Our family of five (3 teenagers aged 14, 15 and 17 years old) had the opportunity to explore Cairo for 7 hours on a recent layover. Of course, I had a ridiculously long list of landmarks, historical monuments, and museums that I wanted to visit. I realistically calculated that we needed 3-4 days to really allow us to see and experience most of them. But, we didn’t have the time. I had to decide whether to wait and book a return trip to Cairo, or bite the bullet and see what we could see within the timeframe. Ultimately, I bit the bullet and booked a private Cairo layover tour.
Was it worth it?
I would say spending 7 hours exploring Cairo is worth every minute and dollar that you spend.
Cairo Layover Tour
This is not something that I would propose doing on your own for a few reasons.
1. Cairo is an enormous, sprawling and chaotic city. Officially, it has a population of approximately 10 million. Unofficially, it is closer to 25 million. The city has grown and evolved out of necessity without any real city planning. In case after case, we saw half built buildings full of squatters and even a massive cemetery that 50,000 people now call home.
2. Driving is crazy! If there is 4 lanes, you will more than likely have about 7 cars driving side by side. Pedestrians simply step off the curve and walk across the street whenever it suits them. If a driver hits them, no matter what the circumstances, it is the driver’s fault. Along the streets, large random groups of people hang out by the side of the road flowing in and out of traffic while they wait for buses. Buses and trains are completely packed to overflowing.
3. Timing is of critical importance. In order to make the most out of your visit, you need a professional tour guide and/or driver who knows when and where to pick you up at the airport, and when and how to return you so that you easily make your next flight. Relying on public transportation or randomly picking up a taxi driver at the airport would be risky for a number of reasons, but at the very least, would make a timely return to the airport very stressful.
Book A Private Cairo Layover Tour
There are a number of travel companies that offer private Cairo layover tours. All you have to do is google “Cairo layover tours” and dozens of links show up. Even more can be found on TripAdvisor with comments and opinions about the quality of the tour that is being offered. However, when I started to follow up with these travel companies, two issues became apparent.
1. Itineraries were similar
First, the itineraries were remarkably similar for every private Cairo layover tour. In our case, we were landing in Cairo at 11:00 am. By the time, we would be able to purchase a visa and clear customs, we were scheduled to be out of the airport and picked up around 12:00 pm. We didn’t have to worry about luggage, of course. That was being transferred by the airline to our evening flight.
In Cairo, most historical sights and museums close by 4:00 pm. Accordingly, with the size of the city and traffic issues, we really only had the option to go to one significant attraction before the 4:00 pm deadline. For us, without question, visiting the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx was our number one choice.
After 4:00 pm, every tour included visiting “Islamic Cairo”, the only significant historical or cultural “attraction” open. It is also on the way back to the airport. This meant taking a walking tour on El Moez street which is over 1000 years old and filled with mosques, tombs and mansions built during the Islamic era. In addition, it also incorporated time exploring and shopping in Khan el-Khalili, a major bazaar in the centre of Old Cairo. Finally, all tours ended with a transfer back to the airport in time for our flight.
2. There were significant cost differences
Second, there were notable cost differences between tour companies offering a private Cairo layover tour with the exact same itineraries.
Case in point, we almost booked our private Cairo layover tour with a company that was going to charge $125 USD per person. This included pick up and drop off at the airport in a large air conditioned van, an English speaking Egyptologist guide, entrance fees into the Pyramids and the Sphinx (a $10 USD per person cost), and lunch.
After further research, I found Egypt Tailor Made Tours who offered the exact same itinerary, with the same size van and an English speaking Egyptologist guide, for $28 per person – a massive price difference! This did not include the $10 per person entrance fee to the Pyramids or lunch, but that was the only difference.
Delay or inability to acquire an Egyptian Visa
Further, the terms were excellent. I only had to pre-pay $20 USD deposit to secure the tour. The balance of $120 was due in cash at the end of the tour. This was significant. One of the concerns of booking a Cairo layover tour is the very real possibility that your flight is delayed. If a delay is significant enough, then there comes a point when taking a tour might not be practical. If you have prepaid for the whole tour before arriving, this could be a loss of a lot of money.
A further consideration for Egypt is that most visitors need to purchase a visa before entering the country. Yes, you can acquire it before arriving but not without a lot of hassle. Accordingly, many people who are only entering the country for a Cairo layover tour choose to purchase their visa on arrival. Again, if for some reason this is denied to you and you can not leave the airport, then not pre-paying for the tour is ideal.
Of course, neither result is great for the tour company or the guide, but it addresses the very real issues preventing most travellers from even contemplating booking a Cairo layover tour, much less an expensive one.
Was The Cairo Layover Tour Worth It?
YES, I loved our tour. Our guide, Heba, was wonderful. She was waiting for us at the airport. From the time we got into the van, until we were dropped off for our evening flight, we were immersed in Egyptian history and current events. In addition, we had our own driver who focused on the psychotic sport of driving and parking in Cairo.
The Pyramids of Giza and Sphinx
The Pyramids are approximately 1 1/2 hour drive from Cairo International Airport. The exact travel time depends on traffic and time of day, but count on it being at least this long. The drive took us through a big chunk of Cairo and it was fascinating. We loved seeing the seething masses of cars and people basically EVERYWHERE. I was captivated looking at the different neighbourhoods and how this huge metropolis has grown and overflowed into areas unprepared to handle the throngs of people. It was amazing having a glimpse into what day to day life looks like for most Egyptians.
The History of the Pyramids
When one talks about the “Pyramids of Giza”, they are essentially referring to the three pyramids constructed over 4500 years ago by three different Pharaohs (Kings). Pharaohs expected to become gods in the afterlife. They prepared by building temples and massive pyramid tombs filled with all the things they needed in the afterworld.
Pharaoh Khufu built the first pyramid and is the largest in Giza. It towers 481 feet (147 meters). It’s believed that 2.3 million stone blocks, each weighing an average of 2.5 to 15 tons, were used.
Khufu’s son, Pharaoh Khafra, built the second Pyramid at Giza. He also built the Sphinx, a mysterious limestone monument with the body of a lion and a pharaoh’s head which stands guard over his tomb.
Exploring the Pyramids and the Sphinx
We walked around the Pyramids and the Sphinx for about 1 1/2 – 2 hours with our guide. I was awe-struck by these incredible structures. There were a lot of people milling around, but at the same time, the pyramids are located on a huge piece of land. This allows visitors a lot of space to wander around and view them unencumbered from far away and right up close. Of course, the sheer mass of these structures make you and the crowds feel very small and insignificant.
We scampered up a few levels of King Khufu’s pyramid. That involved a little more jockeying for space. We also climbed down into the tomb of a smaller pyramid, one that entombed a Queen. That was a little freaky. We walked backwards down a ladder into the darkness on a one way route. We couldn’t see the bottom and had no idea where we were going or how far it was. In addition, it steadily got hotter and hotter as we descended.
Once at the bottom, we found ourself in a very small room without anything else. Then, we climbed back out, somehow balancing on one foot and leaning perilously off the ladder to allow others coming down to pass us. A wild experience that I would recommend doing provided you are not claustrophobic!
Be prepared for Egyptian men in uniform asking you for money at random times. When we climbed up a few levels of King Khufu’s Pyramid, a man had his hand out. We had no idea what we were supposed to pay him, so we just ignored it and got swept away with the crowd. Again, another man stood at the front of the other tomb where we climbed down into the Queen’s pyramid. Entrance to this pyramid was supposed to be free. It was only when our guide stepped in that he stood aside and let us go down without paying. So, just in case you aren’t as lucky as we were, I would have a couple dollars in hand to help you freely move about the Pyramids.
El Moez and Khan El-Khalili
After walking over to view King Khafre’s Pyramid and the Sphinx, we drove around 45 minutes to El Moez and Khan El-Khalil. On the way, we stopped at Felfela and purchased shawarma, falafel and drinks and ate in the car. We didn’t want to waste any of our time stopping for a prolonged meal. Felfela is a chain and the food was delicious and ridiculously cheap. If you are short of time, I would recommend stopping at one of these and picking up a quick bite to eat.
El Moez and Khan El-Khalil were a fantastic place to spend the last of our time in Cairo. We saw many old historic and beautiful buildings. The street was packed with people, cars, motorcycles and there was action everywhere. We passed by restaurants offering tempting food, vendors selling on foot a variety of things, and gorgeous shops with artisan jewelry and other traditional Egyptian crafts for the home. We eventually sat down at a cafe, had a drink and people watched. That was a lot of fun.