Backpacking Cairo: Culture, Transportation and Neighborhoods

I’ve been living in Cairo for more than 10 years. And I admit that living in/traveling to Cairo is a challenging experience even for Egyptians!. Nevertheless I also believe it is absolutely worth it. Cairo is more than ancient and historical sites and museums. It represents the authentic Egyptian experience. Adventure seekers will never be disappointed backpacking Cairo. Because even simple activities can be challenging and sometimes stressful. Like transportation for example, Cairo is known to be crowded and sometimes chaotic. Even visiting historical attractions on your own is not a cake walk. So, here is Backpacking Cairo Guide so you can understand this full of contradictions city and enjoy this unique experience.

What is the difference between Cairo and Greater Cairo

First of all you have to understand the difference between Cairo and Greater Cairo. While Cairo is the Egyptian capital and the home of 9 million inhabitants. Greater Cairo is the home of 21 million and including Cairo, Giza and Qualiobya Governorates. These 3 Governorates are adjacent and connected by different means of internal transportation system. Public buses, underground Metro and taxis operates between the 3 governorates like internal transportation. So, what we – Egyptians – refer to as Cairo might lie outside of Cairo into Giza for example. Like The Giza Pyramids complex: it is located in Giza but is a part of Greater Cairo. So, going from Downtown Cairo to Giza is like going from a neighborhood to another.

A Brief History to know before Backpacking Cairo

Tracing back Cairo’s history is overwhelming. Because, It dates back to the Ancient Egyptians time. The first known city around Greater Cairo is Memphis. Memphis is near Giza. It was the Ancient Egyptian capital during the Old Kingdom. And its significance remained throughout the ancient Egyptian history. Eventually, Memphis power declined with the Rise of Thebes – Luxor – and the the New Kingdom.

Coptic Cairo – Babylon Fortress entrance

However, Modern Cairo started as several settlements in the first millennium. The Romans built Babylon Fortress around the 4th century. This Fortress was the center of their ruling. Babylon Fortress contains old churches and is currently known as Coptic Cairo.

Amr Ibn El As Mosque – Al Fustat

After the Muslim conquest in 640 AD, Amr Ibn El As built Al-Fustat. Al-Fustat was built north of Babylon Fortress. It was the first Islamic Capital of Egypt. Following the Fatimids conquest in 969 AD, the Fatimids built Al-Mansuriyyah northeast to Fustat. The Fatimids also built Al-Azhar which is the third oldest university in the world. They made their city a cultural and learning center. Four years later, Al-Mu’izz li Din Allah gave Cairo its current name: Al Qahira, which means The Victorious. Since then, Cairo became the permanent Capital of Egypt. Cairo expanded to include Al-Fustat and Babylon Fortress, together they made what is currently known as “Old Cairo”.

Weather in Cairo

Cairo’s climate is a hot desert climate. It gets really hot in the summer especially in the noon. The hottest months are July, August and September. The temperature can sometimes exceed 40 °C because of the burning sun. But In the winter there might be some cold nights. It doesn’t rain often in Cairo, just few days in the Winter. The Winter starts from the middle of December to the end of February. In winter, the average temperature is 10 °C. But even in the Winter, most of the days are sunny. So, always bring light cotton clothes even if you are backpacking Cairo in the winter in addition to your heavy clothes.

Best time for Backpacking Cairo

Most of the travelers choose to visit Cairo either from March to May or from October to November. This is the best time to travel to Cairo. But a lot of people don’t mind backpacking Cairo in the Winter as the cold weather is bearable. Just avoid the summer which is from June to late September because of the unbearable heat and the burning sun.

Culture & People and what to wear in Cairo

Although Cairo’s culture is more liberal than a lot of other cities in Egypt and the middle east. It is conservative in its core, especially on matters regarding religion and women. But some neighborhoods are more liberal than others.

El Moez Street – Old Cairo

What to wear in Cairo

In other words, It might be OK for women to dress freely at touristic places and rich neighborhoods. But they might find people staring in provocative way in some areas. So, make sure you cover your body if you’re walking in the streets or visiting mosques and churches. for example, if you’re visiting Old Cairo (Coptic / Islamic Cairo) you have to cover your whole body. But if you’re visiting Giza Pyramids Complex, you can dress freely especially if you’re not using any means of public transportation.

The People of Cairo

Egyptians are kind and friendly by nature. But People of Cairo are not the most friendly Egyptians. Sometimes you might find people shouting at you in the streets “Welcome to Egypt”. Don’t make their loud voice fools you, they are very friendly. In some situations, you may find them laughing at you, but they don’t mean insult, that’s their way: They make fun of everything including themselves. Except when it comes to religion and some matters regarding women. You will find them serious. So never be open about you’re beliefs and you’ll have no troubles. Also, making friends in Cairo is not a hard thing if you’re staying long enough as people of Cairo are very social.

El Moez Street / Islamic Cairo

And like any place in the world, you will find the good, generous and friendly people, and you’ll also find the ones who will always try to take some money from you or overcharge you. So, you have to be smart especially around touristic places like the Pyramids. You have to to turn down – nicely – some offers from strangers in the streets.

Tipping Culture

Tipping in Egypt is more like a culture. Some workers expect to be tipped for doing their jobs. Because they take small wages, so their monthly income depends on the tips. Like waiters, delivery men, concierge and sometimes tour guides. Their income is strongly dependent on the tips they receive. That’s the way it is. Even we – Egyptians – give tips. But tipping is not mandatory. It’s up to you. So, when someone asks for a tip, you have all the right to not pay it if you don’t want to. And even if you pay, make sure you have small notes with you. You can tip from 10 EGP to 100 EGP depending on your satisfaction with the service.

Is Cairo Safe to travel?

Cairo has relatively low crime rate in comparison to other capitals in Europe and the United States. Because of its strong culture that promotes hospitality especially toward strangers. Egyptians are also religious. So, most of them feel strongly against theft.

Touristic areas are perfectly secured by the Egyptian police. But Cairo has its problems, which you can see clearly in the crowded places. Although, pick-pocketing and sexual harassment are not very common, they exist in crowded places and public transportation buses. But even in this worst case scenario it is very common to find people on your side defending you. You can also join organized tours to visit attractions and minimize any risks. And although joining organized group tours may cost you more, it is a good way to avoid being overcharged which is – unfortunately – very common around touristic attractions.

Backpacking Cairo Transportation guide

As we explained before Greater Cairo is a huge city. And it is known for its chaotic and overwhelming traffic. But It has a very good infrastructure and different means of transportation. And I believe that transportation in Greater Cairo is the biggest challenge a traveler may face in Egypt. So, I decided to write a detailed Backpacking Cairo Transportation guide, so you know your options.

Traffic Jam in Ramsis Square

There are several options for transportation within Greater Cairo.

Uber and Uber like companies: The most convenient

Egyptians use Uber and its competitors all the time. It is not the cheapest but it is the easiest way. Uber in Egypt is definitely cheaper than Uber in European and western countries. It offers the best service: air conditioned and modern cars. It is more expensive than the regular taxi. But the major advantage is that you will never have to bargain anything or get overcharged. You can pay using credit card. Uber also offer Uber bus and Uber Scooter (motorcycle).

For Example, if you took an Uber X from Tahrir Square to the Pyramids of Giza, which is around 30 minutes ride depending on the traffic, you will pay what is equivalent to 4 to 6 USD.

The White Taxi: Cheaper but you will have to haggle

White Taxi in Downtown streets

The White Taxis are the easiest to find. Generally, they are cheaper than Uber and Uber like services, but only if they use the meter. They rarely turn on the AC. And make sure that they will charge you by the meter before. And if not, agree on the net price before you get in. But most of the times you will have to haggle over price. If you’ll use it, avoid the parked ones in front of the stations and hotels. Because these always overcharge passengers, or at least you have to bargain very hard.

The Underground Metro: fastest, cheapest but usually crowded

Cairo Metro

The Underground Metro system connects most of the Greater Cairo’s areas. It is efficient and the best way to avoid traffic jams. It is very cheap, and its fare depends on the length. But the most expensive fare is approximately 0.6 USD. The problem with the metro is that it is usually crowded especially in the peak hours. The peak hours are not the same everyday, but generally are from 7 to 11 am and from 2 to 6 pm. Cairo’s Metro has women only carriages, but women can still ride in the mixed carriages.

Buses, Minibuses and Maicrobuses: Don’t Use

I do not recommend using public transportation buses if you’re backpacking Cairo. Because using them require some skills. Like jumping on/off a moving bus. You will also need to read Arabic so you can know the bus route. The buses are very crowded and you’ll find people standing in the aisle between chairs. The Bus drivers will consistently ask you to make room for another passenger even if there isn’t any!

Transportation to and from Cairo International Airport

Different transportation means are available at Cairo International Airport. From fancy expensive private shuttle service, to Taxis and Ubers, to public transportation. Cairo International Airport also offers free shuttle bus between its terminals and the bus stop. The airport is big, busy and crowded. And here is the Full Cairo Airport Guide: Transportation and Terminals. If you’re backpacking Cairo on a budget, this guide will help you save time and money.

Domestic Transportation to/from Cairo

Egypt has a very good infrastructure. Cairo is the center of every transportation network. There is a variety of means to travel to/from other cities and governorates. Domestic flights are available from Cairo International Airport to Sharm El Sheikh, Hurghada, Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simble, Marsa Allam and Marsa Matrouh. Also, The Egyptian Railways covers most of Egypt with a variety of train services. The most popular train destinations foreigners travel to are: Alexandria, Luxor and Aswan. Egypt has also several good bus companies that cover touristic and non touristic destinations that train system doesn’t cover, like Sharm El Sheikh, Dahab, Saint Catherine and Siwa Oasis.

Nightlife in Cairo

Although, Cairo has the best nightlife in Egypt, don’t raise your expectations. Cairo is more beautiful at night but not because of its nightlife. There are tens and maybe hundreds of bars and nightclubs. Few of them host very good concerts and live events with enjoyable music. But hard partying is really rare in Egypt.

If you choose a good neighborhood, which we will talk about later, you will find good nightclubs near your stay. And you can always ask for recommendations from the hotel/hostel staff. You can also find them using Facebook and inbox them to make reservations if it is required. Most of the nightclubs will accept you if you just showed up and told them that you’re a foreigner. But it is preferred to contact them before because sometimes tickets to good events runs out before.

Drinking in Cairo

Although Egypt is a Muslim major country. Drinking in Egypt is OK but not in public. And make no mistake, walking drunk in Cairo streets can cause you troubles.

Egypt imposes a huge taxes on imported liquor. So, buy your imported bottles from the duty free at Cairo Airport. Accessing the duty free must be within 2 days of your arrival. Also, Cairo has many liquor stores, you can always buy local alcoholic drinks from stores and drink it at your hostel. But I have to warn you about local alcoholic beverages. They are really low quality. The only exception is the famous – and beloved – Stella Beer. You will find it in Every single bar and liquor store. Some foreigner friends also liked Saqara Beer, so you can give it a try.

Best Neighborhoods to stay in Cairo

Greater Cairo has tens of areas and neighborhoods. There are a lot of major differences between them. Some are rich, some are poor, some are touristic while others are not. Cairo has lots of accommodation options, from luxurious hotels with magnificent room view to backpackers hostels. So, you have to choose the neighborhood carefully to make your backpacking Cairo experience enjoyable and minimize the hassle.

Ahram Street – Heliopolis Neighborhood

For Budget travelers there are tens of clean, safe and perfectly located hostels. But there are some things to keep in mind while choosing a neighborhood to stay in. First, you have to check the location, to avoid spending unnecessary hours in Cairo’s overwhelming traffic. Second, you have to prioritize the things you care for the most. For example, some areas are quieter and less crowded, Like Maadi neighborhood, but it is far from most of the attractions. Also, Downtown is touristic and in the center of the city, but it is usually crowded. Zamalek is also clean and a cultural hub, it has nightclubs, bars, and restaurants, but it is more expensive than other neighborhoods.

Recommended Neighborhoods for Backpacking Cairo

Downtown Cairo and Tahrir Square:

The streets of Downtown Cairo

Downtown Cairo is the obvious and most common choice for travelers and backpackers. It is a big neighborhood. And the closer the hotel/hostel is to Tahrir and Talaat Harb squares the better location it is. Tahrir Square is the home of the famous Egyptian Museum. It is where the Egyptian revolution in 2011 started. Tahrir sqaure – which means liberation square – is a symbolic square. And that’s why the Egyptian security forces are heavily securing the whole area.

Street Leading to Tahrir Square / Downtown Cairo

Downtown Cairo was built in the 19th century by the orders of Egypt’s ruler at that time Khedive Ismail. He wanted his Capital – Cairo – to be the jewel of the orient. And that’s why most of the buildings were built in European architectural style. You can sense from the design and the buildings style that Downtown Cairo used to be the home of the elite until the 20th century.

Nowadays, many foreigners and expats live in Downtown Cairo. The neighborhood is not the quietest or the least crowded. But it has a strategic location in the heart of Greater Cairo. The locals are also used to foreigners walking by the streets on their own. Downtown Cairo has many bars, most of them are old fashioned and very cheap. Hostels in Downtown Cairo are cheaper than their competitors in Zamalek and Maadi neighborhoods. So, If you’re Backpacking Cairo on a budget, you may consider staying in Downtown Cairo.

Zamalek and El Gezira

The Nile Branch that separates Zamalek and other neighborhoods

Zamalek is the cultural hub of Greater Cairo. It is where artists and musicians hang out. It is the home of Cairo Opera House and El Sawy Culture Wheel and other major music and arts centers. Zamalek is also the home of several arts galleries, museums, bars, cafes and high standards restaurants. And that’s how this culturally active neighborhood has attracted thousands of expats to live there for decades. Zamalek is usually more expensive than Downtown Cairo, but its streets are cleaner and more beautiful than Downtown Cairo. So, if you’re backpacking Cairo and don’t mind paying few more for a better experience, consider Zamalek’s hostels.

Zamalek lies on El-Gezira Island across the Nile River from Tahrir Square. It is located between Cairo and Giza governorates. It is 10 minutes driving from Tahrir Square. There are two bridges connecting Zamalek to Downtown Cairo: Kasr El Nil Bridge and 6th of October Bridge.

Kasr El Nil Bridge Connecting Zamalek and Downtown / Tahrir Square

Zamalek was and still a rich people neighborhood. You can still see the villas and fancy old buildings. Also the streets are very leafy and clean. Zamalek has Gezira Sporting Club, which is Egypt’s oldest sports club. It was built in 1882. Gezira island is also the home to Cairo Tower. Cairo Tower is the tallest concrete construction in Egypt. The view from the tower is breathtaking. And that’s why Zamalek locals love their neighborhood more than you think.

Maadi

Competing with Zamalek, Maadi is also a preferred neighborhood by ex-pats. Maadi streets are also green and clean but wider than Zamalek’s. It is a perfect neighborhood for people seeking an escape from the crowd and chaos. Maadi is a prestigious neighborhood that is home to the rich. Several embassies and corporates are located in Maadi. Road 9 is the hub where classy restaurants and cafes lie. Maadi has the most beautiful Corniche in Cairo overlooking the Nile River. It is the best to place to go for a Felucca ride in the Nile in Cairo.

The only problem with Maadi is that it is far from the city center. So travelers backpacking Cairo for few days usually prefer Zamalek. But if you’re staying long enough you may consider Maadi. Cairo’s Underground Metro connects Maadi to other neighborhoods. So make sure that your place is near the Metro or you will be paying a lot in Ubers.

Heliopolis or Misr Al Jadida

The Streets of Heliopolis

Heliopolis is where Cairo International Airport is located. It is called “Misr Al Jadida” in Arabic which means “The New Egypt”. Heliopolis was built in 1905 in the middle of the desert. It was 10 KM away from Downtown Cairo. But as the time passed Cairo expanded, making Heliopolis near its center. It is used to be the home of the aristocratic Egyptians and Europeans in the early 20th century. But it is currently inhabited by well educated upper middle class.

Heliopolis is not among the most crowded neighborhoods in Greater Cairo. But its traffic is insane. It is a good neighborhood to stay if you want to be near the Airport. It might also be among the good neighborhoods to live in. But if you don’t have much time in Cairo don’t stay there because you will spend too much time in the traffic. It is not close to most of the major attractions in Cairo like the Pyramids complex and the Egyptian Museum.

Heliopolis has several landmarks. The most famous is The Baron Palace. It was built in 1907. The Baron Palace belongs to the Belgium entrepreneur and Egyptologist Baron Empain. He was the man who adopted the Idea of building Heliopolis. He promoted Heliopolis as a “city of luxury and leisure”. Among Heliopolis landmark is The Catholic Basilica church where Baron Empian was buried. Also, the current presidential palace was originally known as Heliopolis Palace Hotel. It was built in 1907 as well. And it is now known as Ittihadia Presidential Palace.

Al Haram – The Pyramids Street

It is a very long street that connects Giza square to The Giza Pyramids complex. Al Haram street is very crowded, noisy and chaotic. And unless you can afford a luxurious hotel with a Pyramids view room, I don’t recommend staying at Al Haram street. Most of the backpackers hostels and small hotels sell their rooms as Pyramids view, but most of them are not as clean as Downtown and Zamalek Hostels.

The only logical reason to stay at Al Haram street is that you’re visiting Giza Pyramids, Saqqara, Memphis and Dahshur sites and you don’t have much time. But you won’t be able to spend time in other places in the city. Also walking the street is not enjoyable because of the crowd.