Egypt is a behemoth of a destination that quickly brings out the explorer in all of us. The vast grandeur and beauty of this ancient land is evident in the lofty heights of Mt Sinai, the silent depths of the Red Sea, the ancient tombs of Luxor and the open expanses of the Siwa Oasis. In a land where time is measured by dynasties, and distance by the setting sun, travel slowly and lose yourself in the infinite expanse of sand and sea. Here are ten of Egypt's most famous sights.
1. Luxor’s West Bank
Wake before dawn on Luxor’s West Bank and see the abode of death – the tombs of kings, queens and nobles – come to life. Most tombs are open from 6am, at which time most of the crowds are still slumbering in their hotels. Don’t miss Deir al-Bahri (Temple of Hatshepsut): the eyes first focus on the dramatic rugged limestone cliffs that rise nearly 300m above the desert plain, a monument made by nature, only to realise that at the foot of all this immense beauty lies a man-made monument even more extraordinary, this dazzling temple.
Almost modern-looking, it blends in beautifully with the cliffs from which it is partly cut, a marriage made in heaven. Continuous excavation and restoration since 1891 have revealed one of ancient Egypt’s finest monuments, but it must have been even more stunning in the days of Hatshepsut (1473–1458 BC), when it was approached by a grand sphinx-lined causeway instead of today’s noisy tourist bazaar, and when the court was a garden planted with a variety of exotic trees and perfumed plants – the ancient Egyptians called it Djeser-djeseru (Most Holy of Holies).
2. Step Pyramids
Everyone knows about the Pyramids, but did you know about the other pyramids? While the majority of tourists are fending off camel drivers and souvenir touts at the Pyramids of Giza, savvy travelers are exploring the earlier monuments at both Saqqara and Dahshur. Of particular interest is the Step Pyramid of Zoser, which is regarded by archaeologists as the oldest pyramid in the world. Also not to be missed is the Red Pyramid, believed to be the first true pyramid, and the inspiration for the Great Pyramid at Giza.
3. Relax in a mosque
The quiet, shady arcades of a medieval mosque, such as Al-Azhar Mosque, are the perfect place to take a break from modern Cairo – kick your shoes off and stay a while. The Mosque of Amr ibn al-As has plenty of room, while the Mosque of Al-Maridani is filled with trees.
4. Red Sea
Egypt is more than sun, sand, pyramids and the Nile – the Red Sea is regarded as one of the premier scuba-diving destinations in the world. Whether you’ve logged hundreds of dives or you’re looking to get certified, don’t miss Egypt’s remarkable underwater world. One highlight in particular is the Thistlegorm, a huge underwater wreck discovered by Jacques Cousteau. After descending to 30m and penetrating the cargo hold, you’ll find yourself among a living museum of World War II memorabilia including motorcycles, jeeps, tanks and armoury.
5. Aswan sunset
Watch the sun set over Aswan: there is something about the way the river is squeezed between rocks here, the proximity of the desert, the lonely burial places of the Aga Khan and of forgotten princes up on the rise on the west bank, that makes sunset here more poignant than anywhere else along the Egyptian Nile.
Visit some of the less popular ancient temples. Many of the sites between Cairo and Luxor see few visitors because of the difficulty of travel in this area. But even in Luxor some sites are missed out completely by tour groups – not because they are not worth visiting, but because there is too much to see in a day or two. So mix the must-see sights, places such as the Valley of the Kings and Karnak Temple, with some others. The funerary Temple of Seti I doesn’t get the crowds, but even somewhere as important as the Ramesseum, the memorial temple of Ramses II, remains tourist-free.
Commercial insanity reigns in Egypt’s souqs, where bargaining is part of everyday life. Haggle for dusty antiques, new bicycles, secondhand shirts, vintage sunglasses…or perhaps you’d like to buy a donkey?
If you’re looking for a slice of Thailand in the Middle East, there is no better place to kick back and slow things down a bit than Dahab. Although it has expanded beyond its humble origins as a beachside hippy colony, Dahab is still ruled by independent travellers. Whether you’re looking to dive the Red Sea, trek through the interior or spend most of your days smoking sheesha by the sea, chances are you’re going to get stuck here for longer than you planned.
9. Pyramids of Giza
Although they’re Egypt’s most iconic images, nothing can prepare you for the sense of awe and wonderment you’ll feel when you first lay eyes on the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx. Towering over both the urban sprawl of Giza and the desert plains beyond, these ancient monuments are at the top of every traveller’s itinerary, and they never fail to amaze. Bring lots of water, an empty memory card, and a lot of patience. Although you’ll have to fend off lots of touts to enjoy this ancient funerary complex in peace, no trip to Egypt is complete without a visit to Giza.
10. Coptic sites
Seek out one of the many Coptic sites along the Nile, some at least 1600 years old and still used as churches, convents and monasteries. They tend to be overwhelmed on feast days when thousands of faithful come to pray, but at other times they can be sleepy places full of beauty and fascination, perhaps nowhere more so than Deiral-Muharraq, north of Asyut.