An Egyptian friend of mine told me: “Egypt is notorious for ripping tourists off.” However, at an exchange rate of basically 1 USD = 5 EGP at the time, even getting ripped off is still very cheap. But frugal tourists such as myself still get worked up over haggling, because even if it is cheap by relative standards, it’s more about the principle of paying the proper amount for what an item should really be worth. That’s what working on the trading floor will do to you… and being raised by parents who grew up in China (if you think Chinatown haggling is difficult, imagine trying to do it in the actual country).
As soon as Natalya and I collected our baggage from the Cairo International Airport, we were greeted by swarms of men offerings transportation services to the city. We ended up getting swept away by a man in a sharp business suit who produced a book with comparison transport prices, which of course pointed out his services would be cheapest. We ended up paying 80 EGP, plus tip, which truthfully wasn’t terrible for our first venture into Egyptian haggling. My friends who came later said they tried to charge them 100 EGP each because of their baggage.
Read about local transportation options here.
We checked into a small but cozy hostel called Pension Roma. The elevator was a bit of a sketchy antique, but it fulfilled its purpose whilst keeping its passengers alive. We paid 95 EGP per night for a private twin room with shared bathroom facilities. It was very clean for a hostel, had an extremely helpful staff that didn’t push tours on all its guests, was conveniently located near the subway, included a free continental breakfast, as many mosquito repellent coils as you want (score!), and well, it was ridiculously cheap (about 15 USD per night for two people!).
It was dusk by the time we ventured out on our first touristy sight: Cairo Tower. The manager of Pension Roma rolled his eyes at the mention of the “tourist monstrosity.” I’ve found it to be a very common thing globally for locals to despise whatever structure the tourist board has built with the sole goal of… well, being tall.
It’s a necessity for every tourist destination to have a very tall building… think Tokyo Tower, London Eye, Singapore Flyer, Sydney Tower, Auckland Sky Tower, CN Tower, Space Needle, or even that ridiculous pinnacle which gave the Empire State Building a height record. Ok, I admit, I’ve been to most of all of those… Anyway, Cairo jumped on the bandwagon in 1961 with the Cairo tower, complete with observation decks and a rotating restaurant of course. We arrived just in time for sunset, so we got the best of both day and night views. Admission fee is 70EGP for non-Egyptians, 20EGP for locals.
Next on the agenda was to find out what Saturday nightlife was like in Cairo! Honestly, it was a nice change of pace to trade our usual night-out attire of Sex and the City decreed slinky tops and high heels for the more Muslim-friendly modest attire (long sleeved shirts, jeans).
As we wandered through the streets of Cairo in our comfortable sneakers, hopping from every bar listed in Lonely Planet trying to find some cocktails (no such luck), I was amazed how safe I felt. Sure, we definitely got many looks as it was 1) rare for women to be out without a male companion, and 2) it was rare for foreigners in general to be out walking the streets. In fact, the whole time we were in Cairo, we rarely saw non-Egyptians walking the streets, as we learned the tourists rarely ventured out of their air-conditioned tour buses and 4-star hotels (which, by the way, is where we eventually found liquor in this country).
After giving up on the idea of enjoying a nice cocktail, we stumbled upon a charming little shisha spot in some random alley (ok I understand this all sounds shady, but it really wasn’t!). It had colorful strung lights, plastic chairs and tables spilling out onto the streets. Old men were playing board games, laughing, drinking tea, and smoking away. Even though we were in a more local area and the only foreigners around, we didn’t have any trouble settling in and enjoying our apple-flavored shisha. A very good first night in Cairo!