11 best places to visit Egypt
Perhaps no other people in the world say ‘Welcome’ so frequently – and mean it every time. Egypt’s ancient civilisation still awes, but today’s Egyptians are pretty amazing, too.
With sand-covered tombs, austere pyramids and towering Pharaonic temples, Egypt brings out the explorer in all of us. Visit the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, where Tutankhamun’s tomb was unearthed, and see the glittering finds in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Hop off a Nile boat to visit a waterside temple, or trek into the desert to find the traces of Roman trading outposts. You never know – your donkey might stumble across yet another find, just as many previous discoveries were made.
Egypt is the most traveller-friendly country in the Middle East. This means you’ll enjoy decent places to sleep and English spoken to some degree everywhere. It also means that if you ever get into a jam, an Egyptian will likely be there to help you out. Then again, an Egyptian will also be there to sell you some papyrus or perfume – an undeniable reality of travel here. But the souvenir sales are a minor irritant when compared with the chance to connect with some of the world’s most generous people.
Top places to visit
Pyramids of GizaTowering over the urban sprawl of Cairo and the desert plains beyond, the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx are at the top of every traveller’s itinerary. For nearly 4000 years, the extraordinary shape, impeccable geometry and sheer bulk of the Giza Pyramids have invited the obvious question: ‘How were we built, and why?’ Centuries of research have given us parts of the answer. We know they were massive tombs constructed on the orders of the pharaohs by teams of workers tens-of-thousands strong. No trip to Egypt is complete without a photo of you in front of the last surviving ancient wonder of the world.
With the greatest concentration of ancient Egyptian monuments anywhere in Egypt, Luxor rewards time spent here. You can spend days or weeks around this town, walking through the columned halls of the great temples on the east bank of the Nile, such as the Ramesseum, or climbing down into the tombs of pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings on the west bank. Time spent watching the sun rise over the Nile or set behind the Theban hills are some of Egypt’s unforgettable moments.
Cruising the Nile
A cruise on the Nile River has always ranked among the world’s most exciting and most romantic travel experiences. The Nile is Egypt’s lifeline, the artery that runs through the entire country, from south to north. Only by setting adrift on it can you appreciate its importance and its beauty, and more practically, only by boat can you see some archaeological sites as they were meant to be seen. Sailing is the slowest and most relaxing way to go, but even from the deck of a multistorey floating hotel you’re likely to glimpse the magic.
It may not be the highest of Sinai’s craggy peaks, but Mt Sinai is the peninsula’s most sacred. A place of pilgrimage for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, the summit affords the magnificent spectacle of light washing over the sea of surrounding mountaintops. Down below, tucked into the mountain’s base, is St Katherine’s Monastery. Its sturdy Byzantine fortifications are built over the spot where Moses is believed to have witnessed the burning bush.
Laid-back Dahab, a midsized town near the southern tip of the Sinai, is Egypt’s version of a chill pill, the place for ruin-fatigued travellers to cast off the history lessons and recuperate in one of the smallscale beachfront hotels. Once your batteries have recharged, dive into Dahab’s famous underwater world or organise some desert adventure fun. Though you may find you’re also seduced by the joy of doing nothing for a few more days.
Whether you travel by 4WD, camel or foot, for a couple of hours or a couple of weeks, you’ll be able to taste the simple beauty and isolation of wildest Egypt. The highlights of an excursion in Egypt’s Western Desert include camping among the surreal formations of the White Desert, crossing the mesmerising dunes of the Great Sand Sea and heading deep into the desert to live out English Patient fantasies at the remote Gilf Kebir.
The scale of the Egyptian Museum is simply overwhelming. More than a hundred rooms are packed to the rafters with some of the most fascinating treasures excavated in Egypt: glittering gold jewellery, King Tut’s socks and mummies of the greatest pharaohs, plus their favourite pets. Don’t push yourself to see it all, and do hire a guide for an hour or two to unlock some of the storehouse’s secrets.
Red Sea Diving
Egypt’s Sinai and Red Sea coastlines are the doorstep to a wonderland that hides below the surface. Whether you’re a seasoned diving pro or a first-timer, Egypt’s underwater world of coral cliffs, colourful fish and spookily beautiful wrecks is just as staggeringly impressive as the sights above. Bring out your inner Jacques Cousteau by exploring the enigmatic wreck of WWII cargo ship the Thistlegorm, a fascinating museum spread across the sea bed.
It’s impossible not to relax in an oasis – here, with the endless desert shimmering on the horizon, you can float in hot springs or explore the remains of ancient Roman outposts and tribal villages. In Siwa, the Dahab of the desert, cold springs and palm groves keep you cool during the day. In Dakhla, the restored mud-brick town of Al-Qasr gives a glimpse of centuries-old oasis living. It’s easy to spend enough time out here to make the long drive worth it.
Ramses II built Abu Simbel a long way south of Aswan, along his furthest frontier and just beyond the Tropic of Cancer. But these two enormous temples are a marvel of modern engineering as well: in the 1960s they were relocated, block by block, to their current site to protect them from the flooding of Lake Nasser. To appreciate the isolation, spend the night at Abu Simbel, either on a boat on the lake or at Nubian cultural centre and ecolodge Eskaleh.
Flaunting the pedigree of Alexander the Great and the powerful queen Cleopatra, Egypt’s second-largest city is rich in history, both ancient and modern. Visit the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the new incarnation of the ancient Great Library, or any number of great small museums around town. Walk the souqs of atmospheric Anfushi, the oldest part of the city, and be sure to feast on fresh seafood with a Mediterranean view along the grand waterfront corniche.