Typically, I'm not a huge fan of 'best things to do in..." and "top places to visit in..." posts, because they tend to be redundant and rarely offer up new, insightful information. However, I've noticed a sharp lack of helpful posts on the best things to do in Egypt. Sure, everyone knows about the Pyramids and the Library of Alexandria, but there are so many hidden treasures in Egypt that few people ever encounter. And while I'm no authority on the subject, living in Egypt for a year exposed me to most of what the country has to offer. I visited most of these sites multiple times, and can provide detailed information that other reviews tend to leave out. My goal is to provide a fresh list of 10 amazing locations you should visit in Egypt, that you likely don't know about.
Egypt is a perfect location to visit right now, too. While most people tend to be under the misconception that the country is very dangerous currently, the opposite is true (though keep in mind, opinions of 'safety' and 'comfort' vary). Egypt is between revolutions, they have had no recent riots or upheaval, and tourism is at an all-time low. That means that prices are dirt-cheap, there are no tourists to block your view, and you can get to nearly any site with ease. Still not convinced? Take a look at my top 10 sites, and see if your mind has been changed.
IN ORDER OF MY FAVORITES
1. The White Desert
The number one, without-a-doubt, most-amazing place I visited in Egypt was the White Desert. Never heard of it? You're not alone. Part of the intrigue of the White Desert is that it's relatively unheard of; in the hundreds of miles of sand and rock structures, you'll encounter perhaps 5 other people, at most. The White Desert is a vast expanse of desert with dozens of unique locations. I refer to it as 'the yellowstone of the desert', for while it doesn't host geothermal features, it has several incredibly unique locations in a relatively small geographical area. The desert boasts strange rock formations, fossils, oases, and most famously, a desert covered in smooth white sandstone and giant white mushroom rocks. To visit the White Desert, you must hire a tour from a local Bedouin group (there are several companies available), and they take you out camping for anywhere from 1-14 days. On our trip, we hiked up giant black rocks, collected fossils and strange stones, swam in a real oasis, watched the sunset on massive white rocks, ate traditional Egyptian food, and had an overwhelmingly unforgettable trip. The White Desert, is by far, my favorite place I've been in this whole world. Convinced yet?
You can see more photos from my trip to the White Desert, here. (scroll to center)
2. Karnak, Luxor
While Karnak is not unheard of to most people, it's so incredible to visit that I couldn't help putting it on this list. Karnak is about 11-hours by train or a 1-hour flight south of Cairo, in the river-city of Luxor. Luxor is home to many other temples, ruins, and tombs (Valley of the Kings, Temple of Luxor, and the Temple of Hatshepsut, to name a few), but Karnak tops them all. Karnak is a large temple complex, absolutely brimming with hieroglyphs, original paint (!), statues, obelisks, and any other traditional Egyptian carving and structure you can think of. The place is completely overwhelming; never, in any other location on earth, have I felt so surrounded in history as I did at Karnak. Plus, it's right inside the city - just a few minutes walk or a taxi ride away from your hotel! Luxor in general is the best tourist city in Egypt, but if you visit, put Karnak at the top of your list.
You can see more photos from my trip to Karnak, here.
3. Marsah Matruah
These sparkling turquoise waters may look like something fresh off a Caribbean island, but they are actually at home off the coast of the Mediterranean in Egypt! Marsah Matruah (See also: Mersa Matrouh, Marsa Matrouh, Marsa Matruha - all thanks to the Arabic letter 'heh' which isn't translatable) is a small city about 3-hours west of Alexandria, near the border of Libya. Because of it's relative isolation and general lack of public knowledge, it is a [stunning] diamond in the rough. The waters are absolutely pristine, the beaches are empty, and the air is the perfect temperature. The above photo features Agiba beach, which is my personal favorite, but Cleopatra beach is another local favorite. In addition to simply lounging around in the sun, there is snorkeling, boating, and cliff-jumping available all within 30-minutes of the main city. The one caveat? To be respectful of the local culture, it is necessary that women are fully covered while swimming (as seen above). I wore leggings and a t-shirt, which was appropriate for the setting.
You can see more photos from my trip to Marsah Matruah, here. (scroll to bottom)
4. Daashur and Saqqara
While everyone knows about the pyramids in Egypt, they typically only think of those at Giza. The pyramids at Giza and the Sphinx are, in my opinion, the most over-rated attractions in Egypt (not as a result of their history, or magnificence, to be sure). They are right in the city-center, surrounded by buildings, and crowded with vendors who pester you to buy things. I ate pizza at a Pizza Hut less than 100-feet from the Sphinx; there is no vast sandy expanse behind it to take ride your camel off into the sunset on. What most people typically see images of, without realizing, is the Red Pyramid at Saqqara. The Red Pyramid is the second-largest pyramid (only 10-feet shorter than the Great Pyramid of Giza), but located about 1-hour outside of the main city of Cairo. Less than 5-minutes from Saqqara is the pyramid complex of Daashur, home to the Bent Pyramid (pictured above). There are several other smaller pyramids at both these sites, all of which are nearly devoid of tourists and vendors. The Bent Pyramid has a really awesome temple at the entrance as well, and the Red Pyramid has a newly-opened museum called the Serapeum which shows where sacrificial bulls were killed and buried to honor the gods. Pretty cool stuff. I can also pretty much guarantee that these sites will be empty as well. The people in the background of the photo above were the rest of the staff from my school, and in the three times I visited each site, I never saw more than 5 other people wandering around. And though I wasn't a big fan, you can go inside the Red Pyramid to the chamber in the center (read, climb down a 500-ft, 4-ft tall crawl space with no light in 110-degree heat) for free.
You can see more photos from my trip(s) to Daashur and Saqqara, here.
5. Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel is an imposing temple complex in the southernmost part of Egypt, just a few kilometers from the border with Sudan. While I never personally made it to Abu Simbel (though I desperately wanted to), my roommate went to the complex for a few days, and it is highly regarded by my other Egyptian staff/friends as an incredible site to visit. If you can't tell from the image above, the statues and temple itself are absolutely massive, and their are plenty of original hieroglyphs to view. Due to it's relative isolation south of Lake Nasser (just 50-km north of the border of Sudan), most tourists don't make it down for a visit; the closest city is Aswan, so if you're staying there, you should definitely make the trip a few hours south to this site. Abu Simbel is actually two separate sites - the temple for Ramses II (above) and a second smaller temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Queen Nefertari. Both host original carvings and artwork, and are considered some of the most beautiful remaining temples in Egypt.
Yet another amazing site I missed out on, Philae is a temple complex on an island in Lake Nasser. Due to it's closeness to Abu Simbel in southern Egypt, they are a good pair to plan on seeing together. Philae can only be visited by boat, meaning that you achieve a lovely view on your way to the temple, as well as when you land. The temple showcases some incredible bas-relief carvings and hieroglyphs, alongside massive colonnades and huge halls. This is definitely a place you want to visit if you're a history buff or art fan, as there is no shortage of either in the complex. My roommate claims it as her favorite temple she visited in Egypt - which is saying a lot, because she saw them all!
7. The Khan Il-Khalili, Cairo
So, I know I'm not alone as the only person who is obsessed with open air markets. Honestly, one of my favorite parts of any international trip is wandering around the market places, eyeing pretty trinkets and bits of cloth and taking in the perfume and spices. It's all very Arabian Nights, I know. Cairo is home to a giant outdoor market knowns as the Khan il-Khalili (pronounced ghon-eel-ghah-lee-lee, with 'gh' like you're clearing your throat) This market is an absolute maze of shops selling everything from tourist gifts to original artwork to rugs to tea, and I could never get enough. As with most markets, the further from the edges you get, the more interesting the wares become. I bought a set of emerald green blown glass dishes/bowls/cups/vases for about $40 USD, which is absolutely unheard of for the US. All of my favorite scarves and galibayas (traditional Egyptian dresses) come from the Khan, along with hand-painted ceramics and alabaster sculptures and vintage postcards and the like. Seriously, this is the place to go if you are interested in shopping and culture. Plus, you can always practice your bartering skills here (tip: read my article on how to be a pro-barterer!).
You can see more photos from my trip(s) to the Khan Il-Khalili, here. (scroll to center)
8. Sharm El Sheikh
Yet another tropical destination you'd never expect to find off the coast of Egypt, Sharm El Sheikh is a scuba diving and snorkeling paradise. This coastal city is located on the Sinai Peninsula, bordering Saudi Arabia. As a result, you can only get there via plane (safely), and have to truly go out of your way to reach it. Sharm El Sheikh is cited as one of famed Jacque Cousteau's favorite dive sites, and for good reason. It is home to some incredible coral reefs and shipwrecks, perfect for anyone wanting to hang out underwater for a while. And, unlike Marsah Matruah, Sharm El Sheikh is a resort city that is home to tourists primarily, so you can wear whatever bathing suit you'd like (not a full-body outfit). Unfortunately, because of its high tourist levels, prices here are much higher than anywhere else in the country, and you'll have to use a company or resort to do almost any excursion you're interested in. It's definitely still worth it though, and bonus - you can part the red seas if you want (or at least try).
Siwa is an oasis village just north of the White Desert, near the border of Libya. While it may look like an ancient village, those are the homes of current citizens of the town; in fact, many villages in Egypt are comprised of similar mud-and-brick dwellings. Siwa is cool because (A), it's a real-life oasis in the desert, (B) you can go swimming in nearby springs, (C) there are loads of desert excursions you can take, and (D) there are ancient tombs to visit in that 'mountain' behind the village. Siwa is definitely a location for those who are interested in cultural experiences and desert adventures, as it's a difficult place to get to, and there aren't any particular 'sites' to view. However, it is one of the only villages in the desert, giving you a good base camp for adventures in the White Desert - my favorite place ever. The best things to do in Siwa are go for a swim in Cleopatra's bath, a crystal-clear pool, or Bir Wahed, a large hot spring.
10. Seven Churches, Cairo
If you're in the capitol city of Cairo, you should definitely make a trip out to Seven Churches. Seven Churches is actually a section of the city known for it's religious diversity; here you'll find mosques, churches, synagogues, and even a nunnery. It also happens to be one of the cleanest, quietest sections of the city, making it a good reprieve from the general noise and hubbub you'll experience everywhere else. Along with some of the traditional architecture, Seven Churches also features a beautiful church carved into a cave, and some truly lovely artwork and sculptures. If you're interested in art and architecture, you shouldn't leave Cairo without visiting Seven Churches.
HONORARY MENTION: Alexandria
I felt obligated to include Alexandria on this list, for although it is highly known, it is my favorite city in all of Egypt. I've taken several trips to this city on the sea, and every time I do I fall more and more in love. The city is simply massive; it is the largest on the Mediterranean, which is no surprise given its extensive history. There are loads of things to do, including visiting the famed library or the citadel (where this photo was taken from). In the summer, you can stay at a resort on the beach and enjoy the warm water and sun-drenched sand, or take a scuba diving trip out to where the Lighthouse (one of the ancient wonders of the world) once stood. Also: there is a huge number of Roman tombs and sites in the city, including a Roman Amphitheater and catacombs. I can't praise Alexandria enough; it's my love city, and might be one of my favorites in the whole world.
You can read about my trip to Alexandria, here.
And, because I'm a big fan of maps, here's a helpful one of the locations of each of the sites I've mentioned. Feel free to print this out and take it with you on your next trip to Egypt - I hope you find it helpful!
So what do you think? Do you agree with my choice of these as the best sites to visit in Egypt? What would you include on this list?