Straddling North Africa and the Middle East, Egypt looms large in the history books, its pharaohs, kings and queens having left a legacy of world-famous temples and tombs. Cairo and the historic sites are best visited in the cooler months between October and April; in summer, head to the beaches or take a cruise along the Nile.
The capital of Egypt and the oldest city in the Arab world, Cairo is a fascinating blend of open boulevards and labyrinthine souks. Visit the Coptic churches of Old Cairo, shop for souvenirs in Khan el-Khalili and take in a skyline studded by the minarets of hundreds of mosques from the hilltop Citadel of Saladin. The Nile Ritz-Carlton is one of the best places to stay in the city, overlooking the mighty river itself and perfectly located for the adjacent Egyptian Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities, including exquisite jewellery recovered from the nearby Pyramids of Giza. After a visit here, you’ll be ready for the main attraction: the pyramids themselves, rising up from the desert on the western fringes of the city.
Occupying the site of Thebes, the capital of Upper Egypt during the New Kingdom, Luxor is home to Karnak, one of the finest temple complexes in the country, with a thicket of towering columns that are covered in hieroglyphs. The Avenue of the Sphinxes – a road that once linked Karnak with Luxor Temple, a mile to the south, but lay buried under sand for centuries – has been re-opened, and beyond town lies one of the most iconic places to visit in Egypt: the Valley of the Kings, where for nearly 500 years the most powerful rulers of the New Kingdom were laid to rest. Make sure you visit chamber KV62, better known as the Tomb of Tutankhamun.
Founded by Alexander the Great, the Mediterranean city of Alexandria marks a break from temples and tombs. Aside from the long stretch of beach, the attractions here are more modern. Set on the seafront Corniche, the beautifully designed Sheraton Montazah Hotel is perfectly located for visits to the ornate Montazah Palace, a royal palace with extensive gardens that was built in 1892, and the sleek, wedge-shaped Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a contemporary re-imagining of the city’s Great Library, which was the largest in the ancient world before it was destroyed by Julius Caesar. A guided tour is well worth it – the new library houses over 8 million books.
Egypt’s national dish, ful (fava beans) are eaten by everyone, everywhere and at all times of the day. Ful medames is believed to date back to the time of the pharaohs and is a traditional breakfast dish – the beans are dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and garlic and served with chopped boiled egg and pitta bread. There are several great places to eat ful medames in the capital, but try atmospheric Felfela, one of the many historic cafés in Downtown Cairo.
A cross between a pizza and a pancake, fiteer are layered pastry pies and another one of the dishes to try that date back to Ancient Egypt. Traditionally served with sharp, salty gibna beyda cheese or honey, you can also get them filled with mince, sausages, peppers, onions or egg, or – sweeter versions – with raisins, nuts or sugar.
Sticky, sweet layers of filo pastry soaked in honey and crushed nuts, baklava are a perennial favourite, and you can pick them up at patisseries and street stalls across Egypt – although note that in Upper Egypt they’re known as basbousa instead.
A cup of refreshing mint tea is the perfect complement to a day’s sightseeing. El-Fishawy Café in Cairo has been going strong since 1797 and will serve you a perfect cup when you’ve finished browsing the stalls of the nearby Khan el-Khalili bazaar.
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Pyramids of Giza are simply unmissable. No matter how many times you might have seen them in photographs before, their size and significance will still leave you dumbfounded. One of the best things to do is to stay at a hotel overlooking the pyramids, so you can be among the first people to explore the site the next day.
The longest river in the world, the Nile is synonymous with Egypt, and no trip here would be complete without spending some time on the water. Gliding languidly upstream from Luxor to Aswan, stopping off to visit riverside temples along the way, is the classic experience, but one of the most fun things to do in Cairo is to set sail in a felucca, a traditional wooden boat, while dining at a floating restaurant.
Home to over a thousand species of fish, the Red Sea is a wonderful place to go scuba diving or snorkelling. Dahab, Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada are all good choices – just choose a hotel that has good access to the reef and/or one with its own dive school. Swimming among the colourful corals on the hunt for angelfish and butterflyfish, sailfish and sharks is one of the most interesting things to do in Egypt.
On Egypt’s quieter Mediterranean coast, the town of Marsa Matruh boasts one of Africa’s best beaches, a curve of white sand lapped by a sky-blue sea. If it looks fit for royalty, that’s because it was – legend has it that Cleopatra used to bathe in its natural pool.
In the far west of Egypt, the White Desert gets its name from the colour of the rocks that scatter its surface – huge creamy chunks of sandstone and calcium that have been eroded over millennia into spectacular sculptures shaped like mushrooms. Driving among them is one of the most unique things to do in Egypt.
Egyptian Arabic is the most widely spoken Arabic dialect in the world. It is similar to standard Arabic but has a few subtle differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. Basic phrases include sabah al-khair (good morning) and shukran (thank you).
Published: July 26, 2022
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