Touchdown Egypt. Where to stay? Cairo or Giza?
Before embarking on our Grand Tour of Egypt we wondered where we should stay? To kick-off the trip we decided booking a hotel a stone’s throw from the Great Pyramid of Cheops would be perfect; surely six nights in Giza would be the ideal springboard for our exotic adventure. The allure of waking to the sight of the Great Pyramid at close range was intoxicating. Did we get it wrong staying in Giza? No. Staying in Giza for as long as we did? Yes.
The plane lands smoothly on the tarmac. We disembark and head to the arrivals lounge. Our Egyptian travel agent’s representative is there to meet us. He waits patiently while we collect our luggage then guides us seamlessly through customs. Before stepping outside to face the Cairo heat, we head to the ATM and draw out a wad full of Egyptian pounds to tide us over until we reach our hotel.
Our Cairo guide, Egyptologist Mohammed, is charming, well groomed and well spoken. Our equally delightful driver, Farug, knows limited English but has a beautiful smile which lights up his whole face.
Not the least bit tired, we clamber into the car and it’s off we go. The drivers are crazy and fearless. Our car merges from one lane to two then the mash-up suddenly becomes more than six unmarked lanes charging in one direction at breakneck speed. Everyone’s trying to jag the nearest space ahead of the next person. It’s a game of Chinese checkers and we’re one of the marbles. I realise quickly driving in Cairo is a game of strategy, skill and sheer luck.
As we make our way through head-spinning traffic and make our way towards Giza it’s evident the Egyptian economy is struggling. The 2008 world financial crisis hit the country hard; the 2011 revolution which saw the downfall of its long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak, created further instability. 30 years of Mubarak’s autocratic governance and corruption had led to poverty and unemployment. In November 2016, the Central Bank of Egypt floated the Egyptian pound hoping to stabilise the economy which had been impacted by a shortage of foreign currency flows and political instability. Tourists stayed away in their thousands, yet tourism has long been one of Egypt’s leading sources of income.
Sitting comfortably in our air-conditioned vehicle it never dawned on me as to Giza’s location; I asked our guide if were near Giza. I had assumed it was in Cairo. It is not. Giza is an Egyptian city on the west bank of the Nile River, near Cairo. Giza’s population: 8.8 million. Yet Cairo and Giza appear to merge seamlessly sliced in half simply by the Nile.
Cairo is a vibrant, bustling city. Population: 9.7 million. Five-star hotels set a stark contrast against buildings that have seen better days. The city shows the obvious signs of over population, yet surprisingly in amongst the aging city’s façade are some of the most beautiful buildings boasting fine examples of late 19th century French architecture (albeit discoloured by the hands of time and mankind).
From what we have seen, Giza is not like Cairo. Five-star hotels are few. Many parts of the city are uncared for and needing major refurbishment. Maybe further away from the pyramid plateau there’s modern urbanisation taking place but from where we were staying it didn’t appear so.
It’s unusual to spot a car in Giza that isn’t dented and scratched somewhere on its steel body. Horses and donkeys pepper the busy streets. Many are painfully thin and look weary as they pull the carts heavily weighed down with goods transporting their load through busy streets and alleys. Pollution piling high along canals and against walls is a constant reminder of a city crammed with people. But don’t this scene dampen your spirits or desire to visit Cairo.
Pollution and overpopulation aside, do remember why you are there: to experience those glorious pyramids. In this little patch of sandcovered heaven we stood gazing at the pyramids of our childhood dreams, threw caution to the wind and climbed up a narrow shaft to reach the pharaoh’s empty burial chamber and with its empty sarcophagus, and survived an exhilarating camel back ride around the desert capturing the most spectacular views of the pyramids set against a haze-covered Giza.
Sightseeing done and dusted, you really will appreciate returning to your hotel, chilling in your room and watching these ancient monumental structures disappear into the darkness of night. We stayed at Le Meridien Pyramids Hotel and Spa which would have been a quite something in its heyday but is now very tired.
Having stayed for six nights in Giza and one in Cairo, my recommendation would be to stay one night in Giza. For the remainder of your time in Cairo, book a hotel that has views of the Nile. And do try to up the ante when it comes to your accommodation spend wherever you choose to stay. Four-star rating is not the same as it is in Australia. Definitely book five-star. When you’ve been out all day, there’s nothing better than walking into a swank hotel lobby, sauntering up to your room, peeling off sweaty clothes and relaxing in a beautiful bathroom with all its swish amenities.
For your night’s stay in Giza, the Mena House is perfectly located and certainly offers a luxe vibe, but ensure you book a room that includes unimpeded views of the Great Pyramid. The hotel also has a sumptuous bar, perfect for a pre or post-dinner drink. Remember, Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country and many of the hotels are ‘dry’ – an alcoholic beverage could be difficult to procure.
To all travellers arriving in Cairo for the first time, do not take first impressions to heart. Embrace this land with all its highs and lows and you’ll experience a journey like no other.
Remember, Egyptians are descendants of the ancients, true survivors; warm-hearted, generous and welcoming. The poverty should be overwhelming, but in Cairo and Giza the people are forever optimistic. Throughout our stay, even our guide and his driver gave their leftover lunch food to the poor. Kindness is deeply entrenched in their DNA. Even the chaotic traffic – vehicles almost sideswiping each other with barely 30 centimetres to spare – never seems to phase them. And for those who may be slightly phobic about some religions, after querying our guide about the Muslim religion, he gave us a greater appreciation on the fundamentals of Islam. There seems to be more similarities to Christianity than the perceived differences we Westerners understand.
From the getgo, our friends questioned our sanity when we announced we were off to Egypt. Yet, during our stay, at no time did we feel threatened. And yes, there are armed guards throughout Egypt, but that made us feel at ease knowing our safety was in excellent hands.
We have seen growing confidence in the country’s level of security and first-hand evidence the number of tourists is on the increase. If you’ve ever dreamed of going to Egypt go now before tourism takes the upper hand again and the crowds become unbearable!
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