Egypt, a country linking northeast Africa with the Middle East, dates to the time of the pharaohs. Millennia-old monuments sit along the fertile Nile River Valley, including Giza’s colossal Pyramids and Great Sphinx as well as Luxor’s hieroglyph-lined Karnak Temple and Valley of the Kings tombs. The capital, Cairo, is home to Ottoman landmarks like Muhammad Ali Mosque and the Egyptian Museum, a trove of antiquities.
Most visited attractions in Egypt
Pyramids of Giza
The last surviving wonder of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Pyramids of Giza are one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks. Having awed travelers down through the ages, these tombs of the Pharaohs Cheops (Khufu), Chephren (Khafre), and Mycerinus (Menkaure), guarded by the enigmatic Sphinx, are usually top of most visitor’s lists of tourist attractions to see in Egypt and often the first sight they head to after landing. Today, sitting on the desert edge of Cairo’s sprawl, these megalithic memorials to dead pharaohs are still as wondrous a sight as they ever were and an undeniable highlight of any Egypt trip.
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 engineering feat carried out by UNESCO in the 1960s, which saw the entire temple moved from its original setting to save it from disappearing under the rising water of the Aswan dam. Today, exploring Abu Simbel is just as much about admiring the triumph of this international effort to save the temple complex as it is about gaping in wonder at Ramses II’s awe-inspiring building works, itself.
Luxor’s Temples & Tombs
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, power base of the New Kingdom pharaohs, and home to more sights than most can see on one visit. Luxor’s east bank is home the modern city, with its vibrant souq; the two temples of Karnak and Luxor; and the museum. The west bank’s lush farmland and barren cliffs are where the vast majority of Luxor’s tourist attractions sit, with so many tomb and temple sights that it has 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.
Cruising the Nile
Egypt is defined by the Nile. For many visitors, a multi-day cruise upon this famed waterway that saw the rise of the Pharaonic era is a highlight of their Egypt trip. Cruising the Nile is also the most relaxing way to see the temples that stud the banks of the river on the route between Luxor and Aswan, plus sunrise and sunset over the date-palm-studded river banks, backed by sand dunes, is one of Egypt’s most tranquil vistas. The two famous sights on a Nile Cruise are the Temple of Kom Ombo and Edfu’s Temple of Horus, where all the big cruise boats stop.
If you’d prefer a less crowded and slower experience, though, and don’t mind “roughing it” a bit, you can also cruise the Nile by felucca (Egypt’s traditional lateen-sailed wooden boats), which also allows you to create your own itinerary. We spent two days on the felucca and enjoyed it tremendously. The vast amount of cruise boat itineraries depart from either Luxor and Aswan, but feluccas can only be chartered for multi-day trips from Aswan.
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. Then ride a camel to the desert monastery of St. Simeon on Aswan’s east bank. Afterwards, relax in one of the riverboat restaurants while watching the lateen-sailed feluccas drift past. Make sure to jump aboard a felucca at sunset to sail around Aswan’s islands. This is by far, Aswan’s most popular activity and the most relaxing way to take in the local sights. There are plenty of historic sites here and numerous temples nearby, including Philae Temple on its island, but one of Aswan’s most popular things to do is simply kicking back and watching the river life go by.
A treasure trove of the Pharaonic world, Cairo’s Egyptian Museum is one of the world’s great museum collections. The faded pink mansion in downtown Cairo is home to a dazzling amount of exhibits.
It’s a higgledy-piggledy place, with little labeling on offer and chronological order severely lacking. Instead every corner you turn here is home to some wonderful piece of ancient art or statuary, which would be the highlight of any other museum. The museum’s star collection is the haul of golden treasures unearthed from Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Travelers should note that the Egyptian Museum’s swag of riches is in the process of being transferred to the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) in Giza, near the pyramids, which is tentatively due to open (after years of delays) in November 2022. The GEM will finally provide this world-class collection with a worthy showcase, and the entirety of Tutankhamen’s treasures, many of which have been kept in storage for years, will finally be completely on display.
Travel & safety
One thing you will notice when traveling to Egypt is that there is a strong military presence. Soldiers with heavy-duty rifles are everywhere, in all major tourist sites (in fact, in all hotels, stations, and tourist landmarks you will have to go through airport-style security). Remember that Egypt relies a lot on tourism and making sure tourists are and feel safe is important.
Egypt is a conservative country. Unless you are visiting a hipster bar in Zamalek, Cairo’s most up-and-coming neighborhood, you really are better off covering your arms, legs, chest, and shoulder. It’s a sign of respect, and it will save you from unwanted harassment.
Aish Baladi is the Egyptian version of pita bread. It’s made with 100% whole wheat flour baked at extremely hot temperatures. It’s baked several times a day in Cairo and eaten at every meal so you never have to settle for stale bread in Egypt. This type of flatbread has been produced since ancient Egyptian times. Back then, it was made with an ancient grain known as emmer wheat. Wild yeast would help the dough rise which would then be baked in traditional Egyptian clay ovens made with red mud from the Nile River.
Hummus – this is Egyptian food favorite that’s popular throughout the Middle East, it refers to a type of savory dip made from cooked mashed chickpeas blended with tahini, garlic, cumin, and lemon juice.
Baba Ghanoush – Like hummus, baba ghanoush (or baba ghanouj) is one of the most popular dips served in Egyptian cuisine. Originally from Lebanon, it consists of mashed cooked eggplant blended with tahini, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, herbs, and spices.