The culture shock I’d been waiting for finally struck upon arriving into Cairo.

After two weeks in Turkey, my new standards of normalcy included a moderate level of chaos (by western standards), constant curiosity directed towards my blond hair and light eyes, and comfort at hearing the Muslim call to prayer five times a day. Well, Cairo essentially gave my new norms the once over, laughed at my naïvety, then took them and threw them into oncoming traffic.

First, Cairo is PACKED. 18 million people live in greater Cairo, where the population density rings in right around 50,000 people per sq. mile (in comparison, NYC and San Francisco have about 27,000 and 18,000 people per sq. mile respectively). Traffic is everywhere, both in pedestrian and automotive form, at all hours of the day. I’m not exaggerating when I say driving (or riding) on a Cairo freeway is like a rite of passage (see what I did there?). There is no concept of ‘lanes’, people, donkeys, parked cars, trash fires all line the sides of the road, cars reverse into oncoming traffic to make an exit, entire families zoom by on a single motorcycle. It’s equal parts terrifying and fascinating because, despite the total madness, everyone somehow gets to exactly where they need to go.

Secondly, I was not prepared for the level of attention I’d receive there. Since its ‘peaceful revolutions’ in 2011 and 2013, tourism in Egypt has subsequently dropped drastically, with the biggest miss coming out of American visits. While I certainly didn’t volunteer the fact that I’m American (people usually assumed I was German and I didn’t correct them), when Egyptians learned where I was from they treated me like a movie star! Egyptians are so impacted by the drop in tourism and so anxious for its numbers to bounce back, that complete strangers would go out of their way to make sure I was comfortable and enjoying my time. They would implore me to return home and tell my family and friends to visit, to let them know how safe it was.

And it was safe! Security was everywhere, both in the form of local police and tourism police, metal detectors were at the entrance of every building, bomb detectors at the entrance of every parking lot. There were checkpoints at every tourist site that registered each car and the nationality of its occupants. I was confused when my tour guide kept reporting me as English, until he explained that if he said I was American, Security would insist I have a personal entourage of bodyguards.

The last shock inducer, and these are not ranked by severity, was the constant reminder that I was very much in a developing country. This was consistently apparent in obvious ways such as wifi not being available in my hotel, and to lesser degrees, like having to pay small bribes to guards at historic sites.

I took extra precautions when planning my time in Egypt including arranging hotel transfers (I usually take public transportation to save money) and guided tours every day so I would have an escort and driver at all times. I’m very happy I did this and definitely encourage others who are considering a visit to do the same. I stayed at the well known and highly regarded Mena House Hotel in Giza, right behind the Great Pyramids and a nice distance from the hustle and bustle of downtown Giza.

After extensive online research I chose the Your Egypt Tours company for my day tours.

Why, hello there Mr. Camel!

I was not planning on riding a camel when I woke up that morning but who could say no to that face??

I seriously waited my whole life to see these sights with my own eyes. Giza Plateau with the three main pyramids Cheops, Khafre and Menakaure (burial tombs for grandfather, son and grandson kings respectively) pictured above and below.

The private tours run about $65-$85 a day and are worth every penny. Each guide is an actual Egyptologist and will blow you away with the extent of their knowledge. I was fortunate to have the very smart and funny guide, Sahl, for two days; he also majored in British Literature and spoke better English than I do! On a different note, one of the biggest advantages of having a guide is their ability to communicate to touts in Arabic to leave you alone. (Regardless of how remote a site is, there will inevitably be vendors there trying to sell you something.)

The Sphinx, protector of the pyramids, pictured below.

Anyone who has traveled with me can imagine how quickly I was trying to learn Arabic phrases. Only knowing a handful of words (hello, yes, no, thank you) will take you a long way in Cairo.

Below are some shots from the ancient capital of Egypt, Memphis. There was less to see at this site, as the majority of pieces were long ago removed and are now on display in London, Paris and Berlin. Unless you’ve read into ancient Egyptian history it may not be worth a visit.

Though not as famous as the Great Pyramids, the pyramids at the ancient site of Sakkara (pictured below) are actually the oldest pyramids in Egypt, built in 2650 B.C.

The ancient Step Pyramid itself is in the process of being restored so you can’t go in it, but there are tombs you can visit nearby with colorful murals that have endured thousands of years of history.

My second day’s tour was actually my favorite. As hinted at above, at many of the ancient Egyptian sites there aren’t any existing relics to see as they were either looted by thieves thousands of years ago, or were stolen by British, French or German archaeologists in the last two hundred years.

The Cairo Museum is one of the only places in Giza or Cairo that you can actually see these ancient relics and artifacts. While the foreign archaeologists took the most well preserved pieces themselves, there are still some choice pieces to behold, most famously the completely intact contents of King Tutankhamen’s burial tomb (unfortunately not pictured as there are no photos allowed inside).

Afterwards we visited some of the most famous mosques of Cairo, starting with the Al-Nasser Mohammed Mosque pictured below.

Then we crossed the street to visit the beautiful Mosque of Mohammed Ali Pasha, or Alabaster Mosque.

And thus ended my few days in Cairo. If I were to share some advice with others, it would be to space out some of the site seeing so you have more downtime to relax; it was between 95 and 105 degrees every day and, while the AC was nice, a dip in the hotel pool would’ve been nicer. Additionally I’d suggest after only a short stay in Cairo, spend some time in both Luxor and Aswan followed by either a few days at an Egyptian oasis or on a boat cruise sailing down the Nile. That will be my planned itinerary when I return to Egypt one day!

Thanks for reading!

xo Carrie