Home of the ancient Pharaohs, Egypt is a dazzling destination of temples and tombs that wow all who visit. It's not all historic treasures though. With vast tracts of desert, superb scuba diving, and the famed Nile River there's something for everyone here. Beach lovers head to the Sinai to soak up the sun, while archaeology fans will have a field day in Luxor. Cairo is the megalopolis that can't be beaten for city slickers, while Siwa oasis and the southern town of Aswan offer a slice of the slow pace of the countryside. Egypt has so much for travelers to see and do; it's the perfect country for a mix of activities combining culture, adventure, and relaxation.
Pyramids of Giza
The last surviving of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Pyramids of Giza are one of the world's most recognizable landmarks. Built as tombs for the mighty Pharaohs and guarded by the enigmatic Sphinx, Giza's pyramid complex has awed travelers down through the ages and had archaeologists (and a fair few conspiracy theorists) scratching their heads over how they were built for centuries. Today, these megalithic memorials to dead kings are still as wondrous a sight as they ever were. An undeniable highlight of any Egypt trip, Giza's pyramids should not be missed.
Luxor's Karnak Temple and the Valley of the Kings
Famed for the Valley of the Kings, Karnak Temple, and the Memorial Temple of Hatshepsut, the Nile-side town of Luxor in Upper Egypt has a glut of tourist attractions. This is ancient Thebes, powerbase of the New Kingdom pharaohs, and home to more sights than most can see on one visit. While the East Bank brims with vibrant souk action, the quieter West Bank is home to a bundle of tombs and temples that have been called the biggest open-air museum in the world. Spend a few days here exploring the colorful wall art of the tombs and gazing in awe at the colossal columns in the temples, and you'll see why Luxor continues to fascinate historians and archaeologists.
Egypt's most tranquil town is Aswan, set upon the winding curves of the Nile. Backed by orange-hued dunes this is the perfect place to stop and unwind for a few days and soak up the chilled-out atmosphere. Take the river ferry across to Elephantine Island and stroll the colorful streets of the Nubian villages. Ride a camel to the desert monastery of St. Simeon on the East Bank. Or just drink endless cups of tea on one of the riverboat restaurants, while watching the lateen-sailed feluccas drift past.
Even in a country festooned with temples, Abu Simbel is something special. This is Ramses II's great temple, adorned with colossal statuary standing guard outside, and with an interior sumptuously decorated with wall paintings. Justly famous for its megalithic proportions, Abu Simbel is also known for the incredible feat, which saw the entire temple moved from its original setting - set to disappear under the water because of the Aswan dam - during the 1960s in a massive UNESCO operation that took four years.
Egypt's kookiest natural wonder is the White Desert where surreally shaped chalk mountains have created what looks like a snowy wonderland in the middle of the arid sand. The landscapes here look like something out of a science fiction movie with blindingly white boulders and iceberg-like pinnacles. For desert fans and adventurers, this is the ultimate weird playground, while anybody who's had their fill of temples and tombs will enjoy this spectacular natural scenery.
River Nile Cruise
Cruising the Nile is a popular way of visiting upper Egypt. The Nile River has been Egypt’s lifeline since ancient times and there is no better way to trace the passage of Egypt’s history than to follow the course of the Nile. Almost all Egyptian cruise ships travel the Luxor-Aswan route which is safe, scenic and terminates at two of Egypt’s most important towns. Taking a Felucca down the Nile is an adventurous option. Feluccas are sail boats that have been used on the Nile since antiquity. A Felucca is not quite as comfortable as a luxury cruise ship but nothing can beat sailing in a quiet rig that was designed thousands of years ago.
Red Sea Reef
The Red Sea, off the coast of Egypt, is one of the most beautiful places in the world to go diving. The waters of the Red Sea are renowned for their spectacular visibility and features some of the most exotic seascapes. With its wide expanse of coral formation on the reefs, it is home to thousands of different sea creatures. Red Sea beach resorts are located on both sides of the sea, on the east side and part of the Sinai peninsula is the long established Sharm el Sheikh and its neo-hippy counterpart, Dahab. On the west coast of the Red Sea lies relatively old and touristy Hurghada and a cluster of new resort towns.
The Islamic calendar determines most holidays and festivals in Egypt; however, several Coptic Christian holidays are widely celebrated. For instance, Sham Al-Nessim is celebrated on Coptic Easter. This holiday itself, however, has Pharaonic origins as a celebration of the arrival of spring.
The Islamic calendar is a lunar-based calendar so Islamic holidays shift 10-11 days relative to the Western calendar each year. For this reason, the Islamic holidays will cycle through the entire Western year over 30 years. Days also begin at sundown on the Islamic calendar so the festivities usually begin on the evening before you might expect them.
Ramadan in Egypt
By far the most crucial holiday in Egypt and also the most likely to affect your time here is Ramadan. The holiday is named for the month of the Islamic calendar in which it occurs as a celebration of the first part of the revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Mohammed. Most Muslims fast (avoiding food, drink, sex, cigarettes) from sunrise to sunset throughout the month. Ramadan is generally a time of heightened piety. Muslims who might drink otherwise will often refrain and there is a more considerable effort to adhere to traditional values.
The fast can affect schedules with restaurants and shops staying closed during the middle of the day and opening after the fast is broken at sundown. Opening hours for tourism sites may shift as well, closing one hour earlier to allow employees to get home to break the fast.
Traveling during Ramadan does have its perks. Getting into the rhythm of the fast can be an enriching experience. After sunset, the streets come alive and people stay out celebrating and eating late into the night. If you walk in the street around sundown there is a good chance that you will be invited to eat with a group of fast breakers. Non-Muslims are not expected to observe the fast but should be conscientious of the fact that most people around them are fasting. Refraining from smoking and eating in public is considered polite.
Other Islamic Holidays
Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the month of Ramadan and in the cities is marked by big celebrations. Many Egyptians who can afford it take this time to travel. Eid al-Adha is equally or more important, marking the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son in the name of God. Families remember the sheep that he ultimately sacrificed instead of his son with their own sacrificial slaughter. There will be sheep and other livestock tethered all over the cities and villages in the weeks leading up to the holiday, waiting to be slaughtered after the morning prayers when the holiday arrives. A few weeks after Eid al-Adha is the Islamic New Year. The last major Islamic holiday is Moulid al-Nabi, the Prophet’s Birthday.
all of these holidays are widely observed. Many bars and restaurants will refrain from serving alcohol during these holidays as it is illegal for them to serve Egyptian nationals. Hotels will likely not be affected by these changes though.
In addition to the Moulid al-Nabi, which is celebrated across the Muslim world, there are many other smaller, local moulids that celebrate the lives of Muslim saints or holy men. These events are supposedly intended to obtain blessings from the saint being honored, but in practice, they are huge social events. Large moulids may attracted crowds in the millions, dancing, chanting, selling goods, and generally having a good time. These events are the most prominent displays of Egyptian popular culture in the entire year.
Cairo, Tanta, and Luxor all host large moulids. Al-Hussein, Sayeda Zeinab and Imam Al-Shafi’i Mosques all host large moulids in Cairo at different points in the years, but there are many smaller celebrations. If you are lucky to hear about one, keep in mind that these festivals are raucous, crowded affairs, full of music, ritual prayers, and dancing.
Coptic Christmas and Coptic Easter are both national holidays. Coptic Christmas is on January 7th and in recent years more of the trappings of the Western Christmas celebration have been making it to Egypt. You may see more Santa hats, Christmas lights, and Christmas trees than you ever expected to see in Egypt around this time of year.
Coptic Easter also coincides with a much older holiday that traces its roots back to Pharaonic times called Sham al-Nessim. The name means ‘sniffing the breeze’ and it is a celebration of the arrival of spring that usually takes place in April. The holiday carries some traditions that might be familiar as they parallel the Western celebration of Easter, such as egg painting. In general, Sham al-Nessim is celebrated outdoors with families enjoying picnics in green spaces and enjoying eating specific foods like a type of pickled fish called fesheekh.