Known as the land of pharaohs, Egypt has always been a fascinating and mysterious country for many people. Even just hearing the name may conjure up images of the great pyramids. This remarkable civilization offers an amazing variety of things to do. Here are some of the best travel experiences recommended for first-time travelers to Egypt.
Visit the pyramids
Seeing the magnificent Egyptian pyramids is absolutely the highlights of any Egypt tour. The pyramids in Egypt were mostly built as tombs for the country's pharaohs and their queens. It is estimated that there are 118 or 138 pyramids in the country, almost all of which are located on the west bank of the Nile. The Step Pyramid (also called Pyramid of Djoser) at Saqqara near Memphis, is the oldest pyramid, built between 2630 and 2621 BC. The pyramid at Meidum, constructed during the reign of King Sneferu, the founder of the 4th Dynasty (2680-2560 B.C.), represents the transition from the Step Pyramid to a smooth-sided pyramid.
The most famous and awe-inspiring Egyptian pyramids are found at Giza on the outskirts of Cairo. Constructed nearly 4,000 years ago, the Pyramids of Giza, including the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure, are the only surviving wonder of the ancient world. Among these three pyramids, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, also known as Cheops, is the oldest and largest, built with some 2.3 million blocks. Standing beside the pyramid complex is the legendary Sphinx, a huge, reclining limestone statue that has the body of a lion and the head of a human. These incredible structures are testaments to ancient Egypt's power and engineering skills.
The Great Sphinx of Giza
Tip: Visit the pyramids in the early morning when they are at their most stunning and find a quiet spot to get a panoramic view of the three pyramids.
If you want to learn about the Egyptian pyramids, my colleague's post may help: Q&As to Demystify the Incredible Pyramids in Egypt.
Cruise the Nile River
The Nile River is the longest river in the world and has been vital to ancient Egyptian civilization and modern Egypt. Many of the famous sites are located on the banks of the Nile. There is no doubt that a Nile River cruise is one of the most essential Egyptian experiences. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, a river cruise on the Nile is wonderfully relaxing and peaceful. When traveling between different places, you can observe rural scenes along the river that have changed little for thousands of years.
The most popular cruise routes run between Luxor and Aswan, covering a large concentration of historic sites such as the Valley of the Kings and Queens, Temple of Horus, Karnak Temple Complex, and Luxor Temple. There are different vessels to choose from, from traditional paddle steamers to luxurious modern cruise ships that are equipped with swimming pools. Some modern cruise ships offer a variety of entertaining, onboard evening activities like cocktails, dancing, and fancy dress parties. If you travel during the hot summer months between June and August, it's best to choose an air-conditioned cabin. What vessel you opt for depends on your interests and budget. If you like, Odynovo Egypt travel specialists are always pleased to create a tailor-made Egypt tour with a Nile River cruise around your budget and preferences.
Discover ancient treasures in the Egyptian Museum
With one of the world's most important collections of ancient artifacts, the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo is a must-visit. Nowhere else can you find so many Egyptian artifacts in one place; over 10,000 invaluable items are kept in this treasure house, including the world's largest collection of pharaonic antiquities. A walk around the museum is a journey back in time to ancient Egypt.
When you visit the museum, you shouldn't miss the masks, mummies, and statues of the greatest pharaohs. The glittering Tutankhamun's Mask, made from 11 kg of solid gold, is considered to be among the world's most famous works of art. It is the funerary mask of the Egyptian Pharaoh of 18th dynasty Tutankhamun who ruled Egypt over 3,000 years ago. The Statue of Khufu, also known as the Ivory figurine of Khufu, though very small (only 7.5 cm high, 2.9 cm long, 2.6 cm deep) is an artifact of historical and archaeological importance. It is dedicated to Khufu, a pharaoh of the 4th dynasty who reigned between 2589 BC and 2566 BC and built the greatest pyramid of Giza. Other must-sees include Mummy Mask of Psusennes I, the Grave Mask of King Amenemope, and the Statue of Menkaure. If you want to know more about the details of these objects, I highly recommend you travel on a private tour with a guide to show you around as a professional guide will bring the exhibits to life with their expertise and passion.
Some of the exhibits are being moved to the newly-built Grand Egyptian Museum 2 kilometers / 1.2 miles away from the Giza Pyramids. The new museum is scheduled to open in 2020, but most of the exhibits will remain on display in the Egyptian Museum.
Opening hours: 9 am to 7 pm, Monday to Wednesday; 9 am to 9 pm, Sunday and Thursday; 9 am to 4 pm, Friday and Saturday.
Location: Midan El Tahrir, Geographical Society Building, Cairo 11511.
Wander Khan El-Khalili Bazaar
Home to over 20 million inhabitants, the Egyptian capital of Cairo is both chaotic and charming. To feel the city's energy, the Khan el Khalili Bazaar is the top choice. Established in the 14th century, this bustling bazaar is among the world's first markets, and still the favorite place for locals to buy everything from soap powder to clothing, and spices. You can wander through the narrow, maze-like streets and absorb the unique sounds, sights, and smells of this medieval market. This offers you glimpses into Egyptian culture and its way of life. If you are hungry or thirsty, there are restaurants, street food stalls and coffeehouses to fill your stomach. Before you leave, don't forget to shop for some souvenirs such as semi-precious stones, toy camels, and alabaster pyramids. Haggling is allowed but should be done with smiles and humor.
Khan el Khalili Bazaar
Location: El-Gamaleya, El Gamaliya, Cairo
Explore the Valley of the Kings and Queens
The ancient Egyptians not only constructed massive public structures to their pharaohs such as pyramids, they also built elaborate, hidden underground tombs for them and their wives. On the west bank of the Nile near Luxor, you will find the most majestic of such mausoleums — the Valley of the Kings. Pharaohs of the New Kingdom were mummified and buried here from as early as the 16th century BC. There are 63 tombs in the valley. They contained everything a ruler might need in their afterlife, from masks like the dazzling golden masks found with King Tutankhamun to mundane items such as clothes, furniture, and jewelry, food and drink for royal feasting. Seeing these tombs offers insights into the pharaohs' lives. In order to preserve the tombs, a limited number of tombs are open for viewing at any one time, with the rest closed for restoration.
Not far from the Valley of the Kings are the tombs for the wives of pharaohs, which is called the Valley of the Queens. It is home to about 75 tombs of queens of the 19th and 20th dynasties and other members of the royal families such as princesses and princes. Only 4 of the tombs are open to tourists, including the famous tomb of Nefertari, one of the wives of Ramses II who is regarded as the most powerful pharaoh of the New Kingdom.
Tip: Photography is not allowed in the tombs, but you may like to buy postcard images from the vendors outside the tombs as a memento of your visit. It is advisable to leave your camera somewhere safe as visitors cannot take them through the entrance gates.
Visit temples in Luxor
Located on the east bank of the Nile and built on the site of ancient Thebes that has been inhabited since 3,200 BC, Luxor is widely regarded as the greatest open-air museum in the world. The impressive temples and monuments have attracted tourists since ancient times. Two of the most famous temples here are Karnak Temple Complex and Luxor Temple.
The massive Karnak Temple Complex covers over 2 square kilometers (494 acres) and was built over a period of 1,500 years. The site used to be a main place of worship for ancient Thebans, and consist of sanctuaries, kiosks, pylons and obelisks that honors the Theban Triad: Amun, his wife Mut and their son Khonsu. There is a spectacular hypostyle hall in Temple of Amun-Ra, the largest of the temple complex. Surrounding this main temple are the houses of Mut and Khonsu. Obelisks were first built by ancient Egyptians and used to adorn temple facades to honor their gods and pharaohs. There were hundreds of obelisks in ancient Egypt, but only nine survive. At Karnak, Queen Hatshepsut (1473 -1458 BC) erected four obelisks, one of which still stands. It is the tallest surviving ancient obelisk in the world. Today obelisks are found across the world, such as the Walled Obelisk in Istanbul, Lateran Obelisk in Rome, Cleopatra's Needle in Paris, London and New York, and Washington Monument in Washington DC. The complex opens from 6 am to 6 pm.
Built over the course of hundreds of years by many pharaohs including Amenhotep III, Ramses II and Tutankhamun, Luxor Temple was the largest and most important religious site in ancient Egypt. It was also dedicated to the Theban Triad. During the annual Opet celebrations, one of ancient Egypt's most significant festivals, the cult statues of these gods were carried from Karnak to the Luxor Temple. To avoid the crowds, it is best to visit in the early morning when the temple opens (6 am to 9 pm). Sunset is also a good time to admire the temple. At night the temple is lit up and looks stunning.
To see these ancient temples and ruins from a different light, you can take a hot-air balloon ride over Luxor. Soaring over this open-air museum of Luxor with a hot-air-balloon can be an otherworldly experience. Balloon rides usually start before sunrise, you will be able to witness this magical spectacle at dawn, from above. To secure a space, advanced booking is highly recommended.
Marvel at the Abu Simbel Temples
About 230 kilometers (140 miles) southwest of Aswan sits the village of Abu Simbel, home to two awe-inspiring temples built by the great Pharaoh Ramses II of the New Kingdom. The Sun Temple of Abu Simbel was originally carved out of the mountainside and has four large statues of Ramses himself guarding the entrance to the temple. Each statue sits on a throne, wearing the double Atef crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. Inside are a series of decorated halls and rooms. It is said that the temple was so precisely oriented that twice a year the first ray of sunlight in the morning can reach the inner sanctuary and light up the statues of Ramses himself, Amun (King of Gods) and Re-Harakhte (the sun god) while keeping the statue of Ptah (the god of darkness ) in the dark. Based on this solar phenomenon, Abu Simbel holds a festival called the Sun Festival. It is celebrated twice a year, on February 22 and October 22. Apart from witnessing the spectacle of the light penetrating through darkness to illuminate the statues inside the temple, visitors can participate in singing and dancing and other fun activities.
Hathor Temple of Queen Nefertari is located just about 100 meters/328 feet north of the Sun Temple. Ramses II had it built to honor his beloved queen Nefertari and Hathor (the goddess of queens, music, and arts). The façade contains six tall statues of Ramses and Nefertari with almost the same size, which is a testament to the Ramses' love for Nefertari.
In the 1960s, the Egyptians built the Aswan Dam, which created Lake Nasser that would place Abu Simbel underwater. These two magnificent temples were relocated by multinational effort, block by block, to their current location on an artificial hill well away from the river. The temples were reassembled precisely the same orientation to the sun so that the sunlight can reach the interior at certain times of the year. It is a modern engineering marvel that required extreme precision and hard work.
How to get to Abu Simbel: you can get to Abu Simbel from Aswan by road or air after cruising the Nile River. There are also flights from Cairo and Luxor.
Location: Abu Simbel, Aswan Governorate
Opening hours: 6 am to 5 pm, October to April；6 am to 6 pm, May to September
Dive in the Red Sea
Egypt's Red Sea coast is the perfect place to go after exploring the pyramids and ancient monuments of Egypt. The coast stretches over 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from Suez to the Sudanese border, offering sandy beaches with hotels and restaurants for a leisurely vacation. The seawater of the Red Sea is warm, clear, calm and brimming with marine life. Thus besides unwinding on the beach, you can also spend time snorkeling and diving to see the underwater world. Popular diving locations include Hurghada, Marsa Arsa Alam, Sharm EI Sheikh, and Dahab. Most hotels are happy to provide diving excursions for their guests, even if they complete beginners. It's advisable to pick a diving trip with a coach, especially for beginners. If you are planning a trip to the area, check out our Hurghada travel guide.
The Red Sea in Hurghada
Tour Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Library of Alexandria)
A port city facing the Mediterranean Sea in the north of Egypt, Alexandria used to be one of the greatest cities of the Mediterranean world. It was home to the towering Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the Great Library of Alexandria, which was considered to be one of the greatest libraries of the ancient world. Sadly, neither survived. The former was damaged by earthquakes and the latter was believed to be destroyed by the celebrated Roman dictator Julius Caesar in 48 BC. Fortunately, a new state-of-the-art library has been built and opened, bearing the name Bibliotheca Alexandrina, to commemorate the ancient library and restore the city's glory as a center of learning and culture.
Seen from above, the new library looks like a huge discus embedded in the ground and evokes the image of the sun rising out of the Mediterranean. Visitors marvel at the granite exterior walls that are carved with characters from 120 different human scripts. Inside the complex, you will find the impressive main reading room, 16 meters (52 feet) below sea level, where up to 8 million books and 2,500 readers can be accommodated. Apart from the main reading room, you can also explore specialized libraries and museums housing ancient artifacts from different periods. At Antiquities Museum, you can get an insight into Egypt's Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman history by observing the well-curated artifacts from those eras. The Manuscript Museum is a treasure trove of ancient texts and antiquarian books and maps. Here you will find a copy of a scroll from the ancient library of Alexandria, which is the only one that survives. It's recommended that you spend at least half a day here to get the full experience.
Location: Al Azaritah WA Ash Shatebi, Qism Bab Sharqi, Alexandria
Opening hours: 10 am to 7 pm, Sunday to Thursday; 2 pm to 7 pm, Friday; 12 noon to 4 pm, Saturday.
1) Children below the age of six are not permitted to visit the library room, but daycare is available during opening hours.
2) Guided tours of the library are available in English, French, and Arabic. The English tours are offered every 45 minutes between 11:45 am and 4:30 pm, Sunday to Thursday, and 12:10 to 3 pm, on Saturdays.
Feeling inspired? Now it's time to tick Egypt off your bucket list. A private tailor-made trip is the best way to experience Egypt and it is easier than you think. Just tell your personal travel specialist where you want to go and what you like to see, then a personalized Egypt itinerary will be available to you in no more than 24hours.