A holiday to Egypt is a dive into ancient history like nowhere else on the planet. It’s suspending your disbelief and embracing the country’s mystical, dark and fascinating past – it’s staring at ancient hieroglyphs, tiptoeing around historical ruins, chugging down the Nile on timeworn boats and immersing yourself into Egyptian culture. Here are some things to note before your stay.
Tourism in Egypt
It’s been a tricky few decades for the tourism industry in Egypt with terrorist attacks and political instability putting off UK tourists from the country’s towns, cities and popular beach resorts, but Egypt is slowly finding its feet again with more and more people returning to the capital of the ancient world, and for good reason. The treasures to unearth here are innumerable and of the thousands of tourists who holiday in Egypt every year the vast majority do so safely and without incident. Tourism buoys up the Egyptian economy and the recent upturn in visitors is a welcome relief to the locals who rely on the income of travellers.
Staying in Cairo
With its noisy streets and erratic nature, Cairo can be a serious shock to the system to the uninitiated. If your trip to Egypt includes a stay in the modern megalopolis, beware of traffic – no crossings or lights add up to pure chaos on the roads with lots of beeping and a hairy hold-onto-your-hat experience attempting to cross even the smallest of roads. Your best bet is to put your life in a Cairene’s hands, who will no doubt dodge the constant stream of cars and bikes like a pro – sneaking between bumpers until the salvation of the pavement.
If you’re heading to the oldest part of the city, Coptic Cairo, there’s no need to take risks as the subway – a calm, cheap and efficient way to get around – leads directly from Tahrir Square to its centre. Taxis are an alternative mode of transport and there are plenty you can hail from the street. Some older cars don’t have meters and unlike in other European countries where the price is set at the start of the journey, in Cairo, taxi drivers often impose their price on arrival at your destination, which inevitably causes disputes. Stand firm and attempt to negotiate the price down or better still, don’t get in an unmetered taxi in the first place as a new wave of white, metered taxis will ensure a stress-free journey.
In Egypt most prices are negotiable, especially when you’re in a bazaar or market. As a rule of thumb, begin bartering at around 40% below the asking price and go from there. That said, there are fixed-price shops in towns and cities, but if you’re after a quirky Egyptian souvenir from a street seller or art from a local craftsman, you’ll undoubtedly have to put your bargaining hat on.
Egypt is the kingdom of tipping (or ‘baksheesh’ in Arabic) and you’re likely to receive many requests for tips during your holiday. Anyone who has provided you with a service will expect a tip: drivers, guides, porters, housekeeping staff and food servers. It’s wise to always carry small change with you to ensure a smooth tipping process.
There are one or two tourist-targeted scams to be aware of during your Egypt travels, especially around the biggest tourist hotspots. Unsolicited guides are one of the most common – someone at the entrance to an attraction will ask you to show your ticket, not return it and take you on a shoddy tour before asking for payment. Make sure you only show your ticket at official checkpoints. Many fake wares are also sold, from antiques to jewellery and everything in-between – if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is, so only buy in speciality stores if you’re looking to bring home something more than a simple trinket or bowl.
Religion and Culture
The vast majority of the Egyptian population is Muslim and as such be sure to respect the conservative culture with modest clothing – cover arms, legs and chests when in public. Follow the advice of your guide for dressing appropriately at different times as there are places where the dress code is more relaxed.
Egypt is a magical window into the past – with its ancient wonders, cities that bustle with life and an endless opportunity for adventure, a trip here is definitely one to add to your bucket list.
The month of Ramadan brings with it changes in the rhythm of local life. An Egyptian Muslim will not be shocked to see a traveller enjoying lunch, but it’s respectful to refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in public during the day. Life is generally slow until midday, but the evenings, marked by the breaking of the fast, have a unique, jovial atmosphere. It’s worth noting there are modified schedules for museums, shows and bazaars throughout Ramadan, although most restaurants and hotels remain open and follow their usual pace. The end of Ramadan is marked with Eid, three days of festivals where schedules can also often change.
Read: The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz, an epic saga of life in early 20th-century Egypt.
Watch: The Land (1970), by celebrated Egyptian director Youssef Chahine and featured at Cannes.
Listen: To anything by Umm Kulthum, the queen of tarab - traditional Arabic folk music.