Egypt has long been a tourist hotspot, but after the uprising in February 2011, tourist numbers fell dramatically. Since the revolution, tourists have started trickling back to visit the incredible historical sights, stunning seaside resorts and remote desert oases.
Overall, Egypt remains a safe and easy place to travel independently. One thing is for sure, if you want to wander the pyramids and get photographs without crowds of tourists blocking your view, or scuba dive for a fraction of the normal rates, now is the time to visit. So, besides the blindingly obvious and easy-to-get-to tourist attractions like the Pyramids in Giza, what else should you not miss?
I recently spent a month overlanding in Egypt – here is my list of five absolutely unmissable destinations:
1. Ras Mohammed, Sinai
This 480 sqaure-km gem of a national park at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula contains some of the most astounding coral reefs in the world and an incredible variety of marine life. The park is near enough to Sharm el Sheik to be visited as a day trip, but to make the most of your visit you really need to stay overnight. Camping is possible at three small neighbouring beaches, and given the low tourist numbers you’re more than likely to have a whole beach to yourself. The calm, protected beaches are picture-perfect, but when you get under the water you really see the jaw-dropping beauty of this pristine environment. This is literally the most spectacular place I have ever snorkeled.
2. Western Desert
From Cairo or Luxor, the Western Desert can be traversed in a couple of days via the Oasis Route. The oases are sleepy palm-fringed towns – most have hot springs and campsites, but it’s far more fun to head out to a quiet spot in the desert where you can watch the shadows creep over the dunes and camp under the stars. In the heart of the Western Desert is the White Desert, with its incredible white chalk formations, ranging from half a meter to over 30 meters tall, rising from the desert floor like giant meringues.
3. St Katherine’s Monastery, Sinai
The original chapel, built around 330AD, was believed to be located near the site of the burning bush, and in the 6th century, the Emperor Justinian built a fortress around the chapel and a monastery inside the grounds. Pilgrims have been coming to the Monastery and nearby Mount Sinai, where Joseph is believed to have received the 10 commandments, for centuries. You can stroll around the tranquil gardens or enter the fortress and head to the beautiful 6th century Church of the Transfiguration with its huge chandeliers and historic icons. Don’t miss the Monastery Museum, a treasure chest full of gold and silver crosses, chalices inlaid with precious stones, spectacular icons, and a fascinating collection of ancient Bibles and manuscripts.
4. Abu Simbel
Although a couple of hours by road from Aswan, Abu Simbel is well worth a visit. The Great Temple of Ramses II, with its façade of four massive statues of the pharaoh, along with the nearby Temple of Hathor, was famously moved to higher ground when construction of Lake Nasser began. Looking at the enormous temples, it seems impossible to believe that they were cut up into blocks and painstakingly and perfectly reassembled.
5. Temple of Hatshepsut, Luxor
Karnak Temple and the Valley of Kings are the two big ticket items in Luxor, and well worth seeing, but don’t miss the stunning Temple of Hatshepsut, set at the bottom of a 300m limestone cliff. For an incredible day trip, rent a bicycle in town and cycle the 4km to the temple – it’s relatively flat and should be easy for people with a reasonable level of fitness. You can leave your bicycle outside and take a walk across the Great Court to the entrance. Once you have made your way through the maze of colonnades, take a walk up the hill on the right of the temple all the way up to the top of the cliff, where you get an incredible view down over the temple and surrounding area. From here, it’s a short walk over the other side of the hill down into the Valley of Kings.
This little fox seemed really curious about us. Western Desert
Beautiful gardens at St. Katherine’s Monastery
Inside the walls of St. Katherine’s Monastery
Intricate carvings on the temple walls – Abu Simbel
The Temple of Hathor at Abu Simbel
Temple of Ramses II
Perched on the cliff above the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor
Statues line the entrance at Karkak Temple