Visiting Cairo in 2018 – What is it like to visit Egypt right now? This blog post is a summary of my travel experiences and impressions.
I’ve heard some polarized opinions of traveling in Egypt.
While visiting Iran near the beginning of my 2-year trip around the world, I met an American backpacker who had just spent almost a year on the road. Out of all the countries he had visited, Egypt was his least favourite.
I’ve heard similar opinions from other travellers, too. On the other hand, a long-term cyclist from the United States said Egypt was his favourite stop on his bicycle trip from Israel to Kenya.
So, is Egypt an enjoyable destination or not? To find out what I’d think, I had to try it out myself.
Visiting Cairo in 2018
Egypt has gained some negative press in recent years. Despite initial optimism, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 didn’t turn the country into a working democracy. After a few years of turmoil, the military has simply tightened its grip on power.
At the same time, terrorist attacks and other bad news have scared away many tourists. For many, Cairo sounds like a dangerous mess that’s best avoided.
On my way from Africa to Europe, I stopped in Cairo for six days. Despite the country’s several ongoing issues, my stay was much, much more pleasant than I expected.
And no, I didn’t have any issues with my safety. According to my local hosts, Cairo is much safer than its international reputation makes it sound like. The city might be chaotic, but it’s full of friendly people and interesting experiences.
For more about safety in Egypt, check out my other post “Is Cairo Safe to Travel?”.
Couchsurfing in Cairo
For those of you who don’t know it, Couchsurfing is a popular hospitality service for travellers. Voluntary Couchsurfing hosts all over the world invite travellers to stay at their homes for free. It’s my favourite way to meet locals and make new friends in different cultures.
I’ve done more Couchsurfing than ever on this second year of my trip around the world. Since May 2016, I’ve spent roughly two thirds of my nights with different Couchsurfing hosts. Therefore it was natural that I’d try Couchsurfing in Cairo as well.
The results were very interesting.
Instead of checking the profiles of local hosts, I simply created a public trip in Couchsurfing to let locals see that I was looking for a host. In just a few days, I got about twenty invites and other messages! That’s more than I’ve had anywhere else.
Despite – or because of – the dropped tourism levels and Egypt’s political issues, many locals were clearly very, very eager to welcome foreigners with open arms.
I eventually stayed with two different male hosts in Cairo. But when I say two Couchsurfing hosts, I actually mean something like eight or ten.
How come? Well, that’s how friendship in Egypt works. Groups of friends are very close and do almost everything together. When one person has a guest, you’ll end up spending tons of time with all his friends as well.
I felt like Cairo was the perfect place for Couchsurfing. Now my hosts explained the politics and culture, showed me around and told me which foods and drinks to try. They also helped me get past the language barrier as very few locals speak English.
Had I stayed in hotels, I could have only scratched the surface of the local culture.
Despite our very different backgrounds, my hosts and I had many deep and insightful discussions about religion, life and traveling. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
What’s There to Do in Cairo?
For many people – myself included – the main reason to visit Cairo are the pyramids of Giza. And yes, I think they are worth it.
I’ve been to Teotihuacan and a few other pyramid spots in Mexico, but that didn’t make me any less impressed by Giza. The pyramids are just massive, reaching up to the sky in a very steep angle. This place is one of a kind.
Even the crowds were bearable. Yes, the street vendors could be very annoying. As a foreigner, you may also feel like a zoo animal when Arab tourists constantly ask you to take pictures with them.
However, the tourist crowds were much smaller than I expected. Most people visited only certain spots around the pyramids. When I explored some smaller ruins or walked a bit further away on the dunes, I found myself completely alone.
The other sights of Cairo couldn’t compete with the pyramids. The Egyptian Museum (aka The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities) is highly recommended on the Lonely Planet guidebook, and the museum was definitely interesting.
Still, I feel like the museum should have been even better.
The Egyptian Museum does feature excessive amounts of ancient Egyptian relics. It’s just the presentation that seems lacking. At times, the place feels more like warehouse than a museum.
For me, the most moving and interesting part of the museum was a section devoted to Pharaoh Akhenaten. Akhenaten tried to replace the Egyptian gods with a kind of monotheism and ended up damned in oblivion.
Like hundreds of thousands of other Finns (and many foreigners as well), I know about Akhenten’s unique reign from Finnish author Mika Waltari’s novel “The Egyptian”. Remembering Waltari’s vivid descriptions of ancient Egypt made the museum signs feel very bland in comparison.
*Imagine a Smart and Witty Subtitle Here*
Visiting Cairo in 2018 was one of the most interesting experiences of my 2-year trip around the world.
On one hand, the religious conservativeness and tight military control were apparent. Egypt Is not an equal and truly democratic country. Although the military presence is not always visible, the military runs anything from mosques to petrol stations.
I stayed in Cairo right before the 2018 presidential election. Besides the current president Abdeh Fattah el-Sisi, there was only one other candidate who joined the race literally fifteen minutes before the deadline. The proper opposition candidates had been jailed or otherwise disqualified from joining the election.
Then again, a government isn’t the same thing as a country. It’s the people who matter, and the Egyptians I stayed with very extremely friendly and hospitable.
Still, I don’t think I could ever fit in the Egyptian society. I’m too liberal and too much of a noncomformist for a conservative muslim society. I enjoyed visiting Cairo in 2018, but I wouldn’t want to live there.
But that’s not the point, is it? After all, I travel because I want to gain new perspective and witness different ways of life.
If that’s the case, I definitely got what I came for.