A friend once asked me what my least favorite city was. The answer was easy: chaotic Cairo. But I wanted to give it another chance, as I first visited when I was a very young, naive traveler. Now, with nearly 70 countries under my belt, I wanted to go back and give it another chance. The verdict: first impressions are often spot on.
6 reasons not to linger in Cairo
1. Everything is a scam.
The term, “there’s so such thing as a free lunch” must have been invented by the Egyptians. Cairo requires you to be on your tightest guard as a traveler. Beyond the usual developing world travel concerns such as petty theft, you have to view any approach by a local in Cairo as an attempt to extract money from you. Even the most innocuous of approaches are usually set ups to get you into a shop, where the shopkeeper will use your good manners and intentions against you. Talk about hospitality and welcoming a guest give way to guilt-laden sales pitches. They are expert at leveraging a traveler’s desire not to be rude into a pressured sale of some kind.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, politely but firmly insist you have somewhere else to be, and leave.
2. It’s one of the most pedestrian unfriendly cities on Earth.
I love to walk around a city and explore it organically. It’s fun to stumble into random neighborhoods and discover restaurants, museums and green spaces. Cairo is one of the most difficult cities to get around on foot. It’s not just its sheer size, a la Beijing or Los Angeles, it’s the total lack of sidewalks and pedestrian infrastructure. Crossing the road to the river side of the Nile Corniche is a very real exercise in taking your life into your hands. The only saving grace here is that traffic is often so bad that it provides a semi-safe opportunity to cross the street when it backs up.
3. Getting around takes a long time.
The traffic jams mentioned above are epic, making rush hour in Southern California look like child’s play. Although one can’t help but think they bring this upon themselves by disregarding any sort of rules of the road, opting instead for aggressive maneuvering and games of chicken with oncoming traffic.
A journey that would take 10 minutes in London will take at least 30 in Cairo, so plan accordingly.
4. Cairo isn’t the friendliest of cities.
Language barriers aside, Cairo doesn’t feel like a welcoming city for foreign tourists. Even with destinations written in Arabic, cab drivers seldom know where to go. Any apparent friendliness by locals is usually in the guise of getting you to buy something (see item 1) which makes it hard to enjoy a place when everyone wants something from you. And don’t forget the constant, incessant demands for baksheesh (tips).
5. There aren’t that many interesting things to do.
This depends on what you like to do in a city, of course. Aside from a day trip to Giza to see the Pyramids (which are awesome, impressive and well worth your time) there isn’t much to do in Cairo itself, beyond a couple of interesting museums and a Nile cruise. Since the city is not set up for pedestrian exploration and getting around takes so much time, it’s an exhausting process just to see a couple sights in a day. And a day is about all you will need or want.
6. Cairo’s environment feels oppressive.
And I’m not talking about the tanks in Tahrir Square. I’m talking about the constant haze of pollution that hangs over the city, obscuring blue sky and clear air. The pollution levels are choking in this Arab metropolis, yet another reason why exploring on foot is a dubious proposition. The contrast to Alexandria’s beautiful skies and fresh air is a stark one.
If you’re traveling to Egypt you won’t be able to avoid Cairo entirely. Both the largest international airport and the Pyramids are there, so you’ll need to spend a night or two. See the attractions, but don’t linger – to the north, beautiful Alexandria awaits on the Mediterranean coast, and to the south Luxor and Aswan have many charms and attractions.
Have you been to Cairo? What were your thoughts and impressions? Am I dead wrong or on the right track?