When it comes to non-negotiable, must-see, can’t-miss destinations, Egypt – with its endless list of ancient wonders – consistently tops bucket lists. From bulking sandstone structures to delicate papyrus scrolls, these treasures have their origins buried so far back in time, they’re almost beyond comprehension. What is easy to grasp, though, is their sheer genius and timeless beauty and that’s why this north-eastern African nation is coveted as a once-in-a-lifetime destination. Here’s how to tick off those big-ticket items.
Pyramids of Giza, Cairo
Giza’s imposing pyramids stand solemnly over the modern-day chaos of Cairo, a lively city often veiled with smoke and almost always awash with traffic. The contrast is mesmerising; the stoic structures still command a majestic presence despite being painstakingly erected some 4500 years ago. There are three main pyramids but Khufu, the largest of the trio, is the only remaining wonder of the ancient world still standing.
Best time to go: The site is open from 9am until 5pm – try to start as early or late as possible to dodge the heat and crowds.
How to get there: Helpfully, 355 and 357 buses from downtown Cairo can bring you to the feet of these structures, located on the West Bank of the Nile, in about 45 minutes. Alternatively, private taxis organised through your hotel are a comfortable way to travel in the Egyptian heat.
Do I need tickets? Tickets can be purchased from the main entrance to the complex; they cost about $6, with additional fees for entering the pyramids.
Upgrade your visit: As the country’s most popular attraction, you’ll likely have to share your experience with a crush of others. Booking your exploration with Abercrombie & Kent guarantees a more personal encounter – with A&K guests gaining private access to the interior of the Great Pyramid.
Abu Simbel temples, Aswan
Rising 30 metres above sunset-coloured earth and carved into a mound of sandstone are four wonderfully preserved renderings of Egyptian king Ramses II, sitting soberly side by side. This is the entrance to one of the two impressive temples of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt, near the Sudanese border. Original construction dates back to 1200 BC but shifting sands only revealed these depictions to explorer Jean Louis Burckhardt in 1813.
Best time to go: There’s little escape from the heat and sun at this site. Aim to travel from your base (likely nearby Aswan) to arrive as close to the opening hour of 9am as possible.
How to get there: From Aswan, which is the departure point for most organised tours to Abu Simbel, the drive is about three hours. Or you can take a 45-minute flight; Abu Simbel Airport is about five kilometres from the temples and taxis can be arranged.
Upgrade your visit: On the banks of the Nile River, Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan is a peaceful oasis of a property, dotted with palm trees and set in a sprawling 19th-century Victorian palace. Chandeliers adorn soaring ceilings and rooms with terraces enjoy views over the world’s longest river.
Grand Egyptian Museum, Cairo
Although the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) isn’t scheduled to open until 2020, international excitement has already hit fever pitch. The 500,000-square-metre complex is a masterpiece of its own, housing more than 100,000 artefacts – some of which haven’t been seen since the discovery of Ramses II’s tomb in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter. The vast collection spans four eras, including predynastic (circa 3100 BC), the New Kingdom (the rule of Tutankhamun and Ramses) and more recent Greco-Roman influences.
Best time to go: The GEM will open its doors to the public next year, ahead of the original 2022 time line. Once it does open, year-round visiting will be possible (and comfortable) – the carefully considered insulated concrete design was conceived to keep relics and visitors at a cool 23C, even at the height of the Egyptian summer.
How to get there: The museum is located near the Cairo Ring Road, offering a panoramic view of the Giza Pyramids, and is expected to be connected to Cairo’s metro system and the new Sphinx International Airport, about a 25-minute drive away.
Do I need tickets? Tickets for international visitors are expected to cost about $30.
Upgrade your visit: Can’t wait until late next year? Guests of Abercrombie & Kent gain early access to the museum during its expansive construction phase. Some ancient treasures are already on display; a nine-metre-tall, 83-tonne statue of Ramses II graces the museum’s atrium in anticipation of its gawking visitors.
Valley of the Kings, Luxor
Sunken into the scorched hills of the Nile’s West Bank, the Valley of the Kings is a magnificent site of more than 60 tombs dating back some 4000 years. The underground burial network was built to house the bodies and worldly treasures of pharaohs, queens and other elites from the 18th, 19th and 20th dynasties – including Tutankhamun, Ramses II and Set I – hiding them beneath the dusty earth.
Best time to go: The tombs open from 6am and are largely set upon by visitors by 8am so opt for an early start.
How to get there: Independent travellers can hire local taxis from Luxor but organised tours are the most popular option.
Do I need tickets? Tickets (about $15) grant access to three pre-selected open tombs; some tombs require additional fees.
Upgrade your visit: In the shadow of the Theban Mountains and astride a glittering strip of the Nile, Luxor’s greatest treasure is also a sight to behold from above. Those travelling with Abercrombie & Kent can take to the skies at sunrise in a hot-air balloon, floating above what was the ancient city of Thebes and its surrounds.
Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai
Interest in the world’s oldest continuously inhabited monastery extends far beyond the religious realm. Situated in a narrow, isolated valley near Mount Sinai, more than 1500 metres above sea level, the original grey granite walls have stood for a staggering 17 centuries. Inside the fortifications, other relics remain: the church once dedicated to the Virgin Mary and built around the same time is also intact, as are several halo-adorned icons created in the encaustic style.
Best time to go: In the morning – the Holy Monastery is open only between 9am and 11.30am (and closed on Fridays and Sundays).
How to get there: Organised tours from Sharm El Sheikh have a one-way journey time of about 2.5 hours.
Do I need tickets? No, but you’ll need to observe a few rules. Conservative dress is required for entry, including covered shoulders for women. Shorts are not permitted, either.
Upgrade your visit: Plan a stop in Dahab on your return journey, staying at Le Méridien Dahab Resort overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba. Guests can enjoy a refreshing swim after an arduous morning climbing Mount Sinai.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria
Alexandria appears as a modern, cosmopolitan city, with high-rise hotels and breezy restaurants lining the harbour front Corniche. The same expanse of Egyptian history has roots here too however; the original Library of Alexandria was one of the ancient wonders of the world before its devastating destruction by fire in 48 B.C. The thoroughly contemporary version that now stands in its place offers a rare opportunity to experience the new Egypt; the one that celebrates its illustrious history by stepping firmly into the future. In addition to admiring the fascinating structure, visitors should also visit the Antiquities Museum within, where the collection spans Byzantine, Greco-Roman and Islamic antiquities in addition to ancient Egyptian ones.
Best time to go: The library is open from 10-7pm on Sundays through Thursdays, with shorter hours on Fridays and Saturdays.
How to get there: Bibliotheca Alexandrina is located on the seafront, a 20-minute walk from downtown or a 10-minute cab ride.
Do I need tickets? Tickets can be purchased from the ticket office on Port Saed Street - the price is just over $6, with entry to the antiquities museum for an extra 50c.
Upgrade your visit: The Four Seasons Hotel Alexandria dominates the city skyline with its sweeping shape about the seafront. Inside, some rooms have a Cape Cod-esque feel while some are more palatial - think intricate plasterwork and velvet touches.