I’m a travel writer and here are seven reasons why your next holiday should be to Egypt – a fascinating ‘time machine’ of a place that offers year-round sunshine.
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Egypt is destination that lets you travel through time, from ancient wonders to modern marvels. I felt the thrill of seeing the world’s oldest pyramid, built more than four millennia ago, and then the rush of Cairo’s hectic streets, where drivers ignore lanes and honk non-stop. I switched from noise to silence as I stared at the preserved corpse of Ramses II, who ruled Egypt over 3,000 years ago and then joined other Royal mummies in their eternal rest. I continued my journey with a classic Nile cruise, a tradition dating back to the 1800s when Thomas Cook offered it to tourists. I was amazed by how much history I could explore in one trip, which made my visit unforgettable.
Egypt had been a dream destination for me and many others for a long time, but I was afraid it might disappoint me. I had heard negative stories of crowded attractions and the Pyramids at Giza being swallowed by the city, and I felt my excitement fading. But after coming back from this fantastic country, I can say it exceeded my expectations in every way – here are some reasons why.
Seeing a pyramid was a must-do for me on my first trip to Egypt, but I didn’t realize how many there were. I knew about the Great Pyramid of Giza, the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but I learned that there are actually around 118 pyramids in Egypt (depending on how you count them).
I was stunned when I saw one for the first time: on the way from Cairo to the ancient site of Saqqara, I spotted a sandy pyramid peak in the distance and thought I was seeing things. It was one of the pyramids at Abu Sir, a group of 5th-dynasty pyramids that lie between Saqqara and Giza and are part of the vast 40,000-acre Unesco-protected’ Pyramid Fields’ area.
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This unexpected sight made me eager to see Saqqara itself, which is 19 miles (31km) south of Cairo and has the oldest stone structure in the world, the massive stepped Pyramid of Djoser, the prototype for all the others. Around the Steps Pyramid, there y tombs, smaller pyramids, and temples that show how Egypt’s pyramid history began.
After seeing Saqqara, I had to see the Pyramids of Giza next, and I also got my first view of them from the road. It was true that Cairo had grown close to the pyramids (I could see a house being built near the Sphinx), but that didn’t take away from the awe I felt when I saw the massive shape of the Great Pyramid rising above the city’s highway. It was a fantastic sight.
I was pleasantly surprised by how quiet and peaceful it was around the pyramids. We had plenty of room, time, and tranquility to admire the three enormous structures, which were much taller than I expected: the Great Pyramid reaches 454ft (138m) – and was the world’s highest artificial building for more than 3,800 years – and stands proudly next to its smaller companions, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure.
It was an unforgettable experience to look at the pyramids and even walk up to the entrance of the Great Pyramid (which was shut down when I was there). A 10-minute ride with a friendly camel named Moses was a touristy but fun way to end the morning.
2. The Nile
One of my childhood (and Christmas) dreams was to sail on Egypt’s famous river – without the murders of the classic movie Death on the Nile.
The river changes depending on where you are: in Cairo, the Nile is a busy highway through the city but not as comprehensive as I thought because it splits to surround several big islands in the middle. One of these islands has the Cairo Tower, a 614ft- (187m) tall building that looks like a lotus flower, an ancient Egyptian symbol, and it helps you find your way around this lively, chaotic city.
I went on a night cruise on the Nile. I enjoyed watching the riverside sights – huge, international hotels mixed with lively shops and cafes – go by more than the show inside. Still, the Nile is even better upstream when it gets more expansive, quieter, and less crowded.
At Luxor, I took a boat across the Nile in the morning and the evening, which was a wonderful experience: seeing the morning hot air balloons rise over the Valley of the Kings and then later, turning off the engine and just floating along the water in the warm, cozy darkness of the Egyptian night.
A great way to start your first visit to Egypt is with a morning tour of a museum in the capital, Cairo, where you can dive into its rich history.
The National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation opened just two years ago. It is the first museum in the Arab world to focus only on Egyptian history – and what a history it is. This impressive, modern building covers the country from 5500 BC, before the dynasties even started, and then goes through Ancient Egypt and the Greek and Roman, Coptic, and Islamic periods before reaching the current Republic.
Visiting Egypt is like having a time machine that can take you forward and backward thousands of years in a moment. The main attraction here has to be the Royal Mummies, moved here from the nearby Egyptian Museum in a dazzling Golden Parade of Pharaohs, who now rest in cool, dark rooms, seen by hundreds of amazed visitors every day.
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The former home of the Royal Mummies, the Egyptian Museum is also a must-see, with the most extensive collection of ancient objects related to Egypt’s ancient kings, the Pharaohs. This is a stunning collection with statues, mummies, and, most importantly, some of the 5,000 items that Howard Carter found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, including the beautiful golden death mask and his gold-covered coffins.
And after many years of waiting, the Grand Egyptian Museum is set to open in Cairo later this year and will have more than 100,000 ancient artifacts, including King Tut’s whole treasure collection.
Luxor is often the next stop after Cairo in a tour of Egypt’s highlights, and that’s because seeing the treasures of Ancient Egypt in a museum makes you want to see them in real life.
The Valley of the Kings in Luxor is where the kings of the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties are buried in a dry river valley across the Nile from the old city of Thebes (now Luxor), and more than 60 tombs are hidden under the rock, with more maybe still to be found. There’s also a smaller, nearby Valley of the Queens.
Visitors are taken from the ticket hall (which has attractive 3D models of the tombs, plus video footage of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb) to the Valley itself, where many of the graves are, and can pick which ones they want to see. Our guide recommended the three with the most beautiful decorations, the tombs of Rameses IV, Merenptah, and Rameses III, and we went down the steep paths into the warm air of the graves where the kings had rested for thousands of years.
Each tomb was terrific in its way, but they shared lovely detailed hieroglyphs and images of the gods, life in Ancient Egypt, and the afterlife in colors so vivid you can hardly believe they were painted thousands of years ago.
After being underground in the tombs of ancient Pharaohs, it was nice to see above ground – even if it was boiling.
The Temple of Luxor and the Temple of Karnak are huge, open sites where you can walk on the same steps as the ancient Egyptians, under impressive columns, and the gues of kings, queens, and the statues Sphinx.
The massive Temple of Karnak was built by more than 30 pharaohs, so it has gods and stories from the earliest to the latest times of Ancient Egypt, and it is a fantastic sight from the beginning, with the Great Hall in the Precinct of Amun-Re having 134 giant stone columns, from 10 to 21 meters tall.
While many visitors rush straight down the middle and back again (maybe to avoid the harsh heat), the best experience is when you leave the crowds and turn right or left off the main path, where you will find yourself among columns – and quiet.
It’s surprising how fast you can be alone in such a prominent place, and it’s worth doing to feel the historic atmosphere. Linking the Temple of Luxor to the Temple of Karnak is the extraordinary Avenue of the Sphinx, a 1.7-mile- (3km) long straight road with an excellent 1,057 sphinx and rams’ head statues. The road was under sand, rock, and water for over 2,000 years and was only officially opened again in 2021 after 70 years of restoration work.
Photos of the Temple of Luxor taken just a hundred years ago show how much sand covered the site, with the 14m- (46ft) high sitting statues of Ramses II almost completely hidden before being fully dug out.
6. The Red Sea
Egypt has more than just ancient history, and the famous Red Sea resorts of Sharm El Sheikh, Dahab, and Hurghada draw many tourists every year, who come for the sunshine, clear water, luxury hotels, and many snorkeling and scuba-diving options with coral reefs and shipwrecks to see.
I stayed in the town of Hurghada, a beach resort town that goes for 40km (25 miles) on the Red Sea’s western coast, and went swimming and snorkeling on a glass-bottomed boat to enjoy the views of the coral and sea life.
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It isn’t always safe, though – a Russian tourist in the hotel next to mine died in a terrible shark attack while I was there – so for activities on land, there’s a modern and lively marina, a significant new market building for fresh fruit and veg, and the old town, El Dahar, which has many traditional shops selling coffee, spices, and local food and is excellent for a night’s walk.
7. Egypt’s cuisine past and Present
You can have and enjoy traditional Egyptian food easily, made with fresh produce typical in the Middle East, such as hummus, falafel, shawarma, kofta, stuffed vine leaves and vegetables, fava beans, and my favorite breakfast, the spiced eggs and tomatoes of shakshuka. Still, a new and lively food scene also creates Egypt’s culinary future.
I was in Cairo during its first-ever Cairo Food Week festival and met many chefs and start-ups working to make modern food styles, from handmade chocolates (yes, some looked like pyramids) and honey to spiced hibiscus lemonade and Japanese/Italian-inspired pomegranate balsamic.
‘Until a few years ago, fine dining was only really in hotels, but now there’s a vibrant scene using local ingredients and skilled chefs, which is growing restaurant owner told me. ‘We want people to like our food as much as they like our history.’
Sarah Bridge is a travel writer and founder of the travel website ALadyofLeisure.com.