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The Great Sphinx and an Egyptian pyramid in the background

Mind Blown: 8 Things That Surprised Me Traveling in Egypt

From the chaotic streets of Cairo to the tunnels inside the pyramids to the lush shores of the Nile River, my trip to Egypt surprised me in more ways than I could have imagined.

by Kevin McGraw
Senior Copywriter

In Egypt, it’s hard to walk a few steps without stopping to say some variation of “are you kidding me?” Which is great, because isn’t that what travel’s all about? Throughout my 10 days on Egypt: Cruise the Nile, I found surprises around every corner, and with every surprise came new adventure.

A mosque and the Cairo city skyline with the three pyramids in the distance

1. The pyramids are NOT in the middle of the desert

Nearly every photo I’d ever seen of the pyramids convinced me they were out in the middle of the desert somewhere. Turns out they’re just a quick drive from the center of Giza, making the trip super accessible for anyone visiting Egypt. What I thought would be a full day trek from our hotel turned out to be a 15-minute ride on the bus. But hey, even if the pyramids were six hours from the nearest city, it would have been worth it because oh my god, what a marvel.

A few people walking up a narrow staircase with stone on either side
2. You can go inside the pyramids

In case you’ve forgotten all your ancient Egyptian history, I’d like to remind you that the pyramids were all built as very elaborate tombs for pharaohs. These monstrous structures would take 15–30 years to build, and there are over 100 of them throughout Egypt.

Not only can you stare in wonder at the pyramids, but for a small fee, you can go inside. On my trip, we ventured into The Great Pyramid of Giza, which is the largest in the country and was built for the pharaoh Khufu. Anything that may have been inside thousands of years ago is no longer there, but being able to walk/climb inside a pyramid was memorable, to say the least. FYI, the tunnels inside are dark and narrow, so if you’re not a fan of tight spaces, I’d opt out.

Palm trees and other green plants along the shore of a blue river

3. The land along the Nile is lush

Ready for a stat that will blow your mind? 90% of people in Egypt live less than 12.4 miles from the Nile River. As the primary source of water for locals, the river is—and has been—critical to their livelihood. And due to the river’s annual flooding, the land along the Nile is green, fertile, and one of the most agriculturally productive areas in the world.

We were lucky enough to spend three nights on a Nile River cruise, which, come on—once-in-a-lifetime experience. While we were on the boat, I spent as much time as possible looking out and admiring the shore as we sailed by.

A large limestone statue of an ancient Egyptian prince and his wife inside a museum

4. The Egyptian Museum was an unexpected highlight

To be completely honest with you, dear reader, I don’t gravitate towards museums when I travel. You’re more likely to find me searching for the best bite to eat or wandering through the nearest park. But the Egyptian Museum belongs in a league of its own and became a total highlight of my trip.

We visited the museum during our last day, which was the perfect capstone. Having been to a whole bunch of temples and ancient sites, I had a greater appreciation of what I was looking at in the museum. And boy were we looking at a lot. I’m talking over 120,000 artifacts from a 5,000-year period of history. Our Tour Director, an accomplished Egyptologist (read: very smart), guided us through the enormous space adding incredible color and commentary to the stories of Egypt’s past.

5. Traffic is chaotic, but under control

Listen, if you think driving in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, or any major city in the U.S. is crazy, you ain’t been to Cairo. I’m honestly not sure what I expected, but what I saw certainly surprised me. First of all, the city proper has 10 million people, and based on my estimation, every single one of them is driving at all times. Beyond the congestion, drivers don’t necessarily stick to their lanes—actually, most of the time, there aren’t lanes. Oh, and honking was constant. If visiting Cairo was a movie, the sound of car horns would be the soundtrack. (Take notes, Hans Zimmer.)

I say all of that as an outsider. I wasn’t the one driving, and our bus driver always seemed calm, cool, and collected. Foreigners might say it’s chaotic, but the locals know exactly what they’re doing and follow dozens of unspoken rules of the road.

A wall inside an ancient tomb with colorful carvings of Egyptian pharaohs and gods

6. Tombs were decorated to the nines

Only after seeing the pyramids did I begin to understand just how important pharaohs’ tombs were to ancient Egyptians. The walls inside a tomb are covered with carvings telling the stories of the king’s life and accomplishments. And these are not simple carvings—they’re detailed and surprisingly colorful 3,000 years later, thanks to the lack of sunlight deep in the tomb.

Ancient Egyptians believed their souls lived on after they died, but their bodies needed to be preserved and protected so their soul had a place to reside. Bodies of wealthy leaders were placed in extravagant tombs as both a display of wealth and as a way to ensure their soul would be well provided for in the afterlife. Brb, off to build my pyramid.

7. Most Egyptians don’t drink alcohol

I obviously didn’t choose Egypt for its nightlife, but I was surprised to learn that most locals don’t touch alcohol. About 90% of Egyptians are Muslim, and according to their religion, alcohol is forbidden. That doesn’t mean there’s no drinking in Egypt, but it’s not part of their culture like it is in many other areas of the world. I drank the occasional beer with dinner, but if you’re looking to party, there are plenty of better options for you. Oh, and heads up: the legal drinking age is 21.

A man wearing a coat and a hat with hot air balloons floating behind him above the desert

8. It’s not always hot

I fully expected Egypt to be hot, like, all the time. And sure, during the day it gets toasty (over 100ºF in the summer months), but that’s only while the sun’s out. Most of Egypt is a desert climate, so once the sun goes down, temperatures drop quickly. This is especially true from December to February, so don’t say I didn’t warn you—do yourself a favor and bring some warm clothes.

No matter what you think you know about Egypt, the land of ancient wonders will surprise you at every turn. If you’re interested in experiencing a new culture and you have “climb inside an Egyptian pyramid” on your bucket list, check out our Egypt trips and prepare yourself for an unexpected, unforgettable adventure.

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