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Egypt Do’s and Don’ts: 10 Unwritten Rules That Every Egyptian Knows

Egypt can mean cultural overload. Whether you’re hitting the pyramids or the Red Sea, here are 10 simple rules to help you overcome it.

Cairo at sunrise.
Hi, I'm Theodora!

A freelance writer and recovering nomad, Theodora divides her time between Britain and Bali. With bylines including CNN, BBC, the Guardian, Discover, Lonely Planet, and National Geographic Traveler, she’s working on a book, still blogs once in a while at EscapeArtistes.com, and spends far too much time on Twitter.

Home to almost unimaginably ancient ruins, some of the world’s oldest churches and monasteries, medieval Islamic architecture, and some incredible diving, desert, and beaches, Egypt is a world-class destination that can come with global-scale levels of hassle. Here’s how to navigate this fascinating country with minimum offense on either side.

Do pack modest clothes

A woman in modest dress in Egypt.
The right dress for Egypt.Photo Credit: frantic00 / Shutterstock

Yes, it’s hot. No, stripping off is not OK.

Roughly 90 percent of Egyptians are Sunni Muslims, so conservative dress will make life much, much easier for them and for you. What works on a private hotel beach or in a high-end Cairo club will absolutely not cut it at the Giza Pyramids, your local koshary joint, or—god forbid!—the taxi home.

Long, loose, opaque clothing that covers all the key areas (shoulders, chest, belly, upper arms, and legs to the knee) is the way forward, while many find sunglasses help avoid unwanted eye contact. Women will want to bring a shawl or scarf to cover their hair while visiting the mosque. Heading to a hot Cairo club? Do like the locals do and hire a driver for the night.

Don’t use your left hand

A hand reaches out for fresh bread in Egypt.
The right hand in Egypt.Photo Credit: Emily Marie Wilson / Shutterstock

Sorry, southpaws, that’s just dirty.

In Egyptian culture, the right hand is used for all things clean and good—handing over gifts, eating from the communal dish—and the left hand for everything dirty and impure (yes, the dreaded bum gun). Never eat with your left hand, and always hand over money or gifts with your right or both hands.

Do check the temperatures

Hikers on Mount Sinai.
Hikers on Mount Sinai.Photo Credit: richardernestyap / Shutterstock

Imprudent packing has spoiled many a desert trip.

Most visitors to Egypt will want to bag a desert safari, but it’s well worth checking temperatures before you make your plans. Egypt is famously hot, but desert temperatures yoyo wildly. In summer, inland deserts can range from a foot-scalding 109°F (43°C) during the day to a bracing 45°F (9°C) at night. Mt. Sinai sometimes sees snow during the winter months, making the overnight climb for sunrise a chilly experience.

Don’t show the soles of your feet

A shoe sign in Egypt.
A shoe sign in Egypt.Photo Credit: Kylie Nicholson / Shutterstock

No foot fetishists allowed.

You’ll notice that Egyptians often remove their shoes, not only when visiting the mosque, but also when entering a private house or Bedouin tent. However, when sitting barefoot, tuck your feet under or beside you. It’s considered rude to point any part of your feet at someone.

Do haggle

A market in Egypt.
A market in Egypt.Photo Credit: Merydolla / Shutterstock

Everybody loves a bargain.

If you’re shopping for a significant purchase (or even a small souvenir such as a shisha pipe), bargaining is absolutely expected, and vendors will often start at double or more the rate they’ll actually accept. Enter with a set price in your head (online shopping research can often help provide a baseline) and work towards it.

Related: How to Haggle in Egypt

Don’t clock watch

On a lively Egyptian street.
On a lively Egyptian street.Photo Credit: Olga Vasilyeva / Shutterstock

Egypt is a nation of shopkeepers, not timekeepers.

Punctuality is not really a thing in Egypt, and the sooner you accept this, the happier your visit will be. Show up at the arranged time, in the arranged place, and be ready to wait. And wait. And wait some more.

Do tip

A hand holds out an Egyptian bank note.
In Egypt, tip.Photo Credit: Mohamed Fadly / Shutterstock

But tip British, not American.

Tipping is expected in Egypt, but not at the high percentages Americans usually pay. Carry small coins for the people who look after your shoes at the mosque, and leave a few coins (or 5 percent or so) at restaurants, even where service is included. (In super-luxe spots, tip as you would in a venue of the same caliber back home.)

Don’t empty your plate

A woman serves up Egyptian food.
Street food in Egypt.Photo Credit: John Wreford / Shutterstock

Or a food coma awaits.

In some cultures, it’s polite to empty your plate when dining at their home. In Egypt, that indicates you’re still hungry. Unless you are starving (unlikely given most hosts’ portion sizes), leave a little bit of food on the side of your plate to show your chef that they’ve more than met your needs.

Do be aware of religious sensitivities

Inside a Cairo church.
Inside a Cairo church.Photo Credit: Sun_Shine / Shutterstock

Did we mention Egypt’s a religious society?

Most Egyptians are religious in some shape or form, and disrespecting Islam can cause huge offense—although the country’s blasphemy laws tend to be used against internal dissidents, not irritating tourists. Complaining about the volume of the call to prayer or dressing disrespectfully for the mosque are obvious no-nos, as is offering alcohol unless you know someone drinks it.

Don’t go big on PDAs

Kissing the Sphinx.
Kissing the Sphinx.Photo Credit: vallefrias / Shutterstock

Keep the makeout session for the boudoir.

Egypt’s record on LGBTQ rights is extremely poor, so same-sex or gender-diverse couples will want to research carefully before visiting. Even cishet couples, however, will find that anything livelier than holding hands or kissing on the cheek can attract everything from death stares to abuse.

More ways to explore Egypt

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