I am so glad that I have ticked Egypt off my bucket list because it’s the most symbolic of all of the ancient civilizations. The Great Pyramid of Giza, which needs no further introduction, is the only Seven Wonders of the World that is left on earth and made in the list of BOTH original and NEW Seven Wonders of the World. So for four days in Cairo, before heading to the rest of the country, there is no way not to have a pilgrimage and learn all about this fascinating site. After all, why do three pyramid-shaped pile of rocks has such significance to human culture? Let’s find out.
Something about Ancient Egypt and Cairo
Along with Mesopotamia, Egypt was one of the three early civilizations of the Old World dating back to 3150 to 30 BC. Located on the banks of the Nile, the Egyptian civilization has the oldest and richest cultural heritage that left modern-day travelers in wonder about the lives of people over 5 thousand years ago. The ancient Egyptians are known for their prodigious culture, the ever-standing pyramids, and the sphinx – the once majestic civilization was the most advanced and developed. How mummies were made, how the pyramids were built, and how they developed their sophisticated culture and social system are fascinating to me.
During my time in Egypt, I have learned so much more than mummies – the deities, the rituals, the religion, the mathematics, the medicine, the technology… have paved and shaped the world in ways that go beyond our understanding. It’s true, that there are still so many unknowns about ancient Egypt’s achievements, and we are still having discoveries that we read on the news, and from time to time, a new finding or a newly unearthed artifact may completely revolutionize the hypothesis and theories that have been established by scientists and historians who think how the ancient Egyptians had lived.
In fact, the best place to have a first-hand experience of the Ancient Eygpt world is Thebes (today’s Lxour), which is filled with temples, sacred places, and sanctuaries. These are the places the pharaohs were buried and the actions that took place. Of course, I have written a post about an itinerary in Luxor, but in Cairo, there are a few places worth visiting, especially the Egyptian Museum, which will give you an overview of the entire Empire as most of the important exhibits (including the mummies) are shown here. Besides, Cairo is now the capital city, with most of the country’s population calling this place home; don’t forget to check out some of the modern and Islamic monuments while you are in Cairo to get a full picture of Egypt’s past and present.
How to get to and get around Cairo
To dive into the spiritual journey of the Egyptian’s past, Cairo is a good place to start. The capital of Egypt is the transportation hub connecting to the rest of the world, more, this is where some of the most iconic sights are located. Cairo International Airport was called “King Farouk 1st Airport” and it’s the busiest airport, while there are some direct international flights to Hurghada (and a few from the Middle East to Luxor), the majority of the flights head to Cairo.
The following is an essential 3-day itinerary to cover some major highlights in the city before moving on to the next travel destinations in the countries.
The traffic in Cairo is horrendous. Cairo’s metro system is generally efficient and clean, you can go to the old Egyptian Museum or the Cairo Tower (the Sadat and Opera Station), yet you need to take a taxi to other places like the Great Pyramid and the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. It’s easy to get a taxi in the city, though I would suggest you not choose those older unofficial taxis or black-and-white taxi that doesn’t run on a meter (as you will need to negotiate the price for every ride, of course, you should seek help from the hotel staff or look at the fare charts to have an idea of the prices, or try your best to haggle and get down the price if you are really on a budget), instead, choose the yellow-and-white taxis, or Uber is also available.
Another way to get around in Cairo is by local tours. It takes your mind off looking for directions, while you may have less freedom of your own time – so ultimately it is your choice.
Day 1: Egyptian Museum
As I have already shared in my previous post, the Egyptian Museum is the best place to kick off. The history museum features a collection of 120,000 items from ancient Egypt, which is perfect for any foreigner to get some knowledge of what they are about to see.
Egyptian Museum is divided into sections according to ancient Egypt’s timeline from Early Dynastic, Old Kingdom, First Intermediate Period, Middle Kingdom, Second Intermediate Period, New Kingdom, to Third Intermediate Period, and so on. Each section showcased valuable artifacts and treasures from important people and events in each period. Many royal treasures can only be seen in Egypt. To me, it was fascinating to learn a few stories about pharaohs from Menes, Djoser, Khufu, Achthoes, Mentuhotep, Hatshepsut, Tutankhamen, Rameses (I, II, and III), Shoshenk I, to Nephrites I.
These figures also laid down the groundwork for many achievements in Egypt: Hieroglyphic writings were developed, Memphis was built, papyrus was invented, pyramids were erected, mummification was applied, and the Book of the Dead was created… Eventually, the empire was invaded by Libyans and Assyrians and then conquered by Persians and Alexander the Great for Greece in 332 BC.
One of the most interesting displays is the Rosetta Stone. While what is now shown in the museum is a replica, the stone is an important source for experts to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. Furthermore, check out the Gold Mask of Tutankhamun, the Limestone Statue of Djoser, the Wooden Statue of Ka-Aper, the Triad of Menhaure, the Statue of Amenhotep IV, the Limestone Head of Hatshepsut, the Statue of Khafre, and Pharaoh’s mummies.
While mummies could be found in other exhibitions all over the world, no Pharaoh’s mummy was ever shipped overseas. I was deeply impressed as the bodies were so well-preserved and I could see the pharaoh’s hair, nails, and teeth! The hair might turn yellow from the chemicals, or the skin might turn white from salt. Some of them are carefully manicured; some of them died young, and some of them reached the age of 60.
To find out the top artifacts that you have to see in Egyptian Museum – check out the Top 12 Artefacts of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.
After visiting the museum, explore the other major sights like Cairo Tower, Al-Azhar Mosque, Sultan Hassan Mosque, Museum of Islamic Art, Coptic Cairo, and Coptic Museum, or have a shopping spree in the Middle Eastern souq (bazaar). Lastly, take a dinner cruise on the Nile River before heading back and take a good rest for the next day!
Day 2: Great Pyramid of Giza
Without a doubt that the Pyramids of Giza are Egypt’s number one tourist attraction and the symbol of the country. Not to mention that the Giza pyramid complex is the oldest of the Seven Wonder of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain (at least largely intact).
Seven Wonders of the World
So what are the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World?
- Great Pyramid of Giza, El Giza, Egypt the only one that still exists.
- Colossus of Rhodes, in Rhodes, on the Greek island of the same name.
- Hanging Gardens of Babylon, in Babylon, near present-day Hillah, Babil province, in Iraq.
- Lighthouse of Alexandria, in Alexandria, Egypt.
- Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, in Halicarnassus, Achaemenid Empire, modern day Turkey.
- Statue of Zeus at Olympia, in Olympia, Greece.
- Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, in Ephesus (near the modern town of Selçuk in present-day Turkey).
New Seven Wonders of the World
Great Pyramid 101
The pyramid is a must-do attraction on everyone’s itinerary. Right on the edge of the city, on the Giza Plateau, these funerary temples (built in the 4th dynasty) have been not only a vision to visitors but also an unsolved question mark to historians and experts. Despite the heat, the dust, and the hustle, no one should miss a visit there.
The pyramids were constructed in 2600 BC. Standing at 146.5 meters tall, the Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years. You have to be there to gain a perspective of how massive they are.
As I mentioned during my visit to Egyptian Museum, it was the ancient Egyptian’s belief that they should dedicate their time and energy to the afterlife. The Pyramids are tombs (and temples), comprised of three major structures the Sphinx, temples, tombs, and more.
The largest pyramid is the Pyramid of Khufu is the largest pyramid among all three. Not long after Sneferu’s 341-foot-tall Red Pyramid was completed in Dahshur, Khufu began work on the Great Pyramid at Giza. The largest of all the tombs built in the ancient world, the Great Pyramid is the centerpiece of a complex that includes tombs for Khufu’s wives, a mortuary temple, valley temple boat pits, and a causeway. The interior of the pyramid consists of three chambers, which Visitors can explore through its narrow passages to its interior. There isn’t that much to see, except a plain tomb chamber with an empty sarcophagus. However, it is a unique experience to enter one of the most mysterious architectures in the world, and still, there are a million unknowns left to scientists and historians. Like the death of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, the hidden chamber, the Dendera light, the disappearance of Queen Nefertiti, where is the lost land of Punt and so many more… it’s up to you to explore the site and find the answers.
The other two pyramids are the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure. There is a viewpoint at the back of the complex where visitors can enjoy a breathtaking view of all three pyramids with the city’s concrete jungle as the background.
Ticket price and opening hours
General entrance includes the outdoor area and additional tickets are required for different attractions.
Giza Pyramids: 200 Egyptian Pounds
Entry to the Great Pyramid: 400 Egyptian Pounds
Entry to the second and third Pyramids: 100 Egyptian Pounds
Opening times: 9 am – 5 pm daily
Pyramids Sound and Light Show
The light show is owned by a Sound and Light Show Company which offers a learning experience about ancient Egypt and its significant beginning. The show features Egyptian Pharaohs rise to narrate their stories of reign and achievements. The price of the show costs about US$20 – step through a portal to ancient times, with the memorable Pyramids Sound and Light Show.
Interest Facts About the Pyramids
- Originally, the pyramid was covered with a well-polished casing of limestone blocks. in theory, the pyramid should have shone like diamonds under the sun and been seen from miles away.
- I have mentioned that there are only three pyramids in the complex, there’s a total of about 130 pyramids in Egypt. Only these three are the most iconic. We will cover some others the next day.
- Over 2.3 million stone blocks in the Great Pyramid are about 2.5 tons, with some of them weighing over 70 tons – imagine the elbow grease required to construct the pyramids thousands of years ago.
- The total weight of the pyramid is estimated to the 5.7 million tons – In comparison, the heaviest building in the world, the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, weighs 4.1 million tons; and Burj Khalifa, 500,000 tons.
- Having said that, the pyramid was not built by slave labor. From the historic records, the workers were actually well-paid and fed to complete the job. The workforce and materials were collected all across Egypt.
- Granite is the main material used for the Great Pyramid and it’s crucial to its success in withstanding natural erosion for thousands of years. The Egyptians learned from their past experiences that some pyramids fell apart if the stones were not cut and combined accurately. Granite is the perfect material of choice because it didn’t absorb water as many others would.
- Another important ingredient in building the pyramids is using mortar. A strong mortar was used to fix the granite in place when building the pyramids, and over 500,000 tons of mortar were used to construct the pyramids.
- The pyramids are aligned with two constellations in a north-south direction – the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper.
Move on to the Valley Temple of Khafre where the Vally Temple of Mankaure, Tomb of Queen Khentakaws, and Central Field of Mastabas and rock-cut tombs. The pharaoh-faced Sphinx is another well-known statue in the complex.
What is Sphinx? A Sphinx is a mythical creature with the head of a human, and a body of a lion with the wings of a falcon. Legend has it, that the sphinx was viewed as benevolent but having a ferocious strength, they are supposed to be the guardian of the mortuary temples. The sphinx was believed to be painted with colors, but eventually, the color has worn off.
Directly behind the Great Pyramid is the Solar Boat Museum, which displays one of the ceremonial solar barks unearthed in the area that has been painstakingly restored to its original glory.
How to see or shoot the Great Pyramids
As now you see, the Great Pyramids are so massive, you may want to look at the pyramids from a distance, check out the Panorama of the Pyramids, it is an elevated spot in the pyramid complex. There you also take funny pictures of the pyramids from many interesting perspectives.
Day 3: Saqqara and Citadel of Saladin
In the morning, we headed to the outskirt of Cairo to the Saqqara. It is a great way to get around by joining a local sightseeing tour. There’s no hassle of finding a way around, dealing with aggressive touts, and having to negotiate prices. Instead, visitors can focus on enjoying the historic sights, and learn about the history and interesting stories from the tour guides.
The Saqqara Step Pyramid is not as dramatic as the Pyramid of Giza, but it’s Egypt’s oldest pyramid, built in the Third Dynasty. The step pyramid was built for Pharaoh Djoser and it’s a prototype of the pyramids.
Apart from the Step Pyramid, explore the surrounding areas like The Tomb of Mereruka, the Funerary Complex of King Teti, and the Tomb of Kagemni.
Returning to the city, we visited an attraction in Cairo in the late period and had a glimpse into Islamic culture. The Citadel of Saladin dates back to the 12th century and is now a dedicated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The citadel was originally a medieval Islamic-era fortification, built by Salah ad-Din and further developed by subsequent Egyptian rulers. Most people come to the Citadel to see the 19th-century Muhammad Ali Mosque, which is certainly the most eye-catching piece in the fortress. Commissioned by Muhammad Ali Pasha between 1830 and 1848, this spectacular mosque was built to rival the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul.
Mohammad Ali of Egypt (Muhammad Ali Pasha al-Mas’ud ibn Agha) is an important figure and leader who is closer to the modern history of the country than a few hundred years ago. He was the Ottoman governor of Egypt from 1805 to 1848. He is regarded as the founder of modern Egypt.
The mosque was designed by a Turkish architect, Yousuf Bushnak from Istanbul, and the construction began in the year 1830. He came from Istanbul for the construction and he designed his plans based on the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque) in Istanbul.
Built by Alabaster, the exterior of the mosque was supposed to be white, yet it’s now covered with sand and dust and turned muddy! Since the sand covers the mosque so fast when the frequent storm comes, the mosque is left covered with sand and now it doesn’t look white anymore. Don’t miss going inside the citadel and admiring the huge chandelier hanging from the domed ceiling.
The grand terrace at the front of the mosque is also one of the best viewpoints in Cairo. With the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan and od Islamic Cairo directly below, visitors could see the Nile river and downtown Cairo that goes miles away. The Great Pyramid of Giza could also be seen on a clear day!
Day 4: Move on to Alexandria or the South of Egypt! 🙂
Don’t forget to spend a day in Alexandria, and check out the catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa, Serapeum and Pompey’s Pillar, Citadel of Qaitbay, and of course, Bibliotheca Alexandria.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria Egypt is one of the most fascinating architectural masterpieces of the 21st century.
Today modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina is one of the famous landmarks in Egypt everyone wants to see on their trip to Egypt. Spectacular Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria represents the revival of the Ancient Library of Alexandria. The famous Great Library of Alexandria was the largest library in the ancient world. The Ancient Library of Alexandria was the main center of knowledge in the ancient world. The library kept an impressive collection of an estimated 400.000 – 700.000 parchment scrolls from the 4th century BC until the 3rd century AD.
Contemporary Bibliotheca Alexandrina stands almost in the same place where the ancient Great Library of Alexandria stood. Oceanfront modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina was created by a Norwegian architectural firm, Snøhetta, and it was opened in Alexandria in 2002. The aim of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is to become the center of knowledge and learning in modern times, like the Great Library of Alexandria was in ancient times. Actually, Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria aims to be the world’s leading institution of the digital age. Books to Bibliotheca Alexandrina have been donated from all around the world. Modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina has the capacity to keep about 8 million books. But in accordance with the digital era, the library is not only about physical books and shelves, but also about data and digital infrastructure. The architecture of the modern library is sensational as the architecture of the ancient library was. The reading area of the main library of Bibliotheca Alexandrina has 11 levels and it covers an impressive 5 acres (2 ha) in total. The Bibliotheca holds along with the main library, six smaller specialized libraries, a planetarium, four museums, and a number of exhibition areas. In line with the modern era, the Bibliotheca has an Internet Archive and CULTURAMA Hall, and a digital library.
For a full itinerary of a day trip to Alexandria, check out An Easy One Day Trip to See the Top-Rated Attractions in Alexandria.
Travel Tips in Cairo
- US Dollars are widely used in Cairo except for public washrooms and photo shooting coupons in museums.
- Pricing is random in Cairo. Hawkers (even shops or hotels) always try to set a higher price. Street vendors come to you and yell “One dollar! One dollar!” which is almost never true, except trying to stop you on the street and make a sale; all in all, this is a city to haggle. Cut the price in half is a good starting point, and use your common sense to judge what you are buying is really worth.
- The currency exchange is closed sometimes and making money exchange quite difficult. As mentioned, US Dollars are widely accepted. Get a few loose Egyptian pounds if you have a chance, and expect to spend them all, because it would be hard to change them back to any foreign currencies afterward.
- Wi-Fi connection in the country is rather unstable, I recommend getting a pre-paid sim card if you need the Internet.
- The best month visiting Cairo is from December to February. The temperature is cooler and it’s generally less rain, making the visit much more comfortable and pleasant. July and August are extremely hot. The temperature rises up to over 30 degrees Celsius.
- Like many “lay-back” developing countries, services in restaurants and hotels could be quite inefficient. In other words, when they say “one minute”, they usually take much more time than that. So, take a deep breath and be patient since they are adapted to work at their own pace; don’t forget to gently remind them after a few minutes because they simply forget.