Living in Egypt: A Human Review

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This is our guide to living in Egypt — including Cairo, Dahab, Upper Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula.

This is our third guide to living in a place (the first being Estonia, the second being Taiwan), based on several months of living there and years before in the region, as well as views from other residents.

We lived in Egypt for two and a half months, soaking up everything, learning as much as we could about what it’s like to live there.

We tried as many experiences as we could ourselves, plus spoke to people from many walks of life, from locals of different backgrounds to visitors from neighbouring countries and people from further away.

Here’s our guide. Buckle up.

A guide to living in Egypt (mostly Cairo) for expats or people considering moving there, including language, culture, religion, society and more.
Cairo as seen from the Al Azhar Park

Background: What is Egypt and Cairo?

Below is a very brief overview of Egypt and Cairo’s place in it, both from the perspective of locals as well as from official sources.

What is Egypt?

Egypt is both an African country and an Arab country, though it’s also neither. The people of Egypt consider themselves some combination of Egyptian, Arab, North African, or sometimes, none of the above and just Bedouin (or foreigners).

Egypt itself is a country with many thousands of years of history. Though most people who think of Egypt think of recent times, especially the dawn of the Arab Spring in 2011, the people who live there are still very connected to ancient history.

In Cairo, you can see the Pyramids from many vantage points around the city. And some people live with them in daily view (and they’re huge). In the South of Egypt (“Upper Egypt”), there are cities like Luxor which are like living museums, with ruins and relics everywhere.

Pyramids in Cairo - you can see them from many parts of the city.

Still, ancient history isn’t the concern of everyday Egyptians, who — like people in most parts of the world — are worried about things like jobs, education, health, the stability of the economy and how to secure a future for their children.

Egyptians also worried about sandstorms (see below).

sandstorm in cairo, january 2019. An inevitable part of living in Egypt.
Sandstorm in Cairo, January 2019

Geographically, Egypt is more accurately described as being North Africa. Politically, Egypt is easier to understand as being part of the Middle East. But regardless, it’s a giant country, home to a diverse range of people from all over the region.

Egypt has a population of around 100 million people, which we only mention here because it’s such a fuzzy number. Egypt is chaotic, and this extends to record keeping.

Poverty prevents many, many births from being registered. There are untold millions of illegal immigrants that have fled the various chaotic situations of war and poverty in neighbouring countries (Egypt, too, is not economically well-off; but there are far poorer places).

I’ve read estimates of 20 million unregistered inhabitants of Egypt. Considering the paper-based process to visa extensions — that many decide to ignore, living in a country on expired visas for years, only to pay a tiny fine upon exiting — I think 20 million illegal immigrants sounds totally reasonable.

Who are “Egyptians”?

Egypt is a somewhat diverse country, in a narrowly defined way.

Ethnically, most people living in Egypt are the blend of North African and Arab genes that dominate the country.

In fact, according to the National Geographic Genographic Project (NGGP), the Egyptian gene pool consists of around 17% Arabian genes. Contrast this with Kuwait, whose population on average have 84% Arabian genes, or even Iran, with 56% Arab genes, though no Persian will ever say they’re an Arab.

The genetic composition of Egyptians vs other North Africans and middle easterners. Egyptians are mostly North African, like their Tunisian near-neighbours.
Our own analysis. Data Source: National Geographic Genetic Project. Note: For some reason, the Lebanese data in their web page only added up to 84%, so some other errors may exist.

The NGGP explains this with migratory patterns (pretty interesting website if you want to go have a look).

There are some pretty significant minorities in Egypt, too.

For example, the Bedouin. The Bedouin are a group of roaming (well, pretty stable these days; but they make it clear that they could roam at any moment) tribes who have been unconquered by the various empires and religions that have dominated the region over the last two thousand years.

We’ve previously described the Bedouin of Egypt as badass, having a general DGAF “Whatever will be, will be” attitude, which also extends to nobody telling them what to do. The Bedouin are distinct culturally, ethnically and linguistically, though they share a lot with the countries they inhabit.

There are also other groups, such as the Berber (who live near Siwa Oasis), and the Nubians (who live in the South). They have their own languages, too, and distinct cultures.

That said, most people living in Egypt are Egyptian. There are a small number of foreign workers in Cairo, and a small number of Arabs from neighbouring countries, but those are distinctly the minority.

How Welcome are Foreigners in Egypt?

As a visitor to Egypt, you’re likely to experience these things: 1. Stares, 2. Aggressive salesmanship, 3. Badgering, 4. Hospitality, and 5. Incredible warmth. If you’re a woman, you’ll also receive 6. Harassment (but not if you already got the incredible warmth!)

See here for more about harassment of women in Egypt.

Egypt is the kind of country that puts you on your guard so, so much that, unfortunately, there are probably many times you’ll miss out on receiving the hospitality because you’ve already run away.

It’s hard to tell you’re receiving hospitality because superficially, it sounds like the beginning of a sales pitch or harassment.

There’s so much badgering that while badgering you to come into their shop, salespeople will say “No badger!”. There’ll be signs in their stores saying they won’t badger you. It might be true, but relatively speaking, by this point you’ve already been badgered.

It’s like someone telling you “Don’t worry, I won’t punch you in the face”. Well, why did you mention it? Now it’s all I can think about…

The hard salesmanship in Egypt is the totally understandable but still disappointing consequence of, in our unscientific opinions, a faltering economy, the huge disparity between the rich and poor (and in many cases visitors and locals), a few bad apples and a few gullible visitors.

One example of gullible visitors reinforcing the salesmanship — one of our friends told us about a time one of his friends went for a camel ride in the pyramids, something that normally costs (even if you don’t really haggle) about $20, and paid north of $400 completely voluntarily, thinking that was a reasonable price and not even feeling bad about it.

As stories of successful tourist rip-offs that get out, you can hardly blame salespeople for trying. Who knows if this is their lucky day and they get one camel rider that pays for a whole new camel?

But persevere. Break through, and there is a lot to enjoy about Egyptians. Like many people from the Middle East, Egyptians are genuinely warm, affectionate and trusting.

Our friends trusted us very quickly, and thus earned our trust. Usually, on the first or second day, they’d invite us to spend a significant amount of time with them doing something fun, just because.

Also, Egyptians are funny. This is subjective. But really, I hung out with a few, and have spent enough time chatting with Egyptians to think that this is a country with a sense of humour, including self-deprecating humour, my favourite kind.

In situations where trust is easier to establish, like with Arabic teachers or language partners, we learned a LOT about local culture and identity through some very honest communication.

Egyptians share a lot, talking about things that Westerners (particularly those with British-esque mannerisms) would not be used to: religion, values, money and even the hardship of life. It made it easy to connect deeply with people more quickly than anywhere else we’ve lived.

It’s easy to judge a culture, and easy to find yourself in places that make it easy to judge: touristy places. So get out of those.

Go and find social groups at universities, find language partners online and meet friends of friends you make, and be surprised, if not amazed.

The Language: Mainly Egyptian Arabic

Around half of what we’ve written about Egypt has been about our quest to learn Egyptian Arabic. We got pretty far (see our Day 60 videos here where we give little speeches and gauge our fluency levels for yourself), but also feel like we just are getting started with Arabic.

In a nutshell, if you plan on living in Egypt, learn to speak Arabic.

What is Egyptian Arabic?

Without wanting to repeat too much, Egyptian Arabic is one of the major dialects of Arabic spoken in the Arab world. You can check out any of our articles on Egyptian Arabic, but this is a great place to start: Why learn Egyptian Arabic?

The official “Arabic” language of Egypt is “Modern Standard Arabic”, commonly known as MSA. This itself is a simplified form of Classical Arabic, which is the language of the Qur’an. If you switch on the TV, you’ll hear MSA. If two Arabs from very different parts of the world need to communicate, like a Tunisian and a Somali, they’ll use MSA. This is provided they have the education to support it, of course. (They also might just speak English.)

On the streets of Egypt, though, nobody speaks MSA. People understand MSA if they’re educated, but they may not if they’re not well-educated, especially if there are extra barriers. If you speak MSA but badly or with a thick accent, nobody will understand you. I’ve seen a lot of this!

(See here for more about how to learn Modern Standard Arabic.)

Foreigners who go to Egypt and learn MSA thinking “I had better learn real Arabic” spend years mastering basically the equivalent of Latin. It’s true that it’s easier to learn a modern Arabic dialect once you’ve mastered MSA, but if your end goal is to learn the dialect, just learn that.

You might spend two years learning MSA and Egyptian Arabic; you’d spend about six to twelve months getting to the same level in Egyptian Arabic if that were your only focus.

Egyptian Arabic is an excellent choice for learners because

  1. It’s spoken by 100 million people in Egypt, already making it the dialect with the largest population of speakers
  2. There are lots of schools, tutors and resources (here are some free ones to get started)
  3. Most people in the Arab world can understand it, because of the power of Egypt’s media — it’s like the Arab Hollywood, producing the majority of the best drama series and movies for the last 50-odd years
  4. It’s softer and easier to pronounce than some dialects which emphasise the harder letters

If you’re interested to know more, read our comprehensive breakdown of why you should learn Egyptian Arabic.

The other main competitor, I think, is Levantine Arabic.

Is Egyptian Arabic a Language, a Dialect or an Accent?

We (and most people) call it a “dialect”, much more than an accent. I actually think it’s a language. But Egyptians call it a dialect or accent, so we call it a dialect, because they get to choose.

You could ask the same question about any of the other forms of Arabic (Moroccan, Levantine or whatever), and locals of those parts of the Arab world will usually say “it’s a dialect”.

It’s a good question, and I should point out that by using either the word “dialect” or “accent” in place of “language”, we don’t mean to denigrate the Egyptian Arabic language.

After all, while we’re not linguists, we recognise that Egyptian Arabic shares many distinctive characteristics that make it a language: a unique vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation that is reflected in written form that does actually exist in day to day life and that make it distinct from the Arabic spoken in even nearby countries.

There are a few reasons people (including us) call it a dialect, and not a language:

  • The official language of Egypt is Modern Standard Arabic. The same is found in most countries in the Arab world. As far as we know, no country mentions its local dialect/accent/language as being the official language.
  • The same word in Arabic means “dialect” or “accent”. This word is لهجة, ironically pronounced differently in Egypt as lahga, and pronounced lahja elsewhere. It has the connotations of both words in English — a different pronunciation AND regional characteristics. (There’s another word for accent, laknah, which just means “accent”.)
  • There is no effort to standardise or maintain Egyptian Arabic. We often heard our teachers telling us “Egyptian Arabic is just slang… it has no rules” (so why did we keep getting them wrong?). There are many benefits to this, like it can evolve more naturally, and get foreign loan words more easily.

Other languages of Egypt (besides Arabic)

Aside from Egyptian Arabic, a few other languages are spoken by people living in Egypt:

  • Sa’idi (صعيدي‎): This is a dialect of Arabic spoken in Upper Egypt (Sa’iid), south of Cairo. It’s mostly mutually intelligible with Egyptian Arabic, but as you get more rural, harder and harder to understand, especially if you’re not used to it. To us, it’s like Egyptian Arabic, except
    • a) they produce the letter jim (ج) as j as do most of the Arab world; in Egyptian Arabic it’s pronounced as “g”, and
    • b) they pronounce the letter qaaf (ق) as a “k”, unlike Egyptian Arabic speakers who pronounce it as a glottal stop, and most Arabs who pronounce it as qaff in MSA (like a q from the back of the throat).
    • c) there are some words we didn’t understand (and which may have been regional, or just vocabulary gaps)
  • Bedouin Arabic: The Bedouin of Sinai speak Arabic in their own way. It’s difficult to say if it’s a dialect or an accent, but in Arabic they don’t make much of a distinction. It has some of the pronunciation characteristics of Sa’idi Arabic, but also has some regional slang common to the Levant.
  • Nubian and indigenous languages: You’ll find a few hundred thousand people near Aswan, very far down south, who speak Nubian languages. These are African languages, not in the same family as Arabic. Near the Siwa Oasis and in Sinai there are other indigenous language, like Berber and Domari, also spoken by another few hundred thousand people.

Egyptian Food: Delicious, and think “Bread”, then Rice, and then Add More Bread

See our main article on foods to eat in Cairo and Egypt, a full guide on what foods to eat, where to get them, and how to order!

Egypt shocked us with its amazing food. It really managed to touch our souls. I think we were expecting Egyptian food to be good; we weren’t expecting to love all of it, almost without exception, even down to things like liver or chicken giblets.

When Egyptians eat

A tagin, aka a tajin, a great food to eat in Egypt. Good food is one of the benefits of living in Egypt.
Tagin, like a North African tajeen.

Typically, Egyptians eat twice a day. This is usually a late breakfast and then dinner, and maybe a late-night supper. There may be snacks in between, and of course, coffee.

Egyptians aren’t big on a traditional breakfast first thing in the morning. They prefer to eat later in the morning, often after they’ve started the work day (or before a late start).

An Egyptian breakfast typically includes a combination of:

  • Bread
  • Fava beans (ful)
  • Ta’meyya (like falafel, but made of fava beans)
  • Eggs
  • Salad

There are innumerate stands and little restaurants called ful w ta’meyya stands, where you can get a sandwich (a pita pocket) with a combination of the above ingredients for around 5 LE, which is US$0.25. Two of these and you should be good to go.

Dinner is served after work and is usually a bigger meal.

Types of Egyptian eateries

A fiteer, or a stuffed pizza. Finding great food in Egypt is one of the best benefits of living in Egypt or Cairo.
Fiteer. Like a stuffed pizza. Best from a place that specialises in them.

There are a few main kinds of eateries you’ll come across:

  • Ful w Ta’meyya (فول وطعمية): A local place where you get beans and ta’meyya (falafel). You get it in sandwiches, or can get 5 LE servings to take to your table and eat with bread at your leisure. It’s also (incidentally) entirely vegetarian.
  • Shawerma stands: They look like the kabab shops you’d have seen anywhere else in the world. Mostly take-away, but you can eat in. Ask them to go light on toomeyya, basically garlic-infused mayonnaise (tasty, but strong and heavy).
  • Kabab shops: Places where you’re more likely to sit down inside, or take away a large amount to eat at home.
  • Koshari stands/restaurants: You’re likely to sit down inside these. Not only vegetarian, this is vegan.
  • Specialty stores: Stores that will claim to be very good at one kind of food, like a “Fiteer”. Just like eating in Asia (see our “Hot and noisy” guide to eating out in China), if you want to get the best of one type of food, it’s best to go to a place that’s specialised in it.

The main casual foods Egyptians eat

Arabic Sweets are some of the best things you can eat in Egypt!
Arabic sweets. Some of the best things you can eat in Egypt. I took a bite out of one before this photo…

Again, see our main article: Foods to Eat in Cairo and Egypt if you want ideas of how to learn about Egyptian culture!

In terms of format, in Egypt you’ll eat bread and rice with meat and vegetables. It can come in different formats, such as in a tagin (a “tajeen” if you’re familiar with North African food).

We spent the first two months mostly eating out, and then the last few weeks eating home-style food while living on a farm. The last two weeks were quite unique though because it was largely vegetarian food made from locally-sourced ingredients from the adjacent farm. So it wasn’t representative.

However, as a visitor to Egypt you’re going to come across the following foods in restaurants.

  • Ful w Ta’meyya (فول وطعمية): As mentioned above, this is either a sandwich or a spread of bread with fava beans (like refried beans from Mexico), falafel, salad and tahina.
  • Fiteer: (فطير): Like a stuffed pizza. If there’s a section with fiteers, ask which one is the best — it’s a bit hard to tell from the descriptions alone.
  • Hawawshi (حواوشى): Almost a fried burger. You get a thick slab of heavily spiced beef or lamb mince in side a pita-style bread that has been grilled on both sides. It’s light on vegetables, heavy on grease and delicious.
  • Kofta (كفتة): This is minced meat grilled on skewers. It’s distinct from kabab, which is made of strips of meat.
  • Kabab (كباب): Strips of meat grilled on skewers. Only cooked one way: very well done.
  • Koshari (كشري): Almost the national dish, this is a very carb-heavy staple. It’s a mix of macaroni, rice and lentils, topped with tomato sauce and fried onions. It’s cheap and filling.
  • Mahshi (محشي): A generic word that means “stuffed”, this means a combination of peppers (the non-hot kind, i.e. capsicum in Australia), zucchini, vine leaves and other vegetables, stuffed with rice and herbs.
  • Mulukhiyya (ملوخية‎): A soup made of a local herb of the same name. It’s heavily flavoured with garlic and quite intense. Get a good one from a famous place (like Kibdet el Prince), because a lousy one has the texture of snot.
  • Fattah (فتة): A combo of rice cooked with fried bread (that goes annoyingly soft), stewed meat and vegetables.
  • Kibda (كبدة): Liver. Usually fried, with lots of spices. It’s seriously delicious. I grew up hating liver, but came to love it in Egypt. Even Jo liked it if it was from the right place.
  • Taagin (طاجن): More a format of food than a separate dish, a taagin is rice, bread, meat and vegetables cooked in a clay pot, stewed for a while. You order it with a different combination of whatever comes inside.
  • Arabic sweets (حلويات): You absolutely have to eat Arabic sweets. The jewel is konafeh, though everyone will try to sell you basbousa.

Let me repeat that last one: you must eat Arabic sweets. Go anywhere, fill up a tray by pointing and be surprised by the treats the person gives you for free. Frankly, I’d have been happy with the freebies. It’ll cost you pennies anyway.

Vegetarian Egyptian foods: actually most of the above, including Ful w ta’meyya, fiteer (vegetarian ones), koshari, mahshi, mulukhiyya, and taagin (the vegetarian ones). Going vegetarian in Egypt is not a bad option, as you have to pay a lot to get high-quality meat.

Finding great places to eat

Luckily, finding a place to eat in Cairo is mostly a case of using Google Maps and finding somewhere with many reviews.

Ignore TripAdvisor and their many conservative recommendations to eat only in hotels. If you’re reading this blog, you’re not that boring. Only one of us got sick in the two months were there, and I’m pretty sure that was from under-cooked eggs I made myself (and I ate eggs every single day, and they were usually under-cooked because that’s how I like them… hmm maybe it was from too many eggs in general).

Aside from Google Maps, you just have to wander around.

Ordering food: Super easy and amazing

It’s super easy to order food in Egypt on the phone… as long as you speak Arabic.

For everyone else, there are apps! The two main apps to use are Uber Eats and Otlob.

If you order in, you can get a great meal for two delivered to your place for as little as 50LE (all-in) or 150 for a huge feast. Because of the terrible traffic situation in Cairo, ordering in is a great way to experience some diverse types of food without fighting your way across the city. Also, your delivery fee is about a quarter of the return taxi fare.

Uber Eats is what you know everywhere else. It has a generous selection of restaurants, though not anywhere near as many as Otlob. However, it’s easy to do the whole transaction in the app, including the tip, and some of the menus are in English. Arabic will give you more options, though.

Otlob is a distant second in tech. For example, it doesn’t give you updates on what stage your order is at, or give you tracking on where the courier is. It has less menu options in English, but it has more restaurants available.

Delivery from both of these is about 10LE, or about US$0.50. If you’re earning foreign currency, that’s embarrassingly little.

Finally, you can call almost any restaurant and order food. They won’t even charge you a delivery fee, but tip the driver 5-10 LE and they’ll appreciate it.

Society in Cairo/Egypt

Let’s go over some of the social aspects of living in Egypt.

Health and Healthcare in Egypt: Not so great

Egypt isn’t known for having good healthcare. In fact, it’s known for having terrible healthcare by international standards.

It’s a shame because the Egyptian system used to produce world-class doctors a few decades ago. I come across papers by older Egyptian-trained doctors.

In the last few decades, it seemed on average, standards of medicine in Egypt dropped precipitously relative to the rest of the world.

To find the best Egyptian doctors, you’d have to find the most expensive ones, often trained internationally and working at major hospitals.

If you need any elective medical work done (e.g. dental work), get it done before you go to Egypt (or do it somewhere else like Eastern Europe or Asia). If you need to go to Egypt, make sure you have good travel insurance, and go to the best hospitals you can find.

Religions of Egypt: Mostly Muslim, no matter the official policy

Culturally, Egypt is pretty much mostly Egyptian/Muslim.

You might have heard that Egypt is largely a Muslim country. We can confirm this.

Egypt is technically open to all “Abrahamic faiths”, but there are literally less than a dozen Jewish people living in Egypt (go check Wikipedia if you’re not sure). On paper, everyone is Muslim or Christian. The type of Islam is Sunni.

To outsiders, all kinds of Islam are the same (after all, all Muslims believe in Muhammad, the Qur’an, and largely live very similar lives), but within Islam, the divisions are large and have been the cause of wars.

On paper, Egypt is 90% Muslim and 10% Christian. But culturally, it’s pretty much Egyptian Muslim. Which means a lot of it is culturally Islamic, and some of it culturally middle eastern, with the line blurred in a few places (for example, in how to treat women).

Local Christians will tell you that there is definitely prejudice against Christians, no matter what the official policy is. This is cultural, not religious; any pious Muslim or clergyman will be totally accepting of Christians.

Subtle discrimination against Christians is just something that happens subtly in the way people are treated, in language people are expected to use (e.g. Muslim greetings), dress people are expected to wear and so on.

For example, Christian women don’t need to cover up as much as Muslim women are expected to culturally.

So if you wear your hair out as a Christian Egyptian woman, you might be totally in line with cultural norms and laws, but you’re still basically holding a flag saying “I’m different to you and your values!!”. If you’re doing that, some people will treat you differently.

At times, paperwork will ask you to fill out your religion, and filling out anything other than one of the Abrahamic religions will cause a bit of confusion, according to people we spoke with who tried. (Even leaving fields blank isn’t OK.)

Race, Racism and Prejudice in Egypt

There is domestic racism and prejudice within Egypt, for example against the Bedouin and against the people of Upper Egypt. This is similar to any domestic racism within other parts of the world, and carries with it the same prejudices.

There is also regional racism between Egypt and other Arab states. All Arab countries have their own identity, and their own viewpoints about what people from other countries are like, formed from stories and sometimes their own experiences. (We don’t want to further this by repeating it.)

There is. unfortunately, racism in Egypt towards darker-skinned people. This happens regardless of whether you’re Egyptian, North African or other. We didn’t see evidence of this in person, but picked it up from TV shows (including in one show where they tried to say “you shouldn’t do this”), and confirmed it exists from friendly conversations.

As a foreigner in Egypt, it’s likely you’ll be treated differently. Mostly this will be in the form of being charged higher prices, hassled a lot and generally judged. I don’t know if other forms of prejudice are extended to foreign visitors; it’s likely they’re all bundled together as “foreigners”.

Social Welfare and the Poor in Egypt

Egypt has some very, very poor areas, including slums. The slums are dangerous and you should not visit unless you know what you’re doing, e.g. it’s your job to go there.

There are poor everywhere, and depending on the location they’ll either ask you for one EGP (about $0.05) or a “euro” if you’re in a touristy area.

I saw some Egyptians giving money to the poor, and asked a couple generally what their rule is. They said if a person is old and looks like they can’t work, give them money. But if they’re young and able, don’t.

We followed this advice and gave money to some poor people. There’s a risk we were furthering some kind of cycle, but our feeling in this situation was it just felt like we were giving someone money to buy bread.

Safety in Cairo/Egypt: It’s mostly fine, but be careful

Safety in Cairo and Harassmap - cairo has one of the highest women's harassment levels in the world

We explore this in more detail in our article: Is it safe in Cairo?

Generally, downtown Cairo is safe, even at night time, in a world where any place can be dangerous. That said, you should exercise normal precautions.

Don’t travel alone at night time if you’re a woman, for example, dress appropriately, don’t count your big bundle of bills in public, and stay out of dark parts of the city if you have no reason to be there.

Women are almost guaranteed to be harassed, which is usually verbal propositioning. Egypt is notoriously bad for harassment of women, even by Middle Eastern standards.

It’s usually verbal harassment that rarely proceeds further. Anecdotally, from people we spoke to, if you confront men who harass you they are embarrassed and go away. But it’s still exhausting for women.

Egyptians like to stay up late, so there are transport options until after midnight.

Yes, there are occasional terrorist attacks, e.g. against bus tour groups visiting the Pyramids in recent months. If this concerns you, then you shouldn’t go. However, it’s unlikely this will happen, statistically, compared to something like a traffic accident (especially in Cairo).

What to wear in Egypt: Conservative (especially for women)

We have more detail on this in our guide to what to wear (as a woman) in Cairo. It depends a lot on what region you’re in.

Generally, men should cover their legs and shoulders. You can wear shorts in the hotter months, especially if you’re in more touristy areas like Luxor. It’s just less commonly done by the local population.

Women should cover their legs and forearms but aren’t expected to cover their hair. If you buy a shawl (or just wear a jacket with a hoodie), you’ll find you get fewer stares, which you may welcome!

Daily life in Cairo/Egypt

What do local Egyptians do?

Aside from work or study, local life in Egypt revolves around

Cafes: Not like western cafes, these are places where you go to smoke shesha and drink Turkish coffee (which is called Arabic coffee in some parts of the world), which they call ‘ahweh. Egyptians who go out will smoke shesha late into the night, and drink coffee at all hours. If you find this confusing, see our introductory guide to Arabic Coffee.

Nearly everyone in Egypt smokes.

Mosques: People attend mosques and pray. Not everyone, but a lot of people. Aside from being an event for prayer, they’re also a place where men (it’s mostly men that go) can socialise. Speaking to Muslims we met, it’s quick and easy to develop a community at a local mosque.

Food: Eating is very social in Egypt. There are places where you can eat a worker’s lunch alone, but it’s rare compared to the west. I thought of eating out alone a couple of times, but ended up just taking out to eat at home.

There are other places where locals hang out, like bars and clubs, but those aren’t our scene so we can’t comment.

In which area of Egypt should you live — Cairo, Alexandria or somewhere else?

There are a few ways of looking at this. It depends on your goals.

For learning Arabic and about Egypt: Start in Cairo or Alexandria.

Cairo is the heart of the action. It’s where the Government currently sits, as well as all major company headquarters. It’s a huge city, with an informal population of around 20 million, and at times it can seem like they’re all outside at the same time.

Alexandria is like “Cairo lite” — it still has the traffic and bustle of Cairo, but not at the same level (maybe 50-70% as much). On top of that, it has a Mediterranean feel and is cooler. But it is boring to many people who prefer the bustle of Cairo.

For seeing sites in a quieter part of Egypt, while still learning about Egypt: Aswan.

Both Luxor and Aswan are loaded with sites to see (especially Luxor). Unfortunately, Luxor is a non-option because you’ll be harassed so much. The people selling taxi and tour services are so persistent in Luxor it’s incredible — we couldn’t shake some people no matter what language we spoke (or whether we said anything at all).

Aswan is a lot quieter. It’s also really beautiful. The Nile near Aswan is almost like a different world, with clear blue waters that are nice to look at, unlike in Cairo.

For peace-ing out with free-diving Bedouins: Dahab or Nuweiba, in South Sinai.

The view from the beach at Nuweiba in South Sinai, one of the best places to spend a few weeks living in Egypt.
The view from the beach at Nuweiba in South Sinai

Forget Sharm el-Sheikh for anything but a short dive trip — it’s overrun by European tourists, and prices are high.

Dahab can seem touristy, as a lot of Europeans and Russians have chosen to be based there. But it’s easier to live there than in Nuweiba, where you probably have to speak a little Arabic. They have all the basic services you need, including things like phone stores, restaurants, and even a gym.

But for the ultimate peace-out, go to Nuweiba and never look back. You might never leave. We nearly didn’t, as we told in our letter “Serendipity took us to Sinai“.

Where should you live in Cairo?

Live in Dokki, the best local neighbourhood of Cairo that isn't boring.

Short answer — Dokki or Mohandesin. Heliopolis is a close second.

For our full guide, see our extensive neighbourhood guide to Cairo.

Avoid Zamalek (it’s great, but it’s a bit too fancy to feel like the “real” Cairo”), or most of the outer regions (cheap, but difficult to get anywhere else).

Weather in Egypt: Hot and dry

Egypt is hot and dry. It’s basically in the middle of a desert.

Don’t visit in summer (June through August) as it will melt your face off. It’ll be hard to go outside, and you’ll be begging for the reprieve of air conditioning. (Make sure any place you stay in has air conditioning!)

The best times of year to visit are NOT in summer, and preferably in autumn (“the fall”), from September-November. Spring is also fine, but you may fall victim to the Khamsiin winds, a period of hot dry winds that blow over the desert, bringing sandstorms with them.

The sandstorms typically happen around March-May. They’re not guaranteed, but they happen often. If it happens during a week you’re there, it’ll be super annoying.

Winter (December-February) is actually tolerably warm. The lowest it gets is around 10 degrees (around 50 F), meaning you need another top layer and trousers, but that’s it. Given Egypt is conservative culturally, you need to wear around this much anyway.

Note that during the Egyptian winter you’ll see locals wearing heavy jackets because for them it’s freezing.

Getting Around Cairo (or most of Egypt): Use Uber for painless transit

Getting around the major cities is easy. Here’s our full guide to the transportation system in Cairo.

In short, here are the ways you can get around Cairo:

  • Uber and Careem work well (Uber has acquired Careem as of 2019, but they’re still separate apps… at some point it’ll all be Uber!)
  • Taxis are affordable but you have to negotiate the price. This involves a quick to and fro. It’s rare to pay more than 50 EGP (USD $3) even to cross half the city. Once you’ve agreed on the price, there’s no extra tip (though they might try to cajole a little extra out of you)
    • The airport taxi price is very high. Expect to be charged about 300 if you don’t negotiate, 200 if you’re good at negotiating and 150 if you’re very good. (100 is probably the fair price!). Unfortunately Uber from the airport was pretty awkward, we couldn’t find the stop.
  • The metro is reliable and very cheap. You have to use Google Maps to figure out where you want to go, and then buy a ticket from a person (not a machine) and pay about 3-6 EGP (less than US$0.500.
  • Unofficial private buses that are very cheap but will scare the daylights out of you
  • You can also get Uber motorcycle taxis if you have a death wish. I saw two accidents in a month happen before my eyes.

Most cities have Uber, but Luxor and Aswan (big tourist destinations) do not.

Internet in Egypt: Get a Vodafone sim card

Domestic internet is slow, and you absolutely must use a VPN (see our digital preparation checklist). Bad things can happen to you if you say the wrong thing in Egypt, or just about Egypt.

Google Fi works, so T-Mobile roaming will also work (but more slowly). If you have other European, Australian or other providers, I have no idea (but when I last checked they didn’t have the incredible global roaming plans that Google and T-Mobile offer).

For best, most reliable data access, get a SIM card from Vodafone or Orange. Take your passport. You can be served in English when you’re there. We paid 200 EGP (about $11) for an 8GB package. Later, we paid 375 (about $20) for a 20GB package, which is roughly what we use in a month each.

There are Vodafone stores all over the place, and you can easily find them on Google Maps.

You can recharge your credits at the many technology stores around Egypt — you don’t have to go to a Vodafone store again. Normally the stores are clearly marked, like with big branded signs, or a ton of phones in the window.

We spent a lot of time writing out all our tips on how to save data while travelling. If you’re a digital nomad (or just addicted to the Internet), you’ll find that very useful, so have a look.

Visas to Egypt: Don’t get them online

Don’t get a visa online beforehand. It’s a bureaucratic waste of time and costs you time because you have to fill out annoying forms. You can just buy a visa on arrival for the same price, and all you have to do is stand in a short line. Just make sure you have the cash (US$25 at time of writing).

Besides, if you google how to get a visa in Egypt, you’ll definitely find the scam website and be down $25 for no reason!

Need to renew your visa? Check out our guide on how to renew your Egyptian visa.

Because you buy the visa from the Cairo bank teller at the airport (this is common; there are bank tellers in major buildings where money is exchanged), you can also exchange money at a fair rate. It’s the same rate you’ll pay anywhere downtown.

Money and Cost of Living in Egypt

Egypt, unlike forward-thinking countries like Estonia and Kenya, is almost entirely cash-based. As we mentioned previously, exchanging money was one of the few places where nobody tried to rip us off in Egypt. You can take USD to any bank or money changing place and get a fair bid/ask spread, and no commission.

The only places you can use credit cards in Egypt are fancy hotels and restaurants, and Uber, Careem, and Uber Eats (Otlob, the other-food ordering app, is mostly cash-based).

Even when we got our sim cards at a shiny high-technology Vodafone official store, we used cash! So plan on withdrawing quite a bit of cash for your stay.

Accommodation: Your accommodation costs can range from $20 a night for an AirBnB apartment to $250 a night for a five-star hotel. Yes, high-end hotels are a bit cheaper in Cairo than in nearby Dubai, for example.

Daily expenses: You can expect to pay about (in USD equivalent)

  • A coke: $0.3 from a corner store, or $0.5 for a 1.25L one from a local grocer
  • Bread: $0.25 for a pack of five from a street-side stand
  • Local in-season fruits: $1 for a couple of kilos. More for foreign fruits. We often paid $1 for a big 1kg tray of strawberries.
  • Arabic sweets: $2 per kilo. It’s priced per kilo! A huge tray of delicious, fresh sweets will set you back just a couple of bucks.
  • Ful/felafel sandwich: $1 for two
  • Large shawerma: $1
  • Coffee: $1 (local kind, see our guide to Arabic coffee)
  • Other local foods: $1-2, ranging up to $5 for a huge meal of half a chicken, chips, salad etc.
  • Taxis: $2

Wrap up

This is a brief summary of what we learned about our time living in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt. There are things we didn’t cover, like bars and clubs, because those aren’t our strengths. But if you have any questions, send them our way.

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