Exactly one month from today, we’ll make our grand return to Egypt. (Not that we’ve been counting down to October 7, or anything…) We can’t wait to experience all the mystery, ancient history, and mouthwatering shakshuka with trained Egyptologists again. That’s why we turned to Go Ahead staffer Claudia for a thrilling sneak preview at what it’s like to travel to Egypt right now.
Claudia touched down in Cairo this summer to attend a wedding with a local friend, but she seized every free moment to see the sites on her six-day trip. Here are her top three takeaways from her out-of-this-world adventure to the land of sand and sun.
Staffer Claudia enjoys a practically private tour of the Pyramids of Giza
1. You’ll have the iconic spots all to yourself
With so few tourists and so much to explore, Claudia said she felt like a VIP everywhere she went. “If you’ve ever wanted to be the main character in an Egyptian movie, now is the time!” she said. She recommends hitting these can’t-miss Egyptian spots to get an unrivaled experience of the history and culture.
The Pyramids of Giza. Typically, thousands of people flock to this Wonder of the World every day. So Claudia and her friend planned to get there early and beat the rush. “Unfortunately, we accidentally slept in, and I was sure it’d be busy, and we wouldn’t get good photos,” she said. Instead, they arrived to find just a few local souvenir vendors and some seasoned camels. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said. “It really felt like the pyramids were there just for us.” If you have free time on tour in Cairo, Claudia recommends a stop at the new 9 Pyramids Lounge nearby. “We sipped coffee with a view of the Pyramids,” she said. “It was unreal.”
No tourists to block the shot at the National Museum of Egyptian History
The Royal Hall of Mummies. This new wing of the National Museum of Egyptian History just opened in April 2021. It is now the resting place for 20 royal mummies, including King Ramses II, the most famous pharaoh of the New Kingdom. Claudia expected that she’d have to fight crowds to even get a glimpse of these ancient rulers, since it’s one of the top things to do in Egypt right now. Instead, the hall was empty. “The exhibition was amazing,” she said. “You feel like you’re in a crypt and there are these beautiful descriptions of each person’s story.” Claudia got so close to the exhibit’s stars that she came away with a new appreciation for the entire mummification process. “They don’t look so bad for being wrapped and dead for thousands of years!” she said.
Khan-el Khalilli market. This 14th century souk is the oldest and largest market in Egypt. Spread over several blocks in central Cairo, the colorful, aromatic stalls usually bustle with thousands of locals and tourists on the hunt for gilded antiques, delicious treats, and even perfumes. Claudia sashayed past soaring ancient arches and priceless tile mosaics without squeezing past a single group. Even her friend, a Cairo native, couldn’t believe it. “He was shocked,” Claudia said. “He said ‘I’ve never seen it this empty. This is not normal.” Claudia said she loved having the extra space and time to explore the lantern stalls and take artsy photos without crowds blocking her shot. If you're into photography, Claudia absolutely recommends a stop here during your free time on tour in Cairo.
Traveler tip: Wear modest clothing and bring a mask to the Pyramids, museums, and mosques. Women should also bring a head covering—although, American visitors can usually skip it when strolling through less formal places like the souks. Guards are strict and will deny you entrance if you don’t meet the local cultural and health standards.
Claudia stops for a snap at her favorite lantern spot inside the market
2. A local guide is a must, especially right now
Claudia is a seasoned world traveler, so she’s no stranger to tackling new cultures and cities solo. But even for her, Cairo felt just a little too difficult to face on her own, especially right now. “Even though the tourist places were empty, it’s still a very hectic city,” she said. “There are 20 million people speaking a language you don’t know… you don’t know customs… I wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t for a local like my friend to guide me.”
Beyond leading her through Egypt’s religious customs and cultural norms, Claudia’s friend proved invaluable at helping her navigate the new health rules and restrictions. That’s why going guided is one of the safest ways to travel this year. “It was so much better for someone who knows the language to take care of all the small details, especially at the airport,” she said. “How do I get a VISA right now? Who do I give my PCR test to? Do we need to wear a mask in this place or that? To me, that was priceless to have someone like him do all the things Go Ahead does for our travelers.”
And, of course, Claudia’s friend was also the secret to finding all the best restaurants in Egypt… and the spots to skip, too. “The food was amazing everywhere, but my friend did want me to be very careful with street vendors because you have no idea where the food’s coming from,” she said. “I wanted to buy these candies by the market and he was like, ‘I don’t care if it looks good, you can’t eat that!’”
Traveler tip: Egyptian street vendors have a different sense of personal space than Americans do, so turn to your local guide (who will also be a trained Egyptologist!) to help keep them at a comfortable distance.
Claudia said she only saw two other tourists at Muhammad Ali Mosque, one of Egypt’s most renowned historical sites
3. Expect arrival and departure to be a bit different
The biggest concern for Claudia was how to get in and out of the country during COVID, especially since Egypt news and rules are hard follow abroad. But she said the entire process was flawless, thanks to her friend’s guidance.
When she landed in Cairo, Claudia had to show proof of a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before arrival. On the way out, she needed to have proof of another negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before landing in the U.S. Thanks to her friend, Claudia knew exactly where to go to get that second test. “Egypt has labs, drive-throughs, and hospitals that do next-day PCR tests, plus they do home visits, too,” she said.
Traveler tip: Make sure your COVID test clearly shows the letters PCR. “The Egyptian customs officers are looking for THOSE specific letters, not that it’s a molecular test,” Claudia said.