Do the wonders of Egypt even need an introduction? Well, maybe. The Land of the Pharaohs instantly brings up thoughts of the Pyramids of Giza, the only surviving ancient Wonder of the World. They stand just a short distance from Cairo, and a few miles west of the mighty River Nile.
The longest river in the world, the Nile is dotted with further ancient marvels, from the Valley of the Kings to the Temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel.
Elsewhere, the Sinai Peninsula is home to extraordinary underwater worlds and early Christian monasteries, while the Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert is a splendid contrast to the sands that make up much of the country’s landscape.
A trip to Egypt is worth much more than just visiting Cairo and The Pyramids of Giza. Actually, a lot of what you’ve seen of Egypt, outside of the pyramids requires a flight from Cairo to reach. Here we highlight the major destinations to consider when planning a vacation to Egypt.
Understanding Modern Egypt
While approximately 90% of the population follows Islam, there is a significant Coptic Christian population comprising one of the oldest Christian communities outside of Israel. It was to Egypt that the Holy Family fled to safety, and the country has never forgotten this fact. Today, the Egyptian authorities commit huge resources to ensure the safety of its tourists, and the vast majority of Americans visit the country without issue.
When it comes to shopping, Egypt has a confusing blend of unofficial rules. Higher-end stores, restaurants, and museums have fixed prices (often dependent on nationality for the latter). Almost everywhere else haggling on price is essential.
Do not get into a taxi without agreeing to a firm price first. Small change is hard to come by, but particularly useful for these situations, and for tipping. The ancient system of baksheesh means Egyptians will expect a small gift of money for offering a service, such as directing you somewhere on foot.
Tips for Travel in Egypt
Personal space is much less reduced than in the United States, which can make first-time visitors to the country feel a little uncomfortable. Streets can be crowded, so watch out for pickpockets, but the country’s cosmopolitan nature and a number of tourists mean most Egyptians won’t give you a second glance. Keep valuable items in zip-up or button-down pockets, or better yet, in a hotel safe.
Both male and female visitors should dress respectfully to local customs. While swimsuits and leisurewear are perfectly acceptable on the beaches of Sharm El Sheik and Hurghada, elsewhere you should remember to dress a little more conservative. Cover your shoulders and wear clothing that reaches down to at least the knees – avoid vest tops, crop tops, and short shorts.
Hygiene levels are generally good, although they don’t meet those back home. If you’re concerned about stomach trouble, avoid anything that isn’t cooked through and piping hot – including hotel buffet breakfasts. That said, the salads in Egypt are pretty tasty. The water is drinkable but carries the taste of chemical chlorination. Bottled water is readily available, and most cafes and restaurants will assume that’s what you’re after. Standard soft drink and beer brands are also available everywhere.
Do not underestimate the heat of Egypt. Follow the local lead and move about slowly. Avoid walking in the direct sun whenever possible, crossing to the shadier side of the street if necessary. Drink plenty of fluids, but avoid excess alcohol, as it is dehydrating.
The Main Sights
The Pyramids of Giza
A symbol of Egypt’s continued civilization, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a site capable of blowing the minds of everyone from Britain’s Princess Diana to Beyonce. So many honors have been bestowed on the Pyramids of Giza it’s difficult to know where to start.
First-time visitors are often surprised that the pyramids sit almost entirely surrounded by urban sprawl. Giza is a suburb of the capital – and who wouldn’t want a view of these man-made peaks from their bedroom window?
The traffic and hubbub does nothing to take away from the magic of the pyramids however. Wrapped in myth and mystery, every archaeological dig seems to reveal new information about the people capable of building these enormous structures, with theories ranging from the biblical Israelites to aliens.
What is certain is that the pyramids remain the world’s grandest burial sites, ones which visitors are able to enter. The awareness of having millions of tons of stone above you is a humbling one, even if the interiors are empty and the steep shafts down a little claustrophobic.
The largest, called the Great Pyramid and the Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), is believed to have been built in 20 years. Constructed around 2500BC, it remained the tallest structure in the world for almost 4,000 years.
You can easily spend a day at the pyramids, also known as the Giza Necropolis. In addition to the three main pyramids themselves, horse and camel rides offer the chance to circle this massive complex in more comfort than is ever possible on foot.
The enigmatic Sphinx is obviously not to be missed, and nor is the Giza Solar Boat Museum on the southern side of the Great Pyramid. The unusually shaped modern structure jars somewhat in the landscape, but protects an astonishing survivor from the time of the pyramid’s very construction – a full sized ship intended to allow the pharaoh Khufu an unhindered journey into the afterlife.
A block away from the necropolis, the Grand Egyptian Museum is set to replace its colonial-era ancestor in Tahrir Square in central Cairo. Costing an astonishing $1bn, it claims to be the largest archaeological museum in the world. It is home to the full burial treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun, surely the most famous of all Egypt’s pharaohs, discovered undisturbed by Howard Carter in 1922. Together for the first time since they were discovered, the hoard comprises around 5,000 individual objects – 10% of the museum’s entire collection.
It can be tempting to leave Cairo right after seeing the pyramids, however, a further day or two in the Egyptian capital offers a vital insight into modern Egyptian culture. Among markets that continue to sell live animals for meat is a huge range of attractions. The largest city in Africa has the nickname the ‘city of a thousand minarets’ because of its fine Islamic architecture.
Many of downtown Cairo’s best hotels are located on or around Gezira Island, which splits the Nile into two narrow channels. The southern end of the island is the location of various museums and points of interest, including the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art and Cairo Opera House, as well as the viewing deck of the Cairo Tower. The northern end of the island is the upmarket Zamalek district, which comes as close to a US-style suburb as you’ll find in the country.
The Nile Valley
The River Nile has been the literal lifeblood of Egyptian civilization for thousands of years right up until the modern era. Its annual floods fertilized ground that would otherwise be desert, allowing the country to feed itself with grain, develop papyrus as an early writing material, and supply the world with Egyptian cotton – still used as a sign of luxury.
It’s no surprise then that the banks of the Nile are where the majority of ancient Egypt’s artifacts are concentrated. While almost all the major sites are connected by a well-maintained road network, there can be nothing like exploring the Nile by boat, just as Cleopatra and Julius Caesar did 2,000 years ago when these structures were already millennia old.
Luxor and the Valley of the Kings
The classic Egyptian itinerary takes you from Cairo south to Luxor, roughly an hour’s flying time away, where luxurious vessels line the banks of the Nile. But before setting sail, you should ensure you have enough time to hand to explore what is often described as the world’s largest open-air museum.
Located within the modern city you’ll find both the temple complexes of Luxor and Karnak, made famous by everyone from Agathe Christie in Death on the Nile to James Bond in the classic 1970s movie The Spy Who Loved Me.
If nothing else, be sure to take in the splendor of the bulbous columns within the Great Hypostyle Hall of the Precinct of Amun Re. Soaring above your head with a backdrop of clear blue skies, it will leave you astounded at the ability of ancient builders.
On the opposite bank of the Nile, within typical Egyptian desert landscapes, are the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. The burial place for the kings and queens of the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Dynasties (1500-1000 BC), it is a narrow valley dotted with rock-cut tombs that together display the glory of ancient Egypt. The most popular is the tomb of Tutankhamun, otherwise known as tomb KV62. One of a handful not robbed of its contents during classical times, it took eight years to examine all of its contents.
Esna and Edfu
Both these Nile-side cities are home to important temples. That at Esna was dedicated to the ram-headed god Khnum and probably located here because of natural cataracts now passed by modern canal locks. Only partially excavated, it has some fine carvings, and some of the latest hieroglyphics yet discovered. The city’s corniche also has a thriving market.
The Temple of Horus at Edfu is arguably the most intact ancient Egyptian temple anywhere in the country. Rising high on the edge of the modern city, its still-roofed structure offers an unparalleled view of what the site would have looked like when it was first built roughly 2,500 years ago.
Occupying a particularly attractive part of the Nile in southern Egypt, Aswan was the center of Egypt’s Nubian culture, which stretched south for thousands of miles into modern-day Sudan. Today this prosperous city sits on the High Dam completed in the 1970s as one of the globe’s finest engineering achievements.
As well as a fascinating museum that covers this history in addition to Nubia’s ancient times, Aswan has the laid-back charm of a beach resort. The various islands on the Nile incorporate the Temple of Isis, the last to be constructed in the classical style, as well as Kitchener Island, home of Aswan Botanical Garden. It’s very easy to lose a couple of days here slowly discovering all the city has to offer.
Aswan also acts as the gateway to the Temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel. Standing on the banks of Lake Nasser, the artificial waterway created by the Aswan High Dam, the entire temple was moved to its current location piece by piece by a team of international archaeologists to prevent it from being lost beneath the new lake.
Away from the Nile, the Siwa Oasis lies surrounded by the photogenic dunes of the Western Desert. Fifty miles long by 12 miles wide, this series of lakes acted as a lifeline for the Berber people who have inhabited this inhospitable region for centuries.
As well as being a delightful resort-like destination of date palms, fruit trees, chirruping birds and trickling streams, Siwa was the location of the oracle of Ammon, visited by several important figures including Alexander the Great.
The Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea
On the opposite side of the country, the Sinai Peninsula lies separated from the rest of Egypt by the Gulf of Suez and the Suez Canal. Its southernmost tip is home to Sharm El Sheik, one of the finest scuba diving and snorkeling destinations on the Red Sea. Above the waves, water sports are a popular pastime, while the long stretches of sand have all but guaranteed good weather – this is Egypt after all.
Amid the mountainous interior of the Sinai Peninsula is one of the oldest functioning Christian communities in the world, that of St Catherine’s monastery. Dating back to 550 AD, its ancient library has been an important source of otherwise lost manuscripts. The monastery is also known for the quality of its historic religious artworks.
The once small fishing village of Hurghada plays a similar role to Sharm El Sheik on Egypt’s eastern coast. Its beaches stretch for miles, while dive sites include those around Abu Ramada Island, El Fanadir, and the Giftun Islands. Scuba diving courses and sessions are easy to organize both before and after arrival in Egypt.
Egypt has been a prime vacation destination for centuries. The Pyramids of Giza and ancient temples are its primary attraction. But Egypt also has important early Christian sites, and natural wonders including the Siwa Oasis and the Red Sea.