What You Should Know About Visiting Egypt Now

July 12, 2013 by

Middle East & Africa, Suggested Itineraries, Things to Do, Top Travel Destinations

Editor’s note: This post was updated on November 22, 2013.

Mosque of Sultan Hassan, Cairo.

Mosque of Sultan Hassan, Cairo.

Nearly three years of political turmoil in Egypt are taking an enormous toll on the country in a myriad of ways. With July’s revolution or coup – depending on whom you’re talking to – overthrowing its newest president, in office for only one year, the country’s future is looking more dubious than ever. In recent weeks, trouble has been isolated and sporadic, and centered in Cairo and away from the touristy areas of the city.

Red Sea, Egypt

Red Sea, Egypt

Should You Travel to Egypt Now?

Travel to Egypt now and you will be one of the few people who do. Egypt is one of the most inexpensive countries in the world even in the best of times and now, with the Egyptian Pound weakened as a result of the country’s political crises, you can save even more. Hotels, tours and food are not only less expensive than ever, it is more possible now than in the past to negotiate a good price for yourself on accommodations and tours.

However, if you choose to travel to Egypt right now, be aware that you are doing so against the recommendation of the official US State Department warning, which cautions all US citizens against non-essential travel to Egypt (other countries have since lifted similar warnings in the wake of easing tensions). It’s important that potential visitors stay aware of the situation, careful weight the benefits against the risk, and take necessary precautions, like registering with their embassy.

What Should You Visit in Egypt?

The Pyramids

Giza Pyramids.

The Pyramids.

Visiting the pyramids of Giza in Egypt is the dream of a lifetime for many people and so possible to make come true.   Your first glimpse of the towering triangles reaching out of the sand towards the sun is a moment you’ll carry with you forever.   Wandering around the Giza pyramids is an all-day experience, whether you walk or explore via camel or horse-drawn carriage.  While these are the most famous sights in Egypt, there are other pyramids which need to be seen as well.  The necropoles of Dashur with its Bent and Red Pyramids and the Step Pyramid of Saqqara are just short drives away from the Giza pyramids and must-see’s for pyramid buffs.

Cairo

Cairo

Cairo

Just minutes northeast of Giza is Cairo, where you may want to stay both in order to visit the pyramids and just to get to know the city itself.  Cairo is an electrifying city, its streets a boggling tangle of careening cars and occasional donkey carts, weaving around local people winding their ways expertly through the traffic. Amongst its buildings colored classic Middle Eastern brown, you’ll find eateries and shops, fruit and vegetable stands and outdoor cafes where you can sit and drink tea and try a very important staple of Egyptian life – shisha, tobacco flavored with ingredients like grapes or apples, smoked in a colorful water pipe.

Egyptian Museum

Egyptian Museum

In Cairo, see the thousands of relics, including King Tutankhamen’s mask, during an Egyptian Museum private tour; the museum is located in the now-famous Tahrir Square.   Visit the Al-Hussein mosque for a glimpse into religious Islamic life, and head to the churches of the quiet Coptic area for a close-up view of Christianity in Egypt.  Downtown Cairo, home to Tahrir Square, has changed quite a bit since the Revolution, and it is advisable to stay away from this area at night and any time there are protests going on.

Alexandria

King Farouk Palace in Alexandria. Photo courtesy of The _ Riddler via Flickr.

King Farouk Palace in Alexandria. Photo courtesy of The _ Riddler via Flickr.

The Mediterranean port city of Alexandria is dynamic yet friendly, a quite easy city to get to know.   A good introduction is a stroll along its Corniche, a paved waterfront walkway, with a backdrop of small, colorfully painted boats and local families relaxing on the banks of the water. Located nearby on the Mediterranean Sea is the Citadel of Qaitbey, a huge 15th Century fort recognized as one of the Mediterranean’s strongest military defenses of its day. For another look into the past, visit the eerie Roman-period catacombs of Kom el-Shoqafa. A more modern look into the city can be seen by taking a look at the sprawling King Farouk Palace, former summer home to the 20th Century king. 

Luxor

Valley of the Sphinxes, Luxor.

Valley of the Sphinxes, Luxor.

Luxor is perhaps the most historically important town in Egypt and filled with more tombs and temples that any other area in the country.  On the East Bank of the Nile River stand Luxor and Karnak Temples, their looming columns leading the way to dark interiors with surprising large patches of red, blue and gold scattered about, carefully preserved from the temples’ original days.  Running between the two temples is the Avenue of the Sphinxes, a recently unburied row of the enigmatic creatures dating back to Egypt’s 18th Dynasty.  On the West Bank of the Nile River lie the mountainside tombs of the Valley of the Kings, holding many of Egypt’s former rulers including King Tutankhamen, and the Valley of the Queens, a burial ground for wives of the pharaohs, including Queen Nefertari.

Aswan

Abu Simbel. Photo  courtesy of k.capson via Flickr.

Abu Simbel. Photo courtesy of k.capson via Flickr.

The laid-back Nile River town of Aswan is the spot to position yourself when visiting the temples in its area.  A brief boat trip will take you to Philae Island, home to several ancient monuments, including the Temple of the Goddess Isis, possibly Egypt’s oldest diety.   While on the river, you’ll spot a little mass of land called Elephantine Island.   Sparsely populated and not often visited by tourists, this is where you’ll want to head if you have a desire to go off the beaten path.  Also lightly touched by tourists are the Nubian villages in the area, where you can experience the simple way of life led by these natives of southern Egypt and Sudan.   For more temple sighting, you’ll visit Abu Simbel, 13th Century BCE Temples located a few hours south of Aswan.  Here you can watch the desert awaken at night with a sound and light show that brings the temple to life.

The Lesser-Traveled Spots – Sinai and the Western Desert

Sharm

Sharm el-Sheikh

Sinai

The Sinai is an approximately 23,500-square-mile triangle of land for the most part separated from the rest of Egypt by the Gulf of Suez.  Rimmed by the Red Sea and alive with the magnetic energies that many people feel emitting from the soft contours of its abundant mountains, the Sinai is home to the towns of Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab and Nuweiba.   Most tourists head to Sharm, with its large hotels and Western comforts, while others prefer the more personal, peaceful vibe of Dahab and still others reach even deeper for relaxation into the rural desert life found in Nuweiba.

St. Catherine's Monestary

St. Catherine’s Monastery

Reachable from any starting point in this region is Mount Sinai, on top of which it is believed Moses received the Ten Commandments from God.  Here you will see phenomenal views of the sunrise or sunset after a climb to the top and at its base you’ll be able to tour St. Catherine’s, the world’s oldest working monastery. You can also dive The Blue Hole, one of the most popular diving spots in the world and also home to spectacular snorkeling, is a 15-minute drive from the town of Dahab.  At Ras Mohamed, near Sharm el Sheikh, you’ll find a national park that also has world-class diving.  Not far from Nuweiba stands the Colored Canyon, one of the world’s most impressive and colorful rock formations.

This area has largely stayed out of the fray and many countries have no lifted their travel warnings to the region.

Western Egypt

White Desert. Photo courtesy of alfieianni via Flickr.

White Desert. Photo courtesy of alfieianni via Flickr.

Travel to an oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt, and you will not be visiting a mirage.   The remote village of Siwa, located near the country’s western border, is a sedate and magnetic respite from the barren desert with its pools of mineral and salt waters, miles of palm and olive groves and conservative Berber culture.    The 1,200-mile span of Bahariya Oasis holds not only relief from its arid surroundings  but ruins as well, such as the Temple of Alexander the Great.  From Bahariya take a safari into the Black Desert, so named by ebony mountains which seep into the sand as they erode.  From there safari on into the White Desert where you’ll weave through its curious, towering rock formations formed by the powerful desert winds.

Egyptians are emotional, passionate people.    A first stroll on the streets of any area will bring you in contact with them.    Shopkeepers call out, hoping to draw you into their shop, taxi drivers are eager to give you a lift and small children come up to you to look closely, curious about the people who look so different from them.

As one Cairo hotel executive once told me, there is a saying in her industry about Americans.   When unrest occurs in any country, she said, “Americans are the first to leave and the last to come back.”  Indeed, the warnings coming from our government State Department are among the strongest of any other countries. Most others have already lifted their restrictions but the US warning is still in effect.

Despite its recent troubles, Egypt is still Egypt.   The pyramids, temples and tombs hold fast to their ancient mysteries, the beaches and the desert sky still shines with millions of stars at night.

Tour Groups

Group tours to Egypt are possible with international tour companies as well as a large number of tour operators within Egypt.  A group tour offers the comfort and convenience of having someone else there to arrange transport and worry about logistics. Having a local guide in Egypt, who will also serve as translator when needed, ensures that you have someone with you who knows any potential dangers and can help you avoid them. For those who don’t want to join a group tour, a private tour is another option. You get the same benefits of a tour guide – a local who knows the area and the language – without the other tourists. A private Egypt guide can also take you to places you might not venture otherwise, particularly if you don’t want to try driving in Egypt.

-Sabina Lohr

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