Situated on the northwestern tip of Africa, Egypt incorporates the Sinai Peninsula, the only land bridge between the continent of Africa and the rest of the Eastern Hemisphere. In this bustling, colorful, loud, and busy nation are the roots to one of the most ancient civilizations to exist on Earth. There is something for everyone here, whether you’re interested in the Great Pyramids, the crowded markets, the historic Nile River, the fantastic cuisine, or the nation’s vast number of museums. Egypt at its simplest is a study in contrasts: ancient and modern, desert and oasis, crowds and isolation. These pairings make Egypt a compelling travel destination, worthy of any traveler’s top ten list.
1. The Pyramids and the Sphinx: Even if you’ve seen them before, we suggest that you see them again: the pyramids and the Sphinx, both located in the town of Giza, are among the most iconic structures in the history of the world. Some travel agencies offer tickets to a laser show that takes place on the horizon between the pyramids and Cairo, but we recommend that you plan your visit mostly for during the day.
2. Luxor: Ancient Greeks and Romans themselves flocked to the city of Luxor to see the monuments on the East Bank. Karnak Temple is one of the most beautifully excavated ancient sites we have ever seen, and Luxor Temple comes in a close second. Comprising one of the largest open-air museums in the world, this ancient conglomeration of temples, stelae, obelisks, and hieroglyphs makes for a stunning figurative trip back to ancient Egypt.
3. Valley of the Kings: Located on Luxor’s West Bank, this archaeological site has been under excavation for almost two centuries, but it was the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922 that made headlines around the world. If other tombs were raided and looted before they were discovered in modern times, King Tut’s tomb, virtually untouched since his death, in 1323 B.C.E., serves as a pristine example of ancient burial ceremonies. Though all artifacts have been moved to the Egyptian Museum in nearby Cairo, the Valley of the Kings is a must visit.
4. Egyptian Museum in Cairo: This museum has a mimd-boggling accumulation of artifacts from Egyptian antiquity. The sheer volume of pieces, not to mention their physical scale, is astounding. Any tour guide worth his salt will lead you on a tour of the highlights; otherwise, it would take days to see every one of the spectacular items. Featuring collections arranged in chronological order, the museum includes some of King Tut’s treasures, pre-dynasty monuments, artifacts of the Middle and Modern kingdoms, Greek and Roman antiquities, coins and papyri, and sarcophagi.
5. Alexandria: Less than three hours from Cairo by minibus, Alexandria is home to summer beach lovers, many of whom are escapees from Cairo’s intense summer heat. Walk on the beach and enjoy sites like the Kom al-Shoqafa catacombs, Muhammad Ali’s ancient palace, and the Royal Library of Alexandria, once the largest library in the world.
6. Egypt’s Bazaars: Your trip to Egypt won’t be complete until you spend an afternoon touring an endless maze of stalls and alleyways in a city bazaar. Bazaars in Egypt are usually divided into Muslim and Christian markets and keep separate schedules accordingly. Confronting an array of home goods, clothes, jewelry, fruits, vegetables, souvenirs, fabrics, musical instruments, and more, you must negotiate the price before accepting a merchant’s initial offer; it’s customary to haggle in this region.
7. Abu Simbel: Originally carved out of a mountainside, the temples at Abu Simbel were constructed by King Ramses II near the city of Aswan. When a proposed dam construction threatened to flood the temple, UNESCO engineers developed a project to cut the entire site into giant blocks and move it to higher ground in 1964. Today’s reconstruction of the site allows visitors to bear witness to not only an amazing feat of antiquity but an impressive modern achievement as well.
8. Sailing in Aswan: Observe the Blue Nile’s lush green banks against the backdrop of a desert landscape while sailing on a felucca, a type of sailboat used in Egypt since antiquity. A guide can help arrange a group or private ride, which usually lasts between 30 and 45 minutes. This is a great time to pick up some handmade keepsakes.
9. Temple of Horus at Edfu: Situated on the Nile between Luxor and Aswan, this temple permits a dramatic peek into the ancient rituals of Egyptian religion, especially if you visit at night. Preserved hieroglyphs adorn every surface of the temple. Guides reenact certain ceremonies for the sake of visitors. Witnessing ancient Egyptian rituals while standing in a room previously reserved for only the highest of priests is an unforgettable experience.
10. Siwa Oasis: In the western desert near the Libyan border is Egypt’s most remote oasis town. Siwans speak their own language and have an identifiable style of jewelry and crafts, influenced by the Berbers. The natural beauty of this area is what drew us in: travelers can relax in the hot springs and eat local snacks, such as the town’s famed olives.
Egypt has two seasons: a mild winter, from November to April, and a hot summer, from May to October. More often than not, days are warm or hot and nights are cool and breezy. The only major differences between winter and summer are the daytime high temperatures and the changes in wind flow. Summers in the desert undergo wide variations between day temperatures and night ones: average minimums are 57 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees Celcius,) and high temps can climb to over 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celcius.) The lower temperatures in Alexandria have made the city a popular summer resort. Egypt receives very little rainfall annually, so the best time of year to visit is either in September through November or February through April, for taking advantage of the mild air.
Visas: A passport and a visa are required for entering Egypt, and you can obtain a renewable 30-day tourist visa on your arrival at any Egyptian airport.
Transportation: Driving is the most common form of travel within the country. Egypt’s transportation system is well developed, almost 80 percent of the road network being paved. Cairo’s subway line was completed in 1987 and was the first subway system on the continent of Africa. The Western Desert Highway, a high-speed toll road, connects Cairo and Alexandria, and although you can take the non-toll Delta Road, it will invariably be busier and the traffic slower.
The state-owned Egyptian Railways, founded in 1852, manages the 3,104 miles (4,995 km) of railways in the country, and there are more than 2,175 miles (3,500 km) of navigable canals that link all parts of the country by steamer service, in addition to the Nile. One of the best ways we’ve traveled in the country is by arriving in Cairo, taking a flight to Aswan, and sailing up the Nile to Luxor, stopping at historic sites along the way. It is a great way to experience Egypt.
Mobile Phones: It’s possible to rent a SIM card during you stay in Africa, in case you have a GSM phone and your local cellular provider doesn’t provide service to Egypt. They are readily available in any cellular store in major cities. To dial outside your city code, dial 0 plus the city code plus the phone number.
The Egyptian government is aware that it’s in its best financial interest to make sure that tourists are kept safe in the country. Apart from isolated occurrences, Egypt has put in place many safety systems to ensure the protection and well-being of its visitors. Millions of international travelers flock to Egypt’s ancient sites every year, and they have no reason to feel unsafe. As always, however, use your best judgment when traveling in a foreign nation, and exercise heightened caution if you’re going outside the normal tourist areas and closer to Egypt’s borders. You can keep up-to-date with any advisories through the U.S. Department of State’s travel page on Egypt.
One of the world’s primary cradles of civilization, Egypt began more than 6,000 years ago, and Egyptians are thus some of the earliest descendants of human beings. The country’s strategic location no doubt has aided in Egypt’s general flourishing over the centuries.
Within Egypt’s extensive past, several events have exerted lasting influence. The unification of upper and lower Egypt by King Menes in the third millennium B.C.E. is considered one of the most important achievements in Egyptian history, as it heralded the start of Egypt’s age of pharaohs. Ancient Egyptians are known for their significant contributions to human history, including the development of the plow, the hieroglyphic writing system, the 365-day calendar and leap year, and the earliest forms of paper, made from papyrus. Among the notable leaders during ancient Egyptian was Djoser, who built the step pyramid during the Old Kingdom (2600–2200 B.C.E.). Pharaoh Akhenaton reigned from approximately 1379 to 1362 B.C.E. and attempted to direct Egypt’s polytheistic religion into a single worship of the sun god. Akhenaton’s death led to the ascension of his queen, Nefertiti, and the country’s ultimate return to the ancient polytheistic system. King Ramses II ruled from 1279 to 1212 B.C.E. and oversaw the construction of many temples, statues, and monuments all over Egypt, most notably Abu Simbel, near Aswan.
Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C.E. and founded Alexandria a year later. Alexandria grew to become a major civic center in the Hellenistic age, well known for its library, commercial trade, and rise of intellectualism. During the Ptolemaic dynasty of 305 to 30 B.C.E., the Roman leader Octavian, later known as Augustus Caesar, defeated Cleopatra’s fleet and annexed Egypt as a province of the Roman Empire, which prevailed until A.D. 642. During Egypt’s Roman period, the Coptic church was the popular strain of Christianity and now represents one of the oldest branches in the world of that faith.
The Arabic conquest of 641 forever changed the face of Egypt, leading to a shift to Islam and Arabic culture that lasts to this day. In the ninth century Cairo became the capital of Egypt, and in 1260 the Egyptian ruler Qutuz successfully defended the nation against Mongolian advances during the battle of Ain Jalut in Palestine, allowing Egypt’s Islamic identity to grow and thrive.
In 1517 the Ottoman Empire settled itself into Egypt, beginning a long but relatively undistinguished reign. In 1796, Egypt revolted against Ottoman rule and achieved a partially independent state within the empire. Napoleon and his troops arrived in 1798, however, and easily defeated Egyptian forces, facilitating the discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799. The first half of the 19th century was marked by the Ottoman viceroy Muhammad Ali’s attempt to remove Egypt from Turkish control; he was unsuccessful.
In a move to secure foreign control over the Suez Canal, British occupation began in 1882. Although Egypt was technically granted independence in 1922, true liberty was not gained until the Suez Crisis of 1956. In 1952 the Free Officers, led by Lt. Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, removed the incumbent ruler, King Faroukh, from power. In 1956, Nasser, by then the Egyptian president, nationalized the Suez Canal, a decision that led to a tripartite invasion by Britain, France, and Israel. Egypt successfully defended its initiative, and troops withdrew by 1957. Armed discord with Israel continued in a brutal conflict that did not end until 1979, when both countries signed the Camp David Accords in the United States.
1. Egypt is divided into 29 governorates. If you look closely at a map, you can see that some of them, like the New Valley in the Sahara, are relatively large, while the governorates immediately surrounding the Nile, like Aswan, Luxor, and Qena, are very small. That accounts for the difference in population in the desert and in the fertile Nile region.
2. One Egyptian pound (E£), the nation’s currency, equals 100 piastres. All notes are written in Arabic and English, and the smaller the note, the smaller the monetary denomination. It can be a challenge to find a merchant willing to break the larger denominations from the currency exchange office, and you’ll need smaller denominations of piastres for the practice of baksheesh, as described below. Try to obtain smaller notes at the time of your exchange.
3. The Egyptian tradition of baksheesh is extremely common in the area and is more or less comparable to the Western practice of tipping. Baksheesh in Egypt encompasses a wider range, however, and is expected as a thank you for any service rendered, even if that service was not technically requested. Want to see a closed tomb? Twenty-five piastres. Want to turn on a light in a museum display case? Only 50 piastres. This constant exchange of baksheesh can be surprising for a first-timer, but it’s the norm all over the country.
4. Egypt uses the electric plug type called C, so make sure you pack a plug adapter before you leave. You’ll also need a transformer that can convert streams into 220 volts.
5. Religion plays an important part in Egypt’s history and modern culture, and Egypt’s constitution requires all legislation to conform implicitly with Islamic law. Today almost 90 percent of the population practices Sunni Islam, and the call to prayer can be heard five times a day from the mosque minarets that dot the country’s horizon. It is not uncommon for the small population of Christian followers to get a small, voluntary tattoo on their hand indicating their faith.