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First Timer's Guide to Visiting Egypt
Are you dreaming about the Great Pyramids? Cruising down the famous Nile River while sipping tea? Strolling through cobblestone streets in the bustling Khan El Kalili marketplace, smelling incense and street food? There are so many reasons to visit Egypt and those are just the tip of the iceberg. It can be overwhelming planning a trip to Egypt for the first time with so much to see and do in one country. When I first told friends and family I was going to Egypt, I was met with mixed reactions. Everyone was of course excited for me but usually followed up with questions like “Is Egypt safe?” or “You’re going by yourself?!”
For many, Egypt sounds fascinating but difficult to get to. The language barrier, the cultural differences, and some semi-recent political turmoil unsettle many tourists and prevent them from visiting. I was nervous going so far away to a new place by myself, but it was everything I hoped for and more. Not everyone will share the same travel experiences, I know this, but after my visit I wish for everyone to go to Egypt to see the history, meet the people, eat the food!
That being said, I recommend doing a good amount of research before visiting. This will ensure you are comfortable, prepared and have the best experience. Below, I’ve highlighted Tips for First Time visitors below – these are things I wish I knew before visiting or was glad I planned for.
Is Egypt Safe?
“Is Egypt Safe for Tourists?” always seems to be the first question anyone has when considering travel to Egypt. I felt very safe the whole time I was in Egypt – from Cairo to Luxor to Aswan, Abu Simbel and back. Even the times I was completely alone walking through Khan El Khalili, I felt safe and was not bothered by anyone. In fact, many times I was greeted with friendly smiles and “welcome to Egypt!” exclamations from strangers. I was pleasantly surprised by the warmth and friendliness I experienced in Egypt. A few tips to ensure you have a similar experience:
- Hire a guide. I was with a guide the majority of the time in Egypt and they definitely help with navigating, providing insight at each location, and even bartering with pushy shopkeepers.
- Along with a guide, hire a driver. They typically come together for most tours available to book. I would not even think about driving in Egypt with how different the traffic rules are.
- Dress on modestly. In Cairo, I would play it safe with modest clothing – covering knees, shoulders, chest. If you’re with a tour group and especially if you’re only visiting the tourist sites outside of Cairo, dress is much less important. The locals are accustomed to tourists and you’ll see all kinds of styles.
Getting There: Egypt Entry Requirements
For Americans, there’s a $25 fee for an entry visa that you can buy and fill out at the airport upon arrival. You can actually book a tour guide to meet you and walk you through this process which I did and found helpful.
Make sure to check the government websites to have the latest information especially with Covid restrictions and entry requirements regarding testing.
What to Wear in Egypt
Depending on the time of year that you visit Egypt, temperatures can vary from oppressively hot to needing a solid jacket for cold days. That being said, the majority of the year you’ll experience warm to hot temperatures with lots of sun exposure.
The best way to dress for weather in Egypt is to plan for hot, sunny days, and bring a light jacket for cool nights or lots of wind. Think loose fitting, airy clothing.
A Note on Modesty: What to Wear in Egypt as a Female Traveler
A common concern for most women traveling to conservative countries is what to wear and how to respect the culture. Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country with a mostly conservative dress code when compared to Western standards. Although, Egypt is pretty progressive in comparison to nearby countries. Tour guides have reassured me that there is no need to follow a conservative dress code as a tourist. The country receives enough tourists from all of the world that it is not considered insensitive to dress as one would normally dress in your home country.
I personally tried to keep my shoulders and knees covered as I thought this would draw the least amount of attention. I did see many tourists wearing tank tops and shorts at the different ancient sites and they didn’t seem to have any issues though they were always with a tour group.
Lots of the ancient sites will have uneven ground, stone, sand, dirt. Make sure to pack comfortable walking shoes with a solid base. I wore thin, strappy sandals on one of my tour days and had red, swollen feet most of the day – don’t make the same mistake!
Money & Tipping
When traveling to and around Egypt, you will definitely want cash. Having a mix of small and large bills will work best for both tipping, meals, and entry fees for museums, etc. I underestimated amount of cash I would need for tipping. Drivers, tour guides, restaurant workers, even bathrooms, all receive tips customarily. If you want to purchase cheap souvenirs, you will want to have small bills handy to help with bargaining.
Most people in Egypt will take the US dollar but they typically will not have the best deal on conversion which is something to consider.
ATMs in Egypt
The best place to get cash if you did not exchange in your home country would be the ATM at the airport in Cairo. There are plenty of ATM’s around Cairo but you may have to visit 2-3 before finding one that works. It is also possible to get more cash in other places in Egypt but locations are limited the further you go from the cities – this is where a tour guide would come in handy.
Shopping & Bargaining
It’s always fun to buy souvenirs and gifts to bring back home from a trip but it’s never fun to get swindled when doing so. That’s why it’s important to know what you’re buying and what is an appropriate price for each purchase. Bargaining is very common in Egypt so brushing up on your negotiation skills will go a long way. Tour guides are also very helpful with getting deals and knowing what is real versus what is fake.
If you go to Khan El Khalili – a popular market in Cairo, definitely a must-visit – you will most likely see a lot of trinkets that actually came from China. There are some jewelry and gold stores in the market but buyer beware, gold scams are common in Egypt. Make sure to get a recommendation from a guide or do some research beforehand.
A good phrase to know when walking by shop owners “no Shukran” which is no thank you in Arabic. Looking down and walking ahead while repeating this phrase will help with pushy street vendors. Some shopkeepers will try little tricks like putting items in your hands or on your shoulder so you follow them to give the item back, very tricky!
Best Souvenirs to Buy in Egypt
If you want to get souvenirs that are authentic to Egypt, the best items to buy would be things made out of alabaster, incense, papyrus artwork, perfumes, gold jewelry, and scarves.
Make sure to do some research before making big purchases as it’s common to sell fakes of these items. If you are touring with a company, they will most likely stop throughout your trip at designated government-approved shops.
Egypt Packing Essentials
Curious what to pack for an Egypt? There are a few things to be prepared for: hot weather, lots of sun, wind and sand, and lots of walking. In most cases, bathrooms had toilet paper and soap but there were a few instances where having some backup came in handy. A few items I was glad I brought or wish I had brought made all the difference:
- Sunscreen, sunglasses, and sun hats
- Light, airy clothing
- Jacket for cool nights and windy days
- Allergy medicine for the extreme dust! I underestimated the amount of dust.
- Cleaning kit for camera, lots of pictures had little sand grains and dust on the lens which was frustrating
- Hand sanitizer and tissues for the restroom
Best Places to Visit in Egypt
When building an itinerary for Egypt one should consider what they want to gain from their time in a country full of so many ancient sites and depth of culture. It’s very common to focus on the ancient sites along the Nile River – which is what I did and do not regret – but if you have the time there are so many other things to see and do outside of ancient temples and burials.
Make sure to check out this Egypt Itinerary with more details on each location and potential add-ons and alternatives.
Top Places to Visit in Egypt:
- Cairo/Giza: home to the major airport, the Great Pyramids & Sphinx, gorgeous Muslim Mosques, old and new – there is so much to see and do in the city but it can be overwhelming with how massive and dense it is.
- Alexandria: coastal city, more modern
- Towns Along the Nile with various ancient temples, tombs, etc.
- Luxor: home to Valley of Kings, Luxor Temple, Karnak Temple, and more. MUCH calmer (and some say nicer) than Cairo.
- Aswan: Typically a home-base to for following temples, also having its own temple stops
- Edfu – small town with one main (impressive) temple stop
- Kom Ombo – one main temple stop and crocodile mummy museum
- Temple of Philae (island)
- Nubian Village outside of Aswan
- Abu Simbel: famous temples carved from the rock wall with towering statues
- Dahab, Sharm El-Sheikh, Hurghada: coastal, relaxed resort towns along the Red Sea (or Gulf of Aqaba for Dahab) and popular vacation spots for the region. Known to be great for diving and snorkeling.
- St Catherine: mountain & monastery, important religious site
- White Desert: unique landscape in the desert, popular for 4×4 adventures