Egypt’s most popular historical site, and one of the most well known the world over, is of course the Pyramids, the most famous of which are located just outside of Cairo.
The greater Cairo area is a sprawling metropolis of nearly 20 million people spread out over dozens of suburbs on both sides of the Nile. The city of Cairo technically occupies the eastern bank, while the city and governate of Giza sit on the western bank. On Giza’s western edge, at the point where urban sprawl meets the eastern edge of the Sahara Desert, lies the only remaining wonder of the ancient world – the Great Pyramid. And accompanying this remarkable monument at the same site are two additional kings pyramids and six queens pyramids. These we collectively know as the Pyramids of Giza, or often just “the Pyramids.”
The Pyramids of Giza are by far the most popular set of pyramids because they’re the largest and best preserved, but there have been well over 100 other pyramids identified in Egypt as well, including more unique and older structures at sites like Saqqara (the Step Pyramid) and Dashur (the Red Pyramid & the Bent Pyramid) south of Giza.
Unless you’re staying in one of the few hotels within walking distance of the Pyramids complex’s gates (such as Mena House or Le Meridian), you’ll need to either take a taxi from downtown Cairo or from wherever you’re staying (read more about the right type of taxis here), arrange for a private car and driver with a travel company or the hotel concierge, or take the Cairo Metro out to Giza Station and then take a taxi the rest of the way to the site. Taxis are super cheap in Cairo, but you’ll need to haggle over a firm and fair price with the driver unless you get one of the newer (mostly white) taxis that are metered. Definitely try to find one of those first.
As you approach the entrance to the Pyramids complex, beware of the taxi jumpers (read more about those here) and firmly – aggressively, if necessary – shoo them off if they pounce. You should even tell the driver you’re not paying him if he doesn’t kick them out and go on to the gate. These schiesters usually offer a kickback to the taxi driver if you go with them and rent one of their camels or horses, so sometimes the drivers will hesitate to kick them out of the car just to see if he can possibly collect your full fare plus get a commission from the taxi jumpers. But be insistent – and even rude if you have to be – and they’ll go away.
When you do make it to the complex entrance, you’ll need to first go to the ticket office and get a ticket to enter the site. If you’d like to go into one of the pyramids that are open (usually the Great Pyramid and Menkaure’s pyramid, but sometimes Khafre’s pyramid is substituted for Menkaure’s), you’ll need to purchase an extra ticket for that at the same ticket office outside of the entrance. Pyramid interior tickets are sold in limited numbers each day, so peak days during peak periods could see these extra tickets sold out during the morning. But don’t worry, just being in the complex and seeing everything from the exterior is incredible enough and more than worth the journey.
Some, including myself, even question whether it’s worth it to spend the extra time and money going into one of the larger pyramids, given that there’s nothing left in there at all (no wall art, no mummies, no treasures, nothing except an empty sarcophagus). But even still, there is a sort of coolness factor in being inside of a pyramid, so some may find it well worth it for the experience. Don’t do it if you’re claustrophobic, though, as you’ll have to duck down and walk through some cramped spaces. And don’t do it if you’re in really bad physical shape too, as the climb up inside can be exhausting.
Once the worker at the door tears your ticket for you and you pass through minimal security screening, you’ll be inside the compound and free to walk around for as long as you want. But once you’re in and as you’re walking over towards the structures, beware of the fake site workers that always “work” the area just inside the main gate. Here’s their M.O.: they catch you as you’ve just entered, had your ticket torn, and passed through security and ask you for your ticket again. If you’re an unsuspecting tourist, you may pull it back out of your pocket and give it to them. Then, they’ll hold onto it as they walk with you a ways up and try to sell you on all kinds of “extra” services, like guiding, camel and horse rides, souvenirs, etc. They use all kinds of lines on tourists without regard for that concept of “the truth” and many unprepared tourists fall for this trap and end up wasting tons of time and money with these schiesters.
For Pyramids visitors who have been warned about these guys just inside the gate, they’ll resist giving them or showing them their ticket. The schiesters will keep asking you and insist that they work there. They’ll pretend to be offended that you’re ignoring them and will demand that you show them your ticket because they “work there.” Some of them may technically work there, but not as ticket checkers but as site guides. However, you should definitely avoid hiring the company of any of these guys as guides because the ones who pounce on and deceive tourists with the “show me your ticket” scam are the very bad ones. If you want a guide to walk you around the site, arrange for one in advance with a travel company or your hotel concierge, or accept the services of one that approaches you on site but who identifies himself as a guide and not using the “show me your ticket” scam.
Once you’re past this mini-gauntlet, you’re almost free to explore the site and enjoy its awe-inspiring majesty. I say almost because you’ll likely next be approached by a series of dudes offering you camel rides, horse rides, donkey rides, soft drinks, and various other souvenirs for sale. Some of these guys can be persistent and annoying (like the camel guys, who may follow you for a while saying “You know how much?” and “I give you good price.” and “You come back later?”
It can actually be well worth it to take one of these guys up on their camel ride offer if you’re traveling independently. Just make sure you agree with them on the full price of the entire ride before getting on the camel and going off with them on a ride around the site. Then you’ll probably want to tip them a little on top of that too.
They’ll lead you and your new camel friend around the base of the Pyramids and probably out a short ways into the edge of the desert, from whence you’ll be able to take some great panoramic photos of the Pyramids, you in front of the Pyramids, and you on a camel in front of the Pyramids. Again, just make sure you’re clear on how much you’ll pay before you embark. If you don’t, they’ll always pretend that whatever you overpay them in the end is far, far below what they expect. Egypt is schiesterland, so make sure you’re prepared and in the right frame of mind for dealing with it at these major tourist sites and you’ll have a much better experience.
Take some time to roam around the complex on your own too. It’s amazing to just have some alone time with these monuments and take in their awesomeness from a number of spots and perspectives. Take plenty of photos, but (yet again) watch out for any of the locals there who offer to take photos for you or with you. They’re just looking for money and will likely demand some to give you your camera back. If you’re visiting the site alone, it can be well worth it to have them take some good photos of you in front of the Pyramids for you, but just know that you’ll need to compensate them a little for doing it. This includes taking photos with them and/or their animals too, even if they volunteer.
When you’re finally done at the Pyramids, you’ll want to head on downstream toward the Sphinx, another amazing monument that sits at the same site as the Pyramids of Giza.