7 Things That Surprised Me About Traveling in Egypt (and One That Didn’t)

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Ever since I was a little kid, I've dreamt about traveling to Egypt.

The ancient Egypt sections of my history classes were always my favorite. I could always pinpoint where the country was on the giant map of Africa when I watched “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego.” And I still to this day will watch “The Mummy” (the original one!) anytime it's on TV.

Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, Egypt

But Egypt has had a rough decade.

I was working as a newspaper editor in 2011 during the Arab Spring, and was reading stories daily about uprisings and revolutions. It all started in Tunisia, but spread to multiple nations in northern Africa – including Egypt. And, for quite a few years afterwards, Egypt just didn't seem like a safe place to travel.

But if I've learned anything from traveling the world, it's that the news media makes most places sound a lot scarier than they actually are.

Feluccas on the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt
Nothing scary about these feluccas on the Nile in Aswan.

Many tour companies did indeed suspend operations in Egypt following the revolution; not many people were going there from 2012-2015. But we're nearly into 2018 now, and things are changing. Tourism still isn't anywhere near what it was pre-2011 in Egypt, but visitors are starting to come back each year in larger and larger numbers.

Long story short: right now is an excellent time to visit Egypt.

Middle Pyramid in Giza
Look! Hardly any crowds at the pyramids!

Earlier this year, with a trip to the Seychelles already planned, I decide to go for it, and booked a 12-day tour of Egypt with Intrepid Travel. I knew Egypt wasn't somewhere I wanted to travel 100% solo, and I've had great experiences traveling with Intrepid in the past.

I've written separately about the tour itself, but now I want to talk a little about Egypt and the things that surprised me about traveling there. Chances are some of these will surprise you, too!

7 Things That Surprised Me About Egypt Travel

1. It's not as dangerous as you think it is

The first question people asked me when I returned from this trip was: Is it safe to travel to Egypt?

I know Egypt isn't regarded as one of the safest places to travel right now (and if you read the US State Department's travel warning about Egypt, you'll probably be convinced that ISIS will come for you if you step foot in the country). And it's true that terrorist groups are active in certain parts of the country.

But the main touristy sites in Egypt are no more dangerous than popular places you might visit in the US or Europe. There's a strong military presence at most major sites in Egypt – armed guards, metal detectors, and bag checks become second nature as you visit temples and museums – but I didn't find myself feeling “in danger” at any point.

The Great Temple of Abu Simbel
No danger felt in Abu Simbel.

There are certain parts of Egypt that are no-gos right now, but they aren't places that most tourists would go anyway. (In fact, all tour operators in Egypt have modified many of their itineraries to ensure that they're not taking anyone to any of these places.)

Yes, there have been recent terror attacks in Egypt that have claimed lives – but there have been terror attacks in places like London and Las Vegas in recent months that have been deadly, too. I'm not saying Egypt is 100% safe because that guarantee can't be made about ANY destination in the world. But I am saying that it's safer for tourists than you probably think.

Mosque in Alexandria, Egypt

I was surprised at how at-ease I felt the entire time in Egypt. I wasn't even concerned about pickpockets in most places, which can't be said about every country I've visited!

2. The kids especially are incredibly friendly

I expected to get some extra attention as a white, non-Muslim woman traveling in Egypt. But what I didn't expect was that I would become an instant celebrity every time I walked outside!

At many major sites (especially in Cairo and Alexandria), me and my tour mates were constantly being approached by young Egyptians (and occasionally older ones!) asking us for selfies.

With some Egyptian girls in Alexandria
Selfie with some Egyptian girls in Alexandria. They kept telling me how pretty I was and asking me about Washington, DC. They were so sweet!

I was confused by this at first (“we don't look THAT different!” I kept saying), but our guide explained that it's a cool badge of honor right now in Egypt to take a photo with a tourist. Tourism numbers have been so low in Egypt in the past few years that people are excited to see more visitors now.

Once I learned this, I started asking for selfies back in return!

3. Cairo is chaos incarnate

I knew Cairo was a big, bustling city. But what I didn't really realize before I got there was that the city of 19.5 million is essentially chaos incarnate.

Traffic is INSANE. No one uses the painted lanes on the roads. Horns are constantly honking. People jump in and out of old VW buses in the middle of the road. And that road is being shared by everything from cars to buses to donkey carts.

Cairo, Egypt
Crazy Cairo. Photo taken by one of my tour mates from our mini bus!

Adding to the chaos is all the dust/sand (Egypt is essentially a big desert, after all) and the smog. I visited Egypt at the beginning of winter, and most mornings began with a thick, murky fog spread out over Cairo. This is something to keep in mind if you're planning to visit the Pyramids in Giza, because it means that there's a chance you may have to plan your visit around the visibility – on some days you can't see the pyramids at all!

4. The food in Egypt is unique and tasty

You'll find a lot of traditionally Middle-Eastern foods in Egypt (like falafel and shawarma and kofta), and also some Moroccan dishes like tagine. But Egypt's take is always a little unique – I noticed a lot of cinnamon in many dishes I tried!

If you're looking to try a unique Egyptian dish, go for a bowl of Kushari (or Koshary). It's a mixture of rice, pasta, lentils, and chickpeas, topped with onion and a tomato sauce. It's known as the national dish of Egypt, and can be had extremely cheaply (think less than $1 USD for a bowl).

Kushari in Egypt
Kushari in Cairo

Other things you can try in Egypt include camel and stuffed pigeon – it's common here to raise pigeons for meat like you would chickens.

5. Tipping is expected – for everything

Sorry all my non-American friends, but you're going to have to get used to tipping for everything when you travel in Egypt. Often referred to as “baksheesh,” you'll be asked to tip for everything from a porter bringing your bag to your hotel room to someone handing you a paper towel in the bathroom.

In some instances you won't be given a choice (for example, don't expect to use the toilet – even at the airport – without paying at least 2 or 3 Egyptian pounds), while in other cases a tip won't be explicitly asked for but will still be expected.

Felucca in Aswan, Egypt

It does get a bit annoying being constantly asked for money, but remind yourself that the amounts are incredibly small (5 Egyptian pounds is only 25 cents USD) and that many people in Egypt don't make a living wage.

My advice is to always have some small Egyptian bills or coins on your person, or come prepared with fresh $1 bills from home.

6. All the ancient sites are 10x better in real life

The constant need to tip is more than made up for by the fact that all the ancient sites you'll visit in Egypt – all the tombs and temples and ruins – are 10 times better in person than they are in any photos or documentaries you've seen. Seriously. Egypt's history is incredible, and so much of it has been preserved!

THIS is why you travel to Egypt.

Pyramid in Giza, Egypt
Pyramids in Giza
The Great Temple of Abu Simbel
The Great Temple of Abu Simbel

You'll see temples that are thousands of years old that still have paint on them; mummies of pharaohs that you read about in history books; tombs with walls that look like they were carved just yesterday.

Tomb of Ramses IV in the Valley of the Kings
Inside the tomb of Ramses IV
Original paint at Madinat Habu Temple
This paint at Madinat Habu Temple is original, guys!

If you've put off visiting Egypt, don't put it off any longer. Its treasures are even more impressive in person.

7. Egypt is so much better with a guide

Lastly, I think Egypt is definitely a place to visit with a local guide. I know many people prefer to travel independently, but this is a country where you get a lot more out of the experience when you have someone with you who is knowledgable about the history, the religion, and the present-day culture of the country.

Madinat Habu Temple in Luxor, Egypt
He could tell us what all these scenes mean!

Like I mentioned before, I booked an Egypt tour with Intrepid Travel (this one, in case you're interested), who always employ local guides as their tour leaders.

Our tour leader was a local from Alexandria who's studied not only Egyptology but also various languages. He could read hieroglyphics, tell us all the best places to eat, organize extra side trips people wanted to take, and let us know how not to get ripped off when buying souvenirs.

Guide Ahmed in Egypt
Our tour leader, Ahmed, showing us around the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Plus, it was great to be able to talk to someone who's lived his whole life in Egypt and has such a passion for showing his country to other people.

If you're unsure about traveling to Egypt, definitely go on a tour. (Read my full review here.)

Interested in booking a tour in Egypt?

These are the two tours I recommend:

Or you can combine Egypt and Jordan in this 19-day trip.

One thing that didn't surprise me about traveling in Egypt

It's not the Western world

Even though many Western tourists visit Egypt, it's important to remember that Egypt is not a Western country. Egypt is both part of the Middle-East and North Africa, too, and our guide kept reminding us “we're not a first-world country here, guys.

The Nile River in Luxor
If you look closely, you can see all the litter in the Nile.

So what does this mean as far as traveling? Well, expect that “5-star” accommodations in Egypt won't be like 5-star accommodations in Europe. Things will be done at a slower pace. You WILL be confronted with poverty, garbage on the streets, and sometimes animal neglect (definitely think twice before riding a camel or using a horse carriage).

You can also expect to be hassled by vendors at all the major tourist sites. You often have to say no and just keep walking – but know that they'll follow you for a while anyway trying to sell you that scarf or hat or scarab carving.

Camel in Egypt
(And take sneaky camel photos – you'll be asked for money for just taking pictures, too!)

But I'm not telling you any of this to scare you off! I just think it's important to go in with appropriate expectations. You can't travel to Egypt expecting it to be just like a trip to Germany or Australia – but that's kind of half the fun!

Egypt is unlike anywhere else I've traveled thus far, and I'm so glad I went.

READ NEXT: Can I Wear Capris in Egypt? (A Complete Egypt Packing Guide for Women)

What do you think? Is Egypt somewhere you'd like to travel?

 

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Things that surprised me about traveling in Egypt

 

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78 Comments on “7 Things That Surprised Me About Traveling in Egypt (and One That Didn’t)

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  1. Gosh, Egypt is a travel dream for me! I really like the idea of doing Egypt on a tour, especially if you’re not used to traveling in countries that are “not western”, as you put it. I cannot believe that paint is original in those tombs! It makes me wonder what exactly they used to make the paint and why we don’t still do that today!

      I mean, I’m a proponent of tours anyway for solo travelers (I’ve done a lot over the years!), but I think it’s a particularly good idea in a place like Egypt. Not only would I have felt intimidated traveling 100% solo there, but having a local guide made the history really come to life!

      And yeah, how insane is that paint?? They were all made from natural substances – mostly plants and crushed stone.

    Egypt is definitely a country I’d like to visit. All those antiquities look stunning. I loved it as a kid as well — those mysterious pyramids and elaborate tombs and rituals.

      And it’s even better in-person! You can see everything that was found in King Tut’s tomb at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and then you can actually go see the tomb itself (and King Tut himself) in the Valley of the Kings! I’m still pinching myself that I saw some of this for real!

    Thank you so much!
    I am just about to book the 8 day Egypt tour with Intrepid for October and am so excited!
    I might try and tack on Alexandria through the hotel.
    Do you feel that was a ‘don’t miss part of your trip?
    Lisa ?

      Awesome to hear! As for Alexandria, I liked it (it was cool to see the Mediterranean in Africa!), but I don’t know that it’s a “don’t miss.” If you’re going to tack on an extra, definitely make it a trip to Abu Simbel! That was my favorite temple we visited.

    I definitely have to visit Egypt somewhere in the following years, before the huge crowds have returned!
    As someone who takes a lot of photographs on trips I noticed you have pictures from inside Abu Simbel and the Valley of the Kings. Last I heard this was definitely not allowed! Did the rules change like they did with the Egyptian Museum a few years back?
    I absolutely love your pictures by the way!

      Definitely! Numbers aren’t quite back to half of what they were pre-revolution (our guide said in 2017 Egypt has had about 5 million tourists, where the number was closer to 12 million before 2011), so now is a great time to go!

      As for photos, they’ll let you take photos from the entrance of the main Abu Simbel temple, and will more or less turn the other way if you pay the entrance guys a bribe (one guy in our group gave them 20 LE to take some photos inside). At the Valley of the Kings, they now sell a photography permit for 300 LE that lets you take photos inside 3 of the tombs included with your entry ticket – I believe this is new this year!

        Many thanks for the information, I had no idea about rule change…
        That is great news for avid photographers! Makes me want to visit even more, I guess you never know when they decide to cancel it again…

          Now that tourism is back up, I think it’ll stick around!

    Oh my gosh, this post has given me some serious wanderlust!! Egypt was always on my list but I think it’s gone to the top of the list. It must’ve been amazing to get to see the pyramids with the city in the backdrop!

      It was all amazing – still can’t quite believe some of it! If it’s at the top of your bucket list, now is a great time to go!

    I’ve been to places around the Red Sea five times in my life, but I have never visited any of the major sights in the country. Needless to say, I’d like to go back! I’ve been to the Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the middle of the Sinai and I loved it. However, I guess it’s one of those places you can’t visit anymore. I hope the troubles are over soon for Egypt and its locals sake

      I really hope so, too. The last couple of years have been really tough on anyone working in tourism!

      You can still visit, Dominique. We were in Egypt earlier this year and southern Sinai is safe.

    What an awesome looking trip! Seriously your enthusiasm for this trip can be felt through the computer. I think it’s a great idea for everyone to every now and then go somewhere completely different than what they’re used to; it’s a good way to keep yourself from falling back into a bubble of sameness

      You’re so right. As much as I love traveling in the US and Europe, it’s great to go someplace completely different every once in a while!

    This is amazing! I have been dying to go to Egypt ever since I was a child! This post just confirms my thoughts that now is a perfect time to go! Thanks girl!

      Now is definitely a great time to go! No huge crowds yet, but things are beginning to pick up again.

    It looks like a great trip <3

      It was! I’m really glad I decided to go. It was kind of a last-minute decision, but this is one case where an impulse buy really was worth it!

    Wow, absolutely amazing photos! I’ve been thinking of visiting Egypt for a long time, but the current safety situation (or what I thought of that) has kept me away. Maybe it’s now time to reconsider and start searching for suitable flights… Thanks for the inspiration!

      Definitely time to reconsider. 😉

    Looks absolutely wonderful! I am so glad the feeling of ‘safe’ in Egypt. Those smiles in the selfies are SO beautiful.

      I really did feel safe! It helped that I was traveling in a group with a local guide, I think.

    LOLed when you specified that you only watch the original Mummy! I totally get it though. The last one with Tom Cruise was just horrible!

      Ugh that Tom Cruise one was AWFUL. The original is still the best. 🙂

    I’m with you on every point, Amanda. We were there in April. You’re right that Egypt is worth visiting, especially now. And especially for budget travelers. Guides are 100% worth it, here especially.

    The whole baksheesh thing is crazy, though!! I never seemed to have enough small denominations to make it through a day.

      Yes, it’s definitely a budget-friendly destination! Over the course of 12 days, I only spent about $150 USD on food, tips, extra entry fees (not included in my tour), and even some souvenirs.

    ‘Love the post Amanda. I’ve been to Egypt 4 times as it’s such a great destination. Mind you, the last time was in 2004, well before the troubles of the Arab Spring..!

    I’ve been to most of Egypt including Cairo. We flew from Cairo down to Luxor, and then took a small ship (100 people) along the River Nile. And the best bit in my opinion was the Valley of the Kings!

    p.s. It was really, really hot though, that I even fainted on the first day! Yeah, that was a shocker!

      If you go again, definitely go in the winter! The weather was lovely in late November/early December. Still comfortable, but cool up north and not unbearably hot down south.

    Thanks for your post, which gives a lot of useful information about Egypt at the moment. I traveled on my own to Egypt in July 2012 and am looking to revisit the country in the near future maybe with a tour company. There were a number of protests in Tahrir square in the evening while I was there, but I felt safe in most places in Cairo and Luxor. One I think I would disagree with your post is the need to tip for everything. I agree that for tour guides etc, they always demand money, but perhaps you stayed and dined in more expensive hotels and restaurants. I always tried to have meals at places where the locals go to, and there was no demand for tip.

    One question, I remembered that to go to Abu Simbel, the police would accompany everyone from Aswan to Abu Simbel, is it still true nowadays?

      I’m not really talking about tipping at restaurants (it’s true that it wasn’t always demanded there, but as an American I always tip for food anyway!). I’m talking more like… the guy who leads you down the steps into a tomb, or the person who loads your bag on the bus, or the person handing you toilet paper at a restroom. All those situations usually necessitated a tip!

      As for going to Abu Simbel, I actually flew from Aswan, so no police were involved. But police still do accompany some tour groups all over the country – but you never know when they might show up! We had one with us when driving from Alexandria to Cairo, but then not again in the south.

        That is true, I had similar experience at Valley of the Kings and when I got inside the Cheops pyramid. I think it is not easy to get around Cairo on your own because the public transportation is not great even though there is underground, and as you said drivers keep beeping horn all the time especially in the islamic quarter of Cairo. I also love travelling very much, having been to around 40 countries since 2005, and still having a full time job. I like to go on a short 10-day but intensive adventurous vacation, very similar to the philosophy you want to project here!

    Great post and lots of useful info as usual ! Have booked tickets to travel for a month in April across Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Turkey. Quite excited about traveling through 5000 years of history.

      That sounds like an amazing trip!!

    […] my dad looked like he’d have a heart attack whenever I mentioned it. But time has passed and other backpackers are going so I think visiting this country will be within the cards soon. Tourism was and still is a big part […]

    Nope I’ve never been interested in visiting Egypt. If I really want to see pyramids they’re in places in Mexico and Central America too. My parents went to Egypt a couple of times. My father said they were visiting the sphinx and a local offered to give them a guided tour. My father said yes, because as you pointed out everyone lives on tips. But he got suspicious when the guide headed toward the ass end of the sphinx and he said forget it and they parted ways. Most tourists only want to see and take photos of it from the front. Heading to the ass end sounds like a set up for a robbery.

      I guess it depends – at the back you can see its paws and tail, and also see the pyramids better. 🙂

    Egypt is a travel dream for me! I in reality just like the concept of doing Egypt on a tour. All those antiquities look beautiful. I really want to visit it! Many Thanks for Sharing.

      It’s definitely a dream worth pursuing! I had a great time.

    Thanks for all the info!! my husband and I are going for 20 days in April-May, 2018 and this was very helpful!

      Glad to hear it – I hope you enjoy it!

    Hi. One question that I’m having a hard time getting answered. I will be traveling to Egypt from the US and plan to purchase my Visa at the airport. Do I need to have additional passport photo’s as well? Thanks.

      Nope, you won’t need passport photos for a tourist visa – just cash (USD) to buy it! And if you’re going on your own (i.e. not meeting a guide or tour group or anything who can help you get your visa), you buy your visa at the bank-style counters on the far wall BEFORE you get in line to go through immigration.

        Thanks for the quick reply Amanda. I’m traveling solo but will be with Intrepid the whole time.

    I visited as Cairo was having a 1 year Arab Spring anniversary party. Felt safe at all times. The security services take special care with tourists as they are the life blood of the country.

    Absolutely lived my time in Egypt and would go back in a heartbeat.

    We’re going from the US with our 2 kids at the end of July/beg of Aug with our Egyptian friends (and their kids)–yes, I know it will be hot but only time we can go… Anyway, I’ve read here and there that people need vaccinations to go to Egypt. Thoughts?

    Great read, it reminds me oft when I traveled alone to Israel 2 years ago. It’s totally safe (for a blonde haired, blue eyed gal like myself ). I recommend it highly, but also like to input the same scenarios happened to me, like being followed by vendors (they think all westerners are rich). I plan on going back soon. It’s also not what the media portrays, it is safe!

      Many places are misrepresented like this! Glad to hear you had a good time and would recommend going.

    Hi Amanda

    I am traveling to Egypt on a Intrepid Tour in September! What would your recommendations be regarding appropriate clothing? There is so many conflicting articles online.

    Thanks!

    I visited as Cairo was having a 1 year Arab Spring anniversary party. Felt safe at all times. The security services take special care with tourists as they are the life blood of the country.

      Yes, and after the big tourism slump following the revolution, I think people are even more acutely aware of how important tourism is to Egypt!

    I intend to go there in September — mainly to see the historical sights — but the gossip about the perils had me a bit concerned.

    Thankfully, any tinge of insecurity has been washed away after I read your post.

    I’d traveled to Cambodia to see the temples last year & look forward to my visit to Egypt being an equally rewarding experience!

      Glad to hear that! I had a wonderful time in Egypt.

    I’m from Egypt and I so happy for your trip I wish u come again …

    Thanks for this great write up on Egypt. Speaking of being from a small town, I’m just a small town Pennsylvania boy. I leave July 9th for over two weeks and will be visiting all these places including the Sinai Peninsula. I’m traveling with a friend from Cairo. I’m so excited as this is one of the most exotic places I’ve ever traveled.

      I hope you have a great time, Shawn! And traveling with a local friend will make the trip even better, I’m sure.

    I am so glad you had a great time in Egypt. Completely agree about the kids being so friendly. I once witnessed a child going up to a tourist asking if she can touch the tourist’s blonde hair because she had never seen ‘yellow hair’ before 🙂

      That doesn’t surprise me at all! I was worried that I would get negative attention in Egypt, but most of it (and especially from the kids) was friendly and positive.

    Thanks for this post! I can’t imagine how breathtaking it would be to see such historical sites in real life. Like, hard to even comprehend! Also that kushari looks amazing…

    xx maddy

      It was definitely amazing to see all these things in person!

    Thank you for all your information about travel in Egypt, it explained everything I had question about. I am going in October, and it has always been my number one travel spot on my bucket list. I will be sure to share your information with my travel buddy.

    Been to Egypt 7 times since 2001 and never felt in danger. Like you stated there are bad places everywhere in the world. Having a
    good guide will keep you away from the bad spots. I will say that most guides want to steer you to a certain jewelry shop or other shop. Insist they don’t and inform them that their tip amounts depends on how this is treated.. One trip we were abandoned til my sister bought something (guide’s tip was almost nothing). Since then on 45 more trips we’ve used the same guide who doesn’t do this. He will take you shopping if you ask. I plan on going back for the Grand Egyptian Museum when it opens. Will use the same guide again. He is Amhed with Amazing Global Travel. I’ve gone with small group of 17 to 2 people ( the best is max 4)

      Glad to hear you’ve had similarly positive experiences!

    Hey Amanda, I like how insightful this article is, and above all how it shows what to expect in Egypt, however as an Egyptian travel blogger based in Egypt, let me clarify that north Sinai is the part that is facing unrest, but the southern part is just heaven on earth and is very safe to go, namely; Dahab, Nuweibaa, Sharm El-Sheikh, St. Catherine, Taba, & El-Tor. As for the western desert, I was in Bahariya Oasis in 2016 with a Danish and an American girls and there were no troubles at all, I’ve also been to Siwa in 2015 & 2016, and regularly go to southern Sinai; swim, hike, dive, etc.
    One more thing eating camels isn’t very common in Egypt, we eat pigeons, ducks, rabbits and tons of weird parts of animals, hehe

      Thanks for clarifying that! I think the point is that *most* of the places tourists would want to visit in Egypt are perfectly safe right now.

    I am happy that you posted this because in my class we are doing a brochure about Egypt and he said make it have things that will attract tourists and make them want to make a tour about Egypt. 👌😁👍😊❤

    Excellent article, a lot of great info. We’re planning to go next fall and we’re already excited! Definitely saving this article. And it’s nice to see a fellow Ohioan!

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