Ten Tips for Visiting Egypt
I. Find a Good Travel Agent
In Egypt everything begins with the travel agent, they are the gateway to good guides, a well planned program and good rates at the hotels. I'm starting here because I have a fabulous agency to recommend, Djed Egypt. I normally book everything myself but in Egypt I was glad we went through an agency. Picking a local agency gives you a great price, insider knowledge and people on the ground. Additionally, ou are keeping your money in the country too. The owner of Djed, Mr. Simman took great care in planning everything with me and made us feel welcome, secure and well looked after throughout our trip. We experienced true Egyptian hospitality; he upgraded us to a beautiful room with a private balcony on the Nile cruise, hosted us for a lunch at his restaurant (Sofra) in Luxor, sent a extra guide with us on the drive to Alexandria and checked in with us to make sure everything was going well. Throughout the trip the guides and drivers showed humor, initiative and flexibility - which was greatly appreciated. Most importantly, they were happy to make changes to the program where needed. Overall we were very impressed and I highly recommend the company. Here's Abdullah, who was a fabulous guide, explaining the meaning of wall decorations in a tomb.II. Tackle the History Before you Leave Home
There is just so much history, and it's unfamiliar. It takes time to grasp that Egyptian history stretches for millennia before the Greeks. The Greeks looked to the Egypt as the origin of civilization, much as we (in the West at least) look to the Greeks. You'll want to know something about the history before you get there just to contextualize everything you are seeing. Frankly, the history is overwhelming and it helps to fit all the new information you hear on the ground into a framework that you bring with you. At the very least you'll want to have a sense for the different dynasties. It takes time to cover five thousand years of history, we took an online class The History of Ancient Egypt from the Great Courses, D. read a history of Egypt and on the trip I picked up an anthropological study on Nubian Women of West Aswan.III. Take a Small Boat on the Nile
We loved the four night Dahabiya cruise we took between Luxor and Aswan. It was so wonderful to be on a small boat drifting down the Nile, it's such a different experience than the large cruise boats. Built with a beautiful open top deck and two sails, our boat - the Louila, had six berths but we were the only people onboard. One of the reasons for working with Djed Egypt is that they have their own Dahabiyas. This means they can guarantee the sailing and the quality of the experience, believe me this matters. We were astonished to find they would run the cruise with only the two of us onboard, that is a commitment to your customers. It was an amazing experience and I'll be covering it in an upcoming post.IV.Try a Boutique Hotel
There are some lovely places to stay in Egypt from small family run hotels to grand historic palaces. There is something for everyone. We opted for a combination of historic and boutique hotels, I highly recommend Le Riad which is wonderfully located in the car-free zone of Medieval Cairo. If you stay here you can walk around at night and see all the beautifully lit up Islamic monuments. The rooms are large, tasteful and individually decorated. In Luxor we loved the Al Moudira. This is the most extraordinary place, run by a cultured Lebanese woman. It's a romantic fantasy on the quiet West Bank, with beautiful domed rooms, extensive gardens, four poster beds, innumerable fountains and a gorgeous retro bar.V. Connect with a Charity
Connecting with a local charity is something we try to do on most of our trips. Generally we focus on education, women or healthcare but in Egypt we visited Animal Care in Egypt, ACE which is located outside Luxor. This is a wonderful organization which provides free veterinary care and an educational outreach program designed to teach children how to care for animals. They do great work and encourage visitors to come and see what they do. If you visit, have a look at their wishlist and try to bring something with you. Many of the items they need are either unavailable or too expensive in Luxor. It's easy to find a small corner in your suitcase.
I love this street dog in Cairo sunning himself on the roof of a car!VI. Stay Overnight in Abu Simbel
There are two ways to get to Abu Simbel, you can take a short flight or drive the three hours there and back. We couldn't bear the idea of that much driving in one day and so we opted for an overnight trip. We stayed at the charming Eskaleh Nubian Lodge which is a simple but elegant mud brick hotel owned by a fascinating local musician who wanted to recapture the Nubia he grew up in. Take the midday convey from Luxor and visit Abu Simbel in the late afternoon, magically we had the place to ourselves. Everyone tells you to go in the morning when the sunrise lights up the temple facade, but who wants to get up at 5am to see something with everyone else?VII. Don't Overlook Islamic Cairo
Here's the view of Lake Nasser from the terrace of the Eskaleh Nubian Lodge.
Here's the view of Lake Nasser from the terrace of the Eskaleh Nubian Lodge.
Egypt is filled with with wonderful Pharaonic sites but you shouldn't overlook the fact that Cairo is a treasure house of Medieval Islamic monuments. We've spent a lot of time in the Middle East but nothing compares with Cairo. There are so many spectacular mosques and madrassas with gorgeous domes and minarets punctuating the skyline. At the very least you shouldn't miss the Ibn Tulun and the Al Azhar mosques and the Citadel. We wish we had added an extra day in Cairo to take a self guided walk from Jim Antoniou's beautifully illustrated Historic Cairo; a Walk Through the Islamic City. It's a fabulous resource and a wonderful introduction to Old Cairo, highly recommended.VIII. Get Lots of Small Change, You'll Need It...
Egypt runs on baksheesh, you will be giving out a lot of small tips and you'll need more small change than you can imagine. I brought one dollar bills for the airport and asked the driver to help us get a stack of small bills every few days. There is no point resisting the baksheesh culture, you might as well embrace it. These small tips are a way to spread the advantage of tourism and they are particularly appreciated right now when tourism is down .
IX. Explore the Less Well Known Sites
We were in Egypt for almost three weeks and it was enough time to visit both the highlights and many of the smaller sites. You don't want to rush your trip, so add a couple of extra days. The Valley of the Kings is fabulous but head over to the western valley to see the Tomb of Ay, which is beautifully decorated in the naturalistic Amarna style. Make sure you see the nearby tombs of the nobles and the workers where you maybe the only visitors. At Aswan visit The Temple of Kalabsha in Lake Nasser, the Nubian Museum and a second set of Nobles tombs which are well worth the climb up the hill. In Cairo we enjoyed the Gayer-Anderson Museum, the Coptic Hanging Church and the Ben Ezra Synagogue. In Alexandria the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa was unmissable.
You can see our full itinerary here.
X. Book a Nile View at The Old Cataract Hotel
I must admit, I didn't plan this in advance but when we arrived at the Old Cataract Hotel (which I loved and will be reviewing separately) I immediately asked how much it would be to upgrade to a room with a views over the Nile. It was worth every penny and I highly recommend you opt for one too. Sitting on our terrace overlooking the first cataract is something I will never forget.