Visiting Egypt with children can be a delight. For them, seeing ancient monuments – or a camel for that matter – up close can be a fantasy made real. For you, the incredibly warm welcome towards young ones can smooth over many small practical hassles.
Intensely crowded Cairo isn’t obviously kid-scale, but children may delight in finding exotic trinkets in the souq. In mosques, they’re welcome to roam barefoot on carpets (but not to yell). Kids love to ride horses, or a camel, around the pyramids, or enter the deep narrow corridor that leads to the heart of a pyramid.
All of Upper Egypt, from Luxor southwards, is straight out of picture books: temples, camels and old-time boats. Many of the family-friendly hotels have pools to recover from the sightseeing and the heat.
The slow pace of the oases is well suited to children. Aside from in Bawiti, there’s virtually no hassle, and out in the desert, kids can roll down sand dunes, find fossils and sleep in a tent.
Plenty of beaches here, and plenty of entertainment for kids. Teens can learn to dive, and little ones can snorkel.
There’s plenty more to do in Egypt than look at pyramids and ride camels – though these are pretty fun too. Here are some tips for child-friendly fun in the desert, on the water and at some ancient sites.
Siwa Oasis Siwa’s mellow atmosphere is perfect for kids, though the bus ride is very long. Once there, they can dive-bomb into springs and graze on fresh dates.
Wadi Al Hittan How did a whale wind up in the desert? Find out in Wadi Al Hittan, where fossils are set in the sand. Trips here often include sandboarding on nearby dunes.
Fayoum Pottery School Hands-on pottery in the Fayoum oasis.
Nobi’s Arabian Horse Stables Ride a camel into the desert from the west bank in Luxor, with one of Nobi's expertly trained attendants to watch over you.
Great Pyramid of Khufu Older children will be astounded to enter the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza – though test for a tendency for claustrophobia beforehand.
Egyptian Museum Devise a virtual treasure hunt for children at the Egyptian Museum. Can they find King Tut’s wig box? How many miniature oarsmen does it take to row a miniature boat? Where are the baboon mummies?
Mummification Museum Children are fascinated by mummies, so learn all about the processes in Luxor or visit the Royal Mummies Halls at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Tombs of the Nobles Let them feel like Tintin uncovering the mysteries of the pharaohs at the temples in Aswan or at the Valley of the Kings.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina Bookworms can inspect antique manuscripts, while science fans can explore the science museum. And everyone loves the planetarium.
Sailing a felucca (Cairo, Luxor or Aswan) You can sail in Luxor and Aswan in the afternoon, but don't forget you can escape the traffic madness of Cairo by sailing and letting the kids play pirate.
Train to Tanta Egypt’s trains are seldom crowded in 1st class, making a trip into the Delta region – perhaps to Tanta, famous for its sweets – a low-stress half-day out.
Boating to Qanater On a Friday, join Egyptian families on the boat to Qanater, the Nile Barrages just outside of Cairo.
Riding the West Bank (Luxor) Hop on a bike on Luxor’s west bank – it’s a great way to catch whatever breeze there is.
Tramming in Alexandria Ride the tram in Alexandria from end to end for a cheap, low-stress view of the city.
Snorkelling (Red Sea Coast) Snorkelling in the Red Sea is a dazzling introduction to the underwater world. Seek out sites – in Sharm and Al Quseir, for instance – where kids can drift along the side of a reef, rather than directly over it.
Shipyards (Alexandria) Boats of all sizes get worked on in these shipyards. Ask aspiring captains which they’d like to helm. Round it out with a visit to the fish market, then dinner at one of many family-friendly restaurants.
Suez Canal (Port Said) For shipping on an even larger scale, stop in Port Said and watch the massive freighters go through the Suez Canal.
What Egypt lacks in kiddie infrastructure, such as playgrounds and nappy-changing tables, it more than makes up for in its loving attitude towards little ones. In all but the finest restaurants, waiters are delighted to see kids – don’t be surprised if your baby even gets passed around the place for everyone to hug and kiss, or your toddler is welcomed onto laps and fed sweets. (Yes, probably right before bedtime. Egyptians often have a different concept of ‘bedtime’.)
Teenagers are less subject to this kind of attention, though their Egyptian counterparts will likely seem a bit younger and more sheltered. By adolescence, separation of the sexes is more typical, so teens should abide by grown-up etiquette when meeting Egyptians of their age.
Safety standards may make visitors nervous: don’t expect car seats (or even seat belts, for that matter) in taxis or private cars, or child-size life preservers on boats.
Hygiene in food preparation can be inconsistent, so be prepared for diarrhoea or other stomach problems (and have a plan for when you’re struck down and the kids are still raring to go). Rehydration salts, available very cheaply at all pharmacies (ask for Rehydran), can be a life-saver, as children can lose fluid rapidly in Egypt’s hot, dry climate.
Keep kids away from stray animals, which can spread disease – street cats in particular are everywhere and liable to scratch if approached.
In resort towns formula is readily available, as are disposable nappies, but these can be hard to find in out-of-the-way places. High chairs are often available in better restaurants. Babysitting facilities are usually available in top-end hotels. Snacks such as peanuts, sesame-seed bars, dried fruit and dates are common; stock up for outings, though, as it’s possible to wind up somewhere with no other services than someone selling sugary drinks and potato chips.
If you need more enticements during your trip, stop by the bookshop in any five-star hotel – they’re usually stocked with good Egypt-themed books and toys.
For more practical advice, pick up a copy of Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children, written by a team of parent-writers.
If they’re not already, get kids reading about ancient Egypt. As a starter, Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s classic fantasy The Egypt Game may get tweens hooked. For budding Egyptologists, the British Museum (www.ancientegypt.co.uk) website is loaded with games and other material; www.greatscott.com introduces hieroglyphics.
For modern Egypt, look for The Day of Ahmed’s Secret, by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland, a wonderful picture book set in one of Cairo’s poor neighbourhoods. Teens may like Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, by Bahaa’ Taher; Life Is More Beautiful than Paradise, by Khaled Al Berry; or I Want to Get Married! by Ghada Abdel Aal.
Also make sure children are up-to-date with routine vaccinations, and discuss possible travel vaccinations with your doctor well before departure.
Stock up your first-aid kit, pack good sun hats and don’t skimp on the sunscreen or rehydration salts. For infants, you’ll want a sling or back carrier – strollers will get you nowhere. Bring your own car seat if travelling by car.