What’s the first thing you think of when you imagine Egypt? For most people it’s the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the Nile River. It is so much more than that.
Egypt was our first real adventure together. Jon had the preconceived notion that it was something you did “when you were older,” but it turned to be a magical introduction to our passion for travel. It’s incredible to think that most of the temples, tombs, and artifacts seen here are thousands of years old.
One of the most surprising facts was that endless hieroglyphs filling the temples were not only carved into stone but painted fully as well. There are many places you can still see remaining color. Even today the Supreme Council of Antiquities are slowly unearthing new relics and long forgotten tombs.
The political situation there has changed often in the last 7 years, so use you best judgement when deciding when and where to go in the country. Egypt has been the only country we used a travel company for exclusively, and I would recommend you use a guided tour for several reasons.
First of all there are little to no signs in English, and unless you can read or speak Arabic then travel will be difficult. Also the traffic in Cairo was some of most intense and chaotic we’ve seen, and we’ve rented a motorbike in several Asian countries in densely populated areas. Just crossing the street on foot can be a challenge. Not to mention if you use a local reputable tour company it can be very affordable, safe, and include a lot of what you need without additional cost.
Despite the quiescence of the country at the time we visited, taxis could be dodgy and tourism then and now is extremely low. For our trip we used Memphis Tours, a locally owned and operated company that was affordable, flexible, and took great care with our safety and comfort. The tour guides they independently contracted are were all fantastic.
Most trips start in Cairo. As you fly in over the city there is such a stark contrast where the desert slams into the Nile delta that its visible from the sky. Just near the border are the Great pyramids. It’s a treat to actually be able to see them on your descent into the airport. Giza has melted so closely into pyramids we were even able to see them from our hotel room. Visas are paid for in cash on arrival, be prepared for a line.
Aside from the pyramids a must see is the Egyptian Museum, no cameras are allowed here. It is a labyrinth of artifacts with little by way of signs to explain what the antiquities are, so a guide is helpful. The most impressive part of this museum are the rooms dedicated to the artifacts found in King Tut’s tomb. Surprisingly despite the overwhelming amount displayed this is only a small fraction of all that was actually discovered.
Other great sites in Cairo where Hanging Church (Coptic Christian) with its incredibly detailed wood work and mosaics and the near by Ben Ezra synagogue. The Khan El Khalili Bazaar is a large winding tourist market downtown that is worth a look, make sure to haggle all the vendors expect it. The large mosque of Salah Ah-Din is impressive as well. A short trip side trip from the city is Memphis, another capital of ancient Egypt.
While there are few artifacts here, you are a close to the Step Pyramid of Saqarra and the Red and Bent pyramids of Dahsur which are an interesting contrast to the great pyramids in Giza. You can also do a day trip to Alexandria if you so choose. Most of the Romanian influence from Alexander the Great’s reign can be seen here.
Nile River Cruise
From Cairo there are several options to explore along the Nile, most taking you to Luxor, Aswan, Lake Nassar, and a few stops along the way. I do recommend taking a cruise while traveling along the Nile. Most tours include a few days on a cruise and they are generally comfortable and clean. There are many options available if you choose to book on your own. Overnight stops afford you the opportunity to explore some on your own in local souqs (markets) and revisit sites if you elect.
You have the option of starting in Aswan and end in Luxor or the other way round. From Aswan you can visit the High Dam and see Lake Nassar. The Dam was built to help control the seasonal flooding of the Nile, and in doing so some ancient temples were going to be lost to floods. Fortunately there were carefully extracted and then moved to other locations.
One such temple is Philae Temple that is accessed only by boat out on the lake. Abu Simel was also relocated and despite this the sun’s rays reach the back chamber on the same two days a year (February 22 and October 22). You can attend the Sun Festival on these specific dates. It is a separate trip to see Abu Simel but is one of the more iconic and impressive temples to see. The unfinished obelisk can be visited while in Aswan.
On your journey most cruises will have a brief stop to see the temples in Edfu and Kom Obo before heading onto Luxor and Thebes. As the epicenter for Egyptian temples and tombs, this area has enough to fill up several days if you wanted to see it all. On the east bank of the Nile just next to the river is the Karnak temple complex, the largest in the country. This temple complex was built in sections by several pharaohs each with a unique style. The Luxor Temple is close by as well and worth a look.
On the West bank of the Nile across from Luxor is Thebes where the bulk of tombs and temples reside. The main attractions here are the Valley of the Kings and The Temple of Queen Haptsheput. The base entrance ticket for the Valley of the Kings will include 3 tombs, I recommend you ask a tour guide which are the most impressive to see as there are many options. For an additional cost you can see King Tutankhamen’s tomb, which has his sarcophagus, but is small and not as impressive by way of hieroglyphics as some of the other tombs. All of the discovered artifacts from here are in the museum in Cairo, including his famous golden death mask.
The most impressive and well preserved tomb we visited in Egypt was the Tomb of Sennefer, one of the tombs of the Nobles. The walls and ceilings are filled with grapevines that appear freshly painted despite being three thousand years old. It was truly breathtaking. The Medinet Habu Temple is second in size only to Karnak temple and rarely visited, but has rare and interesting carvings. If you enjoy the unique, these two places in particular were highlights for us. If you want to explore Thebes further you can visit the Valley of the Queens, Deir-al Medina temple, and several others. A sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Nile is also available for a different perspective.
Beach and diving
There are two main places for Diving in Egypt: Hurghada and the Ros Mohamed National Park in the Sinai Pennisula. The Red Sea is truly amazing. I lived in the Caribbean for a few years and even I was amazed at the lush coral and marine life. Sharm El-Shiekh is a resort area with ample opportunity for snorkeling, diving, and other ocean activities.
If you walk up and down the beach from your hotel you will run into several companies offering excursions. From the Sinai you can arrange for a camel safari, a night with bedouins, or a trip to Saint Catherine’s Monastery. A few days at the beach are always a great end to a long vacation before you have to go back to the “real world.”
Travel Tips For Egypt
1. Take precautions with the food and water you drink as you would with any country where sanitation is not as stringent.
2. Bring your own toilet paper. Most public restrooms either have no TP or you can purchase a couple of squares (literally) from the bathroom attendant.
3. We broke up our trip up with a stop over in Rome. Seeing the Roman influence in Alexandria and the Egyptian obelisk in Rome was a great way to experience some of their shared history.
4. Tipping is expected. While you are not required to leave large tips, even smaller ones are appreciated. The wages for bus drivers and tour guides are low (50 US dollars a month for some drivers) and tourism has taken huge dip in the last 7 years.
5. If you take a tour, make sure to let your tour operator/contact if your enjoyed your guide and drivers. Most are independently contracted and with less work to go around, it helps make sure they get additional jobs later. We had some incredible tour guides while we where there, some of the best we’ve ever had. From our experience most official guides have a degree in egyptology.
6. Visit in the cooler months of the year, as the summer heat is extreme. We went in November and had cooler foggy mornings with warm afternoons.
7. Haggling is also expected at souqs (markets). Often a seller’s first price can be 5-10 times what they actually will take. Some stall attendants can be aggressive in trying to get your attention. Walk away and say “la sukraan” (la shu-koran) which is “No Thank you” in Arabic. Furthermore be prepared to approached by people selling souvenirs outside the most popular attractions. Government regulations often keep them from entering the attraction itself.
Overall we loved our trip to Egypt. With no travel planning experience and a tight budget, Egypt was an easy and fast decision that turned out to be incredible. We’ve been to many other fascinating places since then, but I would still go back.
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