Of course you are going to the pyramids when you are in Egypt! We went there on our first day on our two-week trip in Egypt. And we loved it. If you only think about the Great Pyramid of Cheops when hearing ‘pyramids’, think again! There is so much more to see. Read this article to learn more about visiting the pyramids of Egypt. Many people think the Giza pyramids are in the middle of nowhere. Actually, these pyramids are at the edge of the city. But the middle-of-nowhere feeling can still be found visiting the pyramids of Dashur and Saqqara. We recommend at least a full day to wander around the pyramids of Egypt, maybe even two!
1. What to see at the Giza Pyramids?
The pyramids of Egypt are giant monuments for the dead pharaos and their relations. With a total of 118 or even 138 Egyptian pyramids, the Giza pyramids are best known. On the Giza plateau, to the west of Cairo, three large pyramids steal the show: the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops), the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure.
Neighbouring one of the big pyramids are three smaller pyramids are the Queen’s pyramids. Around these you can find smaller, and often less-visited sights. The Sphinx is the highlight, but there is also the Cheops Boat Museum, holding a barge to carry the pharao’s spirit to the afterlife, and many smaller tombs. To visit all sights in Giza is a day trip in itself.
There are two panorama places out to the west of the pyramids with both great views for photography. We just have time for one when we visit in 2017. After we manage the sensory overload and shake off a dozen of guides, horse rides and camel drivers (even while having our own guide already…), we’re rewarded with an eastward looking panorama over the great pyramids of Giza. Make sure you don’t get rushed through. It’s worth it to take your time, let the hassle stress flow away and let it all sink in.
A visit to the Giza pyramids is not complete without a visit to the Sphinx. Actually this icon is within the same area as the pyramids. Definitely impressive! The Sphinx is dug out of the ground and there is a viewing platform along the side and at the front. Move around the viewing platform and surrounding terraces to get different views and perspectives of the pyramids in the background.
2. See more pyramids in Dashur and Saqqara
There is more than Giza
In addition to the Giza Plateau the two areas to visit the pyramids of Egypt are Dashur and Saqqara, about 25 kilometre south of the Giza Pyramids. The trip up to Dashur, driving south along one of the bigger irrigation canals, is confronting and interesting. Cairo’s big city buzz, smog and traffic is replaced quickly by clearer skies, villages, agricultural land, date palm farms, donkey carts and piles of rubbish. Egyptian daily life is a big contrast to the tourist sights.
Dashur and Saqqara
In the area of Dashur and Saqqara three pyramids are part of the main tourist trail, and great sites to behold yourself: the Bent Pyramid, the nearby Red Pyramid and the Pyramid of Djoser (or Step Pyramid). With these three pyramids you really get an idea of the historic development of pyramid construction – a sort of pyramid building 101. But smaller sites in this area are also worth your attention. You can see surprisingly colourful frescos and huge sarcophagus in underground tombs around Saqqara, the ancient necropolis of the once grand city of Memphis. And what makes it more interesting: New discoveries are still found every other year.
A travel dream – Egypt is not the only country with pyramids in Africa. One day we hope to visit the Meroe pyramids of Sudan. Nubia once stretched across what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan. Nubian kings built their pyramids almost 1000-1500 years ago, influence by Egypt’s necropolises. Check out Stephanie’s Big World Small Pockets Sudan blogs for an impression and practical tips.
The Bent pyramid
This pyramid at Dashur is the first attempt to build a true smooth pyramid ever. The story goes they aimed too high and had to adjust the angle halfway through the building process. Much of the limestone cover remains and you can see and feel the difference between the inner blocks and outer smooth surface up close!
We do a walk-around of the pyramid and discover a small adjacent pyramid while on the horizon more pyramids and once-pyramids shimmer. The Bent pyramid at Dashur stands alone with nothing but desert around. Hardly any people seem to visit; we were the only ones with one other couple in the morning. The Sahara stretches out west across the continent from here.
The Red Pyramid
Nearby is the Red Pyramid, the second attempt at pyramid building. You can go inside this pyramid! But due to an inescapable fear of narrow spaces on Alette’s side we do not. But we just peek inside, down the steep tunnel leading down, take in the view over the Sahara desert and head to Saqqara. A few people from villages nearby sell mid-morning breakfast to our guide and driver. And as for practical tips: you will find toilets here.
The Step Pyramid of Djoser
Our following visit to the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara was a bit different. There are men on donkeys and in gellabiyas trying to put a turban on us and ‘offering’ their picture to be taken with us, for a price of course. It was a lot busier than at the other pyramids. And felt kind of weird. This pyramid is the oldest true pyramid in Egypt. It is set between half renovated walls of an ancient festival complex. Half of the pyramid is in scaffolds and there is controversy about the renovation work actually threatening the crumbling structure.
Teti’s ‘pyramid’ and other surprises
There are many more tombs and pre-pyramid structures nearby. Teti’s ‘pyramid’, just 500 meter north of Djoser’s Step Pyramid, has great interior decorations such as the star-covered ceiling of. If you didn’t know this was a pyramid, you wouldn’t know from the hill it now is with a staircase leading underground underneath. We really felt a bit of an explorer’s vibe here. Other tombs such as the Mastaba of Mereruka, just next door, contain elaborate reliefs of hippos, crocodiles and even frogs!
3. How long do you need to visit the pyramids of Egypt?
Visiting all of the pyramids of Dashur, Saqqara and Giza is perfectly do-able as a full one-day trip from Cairo. We did this, as many people do. This does require an early start though and may get you a bit pyramid-weary at the end of the day. This day trip will bring you from emptiness and desert horizons to the bustling grounds of the Giza pyramids. If you do an organised tour, group or private, part of your day will probably be spent at shops where guides will bring their guests for perfume, papyrus art and other Egyptian souvenirs. If you do have the time, we recommend taking two days, coming back to the Giza pyramids at different times of day.
Lunch times – When you are on a tour or driven around the pyramids we recommend taking plenty of in-between snacks and packed lunch. And do not forget water. Lunch times when organised by guides can be erratic (often past 2 PM), and may come way past the moment your body will ask for it. There are few options at the sites of the pyramids to buy lunch or (second) breakfast. Near the pyramids of Giza your best bet will be the restaurants around the exit near the Sphinx. Find a place with good views of the pyramids and you can make it a destination on your day trip to the pyramids.
4. What more to see: The Egypt Museum (and soon: Grand Egypt Museum)
Visiting the pyramids is not complete without a visit to the Egypt Museum, housing thousands and thousands of artefacts from ancient Egypt. From whole statues, to items from the pharao’s burial chambers, from pharaoh mummies to embalmed cats, the treasures of ancient Egypt are collected in an old building sitting on Tahrir square. It will take you several hours to only see some of the highlight pieces. Let someone guide you along those, and then take your time to roam the halls and floors independently until you’re satisfied.
As we visited in 2017, we will be one of the last generations of travellers to have seen Tutanchamon’s gold mask in the old Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square. A new museum is built, just a few kilometres north of the Giza pyramids, and will be larger than The Louvre in Paris. This Grand Egyptian Museum is projected to open at the end of 2021 (although the building and opening has been postponed again and again) with some of the most important Royal Mummies already ceremonially transferred to the site in April 2021.
What will happen to the old museum on Tahrir Square is not entirely clear, but in all likelihood it will remain a museum. Still, the major site for tourists to go will now become the Grand Egyptian Museum. Do not let this deter you to also visit the now Egyptian Museum, if only for its majestic halls and central location in Cairo.
5. How much does it cost to visit the pyramids of Egypt?
The official website of the pyramids of Giza says the site is open from 7AM. Tickets to get inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops are limited to a few 100 and sold from 8AM apparently. Tickets to the inside of the other pyramids may be available all day. We can’t find any official information on closing times, but from 4PM you cannot buy tickets anymore, and the grounds will be emptied before the sun sets. Sunset in winter is around 5PM, so you’ll have to squeeze to get a few minutes of golden hour into your pyramid visit. It seems you can linger a bit, especially around the Sphinx, to get your last photos.
Official ticketing is only from the official entrance just north of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. The advantage is that this is already a bit uphill, near the pyramids. Be aware of what is included in your ticket as you need to pay additional fees above the general entry fee to visit specific areas such as the boat museum or the inside of the pyramids. Entrance to the Giza plateau is surprisingly well-priced at EGP200,= (about €10) which allows you to wander the grounds endlessly. Buy your tickets at the counter at the northern entrance and not through men in the street. Coordinates: 29°58’54.8″N+31°07’57.2″E
6. How to get to and around the pyramids
How to get to the pyramids
Central Cairo, Giza, Saqqara and Dashur are tens of kilometres apart and Cairo traffic is… well… Cairo traffic. To get to all on one day you will need a taxi or chauffeured car, probably most easily organised as a day tour. You can also try renting a taxi for the day. Be clear about prices, destinations and expected length of the day. Start as early as you can. Trying to do it by public transport is not recommended on a day trip.
Getting to and around Dashur and Saqqara
If you start your day with the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid of Dashur, be aware that the 40 kilometre drive from central Cairo can take at least an hour and probably a half hour more, depending on traffic. The two pyramids at Dashur are two kilometres apart with really nothing but sand and desert rocks in between. There are no facilities down here, so basically you will have to walk tiresome kilometres in the desert if you don’t come by taxi. Not recommended.
Saqqara is a 10-15 kilometre drive from the Red Pyramid. So again, this is best done by taxi or tour. However, if you would focus your day visit on Saqqara only, things may look different. Around the Pyramid of Djoser there is a dense concentration of sights. In winter (I would definitely not recommend this for any other season), it may be worth taking your time and focus your day trip on Saqqara alone.
Within 500m – 1 kilometer from the Step Pyramid are several mastabas, other tombs and smaller pyramids to be found. On the approach to Djoser’s pyramid, within the green fields and in between date farms, there are even a few restaurants to refresh. This is about 1,5 – 2 kilometers from the pyramid along the road, but about 500 meters crossing the desert. However, we have not met anyone doing this independently, so pay attention to safety concerns (I don’t recommend doing this alone) and take a hat and sun screen.
Getting to and around the Giza Plateau
Most people visiting the Giza pyramids will come by organised tour. Our visit is an organised private tour by taxi. Our guide helps us navigate the hawkers, camel people inside the grounds and the guides and fake ticket sellers outside the entrance, making it a bit more convenient for us. A good driver or guide knows how to navigate this and will shield you a bit, if you want that. Doing it yourself is an experience by itself!
TIP – You can make a quick dash from the entrance to the pyramids of Cheops and Khafre, and the Sphinx, which are within walking distance of each other. Leaving out the panorama viewpoints makes this a feasible affair. Even if you combine it with a visit to the boat museum you can limit your visit to a walk of 2,5 kilometers from being dropped off by a taxi at the north entrance to cooling off at the Pizza Hut or one of the other restaurants-with-a-view just outside the pyramid grounds’ eastern gates. Even then: bring good shoes, a hat and plenty of water.
The grounds of the Giza pyramids are huge. Especially when it is hot, it can be a challenge to get to the panorama viewpoints on foot. Taxis with guides can get inside on the grounds, driving you up to the viewpoints. These are a couple of kilometres uphill from the pyramids. From the panorama viewpoint you can walk back down to the pyramids with a spectacular view on the city behind as a backdrop – reserve that for colder days though: there is no shade and it is easily an hour walk up and down the dunes!
To camel or not to camel – Many people opt for a camel ride to get more out of their time at the Giza pyramids. We chose not to and do not recommend it. Many camels here are ill-treated and the hassle of the camel drivers is quite intense. If you really do want to ride a camel here, check for wounds and hang around to see how the animals are treated. Still, the camels are very photogenic, even if you do not take a camel ride. If you want a photo, expect to pay a tip to the owner/handler.
7. When to visit the pyramids of Egypt
Winter is bliss in terms of temperatures. We had a pleasant 21 degrees Celsius in December. Try visiting the pyramids at different times of day on multiple days if you can. If it is not a hazy morning, try a visit as early as you can (from 7PM it seems!). But make sure to also squeeze in time at the end of the day, getting some golden hour time at the Sphinx with a view of the pyramids. Mind that Fridays and Saturdays will be more crowded as Egyptians come with their families.
8. Staying near the pyramids
if you are coming to Cairo for the pyramids only, it is also a good idea to stay even closer to the pyramids. This makes it easier to see the pyramids in different light at the beginning and the end of the day. The other advantage of staying close by is that you avoid getting stuck in Cairo’s traffic. There are even places within walking distance from the Giza plateau with all the sights.
9. Should you get a guide to visit the pyramids?
We recommend organising a guide if it is your first time in Egypt. The hawkers, guides and camel handlers can be very persistent, especially if you are without a guide. A guide helps you navigate this, giving you energy to enjoy the site. If you go independently, always retain your calm and carry plenty of ‘La, shukran’ (no, thank you) with you.