What?! Travel to Cairo?

Say the word Cairo these days and most people think of danger and violence, an off-limits city in a newly forbidden country. In reality, the entire country of Egypt is still safe and travelable, including Cairo. The violence in the city is contained almost entirely downtown, which is home to Tahrir Square, where the majority of the sporadic violence occurs. The rest of the city moves along as normal. Stay away from Tahrir on its off days and you probably won’t see any evidence that anything is amiss.

Traffic in Cairo

I traveled to Cairo once before its January 2011 Revolution and have been there four times since. Each time I find an electrifying city, chaotic and crowded, gritty and real. Cairo is Cairo, and no other city in the world comes close to its personality. To avoid Cairo is to miss out on one of the world’s most important and exciting cities and to never get to meet the people who make it tick.

Peace from Cairo

Woman with a turkey

Two boys in Islamic Cairo

My fifth trip to Cairo was this past weekend, and I found that, as always, its atmosphere was filled with high energy.

This is a city where people are as likely to walk in the streets with traffic careening closely around them as they are to walk on the sidewalks.

Cairo mixes the new with the old in curious ways, such as the occasional donkeys hauling carts filled with fruits and vegetables in the midst of its heavily trafficked streets.

The people of Cairo are emotional and passionate, friendly and open. If you’re curious about the Revolution or their lives afterwards, ask them and they’ll be happy to tell you what they think and feel.

We’ve all heard about sexual harassment in Cairo lately, and I personally have had reliable female sources tell me that they themselves were victims of harassment while in Cairo. Honestly, though, I myself have not experienced harassment in Cairo. I was with Osama, a male Egyptian friend, this time around but still walked around by myself quite a bit and have been totally alone other times I’ve traveled to post-Revolution Cairo. Just because you’re female and travel to Cairo does not necessarily mean you are going to be harassed.

Me in Cairo, Tahrir Square, Febrruary 2013

I have to admit that this trip to Cairo was different from the others in one respect. Every time I’ve visited the city since 2009, I’ve stayed in the same hotel, which is downtown at the corner of Al Falaky and Mohammed Mahmoud Streets. Most unfortunately, Mohammed Mahmoud Street, as it is just minutes from Tahrir Square, has seen quite a bit of serious violence since the Revolution, and two of my friends who live in Cairo warned me away from staying there again.

So I switched hotels. This was hard for me to do, as the people of my old hotel had become like friends, welcoming me into their hotel like it was my home each time I stayed. However, I just couldn’t face the possibility of arriving in Cairo exhausted at night, after a 12.5 hour flight from New York, to find that there was trouble on Mohammed Mahmoud, that the streets were closed and my hotel was surrounded by the army, as has been the case when I’ve stayed there before. For more on my previous experience with staying in a military zone in Cairo, read this.

So I made a reservation at another hotel, this time in the Islamic area, near Khan el-Khalili souq, far from Tahrir and Mohammed Mahmoud. Here, I was surprised to see dozens of Western tourists over the two days I was there, a sight I never saw during the times I stayed downtown. Not everyone in the world is afraid of traveling to Cairo, after all, I was happy to learn.

Actually, I would have been just fine if I’d stayed at my old hotel. I visited both Tahrir Square and Mohammed Mahmoud Street, and there was nothing going on.

Man walking with bread on his head in Islamic Cairo

I will say that Cairo is not a starter city. It’s not for beginners. It’s chaotic, confusing and difficult and not a good place to learn how to get around in a foreign city.

For more experienced travelers, please don’t write off Cairo or the rest of Egypt as forbidden travel territory. Cairo is a compelling and fascinating place, with a powerful personality that draws me in time and again. Understand that violence in Cairo is sporadic and not constant. Know that most of it is confined to the area Tahrir Square and the immediately neighboring streets downtown. The rest of the city hums along as normal. Normal for Cairo, anyway. :)

9 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Steve says:

    Hey Sabina,

    A friend of mine just recently visited Cairo and had a great time. It’s a lot safer than most people would expect. Most of the time, nothing exciting is happening. And those times when there is a protest going on, you just play it safe and walk away. When I was in Marrakech, I walked right into a huge protest on the street. People were marching and one person was talking through a loudspeaker. I just walked off to the side and let them pass by. To this day, I still don’t know what it was about.

    Like you said, most of the events are contained to one area of the city. It reminds me of when I went to Northern Ireland. People told me not to go because protests were going on. It’s true, but they were entirely peaceful and isolated to one area of the city I wasn’t going to see anyway. Plus they happened every year so people just shrug it off there.
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  2. Sabina says:

    Hey Steve – right, you can just walk away if you see something dangerous going down, no matter where in the world you are. Everyone in Egypt – Egyptians and tourists and expats – talk about the huge decrease in tourists all the time. It is so noticeable and so hard to accept because when you’re in Egypt you can see everything is fine. I think it’s probably far more likely you will be assaulted or killed on the streets of any major American city than it is in Cairo. I hope you’ll make it to Egypt some day soon.

  3. I always enjoy reading your perspective, and love that you go beyond stereotypes. Cairo sounds fascinating. Unfortunately, sexual harrassment is a worldwide issue. I read yesterday that it even went on in the Oscar ceremony. I wish no woman had to go through that, and sorry to hear that your friends have.
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  4. budget jan says:

    I believe you when you say the rest of Cairo is unaffected by the goings on in the Tahrir area. It is a shame that a city and indeed Country has to suffer a decline in tourists when only a small area is affected.
    budget jan recently posted..Barcelona Photos from the StreetsMy Profile

  5. Sabina says:

    Yes, sexual harrassment really is a worldwide issue. It can be a matter of perspective too. For instance, yesterday my landlord in Dahab was saying things like you’re beautiful and your boyfriend is very lucky. Some people would call this harrassment. I call it flirting.

  6. Sabina says:

    Hi Jan – I’m happy you believe it. It bothers me so much to see this country so barren of tourists. Not only are individual Egyptians who are in the tourism industry or who otherwise make money from tourists suffering financially but people who are avoiding Egypt are really ripping themselves off because the situation is just fine here and Egypt still has all of the amazing sights and experiences it always has.

  7. John says:

    I likewise have never had any trouble in Cairo. Although it does get some bad press, I think its all concentrated on one particular area. For those who don’t go because of this, i’m afraid you’re missing out.
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  8. Sabina says:

    I’m happy to hear you’ve been to Cairo and didn’t have any trouble, John. Definitely you’re missing out if you travel to Egypt and don’t hit this crazy yet loveable city.

  9. ListsMania says:

    If you ask me for a fair advise than trust me that travelling to Cairo at least once in life is must for any person who loves travelling .. because the old traditional culture and food of Cairo is a must try and unforgettable thing for any one

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