Egypt is a bucket list destination for just about anyone. You don't have to be an avid traveler to have ever dreamed about standing between the pyramids, kissing the sphinx, or riding camel back over orange-colored sand dunes. The scenery alone lends itself to the imagination and you could easily begin to picture what the days of Ramesses II must have been. History is all around you at all times and well-preserved which immediately ties you to the proud heritage of Egyptian people.
Fast forward to modern-day Cairo, and things are very different but still reflective of the significance of the past that is etched into Egypt. Cairo is the largest city in Egypt and a bustling shock to the system that hits instantly. This city sits at the banks of the famed Nile River, and boasts a population of about 20 million people. Egypt alone has a population of approximately 105 million people. It is a predominantly Muslim country but still seems more progressing than I expected in its views and diverse in its current culture. If New York City is the city that never sleeps, then Cairo is the city that never blinks. There are people in every corner, there are shops everywhere you look, many languages being spoken in the same conversations, amazing smelling food and spices and of course sweet-smelling shisha. If there is one thing I can say about Cairo, much less Egypt, I felt surrounded by a robust culture that is steeped in history and pride.
Egypt is so big and there is a lot to take in all at once. Here were some of my top 5 favorites:
The Pyramids & The Sphinx
So, small confession I really only came to Egypt to see these two things. By the time I left though, I realized how much apart of a bigger, grander tapestry of history they actually were. These two sets of structures were one of my earliest memories of me and father bonding over travel. I knew that being in their presence would be awe-inspiring. The Great Pyramids and the Sphinx are located in close vicinity to one another. You can purchase a ticket at the ticket office and proceed through several security stops before walking into the main historic area. Once you are through the gate, you are literally standing at the foot of the first of three Great Pyramids. Be prepared because it will take your breath away.
Off in the near distance, you will be able to see the other two pyramids against the desert background. It is possible for you to go inside the first pyramid but that ticket must be purchased at the gate or you are out of luck. If you choose to venture inside the pyramids, be cautioned, it consists of crawling through a small tunnel while crouching to traverse both inclines and declines until you reach the final room. Here is where a tomb was found but is now located in the Egyptian Museum. The walk is not for the faint of heart and is very hot due to little ventilation. Honestly, you can skip that and instead take a walk around each pyramid. It is possible to climb up the first set of stones to take a photo and get up close to each pyramid.
A short walk down the road that winds between the pyramids is where the Sphinx is located. It is a separate structure with a complex all its own. Upon first glance, it almost seems small until you walk through the purification chambers and exit along a pathway that puts you right next to the head of the Sphinx. Here is where most people take their iconic photos kissing the Sphinx, holding the chin of the Sphinx or any other creative way to capture this wonder of the world. A few tips while visiting this area: go early and not on Friday, it gets crowded quickly. If anyone offers to take your photo be prepared to tip them. Pay for the camel rides, there are a lot of fun and you get great photos from the other side of the pyramids. Lastly, make sure you stop for a moment and take it all in.
Visit The Mortuary Temple Of Hatshepsut
A little background history to Hatshepsut for context first: She was the fifth Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt. She was the second confirmed female pharaoh at the time. Now, you might be wondering if she was a woman, why was she not the Queen of Egypt? As the story goes, when she rose to power, she decided that she was going to rule Egypt in the same manner as the men who preceded her. This involved creating her own narrative and establishing herself as the God's Wife of Amen. Hatshepsut called herself a pharaoh in her story and even used male pronouns to refer to herself in her written story. In physical depictions, Hatshepsut is seen with the royal false beard and wearing a pharaoh's royal garments in many statues surrounding the temple, as well as in drawings on the temple walls.
She is regarded as one of the most successful and accomplished Pharaohs of her time, ruling for longer than any other female in Egyptian history. Her temple sits on the West Bank of the Nile River in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. It is carved into a cliff with a grand staircase leading to the central level of the temple. Here, you can see many statues of Hatshepsut as well as many columns and rooms for purification. On the top level is the chamber for the tomb that also showcases stories about the female Pharaoh's time in power. It is one of the most prominent structures in the area. The Valley of the Kings is known for the 60+ tombs that were found, including King Tut, but the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut is the most prolific structure standing. Her story is one that shows the power of women leaders and is inspiring to women in today's society.
Hot Air Balloon Ride Over The Valley Of The Kings
Hot air balloon rides should be on everyone's bucket list. Personally, I hope to do this in as many countries as possible. However, I am glad that I got a chance to do it first in Egypt. I wasn't sure what to expect but the end result exceeded my expectations. This particular hot air balloon ride started in a large open space on the West Bank of the Nile River. Our projected flight path was over the Valley of the Kings. One unexpected feature of our balloon aircraft was the size of the basket. Originally, I thought the aircraft would consist of small baskets with 6-8 people in each. The reality is, the aircraft is a large basket that holds about 20 people with even splits on both sides of the balloon pilot.
Even still, takeoff was smooth as we rose to 700 ft above the earth. This was coupled with the exact moment the sun rose to reveal a kind of beauty that could only be seen at that height. There is a moment of quiet calm that happens at cruising altitude that can only be described as tranquility. This was truly a highlight of my trip and a must do in any country offering this experience. If you really want to turn up your experience, pop a bottle of champagne while in flight and cheer to a beautiful life.
Cruise The Nile River
One of the most famous rivers in the world, the Nile River, exists in Egypt and has a 5-star cruise industry. The Nile River is a north flowing river and is arguably the longest river in the world, coming in at 4,130 miles (6,650km). It covers the length of 11 African countries and empties out in a large delta to the Mediterranean Sea. The highest populated cities in Egypt, including Cairo and Aswan, are located along the banks of the Nile River.
Cruising the Nile River can be done in many different ways, from luxury cruise ships to the shorter felucca rides. Most cruises in Egypt take place between Luxor and Aswan, visiting cities such as Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo. Each stop gives you a look into some of the oldest structures still standing from ancient Egypt. It also is an excellent opportunity to see the stark contrast between ancient Egyptian buildings and the more modern-day apartment buildings, hotels and restaurants. The Nile River itself is a rather wide river with amazing scenery that changes from mile to mile. You can easily go from city scape, to mountains, to small village, to lush farmland in a matter of minutes. The luxury cruises are the way to go with a smooth ride down the Nile while being hosted by amazing staff that provide the comfort you need to relax and enjoy the jewel of Egypt.
Visit The Nubian Villages
Before traveling to Egypt, I did not know much about the Nubians. So, this was a welcomed surprise! The Nubian people are a part of one of the oldest civilizations known to Egypt, and are descendents from areas in modern-day Sudan and Egypt. Currently in Egypt, the Nubians live in what is considered ancient Nubia. They are farmers, shop owners, or they travel to work a variety of jobs in other Egyptian cities. Their buildings are brightly colored stucco structures stacked neatly together against the mountain side. Almost reminiscent of Mykonos but will more vibrant flavor. The people are welcoming as soon as you set foot on the Nubian soil, saying things like, "Wow you look like me, are you Nubian?" The goods sold here reflect the African culture from which the Nubian people derive their skin tone and heritage. The tiny streets are filled with shops selling local artwork depicting the deep-toned people of Nubia, spices, teas, and more. Camel back is the transportation of choice, and the Nubians traverse the small winding streets with ease. It doesn't quite feel like home but it feels familiar. This is a must-see and shop stop on any Egyptian itinerary.
So, that's it for my top five things to see and do in Egypt. I want to also give honorable mention the city of Alexandria. The ancient city contains a lighthouse called Pharos, which is regarded as one of the ancient world's seven wonders. I did not get a chance to visit but here are a few things to check out there: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Montaza Palace, Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa and the beaches. Also visit the bazaars and perfumeries in Cairo. A few tips for the bazaars: know how much you want to spend on any item; most things are very cheap so haggle, haggle, haggle; if they won't budge leave and watch you spend exactly what you wanted.
These are my suggestions but Egypt is a big country, so there is much more to explore and discover.
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