Kickstart your adventure in Egypt with this Cairo itinerary, designed for first-time visitors with 3 days in Cairo and Giza.
Cairo is dusty, smoky, and chaotic. It’s hardly the Babylon of most travelers’ dreams. But there’s no denying the rich historical heritage in this ancient city and wealth of treasures from thousands of years ago.
For first-time visitors, Cairo can be overwhelming and downright frustrating. On my first trip here 13 years ago, I was put off by the constant hassling and chaotic traffic in the city. But my recent solo trip to Egypt showed me that it IS possible to appreciate Cairo by adjusting your expectations. After all, Cairo is truly a historical treasure that you need to visit at least once in your life.
Table of Contents
- 3 Days in Cairo Itinerary
- Current Egypt Travel Restrictions 2021
- How to Get to Cairo
- Do You Need to Book a Tour in Cairo?
- Cairo Itinerary Day 1: See the Ancient Pyramids
- 2021 Prices for the Giza Plateau
- Cairo Itinerary Day 2: Explore Coptic Cairo
- Cairo Itinerary Day 3: Get to Know Islamic Cairo
- More Cairo Itinerary Ideas
- Cairo Travel Guide
3 Days in Cairo Itinerary
For those planning 3 days in Cairo, this itinerary will help you make the most of your time there and experience the best of the city. This is part of my longer 2-week Egypt itinerary.
Current Egypt Travel Restrictions 2021
Since 1 September 2020, all travelers must present a negative RT-PCR test certificate on arrival (taken no more than 72 hours before departure). Make sure your PCR test certificate is written in English or Arabic and be stamped by an accredited laboratory. No quarantine or mandated testing is needed.
Travel insurance is also mandatory to travel Egypt. Safety Wing is the most popular travel insurance company for COVID19-coverage. I use their Nomad Insurance plan, which covers COVID-19 as any other illness as long as it was not contracted before your coverage start date. Refer to my travel insurance guide for more details.
How to Get to Cairo
The gateway into Cairo is the Cairo International Airport (CAI). Flying into Cairo from most parts of Europe is rather affordable. You can fly from London to Cairo for just £250 return (5-hour flight) or Paris to Cairo (4-hour flight) for as low as €280 round trip.
To get to downtown Cairo from the airport, I suggest arranging a transfer with your hotel. My hotel offered free airport pickup even though it was an hour drive away in Giza. Otherwise there’s no shortage of taxi drivers waiting by arrivals; prepare to haggle and don’t pay more than 100 EGP (US$6).
Cairo Itinerary Day 1: See the Ancient Pyramids
The Giza plateau is home to the most iconic historical site of the world. For nearly 4000 years, nine impeccably built pyramids have stood on this plateau, built as massive tombs on the orders of the pharaohs. Today they stand as a tribute to the achievements of ancient Egypt.
Of the three pyramids at Giza, the Great Pyramid is the largest — and it’s the only ancient wonder of the world left. You can actually enter the Great Pyramid (with an extra ticket) and climb the steep stairs that lead to the King’s Chamber. It’s definitely worthwhile to venture inside, but some might feel claustrophobic inside.
Marvel the Giza Pyramids
Prepare to spend at least three hours at the Giza Pyramids. That should give you enough time to walk all over the plateau, go inside one of the pyramids, take a horse or camel to the panoramic point, see the Sphinx and the visit the Solar Boat.
You’d be forgiven to think the Pyramids of Giza are located in the middle of a desert. The ancient site is actually surrounded by houses, shops, restaurants and dusty roads. You can easily find restaurants just outside of the exit by the Sphinx, including the famous Abou Shakra (Read my restaurant recommendations).
Visiting the Giza Pyramids: Things You Need to Know
- Go early, preferably around 8am. The tour buses start arriving around 10-11 am. During my visit in March, it was close to empty due to the pandemic; but usually Giza plateau gets very crowded.
- If you’re visiting on your own, you can easily take an Uber to the main entrance. A ride from any hotel in Giza costs around 15 to 20 EGP ($1-1.50).
- Be prepared for a lot of hassling here — female vendors shoving t-shirts into your bags, men draping scarves on you without asking. Avoid eye contact, smile and keep moving.
- There’ll be tourist touts following you everywhere. Most say they’re official guides from the Pyramids and that their service is free. At the end of it, they’ll ask for a big tip.
- The Sphinx is included in your ticket. The Solar Boat however requires an extra ticket, but I don’t think it’s worth it (based on my first visit there 13 years ago).
- To explore the Pyramid ground, you can technically walk everywhere. Most people hire a horse cart or a camel (which adds to the experience, though it’s not quite as comfortable as it looks). The official price of a camel ride is 350 EGP ($20) per hour.
Visit the Dahshur Pyramids
In the afternoon, head over to the town of Dahshur, about an hour’s drive from Giza. This area is not easy to get to, so I advice booking a day tour. On my first trip to Egypt, I booked this full-day day tour with a guide who really made the history come alive.
The two main pyramids to visit in Dashur are the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid. The “bent” pyramid has an unusual appearance is unusual. The first 49 metres, which have largely kept their smooth limestone casing, are built at a steep 54 degree angle, before tapering off towards the top.
The angular shape contrasts with the straight sides of Sneferu’s Red Pyramid just to the north. The Red Pyramid, named for the rusty hues of the red limestone, was Sneferu’s third pyramid.
See Egypt’s Oldest Pyramid at Saqqara
Saqqara is the largest archaeological site in the country. The vast necropolis is home to eleven pyramids in total – the burial places of the pharaohs – amongst which several are magnificent examples of ancient art and architecture.
The most prominent site is the Step Pyramid of Djoser, that stands over 200 feet (60 m) tall, with a base of 358 feet by 397 feet (109 m by 121 m). It was the Egyptian’s first successful attempt to build a pyramid, and is one of the world’s oldest monumental cut stone structures.
Explore the Ancient Capital of Memphis
Memphis was once the ancient capital of Egypt. It was the country’s center of commerce and trade and an important religious center. Today, what is left of the ancient city is collected in the Memphis Open Air Museum.
The highlight of Memphis is undoubtedly the magnificent fallen colossal limestone statue of Ramses II. At 33 ft (10m) tall, it’s massive and really gives a sense of the magnitude of the temple during its heydays.
Watch the Pyramids Light Show from Your Hotel
In the evening, head back to your hotel and catch the Sound and Light show at the Pyramids (skip to my recommendations for hotels with Pyramids view). This show takes place every evening at 7pm October – April and at 7:30pm May – September. During Ramadan the starting time is pushed to 8:30pm.
It’s rather kitsch to be honest, with neon green, red and yellow lights flashing about. I wouldn’t recommend going to the Pyramids for the show (tours cost around $50) — instead just enjoy the view from your room for free.
Cairo Itinerary Day 2: Explore Coptic Cairo
Visit the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities
Make your first stop the Egyptian Museum, where almost all of Egypt’s most highly priced treasures are stored. This is a must visit —preferably with an Egyptologist in tow. Book a guided tour here.
Inside, the grand ground floor features a variety of sacorphagus, giant stone sculptures and coffins. The first floor houses two rooms of mummies. The most intriguing attraction at the museum is Tutankhamun’s tomb, displayed alongside his complex gold coffins, gold trinkets, objects, and jewelry.
PRO TIP: The museum’s treasures will be relocated to the new Grand Egyptian Museum, scheduled to open in June 2021 on the Giza Plateau.
Go to the Top of Cairo Tower
From there, walk across the Nile River and head up to the highest floor (62nd level) of the Cairo Tower. This is where you get the best view of the city. Have a simple lunch at the cafe below the panoramic deck and enjoy your meal with a view.
Entry costs 200 EGP ($12). If you want to take photos with a DSLR, you’ll need to pay a whopping 300 EGP ($18) extra for it. I suggest storing your camera in the locker and use your phone to snap photos instead.
TIP: There’s a strong restriction on taking photos with DSLR almost everywhere in Egypt (due to security). Anywhere that allows it will charge a hefty fee for it. BUT taking photos with a phone is allowed and free everywhere!
Visit the Coptic Museum
Take an Uber or taxi to the Coptic Museum. The Copts follow a denomination of Christianity and Cairo is home to the largest Copts population in North Africa. Copts are actually the closest descendants of Ancient Egyptians.
A great place to learn more about the Copts, the Coptic Museum houses Coptic art from the earliest days of Christianity in Egypt right through to early Islam. It is a beautiful place, as much for the elaborate woodcarving in all the galleries as for the treasures they contain.
Head to the Hanging Church
The most famous church in this district known as Coptic Cairo (Masr al-Qadima) is the Hanging Church. Contrary to what its name implies, the Hanging Church—Al Moallaqa—is not actually suspended from anything. Its moniker comes from the fact that it’s built on top of the gates of an old Roman fortress.
TIP: The Hanging Church is free to enter. It’s open every day from 9am-5pm. There is no strict dress code, but it’s wise to wear clothing that covers your shoulders and knees.
Catch a Glimpse of Ben Ezra Synagogue
Behind the Hanging Church, you’ll find the Ben Ezra Synagogue, an architectural gem and one of the last remaining testaments to the once-vibrant Egyptian Jewish community. According to local folklore, this was where baby Moses was found.
For dinner, kick back after a busy day of sightseeing at Zooba. This modern Cairo-based chain is a great spot to try Egyptian street food bites in colorful spaces. It’s so popular among locals that it’s opened up branches in US and Saudi Arabia.
Cairo Itinerary Day 3: Get to Know Islamic Cairo
Get Lost in Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar
Start your day at Cairo’s largest and most vibrant souk, Khan Al-Khalili. You’ll find everything from frankincense to lamps and jewelry shops. Originally built as a mausoleum for the Fatimid caliphs, the complex features Ottoman architectural style.
One place you shouldn’t miss is the hundred-year-old café Fishawi, best known for its Egyptian-style coffee and ambience. The shop has served international celebrities in the likes of Egyptian Nobel Laureate author Naguib Mahfouz and Will Smith.
Meander along Muizz Street
A short walk north of Khan Al Khalili is the bustling Muizz Street, dubbed the “world’s largest open-air museum of Islamic monuments”. The street is flanked by some of Egypt’s oldest and grandest structures, as well as a series of antique shops.
A stroll reveals architecture from dynasties that have ruled the city in different eras—from the Fatimid dynasty in A.D. 970 to the more recent Pasha rule. Home to the Qalawun Complex, it also houses a spectacular mausoleum and impressive Mamluk architecture, including a minaret within a dome.
Enjoy a Stroll in Al Azhar Park
Catch a short Uber ride to Al-Azhar Park, Cairo’s greenest space. The gated park was originally a landfill, and was transformed into an urban attraction in 2005. Entrance is 25 EGP ($1.50) for adults.
Sprawling over 74 acres of central city land, it is a veritable oasis among the urban hustle of Cairo. After a walk, have lunch at the Citadel View Restaurant, and watch kids splashing in the fountains and locals enjoying a picnic on the green lawns. The traditional Egyptian fare here is fantastic and outdoor terrace is glorious.
Enter the Cairo Citadel
A short walk from the park is the Cairo Citadel. The medieval fortification was the seat of government in Egypt and the residence of its rulers for nearly 700 years from the 13th to the 19th centuries.
Its location on a promontory of the Mokattam hills commands a strategic position overlooking the city and dominating its skyline. In 1976, it was proclaimed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Entrance is 180 EGP ($11) and includes entry to the mosques and museums inside.
Visit the Impressive Mosque of Muhammed Ali
The biggest attraction within the 12th century Citadel walls is the Mosque of Muhammed Ali. Situated on the summit of the citadel, this Ottoman mosque was the largest to be built in the 19th century.
With its animated silhouette and twin minarets, this is the most visible mosque in Cairo. The best time to visit is right before sunset as you can see how the city transforms from this elevated view.
More Cairo Itinerary Ideas
To explore beyond Cairo, you’ll need more than three days. For those with more time, you can easily do day trips to nearby cities like Alexandria or the Bahariya Desert or continue on to Luxor. Here are some day trips worth checking out. I always book my day trips on GetYourGuide as they’ve consistently given the best rates (plus free cancellation).
- Historical Alexandria Day Tour
- Cairo: Bahariya Desert and Oasis Day Trip
- 4×4 Desert Safari and Sandboarding
- Red Sea and Snorkeling Day Trip
Cairo Travel Guide
How to Get Around Cairo
Cairo has changed quite a bit since my first trip there 13 years ago. Now it’s much easier to get around Cairo thanks to Uber. It’s super fast and cheap to use Uber anywhere in the city, plus you won’t waste time haggling with drivers.
To have data while on the go, I suggest getting a Vodafone SIM card at the airport or any mobile shop company. I paid 230 EGP (US$15) for 3G of internet data. Most Uber trips within Cairo’s city center cost between 18 and 50 EGP ($1-$3) while a ride from Giza to Cairo is around 80 EGP ($5).
Best Time to Visit Cairo
The best time to visit Cairo is between October and April, when temperatures are cooler, but still pleasantly warm across the country. I traveled Egypt in early March and found the weather to be really comfortable, with daytime temperatures around 75°F (23°C) and nighttime 59°F (15°C).
The summer season (May to September) is hot, although the high temperatures are alleviated by very dry air, far fewer visitors and lower prices. There also tends to be a bit of a breeze on the Nile.
Where to Stay in Cairo
There are two main areas to stay in Cairo: one is Downtown Cairo and the other is Giza. Downtown Cairo is mayhem, but you’ll be staying within easy reach from the museums and markets, plus a stay on one of the five-star hotels (with 3-star prices) along the Nile River is incredibly pleasant.
Personally, I prefer to stay in Giza, as it’s much calmer and you can stay literally steps away from the Pyramids. However, Giza is around a 45-min drive from Cairo center so keep that in mind.
Best Hotels in Giza
Budget: Giza Pyramids Inn
Located across the street from the Sphinx entrance gate, this is the budget hotel with the best location in town. Sunset on its rooftop is spectacular. Rooms are simple but very cheap. Check rates here.
Mid Range: Pyramids Eyes Hotel
I stayed in this well-priced hotel with huge rooms that offer unobstructed views of the Pyramids (around $45/night). It’s still a 5-minute Uber ride from the Pyramids, but waking up to that spectacular sight is priceless. Check rates here.
Luxury: Marriott Mena House Cairo
The closest hotel to the Pyramids, Marriott Mena House (pictured) is a lavish five-star hotel with landscaped gardens, upscale restaurant and the best sunset views in town. Definitely worthwhile to splurge here! Check rates here.
Best Hotels in Cairo City Center
Budget: Egyptian Night Hostel
Overlooking the River Nile, Egyptian Night Hostel faces the Egyptian Museum and features modern and brand new, private rooms. Check rates here.
Mid Range: Steigenberger El Tahrir
Just a block from The Egyptian Museum, this four-star hotel has a central location near Tahrir Square. It’s upscale yet affordable, with an outdoor pool and several restaurants. Check rates here.
Luxury: The Nile Ritz Carlton
One of the best hotels in Cairo, the Ritz Carlton (pictured) is located on the Nile corniche, adjacent to the Egyptian Museum. Excellent water views, luxurious rooms and incredibly good prices. Check rates here.
Where to Eat in Cairo
Located by the Sphinx exit of the Giza Pyramids, this well-known restaurant is a big hit among visitors and well-heeled Egyptians. They have a traditional Egyptian menu with some highlights including roasted pigeon. Read reviews here.
This modern Cairo-based chain is a great spot to try Egyptian street food bites in colorful spaces. It’s so popular among locals that it’s opened up branches in US and Saudi Arabia. Read TripAdvisor reviews.
Citadel View Restaurant
Within the park, the gorgeous Citadel View Restaurant has a glorious outdoor terrace and wonderful setting. Its menu includes traditional Egyptian dishes, at above-average prices. Read reviews here.
What to Pack in Cairo
Egypt is a Muslim country, and it’s best to dress conservatively when traveling in Egypt. In Cairo, where many western women tour and live, you can easily get away with a dress. I wore dresses a few times but always made sure to have a shawl or jacket on me.
- Loose harem pants, long-sleeved tunics and dresses that cover your knees are the best things to wear in Egypt for women.
- Quick dry hiking pants and short-sleeved shirts are my favorite thing to wear when traveling in Cairo.
- Always bring a scarf to cover up and a lightweight jacket for the chilly nights regardless of when you’re traveling Egypt.
- To protect yourself from the sun, bring a wide-rimmed hat, SPF50 sunscreen and polarized sunglasses.
- For camera gear, I carry an Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II Mirrorless that’s lightweight and easy to lug around. It fits perfectly in my leather mini messenger bag along with an extra lens, passport and other belongings.
Cairo Travel Tips
For first-time visitors, Cairo can be overwhelming whether you’re a seasoned traveler or not. Local tourist touts tend to exploit tourists and the amount of hassling is insane. Here are some of my personal tips to help you navigate Cairo.
- It’s hot in Cairo during the day even in winter so always wear a hat and sunscreen. In summer, temperatures can rise to the mid-40s.
- In Egypt, it is common to encounter persistent and relentless vendors. The hassling is at its worst at the Pyramids of Giza. Some can be downright rude, shoving their t-shirt into your bag or draping the scarf on your neck and forcing you to pay for them. Just smile, say no and walk away.
- Solo female travelers in Egypt might also encounter some form of sexual harassment from local men. Many of them tend to think that non-Muslim girls are loose. I met a taxi driver who offered me hashish and a “some sexy good time”. Be strong and firm, and try not to get stuck in situations where you’re alone with a man and have no where to run.
- The Egyptian society runs on cash and tips — it’s common for people to ask for a bakshish or tip (don’t expect guards to take a photo for you without tipping them).
Further Reading on Egypt
That’s a wrap! I hope my 3 days in Cairo itinerary will help you see the city’s most interesting sights without being too overwhelmed. Feel free to print out this Cairo itinerary or bookmark this and refer it to it during your Cairo trip. If you’re interested in reading more on Egypt, check out these articles I’ve written on the country as well as neighboring countries:
Let me know if you have any questions below. I’d be more than happy to help!
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