While Egypt’s ancient capital has more than enough dusty charms to fill a traveller’s playbook, the country’s top natural sites stretch far out from Cairo in all directions, from western oases to world-class diving on the Red Sea and the plethora of antiquities dotting the Nile. Treasures like Siwa, Luxor and Aswan are heavier excursions, but there are a handful of must-see destinations that can be done in a day – albeit a long day – from Cairo.
The Step Pyramid of Zoser in Saqqara is just a short distance from Cairo © Angel Villalba / Getty Images
Pyramids galore: Giza to Saqqara, Memphis and Dahshur
As the only remaining man-made world wonder, the Pyramids of Giza usually get the most face time from visitors, but the ‘other pyramids’ in Saqqara, Memphis and Dahshur are also well worth the hour’s drive south from the capital to see, among others, Egypt’s oldest pyramid. If you want to fill an entire day with just pharaonic burial grounds, start out with the Giza Necropolis after breakfast to hike around the pyramids of Menkaure, Khafre and the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Check at the ticket office which pyramids have inner chambers open to the public, as it changes daily and even hourly. Surprisingly, the inner chamber of the smallest pyramid, Menkaure, is the largest and most interesting, with three different levels. You can also head out into the desert from there to hunt for an iconic photo op with all three pyramids.
Exit the plateau past the Sphinx into the hustle of Giza to find a taxi (or pick up an Uber). If you forgot to pack water or a sandwich for lunch, now is the time to pick something up at one of the many shops outside the walls of the site before starting the 25km drive to Saqqara, which has no good food options. Once in Saqqara, head to the Step Pyramid of Zoser, the oldest pyramid in Egypt and one that offers a unique aesthetic contrast to the smoother Giza pyramids. Built as a sort of architectural experiment during the reign of Zoser (2670 BC), the first king of the Third Dynasty, the Step Pyramid was the first burial chamber to be built from limestone instead of bricks of clay and at 62m was the tallest structure at the time. The surrounding complex is awash in statues and monuments.
Dahshur's Bent Pyramid is worth a stop on a day trip from Cairo © Upperhall Ltd / robertharding / Getty Images
Tour the surrounding areas, including the Red Pyramid and Bent Pyramid, both plainly named after their most unique characteristics, before heading to Memphis to see Egypt’s former capital during the Old Kingdom. For history buffs, the name ‘Memphis’ is synonymous with pharaonic Egypt, and most pyramids built around Cairo were raised while Memphis was the seat of power. While little remains of the ancient city, there is a worthwhile open-air museum and a sphinx. Sadly, the statue of Ramses II has been removed from the site and moved to the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is scheduled to open in 2020.
Relax in the clean new resort town of Ain El Sokhna on Egypt's Red Sea coast © Kazzazm / Shutterstock
Soak in the surf in Sokhna
Beachfront Sokhna has become such a popular Red Sea weekend getaway that well-heeled Egyptians now name-drop the place into conversations any chance they get, their eyes practically glazing over at the thought of their next seaside escape. In light traffic, the 130km trip can take an hour or two on the Ain El Sokhna–Cairo Highway, and you can either negotiate with a taxi driver or hire an Uber for the day to make sure you can get there and back.
As a water-sport destination with pristine beaches and year-round sunshine, Ain El Sokhna (meaning ‘hot spring’) caters to both lazy sun worshippers and adventure junkies, with plenty of snorkelling, diving, sailing, windsurfing, kitesurfing and boat tours. As a relatively new Red Sea development, the cleaner beaches here are less crowded than at Sharm El Sheikh or Hurghada, both of which can be overcrowded with package tourism in peak months, making Sokhna a hot destination for tranquillity-seeking Egyptians. After a dip in the calm turquoise waters, check out one of the beach resorts like Porto for lunch, or hop on the Sunmarine Sea Hawk for a 90-minute boat tour with lunch and views of sea life included. The beachfront resorts are packed with bar options to round off the day’s activities with a sundowner before heading back to Cairo.
No mirage here: the Wadi Rayyan Protected Area has lakes and waterfalls where you can spot wildlife © Nader El Assy / Shutterstock
Take in an oasis at Al Fayoum
This popular oasis destination 100km south of Cairo rightfully deserves at least two days of exploration, but if pressed for time, you can still take in a number of Al Fayoum’s natural wonders during daylight hours. Many hotels in Cairo can help you organise a day tour, but if you’re travelling alone, negotiating with a taxi or Uber driver can suffice. Leave Cairo early enough to beat morning traffic, and first stop at Karanis, 25km north of Fayoum city centre and right along the road. After admiring the ancient ruins, which include two Graeco-Roman temples, move on to the natural wonders of Al Fayoum, including the Wadi Rayyan Protected Area with its waterfalls, rowboat tours to the middle of the lake and wildlife in the surrounding national park. Birdwatchers in particular should be on the lookout for eagles, falcons and migrant birds. The visitors centre on the lakefront can help with any questions.
Head to the pottery school in Tunis village to mingle with local artists, and stop in the many pottery studios to pick up a gift. The pottery centre is a good point from which to explore the vast Lake Qarun, where during autumn and winter months you can spot flamingos and other bird varieties that are resting here before heading further south.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina is an architectural marvel of modern Egypt and the city of Alexandria's cultural hub © Tomas Nevesely / Shutterstock
See Egypt’s second city, Alexandria
Cairo may be the capital, but in the minds of poets, scholars and artists of the 1960s and ’70s, Alexandria and its crashing waves will always contain the restless soul of Egypt. As the setting of Nobel Prize–winning author Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Miramar, the city is its own character, and visiting even today it’s easy to see how it charmed not only Egyptians but the artists and scholars of Europe as well. After a two-hour drive from Cairo, head to the Alexandria National Museum, an impressive colonial structure housing a carefully curated selection of artefacts that tell the city’s tumultuous history through the Pharaonic, Roman, Coptic and Islamic eras. Take a 20-minute walk towards the water to the city’s centre of culture and learning, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. With its unique sloping disk shape and exterior walls decorated with dozens of different scripts, it’s an architectural wonder in modern Egypt. Check out the main reading hall and take a tour if you have time. From there, you can take a leisurely stroll along the Corniche, stopping at one of the many cafes or restaurants to enjoy the waterfront before arriving at Fort Qaitbay, a beautifully maintained harbour citadel and popular hangout spot. Pick one of the city’s top rated fish restaurants, like Kadoura or Fish Market, for dinner before heading back to Cairo.
Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter. Make the most of your travel with sightseeing tours and activities from our trusted partners.