There are a LOT of hotel options when visiting Egypt, which is a good thing. The not so good thing about that overabundance of choices is that you usually don’t know what you’re signing yourself up for until you arrive in Egypt and lay eyes on the property for the first time. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll be pleased. If you blindly trusted the [always flattering, sometimes doctored] photos online or the [too-frequently fake] online reviews, you might be sorely disappointed.
So consider reading this part of your homework, on which you’re already getting a gold star for being here in the first place. Here I’ll cover the hotel scene in Egypt and talk about properties in all different parts of the country. But let’s start in Cairo and let’s start at the top.
As with anywhere, you can stratify a city’s hotel scene into different levels and that’s what I’m going to do here so I’m not forced to rank-order the hotels based my opinion. Because there’s a couple in the top category, for example, and you may prefer certain styles or amenities over others and you may disagree with my absolute rankings. But there’s less likelihood, if you were to visit all the major hotels in Cairo like I have, that you’d disagree with the categorizations of them. So let’s start there.
Ok, Cairo. Capital of Egypt. The historic jewel of the Arab world, and at one time the ancient world too. So since you can’t stay in a Pharoah’s palace anymore when you visit, the next best thing would probably be the Four Seasons in Cairo. Note that there are actually two Four Seasons hotels in Cairo. Well, ok technically one is in Cairo and one is in Giza. But most of central Giza that’s close to the Nile is usually called Cairo because it, like most of central Cairo, is in the center of Greater Cairo. Anyway, the point is that there are two Four Seasons hotels in Cairo and they’re both in the top tier of hotels in the city.
I wrote an article for the Huffington Post’s travel section in February of 2016 called “Finding Your Oasis While Exploring Egypt” in which I review and talk more about the two different Four Seasons properties in detail and strongly suggest that visitors splurge on accommodations while they’re visiting Egypt and just shack up in one of the two Four Seasons. My reasoning is that you’ll want to be able to retreat to a luxury oasis at the end of the day after traipsing through the sand at the Pyramids all morning and the grit of Cairo all afternoon.
The rooms can be pricey, usually in the high 300-400 dollar a night range, but they’re worth it. I wouldn’t expect to find them for much cheaper than this, even during periods of low occupancy and slow tourism. A sales manager friend at one of Egypt’s top-tier hotels explain this phenomenon to me one time this way – he said that it’s all about maintaining brand integrity. If they dropped rooms to 100 or 200 bucks a night when demand was low, like a lot of other hotels would do, it makes them look cheaper instead of like an ultra-luxury brand. So they’re willing to take a little bit of a loss by letting rooms go empty when demand is low so that their high-end clientele still see them as an evergreen luxury property and brand.
Anyway, so let’s talk quickly about the two different properties. I go into more of their distinctions and differences in my HuffPost Travel article on this, but it really comes down to whether you want to be on the edge of the bustling center of Cairo, literally, or if you want to be slightly removed from that hustle and bustle by staying across the river in the slightly – slightly! – less hectic Giza area.
The one on the Cairo side is called the Four Seasons Nile Plaza and it’s walking distance to Tahir Square, the Egyptian Museum, and most of the other major hotels downtown. A friend of mine lives there in the hotel and he really likes it. He always picks the nicest hotel in Cairo for his residence while he’s working there, and so the fact that he picked this one as the nicest too just confirms for me that it really is.
It’s also the newest and largest hotel in downtown Cairo, since it was freshly built from the ground up around 14 years ago, unlike many of the other hotels that are older, even if they’re renovated. The Nile Plaza Four Seasons is new construction, and it’s undoubtedly the poshest hotels in Egypt period, in my opinion. It’s also got a nice small high-end mall attached to it in the back and a few beautiful fancy restaurants.
Nearly equally as posh is the Four Seasons First Residence across the river, which is the Cairo’s original Four Seasons. It’s still a beautiful modern property, but it’s a bit smaller than the Nile Plaza property. This one has equally grandiose decor, and in fact it feels and looks like a royal French chateau on the inside, although everything is on a smaller scale than its sister property.
The First Residence has an indoor shopping mall attached to it too, which is a little bigger than the one at Nile Plaza. This Four Seasons used to have an incredible jazz brunch with a beautiful view over the Nile every Friday that my friends and I used to really enjoy going to once in a while. For the fellow gamblers out there, there’s also one of Egypt’s very few casinos in the First Residence Four Seasons. It’s small and smokey and not too exciting, but it’ll satisfy a table games fix if you need one while you’re there. Just beware that Egyptian friends are not allowed in there and you’ll need a passport to prove your nationality. And don’t take local currency, only American dollars and maybe Euros too, I can’t remember. But definitely American dollars.
Staying in the top tier of hotels in Cairo but jumping down a notch in grandiosity, we also have the Kempinski Nile Hotel. Now, I haven’t just stayed in this property. I’ve stayed in it a LOT. This used to be my preferred hotel for both myself and my travel company’s clients visiting Egypt after I switched us away from the InterContinental. The Kempinski is a phenomenal hotel that’s on par with Four Seasons in room quality and service. The major difference, though, is the scale of the overall property and, as a result, the amenities and offerings. There’s no mall attached, but there are two small standard nice restaurants on the hotel’s second floor.
The first time I ever checked into the Nile Kempinski I knew I was in LOVE because the front desk girl goes… “Your room is almost ready sir. Would you like to have a seat in our Chocolate Lounge while you wait.”And I was like… “Whaaaaat? Why YES, yes I would indeed.”
The Chocolate Lounge is actually a quaint dessert bar off the lobby, but the sound of it is just mouth watering. The Nile Plaza Four Seasons has a desert bar too in its mall, but the one in the Kempinski just seems so much more quaint and posh because it’s not in a big open indoor courtyard. And this is the charm of the Kempinski. It’s quaint and truly boutique.
Kempinskis are awesome hotels and I love staying in them all over the world, although I don’t think they have any in North America so you may not be AS familiar with them. But in the Middle East and Africa, they’re one of my favorite chains. And the Nile Kempinski in Cairo is really awesome. They also claim you have a 24-hour butler, but it’s more like a floor attendant, since he isn’t literally stationed outside your door or dedicated just to your room. But the service is still pretty amazing. And the non-alcoholic beverages in the room’s minibar – all free. Where else do you see that?
The Kempinski’s rooftop pool is quite nice with great views of the Nile. The one at the Four Seasons next door is on like the 3rd or 4rd floor, so not a rooftop pool. But it’s huge. The Kempinski’s is much smaller, and the rooftop is awesome.
Both of these properties have great spas too and I’ve tried out both. The Four Seasons one is naturally a bit bigger and provides more of an full multi-hour spa experience complete with hot and cold pools, meditation rooms, and so on. The Kempinski’s spa is more straight forward catering to the specific services offered as opposed to hanging out in there all day, but I like them both and have used them both.
There’s also a brand new Kempinski property further out in the burbs. This one’s called the Royal Maxim Palace Kempinski and it’s really big and nice and beautiful. But it’s out by the airport and is more suitable geographically for business travelers or layover stays or for folks who have super early flights and don’t want to battle morning traffic and such.
So on that note of hotels out by the airport that you’ll want to avoid as a place to plant yourself for tourism – we’ve also got the Sheraton al Matar. This was actually the very first hotel I ever stayed in in Egypt because I didn’t know any better and thought… oh it’s a Sheraton and it says it’s in Cairo so it must be ok. There are several other Sheratons in the Cairo area, but this one is not ideal for basing yourself unless you want to be right by the airport for some reason.
There’s also a Le Meridien right at the airport. There’s another Le Meridien out by the Pyramids and we’ll talk about that one in a second. That one (the one by the Pyramids) is ok as a base under certain conditions, but we’ll get into that in a moment. There’s also the Radison Blu Heliopolis that’s also near the airport and also not ideal for a tourist base. Same goes for the Sonesta out there, etc.
There are also several international chains around the City Stars mall, which is closer to the airport than downtown Cairo. Unless you’re there for business travel or for some reason don’t want to be near any of the tourist areas, these aren’t ideal either although most of the international chains there are very nice. The InterContinental City Stars is a nice large conference-style hotel, but there’s another InterContinental called the Semiramis InterContinental that’s much more central. I’ll get back to that one in a second.
But still out here at City Stars, there are a good number of western brand hotels out here, but they’re not ideal, such as the Holiday Inn and Staybridge Suites and all of those whose brands maybe recognized as decent by American visitors. These are ok, but you’ll spend more in taxi fare getting to where you came here to go than you would have spent by staying at a more central hotel. Bottom line – anything you see in City Stars or Heliopolis is way too far out to base yourself for a visit to Cairo for purposes of tourism. Let’s move back downtown to where you should be.
Ok back in this central downtown area, I covered the top tier hotels, or the nicest and poshest ones, which I’d say are the two Four Seasons properties and the Kempinski Nile Hotel. One level down, which means they’re not as opulent as those three but still perfectly nice and wonderful, would be hotels like the Semiramis InterContinental, the the Cairo Marriott on Gezira Island, the Fairmont, the Gezira Sofitel, and the Nile Ritz Carlton.
Now those last two, the Sofitel and the Ritz, some may put those in the top tier. I don’t because I personally think the Four Seasons and the Kempinski are a distinguishable notch above, but I’ll also fully admit I’ve had much more experience with those than with the Sofitel or the Ritz. The Ritz is newly renovated and is in the building that used to be the old Nile Hilton, which back in the day – like the 80s – used to be the nicest hotel in Cairo. Not anymore by a long shot. It was still open as the Nile Hilton when I first moved there in 2003, but it was getting quite dated and was slipping then. But it was still an upper class social hotspot, which is why expats like me frequented it with friends on occasional weekends.
That old Nile Hilton building has now been renovated into the Nile Ritz Carlton, although some people feel like it wasn’t renovated up to what we’d expect for Ritz standards and falls a little short. But I’m open to giving it a few more tries and seeing if my mind can be changed. I haven’t actually stayed there and tried out all the amenities because it’s so new, but I’ll be sure to update the Egypt Travel Blog when I do and we’ll see if I keep it in tier two or bump it up to a tier one hotel.
The Sofitel follows the same pattern. It’s in the building that used to be the Gezira Sheraton and that had become quite dated when I first lived there. The only reason I ever went there was because of the casino. But it’s a Sofitel now and renovated and I know some folks who have worked there and they insist it’s a tier-one property, although the jury is still out for me. But it’s a nice one regardless.
The Cairo Marriott is on Gezira Island, which is an island in the middle of the Nile in central Cairo where a lot of bars and restaurants and embassies are. I actually lived on Gezira Island for two weeks when I first moved to Egypt and it’s quiet and secluded and a little more green and residential, compared to the rest of central Cairo. The Marriott, though, is a little older but for good reason – it’s in an old royal palace that was converted into a hotel and taken over by Marriott.
The main part of the hotel that’s in the old palace is gorgeous. It’s definitely worth a stop-by even if you’re not staying there. Sometimes I’ll take guests and friends there for a dinner or a few drinks or something just so they can experience it’s authentic atmosphere. There’s also a “newer-ish” part of the hotel that was built some time in the 20th century, maybe the 60s or 70s. It’s a bit dated but still decent for Egypt. Overall, this hotel is a solid choice within a decent price range and connected to some great history and with some great visuals.
Now let me spend a hot minute talking about the Semiramis InterContinental. I’ve lived in this hotel before and I’ve had friends who have lived here too. It used to be the nicest in the city, but that was before some of the newer ones were built. But it’s still one of my top recommendations for several reasons.
First, it’s literally one of the most central hotels in all of Cairo. It overlooks Tahir Square on the back side and the Nile on the front side. In fact, during one of the revolutions when I was there, I was able to watch the crowds assembling from my balcony on this hotel and back in the room on the television screen there was Christianne Amanpour on CNN broadcasting live from a balcony several floors up from me overlooking the same scene. A lot of journalists stay here because it’s close to everything, and a lot of diplomats stay here too because it’s beside both the British and American embassies.
The rooms are nice but not as nice as the Four Seasons’ or Kempinski’s rooms, obviously. But they’re ok. Other than the location, the best thing about the Semiramis is its amenities. It’s a huge property, so it’s got quite a few restaurants that are very very good. My absolutely favorite restaurant in Cairo for a long time was the Thai restaurant in the Semiramis called Birdcage, and it’s still one of my favorites. There’s also an amazing Lebanese restaurant in there called Sabaya, and a great French restaurant with amazing art on the walls. They have a nice Italian restaurant too with great views over the Nile, especially when they have its huge windows open and the light breeze blows in.
One funny story I have about this restaurant and its open windows and “light breeze” is that back in 2012 when they were still having some troubles in Egypt and protesters were battling the government in Tahir Square and the scuffles were spilling over into neighboring streets, some rogue protesters attacked an armored military personnel carrier just out in front of the Semiramis and set it on fire. Then the soldiers all jumped out and fired tear gas at their attackers.
Well, this was all taking place on the street out in front of the hotel and I was dining in the Italian restaurant here with those nice big windows open that night. Then all of a sudden when they fired the tear gas, that light Nile breeze started blowing it in through those big open windows. Some diners (raises hand!) were trying to watch the commotion down below from there and all of a sudden we started getting a side of tear gas with our fettuccini.
The hotel closed the restaurant and sent all of us diners to the bar next door where we still managed to watch the battle down below through some closed windows and not choke. So that was wild, but those were wild times. Nothing like that now. That was just an historic time in Egypt’s history and they’ve moved on.
Anyway, staying in this same area for one more hot minute but dropping down one more tier, we also have hotels like the Ramses Hilton and the Novotel in this same area. I put the Ramses Hilton down below the others because it’s older and not as modern as the other major international chains in the area, but it’s still a big one.
If you’re on a budget and still want to stay central, the Novotel property just across the bridge on Gezira Island is a cute little mid-tier hotel. It’s basic but modern. I stayed there once when I was younger right when it first opened, and visited people there quite a few other times. I’ve also patronized the restaurant and bar there, which a guy I used to know used to run. Not sure if he still does, but he was a nice guy. So the restaurant and bar are decent nightspots and the hotel itself is basic but nice. A good budget travel option without being in a sketchy place.
Now downtown Cairo is THE main place to stay when you’re visiting Egypt for tourism. There are hotels in all parts of Cairo, but you don’t want to be stuck in a roach motel out in a suburb with nothing around you and having a hard time finding taxis to take you places far away. But other than downtown, there are a few decent hotels out by the Pyramids that many tour groups and tourists opt to stay in, and these are ok choices too.
I personally prefer the ones downtown because you can also leave them on foot and walk to most of the non-Pyramids attractions, but I can’t argue with the view of the Pyramids that some of these hotels out there give you. None of them are luxurious, I’d say, but they’re about the same as the second- or third-tier properties downtown, which are all still ok to stay in.
First and foremost is the most famous one out by the Pyramids and that’s the Mena House Hotel. This property started out as a royal hunting lodge and then once it transferred into private hands was eventually expanded and converted into a hotel. It also has to be one of the oldest in Egypt that’s still operating, since it dates to the mid-1800s. And while it shows its age, service is still superior and the views are to die for. You can literally look out from the roof or the patio and see the Pyramids staring at you right there.
A lot of commoditized tour groups use this property because of the view there, but you really can’t walk out of the hotel and stroll over to anything else. At least downtown you have so much more at your doorstep to see and explore, but out here you’re kind of isolated. There’s also a Le Meridien and a Mercure property out here, which are ok, maybe also 2nd or 3rd tier.
BUT, there are also literally hundreds of other small hotels both out here and downtown and, well, all over Cairo that may seem ok online but are SO not in person. Believe me, I’ve stayed in a lot of them too back when I was young and broke. And if you are young and broke, there are some nice options that are trendy and cheap, like the Novotel I talked about earlier downtown. But there are LOTS of hotels that are just jank, broke down, roach motels and you’d never know it until you got there and, surprise, you’re like… “Where. the. hell. AM I?”
I’ve literally stayed in places that I booked online on reputable travel sites and had to stack chairs up over the windows to make extra sure we weren’t robbed. That may have been a little bit of an overreaction in retrospect, but the point is that it felt so sketchy that at the time my travel companion and I felt like this was necessary when we went to bed. That was one of those out in Giza near the Pyramids that I booked with points through an airline site. It’s also not uncommon for some jank local places to use stock photos instead of real photos and you show up and you are certain you have the wrong hotel but nope it’s exactly what you booked.
So like I said in the beginning – Do your homework, be a little skeptical, seek out trusted sources who can curate options for you from experience (like yours truly), and you’ll be much better off. Egypt is a fantastic place to visit and experience and explore, but it takes a different set of travel skills than travel in Europe, North America, Australia, the Gulf, or even east Asia. But it’s SO worth it in the end.