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In city as large as Cairo there are many options for accommodations. My research had led me to the decision to stay in the downtown area and to seek out a hotel with the room with a view of the Nile River. I also look for rooms with two queen sized beds, or better, that includes breakfast. I found all these things and booked us at the Intercontinental Semiramis.
This is not my preferred type of hotel, but I’m really glad I went with the larger hotel given that it was Ramadan and the smaller hotels would have no food or beverage service during the day. Having some services available, plus the swimming pool, always a hit with kids, was key. For these reasons the hotel was a good choice, even if it wasn’t exotic, luxurious, quaint or fresh. I will say the breakfast buffet was fabulous!
The kids and I checked in that morning without a hitch. We spent just 30 minutes for our room (we arrived before checkin) in the bar lounge area in the hotel, overlooking the Nile. I kept looking at that river in disbelief. It really was the Nile, the world’s longest river! Flowing north, originating in southeast Africa, my favorite part of the world, the river was a lynchpin in Egypt’s development throughout history.
We were jetlagged so we took it easy. Of course, the kids wanted to go right away to the pool. No surprise. It wasn’t my first choice, it usually isn’t. But I thought having some time in the sunshine would do us good. It was cooler here than in Thailand by about ten degrees, a pleasant 80 degrees F. I had no plans of spending the entire day in the hotel since, it was my birthday! The kids promised me a night on the town if that’s what I wanted. LOL! How is that going to work?
Well we did go out for a couple hours, my plan only somewhat thwarted by Ramadan. Come 5pm everything, and I do mean everything, shuts down as Muslims head home for Iftar, the breakfast. Things come back to life again about 7:30 but that meant I missed the chance to take the felucca ride on the Nile. My plan was to celebrate my birthday with a sail on the small traditional wooden boat. Oh well. Plan B. Let’s take a walk over the bridge to Zamalek and we’ll pretend we are on a photo safari! Sounded good to me. Ends up we bargained for a ride on a horse and buggy that took us around town. Check out my post on that to learn about our adventure.
We returned to the hotel for some food and to wait for my husband’s much anticipated arrival. The kids hadn’t seen their dad in nearly five weeks so they were jumping out of their skin with excitement. They insisted on waiting in the lobby, texting him with questions about how much longer it would be. Finally he came through the door and the mobbed him, “Daddy!” was the first word. A constant stream of many more words ensued as they attempted to recount every detail of everything they’d seen and done.
“Guys, give your dad a break!” my words fell flat. All was right in their world again. And I got the best birthday present ever.
I wanted to hit the ground running and decided touring Cairo with our guide was the perfect introduction. I love hiring local guides because you learn so much more about where you are. Once again we had our history professor for the day, Adel, from Egypt Tailor Made. And when I say professor I mean it; a certified Egyptologist who had done two years of post-graduate work in history. Also a Muslim, he enlightened us on all things Islam. We talked about everything under the sun and loved it!
Not far from our hotel, we began at the Egyptian Museum, a must see in Cairo. Although the artifacts it contains are world-class and priceless, the largest collection in the world, the museum itself is poorly lit and not modern. So in my opinion to get the most out of it, hire a guide. Adel took us through thousands of years of history, teaching us, telling stories and answering questions. Around every corner we kept having to remind ourselves that we were really seeing all the things we’d only read about in books. It was truly amazing.
We spent the rest of our day exploring a few of Cairo’s well-known sites. We explored the Coptic section of the city and learned its Christian history. This was particularly interesting to us because we are Christians and know the history of Egypt’s importance in our religion. We were able to visit the church on the site where the holy family stayed during their time in Egypt. There is still a small percentage of people who are practicing Christians in Egypt today.
[St. Mary’s Orthodox Coptic Church aka the Hanging Church]
[St. Georges Greek Orthodox Church and Abu Serga Chruch, the underground site of the holy family’s hiding]
There may be fewer Jews in Egypt now, but there are some and we also visited the Ben Ezra Synagogue, the site where they believe Moses prayed to God asking for his guidance while leading God’s people in, and out of, Egypt. You are not allowed to take photos in the synagogue, or I would have also included them here. It was very special to sit in that building and imagine all those who had gone before us, standing on that very ground. It was enough to bring tears to your eyes!
Finally we explored the Islamic Cairo. One of my favorite streets, also one of the oldest in all of Cairo, was El Moez. It was nearing dusk, the time of day when there is a feverish buzz of activity to prepare for Iftar. Typically the women begin preparations for the meal about 3pm, cooking and baking. Sellers were putting put out fresh pita, fruit and vegetables as people headed home to their families while others closed up shop. Ramadan is as much about prayer and intentional focus on Allah as much as it is about celebrating with your family and doing good works. This was apparent even to us as foreigners.
We ended our day with a dinner cruise on the Nile Crystal. I was a bit worried that the food wouldn’t be good since this seems like such a touristy thing to do. To our delight the boat was mostly full of Egyptians breaking their fast and celebrating Ramadan with their family. The food was plentiful, delicious and the musicians and the tanoura dancer were mesmerizing! It was a fun way to enjoy views of the river banks along the Nile, eat well and immerse ourselves in the culture.
For the most part, the Nile divides Cairo on the east bank, with El Giza on the west bank. Arguably the most famous attraction in all of Egypt, if not the world, the Great Pyramids of Giza are not far from Cairo’s city center. On a clear day we could actually see them on the horizon from the hotel balcony. The Great Pyramids may be the most famous but they aren’t the only pyramids. There are 94 pyramids in Egypt and probably more that have yet to be discovered.
I don’t know if all those Pharos had it in their minds that people would still be telling their story and studying their lives thousands of years later, but it’s certainly the case. When you think about it, they really did immortalize themselves even if they never made it to the afterlife. The world has never stopped talking about the ancient Egyptians!
The Pyramids are even more impressive than you might think; they are awestriking. Having Adel with us to explain the history while we were standing in front of these magnificent structures made our experience even more memorable. Not only did we see them and climb on them, we were able to descend into the pyramids where the tombs were, which was ‘creepy cool’ as I like to say. The kids loved it. Perhaps the only thing they liked more was the camel ride! Might sound corny, but it was totally worth it!
As far as we were concerned, nothing could top the pyramids. Except maybe the Sphinx.
We continued our pyramid tour with Dahshur, the red pyramid (which you can descend 30 meters underground to the multi-room chambers inside) the “Bent” pyramid and the Pyramid of Djoser or step pyramid at the necropolis of Saqqara.
TIPS FOR TRAVEL IN EGYPT
It’s helpful to understand the Egyptian concept of ‘backsheesh’ before your trip. This is a customary tip, paid even by Egyptians themselves. This is not a way for locals to take advantage of tourists, rather it is part of the culture all over the Arab world. Don’t be surprised if someone goes as far as to remind you to give them a tip, be it a waiter or a bathroom attendant, who are ubiquitous. It helps to have some small bills and coins available to be ready for this is a common practice.
Hire a guide to take you to see some of the sights. Even our experience at the Egyptian Museum, which you can easily do on your own, was so much richer with an expert to teach us more about what we were seeing. Well worth the money, they will take care of the details, the driver, negotiating in Arabic and educating you. There are many well rated tour companies on TripAdvisor. I used Egypt Tailor Made and highly recommend them.
Try the local food. Not only is it delicious, it’s mostly all that’s available. You won’t be popping into 7 Eleven for a toasted ham and cheese here. You can, however, enjoy Starbucks, if you can find one.
Last but not least, relax and have a good time!