Many of us grew-up with images of Egypt imagined from biblical stories or as seen through the eyes of movie directors. These visions of Egypt as a destination filled with mysterious archeological exploration, exotic trips down the Nile and the romance of a far-off country might feel every more distant given the limits of travel today. While the idea of travel during a time of such uncertainty might seem challenging or even foolish, the opportunity to experience some of the most famous landmarks on the planet without the throngs of crowds and tourists was too tantalizing for us to resist. Because, truth to tell there could be no better time to turn your imaginings of Egypt into reality than now.
After learning that Egypt opened its borders to Americans we enlisted our friends at Valarie Wilson Travel to plan the trip. With printed negative Covid results in hand, and a 72-hour window to enter Egypt, we took the “big leap” and crossed the pond for the first time since 2019!
Egypt is a vast country with rich with experiences, but we decided to narrow our short visit to exploring Cairo and experiencing the pyramids. Cairo is a dense, chaotic, and at times, intimidating crush of humanity that is both exhausting and invigorating. But, there’s nothing like The Four Seasons Hotel at The First Residence to counter the bustle of Cairo with a relaxing retreat. The hotel centrally located on the Nile, delivers attentive service, and traditionally tailored rooms and suites. Splurging on a property like The Four Seasons could not be more in reach than now, and you won’t regret the experience as counterpoint to Cairo.
An experienced guide is essential in Egypt. The logistics of getting around, prioritizing sites and fully understanding and appreciating the history is quite simply overwhelming on your own. Add to it the particulars of being a gay couple in a Muslim country, finding the right guide becomes even more of an essential decision. Ammed Aziz of High End Journeys proved to be our best stroke of luck. He is an expert in Egyptology, has a warm personality and made every effort to, not only customize our trip, but make us feel we were in safe and open hands.
We began our visit with the the most wondrous Wonders of the World: The Pyramids of Giza. Located on the outskirts of Cairo, these are the largest of over 130 pyramids in the country and the Great Pyramid is the oldest and only remaining wonder of the ancient world. Along with the three colossal edifices, the Great Sphinx of Giza sits nearby. While the enormity of these structures is truly breathtaking, seeing them during the pandemic, without the hordes of tourists and barrage of vendors was easily one of the most extraordinary experiences in decades of traveling the world.
Our next stop on the itinerary was the world-famous Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. Built in 1901, it is home to largest single collection of Pharaonic antiquities. Once again, due to the lack of tourists, there were no lines to enter and very few visitors inside. You are transported back in time with the ancient exhibits and endless galleries of some of the most significant finds in history. Yet the typewritten descriptions and simple wooden display cases made the art approachable and intimate. The centerpiece is of course the King Tutankhamen exhibit. Easily considered Egypt’s most popular Pharaoh found in a nearly intact tomb containing over 5,000 artifacts. It is a rare opportunity to see the mask, mummies and jewelry so intimately.
We ended our day at the Khan el-Khalili, the famous bazaar in the historic center of Cairo. Encompassing structures that date back a thousand years, this endless maze of shops, mosques and coffee houses still functions as the commercial heartbeat of the city. Here you find both typical tourist souvenirs, and authentic crafts made by artisans who have passed on skills and traditions through the generations. This souq is certainly one for the senses and “cents”: you will enjoy bargaining your way to your Egyptian treasures.
We spent our next day in Coptic Cairo. This unique section of the city features significant early Christian churches and a brilliant museum of Coptic relics and artifacts. There is plenty of historical significance down every alleyway of this neighborhood: from the remnants of the Babylon Fortress to the “Hanging Church” and Abu Serga which is built on the spot where it is believed that Mary, Jesus and Joseph lived when they fled to Egypt. This area of old Cairo is filled with religious history, sacred landmarks and sites that date back to earliest chapters of the Christian faith.
On our third day we decided to go a bit further afield. While Giza provides an unabashed spectacle of grandeur and showmanship of Egyptian pyramids, the slightly less popular pyramids in Dahshur and Sakkara offer a distinctive perspective on a civilization shrouded in mystery and speculation for millennia. Dahshur and Sakkara are a 45-minute drive south of Cairo, through small towns and villages still practicing farming and weaving techniques that have been passed down through generations. In addition to the oldest building complex known in history, and numerous active digs are still revealing newly discovered burial sites, tombs and monuments today. This UNESCO World Heritage Site delivers unparalleled access to tombs where hieroglyphics preserved with their original pigment tell stories of life surprisingly similar to today. You may feel like an archeologist as you enter these breathtaking sites and appreciate how these powerful dynasties ruled the land. Don’t miss the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, originally named the tomb of the “twin brothers.” This unusual tomb is where the Pharaoh’s manicurist and hairdresser were believed to be buried together, and the only tomb shared by two men, making these two quite possibly the first gay couple. Further evidence is on the walls on this tomb where the two are depicted in a nose-to-nose embrace which seems to illustrate a love that has stood the test of time.
We certainly did not expect to find in Cairo such an open and magical experience. But, that we did, compels us to say: get thee to Egypt and make your own movie magic!
Some words of wisdom:
Safety – The Egyptian government has made a significant investment in ensuring the safety of tourists. You will find tourism police at all major attractions and sites and most private tours include a government sponsored security guard to provide tourists with an added degree of comfort. Overall, incidents involving tourists are rare, and we found everyone we encountered to be helpful, hospitable and genuinely appreciative of our visit.
Transportation – Prearrange a transfer from the airport to your hotel. This is best done through your local guide or directly with the hotel. The Cairo Airport arrivals hall has well-deserved reputation of aggressive “taxi” drivers who are relentless is competing for an often highly inflated fare. Uber works well in Cairo, and we found a significant improvement in the ride of an Uber Select compared to the small disparity in price in UberX.
Guides – We are intrepid travelers and very seldom hire guides, however Egypt is simply one of those destinations that may prove too challenging to navigate on your own. A local expert and experienced Egyptologist will remove the stress and allow you to fully appreciate the visit and understand the depth of what you’re seeing and experiencing.
Dining – If an evening out of Arabian Nights is your cup of mint tea, don’t miss, El Sid.
Use a Travel Advisor – Valarie Wilson Travel made this trip of lifetime memorable with their “Suite Access” program. For you, they will also arrange private dinners in front of the Sphinx or Great Pyramids of Giza or even exclusive after-hours access to the Egyptian Museum, just a few of the ways our partners at Valerie Wilson Travel create an extraordinary journey anywhere you travel.