Visiting the Giza Pyramids: What It’s Really Like

When I was planning my visit to the Giza Pyramids, I had no clue what to expect.

Visiting the Giza Pyramids can be a confusing affair if you’re only starting to do your research. The reality will always surprise you: as many photos as you might have seen, none of them quite convey what goes on just behind the camera frame.

This is a true hodge-podge post mixing narrative and infomercial, and since I couldn’t decide what to focus on, it also focuses on about half a dozen different things. If you’re planning to visit Egypt and the pyramids soon, though, it might be good to know what you’re getting yourself into.

If you’re looking for more informatious information, scroll to the end of the post; I’ve detailed opening times, entrance prices and all other boring admin stuff you need to know if you’re putting together a visiting plan for real.

The resident scam artists

For one of the best-known touristic sites in the entire world, the entrance to the pyramids looks very shady. The driver pulls over on the side of the road next to a Pizza Hut and points at a white trailer with one open door and one window with bars in front of it. The structure looks like a shipping container.

‘You go in here?’ I asked incredulously.

‘Yes, yes,’ the driver assured me. He didn’t speak English but I guess enough people have doubted the place that he already knew what I was asking.

So I got out and onto the street. I could see the Sphinx and two of the pyramids behind the gate so at least I knew I was at the right location. Behind me, two Asian-looking girls got out of a taxi and walked towards the small building too, and that gave me a little more peace of mind; that even if I was being horribly scammed, at least we were all in it together.

My doubts were soon swayed. The barred window was swarmed with a small group of tourists, both Egyptian and foreigners without any resemblance of a queue. ‘Ticket? You need ticket?’ An Egyptian man rushed to me from the window to help me. My guard immediately went back up; I’ve travelled enough to smell a scam when I see one.

To my surprise, the interaction went smoothly, and I did not, actually, get overcharged. Maybe the man was genuinely trying to help a confused foreigner survive the huddle at the ticket counter?

‘They do that,’ a friend living in Cairo explained to me later that night. ‘The entrance ticket is cheaper for Egyptians so they buy the Egyptian ticket and keep the rest of your money.’

Now this might be scam I can get behind: one that doesn’t actually cause me to lose anything. And judging by how openly these men hustle at the ticket counter, the employees at the pyramids must not care about it much. Maybe they even get a small cut.

Sir, please leave me alone

If you’ve never travelled anywhere where foreigners are considered exotic, this might come as a surprise: in Egypt, you’re a celebrity.

Or a circus monkey, whichever way you want to look at it.

The site was relatively empty which surprised me – it was past noon and in December, this should have been the height of peak season. (High season is considered to run between October and April because the heat isn’t quite that intense during that time.) However, since the Arab spring and following instability in the Middle East, increasing security concerns have cut the number of annual visitors drastically. For a Finnish girl very particular about my personal space, the relative quietness of the pyramids was welcome – but for locals it just made me more of a target.

Everyone’s got something to sell, and they all want to sell it to you. I shook my head to souvenir salesmen, map vendors, camel guys and horse riders, but when I got past the first gaggle of souvenir stalls, regular people started approaching me.

‘Photo?’ the first man asked with a hopeful smile on his face. I took a photo of him and his buddy in front of the Sphinx. They looked a little confused and I knew why – they were not asking for me to take a photo of them but with them.

It’s my personal decision to never take photos with strangers when I’m travelling. The first time I ever encountered this phenomenon was in India. At first it was funny and flattering – then, quickly, it turned annoying. My sightseeing was constantly being interrupted by groups of people asking for photos. And if you said yes to one person, suddenly there’d be a whole queue of people lining up to take selfies with you like in some spontaneous meet-and-greet event with a Hollywood actress.

I didn’t mind the photos with the families so much; but then there came the groups of young men who would casually put their arm around my shoulder and smirk at the camera that their friend, equally smirking, would hold. I think most women know that smirk. It’s the face of a man looking a beautiful woman up and down and undressing her in his mind.

Some travellers don’t mind taking photos with locals when they ask. They see it is a way of connecting with them. However, I don’t see much of a connection being created there. In Egypt, I never got asked for my name, nationality, not even a simple ‘how are you?’ People only seemed keen on photos, and they’d giggle while asking. I could never figure out if they were laughing at me or simply laughing because they were embarrassed to ask.

In any case, posing with strangers never seems like a way to make true connections with locals – it only makes me uncomfortable. That’s why I always systematically refuse all requests for photos.

By the time I arrived at a good photo spot in front of the Sphinx, I was getting annoyed. Half a dozen people had asked me to be in their selfies, and with every refusal I was getting more and more nervous, stressed out that I couldn’t just enjoy seeing this amazing site. When the group of teenagers approached me, I probably snapped at them more aggressively than I should have.

They got the message – all but one of them. A young, lanky boy, probably not older than seventeen, hung back and kept insisting on a photo. No, no, no, I said, I don’t want to take a photo with you.

‘Please?’ the boy kept trying. ‘One photo? Hello? Please?’

I took my camera and moved places. On my peripheral vision, I saw another group of teenagers moving towards me; and behind me, the same damn kid still following.

La!’’ I snapped at the approaching group. “No” in Arabic was just about the most useful word I could have learned. Maybe they’ll just go away if I ignore them since they don’t seem to take no for an answer, I thought, and got to setting up my camera, ignoring the boys around me.

The lanky teenager that had now been pestering me for a few minutes had finally seemed to understand that he was getting nowhere with his pleading. I saw him moving into my field of vision, and when I looked up, he was holding his camera up, and on the screen I saw him and me together.

I fucking lost it.

‘WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?!’

The group that had been getting closer seemed to change their minds and slinked away. The lanky boy was also finally retreating.

‘I SAID NO. WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING? LEAVE ME ALONE!’

Huh, I remember thinking, I didn’t think I could screech like that.

The teenager returned to his friends. I heard them laughing – maybe about his defeat, maybe at the crazy Western lady. My cheeks were burning. I turned back to my camera, trying to calm down. My hands were shaking. It felt like everyone on the site was looking at me.

Now I was embarrassed.

The difficulty of kissing the sphinx as a solo traveller

I’m Finnish, please don’t talk to me

After my little encounter with the Egyptian teenager, I was in an appropriately sour mood. I had calmed down taking photos, even started enjoying myself again, but when I started up the path towards the pyramids, the harassment started again.

A man with a camel followed me for about five minutes and tried to get me to buy a camel ride from him. When one tout got tired and rode away, one more was soon there to replace him. Halfway up the hill I gave up and pulled out my headphones, hoping that they would deter the persistent salesmen; but of course such a subtle cue was immediately ignored.

In the end, I started smiling at everyone, pointed at my ears and performed a vague hand gesture that I hoped resembled sign language. It wasn’t until then, that I started pretending to be deaf, that the touts gave up right away.

I understand well why their sales tactics are getting more and more aggressive. The drop in Egypt’s visitor count doesn’t only amount to blissfully empty attractions but carries a darker side for Egyptians in the form of direct loss of income. Vendors are now desperate to earn money from the few last tourists in Egypt – failing to see that this kind of a pushy sales technique only rubs tourists, especially us frigid Europeans, the wrong way, acting completely counteractively to their end goal.

View of the pyramids from the Cairo Citadel

Horseplay

If you know me, you know I’m a massive horse nerd. As a kid, I used to collect brushes and bridles just for the hell of it. I never had a horse – I just liked horse-related stuff. So when I heard about the possibility to ride around the area on horseback, I was intrigued.

The area is also walkable, but the best viewpoint where all three pyramids align is a little further, and I thought it would be nice to find a ride there. This, of course, immediately set me out as a willing target for all the hawkers.

What I wasn’t ready for, though, was the terrible condition of the horses used on the site.

Every horse that I approached seemed to have some kind of a fault in it. A lot of them were too skinny, their hip bones sticking out under the fur, or their legs or noses had bloody gashes. ‘From the stones,’ one vendor nonchalantly explained to me when I told him why I didn’t want to rent his horse. ‘You want different colour? I have a black horse. Very fast.’

He didn’t seem to understand why I wouldn’t want to ride an injured horse. As I walked around the area, trying to find one pony that wasn’t thin, injured or both, he kept galloping up to me, every time with a different horse in leash.

‘Excuse me, miss, what do you like? You like black? You like white horse? Tell me what you like.’

Animal welfare laws in countries like Egypt are usually very lax, or even more commonly, completely lacking. One thing that explains why animals are often treated worse in these countries is their use: Egyptians see horses more like tools for work and less as pets.

Even if I could understand where the cultural differences stemmed from, I wasn’t going to ride an injured horse for fun.

I had almost given up on my Egyptian desert adventure when I spotted the young man walking three camels on a leash. There was something special about him: he was the only one not trying to actively sell me anything. And his camels looked good.

‘Hey!’ I smiled at him. ‘Are you giving camel rides?’

We quickly agreed on a price and a route. He went to give two of the camels away to a friend who he said was working for the same camel owner, then helped me mount the remaining camel.

He had a descending look in his eye – the camel, I mean, not the man. I straddled the massive saddle and slowly, almost lazily, the camel rose to his feet, casting one parting look to his friends being led away and then one blaming eye on me.

I stroked his nick. Under clipped hair, grey skin was showing. ‘Why is he shaved?’

‘He’s old,’ the camel driver, now introduced himself as Mohammed, answered and gently touched his flank. ‘It keeps his fur in better condition.’

As he started leading us towards the pyramids, the camel stomped once. I thought that maybe he had something stuck on his hoof, but when he did it again, I gripped onto the saddle tighter.

‘I don’t think the camel likes me very much,’ I said, only half-jokingly.

‘Relax, it’s okay,’ Mohammed reassured. The camel had a piece of rope looped through his nose like a nose ring. He took the leash and lead it through the nose ring. I was worried for a second that the set-up would hurt my majestic steed but it only seemed to calm him down. From then on, he walked meekly, although I was not quite able to shake the mental image of flying through the air like a cartoon character that had pressed the EJECT button.

While we wandered closer to the viewpoint, any last doubts I had had about riding a camel here were quick to dissolve. Mohammed talked about the treatment of the camels that his boss owned and agreed with me that most of the horses on the site were in bad shape – and that their owners were even worse. He was soft-spoken and spoke excellent English. I leaned in to pet my now-calmed camel. I hadn’t seen any cuts or injuries on him or the other camels Mohammed had been leading.

I did some snooping around later to put my mind to rest – I wanted to be sure I hadn’t participated in active mistreatment of the animals at the pyramids. From what I found, it seems that camels there really are treated better than the horses, and that in general they are tougher animals that can do well with less. In addition, there isn’t a similar ethical dilemma with riding camels or horses like there is with elephants: both are domesticated animals whose taming doesn’t involve a cruel spirit-breaking, torturous training.

The sun was setting when we returned, me still safely lodged in the saddle and not yeeted into eternity by my disgruntled mount. When I said goodbye to Mohammed, I paid him extra – as a thanks for taking good care of his animals, and for treating me like a normal human.

I stopped for a few more minutes to buy some souvenirs from a salesman I’d been talking to when I entered the site: two beautiful statues of the Egyptian cat god Basti. The sky was turning yellow and purple as I left.

My mind was finally light and relaxed. If anything, the casual stroll on the camel had erased all the stress from earlier. I turned back to give the pyramids one last look and smiled.

Beautiful. What a once-in-a-lifetime, bucket list experience.

And so damn stressful.

GIZA PYRAMIDS 101

Here’s some practical info on visiting since it can be a little hard to find. (I mean, the pyramids don’t even have an official website…)

 

Where are they?

The pyramids are located in Giza, the third-largest city in Egypt, but in practice it’s so close to Cairo it’s basically another suburb to the city.

 

Getting there

By bus: You can take a public bus in front of the Egyptian museum for 2 EGP (0.11 e); there are also mini busses that you can take from the central bus station.

By metro: The closest metro stop is called Giza but it’s still a good 10 km from the complex, so from the metro stop you’ll need to grab a taxi or a local bus. (I couldn’t find any bus numbers but if you ask people for the pyramids, they’ll guide you in the right direction.

By far the easiest way to get there is on a taxi or an Uber (Uber recommended especially for solo female travellers.) An Uber should cost about 70-80 EGP (4-5 e).

The trip from near the Egyptian museum to the pyramids takes about an hour.

Opening times

The pyramids are open 8-17 (October-March) and 7-19 (April-September) with last admissions one hour before closing.

 

What can I see at the pyramids?

This is a good question – because prior to visiting, I know I was going to go see the pyramids but I only had a very vague idea of what that actually entailed. I think a lot of people also tend to mix up different Egyptian attractions (I know I do.)

The Great Pyramid of Giza – that’s right, that’s just one – is the burial chamber of pharaoh Khufu, and next to it are three smaller pyramids (like, a lot smaller, mostly collapsed) called the Queens’ pyramids where Khufu’s wives and sisters were buried.

There are two other pyramids too, slightly smaller but not much – these are the tombs of pharaohs Khafra and Menkaure.

The Sphinx is also there.

There’s also a museum where you can see the solar boat that was built for Khufu’s posthumous sailing adventures with the sun god Ra.

If you’re looking for Tutankhamon or the famous hieroglyphs, you’ll want to visit the King’s Valley in Luxor, some 650 km south from Cairo. If you want to see the mummies, they’re kept in the Egyptian museum in the centre of Cairo.

Prices

Entrance to the pyramids costs 100 EGP (5.5 e) for students and 200 EGP (11 e) for adults.

The entrance includes access to the site. It does not, however, include access in the pyramids or any extra activities like camel riding. It also doesn’t include entrance to the boat museum.

The ticket does include access to “the small pyramid”; this is a little misleading since this doesn’t refer to any of the three visible pyramids. “The little pyramid” is by the bigger one that’s closest to the entrance and its exterior is mostly collapsed; inside you can visit one tiny chamber.

Entrance to the Great Pyramid costs 400 EGP (22 e), and entrance to the two others costs 100 EGP (5.5 e.) However, many people say that the insides of the pyramids are not worth the money here. I didn’t go in. The boat museum costs another 100 EGP (5.5 e).

Apparently you can also get a combo ticket for 500 EGP (28 e.)

For camel or horse riding, the standard rate per hour per person is allegedly 350 EGP (20 e.) This is written on signs all over the entrance. However, apparently the salespeople put these up themselves, and this is not a government rate or anything – you should always bargain. I was quoted 150 EGP for half an hour on a camel, and I also tipped the camel guy.

Total cost of visiting the pyramids:

Minimum (normal fare, no extras): 200 EGP / 11 e

Maximum (combo ticket, 1 hr of camel riding): 800 EGP / 45 e

Average (normal fare, camel ride, a small souvenir): 500 EGP / 28 e

Only small crowds at the site in December 2019

Other stuff that’s good to know

Touts

As you probably noticed reading this post, hawkers can get quite persistent at the pyramids, and you will be constantly harassed to buy something. However, I didn’t find the touts aggressive, just annoying and stressful. If you don’t want to buy anything from them, the best way is to not engage; just smile, firmly say no and keep walking. (Sometimes this doesn’t work – hence the weird measures I took.)

Dress code

Egypt, while being a popular tourist country, is still a Muslim country, so a slightly more conservative dress code is recommended. I read some blog posts prior to arriving in Cairo and was surprised to notice that almost none of the advice I’d read applied there: for example, wearing skinny jeans was never a problem since a lot of locals also wear them.

I wore my normal clothes to the pyramids, which for me (in December) meant skinny jeans, boots, and a short denim jacket. Many tourists were visiting in crop tops, skirts, sandals etc. but personally I felt more comfortable covering up – not only because even in Egypt, it can sometimes get a little chilly, but also because as a foreign woman travelling solo, you’ll already attract a lot of attention, and I normally like to try to blend in as much as I can.

Photos

What’s allowed and what’s not really depends on whether the guards like you or not. In general, the attitude is pretty lax; just because a sign says something is forbidden, doesn’t necessarily make it so.

Photography on the site is allowed but not inside the pyramids or tombs. However, the guards might still encourage you to take photos (and expect a tip afterwards.)

Tripods are allowed (apparently for an extra 20 EGP); drones are technically illegal even if you’re not flying them.

It’s debatable if you can climb the pyramids for photos. Officially it’s forbidden but again, sometimes if a guard takes a liking to you, you’ll still be allowed to do it. The only question is if you want to – I mean, let alone a possible curse of the mummies, these are ancient buildings that were designed to stand forever, and I can’t see how tourists climbing all over the place wouldn’t corrode the structure.

Lastly: Is it safe to visit the pyramids?

The short answer is: yes!

The long answer is never quite that simple. Since the Arab spring, tourism in Egypt has fallen massively, and many foreign travel advisories encourage to take more precaution that normally while travelling in Egypt because of the threat of terrorism. Unfortunately terrorist attacks in Egypt do focus on tourists, and about a year ago an IED blew up a tourist bus near the pyramids.

However, Egyptians are working hard to keep their country and their tourists as safe as they can. And after all, the chances that you’ll end up a target to a terrorist attack is very, very slim.

(And as far as I know, there haven’t been any attacks on the actual site of the pyramids.)

As to female travel advisory: I never felt unsafe in Cairo, not even when I was walking to my hostel through the city centre at 6 a.m. I didn’t even experience any of the sexual harassment that a lot of female travellers report – although it definitely still happens, and I might have avoided it mostly because I didn’t walk on the streets much during the day and because I took Ubers everywhere.

 

And that’s it – thanks for reading!

Are you dreaming of visiting the pyramids? Is there anything else you’d like to know?

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