Is this a good time to visit Egypt? The answer is yes, according to travel expert Giulia Cimarosti.
After publishing the article “Is it safe to visit Egypt and Jordan?” in April, I’ve been contacted by several readers with concerns about travel safety. I reached out to Giulia, who agreed to answer questions from Downtown Traveler readers and to shed light on the current situation in Egypt.
Giulia Cimarosti, 28, is a full-time traveler, photographer and blogger originally from Genova, Italy. She first visited Egypt in 2004 on a family vacation and has returned seven times. A passionate advocate for Egyptian travel, Giulia founded the Travel Reportage blog in 2010 to chronicle her adventures.
Giulia experienced the Egyptian Revolution firsthand during a nine-month stay in Cairo that ended in May 2011. During the January 25th revolution, she posted live updates from Cairo; she has covered many facets of the revolution, from travel safety to street art. Giulia keeps her pulse on the latest developments in Egypt and most recently visited from October to November 2011.
Read on for Giulia’s answers to reader questions and her thoughts on Egyptian tourism.
Egyptian Culture & Attractions
Readers of your blog, Travel Reportage, know how passionate you are about Egypt. What first interested you in the country?
At the beginning I was not interested at all! The first time I visited it was just because my mother took me there. As soon as I arrived, there must have been some sort of magic because I instantly fell in love with the place. I would say it’s the atmosphere. I started being interested in the Ancient Egyptian mythology and then in the music, culture, language… little by little I started exploring all the aspects of this country.
What do you like best about Egyptian culture?
I like the way people are friendly, helpful and genuinely interested in spending quality time together. They are very keen on hanging out in big groups, and meeting new people is easy and fun. Another thing I like is that Egyptians are usually proud of their country and humble at the same time. Almost all the people I met dream of traveling abroad, but would never move to another country for good: they are just too attached to Egypt and I can understand that!
What are your 3 favorite attractions in Egypt, that no tourist should miss?
My favorite pyramids are the Dahshur ones, definitely less famous and touristic than the Giza ones, but still beautiful and less crowded. My favorite city is Cairo, and I suggest everyone to visit Garbage City and the Christian cave churches in it. They are simply stunning, I never saw anything like that before! My favorite desert getaway is Wadi el Hitan, the “valley of the whales”, where you can see fossils of mangroves and whales, ride amazing golden sand dunes, stay in almost unknown camps… all this at just about 3 hours away from Cairo!
Have you faced any challenges as a Western woman, living and traveling in Egypt? If so, how did you deal with them?
I never really had any problem to be honest. The only annoying thing if I have to name one is the verbal harassment in the streets, but this happens to Egyptian women as well. The only way to deal with it is to not pay attention and move on. Sometimes it becomes very irritating but reacting doesn’t really work. Hopefully this habit will come to an end at some point!
“I’m planning to go in December. I want to know the proper attire for female tourists.” – @NetaBobbie via Twitter
There is nothing forbidden in Egypt. You don’t have to be covered or anything like that. Just remember that the more you show, the more you’ll draw attention, so try to cover at least your shoulders and cleavage, and don’t wear shorts or mini skirts. It’s just a matter of feeling comfortable and fitting in. I recommend sneakers or closed shoes, but just in order to be comfortable and to avoid getting too dirty. Sometimes the streets can be in very poor condition, both maintenance and cleanliness wise.
In one of your YouTube videos you wear a niqab and walk around downtown Cairo. What inspired you to do this? And what did you learn from this experience?
I just wanted to try and see what it felt like to wear a niqab. In Western countries we have a lot to say about it, but who has actually tried it? I was planning for months to do this experiment, but unfortunately I was only able to do it just shortly after the revolution. That’s why I was feeling a bit nervous – the police were very suspicious of foreigners and I didn’t want them to find out I was “hiding” behind a niqab… I might pass for a spy!
>> Video: Giulia wearing a niqab in Cairo. (Source: RTWgiulia/YouTube.com)
I would do it again now that I did it once. It’s a great way to pass unnoticed in the streets, while as a foreigner this never happens. I noticed that only the tourists were looking at me! After a while it was very hard to stand the heat, because you’re supposed to wear regular clothes underneath. You have many layers of fabric, and breathing becomes hard.
I understand that it’s a matter of getting used to it, and women who usually wear it would never do without. We must remember that it’s not always something they’re forced to do, as we are used to thinking. Some women actually choose to wear a niqab. Have you ever thought of how hard the opposite process can be instead—to stop wearing a niqab?
The Egyptian Revolution
You were in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution. What was it like to be in the city during that historic time?
At the beginning nobody really knew what was going to happen, and I wasn’t worried at all. I avoided taking part in the protests, but I witnessed most of them. I never felt anything like that before in my life… it was more excitement than fear, because you could feel that something big was going to happen. I remember walking in the empty streets of Cairo on January 28th (the Friday of Rage) just before everything started and feeling it in the air.
Watching the news will never convey the same feeling. Plus you have to consider that I had close friends taking part in the protests, as well as my boyfriend, so fear became really tangible. On the same day, they cut the telephone lines and internet connection, and that was the worst thing as I couldn’t speak to anyone for 24 hours, therefore I couldn’t know if everyone was ok or… well I expected the worst, when I saw the casualty count rising. Luckily, none of them died, but some got seriously injured.
Another thing that I felt was rage. I was mad at Vodafone for agreeing with the government and cutting the internet and the telephone lines. I was mad at the government for not responding for days, and for doing anything they could to suppress the protest. I was mad at the police when I saw them shooting at (or running over) harmless people, or when they threw tear gas in the hall of the hotel where I was staying in order to force the people to run out and become their victims.
I was also amazed by the unity among the people regardless their religion, belief or social class. Everyone was fighting for the same thing: getting rid of Mubarak. I don’t know if I will ever be able to express what it feels like to experience something like this!
Were you concerned for your safety during and after the revolution? Did you take any special precautions as a woman or foreigner?
I was never really concerned but I believe it was because of the adrenaline… when I left the country I realized that I was in a state of shock. Anyway, with the wisdom of hindsight, I can say that I was never really in danger, even if hearing the sound of gunshots and fighter planes was definitely not relaxing. I never did anything to put myself in a dangerous situation anyway, so I was safe all the time.
I left the country on February 2nd, because no one knew what was going to happen, and the embassies were starting to repatriate foreigners. I went back to Egypt just two weeks later. Even a revolution couldn’t keep me away for too long…
Since I wrote about my trip to Egypt this spring, several readers have contacted me to ask if it is safe to visit Egypt right now. What do you think– would you recommend that tourists go to Egypt now?
I would definitely recommend that anyone visit Egypt. Everyone must know that whatever happens in Tahrir Square, the rest of Cairo and– most of all– the rest of Egypt is perfectly safe. This doesn’t mean that the protests are not important, but tourism-wise there are no complications at all. If there’s a demonstration on the same day you’re in Cairo and you’re concerned about your safety, just move a couple of minutes away from Tahrir Square and you’ll be perfectly fine.
If travelers have safety concerns about visiting Egypt, are there certain websites, Twitter feeds or Facebook pages you’d recommend they consult for up-to-date information?
I always search “Tahrir” on Twitter to get the latest news. That’s always the best tool to know to find out exactly what’s going on, together with Facebook.
“What can we expect with regards to visiting the major sites (ruins and museums)? Are they operating normal hours? Are there almost no tourists at those sites anymore? [And] is it easier to find bargains with the turndown in visitors?” – Matt Stabile, TheExpeditioner.com
Nothing has changed regarding visiting ruins, museums etc. The ticket fares are probably still the same (they’ve always been cheap anyway!) but I saw great deals on organized trips with tour operators. The touristic sites operate normal hours and are less crowded now… I would definitely take advantage of that!
Food and Drink
“I’ve heard that drinking tea is customary in Egypt. Could you recommend some great places to relax and take in the sights over a cup of Koshary, or Saiidi?” – Maria Russo, TheCultureist.com
For tea, I would recommend the Harawy Cafe in the Islamic area of Cairo, just behind Al Azhar mosque and next to the music school where you can listen to typical Middle Eastern instruments.
“Where’s a great place for a beer in Giza? Going at the end of the month.” – @BAIRDSTRAVEL on Twitter
It depends – if you’re looking for a cheap place, there is a “Stella Bar” in Doqqi, where they serve cheap Stella (Egyptian) beer and the bar is definitely… picturesque! If you’re looking for a fancy place then I would go for Zamalek and all its sleek clubs – La Bodega, Aubergine, Amici… there you can find international beers/spirits too but the prices will be definitely higher.
“What are some dos and don’ts to lessen the chances of traveler’s diarrhea while in Egypt?” – Elissa Morganti Banas (via Downtown Traveler Facebook page)
I might not be the right person to ask, because I never had such a problem! Or maybe this makes me the number one expert? I always avoided drinking tap water for at least the first couple of days, but never paid too much attention to raw vegetables or ice in drinks. I think nowadays the hygienic conditions are better than a couple of years ago. Of course you have to avoid street food when it looks obviously dirty, but apart from that all I can say is enjoy your food! Actually, I drank tap water after a while but I avoided it in poorer areas where pipes could be very old, dirty and in bad condition. Anyway I wouldn’t recommend drinking it – you will find bottled water anywhere, so you don’t need to risk it.
Keeping an Open Mind
If you could give one final piece of advice to travelers considering a visit to Egypt, what would it be?
Usually if it’s the first visit to Egypt I recommend starting with the most well-known historical landmarks such as the Valley of the Kings, Aswan, Abu Simbel, the Pyramids etc. These are things that everyone should see, that make you understand a lot about the background of the country and will put you in the right atmosphere!
It’s so frustrating when someone who’s been only to places such as Hurgarda or Sharm el Sheikh says “I’ve been to Egypt and I don’t like the culture!” What? What culture are you talking about? That’s not Egypt… that’s probably the worst place to understand the local culture.
Other than that, the general advice I always give is to be open-minded and not to stress about lines and traffic. The Egyptian way of life is slow, and you can’t do anything but relax and wait. You’ll be rewarded by the great Egyptian friendliness and in most cases by great service.