As the city is sandwiched between Lake Mariout and the sea, there is relatively little space for expansion. Since the 2011 revolution a lot of old buildings are being destroyed to make way for huge new developments, and the skyline of the old Corniche has doubled in height. Right in the middle of the broad Corniche is the legendary Cecil Hotel overlooking Midan Saad Zaghloul. Built in 1930, it’s an Alexandrian institution and a memorial to the city’s raffish heyday, when guests included the likes of playwrights Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The British Secret Service operated out of a suite on the 1st floor. The hotel was immortalised in British writer Lawrence Durrell’s four-novel series Alexandria Quartet.
Anfushi & Fort Qaitbey
Charismatic Anfushi, the old Turkish part of town, was once where stuffy Alexandria came to let down its hair. While Midan Ramla and the Midan Tahrir area were developed along the lines of a European model in the 19th century, Anfushi remained untouched, an indigenous quarter standing in counterpoint to the new cosmopolitan city. This is where writer Lawrence Durrell’s characters came in search of prostitutes and a bit of rough trade. Today it remains one of the poorer parts of the city, where a huge number of people live squeezed into old and decaying buildings, many of which seem to be teetering on the verge of collapse.
Hitting the Beach in Alexandria
If you want to get in the water, there are plenty of public and private beaches along Alexandria’s waterfront. But the shoreline between the Eastern Harbour and Montazah can be grubby and packed to the rafters in summer, and most locals head for beaches on the North Coast for the high season.
Women should note that at all the beaches except those owned by Western hotels, modesty prevails and covering up when swimming is strongly recommended – wear a baggy T-shirt and shorts over your swimsuit. At these and any city beaches, expect to pay an entrance fee and more for umbrellas and chairs, if desired.
- Mamoura Beach About 1km east of Montazah, Mamoura is the ‘beachiest’ of Alexandria’s beaches. There’s a cobblestone boardwalk with a few ice-cream shops and food stalls, but what really makes this feel different from other beaches is the separation between it and the main road, meaning there’s no noisy speedway behind you. To get here, flag down an Aboukir-bound microbus along the Corniche and let the driver know you want Mamoura. Local authorities are trying to keep this suburb exclusive by charging everyone who enters the area, though you might not have to pay if you walk in. A much less-crowded private beach is next to the main beach, with nice frond-type umbrellas and a LE50 per person entry fee.
- Miami Beach Miami Beach (pronounced me-ami) has a sheltered cove with a water slide and jungle gym set up in the sea for kids to frolic on, but note that these get almost comically crowded during peak season. It’s 12.5km east of Midan Saad Zaghloul along the Corniche.
- Stanley Beach This spectacular beach, on a tiny bay with the old Stanley Bridge soaring above it, has a modest patch of sand for bathing backed by three levels of beach cabins. The sight of the sea crashing against the bridge’s concrete supports is dramatic, but this beach is not very suitable for kids because of the waves.
Finding Alexandria's Ancient Core
Interestingly, modern Alexandria is built directly on top of the ancient city and often follows the ancient street pattern. The street now known as Sharia Tariq Al Horreyya was the ancient Canopic Way, extending from the city’s Gate of the Sun in the east to the Gate of the Moon in the west. The centre of town was where it crossed the Street of the Soma (now Sharia Al Nabi Daniel).
Alexandria is better known for its literature and writers than for any bricks-and-mortar monuments, and many a traveller arrives at Misr Train Station with a copy of novelist Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in hand. Unlike the Alexandria of ancient days past, the city evoked by Durrell, EM Forster and the Alexandrian-Greek poet Constantine Cavafy can still be seen draped over the buildings of the city’s central area.
Born of Greek parents, Cavafy (1863–1933) lived all but a few of his 70 years in Alexandria. In some poems, he resurrects figures from the Ptolemaic era and classical Greece; in others he captures fragments of the city through its routines or chance encounters. He was born into one of the city's wealthiest families, but a reversal of fortune forced him to spend most of his life working as a clerk for the Ministry of Public Works, in an office above the Trianon cafe.
Cavafy was first introduced to the English-speaking world by EM Forster (1879–1970), the celebrated English novelist who’d already published A Room with a View and Howards End when he arrived in Alexandria in 1916. Working for the Red Cross, Forster spent three years in the city and, although it failed to find a place in his subsequent novels, he compiled what he referred to as an ‘antiguide’. His Alexandria: A History & Guide was intended, he explained, as a guide to things not there, based on the premise that ‘the sights of Alexandria are in themselves not interesting, but they fascinate when we approach them from the past’.
The guide provided an introduction to the city for Lawrence Durrell (1912–90), who arrived in Egypt 22 years after Forster’s departure. Durrell had been evacuated from Greece and resented Alexandria, which he called a ‘smashed up broken down shabby Neapolitan town’. But as visitors discover today, first impressions are misleading; between 1941 and 1945 Durrell found great distraction in the slightly unreal air of decadence and promiscuity engendered by the uncertainties of the ongoing desert war, which led to the writing of his most famous work.
Travellers on a literary pilgrimage may want to hunt down the lesser-seen Cavafy Museum, and the Abou El Sid restaurant, which has taken the place of the famous Pastroudis Cafe, a frequent meeting point for the characters of the Alexandria Quartet.
The Sights under the Sea
Alexandria has sunk between 6m and 8m since antiquity, so most of what remains of the ancient city lies hidden beneath the modern city or the waters of the Mediterranean. On land, much has been destroyed as the city has grown. But underwater the story is different, and each year reveals more finds from the Ptolemaic period.
So far, exploration has been concentrated around the fortress of Qaitbey, where the Pharos is believed to have stood; the south-eastern part of the Eastern Harbour, where parts of the submerged Ptolemaic royal quarter were found; and Aboukir, where remains of the two sunken cities of Herakleion-Thonis and Menouthis were found. Some of the recovered treasures can be seen in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's Antiquities Museum and in the Alexandria National Museum, but divers can also explore the submerged harbour sites with local company Alexandra Dive.
If you feel like a bit of Indiana-Jones-under-the-sea action, these are Alexandria's top dive sites:
- Cleopatra's Palace This royal-quarter area in the Eastern Harbour has yielded some of Alexandria's most interesting underwater antiquities. Today divers can see a couple of large, enigmatic sphinxes as well as red-granite columns, platforms and pavements that archaeologists speculate formed part of a former palace. There's also a remarkably complete shipwreck here that has been carbon dated to between 90 BC and AD 130. Depth: 5m. Rating: novice.
- Pharos Island This site, just offshore from Fort Qaitbey, contains sphinxes, columns, capitals and statues dating from the Pharaonic, Greek and Roman eras as well as giant granite blocks believed to be remnants of the Pharos lighthouse, broken as if by a fall from a great height. Depth: 8m to 15m. Rating: novice.
- Herakleion-Thonis For archaeologists the discovery of the port of Herakleion-Thonis in Aboukir has been a triumph. Excavations have revealed a huge amount of treasures, including giant 5m-high statues (raised from the site), remnants of temple buildings, and gold coins and jewellery. For the non-archaeologist diver though, the major sight in this area is the L'Orient wreck (Napoleon's flagship that sank in 1798). Depth: 14m. Rating: intermediate.