First, the drawbacks: Cairo’s crowds make Manhattan look like a ghost town, papyrus sellers and would-be guides hound you at every turn, and your snot will run black from the smog. But it’s a small price to pay to tap into the energy of the place Egyptians call Umm ad-Dunya – the Mother of the World.
Rugged and starkly beautiful, the Sinai Peninsula’s vast and empty desert heart has managed to capture imaginations throughout the centuries. Coveted for both its deep religious significance and its strategic position as a crossroads of empires, prophets and pilgrims, conquerors and exiles have all left their footprints on the sands here.
A barren coastline of extraordinary beauty, the Sinai Coast has seen some of history's most significant events over the past several millennia played out against its isolated shores. These days, however, the region is more renowned for its superb coral reefs, unique Bedouin culture and sandy beaches.
Red Sea Coast
Egypt’s Red Sea coast isn't often on independent travellers' itineraries, yet some of the most important sites in Christianity’s early evolution lie tucked away amid the barren mountains of the north. Venture south of brashly loud and proud Hurghada and you’ll not only find some of Egypt’s best diving but also the epic, wild expanse of the Eastern Desert.
Alexandria & the Mediterranean Coast
Egypt’s northern coastline runs for 500km along Mediterranean shores. Its sandy beaches and turquoise-hued sea lures floods of Egyptians here during the summertime. Most travellers, however, make a beeline straight to the once-great port city of Alexandria.
Nile Valley: Esna to Abu Simbel
The Nile south of Luxor is increasingly hemmed in by the Eastern Desert, its banks lined with grand, well-preserved Graeco-Roman temples at Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo, and its lush fields punctuated by palm-backed villages – it’s the ideal place to sail through on a Nile boat.
Founded by none other than Alexander the Great and once the seat of Queen Cleopatra, the city of Alexandria (Al-Iskendariyya) is the stuff that legends are made of. It's harbour entrance was once marked by the towering Pharos lighthouse (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) and its Great Library was renowned as the ultimate archive of ancient knowledge.
Plucked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight during the early days of the Red Sea’s tourism drive, the tiny fishing village of Hurghada has long since morphed into today’s dense band of concrete that marches relentlessly along the coastline for well over 20km. Rampant construction has left the town blighted by half-finished shells of pleasure palaces never realised.
Sharm el-Sheikh & Na’ama Bay
The southern coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, between Tiran Island and Ras Mohammed National Park, features some of the world’s most amazing underwater scenery. The crystal-clear waters, rare and lovely reefs and an incredible variety of exotic fish darting in and out of the colourful coral have made this a snorkelling and scuba-diving paradise.
Low-key, laid-back and low-rise, Dahab is the Middle East’s prime beach resort for independent travellers. The startling transformation from dusty Bedouin outpost to spruced-up tourist village is not without its detractors, who reminisce fondly of the days when beach bums dossed in basic huts by the shore.
The Suez Canal, Egypt’s glorious triumph of engineering over nature, dominates this region, slicing through the sands of the Isthmus of Suez for 163km, not only severing mainland Egypt from Sinai but also Africa from Asia. The canal was the remarkable achievement of Egypt’s belle époque, an era buoyed by grand aspirations and finished by bankruptcy and broken dreams.