Checking Off the Bucket List
In the U.S., we grew up learning about ancient Egypt, the pharoahs, Cleopatra, the flooding cycle of the Nile, all of it. All my life I looked forward to visiting. It was with rabid excitement that I stepped off the plane to walk through a chaotic customs. I reveled in the queue, the stamps, the smell, and the run-down look of everything. I could not wait to get out into the frenetic city of Cairo and start exploring. Egypt definitely was full of bucket list items, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
Here are our top 10 things we think you shouldn’t miss if you visit this fascinating country!
1. The Nile River
With its crocodiles and hippos, we couldn’t wait to see the Nile. We took a trip to the banks just to look not long after we arrived. We also went straight to the train station to arrange our tickets to Luxor where we would ride a felluca on the river. Some people take Nile cruises on large boats, and some people take a few days on a felluca. Regardless what works for you, spending some time on the life-giving waters of the Nile is a must!
2. Karnak Temple
By far one of our favorite sites, Karnak Temple (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is everything we expected and more. Tall majestic statues, lines of lions, scarabs, palms, and lots of frescoes and carvings, it is a marvel. To think it was erected two thousand years ago just boggles the mind. A very important temple in its day, it was dedicated to the God Arun. Each year it hosted a festival to realign the chaos of the Nile flooding.
3. Abu Simbel
If it wasn’t impressive enough when it was built to honor Ramses II, the whole complex was moved when the Aswan High Dam was built in 1968. What a feat! Getting to this world heritage site, Abu Simbel, is half of the adventure. Unless you fly in, you must attach yourselves to a tour group that leaves extremely early in the morning and drives as a caravan through the early morning desert. The huge stone temples are so big that it is a bit overwhelming. The first thing you notice are the four colossal statues carved into the temples that stand over 20 meters high.
4. The Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza
It would be very surprising to find out someone visited Egypt and did not visit the pyramids at Giza, which are by far the most famous of all the sites and of course inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Located so close to Cairo, it is the easiest site to access, and you get to see the famous pyramids as well as the sphinx. The site is completely set up for tourists. There are guides, horses, camels, horse carts, photographers, and of course souvenirs. It is a bit much, and is usually crowded, but it’s still a must. You can enter some of the pyramids, like the Great Pyramid of Khufu. It is dark, narrow, and claustrophobic as you ascend the small wooden walkway to get to the central chamber.
5. The Valley of the Kings
On the west side of the Nile, near Luxor, is the Valley of the Kings (also a world heritage site). Located in a natural wadi (valley eroded by water), archaeologists have located 63 tombs for the kings and royalty of the New Kingdom. Many had been robbed, but many like the most famous one of King Tut were left untouched and full of treasures for thousands of years. Each tomb is completely different, and it is worth paying extra to see them since only three are included in the entry price.
6. Cairo and the Khan el-Khalili Market
Cairo is a huge, bustling, chaotic city, but well worth spending some time in. The market area is especially interesting. Spices, souvenirs, food, really all kinds of things can be found and bought there. Even if you’re not a shopper, though, people-watching is always best at a market. Here you can find a tea or hookah cafe and while away the hours watching the vendors and customers alike.
Cairo also is the home of the Egyptian Museum which, along with all of its other treasures, houses the contents of King Tut’s tomb. Full of gold, sarcophagi, and all things Egyptian, it is well worth arriving there first thing in the morning and planning on taking some time. And don’t miss the mummies!
Deciphering the ancient writing of the Egyptians is fun and entertaining for visitors of all ages. There are coloring books and informational texts that will aid in translation, but it is so much fun to wander through a temple and see how extensive the writing was. It is on carvings and frescoes, walls, columns, everywhere. Can you read it?
8. Ride a Camel
There are many opportunities to head out to the desert and ride a camel. Probably the most popular place is in Giza, but if you will be traveling to other cities, cost and time-wise it will be better to wait. One fun place to ride is across the river from Luxor. Camels are rented and ridden on an ancient road to the monastery. It’s an experience of a life-time, especially when you see plenty of locals on both camels and donkeys sharing the “road” with you.
9. Visit a Nubian Village
Unlike the Egyptians, the Nubians are a completely different people. They look different, have different customs, and live in colorfully painted villages. Walking around a Nubian village is like being transported to another country and time altogether. One of the easiest ones to visit is across the river from Luxor, and all you have to do is take a water-taxi to get there.
No trip is complete without sampling the local delicacies. From sugar cane juice to tea, from kebabs to stuffed vegetables there is a lot to try and a favorite dish for everyones’s palate. In Cairo you will find fast food sandwich stalls that are quick and tasty. Some of our favorites were the liver sandwiches, the stuffed grapeleaves, and of course the many spreads like Baba Ghannoug to smear your bread with and savor.
Like many countries there is a difference in price for Egyptians and tourists, a big difference. Be prepared to pay for your opportunity to visit many of the tombs, pyramids, and temples. In almost every case, there is an overall entry price which allows you admission to the site as well as some of the lesser known tombs and areas, but for the big names there will be an additional cost, sometimes rather exorbitant. King Tut’s tomb is probably the best example of this.
Photography is not allowed inside the tombs and temples, but of course you will see plenty of people taking photos nonetheless. Often a guard will look the other way when offered “baksheesh” (a tip). If you are allowed to take photographs, please remember that the flash deteriorates the frescoes, so it is much better to take the photos with whatever light is available.
Getting around Egypt takes a little bit of effort, but is completely doable. There are domestic flights that are reasonably priced as well as trains that traverse the majority of the country. The cheapest way to get around is by bus. If you plan on taking private cars or taxis, you will pay for the privilege. Day tours provide a driver and guide which will help you negotiate throughout.