Egypt — Something Different for a Change

I just flew from Seattle to Cairo. After being here for just a day, it seems like a week. Of course, I swung by the pyramids, got my mug shot with the Sphinx, and rode a camel. But the real fun has been feeling the pulse of post-revolutionary Egypt in the chaotic streets of ancient Egypt, nothing about life survives. No palaces — only tombs. But experiencing and exploring today’s Egypt is all about life: struggling, finessing, surviving, embracing.

In Egypt, some things never change.
In Egypt, some things never change.

The big news this decade: a people’s revolution to replace the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak with the only alternative well-organized enough to win an election, the Muslim Brotherhood…and the resulting nervousness about what the current government’s true vision for the people is.

The revolution in Egypt is clearly about freedom. With my guide, Hammad, I take a welcome-to-Cairo stroll under once-elegant French facades that seem battered to a pulp and caked in soot. Watching a car pull a U-turn into oncoming traffic, Hammad points out the fine line between freedom and chaos: A four-lane street is now a two-lane street with clothing sales racks swinging under commercial neon, constricting traffic. Women in scarves browse through displays of daring dresses, ignoring the commotion filling the sidewalks.

The streets of modern Cairo are busy with window shoppers.
The streets of modern Cairo are busy with window shoppers.

A merchant tells me, “People can talk freely about our government now. Before the revolution, bite your tongue. But our revolution is only just starting. We have much left to do.” While the country has veered in the direction of fundamentalism and religious rule, the people are most disappointed not with the new religious fervor…but with simple incompetence. There’s a pretty clear consensus on the streets: People think the guys in power simply don’t know how to rule. They’ve managed to put up racks of free books about Islam at all of the tourist attractions, but have yet to figure out how to organize the streets…or even collect the garbage.

On a crisp day, from my hotel window I can see beyond the intensity of Cairo to the majestic pyramids.
On a crisp day, from my hotel window I can see beyond the intensity of Cairo to the majestic pyramids.

Tourism is vital for the Egyptian economy. Oil-rich countries can afford their crazy leaders: Ahmadinejad, Chávez, Gaddafi — Iran, Venezuela, and Libya all had oil to fund their crazy and corrupt ways of governing. But Egypt has little oil, and its economy is in crisis. Egypt needs tourism. The tourist industry here directly employs four million people, and indirectly supports many, many more. I say, “The airport was quiet today.” Hammad says, “That’s not the word. It is dead.” He points to a towering Sofitel Hotel and says, “Only two floors are open out of 20. This is killing us.”

The streets of Cairo are jammed — but, except for in a few in fancy hotels or at the major sights, I never saw an American.
The streets of Cairo are jammed — but, except for in a few in fancy hotels or at the major sights, I never saw an American.

I saw a few German cruise groups at the pyramids, but I didn’t see an American tourist all day. And yet, while tourists are scarce, there are masses of locals everywhere. The city is absolutely teeming. Working my way through chaotic traffic back to the refuge of my hotel, I thought, “Egypt is too intense for many, but I’m really glad I’m here.”

I often call Europe “the wading pool of world exploration.” A city like Cairo isn’t the wading pool. It’s the deep end — and someone turned on the jets. If you can swim, the water’s great. But if you’re not quite ready to dive in, follow me here on my blog for some armchair Egyptian adventures. Starting today, and for the next two weeks or so, I’ll be sharing a couple of posts a day, including video clips, so you and I will be riding the same camel.

Egypt offers a very friendly welcome.
Egypt offers a very friendly welcome.

Photo by Trish Feaster (For her Egypt blog, see


35 Replies to “Egypt — Something Different for a Change”

  1. This just looks fantastic. We have always loved to travel when no one else does. And this is a perfect time. But how would you suggest as a traveler just going to Egypt? You have the resources and the connections to go there and feel safe. I can’t imagine just landing in Cairo, and just going from there on your own.

  2. Cairo Egyptians allowed this to happen by attacking women. Even today its young men continue to attack women. And the Muslim Brotherhood is complicit. And the new constitution is designed to make Egypt an ideological pariah. Tourism, yes. Friendly, maybe?

  3. Two years after the “Arab Spring” where people cheered Mubarak’s overthrow, and naïve commentators talked about democracy in Egypt, what Egypt has instead is severe economic decline as a result of a Muslim Brotherhood government that even critics of Murbarak acknowledge is even worse then Mubarak’s rule. There is no freedom and not just to women and Christian Copts but everybody who criticizes the current government. The US should not be giving 1.5 BILLION DOLLARS in continued aid to this country. While it is unfortunate that a decline in tourism is affecting their economy, tour operators should not be encouraging Americans to spend their hard earned money in such a volatile country right now until there is a change in leadership that respects human rights.

  4. Thanks for posting here and not just on FB. From your photos there are a lot more women in head scarves than when I was there in 2000 (when Cairo airport was a mob scene). what’s your impression of the scarf to no scarf ratio? Any burkas?

  5. was in Egypt with group of friends(all over 50)in 2011.
    would go again tomorrow if the political situation was better.
    we spent the better part of 3 weeks there,and aside from the overbearing hawkers every where,people were nice to deal with.

    if you go,pay the extra and see Abu Simbel.


  6. I’m glad to see you “branching out.” As much as I love Europe, there is a big diverse fascinating world beyond Europe’s doors. I look forward to someday traveling with a Rick Steve’s Guidebook to Egypt, Israel and Jordan.

  7. I’m still not certain about going there on my own, but I might take a cruise that includes seeing the pyramids . I will be looking forward to reading your blog

  8. My husband and I visited Egypt in 2008 for two weeks. We traveled on our own from Cairo to Aswan to Luxor and back to Cairo. We went by train, and while it was a different experience, I wouldn’t trade it. We loved talking to the people, and they were genuinely glad to see us. I have read a couple of places that there is talk of destroying the monuments. I’m also concerned that without Zahi Harwass at the helm, the tombs and such may not be preserved. Whatever anyone thinks of him, he loves the ancient monuments and tombs.

  9. We spent time in Alexandria and Luxor in November, 2012. It was sad to hear from our guides and drivers of the decline in cleanliness and public services since the changeover in government. The lack of sanitation in Alexandria was worse than when we were there in 2000. The Egyptian people, and particularly our female Egyptian guide seemed really worried about the loss of freedom they are experiencing.

    The sites in Luxor are still great and worth the effort to get to, but as infrastructure disintegrates and a female guide is harassed by militants (as we witnessed twice) tourism will get much harder.

  10. We took a tour to Egypt in December 2010 and had an amazing time. In response to the “Hawkers”, our guide advised us “…no, is the start of a conversation…” and if we not interested in purchasing to keep walking and not make eye contact and to never go into a shop because you would not get out without a purchase. It worked. He also said that since 9/11 he has had to get up to speed on his religion to answer the questions of travelers and the outfall is that he is a more religious man today. Our guide’s wife was also a tour guide and her our journey has taken her to wearing the head scarf. This is a choice she has made. Two of our friends were booked to travel on the same trip in March of 2011. One of them cancelled and the other took the trip and said it was so interesting and she felt safe the whole time plus there were no tourists and she loved that. In truth, I wished I had gone back with her and when the rest of my bucket list is complete I am going back! Wonderful country, interesting time in their history, and such a beautiful people looking for what is right for them.

  11. Rick, thanks for embarking on this exploratory trip. I hope you can address two key questions for my travel plans: 1) how is it for a 60-year-old obviously white woman to walk around Cairo or to get honest service in cafes? 2) how are conditions around the STEP PYRAMID and the BENT PYRAMID? I am keen to see these, but they are endangered by rebel encampment towns. ?? Thanks, Ellen.

  12. We were in Egypt in Oct/Nov of last year. Rich’s blog is “spot on” how it feels on the streets of Cairo. We were there during some unrest, but never felt unsafe, thanks to our amazing guide, Mustafa. Because of the economy, a guide and driver were very reasonable and worth every penny. We saw places in a few days that would have taken a week on our own.

    I got the impression many Egyptians do not back the Muslim Brotherhood and believe Morsi did not actually win the election. If I felt like I was supporting the government of a country by traveling there, I might not go anywhere.

  13. It is so wonderful to hear positive things about Egypt. I knew it wasn’t as bad as Americans are saying. I work in the travel industry and have asked many of my Egpytian customers on a regular basis if it is safe for Americans to travel to Egypt, and everyone has said that it is. It is sad to hear that Cairo is suffering with their tourism industry. I suppose it is time for me to start planning my trip, and perhaps kiss a camel or two. HA!

  14. My husband and I are two Americans living in Egypt and we welcome your visit with wide open arms. We are Diving Instructors in Sharm el Sheikh and are passionate about this wonderful and beautiful country and want to share it with other Americans. We have hosted several visitors over the last 6 months and we always need to do a great deal of ‘damage control’ due to incessant media reporting that makes it seem like the country is in total chaos before our guests’ arrival. Once our guests are here and have toured the country, they see that there are issues but that the situation is no where near as dangerous or risky as the media would have them believe. One of our guests was so inspired by her visit that she has started an education coalition between the US and Egypt. Exciting, positive things are happening here!

    The country is in a transition period, experiencing democracy for the first time with an overwhelming desire to make life better for everyone leaving the population with frustration and impatience at the pace and direction of change.

    Egyptian people are warm and inviting and they love tourists, especially Americans! Tourism is extremely important to the country and also to the visitor. There are amazing treasures to be found here both above and below the sea. The Pyramids, Luxor, Abu Simbel, Western Oasis, Moses Mountain and the world’s oldest working monastery: St. Catherine’s set in a stunning mountain landscape. And then there is the glorious Red Sea with the healthiest coral on Earth. It is breathtaking.

    Egypt is definitely a place where a good guide is mandatory to navigate throughout the country. There are many different types of trips you could do: Ancient Egypt, diving and beach holidays, desert oasis, and religious (we have Muslim, Christian, and Jewish history). Egypt is a place that you can come back many times to experience it all. There are many good tour operators available from eco-trips backpacking in the Sinai to luxurious 5 star cruises down the Nile or on the Red Sea. By working with different tour operators you could piece together a really unique, out of the box adventure. And Egypt is on sale right now, prices have never been better.

    Don’t be afraid, come visit.

  15. Thanks so much for this great post, Rick. You have been a faithful travel companion to my husband and I during the last two years living in Germany and now at you’ve branched out of Europe to another destination on our “must-see” list we will be sure to use your guidance as we plan an Egyptian Holiday this winter. We look forward to the rest of your travels!

  16. I live in the villages outside of Cairo and south of Giza, an area that even many Cairenes are worried is too conservative to visiit sometimes, but the opposite is the case. My farming neighbours are wonderful people and the countryside is fascinating. We get quite a few visitors from Egypt and abroad and they are amazed at the difference between the rural and urban Egypt. If you would like to visit us and see a part of Egypt you won’t likely see any other way, but all means contact me.
    Maryanne Gabbani

  17. Egypt and its wonderful People and such a contributing culture to civilization is very much open to all including we as Americans who not only send substantial funds in foreign support, but can appreciate the value of so many contributions to mankind…I have visited Egypt and walked its streets numerous times and the Egyptian People are educated, more often than not speak English very well and are very friendly ready to lend a visitor who is also making contribution to its economy, welcome ….Enjoy!

    Christopher Tingus
    Cape Cod, USA

  18. Rick,

    I am really excited to read the posts from you trip as they become available, since I have always dreamed of going to Egypt!


    Dan Pasko
    Denver, USA

  19. Thanks Rick–love yr comments and yr guidebooks–will be checking yr blog every day!

  20. Didn’t the Egyptian Minister of Religious Affairs Talaat Afifi Salem declare just last month: “We hope that the words of the Prophet Muhammad will be fulfilled: Judgment Day will not come before the Muslims fight the Jews, and the Jews will hide behind the rocks and the trees, but the rocks and the trees will say: Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”

    Even if I could could just look past such an appalling statement right out of the 1930s by a high government minister, I think if I were traveling, I’d be uneasy about getting caught in the crossfire.

  21. My wife and I visited Cairo and Alexandria as part of a Princess cruise in Oct 2011. It was a good experience. I’m glad I got to see Giza. We had a bus caravan from the ship at Port Said to Cairo, with military escort and an armed security guard in a suit on each bus. Passed thru checkpoints of different military organizations at every “county” line. Got word as we arrived in Civitavecchia three days after departing Alexandria that there was a recurrence of rioting the day after we left. A friend from work spent several weeks in Cairo teaching English, beginning just days after we were there. He saw lots of political demonstrations, but seemed to really enjoy his time there; though he was happy to leave. Glad to see you travelling in the Middle East. Happy Travels!

  22. HI Rick
    Did the cruise up the nile and stayed on boat for 7 days, then went to Cairo for 3 days amazing place so fasinating love to go again and spend more time there. Brilliant place
    Hope that the political stuff will settle has this Country is steeped in History and a shame if Tourists stop going.

  23. Dear Rick,
    Have watched your show for years. It has really given us a huge list of places to travel. We are not exactly novice travelers. We have been on a safari tour in Africa, Down the Amazon, and driving thru the jungles of Mexico. We want to take a guided tour in Egypt end of May.
    Concerns- Is it safe?
    -Are there any Muslim customs we should be aware of?
    -Is the train a worthwhile alternative to taking the plane to Luxor?
    -Other than the standard tourist sites, are there any must see sites?

  24. I took my family of seven to both Israel and Egypt during the summer of 2011. It was deserted and sad to see what the lack of tourism has done and I’m sure it is worse now. We traveled there via a Princess cruise, but booked local guides both in Israel and Egypt and had a wonderful time. With so many other places to visit and the continued deterioration in Egypt, though, it will be a while before we return.

  25. We just returned from a small group tour of Egypt (13 people with Road Scholars). What an amazing trip!! We spent one afternoon away from the tour visiting with Maryanne Stroud Gabbani on her wonderful farm. Next trip, and there will be another as 2 weeks wasn’t enough, more time will be spent with her. Might even ride one of her horses into the desert.
    Rick, thanks for encouraging people to visit Egypt.

  26. Rick, thanks for sharing your candid narrative about Egypt, I can’t wait for your next blogs. I’ve been a fan of yours and a client for your 3 European tours.

    Based on my experience last December 2012-January 2013 I would say Egypt is like any other cities in the world – crowded, loud and smoky. To the Foreign eye, it seems to be a complete mess, complete disorder, but somehow there is a system that works slowly but going to a right direction. I am glad that Rick decided to include and explore this very authentic part of the world. People are warm and hospitable, most are highly educated, kids peddling on the streets of Cairo, Aswan and Luxor speak English, one of them talked to me in Nihongo (as he thought I was a Japanese tourist). As a female 30-ish old, Asian-American who looks like a college kid-looking for adventure, I visited Cairo, Aswan, Luxor and Abu Simbel (near the Sudanese border in southern Egypt) – by myself. But of course, not literally alone, as I bought a tour package (from a local Egyptian tour company via web) that includes a private tour guide (Egyptologist) and a driver. Most tours in Egypt are private, inexpensive and worth every penny. I almost cancelled this tour as I was being pressured by my friends and family that Egypt is a very dangerous country for a female tourist. I’m glad I didn’t, I felt safe, and it was one of the most enjoyable trips I ever had.

  27. Maryanne Stroud Gabbani, Thank you so much for your encouraging words to travel in Egypt. I am potnetially traveling to Cairo in June. How can I contact you?

  28. Clarissa,
    Which tour did you use. I am planning to go by myself also June 15. i would appreciate any tips.

  29. Rick,
    I admire your curiosity. After all, life is what we make it. Stay safe fellow wanderer.

  30. Rick, My daughter & I had a good chuckle. I am from Whidbey Island, WA. and am front/lower right in your picture where you say you saw no Americans at the Arab market. I had a wonderful time in Egypt. Thanks for the photo.

  31. Rick and his team should be commended for their willingness to visit so soon after the crisis.

    Thank you guys!

    Rick’s Doppelganger
    WEDU Tampa

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