CHEAPEST PLACES ON EARTH
Cairo lays claim to historical riches older than any in London, Paris, or Rome
One can easily argue that the capital of Egypt gets less respect than practically any other great world city -- and make no mistake, this town of some 17 million people unequivocally belongs in the same club with London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong, and their like. Laying claim to historical riches older than these others (hey, what's a millennium to a place that's weathered at least five of them?), as charged with life and energy, Cairo is nonetheless known to too many western travelers as the city you fly in and out of (one day at the Egyptian Museum, another at the Pyramids) when you "do" Egypt. A pity. It takes several days just to scratch Cairo's surface, and underneath you'll find one of the most enduring, mercurial, stoic, dramatic, impoverished, extravagant, profound, absurd, and genuinely fascinating places on earth. Not to mention one of the cheapest-filled to bursting with staggeringly inexpensive restaurants ($5 for a multicourse dinner in a good linen-tablecloth eatery), similarly budget-minded hotels, and at least a week's worth of free or low-priced museums and cultural attractions, among them some of the world's most famed sites.
Famous sites, on the cheap
To demonstrate just how budget-friendly Cairo can be, let's start with the two mandatory stops.
First, the Pyramids. Even with recent price increases, it still runs a ridiculously low $6 to gain admission to the grounds where you can roam among the last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the World. Six smackers for Cheops and the Sphinx, for heaven's sake! Of course, you cough up an extra (but in my view, well justified) $12 if you want to crawl around inside whichever of the three 5,000-or-so-year-old pyramids is open that year (Cheops and Khephren alternate, Mycerinus opens far less often.) Expect to pay a whopping $30 more if you want to bring your camcorder along to shoot the interior. Needless to say, save your money. (By the way, it's no longer possible to climb up the exterior of the Pyramids, at any price.)
The Pyramids, in fact, can be done for much less than the standard $40 price for a guided daylong tour from Cairo. After all, Giza itself is simply a suburb of the main city.
Therefore, public transportation takes you almost all the way to the entrance, safely and reliably. Simply hop on Cairo's new, clean Metro (costing 50 piastres, about $.15) to the El Gama station, also known as University of Cairo. Exit the station, cross the street, and ask where you pick up the 25-piastre bus going to the Pyramids (you won't be able to read the route signs unless you're hip to Arabic); it lets you out at the base of the road leading up to the site, with maybe a ten-minute walk to follow. Total cost of transportation: less than a quarter, added to the $6 admission.
That same price buys you admission to the Egyptian Museum, indisputably the world's greatest repository of pharaonic art and antiquities, with many pieces dating back to 4000 b.c. or even earlier. Here, you gaze upon the riches of King Tutankhamen, the mummies of various other royals (an extra $12 for this room, worthwhile only if you're truly curious), and literally tens of thousands of artifacts -- most displayed haphazardly, without much labeling. (The lighting's not that great, either.) However, the museum offers up such a profuse and dazzling collection of top-quality artifacts that you easily forgive it anything. And because it's walkable from practically any part of downtown Cairo, you incur no extra transportation charge. (However, be aware that to photograph inside, you must buy a $3 ticket, with the same extortionate $30 camcorder tariff. Flash photos aren't permitted, although bribes are not unknown.)
A wealth of history, at little cost
Many more must-sees can be visited at negligible or no cost. Just because they carry less than a few thousand years' worth of dust doesn't mean they're also-rans. For example, there's what's called Islamic Cairo; a good place to start is at the city's oldest place of worship, the Ibn Tulun Mosque, on Saliba Street. (The most straightforward way to get there is by flagging down a taxi from the center of town; it'll run about $2-$3). Ibn Tulum is a muscular hunk of ninth-century classical Islamic architecture whose central dome is one of the largest in the Muslim world, and whose commanding spiritual aura makes it the perfect intro to this part of town. Admission is around $1.80.
From there, it's a 10- to 15-minute walk along Saliba Street to the Salah Al Din (Citadel) complex, which alone could easily justify an entire day's exploration. The highlight within this cluster of distinguished mosques and museums -- there's a $6 admission fee, with several of the more striking stops within the complex costing more -- is the mosque and madrassa (Islamic school) of Sultan Hassan, dating from 1356 and the largest of Cairo's mosques, with the city's tallest minaret as well as some impressive bronze doors inlaid with silver and gold in ravishingly detailed Islamic style; a ticket inside costs $3.50. Overripe, even bordering on kitschy, but still quite powerful are two relatively recent mosques, Mohammed Ali Mosque (with its profusion of chandeliers and lamps) and Mosque of Al-Rifai (an extra $3.50, but you see the suitably impressive resting places of several luminaries of the Arab world, like the Shah of Iran and King Farouk). The fourteenth-century El-Naser Mohamed mosque, also on the Citadel's grounds, offers a spartan counterpoint to all the Islamic baroque.