I consider myself someone with little fear when it comes to traveling to foreign places, however, in the days leading up to my scheduled arrival in Cairo, I was feeling apprehensive.
Suddenly, everything I’d read online about threats of terrorism, foreign travelers getting sick, and the treatment of women felt very real. It would be my first time visiting the country, and I had rejected the idea of joining a tour group to go solo. Now, sitting in the Athens airport waiting for my gate number to appear on the departure screen, I was worried.
While my apprehensions about making such a trip on my own felt valid, I knew I was in for something special the moment that I landed in Cairo. Traversing Egypt solo was the most challenging travel experience I’ve ever had, but it was also the most rewarding. There is still a part of me suspended in disbelief that I actually got to see the pyramids, try foule, and haggle with vendors at the Khan.
Traveling in Egypt solo is nowhere near as daunting as it once sounded to me. I can’t recommend visiting the country enough. Here is a list of Egypt travel tips based on my experience, and I hope after reading that you’ll book that ticket.
Arriving in Cairo
First, erase every image you have of Egypt from your mind.
I arrived in Cairo expecting a driver from my hotel to be waiting for me. There was no one. I went in search of an exit to call what turned out to be a very cheap and safe Uber. As I was trying to leave, men in the lobby kept asking if I needed a ride, wanted to know what I was looking for, and where my husband was, but I found my way soon enough.
The drive into the city from the airport was fascinating, if not nauseating. First, there are rarely any traffic lanes in Cairo, and if they exist, they are likely being ignored. Cars are squeezing between each other, zig-zagging, and cutting each other off. Because of the lack of street lights and traffic lanes, drivers communicate by using their horns. If you think Manhattan is loud, you have surely never been to Cairo. It’s a constant cacophony of noise that would give anyone not already used to it a headache.
When I arrived, there was a morning haze over the city that I mistook as a sand storm. It was so thick that you couldn’t see a thing. Only the harsh sunlight pushing through the cloud broke up the particles enough to reveal the rough outlines of the tallest buildings. Greenery only came into view as we approached the Nile.
As we passed the river and drove further into the city, scant palm trees were replaced by knock-off stores selling clothes and handbags. You’ll find a surprising number of lingerie stores on the streets despite the conservative culture. People wove between cars to cross the streets filled with plentiful and pitiful little stray cats.
The driver pulled off a busy street and pointed to a nearby building. I left the car and using Google Maps, tried to find my hotel. I’m horribly aware that as a woman having just come from Greece, I am not dressed appropriately for Egypt. People are staring and I’m flustered.
First thing to keep in mind in Cairo: if you are not staying at a well-established hotel along the Nile or in the city center, the hotel you’re looking for will most likely not be labeled from the outside. I had to call the hotel who directed me to a door between a bakery overflowing with people and a small cafe. The door led to a dank and dark hallway. After my eyes adjusted to the lighting, I followed a spiral staircase passed the first two floors that looked like abandoned construction projects, beyond a hotel on the third floor, and finally arrived at my hotel located on the fourth floor.
The logistics of my arrival in Cairo left something to be desired, but I still couldn’t wait to set out on the streets.
What to Expect When Exploring Egypt
Before setting out to see Egypt, you must first understand how rare it is for locals to see women traveling solo. While dressing modestly and wearing sunglasses helps avoid unwanted attention, you will still get stares and plenty of people talking to you. Some are simply curious, some want to get you into their restaurant or sell you a tour — almost all of them are friendly.
Just politely decline and walk on.
When it comes to crossing the street, the aforementioned lack of lanes, crosswalks, and lights means that you have to just start walking. It was described to me that drivers in Egypt are used to having things pop up in the road and are good at not hitting them. It’s even better if you can find a local to follow close behind and let them do the navigating. They are pros, after all.
Be prepared for the utmost generosity. My two best examples of this are from my time in Aswan. I went to a restaurant called El Masry on my first day there and was greeted by wonderful hosts who shook my hand and walked me to a table. Workers kept popping their heads around a corner to look at me, then quickly walking away when I noticed. I was given complimentary tea after my meal, handed a business card, and asked to come back. I did on my last day in Aswan, and the meal I ordered was supplemented with dish after dish that my server wanted me to try. He would describe it as best as he could in English, telling me these were traditional Egyptian dishes — I got to try so many new things, all out of generosity. I would highly recommend this little restaurant if you visit Aswan.
On my second day in Aswan, I visited Elephantine island, home to a marvelous archeological site and an almost untouched Nubian village, less commercial than one more advertised nearby. I discovered firsthand how the locals here are willing to talk and show you around at the drop of a hat. After I left the archeology site, I ran into a man who asked me to come to his coffee shop. I walked with him to a building nearby and went inside. The walls were covered in elaborate pieces of art and design, and I was offered a seat at a long table with benches as he went to prepare tea.
He came back just as another man was coming down the stairs with a German couple. We began chatting and he asked if he could show me a box of his treasured items. He brought out a locked wooden box that was filled with some of the most fabulous artifacts I’d ever seen, and I was seeing them up close! Some looked like they should have been in a museum. He had stones, archeological items, artwork, and even watches from Switzerland that were made in the 1970s. The collection had been passed down through his family beginning with his grandfather and continues to grow as people from across the world bring him little treasures. Talking and drinking tea with this man was one of the most remarkable experiences I had in Aswan.
Before leaving, he asked me to wait and said he had a gift for me. He went to the back room and returned with an alligator tooth. He explained that alligator teeth are good luck and worth a lot of money outside Egypt. He could be exaggerating slightly on its value, but receiving this small gift meant the world to me.
Traveling Between Egyptian Cities
The main three options for traveling between Egyptian cities are plane, train, and boat, depending on the city. Cruises along the Nile are enormously popular for tourists and can range in length, location, and price. Flying is obviously a modern convenience, but for budget travelers, the sleeper train is your best bet. I took the Watania sleeper train from Cairo to Aswan and back. The cabins are quite small, but for the price of a first-class ticket that includes your transportation, overnight accommodation, and two airplane-quality meals, it’s not too shabby.
There are countless videos on YouTube from travelers who have documented their time on a sleeper train. Watch some of these before your visit, so you know exactly what to expect. Give yourself ample time before your departure to navigate the chaotic and confusing stations in both Cairo and Aswan. There are few signs and most are in Arabic. When trying to find the track the train from Aswan to Cairo would be arriving on, every worker at the station I asked gave me a different answer. Finally, I met someone who spoke decent English. He saw me wandering around looking terribly confused and directed me toward the right track.
Egypt Travel Tips for Women Traveling Solo
- Dress appropriately. This means wearing clothes that cover your shoulders and knees. I recommend bringing looser-fitting clothes as the desert heat will get to you. I was also told before going to bring a scarf to cover your hair if you want to visit a religious site, however, I never needed to wear one when entering mosques. The best thing to do is to watch what other foreign women around you are wearing and try to match.
- Leave your itinerary with a trusted friend or family member at home. Granted, you should do this for any domestic or international trip you take, but it’s especially important in places where reception and WiFi are less common. You can also check in with this person every day so they know you’re safe and having an amazing time.
- If you are using the Metro in Cairo, try to sit in the women’s only carriages. If you are taking a taxi or Uber, sit in the back seat and keep an eye on the map in the Uber app or Google Maps to make sure you are headed in the right direction. Do not be afraid to speak up if it feels like the driver is going off course. I would recommend using Uber instead of a taxi. It’s considered a safer option in Cairo. For Egyptian cities that don’t offer the service, try to arrange a pick-up with your hotel.
- Most people in Egypt are friendly and will try to talk to you simply because they’re curious, but if someone offers you a “free” meal or tour, say no. Again, do not be afraid to be assertive and tell someone to leave you alone very loudly if they are bothering you. In one exceptional case, I was followed by someone even after I told him that I wasn’t interested, but yelling loudly enough that I got the attention of passersby did the trick.
- Most importantly, follow your gut. We women have a strong intuition, and when we feel something is a little off, we’re probably right. You should know that people will stare. A foreign woman walking the streets of Cairo alone is an uncommon sight and will catch the local’s attention. This is okay and I promise you will get used to it. If men yell derogatory words toward you, just keep walking and pretend you didn’t hear them. All this said, the vast majority of people are good — they will simply ask where you are from and welcome you to Egypt.
There you have it, my experiences and lessons learned from traveling in Egypt. Now, off you go to plan your incredible Egyptian adventure.