Similar to Paris, Cairo was kind of a late addition to our planned travel - we were booking flights from Paris to Jordan and found going via Cairo was significantly cheaper. We pushed the stop over time to 20 hours and hoped that would be enough to see the major touristy things the city had to offer.
Look, there are theoretically a lot of things to see in Egypt - Cairo, Luxor, The Valley of the King's, Alexandria, Ashwan, ah… other things - but in the 3 seconds or less facetagram travel generation (which I am quite possibly a part of?) does anyone care about those places? Or do people just want to see pyramids, The Sphinx (mildly disappointing) and some mummies?
So… that's what we did. Here is your guide of how to see everything worth seeing in Cairo in just 20 hours.
My first recommendation is to land late at night. This does mean you pay for a nights accommodation, but it also ensures that you are there bright and early in the morning and ready to go (this helps speed things up as well as there aren't lines). Arrange a private tour (actually quite cheap) to pick you up from the airport, drop you at your hotel and then pick you up at about 7 the following morning.
Obviously your first stop is the pyramids. There are three of them, but actually there are nine of them, and even more actually there are still more than that (but they aren't all in Giza, so who cares?). You can wander around or into the great pyramid (which depending on the angle doesn't look like the biggest, or the best?), but your guide should soon take you to where the camels are to get some better views of all three together, which is all you are really after anyway. Get your guide to take some photos with you in then, jumping maybe? You can also do all the photos where you put your finger on the top of them etc. Tourist it up hard.
Riding a camel isn't 100% necessary, but it is kind of worth it as you get some different views and you have now ridden a camel so you never have to do that again on your life. It is also a good way to get from the pyramids to The Sphinx. They are basically right next to each other but walking in sand sucks. It is also about 40 degrees at this point (9am). Try and get a camel that doesn't suck, someone we met later in our travels had his camel just fall over, trapping his leg under it. It sounded not wicked so I would suggest not having that happen to you (pro tip!).
The camel handler (which is different to a donkey handler - but that is a story for Jordan so you will have to wait and see) will also stop and take some photos for you, I would again suggest doing some jumping ones, because they are always the best (this sounds sarcastic (at least in the voice in my head), but I am being serious).
The camel should drop you around The Sphinx, which is way smaller than you expect it to be. It is still impressive because it is all one big rock (Australians might be less impressed as they have a much bigger rock*). If you are hungry at this point you can cross the road from The Sphinx for either KFC or Pizza Hut, whatever you feel like (honestly you don't have time to eat yet, sorry).
I should also mention it is only like 10am at this point so you maybe don't need food yet.
* Seriously, how neat would it be if they went and carved Uluru into a big sculpture. Maybe a wombat or a platypus? That would be the greatest.
At this point you will probably be taken to see how papyrus paper (or is it just called papyrus?) is made. It is sort of interesting, but it isn't clear if this is stuff you could take through New Zealand customs, so no need to buy anything here. They will also take you into a special room and expect you to be amazed by the art work they have done with glow and dark paint, you will see this again in Turkey on pottery which is quite a bit cooler.
After that detour you will drive to the Egyptian museum, if you are lucky the president might be in town and you will get to sit in traffic for an hour or so. The secret benefit of this is you get to avoid going to lunch with the tour guides (because you have no time), and that saves having to pretend to enjoy some restaurant they take you to because they get kickbacks. Later this year the museum is being relocated to right next to the pyramids (so maybe you need even less time in Cairo) and it will be the biggest museum in the world (according to our guides).
The Egyptian museum has lots of interesting stuff in it, but you have a flight to catch so you will rush through quite a lot. The best things are mainly Tutankhamen's tomb goodies, and then the mummies.
Mummies are weird. It is amazing how well preserved they are (although not as well as Lenin in Moscow), but also you are just looking at really old dead bodies - which is weird, isn't it?
After all of that you are basically done with Cairo. You can relax and enjoy another sit in traffic, and eventually get to the airport. Just remember you will need to complete a departure card before heading to immigration (or is it emigration when you are leaving?). Your flight will be delayed so you can get a beer or something in the airport.
There you go, a quick and easy guide to 20 hours in Cairo. And really because like 6 hours was sleeping, and a couple more were sitting in traffic, and because the museum is moving, I think you can do everything you need in the city in 10 hours if you don't eat or sleep (and who really needs to do those things?).
I am told there are a lot of other good places in Egypt (as mentioned above) but if you don't have the time (or stomach?) for it, then this super clear guide should have you covered.
Footnotes to Cairo:
** Footnote to a footnote - anytime people talk about reading I can't help but remember a Bill Hick's line about reading - "What you reading for?"
- I finished my first book of the trip on the flight from Paris to Cairo. This isn’t interesting (or even about Cairo) but it happened. Apparently when I have time I like to read - who knew? **
- Not sure if this should be an airport post or not but, we saw some lady at our gate in Paris with a pug. At some point she forcibly pushed the dog into a bag (so she could zip it up), at this point it was clear she was not a nice person (she wasn’t particularly gentle).
- When we got to Cairo we saw the dog again, just wandering around the airport not on a leash (good work lady). She also at this point had a bag of poop in her hand… it wasn’t clear where the dog had done this.
- I mentioned avoiding lines, but actually we didn't hit any lines at all in Cairo. It wasn't the high tourist season (too hot), but still we didn't wait anywhere except for in traffic.
- As we landed in Cairo there was an announcement on the plane asking for a doctor urgently. It hadn't been a rough landing, but apparently someone didn't like it.
- I talked about the traffic, but the roads in Cairo were weird. At some point we were on an apparent 10 lane (5 each side) road but there were no road markings at all. Just cars going fast and hoping it worked out. There were actually 6 cars across our side of the road, but it seemed to work out (until the point half the road was flooded - unclear how or why)
- Coffee at the hotel we stayed in was terrible. Not just bad, but totally undrinkable. This will become a theme for many other countries we go to.