Picture yourself in Egypt and you picture this. Imagine Ancient Egypt and this is where your mind will land. Here is Giza, the city just west of Cairo, where on a desert plateau stand the Pyramids, Sphinx and royal tombs of the pharaohs.
Everything west of the Nile's eastern bank is actually in the City of Giza (الجيزة el-Gīza) rather than the City of Cairo. It's a huge conurbation that includes the Nile islands of Gezira and Roda, the riverside neighbourhoods of Dokki and Mohandeseen, and mile after mile of tatty low-rise and 'burbs. Giza plus Cairo and three other townships make up the Greater Cairo Metropolis. But of course the top sight is the UNESCO World Heritage site 1 Pyramids of Giza, at the western edge of the city, in the "Haram" district. The Grand Egyptian Museum will also open nearby in summer 2018. This means that Giza is developing into a tourist base in its own right, especially along the main axis of the Haram or Pyramids Road.
It's difficult now to imagine this place 100 years ago, with early tourists arriving by carriage along dirt roads through the fields. The vast, grubby metropolis now sprawls right to the foot of the pyramids complex. Fortunately development has been prevented (or removed) on the plateau, so the pyramids still stand proud in an arid expanse. A low ridge cuts the view to the south & west so it feels like the threshold of the Sahara, not just a sandy park or anti-oasis in the midst of burbs and more burbs. To the southeast, the pyramids of Abu Sir and Saqqara shimmer in the distance.
Lots of countries have ancient pyramids: Mexico, Indonesia, Greece, Iran . . . Egypt has at least 135 (with undoubtedly more undiscovered) but Sudan has about 240. The three main Pyramids in Giza are the focal point of the Giza necropolis, or cemetery, that served the elite of the Old Kingdom capital at nearby Memphis in the 2500s BCE. Three pharaohs of the 4th Dynasty were buried here - Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure - along with members of their royal household. They chose it, west of Memphis, because west was the direction of the afterlife.
The new pyramids were magnificent, but they were something of a giveaway to tomb-robbers. Later pharaohs preferred hidden tombs, such as those in the Valley of the Kings outside Luxor. (So it's from these hidden tombs that most Egyptian mummies and artefacts have been recovered.) All the pyramids fell into disrepair, were repeatedly broached by robbers, and their stone cladding was pilfered for building. Wind and rain have whittled them down. They're still magnificent.
The main railway line between Cairo and Luxor / Aswan runs through Giza, where most services halt, so you can travel along the Nile valley without backtracking via downtown Cairo. Indeed some seasonal sleeper trains start from Giza rather than Cairo Ramses station.
Metro Line 2 runs from downtown Cairo to Giza town centre (direction El-Moneib; going back is direction Shobra.) Get off at 1 Giza station and exit the station right (west) to find transport on Al-Haram Avenue. The pyramids are a further 8 km, 20 min trip west down that avenue. Your return transport may drop you at the next station down the line, Omm el Misryeen or Giza suburbs, to avoid town centre congestion; it'll be the same trains and LE2 fare to return downtown. The metro usually runs from 6AM till 11:30PM.
A taxi from Giza metro station to the pyramids shouldn't be much over LE30. If you're based in southern Cairo, it might be easier to take a taxi all the way, rather than ride the metro to Sadat, change, then ride out again to Giza then find a taxi. All the standard warnings about Cairo taxis (see "Cairo: get around") apply with even greater force around this prime tourist spot. So many tourists, so many of them unwary or jet-lagged, let's fleece these lambs! And it's remarkable how swiftly a "broken" taxi meter is restored to life once the driver sees you're serious about bailing out.
The taxi should be able to take you right to the pyramids entrance gate at the very end of the avenue, whereas buses and other vehicles must stop about 500 m short of there. Coming back, taxis will be waiting around the exit gate near the Sphinx.
From Giza metro station, frequent buses and microbuses run west towards the pyramids, for a fare of LE3. Listen out for conductors shouting "Haram!" or look for route numbers 355 or 357. Many of these buses, along with routes 900 and 997, actually start from central Cairo - look for them around Midan Tahrir. A bus from downtown will be a slow bumpy experience, as Giza town traffic is just as congested as central Cairo traffic, timetables are as fictional as the Tales of Sinbad, and not all of those crowded aboard have recently washed.
Buses and microbuses can only run to within 500 m of the pyramids entrance then they must either turn back or turn off into the burbs. Walk straight on west along the avenue towards the big pointy things that look like pyramids, ignoring all helpful cries that you should go a different way. Later when you exit the site near the Sphinx, you may find a bus, otherwise turn left / north and stroll back to your drop-off point.
See also Giza with children article for practical suggestions.
The pyramids and associated sites are on the plateau 8 km west of Giza downtown. You'll see them looming up, along with the golden arches of McDonalds, as you approach along Al-Haram Road. You need to enter the complex by the main gate at the western terminus of that road. You'll then progress anti-clockwise through the site, eventually to exit near the Sphinx. Tour groups sometimes enter by this other gate - individuals can't do so unless they have a season ticket or other special pass. However you are permitted to exit via the main entrance.
Ignore the nay-sayers who say this place is not worth the bother - it definitely is. It's spacious and absorbs the crowds (which are nowadays much diminished.) Standard advice is to come very early to beat the crowds, who have come early to beat the crowds. No, instead take a leisurely breakfast and arrive late-morning as the coach trips start to drift away, and if you come in the cool months the midday sun is not hot, albeit still strong on UV. What's less obvious is whether the pyramid interiors are worth it - and you do need to come early for those. The extra admission is cheap enough but the interiors are hot, humid, cramped, claustrophobic and lacking "atmosphere" in any sense. The passages are steep, dusty and hard to move through, and those with any heart or lung or musculo-skeletal limitations will be miserable at best.
The complex is open every day, 8AM to 5PM. Individual sites within the complex may close earlier.
Entry fees: General admission to the complex is LE120. It's extra if you want to enter the pyramid interiors, boat house museum or Sphinx compound. The Great Pyramid interior is always open, while access to Khafre and Menkaure pyramid interiors alternates each year. Limited numbers of these extra tickets are available each day, so by mid-morning they're all gone; there isn't a pre-booking system. No cameras are allowed into the pyramids.
Great Pyramid entry is LE200, then it's LE50 for each of Khafre Pyramid OR Menkaure Pyramid interior, the boat house (which is recommended) and the Sphinx compound. Buy all these at the outset to avoid doubling back to the entrance. Never buy a ticket other than at the entrance kiosk, and never surrender it - the entrance guards will tear it and give it you back. Anything else is a scam or a hussle.
Decent loos next to the ticket office will be your last chance for a while. Then you enter the complex and ascend the driveway towards the Great Pyramid, suitably awe-inspired, and muttering a continual "lah shukran, lah shukran" to dismiss the touts, guides, and offers of camels. If you do fancy a ride, see "Do" below.
Climbing the Pyramids is dangerous and strictly illegal. It adds to wear and tear on the structure, and any stumble is likely to prove fatal. Also, it's hard gritty work and not nearly as cool as you'd imagined, so don't think about it.
- 2 Great Pyramid of Giza (Pyramid of Khufu or Cheops). The oldest, the largest in Egypt, and the last surviving representative of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was originally 146 m (479 ft) high but is now slightly reduced to a still towering 137 m (449 ft). Over 2 million blocks of stone were used to construct it, all through manual labour. Entry to the interior is on the north side, facing your approach.
- All over the complex, but especially around the Great Pyramid, are various Queens' Pyramids and Nobles' Tombs. Those along its east flank are the Queens' Pyramids of Khufu's mother, wives and sisters. Here also are burial pits for Khufu's "solar boats", to carry him into the afterlife. Along the west flank are noblemen's tombs, such as those of Senegemib. Several of these tombs are open to visit and usually free of tourist hordes. There's no extra charge though baksheesh may be appreciated.
- 3 Solar Barque Museum (along the south flank of the Great Pyramid). When Khufu died, five ceremonial boats were used to transport his mummified body and funerary goods along the Nile; they were then hauled up to the pyramid. Mummy and goods were sealed inside while the boats were buried along the east flank. Khufu intended to sail into the afterlife on these boats, and then each day he would accompany the sun-god on his daily sail across the skies. The "solar barques" or boats were made of fine cedar from Lebanon. One boat has been painstakingly reconstructed from the fragments and is on display here, probably the oldest boat in existence. The others were re-buried in the pits. LE50.
- 4 Pyramid of Khafre (Pyramid of Chephren). Khafre was the son and successor of Khufu. His pyramid (at 136 m) is slightly smaller than the Great Pyramid, but it's set on higher ground so it looks larger. A few blocks of the original limestone cladding survive at its tip; once all the pyramids were fully encased in this way. Entry to the interior is on the north flank.
- 5 Pyramid of Menkaure. Menkaure was probably the son and successor of Khafre. His pyramid is the smallest here at 62 m (203 ft) high, originally 66.5 m. Entry to the interior is on the north flank. Along the south flank are his Queens' pyramids, and on the east flank is his funerary temple.
- Ancient causeways link the Khafre and Menkaure pyramids to the necropolis entrance gate next to the Sphinx. At the foot of each is another small temple dedicated to that pharaoh. The causeways are rough going so you may prefer to loop back along the paved driveway. The horse and camel-drivers will now be getting a bit desperate as you approach the exit, and will drop their prices; keep walking.
- 6 Great Sphinx of Giza. Like pyramids, sphinxes (ancient and modern) are found in many lands; this one is specifically the Great Sphinx of Giza. It's a single block of sandstone 45 m long by 22 m wide, bearing a man's head upon a lion's haunches. It was probably carved out of the bedrock in the reign of Khafre and bore his likeness, and represented a guardian spirit of the necropolis. Its original name is unknown but it was variously dubbed "Horus of the horizon" for the sun god or Abu el-Hol ("Father of Terror"). We know it by its Greek name Sphinx, which may mean "strangler" (as a lion crushes the neck of its prey, or the fate of those who failed to answer its riddles), or may simply mean "carved from living rock". Being solid, it has no inner passageways.
It's a frankly mangy-looking lion and its face has always presented an irresistible target. The nose was hacked off by the 15th C but each successive wave of rulers has blamed the previous lot: 20th C Egyptians blamed the Brits who blamed Napoleonic troops who blamed the Ottoman Turks. The broken-off regal beard is now in the British Museum.
The Sphinx faces east and you approach it, nearing the exit gate, along its north flank. This means that its main features will be in shade, you need morning light for a good photo. (Unlike the pyramids, always with one flank upturned to the sun and the deified Khufu.) To get closer you can pay extra for the enclosure just in front of its paws. There's little point in doing so, the place is crowded with people taking silly selfies, and the slightly closer view just emphasises the manginess.
Sound and Light Show at the Pyramids
- Pyramids Sound and Light Show (Son-et-Lumière), e-mail: email@example.com. From 7 pm daily. Distinctly kitsch but a fun evening if you're in the right mood. The "voice of the Sphinx" narrates (often inaccurately) the history of the Giza necropolis and its place in Egyptian history, while a laser display picks out details of the Pyramids and projects scenes onto the side of the Great Pyramid itself. There are two shows each evening, the first in English and the second in another European language - free headphone translations are available if you're in the "wrong" show. In busier times a third show was held, but nowadays this only runs (not Fridays) for special bookings, with other languages available. Bring warm clothing. The same company puts on very similar sound & light shows at Luxor-Karnak, Edfu and Philae,
Entrance is by the Sphinx gate (ie the pyramids exit). The admission charge is believed to be LE130 pp, but test bookings in Jan 2018 are unsuccessful and it is doubtful whether any shows are going ahead just now. If they are, you could watch the whole thing cheaper, and almost as well, by eating at Pizza Hut opposite and paying a baksheesh to sit on the terrace.
Day First Show Second Show Third Show Winter (Oct-Mar) 7PM 8PM 9PM Summer (Apr-Sep) 7:30PM 8:30PM 9:30PM Monday English Spanish if booked Tuesday English French if booked Wednesday English Spanish if booked Thursday English French if booked Friday English French no show Saturday English Italian if booked Sunday English German if booked
Grand Museum of Egypt
- 7 Grand Museum of Egypt. The Grand Museum of Egypt is being built on the desert plateau of Giza, 2 km west of the Pyramids. It is the long-awaited primary replacement for the venerable Egyptian Museum in Midan Tahrir. It is expected to "soft-open" in stages from May 2018.
At the pyramids
Before you get on the back of a camel or horse have a look at how they treat their animals. You might change your mind. If you anyway decide to take the offer of one of the horsemen or camel guys, make sure you discuss the price and where you go first. Ask to confirm it covers two people/two horses. Negotiate the price you want. At the end of the trip, when you get back to where you had agreed, get off the horse/camel, hand the man the agreed money and walk away. They will try to come up with all sorts of scams to get more money out of you. If you are happy and wish to give a tip, do it because you choose. Don't feel pressured into giving extra. Just walk away. They won't follow you.
- Camel rides. Avoid succumbing to the temptation of taking a camel ride around the Pyramids, if you can, the practice is noisy, smelly and overrated. Basically, there are many better places in Egypt to take a camel ride, if you must. Things are a little better run than they used to be, and the practice of taking tourists out into the desert and refusing to return unless "tipped" is rather rare now.
- Go horse riding in the desert to experience both the spirit of the Egyptian horses and the true majesty of the Pyramids seen from outside the 'circus ring' wall. Be careful of touts, however; it's best to ride from one of the better quality stables, like FB Stables or Cairo Horse Riding School. Ride in the shadow of the Great Pyramids or further afield on a half day trip to Saqqara or Abu Sir or camp out overnight with a barbecue and fire. You can also watch the Sound and Light show from FB's rooftop terrace! If you do ride with a tout (they will encourage you to do this if the area is closed for entry for example) they will make out that you will have a great view of the pyramids (which you won't), they will then charge you a fortune, ride at high speed through the streets without a helmet (or any regard for safety), they will then demand a tip as you ride back and try to take you to a 'museum' which is actually a shop (where you will be pressured to buy stuff).
- See the sunrise, the first sun beams colouring the Pyramids from the terrace on the third floor of a cafe or from the roof terrace of the hostel situated near the second western entrance and ticket-office.
- [dead link]Cairo Horse Riding School, Mansouriya Road (Ext 31 Maadi Ring Road), ☎ . This expat-run stable is situated inside a pristine Arabian horse ranch about ten minutes away from the Pyramids. The emphasis is on compassionate horsemanship and most of their school horses are rescues from the pyramid area which they have lovingly rehabilitated. They offer rides in the peaceful parts of the Giza desert and along countryside lanes, and longer rides to the Abu Sir Pyramid complex or jumping and dressage lessons inside their arena.
- [dead link]FB Stables, Gamal Abdul Nasser St, Sphinx (Turn left after the sphinx KFC, then right in Gamal Abdul Nasser Street. FB is the last stables on the left), ☎ . Popular with expats who keep their horses at livery, Karim at FB Stables is also great for a "tourist" type ride to view the Pyramids and Sphinx from the desert. Longer rides to Saqqara and Abu Sir can be arranged in advance, as can sunrise, sunset and moonlit rides. Other than the horses and good company, one of the best things about FB is their amazing rooftop terrace (with batbecue) with unrivalled views over the Pyramids - a great place to relax with a drink whilst watching the Sound and Light shows. Great horses - no beating or slapping at FB stables. Besides an amazing trip, the shisha and Karim's amazing support, it was a place to safely say yes without getting ripped off afterwards! FB's Abu Sir second stables are very relaxing too!
- 1 Giza Zoo. The main zoo of Greater Cairo, founded in 1891. 2 km NE of Giza metro station but near the riverside, so if you're coming from downtown especially with children, it's easier to take a taxi. Be aware this is an old-fashioned zoo with a poor record for safety and animal welfare.
- Al Amir Perfume Palace, 9 Abu el Houl St., ☎ . An overwhelming smell will hit you as soon as you walk inside, if you can stand the smell for more than a few minutes you can find some great deals on perfume.
- Legends and Legacies, 20 Abuu Hazim St. (Off of Pyramid Road). A relaxed indoor bazaar.
- Beymen, FourSeasons Nile Plaza. Chic designer shopping including brands such Chanel, Prada, Gucci, and Christian Dior.
Western fast food options sit immediately opposite the main ticket gates to the Pyramid enclosure, Pizza Hut and KFC included, so you can munch on a Tower burger and sip on a Coke in air-conditioned comfort whilst gazing on the more than 4,000 year-old Sphinx across the road! Many may prefer a more authentic experience, that said - the novelty of the situation could be interesting.
- Fish Market, 26 Shar'a al-Nil (Along the Nile, in the same), ☎ . This eatery is located on the Nile, in a docked ship, sharing space with a TGI Friday's below. Popular with locals and tourist visitors, but the food is mediocre, overpriced, and service is haphazard. Moderate to high.
- Khan El Khalili, Mena House Oberoi hotel. The restaurant has been open for over a century and is far and away the most stylish place for lunch or just a cold beer. Expect to pay Western prices for the privilege.
- Moghul Room, Mena House Oberoi. An extremely good upmarket Indian restaurant. Reservations necessary.
- Nile Pharos (Dinner cruise), 138 El Nile St.. The boat features Pharonic decor, and offers a buffet with international and Egyptian cuisine, and belly dancing.
Since Egypt is a Muslim country, alcohol is not generally permitted. It will generally only be served in hotels.
You might find more options in Gezira neighborhood.
General accommodation options are somewhat limited within the Giza district - most travellers tend to stay in and around central Cairo itself and travel out to the Pyramids for at least part of the day. For people determined to stay in close vicinity and/or for whom cost is no issue, there are a number of very comfortable options:
- 1 Mena House Oberoi, Pyramids Rd., ☎ . Built in 1869 as a royal lodge for King Ismail the Magnificent, this magnificent palace has housed guests including Empress Eugenie and Prince Albert. Tastefully restored and located very close to the Pyramids. Rooms in the newer Garden wing from US$150, Palace wing rooms from $210; be sure to ask for a room with a view of the Pyramids. The main Pyramids gate is only a 5-minute walk away.
The Giza Pyramids, being the main tourist attraction in Egypt, attract millions of tourists each year. They likewise attract a large number of the most determined opportunists for miles around. Report any instances of harassment by camel drivers and tourist touts to the black-uniformed (or white-uniformed in the summer) Tourist Police immediately, and be prepared for all manner of potential scams, possibly including "advice" from official-looking individuals that an attraction is closed or has an alternate entrance. Also be aware that any "favour" of any kind (offering directions, being shown something, etc.) might be done in expectation of a tip, so be cautious when accepting unsolicited help (although don't let your holiday be spoiled by overzealous caution, you also might encounter genuine help). Also note that some Tourist Police might routinely offer to help you in the expectation of a tip. Many known scammers will operate right in front of the tourist police, who are either in on it or don't bother to intervene.
Tips to avoid harassment:
- If on your own, headphones make the incessant "Hello, where are you from my friend" conversation-starters easier to ignore, smiling and pointing at the headphones seems to do the trick.
- Avoid making eye contact, starting conversations or accepting any help with taking pictures or posing for pictures for you—they will see you as an easy target for harassment.
- Say "La Shukran" (No thanks) as you do this, it shows you know a bit more than the average tourist and will not be seen as aggressive or rude. Smiling as you say it doesn't hurt as it doesn't seem to be seen as an invite to talk, but shows you are not trying to offend.
Additional useful safety tips:
- Be cautious when choosing a local horse or camel ride; you may be ripped off or put in dangerous situations. The "donkey-mafia" that operate by the doors of the main entrance will adopt the most "persuasive" and often bullish techniques to get you onto their animals, and they do not appear to understand the meaning of the word "No". They will cause such a scene when you say no and have to get off them, which will result in you having to pay for the privilege of refusing their hospitality. NOTE: Some of these people were involved in the Battle of the Camels during the revolution, in which innocent civilians were killed. Use as your conscience dictates.
- Don't climb any of the Pyramids—officially forbidden and extremely dangerous!
- As anywhere else in Egypt, in hot months especially, take plenty of bottled water with you, wear a cap and wear sunscreen—sunglasses are also definitely a good idea!