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.
Should you still have time after the Citadel, you'd be remiss not to take in the Islamic Museum, a short taxi ride (unless you're very energetic) up El Qala'a Street. Costing a way-cheap $3, this highly compact museum will, in an hour or so, acquaint you with the rich and surprisingly various artistic legacy of Islam -- from the smooth grace of seventh-century Persian ewers to fourteenth-century glass mosque lamps painstakingly inscribed with Arabic calligraphy, from Ottoman perfume atomizers to my own favorites, the extravagantly designed illuminated Koran pages, many dating from the ninth century and flickering with golden paint and outlandishly rich colors.
Finally, for a more mystical approach to Islam, attend one of the absolutely free twice-weekly performances of the Al-Tannoura troupe of Sufi whirling dervish dancers, held at the madrassa of the Al-Ghuri Mosque on Wednesday and Saturday nights. (The band kicks in at around 8 p.m., but get there at least three-quarters of an hour earlier to guarantee yourself a seat. Call 909-146 for information.) Dancers aim to send themselves into a trance through continual twirling -- a half hour to 45 minutes nonstop isn't uncommon -- to the accompaniment of a hypnotic, thunderous Egyptian nine-piece orchestra. It's enveloping, mesmerizing, and of far more interest than Cairo's late-night, touristy belly dancing shows.
Nearly as fascinating as Islamic Cairo, to my mind, is the area known as Coptic Cairo, where Christianity flourished in the city from roughly 313 a.d. until the Arab Conquest of 641. You can read a full account of this area -- and also find out how to get an abbreviated Nile tour for just 15 cents! - by going to a section in our Web site, frommers.com/supplement.
While nosing around in Cairo's rich history is rewarding enough, what I love as much about the city is its daily life. Even though local drivers make walking across any street an adventure, to put it diplomatically, you're well advised to amble -- at absolutely no cost, of course -- through downtown's endless, pedestrian-packed tumble of uneven sidewalks, past block after block of vest-pocket shops, scrupulously shiny windows one after another after another stuffed with shoes and lingerie and remarkably gaudy furniture, scruffy tea shops where small clusters of idle Cairene men (never women) trade chatter and take leisurely pulls off sheeshas (water pipes) filled with sweet-smelling, apple-laced tobacco. Their talk is swallowed up by the staggering, energizing din of the street: dozens of passionate conversations punctuated by laughter (Egyptians are known throughout the Middle East as wry, jokey types unable to take very much seriously), taxi horns, Egyptian pop music -- think belly dancing tunes plus disco thump-blaring from the cassette stalls, and the intermittent crackling drone, on days of worship, of Muslims being called to prayer by loudspeakers outside mosque doors. You can either embrace or shrink from the sonic assault, but there's no escaping the fact that every atom of Cairo pulses with sound and color and drama.
The most concentrated dose of modern Cairo comes, without question, from a visit to Khan el-Khalili, the bazaar that forms the city's commercial center. Walkable from downtown, this Middle Eastern mall is less notable for the run-of-the-mill goods on sale (unless you're in the market for men's underwear, plastic toys, or low-level sheeshas, papyrus paintings, and belly dancing costumes) than for its raffish air. Tea vendors with immense silver urns slung around their shoulders dole out cups of their product for pennies, and once in a while you'll still come across one of the guys selling scrumptious hunks of roasted golden yam (one of the few street foods I'd risk) for 15 cents or so.
That's not to say you can't find good deals. Gold and silver, for instance, aren't exactly cheap here, but because they are basically sold by the gram (craftsmanship adds only a small amount to the price) they can offer substantial savings over what you'd pay back home. In practically any shop in the Goldsmith's Bazaar along Al-Muezz Street, prices don't vary all that much; with bargaining, a pair of hefty 21-carat gold earrings can be yours for $60, much cheaper than stateside, and an excellently made, weighty silver cartouche with the name of your choice engraved in hieroglyphic writing, for less than $25. You can find these items cheaper, but when it comes to precious metals you do get what you pay for. Also worth a look, if you're interested in such things, are the copper and brassware shops just east of the goldsmiths' district.
Me, I'd just as soon skip the merchandise and head straight for El-Fishawi, a landmark for over 200 years. (It's where Nobelist Naguib Mahfouz chilled and sometimes scribbled his novels of Old Cairo.) As tourist-tolerant as El-Fishawi is (western women smoking sheeshas don't even get a second look), the tables along the passageway are still jammed with actual Cairenes puffing away at pipes and nursing cups of chai (tea with fresh mint) or glasses of cold karkaday (highly sweetened hibiscus flower tea) as they bemusedly withstand the steady assault of street vendors. (By the way, while Cairo's itinerant sales force can be tenacious, after you utter a pleasant but no-nonsense "shokran" -- thank you -- while shaking your head no, you're free to cut off the conversation.) Even with inflated tourist tariffs, a chai and a pipeful of tobacco, along with a ringside seat for as long as you'd like, shouldn't cost more than a couple of bucks anywhere.
Where you'll stay -- and barely pay
Any discussion of Cairo's hotels should begin with what the city hasn't got -- spiffy four-star hotels in the $70 or $80/night range for a double. You're best off searching out modest two- and three-star properties. Luckily, decent hotels charging $50 or so per night are plentiful. And while some flophouses in Cairo aren't bargains at any price, plenty do give you your piastre's worth and then some.
Arguably, the best value-for-money proposition is the Cosmopolitan (1 Ibn Talaab St., tel. 392-3956, fax 393-3531), a large, wonderfully located old pile a ten-minute walk from the Egyptian Museum. While its air-conditioned rooms (with TV and fridge) are hardly inspiring, they're quite functional, and even without breakfast at $35/night per double they're a steal. A bit farther afield but even cheaper, the very popular Windsor Hotel (19 Alfi St., tel. 591-5277; fax 592-1621) is famous for housing former Monty Pythoner Michael Palin when he filmed Around the World in 80 Days for public television. Your shower may be as erratic as Palin's so memorably was, and your in-room telephone may literally date from the 1920s, but if an aura of romantic decay and a great funky bar (one of the classic Cairo hangouts whether you're staying here or not) ring your bell, check out the doubles for $31-$43/night, including breakfast and all taxes (which can add 12 percent to your bill at other places). Book well in advance. (The tea house across the street from the Windsor is a cheerful hangout, by the way.)
If, on the other hand, you're willing to sacrifice a degree of character in exchange for new construction and crisp efficiency (by Cairo standards, at least), look into the Happy City Hotel (92C Mohamed Farid Abgin St., tel. 395-9333, fax 395-9222), with air-conditioned rooms (all with refrigerators, minibar, and boob tube, some with balconies) and a nifty little rooftop garden. A double runs $39/night, including breakfast. The same owners offer very spare and plain (but reasonably clean) accommodations at the slightly out-of-the-way Happyton Hotel (10 Ali Kassar St., near Ramses Square, tel. and fax 592-8671) for an incredible $18.50/night with breakfast. While few of Cairo's hostelries achieve that mind-boggling degree of cheapness, one approaching it is the studenty, bustling Lotus Hotel (12 Talaat Harb St., tel. 575-0966, fax 575-4720), whose nothing-special but comfy rooms with bath will leave you $26.50/night out of pocket. Yet another notable cheapo is the El Malky Square (4 Al Hossiny Square, tel. and fax 589-6700); again, the rooms are modest but perfectly acceptable, and a double with breakfast and local hotel taxes goes for $20/night.
If you'd prefer staying on the less frenetic, more residential West Bank of the Nile but don't want to be too far from the action, two very pleasant hotels in a somewhat posh neighborhood called Dokki are standouts; though costing a bit more, they also represent a step up in comfort. The King Hotel (29 Abdel Rehim Sabri St., tel. 335-0869, fax 361-0802) has 90 rooms and the quiet air of a businessperson's favorite; doubles are $49/night with breakfast and tax. Just a couple of blocks away you'll find Pharaohs Hotel (12 Lotfi Hassouna St., 761-0871, fax 761-0874), a touch plusher than King but very similar; its doubles cost $55/night, including breakfast and tax.
While nobody would place Cairo in the same culinary stratosphere as Paris or San Francisco, few great world cities give you so many opportunities to eat well for a phenomenally low price. The strategy -- it's the case so often -- is to follow the locals. At lunchtime, that means finding a koshari joint. (They're all over the place.) This budget gourmand's secret weapon consists of a hefty bowl of rice, tubular pasta, lentils, a thinnish but savory Middle Eastern-spiced tomato sauce, and crumbled fried onions on top. At my personal favorite, the magnificently named International Public Meal Koshari (Alfy St. at Imad al-Don St.), a heaping bowlful sets you back all of 45 cents, with a refill costing half that. Bring your own beverage -- no alcohol, though -- because the only alternative is that dangerous carafe of water on the table. (While imbibing Cairo's tap water is an open invitation to a stomach-churning case of the "pharaoh's curse," perfectly safe aqua pura is available all over town in liter bottles for about 40 cents. Buy in bulk. Foodwise, the basic rules apply: no fruit or vegetables with skins, no undercooked meat, and so on.)
The other quintessentially Egyptian meal consists of perfectly stomach-safe, meat-free Middle Eastern specialties: falafel (fried balls of ground chickpeas with spices), foul (pronounced "fool," a warm bean salad), and various pickled condiments. I happen to consider these dishes, when well done, a legitimate form of soul food; by that definition, one of Cairo's most soulful spots -- if you overlook the immaculate, somewhat sterile space packed with families -- is El Tabei El Domiati (31 Orabi St., tel. 575-4291). There, a well-prepared feast for two of foul with olives, tamea (falafel in a hamburger-sized patty), french fries, tahini (a spread made with ground sesame), pita bread, and a salad with beets, coleslaw, baba ghanouj (eggplant spread), and yogurt with cucumber, along with a soda, checks in for a staggering $2.50 per person.
Just about as cheap are the restaurants whose stock-in-trade is feteer, which resembles a pizza made with a thin, vaguely phyllo-like crust. At a restaurant named Egyptian Pancakes (Al Azhar St. off the Midan Al Azhar Square), you pay $6 for a giant feteer (just try and finish it) loaded with feta cheese, tomato, peppers, and olives. For the same price, check out the luscious version topped with raisins, grated coconut, almonds, and jam, dusted with confectioner's sugar.
Higher-priced, midlevel eateries -- many of them specializing in grilled meats too dear for the everyday Egyptian budget -- aren't actually that much costlier. For instance, at the cheerful, wood-paneled, white-tablecloth old-timer Restaurant Alfi Bey (3 Alfi Bey St., tel. 577-1888), a complete meal of soup, vegetable, kofta (minced lamb) kebabs, rice, and a nonalcoholic beverage comes to less than $5. A similar menu and prices prevail at Aly Hassan El Hatty & Aly Abdou (3 Halim Pasha Square, tel. 591-6055), with its high-ceilinged, chandelier-adorned, slightly worn premises and deeply friendly waiters; if you're looking to splash out, the most expensive item on the menu is the tajine, a savory pie of meat and vegetables, for around five bucks. Another Egyptian specialty, roast pigeon stuffed with peppery rice, is done to perfection at the simple collection of sidewalk tables called Farhat (126 Al Azhar St., tel. 592-6595); for $4 at lunch -- a bit more at night -- you get a whole pigeon (it ain't that big) along with a glass of lovely poultry broth, pita bread, and salad, which you dare not eat.
After this repast, walk five minutes (make it ten and savor the journey) up Al Azhar Street past the giant mosque for which this broad thoroughfare is named, hang a left, a quick right on Muski (one of Khan el-Khalili's two main drags), and then another left at the next corner. A few storefronts down you'll see a simple, spotless little storefront called Al Haram el Hussein, right across the street from the Mosque of Saiyidna Hussein. This is where clued-in Cairenes go for the perfect meal-ender: crusty-topped om-aly, a warm pudding made of milk, bread, coconut, and a bit of sugar, sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts. It's brilliant -- and it'll set you back about a dollar. If a city can be defined by anything as trivial as a dessert, this richly layered, addictive, inexpensive confection is Cairo reduced to its essence.
The high season for Egypt airfares is between June and August, when discounted round-trip tickets cost around $950-$975 from Lotus International Tours (888/EGYPT-4U); in low season, that price goes down to about $750. Round-trip fares from another high-volume consolidator, Homeric Tours (800/223-5570), range from $780 to a high-season price of $980 June 21-July 31 and over the December holiday season.
Because it's highly unlikely that anyone would visit Cairo without seeing the rest of Egypt's splendors, a good option is to combine a tour of the country with an extended stay in its capital city. The worldwide Dutch tour operator Djoser (877/DJOSER-6; djoserusa.com) offers the most economical Egypt package we know, a 14-nighter including Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan, for $1,695/person (double occupancy) most of the year; for an extra $100 (the cost of reissuing the airplane ticket) you can change your arrival or departure date to lengthen your stay. Lotus Tours and Homeric Tours also offer Egypt packages that can be made longer, but the cost of their tours is higher. A second option for hardier sorts is to choose from among the many Egyptian tours offered by any of the various companies working through California-based Adventure Center (800/227-8747, adventurecenter.com), which can also arrange well-priced airfares in conjunction with land bookings. The land portion for virtually all its Egypt itineraries comes to less than $100/day, and sometimes much less; for instance, Adventure Center's "Nile Felucca Sail Trek," conducted by Explore Worldwide, features a four-day sail through Upper Egypt by traditional sailboat and can cost as little as $375 for a nine-night trip.
As we went to press, the Egyptian pound -- which has been a fairly stable currency of late -- was trading at 3.47 pounds to the U.S. dollar. For more information about Cairo, you can also contact the Egyptian Tourist Authority at 877/773-4978.