Sunday, July 26, 2009

Ruby's Guide to Cairo

Going to Cairo sometime soon? (You totally should).

In a (somewhat vain) attempt to try to forget that I'm back in Sweden, I thought I'd write up this alternative travel guide to Cairo for people who are looking to get more out of the city than the guide books offer. And who am I? I hear you asking.

Well, I used to live there, I've worked as a tour leader there, and I keep going back every year or so (this year, I've been twice already). Because, as they say, once you drink from the Nile, you always come back.

(And if you drink the tap water, you drink from the Nile. So you know, in case you're not planning to start traveling to and from Egypt for the rest of your life).

First, let's very quickly handle the top-of-the-list must-dos: Giza Pyramids, Egyptian Museum, Khan el-Khalili bazaar, Salah el-Din's Citadel, and Coptic Cairo. Do these things in maximum two days. Consult any guide book, I won't waste blog space on telling you what so many others have already said so well. You have to see these places for the sake of having seen them, but once you have seen them, trust me, Cairo has so much more to offer.

(Feel like you don't really want to keep your nose in a guide book before visiting these places, or even heading off to the less-visited Saqqara, Memphis, or the Western Desert? Call my old colleague, closest friend, and probably Cairo's best guide Ashraf Mansour--he will show you around, fill your head with historical facts and funny anecdotes, and take care of you like no one else. Ask me for his details. I'm serious).

Once you're done with this, then welcome to my Cairo. I'd love to show you around, but seeing as how I'm not there at the moment, these travel tips will have to do.

First on my list is always:


Stay away from hotels and tourist places. Not only because the menues are usually boringly "international," but also because you're more likely to end up getting stomach problems. Egypt is known for upsetting Western stomachs, and there is no better place for this than where the food sits for hours in fancy buffets. Honestly. The best places to go are those that the locals frequent, and I daresay that if everybody did this, Egypt would be more famous for its delicious food than what happens to sensitive tourist stomachs. Here are some places I never miss out on:

Koshary Hilton
A small koshary place on Tahrir Square, downtown Cairo. Koshary is (quite perplexingly) the best food ever. Perplexingly so because it seems very simple and plain and decidedly un-special, but I assure you it is amazing. It's rice, pasta, noodles, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions, tomato sauce and this lemon-garlic dressing thing (and a very spicy pepper sauce, if you dare) all mixed up on one plate, and it is to die for. I swear. Go to KFC at Tahrir Square, and when you stand facing KFC, go a few meters to the left, and you will find Koshary Hilton there (it has nothing to do with the Hilton hotel chain, by the way). It's a small, two-story restaurant. Go upstairs and wait to be served. Ask for "Basal ziyada," or extra onions. It's nothing fancy, super cheap, but so delicious.

Gad in Mohandeseen
An Egyptian fast food chain, Gad serves the best foul in Cairo. Foul is a dish most Egyptians eat with bread for breakfast, or sometimes at night. It's basically mashed fava beans with oil and spices. Also nothing fancy, but really, really nice. I always order foul bel-homos, and there is no place that makes it better than Gad in Mohandeseen. Gad is on the main street, Gameat el-Dowal el-Arabeya, right where Shehab street starts. Also go up on the second floor and wait to be served.

Abu El-Sid
If you're looking for a nicer, more classy restaurant, then go to Abu El-Sid in Zamalek. It's on 26th of July Street, almost at the end towards downtown Cairo (not towards Mohandeseen), and it's really, really, really nice. I never knew about it before, but my friend Hani took me there this time and I loved it. The place looks absolutely gorgeous, decorated in an old-timey Egyptian-Arabic style with low tray tables, lanterns, and cushions. They serve traditional Egyptian food that's really good. If you're going after 8 pm, you might want to call ahead and make reservations. It's a popular place.


Once you've done your obligatory tourist shopping of miniature pyramids and camels, t-shirts with Tut-Ankh-Amon prints and all that stuff, let me suggest some really nice places that I always go to.

Fair Trade Egypt
Not sure whether it feels entirely right to have all the things you buy marked "Made in China" on your trip to Egypt? Go to Fair Trade Egypt in Zamalek. Not only is everything made in Egypt, guaranteed, but it's all also produced according to Fair Trade standards, which essentially means that the people making the things you buy actually get a fair price for their products. Fair Trade Egypt works to empower struggling artisans (making beautiful traditional baskets, jewelry, pottery, soap, bags and tons more) that can't normally compete with industrialized mass production. Go there. It's not even expensive. It's in Zamalek off 26th of July Street, check out their website for directions.

The Loft
Also situated in Zamalek, actually on the same street as Fair Trade Egypt, is The Loft. It's a showroom/shop/gallery/apartment on the second floor, beautifully decorated and full of really nice old furniture, lamps and things. Normally, I guess, people only visiting Cairo for a week or two don't really go shopping for furniture, but I don't care--you have to go to this place anyway. I'm not kidding. Everytime I go there, I want to move in. And everytime I go, I make mental notes of coming back to do some serious shopping as soon as I know where to settle down in this world (because I don't want to bring it all back to Sweden, only to ship it off to the next country I'll move to). Imagine Egypt in its colonial past, with all its Arabic influences, with beautiful lamps, tray tables and divans. Gorgeous. If I had the money, I'd buy the whole apartment and move in.

City Stars
For some clean, dustfree, airconditioned shopping in the biggest mall of the Middle East, go to City Stars in Nasr City. It's new, huge, modern, popular, a little more expensive, up, and very nice if you need a break from the heat, the noise, the crowded streets, the honking cars, the dust, the pollution, and the black and white taxis on the verge of falling apart of the Cairo outside.


After you get tired of hanging out in caf├ęs smoking shisha and drinking fresh mango juice (which you simply have to do), then there are some other things you must do when you're in Cairo.

Feluka Ride on the Nile
This is a little touristic, I know, but I don't care. There is nothing, nothing, nothing in this world that beats renting a small sailboat and floating around on the black, shiny surface of the Nile at night. Nothing. Go downtown, and walk down the Kornish by the Nile until you come to Semiramis Intercontinental--it's south of Qasr el-Nil Bridge (the one with the lions), really close to Tahrir Square. There are numerous other places that rent boats, but you don't want the ones with motors (well, if you're Egyptian, you normally do, but if you're after the romantic, calming, de-stressing experience that I love so much, you do not want the ones with motors), so go to the place that rents boats outside Semiramis. Go for an hour. It'll just be you, whoever you wish to bring along, and the feluka guy steering the boat. Sit back, breathe in the sweet smells of the Nile at night, dip your hand into the water and watch as the bustling, noisy, polluted city slowly, slowly shifts as you float around in the middle of the river. Absolutely beautiful.

Horseback Riding at the Pyramids
There's a place outside the pyramids area that has stables and stables with horses and camels, and it's not actually only tourists that come there. Egyptians go too, usually at night, and ride in the desert. We went in the morning, and I decided I wanted a camel instead of a horse, because it somehow feels more right to ride a camel in the desert. They are slower, but therefore also calmer, and anyway, I love their outlook on life. Or the way I imagine their outlook on life, which is basically, "Screw everybody, I'm obviously the coolest creature on the face of this earth, which is what makes me look so content and stuck-up. And if you don't like it--screw you. But I'll carry you across the desert if you want."

Mohamed Ali Club
On the Giza side of the Nile (that is, the western shore), somewhere south of the Pyramids Area, there is a gate in the wall that runs along the street for miles and miles, blocking out the view of the Nile. It doesn't look like anything at all from outside, and there's not even a sign anywhere guiding you right, but if you know where you're going, and if you've got 80 Egyptian pounds in your pocket and a swimsuit under your clothes, it's the best place to beat the summer heat without actually going outside of Cairo. It's one of many clubs (for the more well to do) in Cairo (which, I imagine, is a remnant from when the British were in Egypt); this one is smaller than for instance the Gezira Club and doesn't have any sport facilities or anything. Just a swimming pool, a restaurant, a shisha place, and a green area with cows (!) where you can take walks and enjoy the view. Normally, Cairo isn't the place where you go to get a tan. It's a huge city, and at that, a predominantly Muslim city, so you won't exactly find people walk around in thong bikinis on the street. But there are places where you can go and enjoy the sun and cool off in a swimming pool, and the Mohamed Ali Club is one of them. Apparently, the place is an old summer residence of the Egyptian king, Mohamed Ali. Very pretty.

PS If you need more travel tips, don't hesitate to ask, okay? :)