Female traveler, two days in Cairo: Walk around on my own or take a tour?
January 18, 2011 8:15 AM   Subscribe

Female traveler, two days in Cairo: Walk around on my own or take a tour?

I will have a free weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday morning) this March in Cairo after a conference in Alexandria. I have traveled widely through many regions of the world but usually with a partner or colleague. How is Cairo as a female solo traveler, just for a weekend? I can deal with pedestrian haggling, touts and scammers, but will it fine for me to eat alone etc? Are sights easy to travel between? I normally wouldn't worry, but given some tensions in the region I wonder if it is best to not go it alone, and to at least be with locals who know the city.

Alternately, I'd be willing to take a tour over two days if it would be more advisable, and would be interested to know what companies would be recommended. I have only taken three tours in my life, one to Grand Canyon that I hated (long and talky), a Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana that was fun, and a walking trip in Kyiv with a colleague (perfect). I am not into long commentaries and prefer walking, art, good food, not shopping.

I have seen previous AskMe's about taking a weekend in Cairo, but I'm interested specifically in going it alone vs tour for solo females.
posted by wingless_angel to Travel & Transportation around Cairo, Egypt (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's, uh, pretty horrible. If your experience is anything like mine was over my month in Egypt when I was seventeen, you will be followed down the street by men constantly, cornered in subway cars, and yelled lewd things at in Arabic pretty much everywhere you go. I even took to covering my head when I went out, and- as one should always do in Egypt regardless- wearing loose-fitting clothing that covered every inch of my skin. Didn't matter. It was my identity as an American woman (well, girl at the time) that incited all the street harassment. It by no means ruined my trip, and I highly recommend that you go, but it was really stressful since I love to wander around alone and nothing at all like Eastern Europe or the rest of Africa in terms of gender relations.

Museums and monuments are usually fine and populated largely by families and other tourists. In Cairo I imagine you'll probably head to the national museum and Giza, both of which will be okay. Even the Khan el-Khalili is pretty fine, if you don't mind people trying to sell things to you by sexually harassing you. It's the in-between that will be troublesome, and I don't recommend at all going for walks in the city by yourself.

All that said, it would probably be best for you to get in a tour group. Try to find a small, non-bus one. Sights aren't particularly easy to travel between unless you have a driver, which are cheap if you know how to properly hire one, but I think you'll have a much easier and less frustrating time of it in an organized group. Another option is to befriend a male colleague and have him walk around with you, which will cut down on a lot, but not all of the street harassment. Lastly, you could try staying in El Maadi, which is the neighborhood most European and American foreigners settle down in. Though I can't personally vouch for the streets there, I've heard that they're better.

Good luck, and have fun!
posted by libertypie at 8:34 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Take a tour. I travelled to Cairo with a *male* friend who has blond hair and boyish good looks and he got his arse patted so often he thought it must have been on fire or something.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:03 AM on January 18, 2011

i agree. i've traveled a lot and never felt particularly scared - in places i definitely shouldn't be at all times at night. i was terrified in cairo, even during the day. it was still an amazing trip, etc ... but at one point i got separated from our tour guide and have just never been that scared walking around in the middle of the day. merchants were screaming to/at me in english, then french when i didn't respond, tugging at me, etc. i'm relatively small, but i was 30 at the time - not a child in a foreign country.

when i finally met back up with my family and our tour guide, it was fine - pretty much instantly. (we had all gotten separated accidentally. when my dad found out the tour guide hadn't been with me, he went pretty apeshit.)

anyway, that was maybe an hour? it felt like an eternity. i can't imagine two days.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 9:08 AM on January 18, 2011

Given the potential for political instability at present in Arab North African countries, Egypt being one of those most expected to see trouble, I would be concerned as a white male walking around alone at the moment. You might not be targeted specifically, but you may also have the misfortune to find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Stick to groups for the time being, gender aside.
posted by dougrayrankin at 9:34 AM on January 18, 2011

Best answer: Yep. For sure, take a tour. We've had luck with the Thomas Cook tours; you can say what stuff you want to see and they're perfectly happy to tailor a tour for you. I never took one in Cairo, just Luxor and Aswan, but both times we had our own tour guide and driver and had a really nice time. If you want to visit the National Museum by yourself to have more time to really SEE everything, that should be fine, too.

Otherwise, I've been to Cairo twice. Once was with my husband and once was with both him and a male friend and both times, I got so much bad attention that it made me hate humankind. I was wearing long sleeves and full pants (once in the full heat of late July), but it didn't matter. Some of the guys in Cairo are real jerks, and it only takes those some to make you basically give up on ever meeting anyone nice again.

On the plus side: if you're dressed mostly modestly, you might suddenly find yourself surrounded by really lovely little girls, who are completely stoked to meet a foreigner who's nice and who they can see respects their culture.

I'm definitely not one to write off a group of people, but men in Cairo can be real assholes to foreign women. I say this also as someone who lives in the middle east and gets catcalled everywhere I go on a daily basis anyway. I'd say for sure go with a tour (even if it's one that you hire so it's just you and a guide at the sights - actually this might be exactly what you're after?) and try to take it all in stride. We stayed in Zamalek the first time, and if you want to be closer to things than Maadi is, I'd recommend it. Lots of trees and peaceful streets you can wander alone a little more comfortably.

Egypt and Cairo in particular have a lot of fascinating things, and I hope you have a great time. Please do NOT miss the library at Alexandria. That place made me cry with happiness and have a whole new appreciation for what architecture can make a person feel. I hope your trip is just awesome.

On preview: I honestly wouldn't worry too much about political violence, or even personal violence on a physical level. It seemed more to me about the majority of guys you meet seeing you as meat on some level. Being with others alleviates that quite a bit, and if you can be with an Egyptian tour guide, it basically fades to nothing. Egypt is poor, and poorly governed, but I wouldn't worry about much as regards any kind of terrorism.
posted by lauranesson at 9:54 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Please do NOT miss the library at Alexandria.

That's where I'll be working for the whole week :)

Thank you all so much for the advice so far, universally in favour of a tour. I'm very glad I asked. Please keep the travel tips coming! I have been to Turkey, Cameroon, Lebanon recently and would be very interested to hear how Egypt differs in terms of dress and cultural norms, and tour recommendations.
posted by wingless_angel at 10:00 AM on January 18, 2011

When I was about 26 years old (about 10 years ago) spent 9 days with my mom in Cairo and Luxor and as amazing as it was, it was as horrible as everyone else has already said. We had a guide for some half days but were mostly alone. I would never ever go back without at least one male companion. It was a great learning experience, my mother was offered money for my hand in marriage (for reals! how many people can say that!), but please get a group or a guide. All the men really think you are a prostitute or a slutty American who will have sex with anyone, anywhere and treat you as such. It's hard to imagine until you get there. It's no fun. It's nonstop, relentless harassment unlike anything you have experienced. And yes, we were dressed appropriately. When we were with our guide we were left alone like 98% of the time. The harassment started the moment you walked out of your hotel room-ugh. Still, it was an awesome trip even thinking about all of that, have fun, be safe, so many beautiful things to see.
posted by 58 at 10:10 AM on January 18, 2011

As I am not a female, I can't comment on what it would like to be there by myself as a woman but I will say that Giza and the Egyptian Museum myself and my female Czech colleague weren't ever harassed except to buy souvenirs. Especially at the pyramids you will find lots of Egyptian tourists and small kids. The kids were the most uniformly friendly and outgoing kids that I have seen in my travels. I lost track of the number of times I was asked where I was from and when I told them America, they welcomed me to their country proudly. One of my fondness memories is playing some pickup soccer with some Egyptian kids. I will say that my tall female Czech colleague absolutely fascinated the small kids at the tourist site. They were endlessly amazed at her presence.

One other thing you might consider was hiring a cab driver to take you around. We did that and it was very cheap.
posted by mmascolino at 11:16 AM on January 18, 2011

Best answer: I traveled alone all around Egypt for a month and, yeah, it was pretty bad. I go to really off the beaten places and am regularly told by more experienced, male travelers that I'm more "hard core" than them. Cairo was the one place in Egypt that I only got a little bit of harassment, compared to the massive amounts of harassment I got elsewhere in Egypt.

covering up totally in loose-fitting clothing didn't help at all. If I went again I would cover my (brown) hair completely. My skinnier, less curvaceous, fellow travelers didn't get it nearly as bad as I did. Still, to me, Cairo wasn't unbearable and most people were pretty busy going about their business. I'm pretty good at hiding, not calling attention to myself and walking purposefully so I don't come off as a target as much as some travelers which can go a long way.

All told, I would go alone again because I detest tours. However, if you can find a guide (especially a female one) or a very small group it might be worth it for your own sanity.
posted by Bunglegirl at 11:37 AM on January 18, 2011

if you do decide to venture out on your own - spend $3 and get a headscarf and wear long pants and sleeves! they will NOT bug you 10% as much if you're covering your hair! when i was there i wore appropriate clothes and covered my head and even could smoke hookah by myself without people bothering me. have fun and good luck!
posted by 2003girl at 11:55 AM on January 18, 2011

Best answer: I've been there in the last 3 years for work, and while the Cairenes are considered to be very humorous and fun-loving, I was a whole lot happier when I was with our fixer or a group of people. By myself, and I'm neither young nor babe-alicious, I was pestered all the time. I did wise up and wear a head-scarf (rather than a hat) and that sort of helped. With the local guide, I had a great time.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:02 PM on January 18, 2011

I'm going to concur with everyone else that heading out by yourself, even well covered, will be miserable. But I'm going to suggest a slightly different way of getting around it: if you can make a connection with any Egyptians, staying--and going out with--local female company might be great.

For example, could you make any links through the people who will be at the conference? Or there's couchsurfing--most of the Egyptians on it are men (uh, check the testimonials very carefully), but there are some women. There are lots of foreigners too, of course. There's a Cairo group, though not every Cairo-based user is on it.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 1:59 PM on January 18, 2011

Response by poster: These are all best answers, though I've only marked a few. I have a lovely scarf that I bought for visiting mosques in Istanbul that I will wear on this trip.

I'll consult my contacts in Alexandria for more advice.

Thank you all!
posted by wingless_angel at 8:00 AM on January 19, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all for your feedback, and I hope I can put these tips into use sometime soon! As you might imagine, since posting this question, the trip has been cancelled.
posted by wingless_angel at 2:51 AM on February 25, 2011

« Older Your favorite subscription-only magazines?   |   Blood blister underneath callus. Leave it or... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.