Despite the negative press, Egypt is an amazing place to visit and now is actually a good time to explore! The bad image of the Middle East has chased tourists away, leaving most of the hotels and sites nearly empty. While this is sad for the local economy, its makes for a really inexpensive and personalized experience for you the traveler. There is a lot of see in Egypt, but you can surprisingly hit a lot of the major landmarks in only 14 days.
I felt safe throughout my 2 weeks in Egypt and a large majority of the famous landmarks were devoid of tourists due to the geopolitical situation in the region. This is not to say that you should take your personal safety lightly. It just means that be realistic about planning a trip here and understand that the situation on the ground isn’t exactly what the media hypes it to be.
If you’re considering a 14 day trip to Egypt, this is the itinerary I would recommend!
Day 1-2: Cairo
Cairo is hardly a city for the faint at heart. Egypt’s capital city is noisy, dirty, hot, smelly, and crowded. With 18 million people in the city and surrounding areas, this should come as no surprise to an experienced traveler, but this city has a particularly chaotic vibe that I have only seen in India prior to this trip. But for any visitor to Egypt, this is where your journey will begin. Unless you love this type of city, 48 hours should be more than enough for you.
It is hard to come to Egypt and not see the Pyramids of Giza, despite the massive crowds you will meet while you’re there. Built over 5000 years ago during the Old Kingdom of the Egyptian period, these impressive structures are one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World (the only one still standing) as well as one of the new wonders of the world. There are 2 large pyramids, 1 medium pyramid, and 6 small pyramids at the site, all built for the family members of one royal family. The pyramids are surrounded by the modern city, and tower over some of the nearby apartments. You’ll want to spend a few hours up close to the pyramids, and then drive (or take a shuttle) to the panoramic viewpoint for a view of the whole site.
Just in front of the pyramids is the Great Sphinx. The Sphinx has a human face on a lion’s body and was thought to be the protector of the pyramids and the causeway up to the ancient entrance. It used to be buried under sand until the late 19th century, and has been excavated and restored the last 100 years. I find it truly spectacular that these ancient structures have lasted in seemingly pristine condition for 5000 years.
In the afternoon of your first day in Egypt, take a walking tour of the old city near the Khali Kalal market and Muslim Quarter. This area of the city is filled with narrow alleys full of shops, as well as stunning mosques with minarets peering over the surrounding streets. Be prepared for heckling, and lots of it. Women will probably fall victim to it more, and you will hear kissing sounds and cat calls. Not pleasant when alone, I would recommend going with a couple friends. But once in the market, there are lots of small shops selling any number of things. The market is separated into distinct areas, so if you’re looking for souvenirs, make sure to have the cabbie drop you off near that area. There are lots of delicious falafel and shawarma joints in the area for a quick lunch.
For day two in Cairo, explore some more of the city with a few additional famous stops. Starting in Tahrir Square, this massive public area became globally famous after the Arab Spring protests in 2011. The remnants of the protests are largely gone, except for the burned out shell of the Mubarak regime building at the north end of the square. It is completely burned out, all the windows gone, and to me, it looked like a symbol (or maybe warning?) so no one will forget the power the people held in 2011.
After snapping a few pictures, continue across the square to the Egyptian museum. This is another highlight for Cairo, and I highly recommend a stop. This museum has over 120,000 pieces in their collection spanning throughout the ancient Egyptian period. Some are believed to date back 7,000 years ago! There are absolutely no cameras allowed inside, so you will have to check your bag at the security drop box area and pick it up on your way out. The collection at the Egyptian Museum is absolutely spectacular! It covers such a long period of history and is very extensive. Unfortunately, the museum itself leaves a lot to be desired. There is no AC, hardly any signs, and poor display cases that make it hard to appreciate the antiquities. But the government is in the process of building a new museum near the Pyramids which is scheduled to open in 2020.
Some highlights at the Egyptian Museum include the Tutankhamen collection on the second floor, the Royal Mummies room and the tomb/sarcophagus wing. The Tutankhamen room collection is by far and away the most impressive, because it was one of the only tombs found in its full, original form. Yhis tomb contained everything that he was originally buried with so you can see the famous burial mask, 4 different gold burial caskets and another 3 sarcophagi. Likely valued at over $1 billion, you can only imagine what would have been in those other tombs if they had not been raided.
Once you’re sufficiently antiquity’ied out, walk back along the main street where there is lots of political street art, graffiti and murals to commemorate the 2011 protests. I featured some of my favorite murals on my post all about the street art in Cairo!
End your second day in Cairo with a dinner at a local favorite called Koshary Abou Tarek. There is no menu because they only serve on thing: kosary. It is a carbs on carbs on carbs dish consisting of risotto, pasta and rice mixed with a chunky tomato sauce and green lentils. You are also given a side dish of toppings, including garbanzo beans, fried onions, parsley, garlic water, chili paste and fresh black pepper. This way you can dress up the dish to your own taste. Once everything was all mixed together, you can take a tasty bite of your dish. It was super rich and flavorful, and I couldn’t finish my bowl because the portions were so generous!
Day 3: Abu Simbel
Located on the man-made Lake Nasser, Abu Simbel is one of the most iconic temples in Egypt. This is definitely a must-see on your 2 week itinerary in Egypt! This temple was also affected by 1960s dam project (mentioned below) and it was moved from its original location; but, this relocation project was much more complicated than the Philae Temple (mentioned below), since it was actually carved into the bedrock of the mountain. It was not something they could dissemble and put back together somewhere else. They actually had to hand-carved each and every piece off from the original bedrock, and then reattach it to a mountain at a higher elevation. It was a time consuming process and took 7 years to move it and reconstruct it.
But it now stands as a beautiful symbol to the power of mankind, both 4000 years ago and today. There are two temples on the site, one for Rames II, and the other for his favorite wife, Queen Nefratiti. The facade of the Rames’ temple is massive, featuring 4 huge identical statues of the pharaoh. Rames, in addition to his long rule, as famous for his military prowess and strong warrior reputation. On the inside of the temple, you will see one of the most complicated hieroglyphic drawings in all of Egypt, as it contains 100,000 characters in a single scene. It depicts a famous battle Rames fought against his enemies in Turkey. No photos inside, but the scene is spectacular — truly soak it in and be present as you take in the thousands’ year old history here.
There are four statues in the offering room, 2 good gods, 1 god of darkness, and 1 of Rames. The Egyptians built the temple so precisely that 2 days a year, the king’s birthday and coronation day, the sun comes all the way through the temple to light up 3 of the statues, leaving the god of darkness, in darkness. When modern archaeologists moved the temple, they couldn’t replicate this phenomenon on the same…. This is amazing to me! The ancient Egyptians could do something then that we can’t even do now. Just shows how truly advanced they were!
Day 4-5: Aswan and the Nile River
A charming river front city, Aswan offers a slower pace a life along the Nile and some excellent opportunities for more ancient ruins. We started off our first day in Aswan with a visit to the Philae Temple. Philae Temple was dissembled into 75,000 pieces by the Egyptian government in the 1960s as part of dam infrastruacture project. Each piece was labelled, moved, and re-assembled on its present day island location that can only be accessed by a small boat. The temple is dedicated to the gods Osaris and Isis, both protector gods in the Egyptian mythology.
You can see some beautiful scenes explaining the story of Osaris and Isis, with carvings on every nook, cranny, pillar, wall and ceiling of the temple. It is pretty amazing! Also inside the temple is the holy room, which has an offering table only used by the pharaoh. A couple of times a year, the king would come to this temple to make specific offerings (which you see depicted on the wall) to the god of this temple. And then the room was sealed off until the next ceremony, never opened to the public.
Aswan also offers the unique opportunity to meet some of Egypt indigenous people — the Nubians. During our visit, we signed up for a home cooked host family dinner in Aswan, which was one of the highlights of our experience. The Nubians are an ethnic group with an entirely different language and culture than general Egyptian culture. With about 2 million people spread throughout the country, this is a unique opportunity to support and get to know a totally different side of modern Egyptian life. Nubian towns don’t have cars, so the homes are close together and you walk around the sand streets, with kids running everywhere, as the average Nubian woman has 6 kids.
One of my most anticipated days on my 2 week trip to Egypt was floating down the Nile on a felucca. Felucca’s are a traditional Egyptian motorless sailboat, but the sail is an unusual side tilted triangle shape. The deck is quite flat and covered in mattresses and pillow for comfortable lounging. Periodically pulling the boat over to the side of the river, we stopped for a mid-day swim and bathroom break. I SWAM IN THE NILE RIVER!?!?! Unlike the warm Dead Sea, the Nile was brisk and refreshing after sitting in the hot Egyptian heat for a few hours. I also really appreciated the nature and sounds of the Nile. The Nile Valley is clean and beautiful with wide, flat profile and lined with palm trees, bucolic farms and birds. You can feel how this river has been the life and blood of this country for millennia. There are fisherman that float along the river and they use some traditional fishing techniques that were interesting to see.
Day 6-8: Luxor
If you opted for an overnight felucca ride, you’ll wake up to the sun in your face and birds in the air. Make your way down to Luxor for your next 3 days. It is said that Luxor has more antiquities than any other place in the world, so this is THE place to go for Egyptian history. The capital of the Egyptian civilization was moved to Luxor during the Middle Kingdom because of its strategic and secluded location, which left an abundance of ruins in this city. It is pretty unbelievable!
On your first day in Luxor, I recommend visiting Karnak Temple. The largest of all the ruins discovered in Egypt, this temple took approximately 2000 years to build. Each new pharaoh would add-on portions, so it just continued to grow and grow until the decline of the empire. Now Karnak Temple spans several kilometers and has been largely restored, which makes the experience of seeing it something truly unique. Unlike the other temples in Egypt, it sits in its original location. You’ll need a minimum of 3 hours in Karnak temple to properly see the site, but I think this was easily worthy of an entire day.
You start the visit at the West gate, and immediately you will notice the sphinx sidewalk. Over a hundred sphinx statues originally lined the walkway, all representing god Amun Rah, the supreme god this temple is dedicated to. You will continue down the main sphinx walkway until you reach the impressive columned section of the temple — this is probably what you have seen on Instagram. It contains 134 massive stone columns. All individually engraved with hieroglyphics, they tell various stories about the gods, depict offering scenes and representations of the pharaohs, particularly Rames II, who was largely responsible for the construction of this section of the temple. I think this was the most amazing part of the temple for me. The sheer amount of time and man power needed to construct it boggles the mind, but also the fact that they still stand in tact with many of the painting and colors still on the columns.
Since there are so many ruins in Luxor, we spent a second day touring the sites around the city like the infamous Valley of the Kings. Located about 30km outside the city on the west bank of the Nile River, the Valley of the Kings was the burial grounds for the pharaohs during the early New Kingdom (17th-19th dynasty) from about 1500 BC to 1200 BC. It is hot AF, typically over 45 C during the day, so try to go as early as possible. We left the hotel at 7am to get there!
You will start the tour of the Valley of the Kings at the visitors center, which provides the only bathrooms, as well as a beautiful 3D diarama of the Valley. Sadly, there are no photos allowed inside the actual Valley, so I will have to rely on my words to describe the experience. What is unique about this area is the sheer amount of tombs. Over 60 tombs have been discovered so far, and discoveries are still being made. At any given time, there are only about 3-5 tombs open to the public and the tombs are dug into the sides of the mountain, so you will access them via wooden walkways in the central valley. What is impressive about the tombs is the detailed paintings throughout the chambers. You will see scenes on every wall and the ceiling, depicting the journey to the afterlife. These dyes have last over 3000 years and are still bright and vibrant.
On your final day in Luxor, visiting the remaining highlights in the city including the temple of Hatshesptu. Also known as Deir el-Bahari, it is one of the most unique temples in Egypt due to its unusual design. Hatshesptu was the first female pharaoh in Egyptian history. She ruled as a queen regent for a few years, until she sent the king to a military academy and ruled in his sted. She was known for her strong personality and natural aptitude for politics, so ya know #feminism. Pharaohs were believed to be descendants of god Amun Rays (aka male) so in order to fulfill this necessity, she fabricated a story about being the daughter of the sun god. This is a central feature of her temple, featuring three large tiers, perfectly stacked on one another to form a sort of oblong pyramid shape. Then up the front, there are ramps connecting the three vertical levels. Once inside, there are of course walls full of hieroglyphics paintings and stories about the pharaoh and gods.
We also made a pit stop to check out the Colossi of Memnon. Known as the goddess of dawn, these are the rebuilt remains of a temple that was discovered only about 10 years ago. The statues depict Amenhotep III, the builder of the temple. After seeing some of the other ruins, these aren’t as impressive since they were badly damaged by water, but the size is impressive, and once the rest of the site is excavated, I think it will be a much more worthwhile stop.
If you interested in local craft, Luxor is a great place to learn about the art of papyrus paper making and painting. Indigenous to Egypt and grown in the Nile for millennia, papyrus is a versatile plant that ancient people used to make all sorts of things, including scrolls and rooftops. To process it, you start by shaving off the skin of the plant, then soak it in water for about 72 hours, which helps to break down the natural fibers. Then you can weave the wet pieces together, just as you would a basket, into the desired size, which is then pressed into paper using an appropriate sized rock. There is no glue used, just the natural sugars hold the paper together. Once it’s dry, you can paint it, fold it, write on it, do whatever!
Day 9-10: Alexandria
If you’re feeling adventurous, I had a ton of fun taking the overnight train from Luxor to Cairo, but if you want something faster, hop on a flight to Alexandria. Named after Alexander the Great, Alexandria is Egypt’s second largest city and it is located on the Mediterranean Sea. It is the most important port city in Egypt, both in modern and ancient times. With a bustling 6 million people, Alexandria has a much more European flair. You can tell this was the seat of the British empire by the streets and old architecture. I found it to be much more beautiful, although it is still very dirty and littered with trash everywhere.
The waterfront cornish was the most alluring part of the city, as the locals stroll along hand in hand, eating from little street carts and coffee shops on the water. Along the waterfront, you can find the Qaitbay Citadel. At the mouth of a large harbor, this site has a large fortress that was built on the ruins of the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was one of destroyed 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. There is nothing to see inside, so just snap some pictures of the outside, and then enjoy the local fisherman and couples on the waterfront. The fisherman use obscenely long poles and stand far out on the breaker rocks to try and catch some small fish.
For your second day in Alexandria, I would recommend heading to the Library of Alexandria for a leisurely day of exploring this incredible museum and library. Certainly the highlight of this city, the library was built in 2002 after a competition to pick the design. Every aspect of the modern building has a story behind it, and I definitely recommend getting a tour of the library from one of their trained guides. The main theme is to blend the ancient with the modern, but there are so many interesting details to the story! Once you’re inside the Library of Alexandria, there are 4 museums, a digital exploration area, a kids library, a teenager library, a lounge, a gift shop and of course of the main library. The main library has a large glass platform that juts out into the massive reading room, giving you expansive views of the stunning interior. It is the largest open library space in the entire world, and it spans 9 different levels. The library has a collection of over 2 million books, and you could easily wander in this place for hours. I recommend budgeting most of your afternoon to exploring this library.
With its advantageous location on the Mediterranean Sea, Alexandria is famous for its seafood. I am not even a seafood lover, but I am so happy that we went out for a big seafood dinner in Alexandria. We went to a popular local spot called Balbaa, on the far east side of town. It’s kind of like a fish market, where you walk in and see all the fresh catches. You pick out the specific fish that you want and pay by the weight. Then you just choose the cooking method that you want, whether it is grilled, fried or sauteed. I opted for a grilled seabass and sauteed prawns in a garlic parsley sauce. Before the fish even arrived, we had a huge selection of appetizer plates, including all kinds of dips like hummus, babaganoush, and garlic aioli. To finish off the meal, we were served a variety of fresh juices, including mango, lemon & mint, and tamarind.
Day 11-12: Siwa Oasis
When you have limited time in a destination, it is easy to cut things off of the travel list. I know it seems like it might not be worth the drive on a 2 week itinerary in Egypt, but you must go to western Egypt. It is so unique and incredibly beautiful; definitely the biggest surprise of my entire experience in Egypt!
Our destination was Siwa Oasis in western Egypt near to the Libyan border. Reading stories about the desert as a kid, I never understood the relief that comes from arriving at a true oasis. After 10 hours of driving through the Egyptian Sahara, I now understand. We drove through hours of barren, arid land. Aside from the military check points and occasional car, there was a lot of nothing around us. No trees, no bushes, no camels, no birds, no nothing. Just empty space. It’s such a humbling and relieving feeling when you finally do arrive in an oasis town.
Susceptible to occasional flash flooding, Siwa was nearly destroyed in the early 20th century by strong rains. All the buildings are built out of mud bricks, so you can imagine what happens when it rains hard. Everything just washes away. The ruins of the city that still exist today are haunting and strangely beautiful. They remind me of a surrealist painting, or something from the mind of Salvador Dali. They are jagged, irregular, and totally deformed. Some roofs still stand, with a side of the house missing. Some windows still appear in the walls, but are strangely sunken or lopsided from the rain. It was a really unique vantage point.
The next day, we explored the tiny oasis town by bicycle. I had been desperately missing my bike with all the driving we did on this 2 week Egypt itinerary so I was especially excited for this activity. You can feel the rural life around you in a way you can’t in a bus, and you get to smell, hear and bounce your way through people’s lives. It was still incredibly hot out, but on the bike, it didn’t feel so bad. It was such a joy riding through the massive date fields and getting to pull some ripe ones directly from the branches to sample. Date trees look almost exactly the same as palm trees and the dates grow in these big bundles that are harvested by farmers by climbing up the tree and cutting them off.
We biked around the town of 20,000 people, exploring some of the other ruins and sites. There was the Mountain of the Dead, a large hill ful of tombs dating back to the Greco-Roman period. There was the Oracle Temple visited famously by Alexander the Great. And finally, there was a rest at Cleopatra’s bath, a natural spring that Cleopatra (supposedly) used to visit during the long summer months. We went for a short swim, and ordered a few delicious fresh juices, including fresh date juice which I had never drank before. Super good!
Day 13: White Desert
Often overlooked on a 2 week trip to Egypt, the White Desert in western Egypt is a hidden gem and a truly spectacular natural wonder. I don’t know why Egyptians keep this wonder a secret — it is an otherworldly portion of the Sahara desert. I can’t imagine coming to Egypt and not seeing this now!
The White Desert can really only be accessed by road, and it is approximately a 6 hour drive from Siwa Oasis to the White Desert along which you will enjoy the incredibly pristine and bright landscapes. Its name stems from the unique composition of the rock. It is an ancient sea floor that formed millions of years ago and then dried up. The white color comes the now decomposed and soldified bodies of the ancient crustaceans and sea life, which formed the bedrock. The rock is like a talc or chalk, very soft and semi-porous. Don’t forget to reach down and touch the soft chalky sand (although, I wouldn’t recommend rolling down a dune of it; it sticks to absolutely everything and is so hard to get out).
The rock itself has been eroded from water and wind, creating these really unique formations. On the bottom of the formations, it is round and fairly smooth from the water erosion. And then above it, there are erratic formations with strange shapes from the wind erosion. You can almost visualize where the old water level used to be, because the wind vs water erosion is so drastically different. Some of the formations have nicknames based on their shapes, like the sitting camel, chicken and the tree, and rabbit rock. It is unlike anywhere you’ve ever seen before.
We spent the day driving through the White Desert, enjoying the scenery in a four wheel jeep, plowing up and down these big sand dunes or pulling wheelies in the sand. With no AC and only the windows, you get a real feel for the heat of the desert. You’d feel the wind blow, expecting a breeze, and you’re blasted with super hot air. There are a few high points in the desert where we got some excellent views of the surrounding desert, all in the blinding white color.
After a sand filled day of driving, we made camp for the night in the middle of the White Desert. It was a very basic campsite, a few sheets to form protective walls and some mattresses on the ground. No roof, leaving the top open for a full night of stargazing. And wow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stars. With no moon, we got a full view of the Milky Way, shooting stars, and complete constellations. You could see everything! It was such a simple night and I loved that about it. You don’t always need these fussy hotels or luxury comforts to enjoy yourself. Good company, good food, and beautiful nature is all I need to enjoy a night.
Day 14: Back to Cairo
Make the long road trek back to Cairo. It’s about a 10 hour drive through the desert so queue some podcasts and get ready to enjoy the open space! When you arrive back in Cairo the noise and chaos is going to feel like a completely foreign environment.
If you’re not tired of seeing antiquities by this point, I also took a half day trip to Sakkara and Memphis. Sakkara is the site of the oldest and first pyramid ever built in Egypt and it is really cool to see the first pyramid ever built, noticing the distinct differences between the ones at Giza. Also at the site is a burial chamber with some exquisite hieroglyphic carvings, which were buried under the sand for thousands of years, keeping them in almost perfect condition. This is also the only hieroglyphic scenes ever found that show how the pyramids were built. Memphis was the original capital of the ancient Egyptian empire. There isn’t much left to see here, but this is the site of two pretty cool statues. The first is the staggeringly tall twin statues of Rames II. Rames II is one of the longest reigning kings in human history (67 years) and was probably the most famous pharaoh. He has lots of temples and statues around Egypt, but this one is tallest. The other famous statue at Memphis is the second largest Sphinx behind the Great Sphinx at Giza. You can see the full body and good details on the body and face. This one is a bit of a mystery, because they don’t know who built it or who is built for, as there are no names listed on it.
Did I miss any of your favorite spots in Egypt? Comment below with your travel suggestions!