The Pyramids of Giza
There are more than 100 pyramids in Egypt, but the Pyramids of Giza are undoubtedly the most famous. Indeed, they’re probably the most famous of all of Egypt’s incredible ancient sites. Lying just outside of Cairo, on the west bank of the River Nile, there are three separate pyramid complexes. Standing sentinel in front of them all sits the Great Sphinx of Giza, a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a man. Measuring 73 metres in length and standing 20 metres high it was, unbelievably, carved from a single block of stone. Each of the three pyramids is the tomb of a pharaoh: Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. The largest and oldest of the three is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, also known as the Great Pyramid of Giza. It’s also the only one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing today – an astonishing fact, given that the pyramids were built some 4,500 years ago. The best time to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site is in the late afternoon, and then stay after dark to experience the nightly Sound & Light show.
Perched on the east bank of the River Nile, the city of Luxor was built on an around the 4,000-year-old site of ancient Thebes, once the wealthiest city in ancient Egypt. When it comes to awe-inspiring temples, tombs, statues, ancient ruins and hieroglyphs this would have to be the number-one destination in all of Egypt. Homer called it the ‘City of a Hundred Gates’, but it’s often called the world’s “largest open-air museum – visit this astonishing place and you’ll see why.
It’s home to two of Egypt’s most impressive temple complexes, Karnak and Luxor. Luxor Temple, unlike most of the other monuments in this area, is located smack-bang in the centre of the city. Built around 1400 BCE, it features two giant statues of pharaoh Ramesses II guarding the temple gate. Walking in between them is a mind-blowing experience.
Speaking of mind-blowing, the ancient site of Karnak, about five kilometres north of Luxor, was once the most important place of worship for ancient Egyptians. Today it’s simply a must for any visitor to Egypt. Over the course of 2,000 years, successive rulers of Egypt kept adding to this spectacular complex, and the result is extraordinary. Here you’ll find the Great Temple of Amun, the Temple of Khons, the Festival Temple of Tuthmosis III and many other buildings, sanctuaries and obelisks. Everything is massive. You’ll feel like an ant in comparison to the colossal statuary and mighty columns.
Across the Nile from Luxor lies the royal burial ground known as the Valley of the Kings. There are more than 60 royal tombs in this subterranean Theban necropolis, and the main attraction is the colourful hieroglyphs and paintings that adorn their walls. The tombs open on a rotation system to protect these ancient works of art from from humidity. You’ll have to pay extra to visit the most famous tomb – that of the famous boy-king, Tutankhamun. You can also visit the Valley of the Queens, a burial site for queens and royal children, with more than 90 tombs cut into the valley. The most famous tomb here is the richly painted tomb of Nefertari.
Other must-do activities in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luxor include taking a hot-air balloon ride over the entire west bank just after sunrise; going horse riding on the west bank; and taking a ride on a felucca (one of the traditional wooden sailing boats that have plied their trade on the Nile for centuries) to Banana Island, a tiny island that lies five kilometres upriver from Luxor.
Take a River Nile cruise
Once upon a time, a Nile cruise was the only way to see some of Egypt’s most fascinating ancient sites. These days there are plenty of other options available to modern travellers, but a cruise remains a charming, atmospheric and relaxing way to see many of the country’s iconic spots. Even if there are more than 200 boats plying the waters of the Nile. You should definitely expect queues. Most Nile cruises last at least four nights and take in the popular sites of Luxor, Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Aswan. Vessels range from luxe modern cruise ships to historic paddle steamers such as the famous S.S. Sudan. Constructed in 1885, it was the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s famous novel, Death on the Nile. You could even opt to travel on a no-frills felucca. These traditional wind-powered Egyptian sailboats have a much more fluid itinerary and can dock at places that are out of the question for larger ships, however they’re very much for budget travellers (BYO sleeping bag). Our biggest tip? If you’re travelling in the summer months, be sure to book something with air conditioning! Whatever vessel you choose, you’ll be in for a treat. Many of the most famous sites are located directly on the river Nile, so being on the water will give you the best seat in town. At night, many of the temples and monuments are illuminated, making the view from the water even more breathtaking.
Abu Simbel, Egypt
Abu Simbel lies in southern Egypt, about 40km north of the Sudanese border. One of the most recognisable ancient sites in Egypt, it’s home to two massive rock temples built during the 13th century BCE. Let that date sink in for a second. The 13th century BCE. The larger of the two temples, the Great Temple, is a monument to the pharaoh Ramesses II. There are four colossal statues of him at the entrance, each about 21 metres tall. Meanwhile, the Small Temple is thought to have been built to honour his queen, Nefertari. The temples are amazing. But the story of how they were moved to their current location is just as amazing. They were initially carved into a mountainside on the west bank of the Nile River, where they stayed for thousands of years. But when it became clear that the waters of Lake Nasser – created as a result of the construction of the Aswan High Dam – would submerge the temples, UNESCO launched a campaign to save them. Enormous donations flooded in (pardon the pun) and, in an incredible feat of engineering in the 1960s, the entire temple complex was cut into blocks and rebuilt with painstaking precision on higher ground. Before the big move, every year, on just two days – October 22 and February 22 – something special would take place in the Great Temple. Natural sunlight and architectural brilliance would combine to light up the inner sanctum, including statues of the pharaoh. When the temple was relocated, enormous care was taken in the reassembly to ensure that everything would still line up – and light up. As a result, the Abu Simbel Sun Festival still attracts thousands of locals and visitors, who flock to the temples to witness this extraordinary spectacle. Today, the Abu Simbel temples are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are some of the most impressive and most-visited of Egypt’s ancient sights.
The Red Sea Coast
Egypt’s Red Sea coast offers some of the best scuba diving on the planet. Top dive spots such as Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurghada and Marsa Alam are fantastic destinations for seasoned divers and novices alike. The Coast is famous for its clear, warm waters, incredible Second World War shipwrecks and marine species including sharks, dolphins and manta rays. Mostly, however, it’s renowned for its abundance of exquisite – and incredibly healthy – coral reefs. While we all know other major reef systems are suffering from the effects of climate change and marine pollution, the coral reefs of the northern Red Sea seem unusually resilient, and remain stable and healthy. There are more than 220 different species of coral here, offering shelter and food to more than 1,000 recorded species of fish. Almost a fifth of these are found nowhere else on the planet. It’s a literal underwater paradise. The most famous of these pristine reefs are probably those of Ras Mohammed National Park, the oldest national park in Egypt. Located off the southernmost tip of the Sinai Peninsula, this 480-square-kilometre marine reserve was established in 1983 and is easily accessible from Sharm el-Sheikh. Other spectacular reefs in Egypt include those of the Giftun Islands in Hurghada and the Straits of Tiran.
Egypt’s Western Desert, close to the Libyan border, is home to Siwa Oasis, the most remote oasis town in the country. It’s known for its abundant olive and date groves, freshwater springs and unique Berber culture. It’s also home to the ruined temple of the ancient Oracle of Ammon, once visited by Alexander the Great. Things to do while you’re here include taking a desert safari, going sand boarding on the dunes, taking a dip in one of the many cold or hot springs, and watching the sunset over the salty Birket Siwa (Lake Siwa) from the freshwater spring on Fatnas Island (a.k.a ‘Fantasy Island’), about 6km from Siwa town. About 3km from Siwa, in the sands near Dakrour Mountain, is where you can try ‘sand bathing’, a traditional treatment whereby you’re buried neck-deep in the sand, a traditional treatment believed by the locals to cure medical conditions like rheumatism and joint pain, and even infertility or impotence! You can also visit Gabal El Mawta (The Mountain of the Dead), where you’ll find ancient rock tombs dating back to the Greek and Roman periods. Siwa Oasis may be off the beaten path of traditional Egyptian tourism, but that’s part of its charm. Top tip: Be sure to try the local, supremely refreshing, chai (tea) while you’re here.