4/08/2013 01:19:00 PM

7 Tips For Navigating Cairo in Turbulent Times

Sphinx and Pyramids, Giza, Egypt. Photo by DorothyMNelson.

Editor's note: One of our travel writers, Emma Levine, just returned from Cairo on April 3, 2013. Below are her answers to questions you'd no doubt have if you're considering a trip to Egypt.

If there are demonstrations, what should I do?
Get away from crowds and protests - quickly. Fridays have been the most common day for demonstrations, with crowds often gathering at Tahrir Square, the focal point of the 2011 uprising. Be aware of where people are gathering and avoid these areas. Keep up to date with local news - there are a couple of decent English-language newspapers, plus social media.

Can I still visit the main tourist attractions? 
Try to avoid the Egyptian Museum on Fridays, as this is a day when there may be demonstrations in the adjacent Tahrir Square. Even when the area is safe, the museum attracts far fewer crowds than usual, so you’ll rarely have to queue. After buying your ticket, you must leave your camera in the secure area, immediately to the left. Don’t expect to be able to buy any souvenirs at the museum - at last visit the store was completely derelict. The Pyramids at Giza are likely to be safe place. Bring plenty of drinking water, a hat, sunscreen, and try to avoid the late morning/early afternoon. You’ll probably find that the ticket counters are rather disorganized, and don’t expect to be able to get any map or information on the site - bring your own! With relatively few visitors, it means that the touts - camel riders, souvenir sellers etc - are even keener on the hard sell. If you don’t want anything, be persistent with a polite ‘lah shukran’ (no thanks) and walk on. If you’re tempted to take a horse or camel ride, negotiate well with the rider, and find out exactly what is included in the price.

If there is tension, what are the best neighborhoods to avoid? 
Avoid Downtown and Mokattam. The busy area of Zamalek is a hub of great cafes, bars and restaurants, and a leafy area to stroll in the daytime. Nile-side restaurant Sequoia (evenings) and the adjacent café-restaurant Left Bank (daytime) are peaceful retreats. The area also boasts neat bookshops and contemporary art galleries. The chic neighborhood of Maadi is a laid-back collection of stylish boutiques and cafes.
Photo by KMK.

Is public transport safe? 
Cairo’s buses and metros, although usually crowded, are generally a safe and cheap way of getting around. Keep your valuables safe, and don’t have them on show. The metro, although a limited network, offers a much quicker way of getting around on otherwise traffic-filled, gridlocked streets. You might feel safer in a taxi, if so stick to the white cabs which operate only by meter - and ensure the meter is switched on.

Are there any rules for what to wear? 
As with usual in Cairo, it’s best to dress modestly. No matter how hot it is (and boy, summer can get steamy), women should avoid wearing shorts or short skirts. Avoid skimpy tops, and guys should avoid being too scruffy. Women: bring a light scarf to cover your hair if you want to visit mosques. In times of heightened tension, the more modest and understated, the better.

What are the rules with drinking and smoking?
Alcohol is legal in Egypt, although you won’t find many places for a drink. There is a smattering of tucked-away bars in the Downtown district, some of which have belly dancers. Zamalek is the area for hip café bars, restaurants and live music. In all nightlife venues, smoking is seemingly compulsory - a shock to the system for anyone coming from USA or Europe! Locals love to smoke sheesha, a waterpipe with fruit-flavored tobacco.

What’s the rule with tipping? 
In Egypt, tipping is essential to make thing to happen. It’s not just tourists - you’ll see locals giving the unofficial parking ‘attendant’ a few pounds for guarding their car. Keep small change to hand: pound coins, and E£5 notes. If you enter a mosque, it’s likely that someone will offer to take you up to the top of the minaret. Agree a price beforehand - E£10 is a good guideline. Even if service is included in restaurants, it’s customary to add a few pounds as a tip for good service.

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