherwise, Egyptian cuisine is dominated by vegetable courses, but be aware of "hidden" meat in stock, sauces and the like. One should also be cautious about sushis or ice creams sold outside of main hotels...
The Metro chain and Alfa Market in Zamalek are convenient supermarkets. Otherwise vegetables and fruit are plentiful and cheap. Bakeries like The Bakery chain sell western-style bread and pastries. Organic food is available at Sekem in Zamalek.
By far the cheapest and most satisfying option, buying from Souks and outdoor markets makes for a crash course in Arabic and haggling, not to mention that the produce is often superb! Bread can be found on nearly every corner and comes in two types - whole wheat "aysh baladi" and white flour "aysh shami." Both are baked fresh daily and delivered by thousands of kids on bicycles to every corner of the city. Every neighborhood has a few streets dedicated to produce and other goods.
Small bakeries or "furuns" sell every kind of baked good imaginable - ranging from Italian style bread sticks with nigella and sesame seeds to croissants, donuts and anything with dates in it. Fresh goods from these bakeries offers a nice alternative to the standard Egyptian breakfast of beans, beans, beans.
Cairo has a wide range of drinking options from the very traditional to fashionable and modern. At the other end of the scale, almost any street in Cairo has a traditional coffee house, ´ahwe, a traditionally male institution of social life tracing many hundreds of years back in history. Besides that you'll find everything from fruit stalls to patisseriés and bakeries and modern cafés whipping up all varieties of modern European coffee. In addition to the traditional Turkish coffee and shai, tea, virtually everywhere you'll find drinks like hibiscus tea, kerkedeeh, served warm or cold depending on season, sahleb, a coconut drink usually served in winter, fakhfakhenna (a kind of fruit salad), sugarcane juice, mango and tamarind juice, Tamr hindi.
Traditional Coffee Houses
Cairo remains one of the best cities in the world to sample the traditional coffee house culture of the region. They are called maqhâ in Standard Arabic, but in the local dialect this is turned into ´ahwa. The Turkish coffee remains an invariable ingredient in any Cairene coffee house, and water pipe, shisha, and tea is even more popular. While considered "old fashioned" for a time, these places are again turning fashionable among younger crowds and even smoking a waterpipe, sheesha, is no longer male-only. Places vary from just a small affair--plastic chairs and tables put out on the street--to more elaborate cafes especially in upscale and tourist areas.
Turkish coffee (´ahwe turki) is served either sweet (helwa), medium sweet (masbout), with little sugar (sukr khafeef) or no sugar (sâda). Sweet means very sweet. Tea (shai) is served either as traditional loose tea (kûshari, not to be confused with the cairo macaroni-rice stample kushari), known as dust tea in English, or in a tea bag. Most coffee shops usually offer fresh mint leaves to put in your tea, upon request. A range of soft drinks are usually available. Most typically you will find hibiscus tea, served warm in the winter season and hot during the warmer parts of the year.
During the hot Cairo summer, fruit stalls selling fresh juice (and occasionally fruit salads and other soft drinks) are a blessing. Basically these places sell fresh-pressed juice of whatever is in season. Typical choices include orange (bortoqâl), lemon (limon), mango (manga) and strawberry (farawla). Prices and quality depend on season and availability. These places are spread out around the city and available almost all the places tourists typically visit. Traditional coffee houses or fruit juice stalls might sell all or some of these drinks.
Modern cafes and pastry shops
Modern cafes and pattiseriés are spread out around the city. Typically they serve light food like sandwiches and salad in addition to espresso-based coffees and pastries. Many of these places are chains, like Cilantro, Beanos, Cinnabon, Orangette, The Bakery and Coffee Roastery. Most of these places, including all the chains mentioned above, offer wireless internet connection as well. International Chains such as Costa Coffee and Starbucks are also widely available throughout Cairo.
Cairo has a tremendous range of accommodation, from low-rent budget hotels downtown to five-star palaces along the Nile.
See individual district articles for hotel listings
The main post office of Cairo is located on Midan Ataba (open 7am - 7pm Sa - Th, 7am - 12 noon Fr and holidays). The poste restante office is to be found along the side street to the right of the main entrance to the post office and through the last door (open 8am - 6 pm Sa - Th, 10am - 12 noon Fr and holidays) - mail will be held for 3 weeks.
There are two kind of mail boxes for international and domestic use. They are typically found on the street in pairs, coloured red and blue. It is said that your mail will be delivered no matter which one you use.
The Internet is rapidly growing in Cairo as in many other Egyptian and Middle Eastern cities. There is now a profusion of established internet cafés and venues, with many more opening for business each month. A growing number of cafés provide wireless internet service (Cilantro, Beanos and MacDonalds are some of the chains which offer WiFi for free - consult district guides for suggested venues). Luxury hotels often provide WiFi at a premium.
An hour in a downtown net cafe will set you back 3-5LE.
If you have access to a traditional telephone line in Cairo, then you will be able to access the internet through dial-up connection for free by dialing 0777 XXXX numbers.
You can walk around the main streets anytime you feel like roaming. It's fairly safe and you will always find lots of people around smiling and offering to help. It is preferable for women not to walk alone. You should bear in mind that around the more touristy locations there is an abundance of 'helpful' people, but be careful who you go with and under no circumstance let anyone push or guide you anywhere you don't want to go! If you get lost look for the security and Police Officers, many speak a little English, and most know their local area very well, as well as the tourist spots.
Egypt is a predominatly Muslim country so say nothing that might be perceived as an insult to Islam or the Egyptian culture. Women should wear modest clothing. Do not enter a mosque with shoes on. This is extremely disrespectful. Do not make any comments on Egyptian "heroes" like Gamal Abdul Nasser because you might end up in a heated argument.