MORE PHARAOHS THAN TOURISTS: Reflections on visiting Egypt

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We were unsure about visiting Egypt, but it was a great (if intense) trip. These are my reflections on this trip.

Tours and travelling independently:

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Many people prefer to visit Egypt as part of an organised tour, but we chose to do it independently (although we followed an itinerary similar to those offered by travel agencies). Train tickets can be booked online. Flights from the UK go to Cairo and Luxor directly (takes about 5-6h). There are lots of options for hotels and they are incredibly cheap. We stayed at this resort in Luxor for £45 per night including breakfast. Usually they are not as good as they used to be (wifi is not easily available) but staff is always helpful.

Egypt is a huge country and we covered a lot of ground in nine days. Most of the ancient Egyptian temples are out of the way, so hiring taxis for the day is the best way to see them. Usually you can book everything at your hotel, which is the easiest thing to do.

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Prices vary greatly – we’ve paid E£1180 for a transfer to Luxor (stopping along the way), but only E£250 for a half day drive along the Valley of the Kings. It’s tricky to know how much things cost, but it’s always cheap nonetheless. All in all, we managed to follow the whole itinerary that we planned, which is a good achievement given that we couldn’t find much up to date information.

Money:

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Egypt is incredibly cheap. We had meals for two people for less than £2, and dined with the other tourists for $10. Hiring a taxi for a whole day costs less than £50. But at the same time you end up thinking a lot about money in Egypt. There’s a massive tipping culture everywhere and everyone giving you any advice expects a tip (and there’s always someone giving you advice).

And because we often visited places which were completely empty, all the attention turned to us. Sometimes it can get tiring, and sometimes you need to be firm to get rid of unwanted attention, but mostly a straight ‘no, thank you’ is enough, and of course you understand why you get so much attention. And on occasion you do get extra information about a temple, or a gift of sugar cane juice along the way – the Egyptians are friendly, and this is part of their culture.

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The only time we felt short-changed was in the souk in Aswan. Usually I’m great in the souk, but this time we were definitely pressured into making a quick purchase – at the end of the day, we got home with some lovely hibiscus tea, but the experience really wasn’t that great.

Food and drink:

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Egypt is great for veggie food. Staples include a selection of local mezze, as well as foul (a bean dip) and koshari (rice with lentils and pasta). Some places only offer grilled meat, but it’s easy enough to find good alternatives and the prices are always great.

Alcohol is not available in most places, but most Western hotels and upscale bars serve it – because those were not the places we visited for most of the trip, we only had alcohol at our last hotel in Luxor.

The Nile:

Before we went to Egypt we were keen to ensure we got a good glimpse of the Nile – we didn’t need to worry! The Nile really is the lifeblood of Egypt, and we followed it everywhere we went, as roads and train tracks follow the river. Along the way you spot lots of palm trees and people working the fields: the traditional image of Egypt really comes to life when you travel by this mighty river.

Visiting Egypt:

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We’ve wanted to go to Egypt for a long time, but security concerns meant we kept postponing it. Direct flights to Luxor from the UK recently restarted, which made the trip a bit easier, so we finally decided to book our trip. We considered booking a tour, but with enough research we decided that it was fine to travel independently.

Egypt is definitely not an easy place to visit – the heat, the hassle and the language barrier all add a bit of difficulty. And it’s clear that the lack of tourism in recent years has had a big impact – many places haven’t been cared for in years, many others are shut.

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On the other hand, we visited all the main sights at our own pace, and often had entire temples for ourselves – our guide book warned of big queues and busy visiting times, but our experience was completely different.

In terms of security, there are countless checkpoints on the road, and getting into museums and other attractions always involves at least one security check (or five, as is the case at the airport). But otherwise we never saw anything weird, and you don’t really feel unsafe (but of course you should never go somewhere if you’re not comfortable with it).

All in all, Egypt is definitely worth visiting!

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TUT’S TOMB AND AMAZING TEMPLES: Two days in Luxor

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On our first day in Luxor, we ventured out in the evening to visit Luxor Temple (E£60), which is right in the middle of the city and stays open until 9pm.

The temple is not as well preserved as some of the others we visited, but it has an impressive obelisk at the entrance, as well as four massive statues (Ramses II’s had just been restored when we visited).

Many people (including us) choose to visit this temple in the evening, as it looks amazing with the lights on. In front of the temple there’s the Avenue of Sphinx, which back in the day used to lead the way to Karnak.

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VALLEY OF THE KINGS

We had an early breakfast and got a taxi to visit the West Bank of the Nile. The Valley of the Kings is one of Egypt’s most famous attractions, and it is home to Tutankhamun’s tomb.

We started our visit with Ramses IV’s tomb, which is beautifully decorated with lots of hieroglyphs and depictions of gods and the pharaoh. This was a really great tomb, and it was the first time we saw well preserved painting in Egyptian tombs – and the Valley of the Kings really is the place to see this.

Next we visited Tutmosis III’s tomb, which has really unique and detailed paintings, with lots of fine details mostly in black. Our third tomb to visit was Merneptah’s. This was a very large tomb with long corridors covered in carved hieroglyphs from floor to ceiling.

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We then reached Ramses VI’s tomb – probably the best one we saw. Not only is it massive and covered in decorations, but also it’s incredibly well preserved. Despite it being one of the highlights of the Valley of the Kings, we had it all for ourselves.

Finally it was time to end our visit of the Valley of the Kings by seeing the famous King Tut’s tomb. This is the best preserved tomb of any pharaoh, but because it was built at short-notice it isn’t as intricate as some of the others. The wall decorations still carry almost all of the original colours and detail. On location you also get to see Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus covered in gold and his mummy. The tomb’s treasure is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which we visited a few days earlier.

Our second stop of the day was Hatshepsut’s temple (tickets E£40). Although it’s mostly reconstructed, it’s impressive because of its location by the mountain. Most of the detail is lost, but the building itself is very impressive. The temple is located in one of the hottest places on earth, and when we visited we could definitely feel the 40 degree heat burning our skin.

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On the West Bank there are also other places to visit: the Valley of the Queens, the tombs of the Nobles, the Ramesseum and the Colossi of Memnon (which we saw from the road). We chose not to visit these as we had already seen many other sites in better condition elsewhere, but if you have time then these are probably worth a visit.

KARNAK

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We got up early and got a taxi to Karnak temple (taxi journey E£50 one way, tickets E£80). This is one of Egypt’s highlights, mostly because of the sheer size of this temple – it is one of the biggest temples in the world. The highlight is the Hypostyle Hall, with over 100 columns decorated from top to bottom.

We spent a good couple of hours exploring, and although there were a few groups of tourists, the place was very empty, so we could take our time taking in all the detail.

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Not too far is the Luxor Museum (tickets E£50), a relatively small museum which has a nice collection of Egyptian artefacts. This is a great place to visit, the collection is well presented with explanatory notes (a rarity in Egypt) and the air con is a big plus.

For lunch we visited Sofra, a very  nice restaurant serving traditional Egyptian fare. We had a very nice koshari and falafel (a light meal for two including soft drinks and tip for E£80).

We then ventured into the souk, which had a few interesting shops, but being mostly empty we got lots of attention. To get a break from the sun, we headed back to our hotel to hang out by the pool with cold beers while the sun set over the Nile.

A relaxing ending to an amazing trip!

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Visiting the Valley of the Kings: Tickets cost E£100 and give you entrance to three tombs (the guy in the ticket booth suggested the ones we visited), but there were three others open on the same day. You pay an extra E£50 to visit Ramses VI’s tomb and E£100 for Tutankhamun’s. You also pay E£4 for a transfer from the ticket office to the main site. You can see everything in about 2h, and it’s good to visit early because of the heat. Apparently back in the day there were large queues, but nowadays the place is very empty, and we mostly explored by ourselves. There’s no photography allowed, but you can tip the keepers and they will allow you a sneaky photo. The Valley of the Kings is about 40min from Luxor – you can hire a taxi to take you there and wait for you at the entrance (we paid E£250).
  • Stay: We stayed at Jolie Ville, a resort a couple of miles south of Luxor. We only paid £45 per night including breakfast which is a massive bargain. The hotel also organises taxis with fixed prices which are cheaper than what we’ve paid elsewhere. The hotel had three swimming pools, three bars and three restaurants, and as usual staff were very helpful. As is often the case in Egypt, wifi was mostly unavailable. What we paid really didn’t reflect the standard of the place – it’s probably a reflection of the low volume of tourists.

EGYPTIAN TEMPLES AND NILE VIEWS: Abu Simbel and Aswan

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Our next stop in our Egyptian adventure was Aswan: We boarded the 8.15pm Watania sleeper train from Cairo’s Ramses station to Aswan. It is possible to do the same route by plane, but after researching online we decided that the train was a good option.

One hour into the trip we got our dinner, a simple meal similar to what you’d get on a plane. Then the conductor comes and puts the bunk beds into place. Our cabin had two bunk beds, a space to hang coats and a sink. The train was a bit run down but overall everything was fine.

I had never travelled in a sleeper train before, and I got more sleep than I expected! The bed is almost the size of a normal single bed, and we got a good pillow and blanket. In the morning you are served breakfast too.

The train was supposed to arrive in Aswan at 10.05am, but it arrived one hour late. Though the cabin can get hot, you get great views of the Nile along the way.

KALABSHA AND PHILAE:

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We just had time to drop our bags at our hotel in Aswan and it was time to hop on a taxi and explore the main highlights.

We started with the Unfinished Obelisk (tickets E£40). The most remarkable thing about this site is that it provides great insight on how obelisks were made. There’s an interesting video at the beginning which gives good context.

We then visited the High Dam (tickets E£30). This impressive piece of engineering was built in the 60s and required the flooding of nearby areas, leading to the relocation of many temples.

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We took a boat (E£170) to reach Kalabsha (tickets E£40), a great temple in a small island. The temple was really impressive, and there are also smaller ones in the same island. When we visited we had the whole place to ourselves for most of the time, which was really amazing!

Our final stop was Philae temple, and I was really looking forward to this one (tickets E£60). Again you take a quick boat ride (E£120) to reach it. The place is huge, and there are lots of detailed carving on the walls. This temple is really impressive and definitely a highlight of Aswan.

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ABU SIMBEL:

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The main reason to visit Aswan is Abu Simbel, which is located about 3h30 away (or you can fly there). Getting up at 3.30am for the trip sounded like a lot of effort, but it was definitely worth it!

Our hotel arranged for a minibus to pick us up at 4am, and sent us on our way with a huge packed breakfast. The trip takes about 3h30 each way, mostly through the desert.

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Abu Simbel (tickets E£115) truly is an amazing site. The temple is absolutely huge, and there’s room after room decorated floor to ceiling with intricate patterns. There are huge statues on the facade as well as inside the first room of the temple.

On the same site is Haftor’s temple, dedicated to Ramesses’s wife Nefertari, a smaller but similarly impressive temple. Visiting Abu Simbel is definitely a highlight of any Egypt trip – the sheer size of the two temples carved in rock overlooking the Nile (even if not at their original location) really captures the spirit of ancient Egyptian civilisation.

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EDFU AND KOM OMBO – TRANSFER TO LUXOR:

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We left Aswan at 8.30am and followed the Nile up to Luxor, our last stop in our Egypt adventure.

There are a few temples along the way, so we stopped at the two main ones. Kom Ombo is a large temple dedicated to two gods: Sobek and Isis (tickets for E£40). There’s also a little museum with crocodile mummies as Sobek has the face of a crocodile.

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Edfu (tickets E£60) was amazing – it’s one of the best preserved Egyptian temples, and it’s also huge. There’s room after room full of the most amazing depictions of pharaohs and gods, with detailed relief work from floor to ceiling. Once again we had the temple to ourselves – which was great for us but also seems like a big waste.

We continued along the Nile to reach our hotel in Luxor just before 3pm, in time to laze about with a cold beer (our first of the trip). Luxury!

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Watania sleeper trains: You can book tickets online up to two weeks in advance. The process is simple enough and explained step by step on the website. We paid around £70 per person.
  • Tours: We arranged all of our tours with our hotel. The tour around Aswan took about 4h30 and we paid E£300 plus E£30 tip (plus all the tickets). The tour to Abu Simbel was done in a minibus that picked us up at 4am and dropped us off back at the hotel at 1.30pm. This cost E£180 per peson, plus tip to the driver and entrance to the site. They also gave us a packed breakfast for the journey. Our transfer to Luxor included stops at Kom Ombo and Edfu and cost E£1180 including the driver’s tip.
  • Stay: We stayed at Philae Hotel, which was centrally located close to the train station. The hotel is good and has great views over the Nile (we got an upgrade to a room with river view). We paid $57 per night, including a delicious breakfast.
  • Aswan: Near the train station there’s a nice market street, less crowded than most souks. Because it is mostly visited by locals, it’s not full of souvenir shops and it feels more authentic. Like the rest of Egypt, Aswan seems to have suffered with the lack of tourists, so many places are shut. We had dinner at Al Masry, which had a great selection of vegetarian dishes (dinner for two for E£120, including soft drinks and tip).

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DELICIOUS MEZZE AND A SUNNY COASTLINE: Train trip to Alexandria

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We took the 9am train from Cairo’s Ramses station to Alexandria. Alexandria is Egypt’s second largest city, but we decided to explore on foot.

We started by visiting the Roman amphitheatre next to the train station (tickets for E£40). Then we continued onto Alexandria Museum (tickets also E£40). This was a nice museum covering three floors showing a bit of the history of the city through Egyptian, Greek and Coptic times.

We then visited the impressive Alexandria Library, a massive building facing the coastline. It was a beautiful day, so we enjoyed a nice walk by the sea.

We braved the busy roads (there were no traffic lights in sight and people just cross the street in front of passing cars) to reach Mohammed Ahmed, a nice little restaurant serving delicious mezze (a big lunch for two including tip for E£33, less than £2!).

We walked around for a bit more, then went back to the station (getting lost along the way) to catch the 6pm train back).

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HOW TO DO IT:

It’s possible to visit Alexandria on a day trip from Cairo, but that is a bit tight. Trains from Ramses station take at least 2h40 and can be booked online. Tickets are cheap, at about £6 each way.

BREAKFAST WITH THE SPHINX: The pyramids of Giza, Saqqara and the Egyptian Museum

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Our first hotel in Egypt was right next to the Sphinx, so aside from getting the most amazing terrace views at breakfast, we could also get to Giza when it opens at 8am.

We went straight to the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the largest of all Egyptian pyramids. You can visit the inside by climbing a steep flight of stairs. The interior is very simple but still impressive.

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We continued around the other two main pyramids: Kaffre, with limestone still covering its top, and Menkaure, which was also open to visitation. Giza is a big site, but everything is close together, so you can easily walk to all the monuments (although there are plenty of camels around as an alternative).

Near Khufu’s pyramid is the Boat Museum, displaying Khufu’s boat – it is an impressive display, as the whole boat was excavated in almost perfect condition.

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To finish our visit, we joined the other tourists by the Sphinx – another impressive highlight with lots of photo ops.

In the afternoon we took a taxi to Saqqara. About 20km from Giza, this place has its own share of pyramids, temples and tombs.

We only had a couple of hours to visit, so we started at the Step Pyramid in Zozer’s complex and then explored some of the tombs to the south of Saqqara. The Step Pyramid is very ancient, which is why the place is popular, but it isn’t really unmissable.

Nearby Memphis is home to an impressive statue of Ramses II and can be visited quite quickly. We didn’t have time to visit Dashul with its Red and Bent pyramids, but from the distance they looked very impressive.

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On our next day in Cairo, we headed to the Egyptian Museum, one of the main highlights of the city. Located right by Tahir Square, this massive museum has a huge collection of Egyptian artefacts.

The first floor has lots of statues and sarcophagi, many incredibly well preserved. But the second floor is the big draw, displaying the haul from Tutankhamun’s tomb and a room full of mummies (including that of Ramses II).

The place is covered with room after room packed with papyrus, sarcophagi, statues, amulets, jewellery and more. We spent about 4h and just about covered everything, but you could easily spend the whole day there. Our guide book mentioned the Egyptian Museum is always full, but as a sign of the times it really wasn’t that busy when we visited. This place really is full of history and definitely worth the visit.

We didn’t have time to see much of Cairo, but it was time to get on a train and continue our Egyptian adventure!

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Visiting Giza: Tickets can be bought at the entrance of the site. Tickets to Giza cost E£80, but you need extra tickets to access some of the buildings. Tickets to the Great Pyramid cost E£200, and Menkaure’s pyramid was a bargain at E£40. Tickets for the boat museum can be bought at its entrance for £E60. All of them are worth the visit. You can also pay extra if you wish take photos inside the sites. At the pyramids they will keep your camera at the entrance while you visit.
  • When to go: We visited in April, when it was sunny but still bearable. Cairo is less hot than other destinations in Egypt. Giza opens at 8am and closes at 4pm, and it’s good to go early to have the place almost to yourself. Nowadays there are no huge crowds of tourists anyways. The whole site can be visited in 4h at a leisurely pace.
  • Hassle: Many websites warn about the many vendors, tour guides and others trying to sell you all sorts of service in Giza. It reality it wasn’t too bad – as long as you’re not interested and make that clear, then people quickly move onto someone else. There are scams to be aware of, but mostly by assuming that people are trying to sell you something rather than wanting to be your friend, then you should be fine.
  • Visiting Saqqara: Saqqara, Memphis and Dashul are normally visited in one trip by hiring a taxi to drive you around (the sites are far from each other). We paid E£450 including tip. If you do it with plenty of time, you probably need half a day to cover everything. Tickets can be bought at the entrance of each site. Saqqara tickets cost E£80 per person, plus E£2 for parking. Memphis cost E£40 per person, plus E£2 for parking.
  • Visiting the Egyptian Museum: Entrance to the museum costs E£75, plus E£100 to visit the mummies’ room. You can pay an extra E£50 to take photos inside. There’s a room where you can leave large bags next to the ticket office (we tipped E£20 for two backpacks). The collection is organised by date and theme, but other than that there really isn’t any signage, so sometimes it’s hard to understand the relevance of some pieces. It’s also evident that the place has suffered from lack of tourism: the shop had many empty shelves, and the restaurant on site has shut down.
  • Cairo: We didn’t really get to see much of Cairo at all, but it’s a massive busy city. The traffic is insane, and crossing the street is a real adventure. It’s clear that the tourist infrastructure has suffered, but on the plus side things are really cheap.
  • Stay: We stayed at the Pyramids View Inn (we paid $40 per night), a basic hotel that has the most amazing views from the terrace, with picture perfect sunsets behind the Sphinx and Kaffre’s pyramid. It also gives you free access to the daily Sound and Light show in the evening. Staying in Giza is good in terms of access to the pyramids, but it’s quite far from Cairo (traffic can be painfully slow).
  • Transportation: Cairo is a huge city, and going from one place to the next can take a lot of time. Taxis require negotiating in advance; a ride from Cairo to Giza can cost up to E£150. There’s a good metro network, a ticket costs E£2, and it’s a good way of avoiding traffic.

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