Habibi, Come to Egypt! Travel tips with Shahrzad
Hello, I'm Claire aka Shahrzad! If you don't know me, I'm an American dancer who's been living and working in Cairo for the last 7 years. My interest in Egypt started way before my experience in dance. When I was very young I developed an obsession with Egyptian mythology and history, so when I finally visited Cairo to attend a dance festival at age 17 it was not only a huge deal for me as a dancer but I was also fulfilling my childhood dreams. I continued traveling to Egypt to study and vacation for many years until receiving offers for work and eventually relocating to Cairo permanently in 2015. Even now after all this time I still have a sense of curiosity and wonder about the culture and history of this fascinating country and regularly spend my time traveling to explore ancient monuments, train with folk performers in their local areas, and experience the natural beauty of remote beaches and oasis’.
I've compiled a list of tips based on my own experiences as well as regular questions I get from those planning to visit that should give you an idea of what to expect and how to have the best experience possible. Let's dig in!
This is probably the top question I get about living in Egypt. IS IT SAFE?!?! In short, yes. I feel like this question usually comes as a result the negative and generalized portrayal of the North Africa/Middle East that exists in most western countries. Due to the way in which we are fed information we tend to lump this part of the world into one category and think of it as backward, dangerous, and stuck in some weird orientalist time warp. The real truth is that every country in this region is extremely diverse, and most are safe for travelers.
Tourism is one of if not the main money-making industry in Egypt and ensuring the safety and happiness of foreigners coming to visit is in the best interest of the country. People are welcoming and helpful; you will be met with the phrase ‘you are welcome on Egypt’ from just about everyone. Touristic sites and hotels are always protected with extra security and the government monitors travelers to make sure they are getting to and from sites and hotels safely.
All that being said, there are still a few things to keep in mind that will ensure your safety and comfort.
Dont blindly trust strangers! People are super friendly here, but you will definitely come across a lot of hustlers with an agenda especially around touristic areas and dance festivals.
Don't visit very local areas without a guide or native Arabic speaker. Just like any major city, Cairo does have some dangerous neighborhoods and even if they aren’t dangerous some of the more local areas are much harder to navigate as a foreigner. When you move away from the touristic and more cosmopolitan areas of the city and into the countryside the lifestyle of the local people is a lot more traditional, and few people speak English. Guidance in these areas is important to adhere to cultural norms and communicate properly.
Always have phone and/or internet access! Wifi is not widely available and you dont want to get stuck or lost without service. See if you can get an international phone plan for your visit. Another option is to pick up an Egyptian SIM card on arrival at the airport or at a local vodaphone store. The cost of a SIM card is very affordable, maximum $30 usd for the card itself and lots of minutes and data, all you need is to purchase one is your passport.
-Get a good guide
I cannot stress this enough, having a good guide can MAKE OR BREAK your experience visiting Egypt and this is absolutely something you should invest in. Touristic sites are filled with hustlers and scammers and if you choose to go alone, I assure you that it will not be a pleasant experience. Besides shooing away unwanted attention, guides will also enhance your experience by giving you lots of historical and cultural knowledge and show you lots of places you might have never even known about or considered to visit. Guides can also help organize transportation and accompany you on errands around the city, making your trip much easier and enjoyable. Official guides must go through specialized training and have a license from the government so make sure to do your research and find one with good credentials.
-Stay close to the action
Cairo is a unfathomably huge city and traffic is crazy so it’s good to be strategic about your hotel location. Most of the ancient sight-seeing such as the Sphinx and Pyramids are in Giza which is at the edge of the city, it's worth staying there for a few days for the views and easy access to touristic sites but for the rest of your trip you might want to consider a more central location to avoid hours sitting in traffic. My top suggestions are Downtown, Garden City, and Zamalek. These are all neighborhoods with fast access to most Cairo nightlife, shopping, museums, and Medieval Cairo sight-seeing. These neighborhoods are also very diverse and filled with local amenities like pharmacies, grocery stores, nice restaurants, and shops. Things are very accessible, and many people speak English which makes these places very comfortable for foreigners to stay. These areas have some fancy hotels, but I highly suggest checking out air bnb for some amazing boutique hotels and rental apartments at great prices.
-Get used to “Cairo Time”
If you’ve spent time with anyone from Egypt you’ve probably heard some jokes about this and I can assure you, it’s true. Time moves veeeery differently here! Even a simple task like going for a costume fitting might end up taking hours after traffic and the customary Egyptian hospitality traditions of sitting and having a coffee and a chat before getting down to business. Be flexible with your plans and expectations of having a strict schedule, being fluid and going with the flow will not only allow you to be less stressed but can also open you up to some cool opportunities that pop up out of nowhere.
-App it up!
For all of its history and culture Cairo is still a mega-city with a generally modernized population and lifestyle. Lots of the same kinds of mobile applications are available here that you would have anywhere else. Make your life easier and download a few simple applications.
Rides: Uber, Careem, inDrive
Food Ordering: Talabat, Instashop
-Learn some Arabic
Another question I get is if you will be able to get around the city without speaking the language. The answer is a bit of yes and no. As I said before, some neighborhoods are much friendlier to English speakers than others, once you leave the tourist tracks knowing some words comes in handy. The main language spoken in Egypt is the Egyptian dialect of Arabic called ‘Owmeya’ and there are several teachers on zoom and YouTube who you can study with for the basics. Very few foreigners, even ones that live here, make the effort to learn Arabic so even just using a few words is greatly appreciated by locals and leads to some fun connections and interactions.
-Dress for your environment
Egypt is a Muslim majority country with a smaller Coptic Christian population and the general public adheres to a modest dress code but that doesn’t mean there isn’t variation in what you can wear. Especially in Cairo there is a huge range in how people dress, you will see women wearing everything from hijab to miniskirts. What you wear depends completely on where you are. For example, in more local and touristic areas you will be out around the general population, I would suggest covering more skin (legs, belly, chest, shoulders) to blend in more. When I'm running errands around the city, I usually wear jeans and a t-shirt or a maxi dress with a flowy beach coverup on top. When you are on the premises of a hotel or in an upscale restaurant or night club anything goes, full on western club wear is totally acceptable, just make sure you have a coverup for the street. Hair covering is not required in any area unless you are entering a functioning Mosque. Make sure to bring hats, comfy walking shoes, and flowing skin covering clothes for sight-seeing in the desert, the sun is hot and intense, and you will definitely be climbing around!
-See all the shows
One of the highlights of any trip to Egypt is getting to see live music and dance shows! Most venues dont promote belly dance shows on social media aside from a few posters for shows at Discos (western style night clubs). Some of the best show venues with live music dance shows such as the Hotels like the Nile Ritz Carlton, Semi Ramis, Fairmont and boats such as Nile Maxim and Blue Nile need to be called for schedule and reservations. Reaching out directly to dancers via Facebook and Instagram is also a good idea. Most of them are happy to have dancers attending their shows and if they see your message will give you locations and times for their performances.
Belly dance shows are only a tiny part of the live entertainment available in Cairo and I highly suggest exploring different kinds of shows. Check out venues like Makan in downtown, El Ghoury in Khan Khalili, El Sawy Culture Wheel in Zamalek, and Cairo Jazz Club in Aguza for a variety of dance and music shows ranging from traditional folk arts to modern fusion music by Egyptian artists.
-Get out of Cairo
It could take weeks to even scratch the surface of what Cairo has to offer but the crowded concrete jungle can get exhausting. A short plane ride will take you to the Red Sea with beautiful ocean views and extensive coral reefs or Luxor and Aswan for some of the best ancient tombs and temples in the world. If your time is limited there are many beautiful places within a short drive from Cairo as well! A 3-hour drive north will take you to Sahel Shemali (North Coast) which boasts beautiful white sand beaches and turquoise Mediterranean water. A 2-hour drive south will take you to Tunis Village in Fayoum, a beautiful, lush area along a natural lake where you can experience the beauty of countryside life and adventure out into the desert to check out sand dunes, rock formations, and dinosaur bones.
Egypt is a fascinating place with some really wonderful people. If you study or profit off of Egyptian dance, it is so important to connect directly to the culture as well as give back by supporting Egyptians and their businesses. Travel with respect, curiosity, and an open mind and heart to new experiences and human connections.
I hope that you found this article helpful and that when and if you decide to come to Egypt that you have the trip of your dreams!
If you would like help planning a special trip we offer travel consulting sessions as well as intimate all inclusive tours for dancers and non dancers. You can learn more on my website…