Don’t get me wrong- I had a fantastic experience during my time in Egypt. Despite its flaws, I still HIGHLY encourage visiting this fascinating nation.
My goal with this post is not to complain or incite fear, but to make you the most informed traveler you can be. The hope is that after reading this, you are prepared for what you may come across, and will have a better experience overall.
1.) Yes, it is safe for tourists
This seems to be the question I hear the most. As an American, I understand that the media portrays Egypt in a less-than-flattering light. In fact, it sometimes makes all of the middle-east seem like one homogeneous zone of awful. To that, I will respectfully disagree! I felt very safe during my entire trip. While yes, our tour company often had armed guards on our bus, this did not cause fear or take away from our sense of safety. I’m not recommending you go running around late at night with expensive jewelry on, but if you use common sense, you will be fine.
Yes, there have been terrorist attacks in Egypt, but despite this, I always felt quite safe. They do their best to protect and defend tourists since it’s a huge part of their income as a country, and most incidents have not been targeted at foreign visitors. Most places we drove they would give us military escorts at the checkpoints, and at the sites you always have to go through a metal detector. There is a risk with most things in life, but visiting Egypt is not a reckless decision.
2.) You should go with a guide for your first visit
Egypt is overall very welcoming to tourism, and while I know independent visits are possible, I think you will have a better experience going with a guide or a tour for your first time. Things like transportation, hotels, and communicating with locals can be difficult unless you are fluent in Arabic. Having a guide with you at the sites is invaluable as well, as most are certified Egyptologists. Given that there are so many affordable options, it would be a mistake to not consider it.
3.) Public hygiene standards differ
This is not only the case in Egypt, as it is common for many other nations around the world, but know that public restroom facilities will be quite different than what you may be familiar with. Even in nice hotels or restaurants, toilet paper and soap are not a given. Keep some hand soap and toilet paper in your bag at all times, and you won’t be left unprepared!
4.) The tipping culture of baksheesh can be annoying
First of all, what is baksheesh? In my own words, it is basically the expectation that foreigners will give tips or bribes to locals for anything and everything. Did someone take a photo for you? Give a tip! Did someone give you directions? Give a tip! Did someone let you take a photo in a tomb? Tip! Did they point out a restaurant to you? Tip! You get the idea. It is aggressive and exhausting, and something foreigners aren’t accustomed to.
I found you almost have to be a bit rude to get these men to leave you alone. Some will be extra pushy, and follow you around for a while too. They may even try to give you a “free gift” or put jewelry items on you (which you must of course refuse).
With this said, Egyptians as a whole are a friendly, outgoing and funny crew. They are proud of their country and will try to engage you in conversation either out of genuine curiosity, or wanting to make a quick buck. If you tell them you’re from Canada, you’ll hear a hearty “Canada Dry!” followed by a long laugh. If you say you’re American, be ready to talk about the Obamas being fellow Africans. The friendly ones are harmless, but the hustlers can get under your skin. Have your wits about you, learn the powerful word of NO, and you’ll be fine.
5.) Respect religious and cultural differences
While this is the case for any place you visit, in Egypt it is particularly important. The best thing you can do is research what is appropriate beforehand, and do your best to follow these norms. Obviously Egypt is a Muslim country, and with that women are expected to dress conservatively. Local women will wear a hijab (head covering which hides the neck and head), and long robes. While you will see foreign women in all sorts of outfits, the respectful visitors will keep covered. This means cover your shoulders, your arm to your elbow, and your legs to the knee on a typical day.
After a week, I started to relax this dress code as the other women in my group did, but I think it’s better to cover up and do your best to not offend. For the men, really anything goes, but I’d say avoid tank tops. Dressing conservatively is one of the easiest ways to show that you respect the culture, and it can help avoid unwanted attention or resentment.
6.) As a woman, expect some struggles
I don’t want to say that as a woman visiting Egypt you should expect to be treated differently, but you will be. It’s nothing personal against you, and I’m not saying it’s wrong or right, but it is a deep rooted societal norm. It is reality. In blunt terms, I would say you should almost expect sexism and verbal harassment. I know these are harsh words, but hear me out:
To start, when I was walking around with my husband, very few people would address me directly. I’d say 90% of the time the locals would talk to my husband on behalf of me. The most annoying part was this sense of feeling like a second-class citizen. Before our tour began, I noticed that at local restaurants when I tried to order food for myself, they server would ignore me, and bring me a duplicate of my husband’s order. I thought this was a language barrier issue, until it happened multiple times. Finally we figured out that my husband is supposed to be ordering my food for me, and then they got it right.
Even having my husband with me did not exempt me from verbal harassment, and even some minor physical harassment. I read that 98% of female foreign visitors to Egypt experience some type of harassment from local men, so as bad as it is to say- just expect it.
Another thing is that lots of locals will want to take selfies with you- the exotic foreign woman (even though he’s a man, my rare red-headed husband was particularly popular!). Unless its little kids asking though, it’s a bad idea to oblige. One man tried to take a selfie with me, then he lowered the phone and did a nice ass grab- so there was that. I was SO mad! I tried to follow local dress customs, but it didn’t seem to matter. Even covering up like I did, I still experienced some harassment and groping. It’s nothing too terrible, but certainly frustrating and in some cases maddening.
7.) Don’t have high hopes for food options in tourist areas
Egyptian cuisine is flavorful and filled with great options. While on a tour or guided excursion though, don’t have high expectations. Most tourist places serve a set menu or buffet which typically consists of chicken, rice, and vegetables. Most of this is bland and standard fare. If you want “real food” you’ll have to set out on your own.
8.) Prepare to barter
Any market you go to will not have fixed prices, so come prepared to barter. Especially in the big markets in Cairo, the starting prices will be ridiculous. Be assertive, talk your way down, and don’t be afraid to walk away if the prices are still crazy. Don’t feel bad for going “too low” either- they wouldn’t sell it to you if they were losing money.
9.) Prepare to sweat like never before
I can’t speak for the other seasons, but visiting Egypt in the summer will allow you to feel a heat you’ve never known before. We were there in mid June, and some days the temps would reach around 113°F (45°C). Staying hydrated is essential, and bringing some Advil is a good idea for the headaches you will likely get. Do your best to stay in the shade. Take things slow, wear sunscreen, and you will survive!