Egypt is one of the most distinctive countries of the African continent as well as the Middle East, with an impressive civilization stretching back more than 5,000 years. From its pyramids and palaces to its art, artifacts to its bustling cities, desert expanses, and beautiful beaches, it's a place that dazzles the senses and seizes the imagination. An excursion to Egypt will be the trip of a lifetime - and likely still leave much to explore on a second and even third visit. But for first-timers, here are seven musts that encapsulate the best of the country's exotic allure.
With a population of 9.5 million (metro area 20.5 million), the Middle East's largest city traces its orgins to a 4th-century fortress town, and was established nearby as the capital of newly Islamized Egypt in 640 CE. The point of arrival of most visitors, this sprawling metropolis is packed with monuments, museums, historic houses of worship, markets both traditional and modern, and exciting dining and nightlife. Here are the top highlights:
Located in downtown's hub, Tahrir Square, this extraordinary two-story treasure house is home to some 150,000 artifacts illuminating the culture of ancient Egypt - particularly showing the pharaohs and ancient gods - along with relics of classical Greece and Rome. Larger items such as sarcophagi, murals, and monumental statues are found on the first floor, while the second displays manuscripts, pictures, and smaller statues.
Islamic & Coptic Sights of Old Cairo
The city's ancient core includes a number of ancient Roman ruins as well as churches and sites of Egypt's Coptic Christians (introduced under the Roman Empire around 42 CE, it was the majority religion here until the 7th-century Islamic invasion). Highlights include the Roman Babylon Fortress as well as the Coptic Museum, the Hanging Church and other Coptic churches, he Ben Ezra Synagogue, and of course a number of historic mosques such as Al Hussein, Mohammed Ali, Sayeda Zeinab, Ibn Tulun, and Amr ibn al-As.
Khan El Khalili Bazaar
Another definite must in Old Cairo is one of the most famous and oldest markets in Egypt and the world, dating back six centuries in the sale of souvenirs and handicrafts such as distinctive textile and leather crafts, copper, silver, and gold works through small contiguous shops. There are also many opportunities to enjoy tea shops, street food, and traditional restaurants in here.
On the modern side, Cairo's tallest structure - some 187 meters and 15 stories high - was built in 1961 in the shape of a lotus flower, and provides sweeping panoramic views of the city, as well as dining and refreshments in a circular 14th-floor restaurant and top-floor café.
This whitewashed, 1,200-seat temple of culture built in 1988 contains seven theaters staging not just traditional European opera and symphony but also many performances of traditional music and dances of Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. There's also an art gallery and museum.
Though crowded and bustling, Cairo also has vast green areas such as International Park (with a zoo and theater), the Aquarium Grotto (known for its romantic, fish-scale architecture and fish-filled grottoes), Al-Azhar (one of the city's largest, opened in 2005 on a former garbage dump), Orman Botanical Garden (next to Giza Zoo), and Al Fustat (historic, and Egypt's largest).
Built under the great military leader Salah El-Din during the Crusades in 1183 on the top of the Mokattam Hills near cenral Cairo, this massive structure also known as the Citadel of Cairo was for nearly seven centuries the seat of Islamic Egypt's rulers and provides visitors with a wonderful view of all parts of Cairo. In addition to the military fortress, there's a palace, three mosques, and several museums.
Giza and its Legendary Pyramids
Just south of Cairo, across the Nile River, the also large (pop. 8.8 million) city of Giza is one of the strongholds of tourism in Egypt and the most closely related to the Pharaonic era. Most of its tourist places are closely linked to the monuments of ancient Pharaonic civilization, as well as the region's zoo, with hundreds of animals from around the world.
The Three Main Pyramids and the Sphinx
The Giza pyramids are of course Egypt's most famous attractions, built during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, aroun 2580-2560 BCE. Visitors can venture into their passageways of Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus; gaze at the majestic Phinx, with the body of a lion and the head of a pharaoh; visit the Solar Boat Museum; take horse and camel rides; by souvenirs; eat at local restaurants; and take in a spectacular evening sound and light show.
Pyramids of Saqqara
Another nearby complex includes the famous tomb of King Djoser of the Third Pharaonic Dynasty, also known as the Steps Pyramid due to its six distinctive steps; other distinctive features include the blue brick stones that adorn the tomb of the king, as well as the doors of the famous pharaonic cats and hieroglyphic inscriptions on the walls.
On an island in the Nile, this recreation of an ancient Egyptian settlement includes actors in period costumes, activities including a kids' play area, and a dozen museums about various aspects and periods of Egyptian culture and history, along with a replica of the tomb of King Tutankhamun.
Alexandria, Mediterranean Jewel
The country's second largest city, founded by and named after the Greek Alexander the Great in the early 4th century BCE, it was Egypt's capital up until the Muslim conquest, and became one of the great cities of the ancient world. Today it's considered by many to be the country's cultural capital, and in addition to tourism drawn by many wonderful nearby beaches, it also draw visitors interested in culture and history with:
The 15th-century defensive fortress (above) overlooking the eastern port of Alexandria affords a magnificent view of the sea and the surrounding coast, and is also home to the Maritime Museum full of hundreds of species of marine life as well as artifacts and displays covering the history of the city and especially the battle that took place here.
Library of Alexandria
It's of course not the legendary Great Library of Alexandria of antiquity, but the 16-year-old Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a huge oval edifice surrounded by a large granite wall of beauty and engraved in more than 120 languages, is impressive in its own right. In addition to its collection and reading rooms, there are four museums and exhibitions, devoted to archaeology; rare books and manuscripts; the history of sciences; and Egypt's late-20th-century president Anwar Sadat. Also a planetarium and science-oriented "exploratorium" for kids.
Housed in a three-story Italianate mansion near the heart of the city, the 15-year-old museum displays history from the earliest times to the most recent.
Palace of Montaza
This 150-acre (61-hectare) complex has splendid landscaping and views over the Mediterranean, as well of course as the palace itself, a magnificent mix of Ottoman and Florentine style that houses a museum devoted to the Muhammad Ali dynasty which ruled Egypt throughout the 19th and up to the mid-20th century.
The only one of its kind in Egypt, this small, 13-level outdoor theater held 800 spectators, with marble-clad seats and stunning courtyard mosaics, as well as the remains of a baths complex and several other chambers and living quarters.
Alexandria Opera House
Opened in 1921 and also known as the Sayed Darwish Theater, where you can attend cultural evenings, festivals, concerts, and dance performed by Egyptian and international artists.
Places of Worship
Alexandria's religious tourism is the three monotheistic religions whose followers have lived here for centuries, including the famous Morsi Abu al-Abbas Mosque, the Jewish Temple of the Prophet Daniel, the Monastery of St. Mina, and St. Mark's Cathedral, Africa's oldest church.
Sharm El-Sheikh, Pearl of The Red Sea
This city of around 73,000 on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula has become the country's top tourist destination in recent decades due to its warm winter weather, stunning beaches, beautiful fish and coral reefs, and appealing hotels and resorts. Water sports such as diving, swimming, and surfing, are popular, as is the Aqua Park, a fun, family-oriented water park.
One of the most famous resorts in Sharm El Sheikh among Arab and Western tourists alike, the resort enjoys a long walk overlooking the Red Sea with shops and restaurants to meet all tastes, with the availability of day safari trips riding bikes and enjoy the beauty and tranquility of deserts - where you can experience Bedouin life, sharing these desert-dwellers' tents and food.
The Old Market
One of the city's famous markets for souvenirs and traditional handicrafts, so if you want to buy gifts for your family at affordable prices, do not miss it and make it your last place before traveling.
One Thousand and One Nights Park
This theme park is filled with attractions including sound and light shows that tell the story of Egyptian civilization, as well as restaurants and venues for traditional Bedouin dance shows You can then take your family at more than 450 shops selling world-famous brands at the famous Mercato Mall near the park.
Hurghada, Another Sun-and-Fun Wonderland
Across the Red Sea from Sharm, an hour's flight or 4½-hour drive south of Cairo, this onetime fishing village is now a beach-resort city of some 262,000, with splendid beaches and reefs, with all the attendant lodging/dining and activities to make the most of them. A Hurghada excursion is a perfect counterpoint to the history and culture of Egypt's other destinations. Here are several highlights:
One of the best local resort areas offers lies some 20 kilometers away from the city center and include various areas such as Marina, where among other things you can enjoy yacht cruises; the Golf District with world-class links; downtown for shopping; and the entertainment district with its fantastic nightlife.
One of the most beautiful resort areas is fantastic for roaming the promenade overlooking the sea; taking a yacht cruise for diving or snorkeling; and golf at two world-class courses.
A pair of offshore isles famous for some of Hurghada's best coral reefs and marine life, as well as bird sanctuaries, accessed by day cruises.
Al Saqala/Plateau District
In Hurghada's central hub, dozens of shops offer myriad goods and services as well as diverse dining. Nearby, the Plateau neighborhood offers wonderful sea views.
The traditional heart of Hurghada, where most locals live, and cafés, restaurants, and souks (markets) offer an authentic experience as a change of pace from the glitzier resort areas.
Luxor, Egypt's Greatest Pharaonic City
Just over an hour by air and seven hours by road south of Cairo, this city of 507,000 is home to what's been called the world's greatest open-air museum, a dazzling collection of treasures of ancient Egypt, with world-famous sites and monuments such as:
One of the greatest attractions in Egypt and Luxor in particular, Karnak temple is a majestic pharaonic house of worship that begins by rams road to include a group of temples including the temple of God Amun and his wife Mut and his son, the temple of Ramses III. You can also attend the day-and-night sound and light show about the temple's creation history with its treasures in several foreign languages.
Luxor Temple Complex
A grouping of temples and other huge structures with hieroglyphic inscriptions, as well as two enormous statues of King Ramses II at the entrance and the booth of Alexander the Great.
Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens
These include dozens of royal tombs carved in the rock representing the era of the New Kingdom. It includes the tomb of Ramses III, the tomb of Tutankhamun, and the tomb of Queen Nefertari.
A funerary temple, one of Luxor's greatest temples and tourist attractions, was established by Queen Hatshepsut on three ascending terraces to perform her funeral to the underworld.
Dendera Temple Complex
One of Egypt's best preserved pharaonic temple complexes, Dendera is located an hour north of Luxor. full of monuments reflecting the Greek and Roman civilizations in Egypt and famous for the statue of Queen Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.
Aswan, the Nubian City
Farther south of Cairo still (ten hours by road, 1½ flying) and a three-hour drive from Luxor, this city of 290,000 is also home some key ancient sites, along with the famous dam.
Actually several hours south of Aswan, with transfers usually made by small plane or via boat on Lake Nasser, it consists of two temples - one to Ramses II and the other to Queen Nefertari - and amazingly, these were moved from their original locations in the 1960s to save them from being flooded as a result of the creation of Aswan Dam. Twice a year, the Abu Simbel sun festival marks when the sun is perpendicular to the temple on February 22, on the occasion of Ramses II's accession to the throne, and the second on October 22, on the anniversary of his birth.
The pharaonic temple complex on this islet overlooking the bank of the Nile opposite Aswan was also moved from its original location. Built to honor the goddess Isis, this was the last temple built in the classical Egyptian style, during the 26th Dynasty (664–525 BCE).
Aswan High Dam
Built between 1960 and 1970, the Middle East's greatest engineering marvels (and the 20th century's largest) is 3,830 meters (12,562 feet) across, 111m (364 ft.) high and 980m (3,214 ft.) at its base, and has helped control flooding on the Nile as well as provide electricity to aid Egypt's industrialization. In addition to seeing the dam, there is a visitors' center explaining its history and function.
The Unfinished Obelisk of Hatshepsut
The largest of the ancient Egyptian obelisks, it was not completed due to a crack, and so still lies embedded in a local granite quarry. It's still an imposing sight indeed, a testament to the skill and ambition of ancient craftsmanship.
Built in 1997, this massive three-story, architecture-award-winning building displays some 3,000 artifacts stretching back throughout Egyptian history and prehistory.
One of the most beautiful activities you can do here is to enjoy the Nile and Lake Nasser on a small traditional boat. Get more information here.
The Most Important Sights Elsewhere in Egypt
Tal Al Amarna
A city located in Minya in northern Upper Egypt, it's famous for containing the temples of Aten, one of the most famous pharaonic gods; two royal palaces dating back to the era of the Pharaohs north and south of the city, the letters of the Amarna tribes who inhabited the medieval city and its age; and the remnants of the ancient capital of Egypt since the reign of king Akhenaten.
St. Catherine's Monastery
In the southern Sinai Peninsula, this Greek Orthodox monastery is one of the oldest monasteries in the world (built between 548 and 565 CE), and the second in terms of historical manuscripts and antiquities. It includes the Church of the Transfiguration, a museum of sacred art, icons, and manuscripts, and the "burning bush," said to be descended from the original cited in the Bible. The more adventurous come to hike the mountains in which it's set, including climb Mount Sinai (aka Mount Moses).
An isolated town, oasis, and nature reserve in the western desert of Egypt, eight to nine hours' drive from Cairo, it's famous thanks to its desert safaris, Bedouin camps, therapeutic lakes, pharaonic Temple of Amun, and hundreds of rare wild animals and plants.
The Most Important Airports in Egypt
Egypt has dozens of airports in its various governorates in all directions and around them. Here are the five top ones:
Cairo International Airport (CAI)
The largest and oldest airport in Egypt dates back to 1942. Twenty-two kilometers northeast of Cairo, it consists of four runways for takeoff and landing of flights and three passenger terminals with a total annual capacity of 20 million passengers. Amenities include ample shopping and dining.
Alexandria Airport (HEAX)
It is located four nautical miles from the city of Alexandria, with a passenger capacity of up to 600 passengers per hour via runways to accommodate 10 flights. The city also includes Borg El Arab Airport, with a passenger capacity of up to 1,000 passengers per hour through two corridors accommodating 11 flights.
Sharm El Sheikh International Airport (SSH)
One of Egypt's largest airports in Egypt, it can handle more than 4,000 passengers per hour through two lounges to receive and bid farewell to passengers, and runways for 46 pilots, in addition to limousines to transport passengers through the airport or outside.
Hurghada Airport (HRG)
About three miles south of Hurghada on an area of more than 218 billion square meters with a capacity of up to 3,000 passengers per hour.
Aswan Airport (ASW)
It is located 10 nautical miles southwest of Aswan city on an area of more than 3 million square meters with a capacity of 3,200 passengers per hour and 28 flights. The city also includes Abu Simbel Airport, which is two nautical miles from Abu Simbel with a capacity of 500 passengers per hour with a capacity of flights up to 10 per day.
Best Time to Travel to Egypt
Egypt has a hot, dry climate, with warm summers and mild winters, making suitable all year round, depending on where you wish to visit. For example, a coastal city such as Alexandria is very suitable to visit during the summer, and at the same time enjoy a special sparkle during the rainy winter nights, despite the cold. Other coastal destinations such as Sharm el-Sheikh or Hurghada are they more suitable for wintering, as are the cities of Luxor and Aswan in southern Egypt, which have very hot summers in summer and mild winters in cold winters at night. The archaeological areas of Greater Cairo with a desert nature are best suited to visit during the winter day, while the city of Cairo appears in a charming illuminated color colorful during the night hours in various seasons.
Egypt Entry Visa
With the exception of citizens of other Arab as well as some Asian countries, most foreigners must buy a visa to visit Egypt, which may be solicited online. All you need is a passport still valid for eight months after applying for the visa; an initial reservation at a hotel; and a round-trip ticket with flight schedule. The cost is $25 for a one-time visa and $60 for a multi-entry visa, valid for three months from the date of issue. Apply at eVisit Egypt.
More information: Egypt.travel.