This post was originally published in June 2015 and updated in January 2022 after a return visit to Egypt.
Egypt has had a challenging last few years, (or decade for that matter) when it comes to tourism. First it was the Great Recession, then the Arab Spring and now Covid. The economy of Egypt is pretty dependent on tourism, and has been for a long time. This is understandable when you think about the amazing attractions and ancient wonders that have drawn visitors for decades. Now is actually a really good time to explore Egypt, thanks to relatively low Covid issues, smaller crowds and copious outdoor activities.
I felt safe throughout my 2 weeks in Egypt and a majority of the famous landmarks were totally accessible despite the pandemic. 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.
There is a lot of see in Egypt, but you can surprisingly hit most of the major landmarks in just two weeks. It will be a busy itinerary, but you’ll be rewarded with incredible historical attractions, beautiful desert scenery, and a one-of-a-kind travel experience.
Day 1: 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 in Cairo should be more than enough for you.
For day 1 in Cairo, you are going to visit all the big antiquity highlights! Start your day with a stop at Saqqara Step Pyramid. This site is home to oldest and first pyramid ever built in Egypt. It is really cool to see the first pyramid ever built, noticing the distinct differences between the ones at Giza. The burial chamber in Saqqara is open to the public, featuring 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.
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.
Day 2: Cairo
For your second day exploring Cairo, I recommend staying in the central area of the city to visit a few more highlights. Starting in Tahrir Square, this massive public area became globally famous after the Arab Spring protests in 2011. You can’t actually sit and enjoy the park at this square, but there is lots of political street art, graffiti and murals around it to take note of. I featured some of my favorite murals on my post all about the street art in Cairo!
Continue across the Tahrir Square to the Egyptian Museum. This is another highlight for Cairo, and I highly recommend a stop. The Egyptian 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 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. You can take pictures on your phone
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 Collection is by far and away the most impressive, because it was one of the only tombs found in its full, original form. This 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.
Note: Many of the famous antiquities in the Egyptian Museum, like King Tut’s Wing, are scheduled to move to Cairo’s new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) in November 2022. If you are reading this after the new museum opens, add the museum to your Giza day, since the new museum overlooks the Pyramid site.
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.
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: Alexandria
Located approximately 2 hours away by car from Cairo, this city couldn’t feel more different! 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.
Day 4: Alexandria
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 5: 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 6: Aswan
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.
Day 7: Nile Boat Ride
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 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!
There is a lot to see in Luxor, so I would recommend creating a “mini itinerary” to help you structure all of the activities here (and to make sure you don’t miss anything!). Here is the daily I would recommend:
- Day 1: Karnak + Luxor Temples
- Day 2: Valley of Kings and Valley of the Queens
- Day 3: Temple of Hatshesptu, Colossi of Memnon and Handicraft Shops
I recommend visiting Karnak Temple first because it is the largest of all the ruins discovered in Egypt. In fact, it’s the 2nd largest temple complex in the world behind Angkor Wat in Cambodia. This temple took approximately 2000 years to build, and each new pharaoh would add-on portions. 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.
Take a break in the middle of the day, because the hot sun in Luxor can be really intense. Return to the city in the evening for a nighttime visit to Luxor Temple. This is one of the few temples in Egypt that allows you to visit at night, and it completely changes the vibe. It is fun to see the temples all lit up, and adds something a little different to your antiquity routine.
As of December 2021, the Avenue of the Sphinx connecting Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple is finally open. This decades long project of relocating modern homes, excavating the site and restoring the Sphinx statues cost millions; but the result is incredible. You can walk the 2.7 km long King’s Festivities Road, also known as Rams Road, from one temple to the other. This is the first time it has been like this in 4,000 years so I highly recommend it.
Day 9: Luxor
We spent a second day touring famed Egyptian sites on the West Bank of the Nile, like the infamous Valley of the Kings. Located about 30km outside of Luxor, the Valley of the Kings andValley of the Queens was the burial grounds for the pharaohs and their families during the early New Kingdom (17th-19th dynasty) from about 1500 BC to 1200 BC. Only open during the day, the shadeless mountainous area is hot as f*ck, typically over 40°C, so try to go as early as possible. We left the hotel at 7am. Don’t forget a hat, sunscreen and lots of water.
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 diorama of the Valley. This is a neat way to see how deep some of the tombs were dug. What is truly 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 5 tombs open to the public, and your entrance ticket includes a visit to 3 of them. You can pay extra to go into King Tut’s tomb. The tombs are dug into the sides of the mountain, so you will access them via wooden walkways in the central valley. The impressive level of detail and color is visible throughout the chambers, and you’ll be awed at how well preserved they are. These dyes have last over 3,000 years and are still bright and vibrant! You will see scenes on every wall and the ceiling, depicting what the Egyptian’s believe to be the journey to the afterlife.
Day 10: Luxor
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 stead. 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 11-14: Red Sea
After a staggering tour of ancient Egypt, you are probably ready for some relaxation huh? Well thankfully Egypt’s Red Sea coastline is the perfect place to soak in the sun and sweat away all of your travel woes. There are a number of famous cities along the Red Sea that cater to tourist needs, such as Sharm El-Sheikh, Safaga, Marsa Alam and Quseer. For my visit, I stayed in Hurghada because it is on the mainland and within driving distance from Luxor (approximately 4 hours).
Most of the accommodation in this region is all-inclusive resorts and massive complexes. That isn’t usually my style of travel, but most itineraries in Egypt include visits here. In fact, you’re likely to meet tourists at these resorts that ONLY go here, and don’t bother visiting any other parts in Egypt. The Red Sea is especially popular with Russian and German tourists.
Regardless of where you go along the Red Sea, you can expect to swim in some of the most beautiful crystal clear waters in the world. Famous for its amazing coral reefs and diving opportunities, it would be a shame not to get out in the water at least a few times during your stay. I had never tried scuba diving before, and I was able to try it with a guide. Amazing experience!
Bonus: Siwa Oasis + the White Desert
If you’ve got a few extra days to spare, I highly recommend taking an extended detour into the Sahara Desert to visit the Siwa Oasis and the White Desert. This is Egypt’s best kept travel secret! Often overlooked on a 2 week trip to Egypt, White Desert National Park in western Egypt is a hidden gem and a truly spectacular natural wonder. It is an otherworldly portion of the Sahara desert with unique and incredibly beautiful rock formations. It was definitely the biggest surprise of my entire experience in Egypt!
If you’re interested in reading more, I have a separate White Desert guide all about how to get there and what to see.