Egypt is an ancient land filled with monuments and burial chambers that have withstood the test of time. At the end of last year, I had the chance to explore the country with a tour group which allowed me to see A LOT! Keep reading for 10 things that I highly recommend seeing and doing if you visit Egypt!
One thing to note: All of the activities that I detail below were done on a 9 day tour I did of Egypt through Travel Talk Tours (you can read a full review of my tour here). The activities are generally grouped together by location, starting with those in the North in Cairo down to Luxor and finally to Aswan, the furthest South I traveled. While I recommend everything on this list, I understand that moving around so much in one country may not be feasible for everyone traveling independently from a tour company. Prices for entrance tickets are all listed in Egyptian prices.
1. The Giza Plateau
Pyramids of Giza//entrance ticket – 80 L.E.
The number one thing to see in Egypt is, of course, the pyramids of Giza. These three colossal monuments stand on the Giza plateau, right alongside Cairo. Contrary to what most people believe (and what I did too before I went), the pyramids are actually located right next to the bustling city. It was actually kind of surreal to be driving around downtown and look up to see them towering just beyond the buildings.
A trip to Egypt would not be complete without a visit to the plateau and the three pyramids. There was once more, but archaeologists destroyed them in attempts to understand and figure out just how the ancient Egyptians built these amazing monuments. However, the pyramids remain just as much a mystery today as they were when the first outsiders discovered them.
On my trip, my guide explained that there is so much that scientists and archaeologists still don’t know about them. A few examples are: how to access hidden chambers, how exactly they were built with no modern technology, and how an apple can sit inside for a month and never go bad. What????? When you visit, there is an additional ticket to see inside the biggest one, known as the Great Pyramid (entrance ticket – 200 L.E.). I would recommend it! How often can you claim to have been inside a pyramid?! And after coming all that way… why pass up the opportunity?
Note: In order to climb up to the burial chamber inside, there is a portion where you have to bend over and cannot stand up straight. If you suffer from claustrophobia or do not like tight spaces, you might want to skip seeing the inside.
Also located on the Giza Plateau is the infamous Sphinx statue. With the body of a lion and the head of the king who built it, the sphinx sits right by the pyramids, seemingly guarding the remains of its occupant. The statue is not as large as I was led to believe, but still an impressive sight. While most people believe Napoleon was the one to damage the nose, it was actual a local Egyptian who believed people visiting the statue at night were worshipping it. He was able to take a hammer to it at a time when the sphinx was still mostly buried beneath the sand with only the head protruding. It also is a fun place to take perspective pictures that make it appear as if you are kissing it. Pucker up!
One thing many tourists have on their ‘to do’ list for Egypt is a camel ride. You can easily pay for a ride near the pyramids and there are many camel and their owners ready to give one to you. I took a ride from the overlook where all three pyramids are visible in a row with Cairo in the background down toward the direction of the pyramids. The guys at the lookout there were recommended by my tour company for being fair with their prices (about 200 L.E.) and taking good care of the camels. your camel guy even took lots of cook pictures of my boyfriend and I in front of the pyramids on our camels for not extra charge (though we did still tip him a little). Fun!
2. Egyptian Museum
Named by Lonely Planet as ‘one of the most important collections of ancient artifacts,’ the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is full to the brim with items from all over Egypt (entrance ticket – 75 L.E.). They are roughly organized by time period and location, but many of the items are kind of thrown in with other exhibits as they prepare to expand and move to a larger location. It will take some time to make your way through everything but make sure you do not miss the following:
King Tut’s tomb was absolutely packed with treasures that are all housed at the Egyptian museum including the large sarcophagus, golden chariots, tables, beds and much more … everything he thought he would need in the afterlife. Make sure to find the room that displays the jewelry found on the pharaoh, much of it wrapped in the cloth surrounding his mummy, as well as his famous golden mask. Photography is prohibited in that room and there is a guard who keeps a close eye on everyone.
You must purchase an additional ticket to see the royal mummies but it is totally worth it! For only a few dollars (entrance ticket – 100 L.E.), you can see the actual bodies of many of the royals who built a lot of the ancient monuments in Egypt including Ramses II and Queen Hatchepsut. It was truly fascinating seeing the hair and teeth still intact. Some of the mummies even sport different hairstyles, giving you a glimpse of the hairdo’s of ancient times.
3. Dinner Cruise on the Nile
While still in Cairo, plan to spend one night out on a dinner cruise along the Nile. There are many companies that offer a buffet dinner along with a belly dancing show. The boat my tour took us on was called The Andrea and I had a great time! The food was all really good and the show was very entertaining. The belly dancer came out a few times and in between they had a man perform a traditional ‘tanoura’ dance. This dance honestly was the best part of the whole night! The twirling skirt could be lifted and lit up with colorful lights – it was mesmerizing! Both dancers also got the audience to participate, which was a lot of fun for everyone on board! Definitely plan to have dinner on a boat down the Nile at least one night in Cairo.
4. Valley of the Kings
A few hours south of Cairo is Luxor, home to the Valley of The Kings and several temples. I had heard of the valley before, but was surprised how cool it was! The valley was built by pharaohs who wanted to be buried in a more private location in order to discourage tomb raiders. The result is an entire valley with burial chambers, some of which are still being discovered! Because they are dug into the sides of the mountains, the tombs are pristinely preserved; I was surprised how well the paint has remained in tact with lots of bright colors! All of the burial chambers are fascinating to wander into, but your ticket will let you into three (the guards at the entrances will punch a hole for each chamber you visit), so choose wisely. (Entrance ticket – 100 L.E.)
King Tut’s Tomb:
In addition to the three temples allowed with each visit, you can also purchase a ticket to see inside King Tut’s Tomb, which I recommend (entrance ticket – 100 L.E.). It is really interesting to see the small space where all of the treasures fit as well as see his mummy (which was a lot smaller than I anticipated). There is no photography allowed inside – guards will try and take your phone or camera! If you do take a picture, be prepared to bribe the guard to keep the photo.
Queen Hatshepsut Temple:
Also located in the Valley of the King’s is Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple (entrance ticket – 50 L.E.). Some notable thing to see inside is the relief depicting the transfer of imports and exports between Egypt and surrounding nations under the Queen’s rule. The exterior of the temple with the long staircase leading to the top is also quite impressive as well as the large statues of the falcon gods along the top.
5. Egyptian Temples
(located in Sakkara near Cairo//entrance ticket – 80 L.E.) This pyramid is the very first pyramid ever built in Egypt and the oldest stone structure in the country. On the grounds are several funeral tombs, one of which houses the very first hieroglyphics. It was fascinating to tour the different burial chambers, filled with reliefs of life along the Nile river.
(located in Luxor//entrance ticket- 60 L.E.) This temple was built in stages by several of Egypt’s rulers, the most famous being King Ramses II. This temple has a beautiful colonnade and several open courts with shrines in the back. I visited the temple at night, which gave it a unique appearance. It also turned out to a great way to really enjoy the temple without the heat of the sun beating down on us! The avenue of sphinxes at the front of this temple lead all the way to Karnak temple, also located in Luxor. If you visit this temple, try and find the relief depicting the god of fertility; the carving shows the sperm and an egg making some historians believe the Egyptians had some sort of device allowing them to see things at the microscopic level!
(located in Luxor//entrance ticket – 80 L.E.) This temple stands at the other end of the Avenue of Sphinxes in Luxor and houses a huge temple complex built by various rulers of Egypt, similar to Luxor Temple. The most impressive part of this temple is the colonnade hall that has 134 huge columns. A fun little tradition here is a ‘marriage column’ with a scarab beetle carving on it (the symbol of good luck) located near the holy lake: legend says if you make a wish for love and walk around the column 7 times counter-clockwise, you will be lucky in marriage. Give it a try!
(located in Aswan//entrance ticket – 60 L.E.) This temple is unique due to the fact that it can only be reached by boat. After a ten minute boat ride, spend some time exploring all of this small island. One notable aspect is the engraving by Napoleons army as they pursued their enemies to the south of Egypt. I also really enjoyed the reliefs on the front of the temple and discovering hidden corners of the island.
(located in Aswan//entrance ticket – 60 L.E.) I found this relatively empty temple to be one of my favorites. Dedicated to Horus, the falcon god, our guide pointed out many elements that really made me appreciate the construction by the ancient Egyptians. For example, on one side of the temple a staircase led up to the second floor, riding its way around and around. On the opposite side, the stairs leading back down went in a straight tunnel to the first floor. Why have the staircases constructed in this way? Because it was meant to mimic the flight of a falcon: as they ascend, they float in circles but dive directly back to earth when descending. Fascinating! Because it wasn’t as busy as some of the other temples, I had more time to really look at the reliefs and hieroglyphics while wandering around without fighting with the crowds.
(located in Aswan//entrance ticket – 50 L.E.) This temple dedicated to the god of the Nile Crocodile was different from many of the other temples that I visited during my trip simply because of who visitors were meant to worship. On the walls, our guide pointed out an ancient calendar that showed which offerings were meant to be given to the gods on specific days. There was also a relief depicting doctor tools and even a birthing stool that helped women to give birth. Also located on the grounds of this temple was a museum that housed the mummies for the Nile crocodiles – definitely stop by to see just how massive these crocs could get!
6. Abu Simbel
One of the most impressive monuments in Egypt is Abu Simbel (entrance ticket – 100 L.E.). Built by King Ramses II, this temple was once doomed to be lost after the construction of the High Dam. Thanks to modern engineering and technology, the temple was moved above the flood waters and still stands to this day facing the rising sun. The impressive statues at the entrance to the temples are unforgettable and show King Ramses II seated as he guards the temple. During construction, a part of Ramses head fell off but was kept this way and can be seen at the feet of one statue to this day. At the neighboring temple, make sure to check out the statues of the Queen – the largest depiction of any woman from ancient Egypt and one of the only ones with her in the guise of a goddess.
7. Sail down the Nile on a Felucca
One of my favorite parts of my trip to Egypt was floating down the Nile on a traditional felucca sailboat. These boats offer a serene and calm way to see the Nile. On my trip, we opted to spend two nights on the felucca with the crew preparing all of our meals. It was a perfect way to relax, eat amazing food and jump into the cooling waters when we got too hot. While I highly recommend spending a night on a felucca, simply taking a sailing for a few hours is also quite enjoyable.
8. Visit Local Artisans
Whenever I visit a new place, I am always on the lookout for unique items I can bring home and display in my home. Egypt is full of artisans and my tour group was able to visit a few during our trip. I recommend checking out the following if you are interested in taking home an authentic piece of Egypt.
Many of the ancient Egyptian monuments and temples are built with alabaster stone. Some artisans still use the stone for carving sculptures in the same way that the ancient Egyptians did. On a visit to an alabaster factory, we watched how they make amazing sculptures and vessels and had the opportunity to purchase some of our own for a very reasonable price.
Essence & Perfume:
The ancient Egyptians used different oils as perfume and some artisans continue the tradition today. One of the most popular scents they used was made from the lotus flower. The perfume shop also had scents that form the base of many of the most popular designer scents as well. The oils are supposed to last much longer than modern perfumes which contain alcohol, making it a good investment. The bottles themselves were also quite beautiful!
Papyrus is famous for being the material that the Egyptians used to write on. In the papyrus shop, we watched how to construct the parchments and viewed a gallery full of paintings by local artists on pieces of papyrus. Visitors could also choose to get their names in hieroglyphics written on anything they purchased.
9. Hanging Church & Mohammed Ali’s Mosque
These two religious monuments both played important roles in Egypt and its history.
Hanging Church (located in Cairo):
This church sits on top of Roman ruins from the time of Trajan, which is how it gets its name. It used to be the gathering place for Christians to travel to before the Vatican existed. Look for the place in the floor where the old ruins are visible beneath and try to find the secret tunnels that allowed priests to escape.
Mohammed Ali’s Mosque (located in Cairo//entrance ticket 60 L.E.):
Situated at the top of a hill, this citadel is the perfect place to take in views of Cairo. The mosque architecture is based off Hagia Sofia in Turkey but is more decorated on the inside. It also houses the remains of Mohammed Ali. To show respect, please make sure that you wear the proper attire (head scarf, long pants, no shoulders exposed).
10. Experience local life
Visiting a different country is not complete without getting a taste of the local culture. A good way to do this is eat the native food, shop at the local stores and explore to really experience life like a local!
I had so much amazing food on my trip! The cuisine in Egypt has mediterranean flavors such as hummus, pita and falafel. We also had a lot of fresh vegetables and roasted meat as well as rice. One of my favorite things was the homemade sausages that they would cook right over the fire! So good! The local Stella beer is also quite good and had really different labels that were fun to look for. I honestly didn’t have a bad meal and enjoyed everything.
Cairo is home to one of the oldest bazaars in the world. Spend some time (at the end of your trip) doing souvenir shopping for friends and family back home. Any souvenir you could find in the entire country can be found here. A fun part of shopping at the bazaar is trying to get a good bargain! Never pay the full price you are quoted; you can always haggle for a better deal.
I got the opportunity to visit a Nubian village and have dinners with one of the families. It was an honor to be invited into the house and see how the locals live. If you have the chance, I really encourage looking into this! I got to get traditional henna, have an amazing meal and even met their pet crocodile! You can also get a look at local life just by taking a stroll. Have fun exploring!
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